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Church History Forum: changing papal teachings

by Catherine Frakas 08 Dec 2001

changing papal teachings QUESTION from steve September 24, 2001 Why do my fellow Catholics find it so difficult to accept the changing of certain church teachings? for hundreds of years, the church approved of torture, and now its rightly condemned --the church approved of slavery, and now its condemned --and the biggest farce of all --the spurios claim that the backward teaching on contraception is consistent. acutally the teaching today is quite different from what it was for hundreds of years--substansially different. maybe we've got an exagerrated notion of what infallibility is.
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on September 29, 2001 Dear Steve,
You are quite incorrect. The Church has never made any doctrinal approval of any of the three practises you mention, though at one point it did indeed authorise the use of torture and in the early centuries tolerated slavery (the latter for good reason). I shall take each of these points at a time.
In regard to slavery, I quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
[I]n 1462, Pius II declared slavery to be a great crime (magnum scelus); that, in 1537, Paul III forbade the enslavement of the Indians; that Urban VIII forbade it in 1639, and Benedict XIV in 1741; that Pius VII demanded of the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, the suppression of the slave trade and Gregory XVI condemned it in 1839; that, in the Bull of Canonization of the Jesuit Peter Claver, one of the most illustrious adversaries of slavery, Pius IX branded the supreme villainy (summum nefas) of the slave traders. Everyone knows of the beautiful letter which Leo XIII, in 1888, addressed to the Brazilian bishops, exhorting them to banish from their country the remnants of slavery I suggest reading these two Catholic Encyclopedia articles to get a full understanding of the issue:
Catholic Encyclopedia: Ethical Aspects of Slavery and Catholic Encyclopedia: Slavery and Christianity
It will be seen from reading these articles that the Church never approved of slavery, and treated slaves and free with equal dignity right from the start. The Church's tolerance of slavery in Roman times was a necessity of the time.
On the subject of torture, I presume you are referring to state-imposed methods of punishment. In this regard, the Church has traditionally recognized the State's temporal authority, in relation to the punishment of criminals. However, the Church has in the past authorised means of punishment which were unnecessarily cruel. Note that giving authority to torture is not a teaching on faith or morals, but an authorization to the temporal authorities, so cannot come under the scope of infallible teaching. The opposite is the case with contraception, which is indeed a teaching on morals.
Specifically, in the Bull Ad Exstirpanda from 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorised the chief magistrate to execute the laws made against heretics, subsequently confirmed by Popes Alexander IV in 1259 and Clement IV and Nicholas IV thereafter. I would point out that the AUTHORIZATION of torture was certainly not a doctrinal statement and therefore certainly not a matter of infallibility. It must be accepted of course, that the use of torture cannot be defended. For a full acount of the Inquisition, I refer the reader to Catholic Encyclopedia: Inquisition
On the subject of the Church's teaching on artificial birth control, which I feel is the main thrust of your question and which you presume to call a farce, it is wildly incorrect to suggest the Church has taught differently in the past. From the time of the early Church we read of the prohibition of artificial birth control. (See Catholic Answers: The Fathers speak on Birth Control and Catholic Answers: Contraception for a list of citations from the early Church Fathers.)
In fact, right up until 1930 no Protestant denomination taught the moral licitness of artificial contraception, when the Anglican Church of England finally caved in to the spirit of the age. It is only the Catholic Church which has held firm to the traditional teaching of the immorality of artifical birth control.
I recommend the following books to readers interested in the subject:
Why Humanae Vitae was Right: A Reader (ed. Janet Smith)
and Sex and the Marriage Covenant - A Basis for Morality
Finally, here is Pope Paul VI's prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae
On the subject of infallibility per se, you use the examples quoted to knock the idea of infallibility, by which, from the title of your question, I presume you refer to papal infallibility. You are, however, incorrect in attributing the teaching on birth control merely to the category of infallible papal teaching; rather they are from the ordinary INFALLIBLE Magisterium of the Church, as can be seen from the constant teaching through the centuries.
The reason your fellow Catholics find it so difficult to accept the changing of certain church teachings (in particular, artificial contraception) is NOT, in my view, because they perceive the teachings to have perhaps changed (as if many Catholics would think the Church had taught differently in the past?), but because they do not want to make the sacrifice involved in being obedient to the Will of God. Let's face it, how many Catholics find it difficult to accept the Church's teaching that slavery is wrong, simply because it tolerated slavery as an institution in Roman times? Very few. So your argument is quite invalid. And in any case, as I have already said, the Church's teaching on artificial contraception has been constant through the centuries.
In conclusion, your notion of infallibility is incorrect, not because it is exaggerated, but because you have not applied it to the infallible constant teaching of the Church over the centuries.
(Note: I am not saying at any point that Humanae Vitae was not infallible; I am simply saying the immorality of artificial contraception can be proved from the ordinary infallible teaching of the Church over the centuries, and Humanae Vitae continued this teaching. Just in case there is any misunderstanding!)
I hope this answers your question.
God bless, .
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