“ On Not Inventing Doctrine”

Nicholas Lash, The Tablet, 2 December 1995, p. 1544

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Nicholas Lash is Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. He wrote many books, among them:
* Theology on Dover Beach (1979)
* Theology on the Way to Emmaus
* Voices of Authority
* Newman on development : the search for an explanation in history
* A matter of hope : a theologian's reflections on the thought of Karl Marx
* Change in focus; a study of doctrinal change and continuity
* Banking Laws and Regulations : An Economic Perspective (1987)
* Easter in Ordinary : Reflections on Human Experience and the Knowledge of God (1990)
* Believing Three Ways in One God : A Reading of the Apostles' Creed (1993)
* The Beginning and the End of 'Religion' (1996)

Reactions are now coming in to the Vatican statement attaching infallibility to the Pope’s letter ruling out the ordination of women. The Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge voices his alarm and concern at this latest doctrinal development. He fears it may bring a new crisis of authority.

Integral to Catholic Christianity is the conviction that the message uttered as the life and teaching, death and resurrection, of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s own Word, God’s final Word. It is his irrevocable self-gift in promise of eternal life. In this conviction lives that “people” born of water and the spirit of the risen Christ, whom we call the Catholic Church. In witness to this abiding truth, innumerable men and women have lived and work and suffered, prayed endured and died. To hold this truth is to confess the Church’s “unfailability”, the Holy Spirit’s strength and faithfulness in spite of all our blindness, cowardess, stupidity and egoism. To this conviction, known technically as belief in the “indefectibility” of Church (a conviction shared with many Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Christians), Roman Catholics add the precision that this unfailablilty in truth many find expression in authoritative guidance, especially by particular, decisive, declarations on the part of those who bear the supreme episcopal responsibility.

This responsibility, whether in the form of dogmatic definitions by pope or council, or more normally, in the exercise in what is now called the “ordinary magisterium”, is a matter of bearing witness to the truth, not of constructing or inventing it. Before something can be properly be called “the teaching of the Church”, there are conditions which must be fulfilled.

Thus, for example, we read in article 25 of Vatican II’s constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium that “the infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of bishops when that body exercises supreme teaching authority with the successor of Peter. To the resultant definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, whereby the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith”.

The edition of The Documents of Vatican II edited by Walter Abbott SJ adds a helpful footnote at this point: “To the difficulty sometimes raised, ‘What if the pope were to define something to which the rest of the episcopal college of the faithful did not agree?’, the constitution replies that the case is a purely imaginary one, since one and the same Holy Spirit directs the pope, the college of bishops and the whole body of the faithful. In practice, the pope always consults the other bishops and the faithful before making a doctrinal decision, but the validity of his action does not legally depend on any kind of ratification by them.” Excellently and accurately said. Would that the facts always corresponded to the theory.

The same article of Lumen Gentium says that bishops may “proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly . . . even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity amongst themselves and with Peter’s successor . . . they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively”. In the present case, what steps have the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger taken to ascertain the views of the bishops of the Catholic Church (and I have in mind genuine enquiry not arm-twisting)? And what about the “whole body of the faithful”? What steps have been taken to ascertain the mind of the Church on this matter?

The point I am concerned to make is that the teaching on infallibility found in the constitutions of the last two general councils is about the articulation of Catholic faith. It is not about equipping those in authority with weapons by means of which to attempt to resolve disputed questions through the arbitrary exercise of power.

According to the Pope - for, since he approved the recent Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and ordered its publication, we may suppose that he agrees with it - “this teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 25,2).” The most important word in that sentence is ‘since’. Clearly no teaching could have been thus presented unless those teaching it knew it to based on the “written Word of God” and “constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church” (though it may be worth warning the reader that paragraph 25 of Lumen Gentium makes no mention of the phrase “ordinary and universal magisterium”).

There is, of course, no way that the Pope and other bishops could ascertain whether or not these two conditions have been fulfilled except by consulting, in the first place, biblical scholars and, in the second place, Church historians and theologians. It is well known that, when Pope Paul VI sought the opinion of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the matter, he was advised that the question could not be decided on the basis of New Testament exegesis alone. In other words, the biblical “foundations” of the present Pope’s teaching in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in so far as they exist at all, are far too fragile to bear the weight he seeks to put upon them.

Where historians and theologians are concerned, I do not have the impression that strenuous efforts have been made to obtain their opinions in the matter. Were such efforts to be made, the Pope would surely discover two things that might surprise him. In the first place, far from there being a teaching that has been “from the beginning constantly preserved and applied”, the question as to whether the “representation” of Christ requires that those who preside at the celebration of the Eucharist be men, was never even asked until about half way throughout the present century. In the second place, on the rare occasions in the history of the Church at which the question as to the suitability of women to hold hierachial office has been raised, it has, indeed, always been answered in the negative. There is, in other words, a teaching that has been from the beginning “constantly preserved and applied”: namely, that women cannot be ordained to apostolic office because they are inferior to men.

It follows that, if we set aside (as the present Pope has indicated that we should wisely do) arguments based on the inferiority of women, there simply is no traditional teaching on the matter. The question, as now raised, is a new question. Like all new questions, it needs time, patience, attentiveness, sensitivity and careful scholarship.

Neither the Pope nor Cardinal Ratzinger can make a teaching to be “founded on the written Word of God” simply by ascertaining that it is so founded. Nor can they by assertion, make it a matter that has been “constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church”. The attempt to use the doctrine of infallibility, a doctrine intended to indicate the grounds and character of Catholic confidence in official teaching, as a blunt instrument to prevent the ripening of a question in the Catholic mind, is a scandalous abuse of power, the most serious consequence of which will be further to undermine the further authority which the Pope seeks to sustain.