Misunderstanding Roman Catholicism … Again

Well apparently someone else thinks he understands Roman Catholicism without reading Church documents. If he had taken time to read even this one document, he wouldn’t sound so off-base. It is on the Vatican website, no less. For another helpful interaction with this issue, see Raymond Brown’s (a pope appointed member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission more than once) wonderful book The Critical Meaning of the Bible. The document explains how theologians should handle matters in which they disagree with the Magisterium. For those who might not like to read the whole thing, I’ll summarize a few points:

1. Theologians who disagree with the Magisterium should not present their views as unarguable conclusions. In other words, they admit to the fact that they could possibly be wrong and the Magisterium right.

2. Disagreements must be based on argumentation that seems well-founded to the theologian. In other words, theologians cannot reject the teaching of the Magisterium simply because it doesn’t suit them.

3. Theologians should make sure that they truly understand the teaching of the Magisterium. In other words, they are not disagreeing with a misunderstanding of the teachings of the Magisterium.

4. Theologians should address disagreements in the proper context, i.e. within the Church and not within the mass media.

5. If the disagreement persists (and yes, the document does allow for the fact that a disagreement can genuinely persist), the theologian remains open to the teaching of the Magisterium, though they may not accept it.

Perhaps this is not pure unbridled freedom of Protestant scholarship (*chortle*), but at least for me as a Roman Catholic, I find it helpful that there is official Church teaching on how to handle disagreements, rather than approach I’ve seen some Protestants in my area use of simply starting a new church. There are other important points in this document. But, this may suffice to show that the person who wrote the post I linked to has a very weak and inaccurate understanding of the function of the Magisterium – “For example, if a Roman Catholic is interpreting the Scriptures, he must come to conclusions that are in line with what Rome has already said about the subject.” Well, not according to this document on the Vatican website (overseen by Joseph Ratzinger back in the 1990s).

PS – This is not even to mention the fact that the Church doesn’t emphatically define every single solitary doctrinal issue, e.g. priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite and married priests at the parish level in the Eastern Rite.

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84 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Roman Catholicism … Again

  1. I’ve been losing respect for Michael Patton and his Theologica minions as of late. Nothing like a neo-Calvinist (mis)understanding of Catholicism.

  2. What happens when a Catholic theologian disagrees with the Assumption of Mary, upon which a pope has spoken infallibly?
    a) Where is there room here for disagreement (Catholics are required to believe this) and debate (a pope has spoken ex cathedra, what more is there to be said?)
    b) Where could such a disagreement ever lead, except to inevitable submission to the Maigisterium?
    Here is a doctrine/dogma with which most Protestants would disagree but about which it would appear that no Catholic theologian could ever meaningfully get anywhere by following your five steps above.

      1. I wouldn’t read too much into that. Spent the day with my 3yo today. Replied some places and others not.

        I think the document I cited handles this particular situation. Paragraph 27 begins: “Even if the doctrine of the faith is not in question, the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions.”

        I read this to mean that these guidelines apply even to dealing with non-irreformable teaching where a scholar might be more careless. So, these apply especially to irreformable teaching like dogma.

        As per “meaningfully getting anywhere,” the Catechism also speaks about a hierarchy of truths (paragraphs 90 and 234). I doubt many would break communion over anything like this. My guess is they would just continue to disagree and remain Catholic.

        Now, I am not saying that I would question particular Catholic dogmas. What I would say though is that there are some who have that have not been reprimanded, but rather have been placed on the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Raymond Brown would be a good example of someone who rejected a doctrine like inerrancy and was not reprimanded, but rather placed on the PBC. That’s not to say his view is an official Catholic view. But, if questioning were a problem, I imagine he’d have been ousted rather than placed on that commission.

        I really would recommend the book that I cited in the post. It contains a chapter with an excellent treatment of this particular topic. And it’s a short, easy read.

        1. But if the pope has spoken infallibly, as he has on the Assumption of Mary, then what *process* of disagreement “within the church” is even possible?

          How can one even *be* a Catholic and disagree with an infallible papal dogma i.e. hold that this dogma is plain wrong (as millions of Protestant Christians believe)?

  3. Two years ago Peter Kennedy a Catholic priest in Brisbane, Australia, questioned the theology of the Vatican and made up his own ‘mass’. He was removed from his parish, so he and most of the parishoners started a rebel church down the street. So a group of ex disgruntled Catholics have started their own church.

    Well, in this instance they formed a cult. Kennedy doesn’t believe that Jesus is God if he existed at all. He doesn’t much believe in God and thinks that prayer is a waste of time. Kennedy’s Lord’s Prayer starts with ‘Our Mother and Father in Heaven’, Mother as in God not Mary. And Kennedy was running his group like a dictatorship, an allegation he had levelled at the Vatican. The ‘mass’ is some sort of new age meditation with God mentioned a couple of times.

    Kennedy is no longer a Christian, obviously.

  4. “The same way millions of Catholics disagree with various things. Loyalty, I imagine, doesn’t include thought-control.”

