And Jesus coming, spoke to them, saying: All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Thus did Christ the King commission the Apostles and their Successors to evangelize the nations of the world, that they may reflect in their ordering everything whatsoever that He commanded. Consider the following key points:
– The Divine Commission includes a command to baptize and to teach. Of the two, one might argue, baptism is of singular importance given that it’s the sacrament of initiation into the Mystical Body of Christ. And yet, Our Lord deliberately chose to emphasize not baptizing but rather the duty to teach, repeating this particular aspect of the Church’s mission twice.
[NOTE: Some translations state: Make disciples of all nations… teaching them. The word disciple comes from the Latin discipulus, which means student or one who learns. In both translations, therefore, one gets the sense that Our Lord was determined to make certain that all concerned would understand very well that His is a teaching Church.]
– Like the command to baptize, this magisterial mandate comes with a promise, Behold I am with you all days…
This is crucial! You see, apart from the Lord’s presence, participation, and protection, the Church would not merely be hampered in her mission to teach, it would be impossible for her to carry it out as commanded: For without me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
With this in mind, let us now consider more carefully the nature of the protection from error that is afforded the Church by Our Lord in the exercise of her teaching office.
Many if not most self-identified “traditionalists” (in my experience) are of the opinion that this protection from error is an all-or-nothing proposition; either the Church is formally making use of the charism of infallibility in her teaching (whereby she is fully protected from error), or she is not (in which case there is no protection from error whatsoever).
According to this view, when the Church teaches authoritatively on faith and morals but non-infallibly, she may err without limit; it may even be the case that such teachings could pose a danger to souls, leading those who naively accept them along the way of perdition.
Case in point, the Second Vatican Council.
Practically all who consider themselves “traditional” recognize the presence of pernicious errors in the conciliar text. Many, it seems, imagine that this proves that the Church, apart from the exercise of her infallible magisterium, may indeed err with abandon.
At this, let’s consider one of those pernicious conciliar errors, this one taken from the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, which reads in part:
It follows that the separated Churches [of the Orthodox] and Communities [of the Protestants] as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.
The idea that there are countless communities, in addition to the Catholic Church, that Our Lord uses “as means of salvation” is a blatant contradiction of the de fide doctrine expressed with unassailable clarity by Pope Pius IX:
It must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood. (Denzinger 1647)
Get that? It must be held that the Catholic Church is the only Ark of Salvation. One can no more say that the Lord uses the Protestant communities as “means of salvation” than He used tens of thousands of makeshift rafts in addition to Noah’s Ark!
The following (as cited on the SSPX website) explains the nature of the conciliar error well:
But the Council then says of these ‘Churches and communities’ that the ‘Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation’ (UR §3). This statement is certainly false. Determined to revalorize non-Catholic religious communities, the Council fell into a grave error. Non-Catholic communities, as confessions and institutions, cannot in and of themselves be means of salvation in any way. The individual Christian may indeed be saved in a separated community, but not through it. The Holy Ghost works in individual persons, not in separated Christian communities as such, which do not procure salvation for their members.” (Fr. Georg May, The Ecumenism Trap, 2005, pp. 12-13)
Indeed, the Council “fell into grave error,” but let us acknowledge the false teaching for what it truly is, heresy, the proper name for that which contradicts de fide Catholic doctrine.
In this case, the error being taught poses among the gravest of dangers to souls. It leads one to imagine that leaving the Catholic Church for any one of the many thousands of Protestant sects (as countless persons have since Vatican II) is of no great import since the Holy Ghost uses all of these communities as “means of salvation.”
Now, ask yourself:
Is it really possible for the Catholic Church, the same with which Christ promised to remain until the end of the age, to endanger souls, exposing them to final damnation, via her authoritative teachings on faith and morals?
The very idea is offensive to pious ears! Under such a scenario, the Church could hardly be considered a Holy Mother, and yet the greater number of so-called “traditionalists” insist that Vatican II is of, and from, the Catholic Church. This, they explain, was made possible simply because the Council failed to make use of the charism of infallibility.
There is, however, a far better explanation, but before we get to that, let’s go straight to the heart of the matter:
The protection from error that is afforded the Church by God in the exercise of her teaching office is not the all-or-nothing proposition described above. Rather, Our Lord never ceases to guide and protect His Church, even in the exercise of her non-infallible magisterium.
Let’s take a look at what some of the more noteworthy pre-conciliar theologians and catechisms have to say on the matter.
We will begin with the basics, a 1954 catechetical guide co-authored by several priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago, mainly for the benefit of catechumens and converts.
While the authors themselves are unnamed, the book, Lessons in the Catholic Faith, bears the imprimatur of Samuel Cardinal Stritch whom Pope Pius XII named Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith in 1958, thus making him the first American prelate ever to head a dicastery of the Roman Curia.
