The essay has relevance to the many struggling Catholics who have a misinformed understanding on obedience to the Church. The obvious end of the spectrum are the Catholics who fail to see the need to be obedient even when an object of faith does not seem to be appealing. There also exists those Catholic on the other side of the scale who respond with a level of hyper-acceptance to novelties that should be questioned and/or disproved of. The emphasis in the essay that follows is my own.
The Charitable Anathema
by Dietrich von Hildebrand
Chapter IV - Belief and Obedience: The Critical Difference
Copyright 1993 Alice von Hildebrand
Is it true, as a certain Father Virgilia Levi charged recently in L'Osservatore Romano, that the defenders of the encyclical Humanae Vitae are now contradicting themselves by expressing their deep concern over then new Missale Romanum? Do Catholic orthodoxy and filial submission to the Vicar of Christ require one to hail every practical decision of the Holy Father? What should be one’s inner attitude toward practical decisions of the Pope, decisions that seem ill-advised or dangerous in their consequences or even decisions that seem to compromise with the spirit of secularism?
Such questions increasingly preoccupy Catholics striving to defend the true doctrine of the Church against the onslaught of today’s innumerable heresies. In order to answer them, in order to understand the nature of the authority of the Church, we must, from the beginning, clearly distinguish between theoretical and practical authority.
Theoretical authority is a guarantee of the truth of a statement. In the natural, human realm we find only relative theoretical authorities. We accept the truth of a generally admitted scientific discovery–the existence of cosmic rays, for instance–although we ourselves are not able to verify it and still less capable of grasping it as we grasp an evident fact. What is learned in a school or university, and is not intelligible in itself (as is, for instance, the fact that two plus two is four) is learned only through acceptance of the teacher’s theoretical authority. But, obviously, this authority is only a relative one: many scientific "truths" once universally accepted have subsequently been discredited. It would be unreasonable not to accept what such a theoretical authority teaches–it would even be foolish–but we know, nevertheless, that this authority is not infallible, and thus is relative.
There is but one absolute theoretical authority: the Church in matters of faith and morals. It is a basis of our Catholic faith that Christ has entrusted His divine revelation to the Holy Church and that the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is infallible in matters of faith and morals–that she is an absolute theoretical authority in these matters.
It is because of this absoluteness that we are obliged–even morally obliged–to accept the Church’s word as true, to believe in it; whereas to accept the word of human, natural–relative–theoretical authority is never obligatory. Not to accept it may be unreasonable, but it is not morally evil. And obviously belief in the teachings of the Church has the character of faith–that is, an unconditional, solemn clinging to her teaching; whereas all belief in natural theoretical authorities is a mere natural conviction and differs radically from an act of religious faith.
Practical authority, on the other hand, appeals not to belief–to the acceptance of a truth–but to obedience. We are obliged to obey an authentic practical authority and to submit to its commandments. Whereas no natural theoretical authority is obligatory, there are true and binding practical authorities in the natural realm. Such is the authority of the parents over the child; such is the authority of the state. The Church is a practical authority of a higher order, because here the partial representation of God has a sacred character. It is a sacred authority and, in all matters which belong to her realm and competence, her commandments and administrative measures have a solemn and morally binding character.
Thus we can see that the theoretical authority of the Church appeals to our belief, while the practical authority of the Church appeals to our obedience. Clearly, then, the infallibility of the Church applies only to the Church as a theoretical authority.
Now, obviously, the essence of infallibility implies that there are never any contradictions between a formerly defined dogma an a new authoritative declaration de fide. At the moment such a contradiction comes to pass, the infallibility of the Church would explode, would have been proved a mere illusion on our part. Other possibilities do not exist. New dogmas may differentiate and explain former dogmas, they may complement them, they may refer to something which has never been defined before but was implicit in the faith or its logical consequences, or in any case does not contradict a former dogma. But no dogma, once authoritatively taught, can ever be authoritatively denied. For instance, the rejection of Luther’s sola fides theory could never be superseded by an affirmation of Luther’s theory. The consequence would be a collapse of the Church’s infallibility.
