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Ignoring a Pope While Pretending to Listen Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 29 May 2014

We’ve all experienced what is sometimes called “selective listening.” A mother says to her child: “You absolutely must not cross the street without me holding your hand.” The child may hear such a command as a kind of mild recommendation: “It might be best if you didn’t do that.” Whereas on other occasions, let’s say a mother comments in passing to her elder son: “You probably ought to share some of that ice cream with your younger brother,” what the younger son hears is this: “You are commanded in no uncertain terms to share that with your brother – and this command is not to be questioned!  Immediate obedience is required!” Often enough, we hear what we want to hear, and don’t pay much attention to what we don’t.

Sadly, a similar sort of “selective listening” occurs with papal teachings. The pope (whoever he is) will say something in passing to someone in a hallway or on the phone, and it’s taken for an infallible dictate of the Church. Whereas at other times, the pope will repeat something over and over again, and people will claim that the Church hasn’t really clarified things yet – everything is still open to interpretation and discussion. What is a mother to do, especially when that “mother” is Holy Mother Church? Look to heaven and pray, I suppose.

For the record, there are ways of telling what sort of “binding character” is claimed for various pronouncements from the Vatican. In the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), section 25, we read:

religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra [i.e. infallibly]; that is. . .his supreme magisterium [is to be] acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him. . .sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
Our “mind and will” ought to correspond with his mind and will so that we don’t take divine commands as mere suggestions, and we don’t mistake passing comments for divine commands.

How, then, are we to discern his “mind and will?” As Lumen Gentium makes clear, the first way is from the character of the document. The Church has developed a very distinct hierarchy of different types of pronouncements, which communicates the level of teaching authority it intends to lay claim to. At the top, we have things like a “Dogmatic Constitution” or an ex cathedra pronouncement in a papal encyclical. Not everything in such documents is meant to be taken as infallible, but these documents lay claim to the highest level of authority.

Lower down on the spectrum, we have “declarations” and “decrees” (such as the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom) and also “Apostolic Exhortations.” From there we move on down toward various official “letters” to prominent people or official “addresses” to important audiences. These can be interesting and important, but they don’t have the official status of, say, a dogmatic constitution, and no pope ever intends for them to be taken that way.


        Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees by James J.J. Tissot, c. 1890

As for statements you see in the media from a “Vatican official” or something published in L’Osservatore Romano, these have absolutely no magisterial character at all – just as what you hear from some random secretary in a diocesan chancery office cannot be considered an official “directive,” let alone the “teaching” of a bishop or the Church. Such people do important jobs. Sometimes they are excellent, sometimes not. But either way, their words have no more authority than mine, and it goes without saying that mine have absolutely no “official” authority whatsoever.

Yes, as a theology professor, I have a mandatum. But this “mandate” is merely a commission (a demand) to teach authentically, not a license to say anything “official.” I do, however, sometimes tell my students that, since I have a mandatum, I am officially allowed to double my fees. But since two times zero is still zero, they needn’t worry.

As for “frequent repetition of the same doctrine” and “manner of speaking,” consider this example from Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, where he says in no uncertain terms:

Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops – who on various occasions have condemned abortion and. . .albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine – I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
This statement purposefully employs the language of infallible, irreformable doctrine. In addition, the pope declares very clearly that, given the complete unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church: “this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable.” And yet we still find some Catholic politicians trying to claim that the Church has not yet shut the door on abortion.

When the same Catholics proclaim loudly that they are “united” with Pope Francis in not putting “too much” emphasis on supposedly “divisive” topics such as abortion or euthanasia, because of how they have interpreted something he said in passing, you know you’ve got people who are engaged in “selective listening.” They’re not open to being taught by those who have the special charism of the Holy Spirit. Like children, they’re merely using someone’s words to get what they want.

There’s a word for this tendency: it’s called being “pharisaical.” Christ warned of its dangers. We should all beware its enticements.

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where holds the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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Comments (25)Add Comment
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., May 29, 2014
Not only do we have self-identified Catholic politicians who reject the Church's teachings on abortion, we also have pastors and theology professors and catechists and Eucharistic ministers who do so. And we have pastors who scream bloody murder when anyone points out that supporting abortion is a grave evil and that those who publicly do so should therefore niether teach catechism nor administer the Eucharist.
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written by Gerald Reiner, May 29, 2014
You wrote, "At the top, we have things like a “Dogmatic Constitution” or an ex cathedra pronouncement in a papal encyclical." A very long time ago I was taught that the top was "de fide divina et catholica." Not so, or has this changed? And where can one find, with nihil obstat and imprimatur, a list of infallible papal pronouncements?
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written by Martin Dybicz, May 29, 2014
While I fully support the thrust of Professor Smith's article, and firmly believe in the authority of the Magisterium, I don't find the Magisterium as clear about the hierarchy of its pronouncements as Professor Randall seems to. And this lack of clarity is very surprising to me after the CDF's "Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei," especially during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Is there a Magisterial document that clarifies the hierarchy of its pronouncements? Why doesn't the Magisterium say more often "God has revealed . . ." when it is actually communicating Divine Revelation? Why doesn't the Magisterium always admit that its social analyses and prudential judgments are only social analyses and prudential judgments and not doctrine? The New Evangelization would be greatly facilitated by a Magisterium that exercises its authority more clearly. Sometimes children misinterpret their mom because their mom hasn't been clear and explicit.
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written by Manfred, May 29, 2014
The word which has been missing in the Church for fifty years is ENFORCEMENT. When I read the excellent articles in TCT, I feel I am sitting in the saloon of the Costa Concordia hearing a theology lecture or Tony reading a book to us. Of course, the ship is at a 30 degree list to starboard, the captain and most of the crew have abandoned ship, and the passengers are frantically rushing for their lives. When, after FIFTY MILLION ABORTIONS in the US alone, you can write another piece on the Church's condemnation of abortion, when no catholic politician who supports abortion and sodomite "marriage" is even denied Communion, much less excommunicated, the whole system is nothing but a sham. When Pelosi can be given Planned Parenthood's highest award, when Kerry can be honored at Boston (Jesuit) College with Cdl O'Malley in prominent attendance, and there is no penalty, even dullards know this Novus Ordo church is not worth the spit out of a butterfly.
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written by Schm0e, May 29, 2014
Maybe you should alert the USCCB.
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written by DS, May 29, 2014
We should also be wary of the pharisaical temptation that leads some to believe that faith in Christ ONLY requires opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and nothing else.
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written by Bill Hocter, May 29, 2014
Professor-this was very informative. Thanks!
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written by Iacobus, May 29, 2014
"We should also be wary of the pharisaical temptation that leads some to believe that faith in Christ ONLY requires opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and nothing else."

Could you please name one person who believes that?
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written by Jill, May 29, 2014
Children are especially prone to "selective listening" when Mom's response to disobedience is a hug rather than a tanning. If I think about the opinions of my fellow Catholics for too long, I become sad and disillusioned. Yet, to whom would I go?
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written by Blake Helgoth, May 29, 2014
What is of the most importance is our obligation to follow the ordinary magisterium, right down to the teachings of our local pastor. This is, of course, unless we know for certain that what they command or teach is contrary to the doctrine or law of the Church. This is the ordinary magisterium and is the usual way in which Christ's Bishops exercise their teaching and governing office. Many Catholics, both traditional leaning and liberal leaning, often skip over this important fact. Many, when asked, seem to think they are only obliged to follow ex cathedra teachings, reducing the Kerygma to a handful of pronouncements. This is as true for those who go all in protesting for life or trying to correct every liturgical error as for those who are all in working for social justice.
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written by Jarheadusmc, May 29, 2014
Vatican I dogmatically teaches that the Holy Spirit was not given to the Pope to teach any thing new or any novelty but to but that he is to protect and teach only what the Church has taught and defined as is contained in holy scripture and tradition, "...in the same sense and same meaning" as previously taught.

Without quoting Vatican I, Popes, Fathers, Doctors, Saints, etc: The Pope is only infallible when he teaches and declares a doctrine concerning faith or morals "de fide" or must be believed under pain of mortal sin; also the popes teaching must not ever contradict Scripture or Tradition, nor what has been defined previously, but only to teach and protect what has been handed down.

For example: The Council of Florence and the decree "Cantata Dominio" - "It firmly believes, professes and teaches that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and shismatics (Orthodox faiths)cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart "into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels." Dz. 714 - An Infallible Declaration

And yet, by subterfuge, obfuscation, and double language, the popes since Vatican II have undoubtedly, in at least their "private" teachings, contradicted previous dogmas and teachings of the Church. Even Vatican II, a "Pastoral Council", taught ambiguous heresy, whereas "Ecumenism" was previously declared condemned by several popes. The Council Moderator of Vatican II and Pope Paul VI, both declared at the end of the Council that it, Vatican II, did not teach nor declare infallibly anything new. All and only what Vat. I has taught that is infallible is what had been "previously" taught and declared by Holy Mother Church and the Magisterium. And now, even some of the Council Periti, have testified that the Vatican II Council documents were purposely written to obfuscate, to hide, the intent of the documents which go contrary to the teachings of the Church. The Vatican Council II was the "French Revolution in the Church" and "... is a counter Syllabus" - as Cardinal/Pope Ratzinger has previously testified. "A counter Syllabus" ?? The Syllabus of Pope Pius IX was an Infallible declaration - What does this say about Vatican II?
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written by Howard Kainz, May 29, 2014
Manfred raises the question, why politicians like Pelosi and Kerry are not excommunicated. This is because their political position is not excommunicable. Having or procuring an abortion is excommunicable "latae sententiae." But if a politician were excommunicated for being "pro choice" or even for supporting "abortion rights," this would seem tantamount to being excommunicated for advocating free choice and/or free speech. And it might involve excommunicating two-thirds of the Democratic party. If advocating abortion was declared excommunicable by the Vatican, this would tie excommunication to a type of speech. So we should appreciate the difficult position of pro-life bishops.
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., May 29, 2014
Dr. Kainz: You might recall that when Pope Benedict XVI was asked if he would excommunicate the Mexican legislators who had voted to legalzie abortion His Holiness replied that there was no need to because they had already excommunicated themselves. Catholics are indeed forbidden to support abortion under pain of excommunication. Cdl Burke has been clear that in the US we do not have the right to disregard the requirement to deny Communion to pro-aborts. Catholics who support legalized abortion, embryoic stem-cell resaerch, euthanasia, or homoseuxal marriage have excommunicated themselves. That was communicted in a letter to US Bishops from the then Prefect for the Congregation for Doctine of Faith Ratzinger. Does anyone imagine that the letter did not meet with the approval of St. John Paul II?
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written by Myshkin, May 29, 2014
Yes, this is all well and good as explanation of Lumen Gentium's doctrinal presentation of the papal magisterium. However in practice it gets murky. Especially when a Pope breaks from the tradition of his predecessors in and issues types of documents never before issued from the Santa Sede. Case in point: Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium. This was issued as an "apostolic exhortation," a complete departure from preceding papal documents. In fact, it was so different Cardinal Burke opined that it had no magisterial import. Now I suppose that individuals may disagree with Cardinal Burke, but he is probably the world's leading expert on these matters, given his position as supreme judge on the highest Vatican Court AND his impeccable academic credentials in canon law.

Likewise the many Papal Bulls which no longer have the force they once had due to their limited doctrinal, primarily juridical character. Over time, their juridical character has bound them to the historical cases from which they arose and circumscribed their present scope, as new cases have been decided.

So it's not simply a matter of robotically obeying or obstinately ignoring a Pope, but of prayerfully applying prudential judgment to the variety of things the Pope says and does. Within this prayerful employment of prudence, it becomes apparent that most of what a Pope says or does CAN be ignored as entirely outside of the magisterium. To see this plainly, I recommend studying the Papacy of the antiPope John XXIII (no not the recently proclaimed Saint; this one lived in the 14th century; he's the one who condemned Meister Eckhart).
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written by Ray, May 29, 2014
Why can't Canon 915 be employed on the politicians mentioned in the comments thus far. Cardinal Burke used it when he was a Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin back in 2004 or 2005. Each Bishop of these people who openly flaunt Church teaching, in actuality, excommunicate themselves by voting for Abortion, Euthanasia, Gay Marriage, et al. Their Bishops need to send a letter to them telling them they aren't welcome at the Communion Rail until they openly repent of their public votes on these issues. Our American leadership ship is so effeminate these days I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for it to happen. Another blog uses the term "Church of Nice" and it defines our Catholic Church in America to a tee!!
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written by Seanachie, May 29, 2014
My theology training is a bit long of tooth...but, what has happened to the distinctions between "ex cathedra" (infallible, binding papal pronouncements) and "ex officio" (guiding, but non-binding, Papal statements)? Seems to me that Pope Francis' comments in interviews are "ex officio" statements (guiding, not binding). If he wished to make a binding pronouncement, I believe he would make it clear that he was communicating "ex cathedra".
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written by Augustine Thomas, May 29, 2014
Is his well-documented persecution of the FFI for being "too orthodox" also the result of a mistranslation?
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written by Augustine Thomas, May 29, 2014
"..excommunicating two thirds of the Democratic party.."
That would be a great start and a chance for the American Church to leave behind its present fascination with heresy that borders on apostasy!
(Given our heretical leftist pope and the heretical leftist cardinals who elected him, I wouldn't hold my breath.)
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written by Howard Kainz, May 29, 2014
@Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.: Afterwards, the Vatican Press Office clarified that neither the Pope nor the Mexican bishops had excommunicated anyone, but that politicians who vote this way should not receive communion. I think this indicates that there can be an issue of mortal sin in this case, but excommunication for such politicians is not something explicitly included in canon law. This is a very tricky issue. Voting in our democracy is considered a matter of free speech. The Church is interested in maintaining its right to free speech regarding contraception, gay marriage, adoption of children by gay couples, etc. The Church abandoned the Index of Forbidden Books 50 years ago; certainly the right of free speech was a factor in this, as well as the impossibility of continuing censorship in the midst of burgeoning modern communications. If the Church prohibited certain kinds of free speech, it might open the way to the abominable excesses of "blasphemy" laws in Pakistan and other Islamic regimes.
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written by Manfred, May 29, 2014
Howard: Read my comment again. I clearly state that no pro-abortion or pro-sodomite "marriage" catholic politician is denied Communion, much less excommunicated. Thomas Coleman refers obliquely to Cdl Burke's reference to Canon 915 that Nancy Pelosi, BY NAME, must be denied Communion because of her "Persistence in error" on the subject of abortion. The Modernists in the Church will find every device to avoid drawing any line in the sand and their supporters, such as yourself, will do everything to create murky defenses of them. You and I are old enough, Howard, to remember when doctors would go to prison if they performed an abortion. That was about 55 million abortions ago.
People will either pay for their sins in this world or the next, or both. Christ sees through all attempts at murkiness. "Because of your lukewarmness, I will begin to vomit you out of my mouth".
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written by Ray, May 29, 2014
Re: Augustine Thomas

