The death knell for Feeneyism and Recognize-and-Resist…
The Infallibility of the Catholic Church in her Universal Laws and Sacramental Rites
In his 1943 encyclical letter on the Mystical Body of Christ, Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) clarified that the Roman Catholic Church, although made up of human beings who are sinners, is nevertheless perfectly holy in those things that pertain to her divine constitution and the fulfillment of her mission — that of teaching, governing, and sanctifying souls so that they may attain the Beatific Vision. As “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), our Lord’s is thus “a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but … holy, and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).
Pius XII explained as follows:
And if at times there appears in the Church something that indicates the weakness of our human nature, it should not be attributed to her juridical constitution, but rather to that regrettable inclination to evil found in each individual, which its Divine Founder permits even at times in the most exalted members of His Mystical Body, for the purpose of testing the virtue of the shepherds no less than of the flocks, and that all may increase the merit of their Christian faith. For, as We said above, Christ did not wish to exclude sinners from His Church; hence if some of her members are suffering from spiritual maladies, that is no reason why we should lessen our love for the Church, but rather a reason why we should increase our devotion to her members. Certainly the loving Mother is spotless in the Sacraments, by which she gives birth to and nourishes her children; in the faith which she has always preserved inviolate; in her sacred laws imposed on all; in the evangelical counsels which she recommends; in those heavenly gifts and extraordinary graces through which, with inexhaustible fecundity she generates hosts of martyrs, virgins and confessors. But it cannot be laid to her charge if some members fall, weak or wounded. In their name she prays to God daily: “Forgive us our trespasses”; and with the brave heart of a mother she applies herself at once to the work of nursing them back to spiritual health.
(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 66)
Notice that the Holy Father here says that not only is the Church without blemish in the guarding and transmitting of the true Faith but also, among other things, “in the Sacraments” and “in her sacred laws imposed on all”.
What this means is that the Catholic Church is divinely protected from establishing or approving anything that would be intrinsically sacrilegious, heretical, erroneous, or otherwise harmful in her sacramental rites or in her universal laws, that is, in her general discipline.
This only makes sense, for if the Church could utilize in her worship and the administration of the sacraments anything that is contrary to the glory of God or the salvation of souls, she would defect from her divinely-established purpose and could not claim to be the Ark of Salvation, nor the Immaculate Bride of Christ, who “cannot be made false to her Spouse”, as St. Cyprian says, adding that “she is incorrupt and modest” and “guards the sanctity of the nuptial chamber chastely and modestly” (On the Unity of the Church, n. 6; as quoted by Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Mortalium Animos, n. 10).
Likewise, the Church’s law, which regulates Catholic life and worship throughout the world in accordance with the true Faith and sound morals, is so intimately connected with her mission that the salutary purpose for which the Church was established by Christ could not be guaranteed unless the divine assistance protected her from having in her law anything that is in itself harmful to souls, such as heresy, blasphemy, sacrilege, and so on.
For example, the Church in her law could not possibly approve of divorce and remarriage; she could not mandate or permit the defilement of the sacred Host; she could not institute blasphemous or heretical liturgical worship; nor could she abolish the sacrament of confirmation. This too is only reasonable, for if these things were possible, what would distinguish the true Church from heretical sects? And on what grounds could the Church condemn Protestant ‘churches’ for allowing or commanding evil things when at the end of the day she is no better herself? How could a Catholic trustingly embrace the Church like a loving mother, if at the same time he had to constantly suspect her of possibly misleading him?
Does this mean, then, that the Catholic Church is infallible in her universal laws and sacramental liturgical rites? Yes, it does.
Before we continue, however, a quick explanatory note will be in order: It is no accident that when discussing this topic we use qualifiers such as “intrinsically”, “in themselves”, “by their very nature”, or “per se” with regard to evil or harmful things the Church is protected from in her laws and liturgical rites — meaning, the Church cannot promulgate anything intrinsically harmful, in itself evil, or per se erroneous; etc. These qualifiers, which all mean more or less the same, are crucial because they make clear that the Church is not — could not possibly be — protected from things that are harmful or evil not in themselves but merely accidentally, that is, by circumstance. Were it not so, the Church before promulgating a law would have to take into account every conceivable circumstance that might arise for any Catholic who will ever live, at any time, in any place; and of course that would be impossible.
