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 The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals Part II 
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New post The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals Part II
(The following is an exact reproduction of the American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. CXXI, September, 1949, 210-220)

THE DOCTRINAL AUTHORITY
OF PAPAL ENCYCLICALS

PART II


By this judgment about the present doctrinal status of the thesis that the residential bishops of the Catholic Church receive their power of jurisdiction immediately from the Roman Pontiff rather than immediately from Our Lord, Msgr. Ottaviani has given us eminently practical and hence and exceptionally valuable appreciation of the authority inherent in papal encyclicals. The great Roman writer tells us, in the most recent edition of his Institutiones iuris publici ecclesiastici, that up until the present time, this thesis had been considered as more probable and even as a sententia communis, but that from now on it is to be held as entirely certain by reason of the words of the present Holy Father. Msgr. Ottaviani alludes to a passage in the encyclical Mystici Corporis in which the Holy Father states this teaching, as he had done a year before the appearance of this encyclical in his discourse to the parish priests and the Lenten preachers of Rome. Msgr. Ottaviani assumes rightly that the authoritative statement of this thesis in the papal letter raised this teaching from the status of a more probable doctrine to that of a perfectly certain proposition. [1]

This observation on the part of Msgr. Ottaviani constitutes a valuable practical corrective to a certain tendency towards oversimplification and minimism which had begun to invade some recent judgments on the doctrinal authority of the Holy Father’s encyclical letters. In the face of sweeping generalizations which classify all the teachings of the encyclicals as doctrines which might conceivably be erroneous, the distinguished Roman prelate scholar can list one such thesis as “nunc…omnino certa habenda ex verbis Summi Pontificis Pii XII.”

It remains true, of course, that this designation of the thesis as “entirely certain” is the work of a private theologian. Yet we are sometimes tempted to overlook the no-less-obvious fact that the process of taking together all those teachings whose chief claim to acceptance in the Church of God on earth is their inclusion in a papal encyclical and listing them all simply as “morally” certain is likewise the work of private theologians. It is something which definitely cannot be ascribed to the ecclesia docens.

A great deal of confusion and minimism with reference to the doctrinal authority of papal encyclicals would seem to proceed from a misunderstanding of the Holy Father’s ordinary and universal magisterium. Ever since the time of the Vatican Council, there has been an unfortunate inclination on the part of some authors to imagine that the Council’s definition of papal infallibility applied only to the Sovereign Pontiff’s solemn and extraordinary utterances, as distinguished from what is called his ordinary pronouncements. Furthermore some have accepted the inaccurate notion that the Holy Father speaks infallibly only when he delivers a solemn dogmatic definition. An examination of the Council’s definition, particularly in the light of its historical background, shows that the Church intended to place no such restriction in its teaching on the subject.

The Vatican Council thus defined the Holy Father’s doctrinal infallibility.

Quote:
…docemus et divinitus revelatum dogma esse definimus: Romanum Pontificem, cum ex cathedra loquitur, id est, cum omnium Christianorum pastoria et doctoris munere fungens pro suprema sua Apostolica auctoritate doctrinam de fide vel moribus ab universa Ecclesia tenendam definit, per assistentiam divinam ipsi in beato Petro promissam, ea infallibilitate pollere, qua divinus Redemptor Ecclesiam suam in definienda doctrina de fide vel moribus instructam esse voluit; ideoque euiusmodi Romani Pontificis definitiones ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae, irreformabiles esse. [2]


In this passage the Council proclaimed it to be a dogma of Catholic faith that the Holy Father teaches infallibly when he gives an ex cathedra definition on matters involving faith or morals. First of all, in order to understand the import of this conciliar statement, we must understand that it no way limits papal infallibility to dogmatic definitions strictly so-called. The language of the Council was deliberately framed to exclude this limitation. During the sessions of the Council’s Deputatio pro rebus ad fidem pertinentibus Cardinal Bilio procured the temporary adoption of a formula proposed by Bishop Conrad Martin of Paderborn, according to which the Holy Father would be said to exercise infallibility in defining quid in rebus fidei et morum ab universa Ecclesia fide divina tenendum….The strenuous opposition of Archbishop Henry Edward Manning of Bishop Ignatius Senestrey prevented the final approval of this formula. The wording ultimately adopted and used in the actual constitution Pastor aeternus was substantially that proposed by Cardinal Cullen, a formula drawn up deliberately to exclude the limitation involved in the one offered up by Martin and Bilio. [3]