    Sure, but disagreeing with an infallible papal declaration, given ex cathedra, is surely equivalent to disagreeing with God. I can’t see how it’s possible to disagree with the Assumption of Mary and remain a Catholic (or become a Catholic).

    Yet millions /billions of Protestant Christians find it very easy to disagree with this dogma i.e. impossible to accept it.

          1. How is it possible to disagree with the Assumption of Mary and remain a Catholic (or become a Catholic)?

          2. I’ll start with second part of the question because you really didn’t think that one through. Millions upon millions of people become Roman Catholic every year without believing any Catholic doctrine whatsoever, ie infants who are baptized. Their parents believe on their behalf. And they affirm the apostle’s creed at baptism. I don’t think the assumption is mentioned in the baptismal rite.
            As I mentioned in my second post, baptism is an indelible mark. This means that they could not even remove it if they wanted to, not even by disbelieving in the assumption of Mary. So the theology of the Church doesn’t even allow in many cases for the situation you are trying to set up.
            It seems that you desperately, desperately want to make being a Roman Catholic all about doctrinal agreement. But that just doesn’t make sense for a Church that administers the sacrament of baptism to infants.

          3. I can actually serve as an example. I became an SBC minister and disbelieved in the assumption. But I was still under Catholic canon law with regard to my marriage. The Church wouldn’t let me go, even despite the fact that I disbelieved in the assumption.

    1. Many Protestants also disagree with things God said in the Old Testament, though they hold to sola scriptura and the divine inspiration of the whole Bible. But most of them don’t throw out the whole Bible. And they find different ways of trying to understand things that seem to make consistent for them with the whole.

      Beyond that, disagreeing with one doctrine doesn’t constitute apostasy. That is a whole repudiation of the Christian faith.

      Again, I’m not advocating dissent. I’m only saying there are other approaches that Catholics take.

      1. I don’t think Protestants disagree with things that God said in the OT. There wouldn’t be much point — there they are in black and white. What we do is interpret them, e’g. Paul Copan, so that we can find meaning and explanation that is consistent with the rest of scripture and with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

        So: how is it possible to interpret the Assumption of Mary any other way than that Mary was Assumed to heaven, bodily? That is what God said through a pope, according to catholic dogma. That is what Catholics are required to believe.

        Once again, where is the room for disagreement? You either believe it or you don’t; and if one doesn’t, then please explain to me how one could remain a Catholic.

  5. “How it is possible to not believe in sola scriptura or sola fide and remain a protestant?”

    When did God speak to us explicitly about sola scriptura or sola fide, the same way that God has spoken explicitly about the Assumption of Mary through a pope speaking ex cathedra, according to Catholic dogma?

    Anyway, I’m asking specifically about the Assumption of Mary, so please let’s deal with that first before we move on to Protestant issues. I’m not defending Protestantism, never mind Reformed theology or Calvinism. Nor am I attacking Catholicism. I think Patton is very wrong and misguided on this.

    What I’m doing is pondering this one topic and I can’t see how Jeremy’s five points go anyway to resolving it i.e. how it would be possible to disagree with the Assumption of Mary and remain a Catholic (or become a Catholic)? You said that just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And I’m agreeing with that; I’m just asking: if someone claims he CAN see it, then please point it out!

    If no one can see it, then perhaps it doesn’t exist!

    Just sayin’ . . .

  6. “Millions upon millions of people become Roman Catholic every year without believing any Catholic doctrine whatsoever, ie infants who are baptized.”

    Fine, but my bracketed comment was really referring to converts, or reverts for that matter. And my question is really about the topic of your post i.e. Catholics who disagree with some particular dogma or doctrine. While your five points may help with some issues I can’t see how they would help at all with someone disagreeing about the Assumption of Mary, about which God has spoken through a pope’s mouth, so to speak (no pun intended).

    If I’m wrong about that, please explain. But please address the Assumption specificially, not baptism or sola scriptura or some other issue.

    1. Maybe it’s because I am Catholic, but I just don’t think I’m getting your questions. Why does everything have to “get somewhere”? Or “be resolved”?
      An analogous example would be the belief that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” That belief is over 1000 years old. And it is not going anywhere. In fact, I would be unfaithful to the Magisterium if I were to say “there is salvation outside the Church.” However, the way that we understand that statement has developed drastically in that time span.
      So for a Catholic who disagrees with the dogma of the assumption, that belief is not going anywhere. But the way the doctrine is understood can develop. And perhaps the person’s disagreement can actually lead to further thought on the doctrine. I believe the document I cited actually states something to that effect.

      1. Why does everything have to “get somewhere”? Or “be resolved”?

        Well, if there is zero possibility of forward momentum, then we are simply left with “You can disagree as much as you like but it will never make the tiniest amount of difference. Oh, and by the way, as a pope has spoken ex cathedra on this, you as a Catholic are REQUIRED to believe it.”

        So, in this situation, your five points would indeed make no practical difference. Which was all I was saying originally.

