Definitive or not?

Definitive or not?

Fr Brian Harrison OS, STD

In reply to John Young's first objection to my own arguments in his latest letter, I should clarify that it seems very few assenting theologians regard the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae as infallibly proposed. I have come across only two or three other orthodox scholars who think that it is.

Mr Young then speculates that the Vatican's CDF knew in 1978 that DH was infallible, but, in order to facilitate Archbishop Lefebvre's "return to communion with the Church", mercifully asked him to give only a simple, not "definitive", assent to its teaching.

But something the Congregation might possibly have thought, but admittedly never taught, carries zero theological weight. Moreover, Lefebvre was then still indisputably in "communion with the Church" (he was not declared excommunicated till 1988).

Above all, Mr Young has completely failed to address the principal argument of my previous letter, namely, that since DH "does not affirm either that the right [to religious liberty] is itself divinely revealed, or that it is a truth that all Catholics must hold 'definitively' [i.e., absolutely and irrevocably], the newly developed doctrine of DH belongs in neither" of the two categories of infallible teaching recognised in the Church's official profession of faith.

However, he unwittingly concedes the crucial point in this debate by admitting that the Church has not "declared [it] to be necessary" to hold the doctrine of DH "definitively". But that is the whole point I am making! As long as the Church has not declared that it, or any other given doctrine, must be held definitively, she has not proposed that doctrine infallibly.

Mr Young invites us to "ponder" the opening paragraphs in his latest letter but in them he simply begs the vital question. For this whole debate is precisely about whether there is some (very slight) possibility that an ecumenical council, when it deliberately refrains from asserting that a certain doctrine is revealed (de fide), or is at least to be held definitively, might be mistaken in teaching it to be true, especially if this is the first time the magisterium has ever explicitly proposed the said doctrine.

But one does not demonstrate that there is no such possibility simply by emphasising the obvious and undisputed fact that the Pope and the vast majority of bishops endorsed and promulgated it "after careful consideration". Against Mr Young's "lowering of the bar" for infallible status stands the fact that earlier councils carefully formulated short canons (solemn formulae pronouncing an "anathema" against dissenters) to make it clear that these conciliar statements alone were being infallibly proposed.

St Louis, Missouri, USA

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