Hence it is a grievous mistake to imagine that, according to the teachings of the Vatican Council, the Holy Father can speak infallibly only when he solemnly proclaims a dogma of divine faith or when he solemnly condemns some teaching as heretical. Thus the fact that the encyclicals do not contain solemn definitions, like that of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception or solemn definitions of heresy, like that contained in the Constitution Cum occasione, by Pope Innocent X, in no way militates against the inclusion of strictly infallible papal teaching in these documents.

The Vatican Council never had the opportunity to consider and to propound its teaching on the object of the Church’s infallibility. Because it expected to pronounce on this matter, however, it did not wish to insert the teaching on the object of infallible teaching in the Constitution Pastor aeternus. Hence the conciliar definition does not say positively that the Holy Father can speak infallibly when he defines a teaching which is so connected with formally revealed truth that this formal revelation could not be adequately and accurately presented by a living and infallible teacher apart from it. The deliberate exclusion, on the other hand, of a formula which would have asserted only that the Holy Father is infallible in defining a truth which must be held on divine faith stands as amply sufficient evidence that the teaching Church considers the Sovereign Pontiff by virtue of his position capable of issuing infallible definitions on matters included in what sacred theology knows as the secondary objects of the Church’s magisterium.

The theological treatise de ecclesia Christi is quite explicit about this secondary object of the Church’s inerrant magisterium. The ecclesia docens can teach infallibly on those subjects which are so connected with the deposit of divine public revelation that an erroneous presentation of these subjects would lead to an improper teaching of the primary object of the Church’s infallible magisterium. It is at least theologically certain that the Church can teach infallibly about mere theological conclusions and about those truths of the philosophical order which serve as praeambula fidei, about dogmatic facts, the approval of religious orders, and the canonization of Saints.

In order to appreciate the doctrinal authority of the encyclical letters we must take cognizance of the fact that there is nothing whatsoever in the Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility which could legitimately give rise to the opinion that the entire content of the teachings proposed in the encyclicals can be dismissed simply as non-infallible doctrine. It would appear, on the other hand, that especially when a number of these documents deal with a certain individual subject and when the more recent letters repeat and emphasize teachings which have been stressed in previous encyclicals, that some, at least, of the doctrine thus presented to the Church universal should be considered as taught infallibly by the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium. Thus it would seem that some teachings whose main claim to acceptance on the part of Catholics is to be found in the fact that they are stated in papal encyclicals would actually demand an assent higher than that which must be accorded to the content of the Church’s authentic but non-infallible magisterium. Such truths would demand the kind of assent usually designated in theology under the title of fides ecclesiastica.

The Vatican Council’s definition asserts that the Holy Father possesses that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be equipped in defining about faith or morals when he speaks ex cathedra. It describes an ex cathedra pronouncement as one in which the Holy Father, “exercising his function as the pastor and teacher of all Christians, defines with his supreme apostolic authority a doctrine about faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.” There is nothing in this description to prevent a recognition of some of the statements in the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium, and particularly some of the statements in the encyclical letters, as infallible pronouncements.

It is evident that in those encyclical letters which are addressed to all the ordinaries of the Catholic Church throughout the world the Holy Father is exercising his function as pastor and teacher of all Christians. He exercises that same function also when he issues a pronouncement directly to some individual or to some portion of the Church, ultimately, however, directing it to and intending it as normative for the entire Church militant. All of the doctrinal encyclicals qualify under this point, as well as by reason of the fact that they contain the Holy Father’s teachings on matters of faith or morals.

There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that the style of the encyclical letters is in any way incompatible with the possibility of a genuine papal definition, in which the Sovereign Pontiff, pro suprema sua Apostolica auctoritate, defines a teaching on faith or morals as something to be held by the universal Church. A definition is an ultimate and irrevocable doctrinal decision. The ecclesia docens pronounces this decision and intends that no one in the future shall ever contradict it. A defined doctrine is a teaching which cannot be questioned legitimately at any time after the definition is given.

