To Cardinal Newman is attributed a wise comment on the 1870 definition of the Pope’s infallibility: “It left him as it found him.” Indeed that definition will have changed nothing in the Pope’s power to teach infallibly, because it belongs to the unchanging nature of God’s true Church that God will protect it from error, at least when its supreme teaching authority is engaged. All such engagement is now called the Church’s “Extraordinary Magisterium”, but only the name can have been new in 1870, just like the name of the “Ordinary Universal Magisterium”. If Vatican I declared the latter also to be infallible, it must also have been so from the beginning of the Church. To discern the realities behind the two names, let us go back to that beginning.
By the time Our Lord ascended to Heaven, he had with his divine infallibility entrusted to his Apostles a body of doctrine which they were to hand down intact to his Church to the end of the world (Mt. XXVIII, 19-20), doctrine which all souls were to believe on pain of damnation (Mk. XVI, 15-16). This Deposit of the Faith, or public Revelation, God was bound to make recognisable and accessible to souls of good will, because obviously the true God could never condemn eternally a soul for refusing to believe in an untruth. By the death of the last Apostle this Deposit was not only infallible but also complete.
Then from the Apostles onwards would God protect all churchmen from ever teaching error ? By no means. Our Lord warned us to beware of “false prophets” (Mt. VII, 15), and St Paul likewise warned against “ravening wolves” (Acts, XX, 29-30). But how could God permit such a danger to his sheep from erring pastors ? Because he wants for his Heaven neither robot pastors nor robot sheep, but pastors and sheep that will both have used the mind and free-will he gave them to teach or follow the Truth. And if a mass of pastors betray, he can always raise a St Athanasius or an Archbishop Lefebvre, for instance, to ensure that his infallible Truth remains always accessible to souls.
Nevertheless that Deposit will be unceasingly exposed to ravening wolves, adding error to it or subtracting truth from it. So how will God still protect it ? By guaranteeing that whenever a Pope engages all four conditions of his full teaching authority to define what does and does not belong to it, he will be divinely protected from error – what we call today the “Extraordinary Magisterium”. (Note how this Extraordinary Magisterium presupposes the infallible Ordinary Magisterium, and can add to it no truth or infallibility, but only a greater certainty for us human beings.) But if the Pope engages any less than all four conditions, then his teaching will be infallible if it corresponds to the Deposit handed down from Our Lord – today called the “Universal Ordinary Magisterium”, but fallible if it is not within that Deposit handed down, or Tradition. Outside of Tradition, his teaching may be true or false.
Thus there is no vicious circle (see EC 357 of last week) because Our Lord authorised Tradition and Tradition authorises the Magisterium. Indeed it is the function of the Pope to declare with authority what belongs to Tradition, and he will be divinely protected from error if he engages his full authority to do so, but he can make declarations outside of Tradition, in which case he will have no such protection. Now the novelties of Vatican II such as religious liberty and ecumenism are way outside of Church Tradition. So they come under neither the Pope’s Ordinary nor his Extraordinary Magisterium, and all the nonsense of all the Conciliar Popes does not oblige any Catholic to become either a liberal or a sedevacantist.
Tradition is of Popes the measuring-rod Because it came at first only from God.
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