The lesson on the Church’s teaching office reads:
WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH CANNOT TEACH ERROR
When I say the Catholic Church cannot teach error, I mean that when God’s only true Church, the Catholic Church, teaches religion to the people, it cannot teach error. The reason for this is that God Himself guides His Church so that His Church will never teach error. Therefore, if I follow the teaching of the Catholic Church, I can be absolutely sure that I will not be led into error by accepting this teaching.
NB: There are no caveats or qualifiers, the Church cannot teach error. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, in this case, a catechism intended for priests, states likewise:
This Spirit, first imparted to the Apostles, has by the infinite goodness of God always continued in the Church. And just as this one Church cannot err in faith or morals, since it is guided by the Holy Ghost…
Both of the catechisms cited above offer the same explanation for the Church’s freedom from error; it is because Christ, who promised to be with His Church to the end, guides her. Simple.
The Holy Roman Pontiffs have always taught the same. Consider two recent examples:
The Church is endowed with perfect and perpetual immunity from error and heresy. (cf Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas, 22)
Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross, opened up to His Church the fountain of those divine gifts, which prevent her from ever teaching false doctrine. (cf Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 31)
At this, let’s address a common, and noteworthy, objection:
But all theologians agree that non-infallible teachings can include error!
There is truth to this assertion, but unless one is willing to say that the catechisms and popes just cited are dead wrong, or at the very least have irresponsibly overstated their case, it obviously requires explanation. Thankfully, it is easily found.
It is one thing to note that a given teaching may include error, it is quite another to declare that the doctrine itself may be erroneous, perhaps even heretical and, therefore, gravely dangerous.
Recall the nature of the question we are attempting to answer: Is all manner of error possible in the Church’s non-infallible teaching? The answer is no, it is not.
So, what is possible? The following provides the necessary perspective:
Where the Church does not teach with infallible authority, the proposed doctrine is not of itself irreformable, that is why, if per accidens in an hypothesis (albeit very rarely); after the most careful examination, there seems to be very grave reasons against the proposed teaching, it would be licit without temerity to suspend internal assent… Benedictus Henricus Merkelbach O.P., Summa Theologiae Moralis, Vol. I, p. 598.
Pay close attention to the language being used: very rarely, after the most careful examination, very grave reasons…
A well-catechized Catholic adolescent is fully capable of identifying gravely dangerous errors in the text of Vatican II (e.g., UR 3), no careful examination or expertise being necessary whatsoever. As for rarity, these same errors have been the daily fare served up by the hierarchy of the conciliar church ever since.
Perhaps more importantly, note very well Merkelbach’s use of the phrase “per accidens.” This indicates that we are not discussing gravely erroneous doctrines that, of themselves, endanger the soul but rather errors that are unintended, accidental, or incidental to what is being proposed. This, in contrast to doctrines that may be erroneous per se, that is, in themselves, in the very substance of what is being taught, such as we see in UR 3 of Vatican II.
It is for this reason that Cardinal Johann Baptist Franzelin, one of the most highly esteemed theologians of his time (late 19th century), could state with respect to authoritatively taught non-infallible doctrine:
In declarations of this sort, although there be not an infallible truth of doctrine—because ex hypothesi there is no intention of deciding this—yet is there an infallible security, insofar as it is safe for all to embrace it… (Franzelin, De divina Traditione et Scriptura, Thes. XII, schol. 1)
At this, let’s recap.
Though many more citations can be given, already we see how eminent theologians, catechisms, and popes have firmly and consistently attested, over the course of many centuries, that the Church cannot err in her authoritative teaching on faith and morals. As such, even those doctrines that are non-infallibly taught are safe to embrace.
This only serves to underscore what every Catholic just intuitively knows:
The Church is a Holy Mother and, as such, she never endangers her children, and this due to the enduring presence of Christ as her Head and the guidance of the Holy Ghost as her Soul.
And yet, many a confused “traditionalist” – despite their sincerity in attempting to make sense of the conciliar crisis – have taken a contrary position, one that is utterly irreconcilable with what has always been taught as noted above.
So, what is the far better explanation for the crisis at hand?
Obviously, any “church” that does err in its authoritative teaching on faith and morals, and does endanger its adherents, and does expose them to final damnation, is not holy. Such a “church” clearly does not have Christ for its head nor does it have the Holy Ghost for its soul.
So, if not God, who must be guiding such a “church”? The Roman Catechism tells us:
All other societies [than the one true Church] arrogating to themselves the name of church, must necessarily, because guided by the spirit of the devil, be sunk in the most pernicious errors, both doctrinal and moral.
Just such a “church,” sunk in the most pernicious errors, is presently headquartered in Rome under the headship of Jorge Bergoglio. It has the devil for its soul and the Council as its constitution. It most certainly is not Catholic.