In what concerns the practical authority of the Church, her positive commandments, the question of infallibility simply does not apply. A positive commandment, an administrative measure, or any prescription cannot be true or false but only valid or invalid, good or evil, useful or useless. Truth is never the theme in the positive commandments or laws of any practical authority. If in a particular state the voting age is reduced from 21 to 18, we may find the measure wise or unwise, felicitous or disastrous, but it makes no sense to call it true or false. This applies also to the practical authority of the Church. When a pope introduces changes in canon law, or when he splits one diocese into two, or permits children to receive Communion at an early age, or changes laws of fasting, it may be felicitous or unfortunate, it may be more adequate than a former law or less adequate–but questions of infallibility and of truth are irrelevant.
The history of the Catholic Church offers innumerable examples of changes made according to the decisions of the practical authority of the Church; often, but not always, the authentic spirit of the Church–that is, the spirit of Christ–motivates her to revoke a former prescription and to introduce an opposite one. In this case we are bound to obey the prescription or commandment; we should accept it with the respect due it–but we are not obliged to find it felicitous. We can regret it and pray that it may be again revoked.
Now, even though there are differences in the required attitudes of the faithful Catholic to the theoretical and the practical authority of the Church, we must emphatically stress that there are important links between the two authorities. First, the practical authority of the Church presupposes the Church's theoretical authority. The practical authority of the Church is different from that of parents, of a judge, of a minister of state, of a policeman, We can with out reason grasp the legitimacy of illegitimacy of their claim to a natural, practical authority; but all practical authority in the Church, and above all that of the Supreme Pontiff, has its roots in faith, in the divine institution of the Church, in her supernatural character, in the infallibility of her theoretical authority. Thus as soon as one loses faith in the absolute, theoretical authority of the Church, as soon as one no longer believes in her infallibility in matters of faith and morals, as soon as one begins to speak of pluralism of dogmas and no longer believes in the divine institution of the Church-at that moment the practical authority, all disciplinary authority of the Church, loses its foundation. A bishop, for instance, who adopted the theories of certain modern theologians who replace the infallibly teaching of the Church with a Hegelian world-spirit evolving in history, would by this assumption undercut the basis of his own authority; if this assumption were correct, his episcopal authority would be a ludicrous show.
The second link between the theoretical and practical authority of the Church is that any disciplinary action of the Church that would, in its effect, contradict any dogmatic truth of the depositum Catholicae fidei, or any moral teaching of the Church, would be invalid. If a pope were to abolish auricular confession, for example, his commandment would be doubtful in its validity because it would be incompatible with a canon of the Council of Trent concerning the sacrament of Penance.
On the other hand, all manifestations of the practical authority that are by their very nature necessary consequences of a dogma or moral teaching of the Church are beyond all possible changes and are absolute in their validity. Thus the practical authority has an extremely wide range, reaching from fundamental canon laws down to measures that refer to momentary situations-an interdict, for example, or promotion of an individual prelate.
Having briefly analyzed, then, the relations between the Church's theoretical and practical authority, let us turn to the different responses required of the faithful to manifestations of the two authorities.
In the case of the theoretical authority, the important question is whether a teaching refers to matters of faith and morals and does not contradict the deposit of Catholic faith. Here infallibility is in question when a teaching is pronounced ex cathedra or de fide. A specific case may help to illuminate the matter.
The Second Vatican Council solemnly declared in its Constitution on the Church that all the teachings of the Council are in full continuity with the teachings of former councils. Moreover, let us not forget that the canons of the Council of Trent and of Vatican Council I are de fide, whereas none of the decrees of Vatican II is de fide; the Second Vatican Council was pastoral in nature. Cardinal Felici rightly stated that the Credo solemnly proclaimed by Pope Paul VI at the end of the Year of Faith is from a dogmatic point of view much more important than the entire Second Vatican Council. Thus, those who want to interpret certain passages in the documents of Vatican II as if they implicitly contradicted definitions of Vatican I or the Council of Trent should realize that even if their interpretations were right, the canons of the former councils would overrule these allegedly contradictory passages of Vatican II, because the former are de fide, the latter not. (It must be stressed that any such "conflict" would be, of course, apparent and not real.)