When the Holy Father issues a definition, he obviously makes it clear that he is making an irrevocable statement of doctrine. The manifestation comes in solemn form where, as in the case of the definition of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception in the Ineffabilis Deus, or in the decision on Anglican orders in the Apostolicae curae, a consecrated set of terms is employed. But there can obviously be a genuine definition even apart from this solemn form of pronouncement. Where a question of grave moment has been disputed among Catholics, and where the Holy Father intervenes to settle this question once and for all, there is clearly a definition, a decision which all Catholics are bound to accept always as true, even though no solemn terminology be employed.

In his extremely interesting work, Une hérésie fantome: L’Américanisme, the Abbé Félix Klein quotes a passage from a letter written by the late Cardinal Richard to the priest of his archdiocese. In this letter the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris shows that he considered the letter Testem benevolentiae a real definition, despite the fact that this letter does not contain any solemn form of pronouncement. He wrote as follows.

Quote:
Durant le séjour que j’ai fait récemment à Rome, au commencement de l’année 1899, j’exprimais au Souverain Pontife combien il me paraissait désirable que sa parole et son autorité missent fin aux discussions plus ou moins vives sur l’Américantisme, soulevês dans ces derniers temps parmi nous. Le Saint-Père me répondit, avec une condescendance dont je fus vivement touché, que mes désirs étaient exaucés, déjà il avait rédigé une lettre adressée aux évêques d’Amérique dans laquelle il définissait les divers points traités dans ces discussions et exposait la doctrine à laquelle les fidèles devaient rester attachés. [4]


It is evident, then, that Cardinal Richard considered the letter Testem benevolentiae as a definition in the strict sense of the term. The letter sent to the American hierarchy through Cardinal Gibbons was, he believed, clearly intended to settle doctrinal questions which had arisen in France, question for the resolution of which the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris had sought pontifical intervention. The teaching thus presented was something “to which the faithful were obliged to remain attached.” It was a doctrine concerning faith and morals which, according to Cardinal Richard, was “to be held by the universal Church.” From this point of view, then, there was and there is nothing to prevent this particular doctrinal letter of Pope Leo XIII from being considered as a document containing a genuine papal definition.

The same set of circumstances are to be found in the case where a series of pontifical encyclicals bring out the same teaching. In such a case, as, for example in the series of pontifical pronouncements on Church and State, the teachings of the earlier documents are repeated and re-stated in more recent letters. Thus there is an indication that the Sovereign Pontiffs wished definitively to close discussion on the points at issue, and to have the teachings thus repeated accepted always by all the members of the Church.

There is, furthermore, still another way in which the Holy Father, speaking directly to an individual local Church, can still be said to present teaching normative for the entire Church militant. This comes about when he exercises his function as the authorized teacher of the Roman Church itself. From the earliest Christian times the ecclesia Romana, considered precisely as an individual congregation within the universal kingdom of God on earth, has rightly been considered as infallible in its doctrine. Its teaching and its belief were correctly considered as normative for the universal Church militant. Hence, in authoritatively imposing or defining the object of belief in the Roman Church, the Holy Father can rightly be considered as ruling indirectly but definitively for the universal Church in this world.

The Vatican Council, we must remember, also teaches that the Bishop of Rome makes an infallible ex cathedra definition when he defines “exercising his function as pastor and teacher of all Christians pro suprema sua Apostolica auctoritate.” The encyclical must not be considered, obviously, as documents containing ex cathedra definitions except where the Holy Father speaks and teaches in them using “his supreme apostolic authority.”

It must be understood from the very outset that a document is not disqualified from consideration as something in which the Roman Pontiff speaks with the fullness of his apostolic authority merely by reason of the fact that it mentions no penalties or sanctions to be imposed against those who refuse to accept its teaching. Theologians are substantially in agreement on this point. Furthermore, in order to have the exercise of supreme apostolic authority on the part of the Roman Pontiff, there is no single formula which must be employed. All that is requisite is that the Vicar of Christ on earth, speaking for the benefit of all the faithful, should propose a definite teaching concerned with faith or morals irrevocably and finally as something to be accepted by all.

