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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 01 Feb 2002

teachings of bad popes QUESTION from Kevin McCarthy October 29, 2000 Were there any known cases of teachings by a bad pope that were overturned by a succeeding pope?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on November 4, 2000 Dear Kevin McCarthy
There has never been a doctrine that has contradicted another doctrine. There has never been a doctrine that was made void be papal teaching.
By doctrine, I mean a teaching that has was taught by the Pope on a matter of faith or morals that is binding on all the faithful, whether it was declared ex cathedra or not.
Many Catholic dissidents and anti-Catholics try to point out some kind of contradiction in order to make their case against the Church. What is striking is that with two thousand years of history to draw upon, they can only dredge up less than a dozen cases of alleged contradiction, and these contradictions are non-existent. If the Church were a purely human institution with no guidance from the Holy Spirit, how on earth could so many popes and ecumenical councils be so consistent?
When examining cases of alleged contradiction, a few things must be kept in mind:
1) Privately expressed opinions, private letters and non-promulgated teachings do NOT count as doctrine.
2) Teachings taught in public but which do not bind the faithful in a universal fashion, do not count. So the pope could make a theological mistake in preaching to an audience of spectators. However, if he acts in virtue of his office and pastor of all Christians, and makes it known to the whole world that a belief is binding, that is doctrine.
3) Canon Law, disciplinary measures, or calls to action for a particular purpose do not constitute doctrine. Our canon law may have allowed torture at one point, but that doesn't make it doctrine; an ecumenical council may have ruled should wear badges, but that doesn't make it doctrine; the pope may have called for a crusade, in other words, made a call to action to a particular purpose, but that does not make it doctrine. And by particular purpose I mean an event or situation, NOT for a virtue. The pope may make a call to action to respect Life and not have abortions and call that doctrine, but that's not a particular purpose-- that's a general purpose.
4) Contradiction means CONTRADICTION. It means that one statement excludes another one according to the Faith NOT according to secular ideas and NOT according Fundamentalist notions.
One good example of this is when people say that Vatican II contradicted Unam Sanctam by allowing that non-Catholics may go to heaven.
Unam Sanctam said that the Church is the only means of salvation. It said that those who do not belong to Church will be damned. It is implied, however, that by not joining the Church, they commit a mortal sin. The Middle Ages was a time when it was commonly assumed that if you were shown the faith, but you did not accept it, it is because you were being obstinate on purpose, and therefore sinned. This, by the way, is part of the reason why inquisitions existed and why heresy was taken so seriously.
Getting back to my discussion: mortal sin is what leads to perdition. If there a person has not committed a mortal sin, then he cannot be damned.
However, the definition of a mortal sin requires that the person committing the sin have full knowledge of what he's doing wrong. Since non-Catholics don't usually know that they are wrong, then it cannot be said that they have full knowledge.
Vatican II recognized that there are people who seek the Truth but are ignorant of it. They are innocent if they do their best to search for the Truth, but fail to find it. As there is an absence of mortal sin in those cases, there is no reason to believe that such people are destined for hell.
Catholic dissidents and Fundamentalists tend to see this as a cop out because they view Catholic doctrine as a series of legal decisions rather than as a body of Truth, whose principles are related to every other one, like a spider's web. The Catholic Faith is not a series of doctrines. I often get the impression that even Catholics who want to be loyal to the Church treat it that way, as if you should remain STRICTLY within the letter of the law. This is how they justify sins upon which the Magisterium has not spoken against, but which Catholic Tradition has condemned. The Catholic Faith is a way of seeing the world, and this way of seeing the world can't be handed down merely in papal documents. It requires absorbing principles of reasoning and morality that are not necessarily set out by the Magisterium, but are widely present in the theological and spiritual classics of the great writers of the Church. If you forsake these principles, you will be bereft of understanding of how the Magisterium comes to a decision on a moral or supernatural issue. And then, unless you are endowed with a certain humility, you will be unhappy at having to accept doctrines for which you cannot see any justification. This is a modernist attitude and the only way to the true beatitude of being a Catholic is to reject this idea that only modern ideas are good ones and try to learn what the basic philosophical ideas that the Church accepts (e.g. the ends never justifies the means, definition of what is inherently evil and what is evil because of context, etc).
Fundamentalists and Catholic dissidents treat papal encyclicals as they would treat the Bible-- they try to proof-text to make their point. However, as any Catholic apologist knows, you can make any point you like with biblical proof-texts, even to show that the Bible contradicts itself; you can do likewise with encyclicals. But neither the Bible nor the doctrines of the Church are meant to be understood in vacuo. If you try to understand them without any context, then of course they can be made to appear to contradict themselves. But in a context of a tradition, they can be shown to be entirely consistent. Too often, Catholics are ignorant of that Tradition and fall away from the faith because they were not able to judge the Bible and the encyclicals in light of their faith, instead of secular principles.
Thank you for your question,
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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