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Are there non-infallible binding teachings?

Are there non-infallible binding teachings?

The “non-infallible” teaching is really composed of two organically united strata of doctrine it contains part of God’s revelation and (mixed or fused with it) it includes changeable human thoughts. Simple statements, such as “non-infallible proclamations are not binding”; or “non-infallible statements by ecclesiastical authorities are binding” do not pay enough attention or respect to the complex character of the body of “non-infallible” beliefs.

Indeed, no one has ever asserted that all that we have to believe has been the object of infallible pronouncements. It follows that we must handle the beliefs that have not been infallibly defined cautiously; some of it (perhaps a great deal of it) may be part of God’s revelation. When a point of doctrine was peacefully believed and no crisis developed around it, no council or pope ever thought of infallibly defining it.

An infallible “determination” (ancient councils preferred that term to “definition”) means that a point of belief has been marked, specially authenticated; but there are other points which have not been so singled out yet are no less true than those so “determined.”

Once this much is admitted (how could it be denied?), it becomes obvious that there is an organic unity between “determined” and “not-determined” truth; between doctrine infallibly proclaimed and doctrine non-infallibly taught.

To separate within the “non-infallible” portion of beliefs the incorrupt expressions of our faith from what are human opinions is not easy. To determine if a given point of doctrine is an integral part of revelation or not, it is necessary to examine the precise content of that doctrine, its place in Christian tradition, its connection with other mysteries. Such inquiry is always a slow process, and can be full of pitfalls. It requires a good deal of historical knowledge and training in methodology. Indeed, theological research has become a no less sophisticated activity than research in (e.g.) theoretical physics—with the additional limitation that no verification can be done by experiments. (13)

13. It is interesting to compare the style of publications in theoretical physics, with publications in systematic theology. At times, the difference is striking. The physicists, after their expositions and explanations, tend to stress how much more they do not know and consequently they display a reluctance to make final and apodictic statements. The theologians after they have given their presentations and clarifications tend to come to firm and decisive statements concerning the ultimate truth of the matter. Is this because the scientists know that nature is there and quite ready to correct them, while the theologians know that a correction out of a supernatural world is not likely? I submit that this tendency among theologians (of diffferent denominations?) is a survival of the post-Tridentine method (remember the controversalists?), which postulated that every inquiry should begin with a thesis to be defended, not with a question to be investigated—as was customary in the middle ages, cf. the sic-et-non method of Abelard and the Quaestiones in the works of Aquinas. One wonders if the “thesis method” already current in the sixteenth century has contributed to the bitter tone of the Reformation controversies and made reconciliation more difficult.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 2. Read the whole chapter here.

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Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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