If he should propose some teaching as merely safe, or as merely probable, then it is obvious that he does not intend to use the plentitude of his apostolic power. If, on the other hand, he tells his children that a definite doctrine is to held irrevocably by all, or, on the other hand, if formally and definitively he stigmatizes a teaching with doctrinal, as distinct from a merely disciplinary censure, it is clear that he is exercising the plenitude of his apostolic doctrinal authority when he speaks for the entire Church militant. He is definitely commanding the internal assent of all Christians for a teaching which he imposes on his own responsibility. This is manifestly the supreme expression of the apostolic doctrinal power.

We must not lose sight of the fact that, according to the Vatican Council, the Holy Father’s infallible authority in defining truths concerning the faith and morals is exactly co-extensive with that of the Church itself. The Church can teach infallibly by solemn judgment or by its ordinary and universal magisterium. It is obvious that the solemn judgment of the Holy Father in defining a dogma of faith is equally valid and equally infallible when compared with the solemn judgment of an oecumenical council. It seems equally true that the ordinary teaching of the Holy Father, when that teaching prescribes irrevocably the acceptance of a truth concerning faith or morals by the entire Church on earth, is fully as valid and as infallible as the teaching of the entire ecclesia docens involving the same doctrinal command.

It is quite probable that some of the teachings set forth on the authority of the various papal encyclicals are infallible statements of the Sovereign Pontiff, demanding the assent of the fides ecclesiastica. It is absolutely certain that all of the teachings contained in these documents and dependent upon their authority merit at least an internal religious assent from all Catholics. Hence we do not find anything like a direct negation of the authority of these letters on the part of Catholic teachers.

There is, however, an attitude towards the encyclicals which can be productive of doctrinal evil, and which can lead to a practical abandonment of their teaching. According to this attitude, it is the business of the theologian to distinguish two elements in the content of the various encyclicals. One element would be the deposit of genuine Catholic teaching, which, of course, all Catholic are bound to accept at all times. The other element would be a collection of notions current at the time the encyclicals were written. The notions which would enter into the practical application of the Catholic teaching, are represented as ideas which Catholics can afford to overlook.

Despite its superficially attractive appearance, however, this attitude can be radically destructive of a true Catholic mentality. The men who have adopted this mentality imagine that they can analyze the content of an individual encyclical or a group of encyclicals in such a way that they can separate the pronouncements which Catholics are bound to accept from those which would have merely an ephemeral value. They, as theologians, would then tell the Catholic people to receive the Catholic principles and to do as they liked about the other elements.

In such a case, the only true doctrinal authority actually operative would be that of the individual theologian. The Holy Father has issued his encyclical as a series of statements. Apart from those which he himself stamps as merely opinionative, all of these statements stand as the Holy Father’s own declarations. The man who subjects these declarations to an analysis in order to distinguish the element of Catholic tradition from other sections of the content must employ some norm other than the authority of the Holy Father himself.

The Holy Father’s authority stands behind his own individual statements, precisely as these are found in the encyclicals. When a private theologians ventures to analyze these statements and claims to find a Catholic principle on which the Holy Father’s utterance is based and some contingent mode according to which the Sovereign Pontiff has applied this Catholic principle in his own pronouncement, the only effective doctrinal authority is that of the private theologian himself. According to this method of procedure, the Catholic people would be expected to accept as much of the encyclical as the theologian pronounced to be genuine Catholic teaching. This Catholic teaching would be recognizable as such, not by reason of the Holy Father’s statement in the encyclical, but by reason of its inclusion in other monuments of Christian doctrine.

It is very difficult to see where such a process would stop. The men who would adopt this course would inevitably force themselves to treat all doctrinal pronouncements of the Popes after the fashion of the teachings of private theologians. The writings of earlier Pontiffs are certainly no more authoritative than those of the more recent Sovereign Pontiffs. If a man chooses dissect the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, there is no reason why the documents which emanate from Gelasius or from St. Leo I would not be subjected to the same process. If the statements of Pius IX are not valid exactly as they stand, it is difficult to see how those of any other Roman Pontiff are any more authoritative.