Our belief in the teachings of the Church de fide must be an absolute and unconditional one, but we should not imagine that our fidelity to the Church’s theoretical authority is satisfied merely by acceptance of ex cathedra pronouncements. We also must adhere wholeheartedly to teachings of the Church in matters of morality, even if they are not defined ex cathedra. The teaching of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, for example, is binding because its content has always been part of the teachings of the Church; in it we are confronted with the theoretical authority of the Church embodied in the tradition of the ordinary magisterium. It is not a mere practical commandment of the Church, like the commandment to go to church on Sunday. It is a statement about a moral fact; that is, it states a truth: that birth control is sinful. It is forbidden not because of the Pope’s policy, but because the theoretical authority of the Church declares its sinfulness. Here, as in all cases of the teaching of the theoretical authority, the old maxim applies: Roma locuta: causa finita.
The situation is different when positive commandments of the Church, practical decisions, are at stake. Here we are not faced with the infallible Church. While we must obey such decisions and submit to them in reverence and deep respect, we need not consider them felicitous or prudent. Here the maxim Roma locuta: cause finita does not apply. If we are convinced that any practical change or decision is objectively unfortunate, noxious, compromising, imprudent, or unjust, we are permitted to pray that it may be revoked, to write in a respectful manner about the topic, to direct petitions for a change of it to the Holy Father–to attempt, in a variety of ways, to influence a reversal of the decision.
...[examples given of a movement and religious order that was dissolved]
The point, of course, is that obedience to the practical disciplinary decisions of the pope does not always imply approval of them. When such a decision has the character of compromise or is the result of pressure or the weakness of the individual person of the pope, we cannot and should not say: Roma locuta: causa finita. That is, we cannot see in it the will of God; we must recognize that God only permits it, just as He has permitted the unworthiness or weakness of several popes in the history of the Church.
Today, many theologians propose to replace the deposit of the Catholic faith with their own subjective opinions about Christ, His virginal birth, His resurrection, and so on. This is not only clear apostasy, but also the most ridiculous presumption-as if, in matters of faith, their subject opinions could have any weight...
Nor can I conceal-and here we are returning to the point from which we started-the fact that the new Missale Romanum seems to me an incomparably greater mistake than that Concordat. I share the view of the great, venerable Cardinal Ottaviani-a true rock of orthodoxy-and of the group of Roman theologians who authored a critical study of the "new" Mass for Cardinal Ottaviani, that this liturgical innovation implies a contrast, at least by omission, with the de fide canons of the Council of Trent about the Mass.
On account of my deep love for and devotion to the Church, it is a special cross for me not to be able to welcome every practical decision of the Holy See, particularly in a time like ours, which is witnessing a crumbling of the spirit of obedience and respect for the Holy Father.
But we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the rubrics of the new Ordo (as distinct from the text itself) are at variance with the definition of the essence and raison d'être of Holy Mass as given by the Council of Trent. Consequently it must be feared that in their sermons, many priests, will be encouraged to emphasize the character of the "assembly of the people of God" at the cost of both the mystery of the sacrifice of the Holy Mass and the ineffable gift for every individual soul granted in the sacrament fo the Eucharist-faith in which is already menaced by certain heretical trends rampant in the church.
Our unconditional submission to the theoretical authority of the Church, because Our Lord has entrusted to it His divine revelation, manifests itself primarily in our faithfulness to the deposit of Catholic Faith. Let us, as we answer the call to defend orthodoxy, reflect on the glorious history of the Church. Let us take faith from the fact that no pope has ever proclaimed anything heretical, anything contrary to the deposit of Catholic faith; and let us also recall the innumerable graces flowing from the Church into the souls of the faithful throughout the centuries. Let us remember the innumerable saints to whom the Church has given birth. Let our hearts be filled with ardent love for the Church, the Bride of Christ. But when this love inevitably fills our hearts with deep sorrow over a practical decision imposed on us-which we cannot but think unfortunate and dangerous in its consequences-let us not fall into despairing confusion. Let us realize that it would be disastrous to identify the God-willed response of faith to the infallible theoretical authority of the Church with the completely different response of obedience to the practical authority of the Church. Though we must obey such a practical decision, we must not approve it; nay, we must even pray for its revocation, and, in full respect, strive with all legitimate measures to persuade the Holy Father of its danger, all the while proclaiming wholeheartedly: Credo in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam!