Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Traditionalism and Disciplinary Infallibility

In the year 1794, Pope Pius VI wrote the bull Auctorem Fidei, in which he authoritatively condemned the errors of the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia, which had been convoked in 1786. Traditionalists are fond of quoting one of the condemned propositions in this bull, as it is very relevant to certain aspects of the current Modernist crisis which we are witnessing in the Church. The oft-quoted passage is as follows: 
The proposition of the synod by which it shows itself eager to remove the cause through which, in part, there has been induced a forget-fulness of the principles relating to the order of the liturgy, "by recalling it (the liturgy) to a greater simplicity of rites, by expressing it in the vernacular language, by uttering it in a loud voice"; as if the present order of the liturgy, received and approved by the Church, had emanated in some part from the forgetfulness of the principles by which it should be regulated,—rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, favorable to the charges of heretics against it.
This passage is a resounding condemnation of certain tendencies which seem to have influence the creation of the Novus Ordo under Pope Paul VI. Essentially, it is a condemnation of the proposition that the received and approve liturgy of the Church must not be rejected; and this is precisely what seems to have happened, in practice, with the creation of the New Mass. 

However, there is another passage in the very same document which I think traditionalists tend to overlook, and as a result they get carried away when they criticize the New Mass. Canon number 78 of the bull condemns the idea that the Church could ever establish a discipline which is harmful or dangerous:
The prescription of the synod about the order of transacting business in the conferences, in which, after it prefaced "in every article that which pertains to faith and to the essence of religion must be distinguished from that which is proper to discipline," it adds, "in this itself (discipline) there is to be distinguished what is necessary or useful to retain the faithful in spirit, from that which is useless or too burden-some for the liberty of the sons of the new Covenant to endure, but more so, from that which is dangerous or harmful, namely, leading to superstitution and materialism"; in so far as by the generality of the words it includes and submits to a prescribed examination even the discipline established and approved by the Church, as if the Church which is ruled by the Spirit of God could have established discipline which is not only useless and burdensome for Christian liberty to endure, but which is even dangerous and harmful and leading to superstition and materialism,—false, rash, scandalous, dangerous, offensive to pious ears, injurious to the Church and to the Spirit of God by whom it is guided, at least erroneous.
The traditional theological opinion holds that the Church is infallible in matters of faith and morals. But she also enjoys the gift of infallibility when she prescribes disciplinary measures for the universal Church. What this means is that the disciplines which the Church establishes cannot possibly contain anything that is contrary to true doctrine. From this it would have to follow that she could not establish any discipline that would by its nature lead people away from the true faith and towards the destruction of their souls. Given this teaching, how can the traditionalist critique of the New Mass stand? 

The theologian Van Noort, in the second volume of his manual on Dogmatic Theology, offers some insight when he speaks of the infallibility of the Church:
By the term “general discipline of the Church” are meant those ecclesiastical laws passed for the universal Church for the direction of Christian worship and Christian living. Note the italicized words: ecclesiastical laws, passed for the universal Church.

The imposing of commands belongs not directly to the teaching office but to the ruling office; disciplinary laws are only indirectly an object of infallibility, i.e., only by reason of the doctrinal decision implicit in them. When the Church's rulers sanction a law, they implicitly make a twofold judgment: 1. “This law squares with the Church's doctrine of faith and morals”; that is, it imposes nothing that is at odds with sound belief and good morals.  This amounts to a doctrinal decree. 2. “This law, considering all the circumstances, is most opportune.” This is a decree of practical judgment.

Although it would be rash to cast aspersions on the timeliness of a law, especially at the very moment when the Church imposes or expressly reaffirms it, still the Church does not claim to be infallible in issuing a decree of practical judgment. For the Church's rulers were never promised the highest degree of prudence for the conduct of affairs. But the Church is infallible in issuing a doctrinal decree as intimated above — and to such an extent that it can never sanction a universal law which would be at odds with faith or morality or would be by its very nature conducive to the injury of souls.

The Church's infallibility in disciplinary matters, when understood in this way, harmonizes beautifully with the mutability of even universal laws. For a law, even though it be thoroughly consonant with revealed truth, can, given a change in circumstances, become less timely or even useless, so that prudence may dictate its abrogation or modification.
Soon afterwards, Van Noort cites none other than the authority of Pope Pius VI in Auctorem Fidei, in defense of this explanation.

This passage contains much important information. First, it is important that although a disciplinary law for the universal Church cannot be contrary to the faith, nonetheless it may not be the best law that prudence demands for a particular situation. Thus, it is possible to maintain that a given disciplinary law, while not being contrary to faith, is indeed very imprudent. Normally, of course, one shouldn't even have to question the prudence of a law of the Church; to do so could only ever be condoned under the rarest circumstances (such as we are witnessing today). The standard by which the prudence of the Church ought to be exercised is evident in her very rich tradition. Hence, one oughtn't to lightly dismiss the traditionalist critique as completely devoid of plausibility. It is possible to maintain this position (albeit there are many variants of it) while not ignoring the disciplinary infallibility of the Church, if it be recognized that the Novus Ordo was not an error in doctrine, but in prudence. 

The fact that the texts and prayers of the new liturgy contain many ambiguities in their expression of doctrine, as well as the fact that they have suppressed the traditional prayers with all their doctrinal clarity and spiritual depth, does not in fact indicate anything which is contrary to Catholic doctrine. One could go through each and every prayer of the new mass and see that nothing expressed in it is actually false or contrary to the faith, only that much has been suppressed and watered down. But this amounts only to a deficient prudential judgment on the part of the Church, not a deficient doctrinal judgment: the Church has not made a judgment of doctrine which is in any way contrary to the truth. Thus, any grounds for (respectful) resistance towards the Magisterium must be founded not on doctrinal reasons primarily, but upon prudential reasons: that the Church has not exercised the best prudential judgment in creating a liturgy which expresses Catholic doctrine in a weak manner and with minimal spiritual depth. Doctrine does enter the question of course, but in an indirect manner. Throughout these debates it must always be recognized that the Church has not and could not deny or contradict a single one of her own teachings, even if, perhaps, she has not done her best to teach them. If the Novus Ordo should be abrogated (which is itself a matter for debate), this cannot be on doctrinal grounds per se, but on prudential grounds.

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