An example from history will help to illustrate this: the distribution of Holy Communion under both species (i.e., under the appearance of bread and under the appearance of wine). There is nothing in itself wrong with distributing Holy Communion under both kinds; however, due to certain unfavorable circumstances (such as poor catechesis, undue external influence of heretics, etc.), a Catholic may draw the erroneous conclusion that he must communicate under both kinds in order to receive the whole Christ — which is a heresy (see Denz. 885). A law or practice that is perfectly good in itself, therefore, might become harmful by circumstance. What the Church is infallibly protected from is legislating something that is bad in itself and not simply by unfortunate external circumstances.
The Infallibility of the Church: Primary and Secondary Objects
In dogmatic theology, the object of infallibility is divided into primary (or direct) and secondary (or indirect), as follows.
The primary object of the Church’s infallibility is dogmatic definitions made either by the Pope alone in a solemn ex cathedra pronouncement; or by the Pope with the bishops gathered in ecumenical council; or by the Pope with the bishops dispersed throughout the world in the daily exercise of their ordinary magisterium.
The secondary object of the Church’s infallibility “comprises all those matters which are so closely connected with the revealed deposit that revelation itself would be imperiled unless an absolutely certain decision could be made about them”, as explained by Mgr. Gerard van Noort (1861-1946) in volume 2 of his Dogmatic Theology (n. 87, p. 110). They include the following:
- Theological conclusions
- Dogmatic facts
- General discipline of the Church
- Approval of religious orders
- Canonization of saints
For the remainder of this post, we will only concern ourselves with the third of these, namely, the general discipline of the Church, by which is understood both liturgical law, which regulates the Church’s worship, and canon law, which governs Catholic life.
The dogmatic theologian we just quoted, Mgr. Gerard van Noort, provides a most insightful explanation of what is meant by the Church’s infallibility in her general discipline, and how this squares with the fact that Church laws can change, sometimes even into the very opposite of what they were before:
Assertion 3: The Church’s infallibility extends to the general discipline of the Church. This proposition is theologically certain.
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 iudgment.
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.
(Monsignor G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology II: Christ’s Church, translated and revised by John J. Castelot and William R. Murphy [Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1957], n. 91, pp. 114-115; italics given. Full disclosure: Novus Ordo Watch makes a small commission from purchases made through this link.)
Van Noort’s explanation is so lucid and succinct that no further explanation is really necessary. We will simply add that the distinction between the doctrinal soundness of Church law on the one hand, and its opportuneness on the other, is extremely important, especially in our day. As van Noort says, the former is guaranteed infallibly; the latter is not.
Thus, for example, one may hold (as some do) that the liturgical revisions to Holy Week enacted by Pope Pius XII in 1955 were not opportune, that is, imprudent; one may not, however, hold that they contain anything that is in itself harmful, evil, sacrilegious, heretical, etc.
Next, van Noort provides the evidence proving the foregoing thesis, first from reason, then from Church teaching:
1. From the purpose of infallibility. The Church was endowed with infallibility that it might safeguard the whole of Christ’s doctrine and be for all men a trustworthy teacher of the Christian way of life. But if the Church could make a mistake in the manner alleged when it legislated for the general discipline, it would no longer be either a loyal guardian of revealed doctrine or a trustworthy teacher of the Christian way of life. It would not be a guardian of revealed doctrine, for the imposition of a vicious law would be, for all practical purposes, tantamount to an erroneous definition of doctrine; everyone would naturally conclude that what the Church had commanded squared with sound doctrine. It would not be a teacher of the Christian way of life, for by its laws it would induce corruption into the practice of religious life.
2. From the official statement of the Church, which stigmatized as “at least erroneous” the hypothesis “that the Church could establish discipline which would be dangerous, harmful, and conducive to superstition and materialism” [Pope Pius VI, Bull Auctorem Fidei, n. 78; Denz. 1578].
(Van Noort, Christ’s Church, n. 91, pp. 115-116; italics given.)
We should add, furthermore, that the Council of Trent infallibly condemned the idea that the liturgical rite of Mass could constitute an incentive to impiety: “If anyone says that the ceremonies, vestments, and outward signs, which the Catholic Church uses in the celebration of Masses, are incentives to impiety rather than the services of piety: let him be anathema” (Session 22, Canon 7; Denz. 954).
Lastly, the erudite monsignor explains the consequences that do (and don’t) follow from the Church’s infallibility regarding her general discipline and liturgical worship:
The well-known axiom, Lex orandi est lex credendi (The law of prayer is the law of belief), is a special application of the doctrine of the Church’s infallibility in disciplinary matters. This axiom says in effect that formulae of prayer approved for public use in the universal Church cannot contain errors against faith or morals. But it would be quite wrong to conclude from this that all the historical facts which are recorded here and there in the lessons of the Roman Breviary, or all the explanations of scriptural passages which are used in the homilies of the Breviary must be taken as infallibly true. As far as the former are concerned, those particular facts are not an object of infallibility since they have no necessary connection with revelation. As for the latter, the Church orders their recitation not because they are certainly true, but because they are edifying.
(Van Noort, Christ’s Church, n. 92, p. 116; italics given.)
All of the above presents a very clear and harmonious picture of the infallibility of the Church with regard to her universal laws and her liturgical rites.
At the same time — and this is really the main motivation behind the writing of this article — what has just been presented serves as a definitive refutation of (a) recognize-and-resist traditionalists who believe that the ‘New Mass’ came from a true Pope but is nevertheless evil, sacrilegious, or harmful; (b) those who deny the orthodoxy of baptism of desire (commonly, albeit somewhat inaccurately, called “Feeneyites”).
Exactly how this is so, we will now demonstrate in detail.
Consequences of the Church’s Infallibility: Paul VI exposed as a False Pope
Considered merely from the perspective of logic, if the Roman Pontiff, being the head of the Catholic Church, cannot establish a rite of Mass that is intrinsically heretical, sacrilegious, blasphemous, erroneous, etc., then, with regard to the Novus Ordo Missae (Paul VI’s notorious “New Mass”, published in 1969), this necessarily means one of three things: either (a) the New Mass is not intrinsically heretical, sacrilegious, blasphemous, erroneous, etc.; or (b) Paul VI, despite appearances, did not really promulgate the New Mass; or (c) Paul VI, who promulgated the New Mass, was not in fact the Pope. No other conclusion is possible.
With regard to the first option, that the New Mass therefore cannot be intrinsically bad: This would indeed follow logically if we grant the premise that Paul VI was in fact the lawful and valid Roman Pontiff. Obviously, if Paul VI was Pope, and the Pope cannot give us an evil Mass, then the Mass Paul VI gave us cannot be evil. The problem with this position is quite simply that it is refuted by the facts: The Novus Ordo Missae is indeed in itself bad. This has been demonstrated a lot in the past decades, so we will simply refer interested readers to some of the evidence:
- Video: The New Mass vs. the Traditional Latin Mass (Catholic Crusader Films)
- The Problems with the New Mass: An Explanation (available in paperback here)
- Short Critical Study of the New Order of Mass (also known as the “Ottaviani Intervention”)
- Is the “New Mass” of Paul VI the true Roman Catholic Mass?
- Questioning the Validity of the New Canon of the Mass (by Patrick Henry Omlor)
- Is the Novus Ordo Missae Catholic?
- The Poison of the Novus Ordo ‘Mass’
The fact that Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (1890-1979) — at one point the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office — intervened in the fall of 1969 to prevent the New Mass from being implemented, speaks volumes. In an accompanying letter to ‘Pope’ Paul VI, Cardinal Ottaviani along with Cardinal Antonio Bacci (1885-1971) noted that “the Novus Ordo [‘New Mass’] represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent.” But the Tridentine decree on the Holy Mass is dogmatic and infallible. That alone goes to show that the Novus Ordo Missae of Paul VI is definitely in itself heretical, erroneous, harmful, etc.
With regard to the second option: Some have floated the idea that although the New Mass is clearly bad, Paul VI never really promulgated it in a proper, valid way. This, however, is hogwash and based on wishful thinking. The late Fr. Anthony Cekada refuted this objection over 20 years ago:
This leaves us with only the third option: Paul VI was not in fact the Roman Pontiff, at least not as of Apr. 3, 1969, when he officially promulgated the Novus Ordo Missae.
A further objection must be mentioned. Some claim that, assuming Paul VI to have been a true Pope, the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae would not be protected by infallibility because it concerns only the Roman rite of Mass, not any of the Eastern rites (such as Byzantine, Maronite, etc.), and therefore it is not “universal”. We will answer this objection in the next section, where we deal with the denial of the universality of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
In the meantime, we will point the interested reader to a brief article on that issue by Fr. Cekada, written in 1995, answering the claim that Paul VI promulgated the New Mass not as ‘Pope’ but merely as ‘Patriarch of the West’.
Consequences of the Church’s Infallibility: Baptism of Desire is true
The Code of Canon Law was solemnly promulgated by Pope Benedict XV (r. 1914-1922) on May 27, 1917, and took effect on May 19, 1918. For the first time in Church history, all of the Church’s laws were codified into one book so that all the legislation that was in force in the Church could conveniently be found in one place. With the new norms taking effect, all prior legislation ceased.
The project for a codification of canon law had been begun by Pope St. Pius X (r. 1903-1914), who entrusted Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (1852-1934) with the momentous task of compiling it.
When the project was finished at last and it came time for the solemn publication of the Code, Pope Benedict XV issued the Apostolic Constitution Providentissima Mater Ecclesia. It contains the following formula of promulgation:
Therefore, having invoked the help of Divine grace, and relying upon the authority of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, of our own accord and with accurate knowledge, and in the fulness of the Apostolic power with which we are invested, by this our constitution, which we wish to be valid “in perpetuum” [for all time], we promulgate, decree and order that the present Code, just as it is compiled, shall have from this time forth the power of law for the Universal Church, and we confide it to your custody and vigilance. But so that all may be enabled to have a knowledge of the regulations of the code before they begin to be binding, we ordain that they do not come into effect until Pentecost Day next year, i.e., May 19, 1918. Every privilege, constitution and custom to the contrary notwithstanding.
For no one, therefore, is it lawful to contradict or contravene in any way these our wishes. If anyone should dare to do so, let him know he will incur the wrath of God and the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.
Given at Rome from St. Peter’s on the Feast of Pentecost of the year 1917, the third year of our pontificate.
(Pope Benedict XV, Apostolic Constitution Providentissima Mater Ecclesia. Translation taken from The Catholic Columbian, July 27, 1917, p. 3; underlining added.)
To celebrate the historic occasion, Pope Benedict solemnly introduced the new Code in the Vatican on June 28, 1917, on the Vigil of Saints Peter and Paul. His Holiness gave an address in which he acknowledged his debt to his holy predecessor and thanked God Almighty “for granting us to place the seal of our authority on a work which we believe to be of signal value for the interest of the Church.” With regard to enforcing the new norms, the Sovereign Pontiff made clear that “we purpose to ensure its faithful observance, closing our ears to every request for any derogation” (“Pope Benedict’s Address on the New Code of Canon Law”, The Catholic Columbian, Aug. 3, 1917, p. 3).
As legislating the general discipline of the Church, the 1917 Code of Canon Law qualifies as being infallible in the sense explained by Mgr. van Noort above: “This law squares with the Church’s doctrine of faith and morals” is the infallible judgment implicitly contained in Pope Benedict’s approval of the Code.
This is important to understand in our day because, among other things, it is a definitive refutation of those who claim to be faithful Roman Catholics and yet deny the Catholic doctrine of baptism of desire, for baptism of desire is infallibly affirmed in Canon 737 §1 of the Code of Canon Law:
§ 1. Baptism, the gateway and foundation of the Sacraments, actually or at least in desire is necessary for all for salvation and is not validly conferred except by washing with true and natural water along with the prescribed formula of words.
[Latin original: Baptismus, Sacramentorum ianua ac fundamentum, omnibus in re vel saltem in voto necessarius ad salutem, valide non confertur, nisi per ablutionem aquae verae et naturalis cum praescripta verborum forma.]
(English translation from Edward N. Peters, ed., The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2001]; underlining added. Commission earned from purchases made through this link.)
This canon perfectly jibes with the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Trent that the justification of the sinner “after the promulgation of the Gospel cannot be effected except through the laver of regeneration, or a desire for it…” (Denz. 796).
We will not delve further into the nature of baptism of desire in this post, except to mention that of course what is called in English the “baptism of desire” (Latin: baptismus flaminis) should not be understood to be a mere wish to be baptized. Rather, the baptism of desire is present when the supernatural virtues of Faith, hope, and charity (perfect contrition) exist in the soul before the sacrament of baptism has been received (cf. Lk 7:47; Acts 10:44-48).
This is explained in any pre-Vatican II Catholic doctrinal manual. It was also affirmed explicitly by Pope Pius XII in an address given on Oct. 29, 1951:
…[T]he state of grace at the moment of death is absolutely necessary for salvation. Without it, it is not possible to attain supernatural happiness, the beatific vision of God. An act of love can suffice for an adult to obtain sanctifying grace and supply for the absence of baptism; for the unborn child or for the newly-born, this way is not open.
(Pope Pius XII, Allocution Vegliare con Sollecitudine; underlining added.)
The following resources explain baptism of desire, and the related baptism of blood, in some detail:
- Book defending Baptism of Desire and Blood: Contra Crawford by D. Fellows and C. Conlon
- Baptism of Desire and Theological Principles by Fr. Anthony Cekada
Not that any further proof of baptism of desire was needed, but by its inclusion in the Church’s universal law in Canon 737 §1, the orthodoxy of the doctrine has been confirmed infallibly.
Let us now consider a few objections to this argument.
Objection 1: The 1917 Code of Canon Law is Not ‘Universal’ because it is only for the Latin Rite
First, some will argue, as is often done mutatis mutandis with regard to Paul VI and the Novus Ordo Missae, that the Code of Canon Law cannot be protected by infallibility because it was issued only for the Western (Latin) Church, not for the Eastern (Oriental) Churches, and this is stated in Canon 1. Therefore we are not dealing with universal law, which alone is protected by infallibility.
We will answer this objection in three parts:
(a) What it means for Church Law to be ‘Universal’
To argue that a law is not universal on the grounds that it pertains only to the Roman liturgical rite, or that it is only made for the Western Church, is to misunderstand how Church law is divided.
The classification “universal” concerns scope, or extension across territory; it does not concern rite. As far as extension goes, the Church’s law is divided into universal and particular. The division into Eastern and Western is a matter of rite, not territory. In fact, what a diocese is in the Western Church, is called an eparchy in the Eastern Church, and where both rites are present, their territories overlap.
The canonist Fr. Francis Xavier Wernz, S.J. (1842-1914) was rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University before becoming Superior General of the Jesuits. His magnificent 7-volume tome Ius Canonicum was adapted to the 1917 Code by Fr. Peter Vidal, S.J. (1867-1938), who had succeeded him as the chair of canon law.
Fathers Wernz and Vidal explain the division of Church law at length. Readers who would like to see it in its entirety can read the exclusive English translation we have just published:
- Concerning the Division of Ecclesiastical Law (Wernz-Vidal)
For the purposes of this post, we will quote only those portions of the text that pertain to the issue under discussion:
III. By reason of scope, [ecclesiastical law is divided] a) into universal, which is in force in the whole of the Catholic world; b) into particular, which only has force in some limited territory; c) into general, by which all the faithful are bound, and into special-exception, to which only certain persons, for example, clerics, religious, minors under guardianship, are subject; d) into common, which constitutes a rule to be normally observed and can be general or special purpose, for example, the common law of regulars; e) into specific, which includes an exception, either favorable or vexatious, from the normal rule. But if that exception, for instance, be favorably regarded, it is said to be a privilege.
VIII. By reason of rite, [ecclesiastical law] is divided into the law of the Western Church and the law of the Eastern Church.
(Francis Xavier Wernz, S.J., and Peter Vidal, S.J., Ius Canonicum, vol. I [Rome: Gregorian University, 1938], n. 50, pp. 77-78,79; italics given. Translation by Novus Ordo Watch.)
Thus we see that to say that a law cannot be universal on account of it pertaining only to the Eastern or the Western Church is to confuse scope with rite.
Another canonist who explains how Church law is divided (full English text here) is the Dominican Fr. Dominic Prummer (1866-1931):
Ecclesiastical law, taken objectively, can be divided by reason of matter, extension, [historical] time [period], form, and rite: …
b) By reason of extension, ecclesiastical law is divided α) into universal law that is binding in the entire Christian world, and particular law that is in force only in some limited territory; β) into general law that binds all the faithful, for example, the precept of hearing Mass on Sundays, and special-exception law, to which only certain persons are subject, for example, clerics, regulars; γ) into the common law that determines the legal order to be observed in general or for all the faithful, and thereupon the common law is at the same time the general law, or for a limited category of the faithful, and thereupon the common law is at the same time the special-exception [law]; in this way, we can, for example, speak about the common law of regulars and the specific law, which is the same as a privilege. Nonetheless, it must be mentioned that not all authors use these terms in the same way. Thus, for example, some divide particular law into patriarchal, provincial, diocesan, [and] regulars’ law.
e) By reason of rite, [ecclesiastical] law is divided off into the law of the Western Church and the law of the Eastern Church. — Several churches of the protestants or non-Catholics or schismatics also have their own legal codes, for example, the schismatic Greek church, but nothing about these is to be discussed by us in this Manual [of Canon Law]. Equally, nothing presents itself to be said here about the false acceptances both of law in general and of ecclesiastical law in particular, because the first [kind of law] belongs to [the discipline of] Christian ethics and the second to the [dogmatic theology] treatise De Ecclesia [“On the Church”], since from a false conception of the Church necessarily false conceptions of ecclesiastical law are also bound to emerge.
(Dominicus M. Prümmer, O. P., Manuale Iuris Canonici, Editio Tertia, [Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder & Co., 1922], pp. 3-4. Translation by Novus Ordo Watch.)
Therefore, it is abundantly clear that one cannot say that Church law is not universal if it concerns only the Western Church or only the Latin rite. That is a category error, confusing territory and rite. It is perhaps like saying that someone cannot be female if she is also Austrian, thereby confusing sex with citizenship.
The objection that the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae by Paul VI in 1969 does not fall under universal ecclesiastical law on the grounds that it is only for the Roman rite is thus null and void because based on a misunderstanding of the division of Church law.
The same goes for those who say that Canon 737 §1 cannot be considered universal law because the Code was made only for the Western Church. We will consider that objection now in greater detail.
(b) Some canons in the 1917 Code are binding on the Eastern Churches
It is true that Canon 1 states that the Code of Canon Law applies to the Western Church and not to the Eastern Churches. However, that is not all it says. A closer look at the exact wording reveals that some legislation in the Code binds also the Eastern Churches:
Although in the Code of canon law the discipline of the Oriental Church is frequently referenced, nevertheless, this [Code] applies only to the Latin Church and does not bind the Oriental, unless it treats of things that, by their nature, apply to the Oriental.
[Latin original: Licet in Codice iuris canonici Ecclesiae quoque Orientalis disciplina saepe referatur, ipse tamen unam respicit Latinam Ecclesiam, neque Orientalem obligat, nisi de iis agatur, quae ex ipsa rei natura etiam Orientalem afficiunt.]
(English translation from Peters, Code of Canon Law; underlining added.)
The underlined portion is crucial. It makes clear that there are things contained in this Code of Canon Law that necessarily apply also to the Eastern Church simply by their very nature.
What might such things be? Abp. Amleto Cicognani (1883-1973) gives the answer in his book on canon law:
The Code binds the Oriental Church in the following cases:
(a) if there be question of the divine law, natural or positive….
(b) if there be question of faith and Catholic doctrine, for there is no exception of place or persons in matters of dogma and doctrine. Consequently all Catholics are subject to the dogmatic canons of Ecumenical Councils and pronouncements of the Holy See. The decrees of the Roman Pontiffs condemning propositions contra fidem et mores [contrary to faith and morals], the various instructions of the Holy Office, the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda, the Congregation for the Oriental Church, and of the Sacred Penitentiary, the prohibition of books and theories opposed to Catholic faith and morals, all pertain to Catholic doctrine.
(Abp. Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Canon Law, 2nd ed. [Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1934], pp. 453-454; underlining added.)
It stands to reason that matters of doctrine would not be specific to one particular rite but would have to apply to both the Latin and the Eastern rites equally.
Lest there be any room for doubt left, however, we will point out that Abp. Cicognani explicitly mentions Canon 737 — the one affirming baptism of desire — as being an example of a canon that is purely doctrinal or dogmatic in character: “…the Code contains certain canons that are merely doctrinal or even dogmatic in character, for example, canons 108, 218, 329, 737, 801, 803, 1012, 1322, §1″ (Canon Law, p. 428; bold print added).
(c) Pope Benedict XV stated the 1917 Code qualifies as Universal Law
The last piece of evidence in answer to the objection about the 1917 Code not being universal law, comes from Pope Benedict XV himself. In the Apostolic Constitution promulgating the Code, as quoted earlier, Pope Benedict XV declared explicitly that it “shall have from this time forth the power of law for the Universal Church”. Case closed!
