Response to a piece of sophistry…
Ferrara’s Fatal Flaw on Sedevacantism
Even in the 21st century, basic English reading comprehension still seems to be a challenge for some.
In installment no. 1248 of his Fatima Perspectives column, self-appointed “papal” corrector and professional rhetorician Christopher A. Ferrara says that sedevacantists “never seem to notice the fatal flaw in their argument.” Quoting from a sede source he leaves curiously unidentified — this one –, the retired lawyer goes on to explain:
Let this quotation from a “popular” sedevacantist website suffice for a demonstration:
“By saying Francis is Pope but then refusing his magisterium, the would-be traditionalists in the Vatican II Church are doing untold damage to the traditional Catholic doctrine of the Papacy because the papal office was instituted as the sure norm of orthodoxy at every point in time in Church history, guaranteed by Christ Himself. This does not mean that every papal magisterial act is infallible, but it does mean that every papal magisterial act is authoritative, thus binding on consciences and, by the providence of Almighty God, always safe to follow. This means that souls cannot be led astray by any pernicious error if they follow the teaching of the Pope. That safety is guaranteed and caused by Christ Himself.” [emphasis in original]
So, according to sedevacantist thinking, one cannot legitimately recognize yet resist a true Pope because while not every papal magisterial act is infallible, every papal magisterial act is (1) authoritative, (2) binding on consciences, (3) safe to follow, and (4) free from pernicious error. Or, more simply: Not every exercise of the papal Magisterium is infallible, but every exercise of the papal Magisterium is free from error. Or, more simply still: The Pope is not infallible in his every teaching, but he never teaches error.
It is amazing that sedevacantists have made such headway with an argument so blatantly self-contradictory.
(Christopher Ferrara, “Sedevacantism: The Fatal Flaw”, The Fatima Center, Mar. 12, 2019; formatting given.)
What is amazing, rather, is Mr. Ferrara’s apparent inability to understand the word “pernicious”, but we’ll get to that later.
Like most self-styled traditional Catholics who apparently never read actual pre-Vatican II Catholic theology but instead rely on resistance trad propaganda à la Michael Davies, Ferrara reduces all authority to the inability to be wrong, and thus he reasons that whatever is not infallible cannot, for that very reason, be authoritative.
But is this what the Church taught about her authority before Vatican II? Far from it:
…[I]t is not sufficient for learned Catholics to accept and revere the aforesaid dogmas of the Church, but … it is also necessary to subject themselves to the decisions pertaining to doctrine which are issued by the Pontifical Congregations, and also to those forms of doctrine which are held by the common and constant consent of Catholics as theological truths and conclusions, so certain that opinions opposed to these same forms of doctrine, although they cannot be called heretical, nevertheless deserve some theological censure.
(Pope Pius IX, Apostolic Letter Tuas Libenter; Denz. 1684)
Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me” [Lk 10:16]; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.
(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 20; underlining added.)
Writing for The Clergy Review in 1935, Canon George Smith explained the matter thus:
…whether her teaching is guaranteed by infallibility or not, the Church is always the divinely appointed teacher and guardian of revealed truth, and consequently the supreme authority of the Church, even when it does not intervene to make an infallible and definitive decision on matters of faith or morals, has the right, in virtue of the divine commission, to command the obedient assent of the faithful. In the absence of infallibility the assent thus demanded cannot be that of faith, whether Catholic or ecclesiastical; it will be an assent of a lower order proportioned to its ground or motive. But whatever name be given to it – for the present we may call it belief – it is obligatory; obligatory not because the teaching is infallible – it is not – but because it is the teaching of the divinely appointed Church.
(Canon George Smith, “Must I Believe It?”, The Clergy Review, vol. 9 [April, 1935], pp. 296-309, sec. III; italics given; underlining added.)
Thus we see that the Church herself teaches that her own non-infallible teaching is (1) authoritative, (2) binding on consciences, and (3) safe to follow. That it is therefore also (4) free from pernicious error — note the restriction, which Ferrara strangely ignores — is a necessary consequence from the first three items. This becomes even more evident when we consider that the Church was established by God Himself as the “only Ark of Salvation” (Pope Pius IX, Allocution Singulari Quadam) and “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), which always “shows to all men the sure road to salvation and the light of true doctrine” (Pius IX, Apostolic Letter Aeterni Patris), and against which the gates of hell “shall not prevail” (Mt 16:18). These would not be true descriptions of the Catholic Church if loyal adherence to this Church had the potential to lead people into heresy or otherwise occasion their spiritual ruin.
Thus, Ferrara’s summary of our position must be corrected to read: “The Pope is not infallible in his every teaching, but he never teaches pernicious error.” Even in the highly unlikely event that a non-infallible papal teaching should contain an inaccuracy or error, we are guaranteed by God Himself, who requires us to submit to His Vicar even when he is not speaking infallibly, that any such error will not harm our souls. Otherwise, God could not require that we render loyal obedience and submission to the Holy See in all things: “Be vigilant in act and word, so that the faithful may grow in love for this Holy See, venerate it, and accept it with complete obedience; they should execute whatever the See itself teaches, determines, and decrees” (Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Inter Multiplices, n. 7). And again: “Teach your people great reverence for the Church’s authority which has been directly established by God” (Pope Leo XII, Encyclical Ubi Primum, n. 23).