        1. I think the example I gave works to show it can make difference because it does refer to a statement that, at least as far as I know, is considered as a dogma.

          1. Once again, I’m talking about ex cathedra statements made by God via a pope (according to Catholic belief), NOT dogma in general. I’m not interested in digressing into more general topics like this.

      2. “An analogous example would be the belief that “there is no salvation outside the Church.””

        Has a pope spoken ex cathedra about this? If not, it’s not analogous.

        “So for a Catholic who disagrees with the dogma of the assumption, that belief is not going anywhere.”

        Precisely. Five points or no five points. On this particular dogma, which millions/billions of Protestant Christians have not the slightest difficulty in disbelieving (so to speak), the Catholic theologian can get simply nowhere, no matter what he does with your points. He may as well hammer his head against the wall.

          1. But it’s not the equivalent of God speaking through a pope’s mouth, therefore not analogous. So, please, once again, can we discuss the Assumption of Mary and not get diverted onto other topics?

  7. I think what Justsayin is asking is how can a person not believe in an infallible dogma, like the assumption of Mary and still be a GOOD Catholic or a FAITHFUL Catholic. So I think the issue is what kind of Catholic are you if you don’t believe in the assumption? When you enters the church as a convert you must promise to believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. So if you convert but don’t hold to that doctrine what kind of a Catholic are you?

    1. The answer to that question is impossible to give. I imagine that the Church would be interested in whether or not that person lives a moral life, do they believe Jesus died for their sins and was raised from the dead and so on and so forth (and so on and so forth times 10 down the hierarchy of truths).
      You are asking me to evaluate how the Church would judge someone based on one criteria- whether or not they accept the doctrine of the assumption. That kind of all or nothing thinking is fundamentalist thinking. And one thing that I do know is that the Church has denounced fundamentalism.
      I imagine that the Church would view that person as an imperfect Roman Catholic. But I don’t think one’s beliefs about the assumption would be enough to tip the scales one way or another in the polar good vs bad dichotomy that you are trying to set up.

  8. Really? Because I am a Protestant considering conversion, and I’m having trouble with accepting the Magesterium. Although I do believe all of the major doctrines like transubstantiation, the Marion doctrines, purgatory, communion of the saints and other doctrines that are usually troubling to Protestants. I want to join the church because I do believe that it is the Church that Christ set up, but I do have problems trusting the Church as much as I trust the Bible. Are you saying that I could join the church and not believe everything the church teaches (and this is the other problem I’m having– getting a straight answer about what official teaching IS!)? I have been told on other forums that I must not join the church until I can blindly follow the church.

    1. Sheryl, that is a completely different question altogether. It is one thing not to accept one particular doctrine of the Magisterium and quite another not to accept the Magisterium. That’s at least borderline approaching on our understanding of the creed where we state that we “believe in one holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.”

      But I still personally couldn’t speak to your specific situation with any certainty. In my parish, it is the parish priest as one under the authority of the bishop who receives people into the Church at the Easter Vigil. So in uncertain circumstances, that is the only person that I recommend people to talk to. Here, in the same way, I would recommend that a parish priest is the person you need to talk to.

      Catholic forums can be a great place to find out information. But they can also be places filled with toxic idiots (hey, even the Bible calls people fools sometimes), though I’m not sure which forums you’ve visited. Even I have no mandate as a theologian from the Catholic Church. So I could potentially steer you wrong. That’s why I’d recommend talking to a parish priest, not because they’re perfect- some have been proved to be far from it. But I’d recommend you find one that you trust and see what he says.

      I can say from my experience that I think that my parish priest would have accepted you into the RCIA process, granted that Church authority was something you were struggling with, as long as you weren’t antagonistic and as long as you were open to change on the issue of Church authority (whether or not the change actually later took place). Would that be right? I don’t know. Is that how I’d treat the situation? I’ll never know from experience. I’m sure some parish priests might treat the situation differently.

    2. And follow up number two. Here are the relevant paragraphs in the Catechism on faith and baptism in the Catholic Church, though it can’t speak to one only seeking Confirmation it may help by analogy:

      Faith and Baptism

      1253 Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” The response is: “Faith!”

      1254 For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism. For this reason the Church celebrates each year at the Easter Vigil the renewal of baptismal promises. Preparation for Baptism leads only to the threshold of new life. Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.

      1255 For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents’ help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized – child or adult on the road of Christian life. Their task is a truly ecclesial function (officium). The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism.

      It doesn’t appear that a perfect faith is necessary, at least in the case of baptism.

  9. Thank you for the info Jeremy. The road to conversion for a reformed Prot is a rocky one. 2 main obstacles are

    1. I can’t seem to get a straight answer about what official teaching is. The way people argue, anything below ex-cathedra pronouncements in the ordinary magesterium seems anyone’s guess. Even papal encyclicals and various catechisms are suspect.

