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Infallibility is untenable

Infallibility is untenable

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We quote ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER, professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL, from her column in the National Catholic Reporter, 1996.

INFALLIBILITY IS UNTENABLE, it seems to me, on every ground. Intellectually it flies in the face of human finitude and limitations. This means that no human perception of truth can be stated in a manner that lacks error or inadequacy, thus all human ideas, including theology, must be open to revision.

Second, such an idea is absurd in terms of church history. The list of papal and church institutional errors, declared at the time to be unchangeable, is long. Take only the case of the teaching on slavery, an institution accepted in both testaments of scripture, affirmed by major theologians (Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) and continuously taught in canon law - yet a teaching no one would imagine accepting today. The Roman Catholic church has never officially repented of this sorry history of acceptance of slavery but it has allowed this teaching to fade from memory. Its negation of the ordination of women should go the same way.

... The greatest theological problem with infallibility is that it makes it very difficult for the church to admit it was wrong. I have considered making a T-shirt to wear to Catholic meetings with the slogan: "Infallibility means never having to say you're sorry."

But being unable to say you're sorry is to be unable to repent. Not to be able to repent means not being able to be open to divine grace. Thus infallibility is the sin of sins: a sin against the Holy Spirit. All areas where the church's teachings are inadequate, distorted or erroneous are blocked from corrective development by the assumption of infallibility. One cannot change previous misaken teachings, such as the ban on contraception - even if the worldwide church has come to a consensus that it needs to change - if you can't admit that you have been wrong.

It was this recognition of the way in which the idea of infallible teaching authority acted as a barrier to any reform in key teachings, such as that on contraception, that brought Hans Küng to write his 1970 book questioning infallibility. Although many Catholic theologians, particularly those on the side of Vatican II, don't believe in infallibility, most, unlike Hans Küng, have chosen to avoid confronting it head on. This I believe is intellectual and moral cowardice. But the (CDF) declaration ... brings such cowardice to a crossroads.

It is significant that the declaration claimed that such a teaching reflected the infallibility not of a special papal pronouncement, but of the ordinary magisterium. For such a claim of the reliability of the ordinary magisterium itself depends on an idea having general acceptance in church history, including the contemporary church. But it is precisely such a broad consensus that is lacking today. Not only have most Protestant churches, including the Anglican communion, carefully examined this ban and rejected it on scriptural, theological and moral grounds, but a large number of theologians, many priests and bishops and close to a majority of Catholics are questioning such a ban. In such a case, when an idea no longer has a consensus in the church, it is clearly impossible to declare that it is "infallible" on the ground that it enjoys a consensus.

Such a declaration not only fails to reflect consensus, it is a clear effort to stifle discussion precisely because there is a growing disposition on the other side. Such a power play in the face of growing questions can only have the effect of deepening the questions themselves. ...Women's ordination must now be discussed in the broader context of questioning the thesis of infallibility itself ... an examination long overdue.

Reprinted with permission from "Called to Action", www.cta-usa.org


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

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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