Why so many loopholes/complications in Church teaching?

It seems that for any difficulty one has with Church teaching, there is always a loophole or complicated nuance that is able to resolve the difficulty.

For example, I was recently looking into one of the Papal Bulls, in which the Pope condemned the proposition that it was against the Will of the Spirit to burn heretics. Jimmy Akin, in an article, rightly pointed out that this does not mean that the Pope affirmed the proposition that the Will of the Spirit is for all heretics to be burned, and so forth, and further pointed out that this was not an infallible statement because the intended strength of the condemnation was ambiguous (as to whether the statement was false or simply ‘offensive to pious ears’).

Other examples may be found where the understand of Church doctrine has developed, without contradicting the earlier doctrine, into something that had not been obviously or straightforwardly taught by the Church until then (albeit at least implicit in Her Teaching).

I could see how a protestant would have difficulty coming to the truth of the Catholic Faith upon reading these things. Such a person might say that faith in Christ would be much “simpler” or “more straightforward” than that; after all, God is Truth and could surely teach in the most straightforward, clear, and direct manner as He chooses. Can any of you offer responses to the hypothetical protestant to calm his concerns?

(My own responses might be: a. The intellectual requirements for understanding the nuances of Faith give one a sense of humility, avoid the idea that one has already ‘got it figured out’ and is mentally above or past the doctrines of the Church. or b. The complications that might be present underline our need to trust and The Church’s interpretation of Scripture and Her own documents, for with the guidance of the Holy Spirit will we be assured we are making the correct interpretation and have the correct understanding).

This is a very good question. It is “peppered” with references to teachings which are (or are not) regarded as infallible.

I have noticed, in the past couple of years, that the number of questions which hinge on the infallible nature of Catholic teaching has increased significantly. I have posted in many of these threads, and have researched and pondered the concept at length.

The REALLY big problem is that the Church did not define exactly what a Papal infallible teaching “looked like” until the First Vatican Council (1864). The Church defined a “five point checklist” that is required for any Papal teaching to be regarded as infallible. The Second Vatican Council extended this checklist to Ecumenical Councils and the “Ordinary Magesterium” (the Bishops, while dispersed, teaching in consensus with the Pope).

This was the FIRST TIME that the Church formally defined the specific requirements that must be met for a teaching to be regarded as infallible. The Church had done this a VERY LONG TIME AGO for things like Sacraments. Every Sacrament ALSO has five required elements to be valid (minister, subject, form, matter, and intent), and these were defined for all seven Sacraments a LONG TIME AGO. But the five-point checklist for Papal infallibility was defined just 100 years before I was born (and extending it to Councils and Bishops occurred within my lifetime).

But, we have a checklist, so we ought to be able to go back and apply it to any PRIOR Papal teachings to determine if those teachings pass the criteria of infallibility. Each of us could thus determine, with theological certainty, if any particular historical (meaning 93%) teaching was infallible. We are now each empowered, as individuals, to study any past Papal teaching and declare, with theological certainty, if the Pope’s teaching is infallible or (for lack of a better antonym) fallible.

That’s clearly nonsense. It’s like saying that the Catholic Church teaches that anyone can grab a passage of Scripture and interpret it with theological certainty (which, by the way, is the same thing as “infallible”). The Church does not allow “anybody” to infallibly interpret Scripture OR Papal (or Council) teaching. The Church reserves this privilege to Herself alone:

No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident. [Code of Canon Law, 749 §3]

The Church does not define what “manifestly evident” actually means. But I think I’m safe to say that it has nothing to do with you or I getting our our Kaptain Katholic Dekoder ring and applying Vatican-1 (or 2) checklists to prior doctrine.

The number of Catholic doctrines that can be lawfully termed “infallible” under the teachings of these Councils and constrained by this Canon can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Church has NEVER retroactively defined ANY teaching prior to Vatican-1 as “infallible.” Are ANY of these teachings “manifestly evident” to be infallible? Can you give me a plausible definition of “manifestly evident” that does not, somehow, include the Church actually stating, in no uncertain terms, that the teaching is infallible?

Thank you for posing this. This is a huge hang up for me to over come to accept Catholic teaching.

Good (and I have been to some of the not so good) protestant teaching is Very Simple. Catholicism seems VERRY complicated, lots of rules and reasons.

I don’t see why it’s necessary to state infallibility - it’s claiming perfection. As soon as the smallest discrepancy is noticed, there is then a barrage of reasons why the mistake does not prove the Pope fallible. No one has ever walked this earth that’s perfect, except Jesus.

I have looked back over history, and read of the mistakes of some of the Popes. They are just people - it’s OK. But if you claim infallibility, it raises the question of can I trust this when it obviously is not what it says it is? And the complicated load of reasons why this is OK and that isn’t OK - it’s like counter-evangelism - it repels people.

The rule I come to lean on is - Truth is almost always simple - when I hear all the complicated reasons why this is OK and that isn’t - I am very suspicious.

If I may just add one thought -
One needs also to look at whether something is actually a matter of “faith and morals” or if it is a matter of “practice”.
Some of the things that are brought up (such as “burning”) seem to us to be barbaric. Yet at the time they were understood to actually be more humane to other forms employed (such as “hung, drawn and quartered”).
Even in our secular world one can see this idea at work. The electric chair was actually introduced as a more “humane” form of execution than hanging. The Guillotine was created because it was a cleaner and more precise method of beheading - and thus more humane.
Today we see both of these things as inhumane - times change.

Likewise one will sometimes see people accuse the Church of supporting war or slavery or some other practice that seems to go against Christian perfection. Yet more often than not - one can also find that the Church - in writing on these matters - is imposing “rules” and codes of conduct in order to make the matters more humane.
Wars were often highly restricted on when they could occur and what things could be done (chivalry). Slavery, while condoned, required that those in bondage be treated properly.

So - one can see that there is generally more to it than just “the pope supported” this or that thing. One needs to look at the matter in context.

Now - looking at your thread title - - -
My answer is that things are complicated because of the “Yea but what it” syndrome.
Yes Christ’s teachings should be very simple ans straight forward. I totally agree. But someone will always be asking “Yea but what if…” and the Church tries to answer this question - and this breeds more questions / clarifications - and after 2000 years - well things are pretty complex.
We see this already at work in the NT. The Rich young man ask - “(yea but) what else must I do to be saved”. Peter ask " (Yea but) Lord, how many times must I forgive?"
Many of the things in Paul’s letters can be seen as answering the “yea but what ifs…” of the various communities that he is serving.

So long as people ask questions - so long as the Church tries to answer - so long as cultures and times change - we will see these complications…

Not sure if the above is of any help…I hope so…


RE the Bolded -
I Love this and rely on this too. The only thing is that - something can be extremely simple in it’s essence and in how one understands it in their heart, but it can also be extremely difficult to explain to others who (as I mention in my post above) want more clarification and have more questions.
Our faith is the simplest of all to state…Love one another as God has Loved us…but it is so hard to understand, to embrace, and to implement.


I read something about the first Vatican council where infallibility was claimed, and some split off of the church because they rejected it - is that right? I think they were called Old Catholics?

Which protestant denomination is the simplest? The one that allows for women ordination? Homosexual marriage? Abortion? I guess the one without any of the sacraments that Christ instituted would be simple. And the protestant doctrine that you don’t even need a church…

I have looked back over history,

Did you go all the way back to the beginning of the Catholic Church? Matthew 16:18-19?

Amazing post! Thank you!

Not arguing - the Protestant world as a whole has some huge variance to it. I have been to a great Baptist church, and have walked out in the middle of a service at a non-denom church because I could not stand to listen to it any longer.

James - thank you for all of your replies to my questions! I am growing to look forward to them - no pressure though:):):):slight_smile:

I think that this portion of your post could have stopped after the first sentence. After all Markie might not consider ANY of these to be the simplest.

Did you go all the way back to the beginning of the Catholic Church? Matthew 16:18-19?

Actually I don’t think that this is considered to be the beginning of the Catholic Church. If I remember right, we trace the beginnings of the Church to Pentacost.


I’m not arguing either. Just a suggestion to focus more on Truth then ‘simple.’

To answer your initial question…because the mystery of our salvation is not as over-simplified as some folks try to make it.

Who REALLY Preaches “A Different Gospel”?

We build on past understanding and teaching without contradicting it, thereby ever coming to a clearer understanding yet as the light of the gospel gradually brings about true spiritual maturity in the Church and humankind.

Well, the simple answer would be to state that we are in high school not in kindergarten. Things might get a little tough. Whatever difficulties that may be found in tradition, scripture is just as complicated at times if not greatly more difficult.

So basically, we might have to put our thinking caps on.

Perhaps this isn’t what the OP is asking, but I can tell you from a protestant POV, from the “outside” of the RCC, one of the biggest things that is confusing to me (and it isn’t just about the RCC, as other churches have a similar predicament), is the complexity about joining a church.

If I understand correctly, if an adult wanted to join the RCC, it would take somewhere around a year to do so. However, we see that when Pentecost happened people 1) heard the gospel 2) believed it and trusted it and 3) were baptized. That day around 3000 were added to the church. So… I guess my question is what has happened that people cannot do the same as those that heard the gospel preached at Pentecost?