There is, of course, a definite task incumbent upon the private theologians in the Church’s process of bringing the teachings of the papal encyclicals to the people. The private theologian is obligated and privileged to study these documents, to arrive at an understanding of what the Holy Father actually teaches, and then to aid in the task of bringing this body of truth to the people. The Holy Father, however, not the private theologian, remains the doctrinal authority. The theologian is expected to bring out the content of the Pope’s actual teaching, not to subject that teaching to the type of criticism he would have a right to impose on the writings of another private theologian.

Thus, when we review or attempt to evaluate the works of a private theologian, we are perfectly within our rights in attempting to show that a certain portion of his doctrine is authentic Catholic teaching or at least based upon such teaching, and to assert that some other portions of that work simply express ideas current at the time the books were written. The pronouncements of the Roman Pontiffs, acting as the authorized teachers of the Catholic Church, are definitely not subject to that sort of evaluation.

Unfortunately the tendency to misinterpret the function of the private theologian in the Church’s doctrinal work is not something now in the English Catholic literature. Cardinal Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (certainly the least valuable of his published works), supports the bizarre thesis that the final determination of what is really condemned in an authentic ecclesiastical pronouncement is the work of private theologians, rather than of the particular organ of the ecclesia docens which has actually formulated the condemnation. The faithful could, according to his theory, find what a pontifical document actually means, not from the content of the document itself, but from the speculations of the theologians.

Quote:
As to the condemnation of propositions all she (the Church) tells us is, that the thesis condemned when taken as a whole, or, again, when viewed in its context, is heretical, or blasphemous, or whatever like epithet she affixes to it. We have only to trust her so far as to be warned against the thesis, or the work containing it. Theologians employ themselves in determining what precisely it is that is condemned in that thesis or treatise; and doubtless in most cases they do so with success; but that determination is not de fide; all that is of faith is that there is in that thesis itself, which is noted, heresy or error, or other like peccant matter, as the case may be, such, that the censure is a peremptory command to theologians, preachers, students, and all other whom it concerns, to keep clear of it. But so light is this obligation, that instances frequently occur, when it is successfully maintained by some new writer, that the Pope’s act does not imply what it has seemed to imply, and questions which seemed to be closed, are after a course of years re-opened. [5]

If we were to apply this procedure to the interpretation of the papal encyclicals, we would deny, for all practical purposes at least, any real authority to these documents. We would be merely in a position to admit that the Holy Father had spoken on a certain subject, and to assent to his teaching as something which the theologians would have to interpret. In the final analysis, our acceptance of doctrine or truth as such would be limited to what we could gather from the interpretations of the theologians, rather than from the document itself.

This tendency to consider these pronouncements of the ecclesia docens, and particularly the statements of the papal encyclicals, as utterances which must be interpreted for the Christian people, rather than explained to them, is definitely harmful to the Church. It is and it remains the business of Catholic theologians to adhere faithfully to the teachings of the encyclicals and to do all in their power to bring this body of truth accurately and effectively to the members of Christ’s Mystical Body.

Joseph Clifford Fenton

The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.


1. Cf. Institutiones iuris publici ecclesiastici, 3rd ed. (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1947), I, 413.
2. Sess. IV, cap. 4, DB, 1839.
3. Bishop Martin’s original formula contained the words “fide catholica credendum.” The words “divina” was subsequently substituted for “catholica.” Cf. Granderath, Constitutiones dogmaticae sacrosancti oecumenici concilii Vaticani ex ipsis eius actis explicatae et illustratae (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1892), pp. 194 ff.
4. Klein, op. cit., pp. 352 f.
5. Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), II, 333.