    2. And frankly it seems as though the church has a double standard for those coming into the church. For converts we must believe and profess all that the church declared to be divinely revealed, but once you’re in you can believe any old thing you want, in fact it doesn’t even matter if you KNOW what the church teaches. At least that’s how it looks from the outside.

    Thanks for the link it was helpful.

    1. Sheryl, again, I can’t speak to your situation the way that a member of the clergy could since I am in no way responsible for accepting people into the RCIA process. But, I can say that for #1 you are correct. That can sometimes be difficult to figure out. I think the distinction though is not what is “official” Church teaching but what is “infallible” Church teaching. For example, encyclicals are definitely official Church teaching, but not necessarily infallible. But even as such, we are supposed to, in general, give deference to the teaching found there. Yet I do think in these cases difficulties can arise.

      As per #2, a Catholic within the Church can’t shouldn’t be able to believe any old thing and remain in good standing, but how would you manage that in a Church of over a billion people. That is why conscience plays an important role. The Church can’t go around telling everyone whether they are in good standing. However, for the person in the situation of not being in good standing, I imagine they are still under the requirement to go to the sacrament of reconciliation. So there is a real sense in which they remain Catholic.

      I think I do see the difficulty for a well-informed convert though. It probably emerges from places like Catechism paragraph 1319:

      1319 A candidate for Confirmation who has attained the age of reason must profess the faith, be in the state of grace, have the intention of receiving the sacrament, and be prepared to assume the role of disciple and witness to Christ, both within the ecclesial community and in temporal affairs.

      A person receiving the sacrament of Confirmation must profess “the faith.” Different people will probably take different approaches as to what is meant by “the faith.” However, I can tell you the approach that I believe is normally taken in my parish. We generally read the “the faith” as the Creed. I imagine this stems from places like Catechism paragraph 167:

      167 “I believe” (Apostles’ Creed) is the faith of the Church professed personally by each believer, principally during Baptism. “We believe” (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) is the faith of the Church confessed by the bishops assembled in council or more generally by the liturgical assembly of believers. “I believe” is also the Church, our mother, responding to God by faith as she teaches us to say both “I believe” and “We believe”.

      The Apostles’ Creed is referred to as “the faith”, particularly the one professed at Baptism. It is also the faith, to my knowledge, reaffirmed at Confirmation. The Nicene Creed is referred to as “the faith” professed at liturgical celebrations.

      So, there may be valid reasons for restricting what a person is required to believe to convert. Whether or not this is right, I’m not certain. I’m no theologian. But, I do believe that this is the way that my particular parish approaches the matter. As per your situation, whether your difficulties would encroach upon profession of the Creed, that would require a discussion with a priest.

  10. As a Reformed Prot myself, I would go to the Catholic Catechism to see what Catholics believe. And, of course, there are great swathes of it that I would have no problems with, and one or two things I would have problems with. The ex cathedra dogma of the Assumption of Mary being a major one.

  11. “The Apostles’ Creed is referred to as “the faith”, particularly the one professed at Baptism. It is also the faith, to my knowledge, reaffirmed at Confirmation. The Nicene Creed is referred to as “the faith” professed at liturgical celebrations.”

    It seems to me that IF God has revealed, through the mouth of a pope speaking ex cathedra, that Mary was Assumed bodily to heaven, then this must assume (again no pun intended) the equivalent of creedal status. After all, it’s not like reading something in the Bible and having to interpret its meaning (as the Magisterium does for the Church) — this is far more direct i.e. God spoke explicitly, unequivocally and unambiguously through a pope’s mouth. In other words, this would by definition be a real case of “God said it, I believe it, end of discussion.”

  12. “Actually is considered dogmatic because it was repeated by a number of early popes.”

    Sigh . . . to repeat, I’m interested in discussing the Assumption of Mary, about which God has spoken directly through a pope’s mouth, according to Catholic belief, NOT about dogma in general.

  13. To sum up, I think your five points are fine for doctrine and dogma in general, but don’t help at all in a situation where a pope has spoken infallibly. Which is admittedly very rare.

    1. I can live with you holding to that, but I still don’t think you’ve proved it. There are lots of places I feel like I could still respond, but this seems like it may never get anywhere.

      With that said, I think the most problematic thing for me is your a priori dismissal of analogies. As you admit, the assumption may be a rare case. We often talk about rare things by means of analogy, even if they are not exact.

      It is hard for me to imagine you reading a parable or an allegory. “Sorry, Jesus, the Kingdom of God really isn’t exactly like a field, can we just stick to the Kingdom of God.” “Sorry, Paul, but Jesus really isn’t exactly like a rock in the wilderness. Can we just stick to talking about Jesus?” Analogies are just part of normal human language and explanation.

      1. “I can live with you holding to that, but I still don’t think you’ve proved it.”

        We’re not talking here about proof in a scientific sense. I’ve asked how it’s possible to disagree with a dogma that purports to have come straight from God — not even via Scripture, which has to be interpreted — and something that Catholics are *required* to believe. And I don’t appear to have received any explanation of how that would be possible.