Since our response to Objection 1 was rather long and complex, let’s summarize it succinctly as follows: The 1917 Code of Canon Law is universal law and therefore protected by infallibility because (a) universal law pertains to territory or scope, not to rite; (b) the Code specifically states that it does bind the Eastern Churches when “it treats of things that, by their nature, apply to the Oriental [Churches]”, which baptism of desire definitely does; (c) Pope Benedict himself declared in his bull of promulgation that the Code of Canon Law meets the requirements for universal law.
Objection 2: Pope Benedict XV didn’t sign the Bull of Promulgation
Another objection that is sometimes heard — and this one manifests a certain desperation — is that although the Apostolic Constitution Providentissima Mater bears the name of Pope Benedict XV, it does not bear his signature and is therefore invalid.
Now this objection assumes that a Pope must personally sign all papal documents, else they lack validity and are without legal force. That, however, is never proved and is, in fact, demonstrably false.
Furthermore, those who object in this manner apparently want us to imagine that the entire Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation, used a Code of Canon Law for decades, with several Popes’ full knowledge and approval, and yet no one noticed that the most important element establishing and validating the entire canonical edifice in the first place — the papal signature — was missing, rendering everything now null and void. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Lastly, we are apparently to pay no attention to the fact that Pope Benedict solemnly inaugurated the 1917 Code himself and declared in an address, cited earlier, that he was grateful to the Lord “for granting us to place the seal of our authority on a work which we believe to be of signal value for the interest of the Church.”
Truly, this objection is one born of desperation. Nevertheless, we will now answer it.
It is true that Providentissima Mater only bears the signature of Cardinal Gasparri, the Secretary of State who had overseen the codification of Canon Law, and that of Cardinal Ottavio Cagiano de Azevedo (1845-1927), the Apostolic Chancellor, and not that of Pope Benedict XV. That, however, is no cause for concern — it is simply established Vatican protocol. As Abp. Cicognani explains:
…only Consistorial Bulls are signed by the Pope. By the term Consistorial Bulls are not meant those that emanate from the Consistorial Congregation, but those that are given in Consistory concerning matters of great importance under the signature of the Supreme Pontiff and all the Cardinals of the Curia, e.g., Bulls of Canonization. In other cases Bulls are signed by the Cardinal Chancellor and another Official of the Apostolic Chancery, or by the Cardinal Chancellor and the Cardinal Prefect of the Dicastery in whose competence the matter belongs….
(Cicognani, Canon Law, p. 93; underlining added.)
What do you know? Cardinal Gasparri was the Secretary of State and thereby head of his dicastery, and Cardinal Cagiano de Azevedo was the Apostolic Chancellor. Mystery solved!
Thus it is not surprising that when Pope St. Pius X, for example, published his Apostolic Constitution Divino Afflatu mandating the reform of the Roman Breviary in 1911, his bull did not bear his signature either but only those of the Apostolic Chancellor and the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites.
And so Objection 2 has been answered as well. We can all rest easy now, knowing that the salvation of our souls does not depend on knowing what papal documents the Pope forgot to sign.
This has been a long article, but its length was necessary to allow us to explore these matters in sufficient depth. When dealing with such important matters, is it important not merely to assert or explain one’s position but to prove it.
At the same time, we also want to ensure that being in the details doesn’t make us lose sight of the big picture, so here is a brief summary of what we have established in this post, namely:
- The Catholic Church is infallible in her general discipline (universal laws) and sacramental rites
- The universality of ecclesiastical law is a matter of scope, not of rite, and so law can be universal even if it is only for the Western Church (Latin rite)
- Even if the universality of law could be restricted by rite, doctrinal matters necessarily apply to both the Eastern and Western Church
- The promulgation of the Code of Canon Law by Pope Benedict XV in 1917 constitutes infallible proof that baptism of desire is compatible with Catholic dogma and not a heresy (see Canon 737 §1)
- The promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae by Paul VI in 1969 is infallible proof that either Paul VI was a false pope or that the New Mass is not in itself heretical, sacrilegious, or otherwise harmful; those who recognize the intrinsic evil of the New Mass must reject Paul VI as a false pope
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