Wednesday, February 23, 2022

A Reasonable Picture of Papal Authority in a 1950s Catechism

Yesterday was, of course, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter (formerly, the feast of Peter’s chair at Antioch, with January 18 as the feast of Peter’s chair in Rome). It seems a good moment to share some pages from a catechetical resource from the 1950s and to ask ourselves how the office of the papacy was presented at that time.

The title is A Manual of Religion: MY CATHOLIC FAITH—A Catechism in Pictures. The author is Louis LaRaviore Morrow, SDB (1892-1987). The text was initially copyrighted in 1949; the Sarto House reprint is of the 1954 edition. So this lands us straight in the period of Pius XII, when, as can be seen from many famous photos, papal (self-)glorification had reached astounding heights. Here’s just one of countless examples:

It is thus pleasantly surprising to see how Fr. Morrow treats the papacy.

On the first page of the pertinent section, he clarifies that “infallibility” means freedom from error and is to be distinguished from “impeccability”, or freedom from sin. The pope, like every one, is capable of falling into sin; but the Church cannot teach error. Notice the subtle pivot from the pope to the Church. The whole Church (or the pope speaking expressly on behalf of the whole Church) would have to err in order for the promise of Christ to fail.
On the second page, examples of infallible doctrines and morals are given; they are major ones like the Trinity and obeying the Ten Commandments. The mission of Christ and his apostles must continue in all the Catholic bishops and priests so that the truth may reach all men. All Christians agree that the Apostles were infallible; but God loves us as much as He loves the first Christians, so He will make His Church infallible in all ages. Morrow notes that infallibility is involved when the faithful are told “exactly what to believe and what to do in order that they may be pleasing to God and save their souls.”

To underline his point, Morrow states that “the Catholic Church, from the twentieth century back to the first, has not once ceased to teach a doctrine on faith or morals previously held, and with the same interpretation.” He serenely proclaims, “No Pope ever considers himself above the laws of the Church and of God” and “The Church cannot change its teachings on faith and morals.... Year after year the Church proclaims the same unchanging doctrines. Her doctrines need no reform, for they are of Divine origin, the work of the Incarnate God.”
Then, in section 68, we get into the “sphere of infallibility.” Morrow writes with precision: “The Church teaches infallibly when it defines, through the Pope alone, as the teacher of all Christians, or through the Pope and the bishops, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by all the faithful.” He provides two examples: the 1854 definition of the Immaculate Conception by Bl. Pius IX and the 1870 definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I.

He stumbles a bit when nonchalantly stating that we know canonizations to be infallible, when in fact this is a disputed question (and the minority position has plenty of powerful arguments on its behalf).
Resuming his earlier point, Morrow says “the Church teaches infallibly through the Pope alone, when he speaks officially (ex cathedra) as the Supreme Head, for the entire universal Church.” Then he goes carefully into the conditions. “He must pronounce himself on a subject of faith or morals... He must speak as the Vicar of Christ, in his office as Pope, and to the whole Church... He can teach without speaking infallibly, as in his encyclical letters.... Should the Pope, like Benedict XIV, write a treatise on Canon Law, his book would be written in a private capacity, and liable to error, just as the books of other theologians... He must make clear by certain words his intention to speak ex cathedra.

After some remarks on councils, the chapter concludes with the common view that “the daily ordinary uniform teaching of the Church in every place in the whole world is infallibly true.” And it is precisely on this basis that we can know that so many things that have been said in the past fifty-plus years are false, because they conflict with what had been universally taught in the Church by all popes and bishops, as can be seen, e.g., on the death penalty question, where hundreds of approved catechisms over many centuries teach exactly the same thing.
In general, we may say that Morrow’s treatment is typical of most Catholic textbooks, and represents a far more modest account of the pope’s authority and its exercise than one would be able to infer from those who talk glibly of the Holy Spirit speaking practically non-stop through His personal choice who now sits in the papal throne. It is well to remind ourselves that our predecessors, although they were at times naive about their ultramontanism, were not stupid.

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