How do Authorities in the Church arrive at interpretations/conclusions in regards to Faith and Morals?


Before jumping more deeply into the reason I ask this question, here’s what I already understand: 1) whenever the Pope pronounces an interpretation or conclusion in regards to a matter of Faith or morals, while speaking ex-cathedra to the whole Church, while using clear language that his interpretation is binding on the faithful, then his interpretation/conclusion is infallible; 2) whenever it is possible that all the Catholic bishops of the world agree on an interpretation/conclusion to a particular matter, then this is infallible; 3) whenever decisions are made by an ecumenical council, and these are ratified by the Pope, then this is infallible; 4) whenever fallible teachings are proposed by certain bishops, but, through time, these are embraced by a majority of them, then such interpretations/conclusions become infallible; 5) whatever interpretations/conclusions the Pope makes that do not fall within the criteria of the first point above are not infallible, but do still require respect and an assent of the will and mind; 6) whatever interpretations/conclusions your particular bishop makes that do not fall within the criteria of the fourth point above, are not infallible, but do still require respect and an assent of the will and mind.

According to everything I learned, for the purpose of our present discussion, I conclude that Christianity, both within the East and the West, is founded upon the Information that is the Tradition. This Tradition is composed of two primary sources of information (the Baptism-Chrismation/Laying of Hands-Eucharist source and the Scriptural-Second Temple Hopes source) that obviously intersect. These two primary sources, in turn, permeate a fuller list of sources that clearly must follow a hierarchy of importance (1a. Baptism-Chrismation/Laying of Hands-Eucharist, 1b. Scripture [which contains references to the other four Sacraments] and Second Temple Hopes, 2. Trinitarian and Christological teachings of ecumenical councils, 3. Creeds, 4. what the Fathers taught concerning, and the development of understanding of, the other four sacraments, 5. the various liturgies throughout history, and 6. other dogmatic aspects of Ecumenical Councils and infallible papal pronouncements, 7. what all Fathers held in common, 8. the embracing, over time, of fallible teachings to become infallible, 9. particularly debated interpretations of various Fathers, 10. the teachings of an ordinary bishop). In my opinion, Canons would be somewhere between sources 8 through 10, and are a lower source because most are just “fences” erected to protect the faithful from violating something more important, may change, and are merely pedagogical (a fence, for example, would be like saying that it’s a sin to go to the mall…because Catholics are stealing at an alarming rate, it makes sense to say this, even though the mall is not really sinful in any way). The latter lower sources of the list, I believe, should confirm the former higher sources within the list, but I have found that, sometimes, they do not, and either contradict or are more “fences.” Also, all sources need to be understood according to their proper literal sense, and not literalistically, together with a familiarity of the cultural understanding of the times within which some of them were, and others are still being, established (the Mass and the Bible, obviously, would have not only the literal senses but also other more deeper senses).

Thanks for sticking with me. SO HERE GOES. When Authorities in the Church are making interpretations/conclusions in regards to Faith and Morals, as custodians of the Tradition, they, most certainly, must be doing an inventory of the Sources of the Tradition, according to a certain hierarchy, to thereby arrive at the answer. BUT, MY QUESTION IS: are they ALSO empowered with a certain power or gift that enables them to go beyond these sources of the Tradition in ways that may seem contradictory to me only because I don’t possess a charism within their authority, also given to them by God? Perhaps this would be a certain type of inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which, in itself, would not at all be a condemned “novel” source (as per St. Vincent of Lerins) but, rather, a hidden source of Tradition? I reject Gnosticism, but is it possible that there is a secret, although faithful and orthodox, Source of Tradition, unavailable to anyone but the highest Authorities? DOES SUCH A THING EXIST? Or, can Authorities, possibly, present a “fenced” version of the Faith that they feel is currently necessary, but, which, is not fully the Truth, and, which, later on, becomes enshrined, by accident, with later Authorities believing it to be the full Truth? I doubt this second option. I ask these questions because, for reasons that I will not discuss, by using the same sources of the Tradition, I reached some opposite conclusions regarding certain things taught within certain Ecumenical Councils that have followed the East-West split, as well as disagree concerning the immorality and condemnation of condom-use, and condom-use alone. But I’m very Traditional and not at all a modernist. I hate modernism! I know most Catholics will probably tell me that the power and gift mentioned above that enable Authorities to either go beyond or make fences, if it were true that they actually do this, would also be a part of “infallibility.” But my question is, do I, having a reasonable argument, according to Tradition and not my own whims, have the right to disagree on certain things, or should I just submit and believe that Church Authorities possess a further ability that I do not possess?

Either way, I can’t help but see some contradictions or false interpretations, but, at least with the latter option, I can conclude that they know something that I don’t, in this case, not only the ability to reach a binding decision but also extra knowledge. Is it possible that the Pope can make certain arguments, like those within Humanae Vitae, and be right even though his arguments are actually not?

This is purely theoretical, and I’m totally open to criticism. It’s also a possibility that, for the most part, many of my alternative conclusions are more in conflict with pop-Catholicism than pure Catholicism. But, if my above ideas of an inspired charism or fence-making are impossibilities, which they most likely are, how does one go about submitting to certain interpretations when one sees, according to reasonable evidence and arguments, alternatives, which, in no way, would change the essence of the Faith? It’s weird…I’m kind of similar to a “Bible only” Protestant. The only difference, however, would be that I say “the sources of the Tradition only,” a statement which is the furthest thing away from Protestantism. Does anybody have any advice or knowledge concerning this topic?

Some folks get caught up in the logic of infallibility.

I suggest you put it aside.

Please go back and read what some of our popes have said in their own words. The books of St. John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) are good.

