I was pondering lofty things the other day, as great minds are wont to do, and a thought began to form that I decided to submit to my fellow traditionalists for consideration…
The ultramonantanist in each of us loves Vatican I, and Pastor Aeternus shines so brightly as to cast a shadow over all the other documents of the council (we don’t typically see references to Dei Filius, for example). As useful as this invocation of the extraordinary magisterium may have been for quelling any doubts about papal supremacy, I wonder if we aren’t feeling some residual effects in our modern culture of dissent.
How so, Andreas? Well, I think we’re seeing damage on two fronts. First, conservatives seem to have innocently blown it beyond its original proportion so that it often sounds as if the Church is bound only by the Magisterium of the moment. So if Benedict XVI asserts some theological position in a public audience it immediately receives an aura of Gospel truth, without any cross-checking against the Church of the past to see if it conforms with Tradition. This makes it exceptionally hard to question any single change in discipline or theological expression because an interlocutor is merely referred to an isolated statement that someone trusts too naively because of an un-nuanced conception of papal authority.
On the other side, we have liberals who refuse to acknowledge any matter as settled unless solemnly defined by some extraordinary act. This is the flip side of the coin. Conservatives, knowing the pope to be a trustworthy and sometimes infallible teacher, tend to assume his utterances reflect irreformable truth. Liberals, knowing that extraordinary infallibility is only applicable to specific utterances or formulae under rather restrictive circumstances, throw out the ordinary magisterium and pooh-pooh anything not solemnly proclaimed by a council or ex cathedra. Take, for instance, the Church’s teaching on contraception. A retarded chimp could see that if anything meets the standards of Lumen Gentium for the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, our condemnation of contraception is certainly one. But a liberal says, “It has never been infallibly defined,” by which he means, “It’s not from a council or ex catheda statement.”
I certainly wouldn’t say Vatican I caused these misunderstandings of the Magisterium, but does anyone think it may have contributed in some way? It seems like before that council we had a fairly good grasp of just what Tradition means, and that we can be certain about everything acknowledged by all, always, and everywhere, regardless of whether we’ve gone to the trouble of using extraordinary means to express it. Now that we’ve brought those extraordinary means into the spotlight, it seems like most Catholics have reduced the Church’s sure teaching authority to the meagre amount of extraordinary instances of teaching. Am I on to something? A penny to each of you for your thoughts.