Party seems immaterial to me. Anyone that openly flaunts Church Dogma needs to be sent to the sidelines until they recant. Period!! There are just as many RINO's that fit into this category that need to be castigated as there are Dems. I'm conservative and a traditional Catholic but I don't begin to believe that it is only the Dems who are heretics and apostasizers on this issue. Bishops need to stand their ground and be firm. This would diminish the numbers of Church donors and the American USCCB hierarchy don't want to lose weekly donors. I say let them go and a small and dedicated group of REAL Catholics will go forward and build a true Church. Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals have monetary metrics that go to Rome, any diminishment of the total dollar figure would diminish their stature. I will continue to pray daily and try and lead an exemplary life and let God sort out all of this academic clap trap. Suggest other Catholics looking for the Beatific Vision do the same.
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written by Don, May 29, 2014
Howard - How, exactly, would denying communion to open and notorious heretics violate their right to free speech. They can say whatever they want. They can vote however they want. It's a free country, no? But they don't have a "right" to do so while claiming to be Catholics in good standing and while presenting themselves for communion. The Church is a private institution.
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written by Myshkin, May 29, 2014
Dr. Edward Peters J.C.D, J.D., has written extensively on Canons 915 and 916. Moreover he and Cardinal Burke are in agreement on the application of thes canons. Writing in "First Things" (the article is online) he had this to say:

"Crucial to a proper understanding of canon 915 is, first, the fact that it binds the ministers who admit persons to sacraments, not the recipients who approach the sacraments. Second, it both authorizes and requires Communion to be withheld from the faithful who approach under certain conditions, specifically “those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” To read canon 915 as if it were a mere suggestion or exhortation instead of a command is to disregard the plain text of the law.

Third, the conditions requiring Communion to be withheld must be simultaneously satisfied before the minister may licitly withhold the Eucharist from a Catholic approaching for it publicly. To invoke canon 915 against a member of the faithful who does not satisfy all of the terms of canon 915 is, again, to disregard the plain text of the law and, as St. Thomas warned centuries ago, to violate the fundamental rights of the faithful.

Sacramental tradition allows for withholding Communion in two other cases: when a person reckoned to be in a state of unrepented grave sin (determined usually by the individual’s disclosure) approaches for the Sacrament privately , and when a person reasonably suspected of intending to desecrate the Eucharist approaches to receive. Both are rare events these days.

Those two exceptions aside, if a member of the faithful approaches Communion publicly and gives no indication of intending an external act of desecration, even the minister’s moral certitude that the would-be recipient suffers grave moral disarray does not permit him to withhold Communion. His grief at being a material cooperator in sacrilege may be joined to our Lord’s grief at so many unworthy receptions of himself."
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written by Howard Kainz, May 29, 2014
@Manfred and Don: I don't disagree that denying communion would be appropriate in these cases. I was just bringing out the fact that excommunication is more complicated in terms of canon law, etc.
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written by Ray, May 29, 2014
Hesitant to refer to a person who has credentials about Canon Law, yet, won't open his combox to any responses to the folks. If you can read and understand same, Canon 915 doesn't require an expert of any kind to interpret. Read the material, I referred to "Canon 915" and we all should have more than a basic understanding of what it says. Sometime academicians want to rely on one another for fellow accolades on how smart they are. Just a basic Bachelor's degree from a Jesuit University does not find me wanting a pin head with multiple degrees to interpret the Queens English. I somehow find most of the respondents on this blog to be those pin heads I referred to earlier.

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