        1. Weren’t you the one defending Rome against Gez?

          The Catholic Church doesn’t required everyone to believe the exact same thing. No offense, but you are taking a very black-and-white view point on the matters of dogma and doctrine.

          1. Yup, that was me! It’s really just the ex cathedra dogmas, of which there are only two (or only one, or maybe seven, depending on which source you go to), that I see as being black and white at/from source. I wish there *were* shades of interpretation on these, particularly the Assumption, and that’s what I was hoping would emerge in this discussion (but doesn’t seem to have).

      2. “I think the most problematic thing for me is your a priori dismissal of analogies.”

        I’ve done no such thing. I’ve dismissed *one* attempted analogy, and I’ve given you a specific reason why I believe it doesn’t apply. Namely that where your five points are ineffective, in my view, is where a pope has spoken ex cathedra (for the reasons I’ve given). The analogy you attempted has never been the subject of an ex cathedra pronouncement, therefore it doesn’t apply to my argument.

  14. Jeremy, you quoted the Nicene Creed as reading “believe in one holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”.

    It is actually “catholic” meaning “universal” as the Catholic Church itself states. As do the other Protestant churches that profess the beliefs in that creed.

  15. Can I just say (as a Protestant studying theology at Franciscan University) that I think Just Sayin’s understanding on the role of the Magisterium is incomplete. It’s very easy to misunderstand, and I still struggle with it although I have studied it more than many Catholics have. In any case, he seems to be under the impression that Church infallibility only involves papal pronouncements. This is not the case–other pronouncements can carry the IDENTICAL amount of weight and are all classified together. I will lay out my basic understanding of the CC’s authority, and please correct me if I make any mistakes.

    The Magisterium (not the Pope) is the name given to the Church’s teaching and authority structure. It is made up of all the Bishops jointly, including the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. He is in a position of far greater authority than the other Bishops. Now there are only CERTAIN instances when the pronouncement of the Magisterium is infallible. Unfortunately I lost my book outlining the structure, so there may be some errors here.

    The first, and the one most commonly used, is NOT a papal pronouncement but a pronouncement made by the entire Magisterium with the Pope in some way presiding. The exercise of Magisterial authority here is referred to as “extraordinary”. If the Extraordinary Magisterium (all the bishops and the Pope) makes a pronouncement on CERTAIN issues only, and calls it infallible, it is infallible. This does NOT mean that the wording or expression is ideal but that the truth it proclaims can never be found to be contrary to what is actually the case. However, better wording and interpretations may be given later on. This has happened many times, as in the case of the concept of “salvation outside the Church.” It has never been contradicted, but has been refined and re-stated for better understanding. The Church has acknowledged that at times its choice of wording may be a stumbling block.

    Now the other case of “Extraordinary Magisterium” involves Papal pronouncements in the absence of all the bishops. This is the classic “ex cathedra” pronouncement. Just Sayin’ is right–the Assumption of Mary is, I believe, one of the rare instances of such a declaration. However, it is not more (or less) binding to all Catholics than the pronouncement of the entire Magisterium in joint session. An ex cathedra pronouncement is on exactly the same level of authority as a full-fledged Magisterial pronouncement claiming infallibility. So it is relevant to compare them, interchangeably (unless the question is exclusively regarding Papal authority, of course.)

    The Magisterium (both the Pope, and the bishops united with the Pope) also has a less “severe” authority. When they exercise this authority we refer to the “Ordinary Magisterium”. Here it is serving the function of a mentor, guide, and teacher; not mandating adherence to a belief but strongly advising and exhorting the faithful to heed it as a sound teaching. The Magisterium under this function also has governing authority: the faithful are bound to accept its direction on certain issues that do not involve a question of dogma or doctrine, but of practical regulation. All of these ordinary pronouncements may be altered or corrected, but are rarely expected to be grossly contrary to the spirit of Christ’s truth. Some of the doctrines proposed may at some time become material for an Extraordinary pronouncement, should the need arise. These lower teachings call for a certain confidence and trust in the Holy Spirit’s counsel to those leading the Catholic Church, while not mandating the same level of consent a dogma would.

    I hope this helps a bit. Perhaps it will shed a bit of light on Sheryl’s dilemma as well. I want to post something separately to her, however (hopefully not ridiculously long!)

    1. Thanks, Noelle. That’s enlightening. I’m no expert on Catholic canon law, far from it, so my understanding of these things is very incomplete. I was really just seizing the opportunity that Jeremy’s post gave to explore a particular practical question I have, rather than more general, theoretical matters. So I was solely looking at, thinking about, and wondering about, ex cathedra pronouncements of a pope and, in particular, the Assumption of Mary.

      It’s not so much that I have problems with ex cathedra pronouncements in theory. I don’t, it’s that I have a problem with this particular one (and also the prior ex cathedra about Mary). And in relating that to Jeremy’s five points, it seemed to me, and still does, that they would not go anywhere to resolving a disagreement on an ex cathedra pronouncement such as the Assumption, something denied by billions of Protestant Christians with great ease, so to speak.