Jesus Christ would not be the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:11-15) if He allowed His Vicar to poison the sheep whenever they’re not looking, so to speak (that is, when he doesn’t speak infallibly).
Having thus misconstrued the sedevacantist position, Ferrara naturally also draws a false conclusion, namely: “What the sedevacantists are really saying, then, is that a Pope who errs in his teaching on a matter of faith and morals, even once, ceases to be Pope (or never was Pope) because every exercise of the papal magisterium must be free from error.” That’s definitely not what we’re saying.
But it gets better. In an amusingly ironic twist, Ferrara continues:
Here once again the wisdom of Father Gruner is evident. For as he always insisted, and as common sense would counsel in view of what the Church really teaches about the limits of the papacy:
(1) Popes are not inerrant oracles of Christ but only potentially fallible human vicars who are charged to guard a Deposit of Faith that is not theirs to alter.
(2) Barring a solemn definition of what the Church has always believed in any event — e.g. the Immaculate Conception — which is the sole object of papal infallibility, a Pope is capable of error, meaning that in the exercise of free will he might depart from the Church’s constant teaching.
(3) In such a case of error, what a Pope purports to teach cannot by definition be part of the Magisterium. But,
(4) This is not to say that the Pope who utters an extra-magisterial error must not be a true Pope.
(Ferrara, “Sedevacantism: The Fatal Flaw”; italics given; underlining added.)
So here Ferrara argues — based on something said by Nicholas Gruner, since he couldn’t find it in pre-Vatican II Church teaching — that Popes can err, even gravely and heretically, in anything they teach outside of an ex cathedra statement; and that when that happens, the error or heresy is by that very fact — by definition, as it were — not part of the Magisterium.
Did you notice it? In the same piece in which he faults us sedevacantists for (supposedly) believing that “every exercise of the papal Magisterium is free from error”, he also claims that when a Pope does teach error, what is thus taught “cannot by definition be part of the Magisterium”. In other words, it turns out it is actually he, Christopher Ferrara, who holds that the papal Magisterium is free from all error and therefore always infallible — by definition even! How funny is that! Ferrara asserts that sedevacantists are mistaken to think that every papal teaching is infallible, and then he goes on to tell us that whatever errors a Pope may teach are by that very fact not part of the Magisterium. Thus he is left with an always-error-free and therefore infallible Magisterium. This is irony on stilts!
Aside from that, the Rev. Gruner’s idea is utter nonsense theologically, for it defeats the whole purpose of having a Magisterium to begin with if what constitutes that Magisterium is ultimately dependent on what is taught. As though God had established a Church that plays gotcha with her children, where they are offered all sorts of false and heretical ideas that can cripple them spiritually, all offered with a hard-to-locate disclaimer sticker that says, “Caution! Content is not infallible. Accept at your own risk.” Then Catholics would actually be doctrinally safer in Protestant sects, where at least they’d know that nothing they’re given is infallible. What sophistry! What silliness! What an insult to God’s holy Church, the “pillar and ground of the truth”!
Next, the retired lawyer digs out the case of the 14th-century Pope John XXII once again, something Catholic theologians writing before Vatican II addressed again and again in response to the opponents of Catholic teaching on the Papacy. Readers unfamiliar with the topic can get an overview of the facts here:
Ferrara then asserts that
the sedevacantist error resides in a hyper-papalism that fails to recognize that what guarantees the infallibility of Church teaching on faith and morals is not the personal charism of the presently reigning Pope, but the collective body of solemn definitions issued throughout the centuries (known as the Church’s Extraordinary Magisterium), as well as her constant and ubiquitous traditional teachings (the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium), both of which it is the Pope’s duty to follow — indeed, he above all others.
Repeating the same old poppycock over and over again does not make it any less false. We direct our readers to where this has been addressed and refuted before:
- Hyper-Papalism? The Ultramontanism Objection
- Can we reject Magisterial Teaching if it wasn’t believed “always, everywhere, and by all”?
Once again we see Ferrara reducing the Catholic teaching on the Papacy to a mere norm for the Pope to follow — he merely has a duty to teach reliably — rather than being a descriptive truth of what the Pope actually does — he always does in fact teach reliably.
The retired lawyer ends his post against Sedevacantism by quoting “Pope” Benedict XVI, which he is very happy to do as long as the German Modernist supports whatever case he happens to be arguing. When he contradicts it, then Ferrara is quick to dismiss old Ratzinger as the “most industrious ecclesial termite of the post-conciliar epoch”, or simply as stating something that is not infallible, not authoritative, or worse. A stellar example of this Ferrarian modus operandi in action can be found in this post:
But even to the brief Ratzinger passage he quotes, it seems Ferrara has not paid close enough attention; for Benedict says that “the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word” (italics added), not merely an attempt at being faithful that is more or less successful depending on the personal diligence, attentiveness, or holiness of each Pope.
Ladies and gentlemen, it should be evident by now that the goal of the semi-trad pundits at places like The Fatima Center and The Remnant is not the attainment and explication of truth with regard to Catholic teaching and the correct way of understanding what has happened to the Catholic Church since the death of Pope Pius XII; rather, it is the continued justification of a long-held theological position, right or wrong, at any cost.
There is only one way to be a real traditional Catholic, and that is by conforming oneself to the actual traditional Catholicism of the past, which is found in the Church’s theological manuals and magisterial anthologies before Vatican II. Mr. Ferrara is warmly invited to familiarize himself with them.
Image source: istockphoto.com