Hi Kliska, my OP was about the complexity (and ‘loophole-ish-ness’) of interpreting Church Teaching in general, not the requirements to become Catholic. I think there is a lot of benefit of having a comparatively lengthy process for becoming Catholic (avoids people joining in the ‘heat of the moment’ without fully realizing what they are doing, makes sure they understand what they are getting into). Around the time of Pentecost not much time had passed for a greater understanding of Christ’s teachings to arise, so it would make sense that there was less to teach in order for people to come to an understanding of what Catholics believed. Also in the early Church I have heard that they would refuse to let (uninitiated or recently initiated) people even attend mass unless they were properly prepared. Regardless, this seems to be a disciplinary matter that can be changed to best suit the time, and living in the ‘information age’ it is good that people have the information they need (from the right sources, and not from a random website) before they formally join the Church.

I am grateful to everyone for their responses. I would respectfully disagree with Markie Boy (and perhaps by extension, JRKH) on the claim that truth is simple. While I think that, of course, God is Truth, and God is simple, and Truth is simple in Itself, for human beings, complicated, composite creatures with parts, our understanding of the Truth will necessarily be complex. There may be overarching general truths that appear simple (do good, avoid evil), but when applying them to a complicated individual’s situation (and, having numerous aspects for our bodies (capacity to eat, sexual capacity) and lives (financial, recreational, educational), we are complicated) they will become complicated (do not invest in EvilCorp, but you may or may not be able to work at a company that associates with EvilCorp because you are or are not performing immediate material cooperation with evil).

Taking from this, I make the following (rather informal) argument to resolve my OP:

  1. The lives and potential actions and beliefs of human beings are complex.
  2. The Church is charged with being our teacher and guide through our lives, teaching us proper beliefs (and removing false beliefs) and guiding us in moral actions (and guiding us against immoral action).
  3. In order to teach for or against or guide for or against the numerous and complex actions or beliefs human beings have, the teaching of the Church should be expected to become complex*, and a christian community that fails, after some time for development, to have a complex yet consistent body of teaching to accommodate a complex body of members (to become “all things to all men”) should be looked on with suspicion for whether it truly has acted as a guide and teacher for its members (with their numerous questions, concerns, and actions).

(this argument relies on the premise that, in order to teach and guide in a way that relates to numerous and complex beliefs/actions, the teaching itself must be numerous and complex. This seems to hold, because teaching on something involves having an attitude toward the proposed belief (whether it is true, false, or undetermined), and when a teacher has an attitude toward a proposed belief, they have as a part of their teaching either that belief (if they consider it true) or the negation of that belief (if they consider it false) or a further belief about whether that belief is known to be true or false (if it is undetermined). This can be seen in my paragraph below, where simply by saying “no” to a proposed opinion, the Church is understood as teachings the negation of that opinion.)

*After looking, it seems to be that a some portion of the Church’s teachings are in ‘anathema’ type statements, where the Church is not coming up with some new complicated proposition, but correcting someone who has come up with some new complicated proposition with a simple ‘no’ (and thus She teaches the negation of that proposition, when She means to teach on doctrine). That is, some amount of the complication we see may simply be because of the number, and variety, and complexity of heretical or false opinions.

A similar argument can be made, not with individuals, but with changes in human history (an understanding of a teaching at one time may be insufficient for an understanding of a teaching at another time; should we have expected the Council of Nicaea to explicitly say “the use of computers or film for lewd purposes is immoral?”)

Heuristics are used to understand and interpret complexity, and loopholes are a symptom of the use of heuristics. (Heuristics like “doctrine” or “discipline”, as well as “fallible” or “infallible”; and a protestant who accepts the infallibility of Scripture but the fallibility of their pastor, and who is okay with women braiding their hair (see Paul’s writings) is using the same heuristics, at least implicitly).

Not necessarily.

It’s interesting that you say above you disagree with Markie and me - yet I found nothing in your post that I would disagree with. So I’m not sure where this supposed disagreement lies.

You express it better than I do - but what you described so well is what I sum up as the “Yea but what if…” syndrome. The fact that people will take a simple and profound truth and question it. People make things more complex than they need to be.


My apologies, had I read your post more carefully I would have seen that we are almost entirely in agreement :blush:. The only part where I might perhaps (always respectfully) disagree with you is whether or not truth can be humanly “understood in the heart” in an extremely simple manner, or whether even our heart-understanding of truth is complex (I’m not so sure what I even think on this matter, and at the moment I am inclined to agree with you at least in part, but at the same time I have misgivings in saying that truth can be understood in the heart simply). That’s a conversation for another thread however!

That is a common protestant misconception that papal infallibility has to do with the Pope’s personal state. Why if I had a nickel for all the things I’ve heard along the same line… :slight_smile:

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