      I take your point about wording not being perfect and always subject to clarification or restatement but how would that help with disagreement about the Assumption? Either Mary was Assumed bodily to Heaven or she wasn’t. Could a future pope say, “Actually, the wording of my predecessor was unclear — Mary’s Assumption was purely spiritual”? Well, then the whole Assumption dogma falls apart, and also the dogma of speaking ex cathedra.

      Contrast this with, for example, the present pope’s theological reflections on purgatory, which I think are extraordinarily helpful to both Catholics and Protestants. Now, if only the ex cathedras had been on purgatory rather than Mary!

  16. To Sheryl: I understand your dilemma. First of all, you would be greatly helped by a book called Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles. It provides a very thorough and clear understanding of the different roles in the Magisterium.

    I am in a similar situation to you, although not in the process of “converting” (a term I dislike when referring to a Protestant Christian joining the CC, since theoretically all Christians have been converted to the Gospel, even if not in its fullness!) I have held back for the very reason you put forth: questions regarding the authority of the Magisterium. I think the question isn’t so much whether you can be *allowed* to convert with certain misgivings, but whether you should or want to. I dislike the perspective of a lot of Catholics that try to squirm through “loopholes” as though the Catholic Church were only a bunch of bothersome rules. To me, you either respect and accept the authority of the Church as a good and helpful thing, or you don’t accept it, although you may respect it. It seems to me that, at least right now, you fall into the second category. I would encourage you to wait until your questions are resolved to become Catholic.

    Unlike what many Catholics seem to have implied to you, I do not believe it is necessary to blindly accept anything the C. Church says. In fact, I think that is contrary to the very essence of the Christian faith. If the Catholic Church really required that kind of attitude, I could never accept it, because it is fundamentally violent to the rational nature God Himself has given us. I believe in submission to authority, but not blind submission. To me, you (and I) have two things to find out: 1) What is the nature of the CC’s claim to authority? 2) Can I accept that claim (and therefore all that comes with it)? The first question is much easier than the second. The second one may take much more time, patience, trust, and prayer, but it is crucial. If you cannot accept that claim, but find many things you love and respect in Catholicism, may I suggest that you remain non-Catholic but commune with your Catholic family in Christ, rejoicing in the many things you share in common and praying for unity. If you can accept the claim, it seems your problem is solved. You should, in that case, be able to submit to the CC’s authority as God’s truth, but it will most certainly not be a blind submission since you will have thoroughly investigated the matter to your satisfaction. At that point you can intelligently champion the Catholic faith and all it has to bring, both to Catholics and non-Catholics, helping those inclined to be blind in their adherence to open their eyes and take hold of the truth for themselves.

    God bless you on your journey closer to Him, sister! :)

  17. P.S. Here is an article I just ran into that is very wise and well-put. Hope it helps too :)

    [Also, I’d like to point out that, IF the Magisterium can pronounce infallibly, submitting to it would not be submitting to an organization at all. It would be better to look at the Church as a help Jesus has given to make what he teaches clearer. Kind of a way of raising our finite reason above its limitations just when it can’t climb any higher.] <—yes, this is coming from a Protestant :)

  18. Noelle,
    Thank you for joining the discussion. It reminded me that I wanted to leave one last reply here after which I have no intention of saying much else. But, I had forgotten until your recommendation of the work of Cardinal Avery Dulles jogged my memory.
    Some of the questions that have been discussed in the comments here were also discussed some time ago in dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The dialogue pertained to the potential for Anglicans and Roman Catholics coming back together, and some of those discussions pertained specifically to whether or not Anglicans would be required to hold to the Marian dogmas.
    Theologians such as Yarnold, Dulles, Congar, Rahner and Fries concluded that it might not be necessary. Yarnold and Dulles argued specifically from the perspective of the hierarchy of truths if I’m not mistaken. To my knowledge, I don’t know if any of their suggestions have been followed, though I think some priests at the parish level might agree with at least Yarnold and Dulles.
    But, your point about “loopholes” is well taken. I’d never want to be the kind of person that would set up loopholes. However, I think the fact that someone like Dulles was involved in this kind of discussion of the Marian dogmas shows that some matters are more open for discussion than some Roman Catholics and Protestants would like to admit.

    1. Jeremy: Thanks for your reply. That is very intruiging and I would be interested to learn more about it; it certainly puts my mind at rest concerning a certain fear I had that one could not freely examine th articles of the faith as a faithful Catholic. And yet, regardless of any sort of “hierarchy of truths,” it seems odd that a group of would-be Catholics would be given room to question an infallible declaration (unless the infallibility itself is being questioned in the heart of the CC). I suppose the interest is in promoting unity rather than insisting on certain details that, while perhaps true (not for me to say), are not as crucial to the Faith as belief in the Trinity or the bodily ressurection of Christ. That I can understand, to be sure. And yet, logically, it seems to me that if a declaration is infallible, there can’t actually be much wiggle room. At the very best, perhaps the Church would be saying “Well, you’re wrong, but we won’t exclude you on that count.” And yet it seems an intellectual inconsistency on our (Protestants’) side to consider accepting the Church’s authority in everything else “but just not these parts”. I mean, in that case, what would Church infalliblity/authority really even mean, and would it be that different from the authority of, say, the Anglican Church? In which case, it almost seems like the meaning behind becoming Catholic would begin to disintegrate.