_________________
Yours in JMJ,
Mike


Fri Apr 25, 2008 7:58 am
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Joined: Wed May 17, 2006 3:38 pm
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New post Re: The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals Part II
Quote:
There is, however, an attitude towards the encyclicals which can be productive of doctrinal evil, and which can lead to a practical abandonment of their teaching. According to this attitude, it is the business of the theologian to distinguish two elements in the content of the various encyclicals. One element would be the deposit of genuine Catholic teaching, which, of course, all Catholic are bound to accept at all times. The other element would be a collection of notions current at the time the encyclicals were written. The notions which would enter into the practical application of the Catholic teaching, are represented as ideas which Catholics can afford to overlook.

Despite its superficially attractive appearance, however, this attitude can be radically destructive of a true Catholic mentality. The men who have adopted this mentality imagine that they can analyze the content of an individual encyclical or a group of encyclicals in such a way that they can separate the pronouncements which Catholics are bound to accept from those which would have merely an ephemeral value. They, as theologians, would then tell the Catholic people to receive the Catholic principles and to do as they liked about the other elements.

In such a case, the only true doctrinal authority actually operative would be that of the individual theologian. The Holy Father has issued his encyclical as a series of statements. Apart from those which he himself stamps as merely opinionative, all of these statements stand as the Holy Father’s own declarations. The man who subjects these declarations to an analysis in order to distinguish the element of Catholic tradition from other sections of the content must employ some norm other than the authority of the Holy Father himself.

The Holy Father’s authority stands behind his own individual statements, precisely as these are found in the encyclicals. When a private theologians ventures to analyze these statements and claims to find a Catholic principle on which the Holy Father’s utterance is based and some contingent mode according to which the Sovereign Pontiff has applied this Catholic principle in his own pronouncement, the only effective doctrinal authority is that of the private theologian himself. According to this method of procedure, the Catholic people would be expected to accept as much of the encyclical as the theologian pronounced to be genuine Catholic teaching. This Catholic teaching would be recognizable as such, not by reason of the Holy Father’s statement in the encyclical, but by reason of its inclusion in other monuments of Christian doctrine.

It is very difficult to see where such a process would stop. The men who would adopt this course would inevitably force themselves to treat all doctrinal pronouncements of the Popes after the fashion of the teachings of private theologians. The writings of earlier Pontiffs are certainly no more authoritative than those of the more recent Sovereign Pontiffs. If a man chooses dissect the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, there is no reason why the documents which emanate from Gelasius or from St. Leo I would not be subjected to the same process. If the statements of Pius IX are not valid exactly as they stand, it is difficult to see how those of any other Roman Pontiff are any more authoritative.

There is, of course, a definite task incumbent upon the private theologians in the Church’s process of bringing the teachings of the papal encyclicals to the people. The private theologian is obligated and privileged to study these documents, to arrive at an understanding of what the Holy Father actually teaches, and then to aid in the task of bringing this body of truth to the people. The Holy Father, however, not the private theologian, remains the doctrinal authority. The theologian is expected to bring out the content of the Pope’s actual teaching, not to subject that teaching to the type of criticism he would have a right to impose on the writings of another private theologian.

Thus, when we review or attempt to evaluate the works of a private theologian, we are perfectly within our rights in attempting to show that a certain portion of his doctrine is authentic Catholic teaching or at least based upon such teaching, and to assert that some other portions of that work simply express ideas current at the time the books were written. The pronouncements of the Roman Pontiffs, acting as the authorized teachers of the Catholic Church, are definitely not subject to that sort of evaluation.

Unfortunately the tendency to misinterpret the function of the private theologian in the Church’s doctrinal work is not something now in the English Catholic literature. Cardinal Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (certainly the leat valuable of his published works), supports the bizarre thesis that the final determination of what is really condemned in an authentic ecclesiastical pronouncement is the work of private theologians, rather than of the particular organ of the ecclesia docens which has actually formulated the condemnation. The faithful could, according to his theory, find what a pontifical document actually means, not from the content of the document itself, but from the speculations of the theologians.