Never once do these guys dictate or lecture or proclaim doctrine or make any infallible teaching to be analyzed and dissected.

Instead they quite humbly tell, in their own words why they believe what they believe - how they have come to their place of faith in Christ. They invite you in to debate, to disagree, to contemplate. Never once do they infallibly proclaim doctrine when it comes to the most delicate matters of faith and morals. They appeal to your God given ability to reason and to love. Whenever an issue of faith and morals is discussed, the logical reasons for it are given so that you can understand the reasons for what they are and not be dictated to like a robot. Their opinion is always derived from the word of Christ himself, scripture, or from natural law or derivations from these. It is NOT their opinion.

This is the real deal. Not a game. Not a rehearsal. Not practice. You only get one shot at it.

You are questioning how they reason on infallible matters of faith and morals. Perhaps you could give one. One specific topic that you think they have ruled on. I doubt you can find one.

Just one.

The only infallible teachings I am aware of is with regards to the theology of Mary. Mary was assumed into heaven. Mary was born without sin.

With regards to faith and morals, they will simply convince you that you are wrong yourself to violate their proposed rule. then it is up to you to decide to be true to yourself or not. You are part of the church. She does not dictate. She explains and helps you grow.

I really appreciate your answer, Frankenfurter. I know that the Popes have only infallibly proclaimed two dogmas, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and her Immaculate Conception. Also, Humanae Vitae, if I remember, contains no binding language that would suggest infallibility. But it is, nonetheless, accepted by most faithful Catholics to be infallible teaching, to the point where the Magisterium definitively teaches that condoms are mortally sinful, though it would be difficult to prove that most bishops around the world agree to further make it infallible (in the sense of a fallible teaching becoming infallible). Furthermore, some knowledgeable Christians out there have convincingly argued that the Fathers opposed anything remotely close to condom use. The problem is that, according to my opinion, I can feel justified in using them, but, at the end of the day, the thought that no one uses the Tradition to reason the way I would, really bothers me. I wonder if I’m deceived, but my argument rests on strong enough evidence to conclude that I am not. I also don’t like even being associated with the idea of mortally sinning (though for me, there, is also a slightly alternative explanation to what sin, both mortal and venial, actually is). It’s just a weird place to be in, you know?

I like your point on how the Popes, and the bishops by extension, would appreciate my debate, disagreement, and contemplation of the issue. I would hope so. But it makes it difficult for me to consider how I’m going to raise my baby boy in regards to other interpretations that I disagree with: do I hand on the Faith as it is officially, and put up “fences,” until later on when he reaches maturity and a solid amount of understanding in his faith, and only then propose a discussion of alternatives? This would be kind of like St. Paul’s “milk vs. meat” idea. Or do I just have our own family version of the Faith wherein I just hand on my understanding (always subject to testing and retesting) providing that nothing taught has any negative effect on Christian living and the Faith as a whole?

And the question is: can I violate the proposed rule of Church Authorities, and yet not be considered a heretic, and, therefore, according to them, in mortal sin?

Jesus called the twelve, trained them, breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, promising the Spirit’s guidance into all truth. After doing this, He commissioned them and ascended into Heaven. It all follows from there. It is direct and linear - best not to overthink it.

That “certain power or gift” that you write of is the Holy Spirit and His gratuitous charisms to the hierarchy of the Church. A Spirit so intense, so pure, so loving, so omniscient that He is a Divine Person. Know Him. Worship Him. Be filled with His fire.

I totally agree with you, po18guy. But while the bishops are successors to the same Apostles who gave us the Holy Spirit-revealed-and-inspired-Tradition, the bishops are a little different from them (the Apostles ALL received new revelations, had inspiration when writing, had infallibility when imposing a matter of faith and morals as binding, had freedom from canonical geographical boundaries, had an abundance of Grace to truly be Christ to others in their persons and actions and avoiding of sin, were able to speak in any language as needed, had their preaching confirmed by miracles, were “Church planters” instead of remaining fixed permanently in one location, could most likely prophesy, and had all the prerogatives of bishops in providing order, shepherding, and succession). I view the bishops, on the other hand, almost like the “sons of the Apostles” or as “living sacraments” of them, as official Authorities within a custodial role of guarding the Tradition and resolving Church conflict. My question was whether or not it was possible for them to be even more like the Apostles through a hidden, extra source of the Tradition based upon inspiration that even the average priest does not have. That way, they could make conclusions that the Tradition would seem to contradict or not work as well with, and, yet, not only lead me to accept these, but also make me perform a deeper synthesize of that Tradition, based upon what they have now “revealed,” since they would possess a hidden source of Tradition unavailable for critical study or dispute (this would be akin to the inspiration the so-called “Teacher of Righteousness” was believed to have by the Essenes). This would be, essentially, not merely infallibility but also a form of inspiration. But, if this is not the case, do you think that the bishops and Pope do the same kind of inventory of the sources of the Tradition that I earlier explained in order to arrive at their conclusions?

Stay humble, and realize this.

What the church teaches is true. If you struggle with it, as we all do, realize that is because of your own flaws. But you are comparing yourself to God, and that is the problem, it’s a high bar. We are all sinners and all need mercy. If you think you are perfect, that is really an attempt to deny that you need mercy. To receive mercy, takes humility.

The church is FOR sinners. Jesus came BECAUSE we are sinners. Immerse yourself in his mercy for a while. It will change you and you will become less sinful. But this is a process, not a one time event.

Please pray for humility.

Your young son, the best gift you can give him is to show him that you are humble in the presence of God and in need of his mercy. In his sinful life, he will take your role model and be able to receive God’s mercy - which will save him. This is harder to do than living up to a list of technical rules to follow.

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