      It’s odd that I’m arguing this point, because Marian doctrine happens to be a sticking point for me. I’m not looking at what appeals to me alone, but at what seems to be consistent with my understanding of what the Catholic Church is supposed to be. Granted, that understanding is still fuzzy in many places, but I feel there are certain principles that have been pretty consistently represented to me in the course of my studies. And again, maybe it’s weird that a Protestant is so concerned with Catholic teaching :) But I’m a Philosophy major with a minor in Theology at a very Catholic school, and I also happen to take a personal interest in Catholicism, so I guess I can’t help it. Thanks for your insight, and I appreciate the blog.

      1. Noelle,
        It may be that your view is the correct one. My main point is only to show that some of these matters are not beyond discussion, even among official church bodies. As I think I stated earlier, the Marian dogmas are certainly not going anywhere. What I think Yarnold, Dulles, et al were saying on this point was that our understanding of dogma itself could undergo development, not necessarily there could be change to any one particular dogma. I’m not saying they’re right, only that these kinds of things were discussed and no one censured that I know of.

        As to your statement about the hierarchy of truths leading to everything disintegrating, I think the categories you mentioned above are helpful. The effect would only be to say that for those converting dogmatic statements concerning matters farther down the hierarchy of truths are binding to the same degree as the teachings of the ordinary magisterium.

      2. On another note it’s interesting that I’m trying to describe what might be possible. I personally accept and don’t really struggle with the Marian dogmas. But working in a Catholic parish, the dogmas simply don’t play that major of a role for the majority of people that I know other than the annual feasts.

        1. That is interesting. After discussing with you I ran into a Catholic friend and mentioned your comment about Dulles. He pointed out to me that there is relatively little dogma concerning Mary, and that the majority of Marian devotional practices, though allowed and encouraged, are not dogmatic or required to any Catholic. It is true that, from the perspective of personal faith, it is the practices that tend to trip me up more than the dogmas. As far as the dogmas are concerned, however, I hold back on them because 1) I don’t see strong evidence proving this in Scripture or in history and 2) naturally I don’t hold to the authority of the Magisterium (as far as Spirit-led infallibilty goes). Those seem to be the only good reasons for objecting as far as I can tell. I suppose that, for anyone becoming Catholic that had thought it through, and already accepted Magisterial authority, that question could answer itself. Also, is it possible (as my friend thought likely) that what Dulles suggested was not in reference to the actual dogmas but instead to the various Marian practices and devotions found throughout Catholicism? That would certainly make sense to me.

          I do see your point about the hierarchy of truths, but still question whether it could work. My guess would be that these men (Dulles et al) were not censured because they themselves were not, in fact, questioning dogmatic Church authority but suggesting a solution regarding converts’ responsibilities toward such doctrine. In which case the Church could refuse the solution, yet without having cause to censure them. Again, though, I’m speculating.

          1. Noelle,
            Since you seem very interested in the topic here is an article discussing some of the different proposals. This is why I also used might not in my comment above. I don’t know to what extent any of the solutions has actually been put in practice, other than to say I think maybe a number of priests at the parish level would use some of the reasoning in the article with individuals (rightly or wrongly).


            Interestingly, at least in the article, Dulles is reported to have said of the Marian dogmas that they are “obscure and remote from the heart of the Christian faith.” obviously that is not to say that he questioned the dogmas, but an interesting statement nonetheless.

  19. “Dulles is reported to have said of the Marian dogmas that they are “obscure and remote from the heart of the Christian faith.” ”

    I pray for popes who think likewise.

    1. I think that the most important thing is that they are Christ-centered, which both JP II and Benedict seem to be through and through. And yet, the easier the reuniting of all the Churches, the better, so I pray for a spirit of unity and understanding within all Christians. Since (regardless of my misgivings) I know many Catholics who hold those Marian doctrines dear and yet are as devoted to Christ as one could hope for, it is not usually a subject of serious concern for me. That is, if I turned out to be wrong, I trust God to draw me to him nonetheless; and I trust the same for my Catholic brothers and sisters were they to be wrong. Perhaps the Pope would not ever use the wording of Dulles, but I think he would affirm that the heart and life of the Christian faith is no more and no less than Jesus Christ come in the Holy Spirit to bring us to the Father. Everything else, including any Marian doctrines, can only come from the work and love of Jesus Christ, so that everything should actually point back to him. As long as this is emphasized, I have no bone to pick.