Quote:
As to the condemnation of propositions all she (the Church) tells us is, that the thesis condemned when taken as a whole, or, again, when viewed in its context, is heretical, or blasphemous, or whatever like epithet she affixes to it. We have only to trust her so far as to be warned against the thesis, or the work containing it. Theologians employ themselves in determining what precisely it is that is condemned in that thesis or treatise; and doubtless in most cases they do so with success; but that determination is not de fide; all that is of faith is that there is in that thesis itself, which is noted, heresy or error, or other like peccant matter, as the case may be, such, that the censure is a peremptory command to theologians, preachers, students, and all other whom it concerns, to keep clear of it. But so light is this obligation, that instances frequently occur, when it is successfully maintained by some new writer, that the Pope’s act does not imply what it has seemed to imply, and questions which seemed to be closed, are after a course of years re-opened. [5]

If we were to apply this procedure to the interpretation of the papal encyclicals, we would deny, for all practical purposes at least, any real authority to these documents. We would be merely in a position to admit that the Holy Father had spoken on a certain subject, and to assent to his teaching as something which the theologians would have to interpret. In the final analysis, our acceptance of doctrine or truth as such would be limited to what we could gather from the interpretations of the theologians, rather than from the document itself.

This tendency to consider these pronouncements of the ecclesia docens, and particularly the statements of the papal encyclicals, as utterances which must be interpreted for the Christian people, rather than explained to them, is definitely harmful to the Church. It is and it remains the business of Catholic theologians to adhere faithfully to the teachings of the encyclicals and to do all in their power to bring this body of truth accurately and effectively to the members of Christ’s Mystical Body.


Dear all,

I would like to draw partiuclar attention to this excerpt from Msgr. Fenton's article, with full text above. It would appear that some Catholics in modern times, due to their response to the crisis in the Church, and their inability to not be able to reconcile erroneous teaching in the post Vatican II encyclical letters and other documents, have adopted a method of interpreting papal teaching, which Msgr. Fenton calls, "definately harmful to the Church."

Msgr. Fenton continually states in this excellent two part series, that Catholics must submit to the papal encyclicals with a sincere religious assent for all non-infallible teaching in the encyclical. It is not for Catholic writers, clergy or theologians to interpret papal encyclicals and then decide for the faithful what is relevent, it is the duty to theologians to explain, not interpret the encyclicals.

The modern trend among some of the faithful, seems to be this:

1. Numerous papal encyclicals at least from the time of John XXIII's Pacem in Terris, have contained doctrinal error.
2. Catholics must reject doctrinal error.
3. Therefore, some Catholics have concluded that they must interpret the texts to sort out, in the Papal encyclical, the doctrinal error from the Catholic teaching.
4. This mentality, according to the text above is harmful to the Church, as it puts the private theologian, and in this case, modern unapproved writers, above that of the Pope.
5. In this case, since Catholics certainly cannot adhere to error, and secondly, since they must submit themselves with a sincere religious assent to all that is offiicially taught on matters of Faith and morals to the universal Church, and, if these encyclical letters contain error, then we would have to conclude that there is an apparant contradiction.
6. The only way to work our way out of this logical contradiction, and to not adopt a position harmful to Catholics, a position which puts laycatholics and priests above the Pope, is to recognize that Popes do not promulgate doctrinal error to the universal Church.
7. Since Popes do not promulgate error to the universal Church, we must conclude that the individuals who promulgated error in those encyclical letters were false claimants to the papal office.
8. For those Catholics who have adopted the erroneous mentality described in #4, if you recognize these points described above, you will be free from that error, and will now recognize that Popes do not teach error officially to the universal Church, individual Catholics do not interpret and sort through papal encyclical letters for what they think is Catholic or not, and lastly, you will be at peace in accepting all that the popes teach without ever questioning or doubting again, you will assent to all papal teaching peacefully.
9. You will once again be behaving as a Catholic, in this, you will be acting as good Catholics have always acted, respectfully and obediently learning from our Holy Father in Rome. This will cause you to love the pope all the more, in that you know you can trust him, as he is the Supreme Teacher of Christendom, and you can be at peace with all that he teaches you without doubt or question. Oh, how much peace comes from faithfullly following correct Catholic principles!

Yours in JMJ,

Mike

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Mike


Fri Apr 25, 2008 8:22 am
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New post Re: The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals Part II
Beautiful, Mike. Thank you.

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Fri Apr 25, 2008 10:56 am
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