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Does every part of Catholic doctrine share in the infallibility of revealed truth?

Does every part of Catholic doctrine share in the infallibility of revealed truth?

Yes, there is an organic unity of Christian doctrine. All that has been infallibly determined or defined belongs to it. A great deal of what has not been so singled out belongs to it. But there is much among the non-infallible teaching that is human opinion.

As we have seen earlier, the division of our beliefs into two neat categories, infallible and fallible, coupled with the suggestion that dissent from non-infallibly stated doctrine should be always permissible, is a simplistic approach to a complex issue. (23) Some of the non-infallibly stated doctrines may well be integral parts of divine revelation.

23. Besides, it displays a lack of sensitivity for history. Should one conclude that before the Council of Nicaea (325), where the first major definitions occurred, Christians could dissent from any part of the tradition handed down to them?

It follows also, with no less force, that many non-infallible propositions are no more than respectable school opinions, and as such, they are not part of the universally held Catholic doctrine. Theologians should not be easily castigated for criticizing or rejecting such teachings; to say that all non-infallible statements form an organic unity with infallible doctrine is nonsense.

A particularly difficult issue in determining the boundaries of the Catholic doctrine in its organic unity is in the field of morality. There is no doubt that the evangelical message includes particular moral precepts: it tells us about God’s mighty deeds and the way to the Father. The church cannot be less competent in proclaiming this way than it is competent in narrating the story of our redemption.

But there is no evidence that answers to all issues of morality that human beings can ever face are somehow given in Christian revelation, or can be deduced from it, or somehow can develop from it. There are complex problems in bioethics, in economy, in politics for which Christian tradition offers no clear guidance. At most, the church could invoke a philosophical system and solve a problem with the help of some principles derived from it, as for instance Pius XII has invoked the “principle of totality” to decide how far the transplant of an organ from one living person to another could be allowed—or should be forbidden. (24)

24. See “Mutilation” in NCE 10: 145-146, and “Organic Transplants,” ibid. 754-756; also (and especially) the article by Gerald Kelly “Pope Pius XII and the Principle of Totality” in Theological Studies, 16 (1955), pp. 373-396.

The result may be an honest and prudent attempt to find a solution; but it is doubtful that the position taken can be part of the organic unity of Christian doctrine. After all, the church always refused to canonize any philosophical system; hence an affirmation grounded in philosophy must not be easily admitted into the realm of the "evangelical message." (25)

25. Vatican Council I, in defining papal infallibility, said that the pope has that infallibility “with which the divine Redeemer wanted his church to be endowed in defining the doctrine concerning faith and morals” (cf. DS 3074). The Council did not go into the description of the precise limits of this gift—as usual, the Fathers left it to the theologians to work on the problem. Questions remain: What are the limits of this infallibility? What is the meaning of “doctrine of morals”? Does it include moral precepts which in no way can be found in the revelation? Is the church the proclaimer and guardian of “natural law”? How can the church know the natural law if it is not contained in the revelation? There is always a problem with building an argument from natural law and then calling the conclusion part of Catholic teaching. On the one hand, the ecumenical councils have steadily refused to commit the church to a philosophical system, no matter how suitable or helpful it appeared; on the other hand, no statement about natural law is possible without invoking a philosophical system.

See the judicious treatment of this issue in Sullivan, Magisterium, pp. 138-152. His position is that while there are good reasons to hold that particular norms of natural law are not objects of infallible teaching; they can be objects of magisterial teaching. It follows (my remark) that we need a distinct type of hermeneutics for magisterial documents which deal with the natural law.

There is nothing in our tradition that would forbid the view that there are moral issues concerning the temporal and secular order which must be solved with the help of human intelligence and ingenuity, without any specific guidance from revelation. If that is the case, it follows that the church should help and respect any honest attempt to solve them, but it should claim no divine authority to impose a solution.

In other terms, the limits of the organic unity of Christian doctrine in the field of morality are not, as yet, clearly determined.

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

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