      You would find these resources interesting, I think:

      And ecumenical document found on the Vatican website:

      John Richard Neuhaus, a Catholic, writing on Marian devotion:

      Also, as an witness to Pope Benedict’s love for Christ, I would highly recommend you read his book series “Jesus of Nazareth”. There are two volumes out, and I believe one more may be on the way. He is a remarkable and admirable theologian and man of God.

      TO JEREMY: Thanks for the link and being willing to discuss this when I know you wanted to wind it up. God bless.

      1. P.S. I obviously meant “Jesus come in the power of the Holy Spirit,” just in case it sounded a bit odd. I wasn’t implying no incarnation 😉

      2. Amen to all of that, Noelle. And no worries about drawing me back in. As it turns out tropical storm Lee has provided me with lots of time indoors this weekend.

        1. Oh, yes, I forgot about that! Well, stay safe (unless it has already passed over by now!). Thanks again; it’s wonderful to have such discussions where everyone is willing to give and take. I really enjoyed it. Blessings!

      3. From the document you linked to: “The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption raise a special problem for those Anglicans who do not consider that the precise definitions given by these dogmas are sufficiently supported by Scripture. For many Anglicans the teaching authority of the bishop of Rome, independent of a council, is not recommended by the fact that through it these Marian doctrines were proclaimed as dogmas binding on all the faithful. Anglicans would also ask whether, in any future union between our two Churches, they would be required to subscribe to such dogmatic statements (para. 30).”

        That is the “special problem” I was alluding to in this thread, and wondering how there could be any wiggle room for its solution. I have no problem with Marian devotion (though it’s not for me), but binding ex cathedra dogmas are another matter.

        I must indeed read some Benny XVI. I have his Introduction to Christianity and his book on Liturgy. Every time I pick up the latter and browse through it I think “Brilliant stuff!” but have never got around to actually sitting down and reading it properly. We Presbyterians are not very good with liturgy! (so I have a lot to learn).

        1. Oh, you should! I’m guilty of the same thing…picking up his stuff and reading here and there. Thankfully I’ve been assigned some stuff in class which helps me 😉 But really, he ranks up there in my favorite theologians/Christian writers. Such an exceptional servant of our Lord. I got my mother to buy the first “Jesus” book for her dad and was sorely tempted to take it back to school with me, but I refrained :)

        2. You might also enjoy this (by Ratzinger aka Benedict):

          Scott Hahn (who teaches at my college) has some excellent resources on his site (where he provided the link to above document.) In case you ever have time to kill, you might enjoy browsing through this page [below]. It has more than you could ever hope to find time to read, but I think you’ll appreciate what you do read. Interestingly (though you may be well familiar with Hahn already) he is a former Presbyterian pastor and the idea of covenant permeates much of his own theological writings, some of which he puts up with the other resources here:



      4. By the way, does anyone see any possibility of Catholic ecumenical dialogue with Presbyterians? Of course we have a lot of differences but I think we have a lot in common too, and might get along (in official ecclesial dialogue, I mean) very well together. However, I seem to be the only one with this view!

        1. There has actually been some in the US. Most of the official US dialogues can be found here:


          I know there is some with Reformed/Presbyterian churches because I referred to one of the documents when I preached at our local Presbyterian church (where I’m becoming a bit of a regular fill in- I actually preached there this morning). In terms of justification, I think we mainly agreed on the Lutheran-Catholic statement. But we made some joint statements on other matters as well.

          I don’t know where the dialogue stands now though.

          1. I have to say, that is downright cool (excuse the slang) that you preach there. What a neat way to form a bond between separated brethren in Christ! Glad to hear of such a thing.

          2. Well, the area where I live is not really a hot bed of Presbyterian life. So I’m the closest thing I think they get to a credentialed Biblical scholar who can visit with any regularity, at least who shares their ecumenical outlook. Ironically, I believe canon law allows me to preach there but I can’t give a homily in my parish. It’s enjoyable though, since as a revert I use to preach all the time.

        2. I bet Dr. Hahn, as a former Presbyterian with great respect for many Protestant theologians, would be a good person to talk to regarding this matter, if you can get ahold of him. His contact info should be on his site, if I recall.

          1. Yes, I definitely must read some Scott Hahn; have been intending to do so for ages and never got down to it. I also have a little book called Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine by Raymond E. Brown that looks helpful.

            I guess a big sticking point between Presbyterians and Catholics would be church government, as our system is so totally different to yours. That’s something that wouldn’t be such a major factor in other ecumenical dialogues, where the episcopal system holds eg. Anglicanism. But the very idea of a Presbyterian bishop . . .might take me a while to get my head around that!

            One Reformed academic doing good work in Catholic ‘resourcement’ theology is Hans Boersma. I enjoyed his recent book ‘Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry’ very much. Anyone interested in De Lubac, Balthasar, Danielou, Congar, etc. should read it.

          2. According to ecumenists like Peter Kreeft and Mark Knoll, ecclesiology is not just an issue, it is the issue. We have come to substantive agreement about matters as crucial, at least in the reformation time period itself, as justification. But, like you, I see Church governance as the major hurdle.

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