On The “Noninfallibilists” and How They Diminish Virtues of Docility and Obedience

On The “Noninfallibilists” and How They Diminish Virtues of Docility and Obedience

By: Msgr. Charles Pope

OK I admit it, I am likely making up a word. But, by the term “noninfallibilist” am I referring to those who, in the discourse of matters of faith and morals, are dismissive of any teaching by the bishops and Pope that is not infallibly defined. Now as you may have guessed, those of this school, not only wish to exhibit a lot of freedom in what they have to believe, but also will define downward what qualifies as infallible.

Back when I was in seminary, thinkers of this sort were predominantly, if not exclusively on the theologically liberal end of the spectrum, and generally they used as their starting point their dispute with Humanae Vitae. Of course they insisted that it was not infallibly taught and, hence, they were free to dissent. They also appealed to the “spirit of Vatican II” which they claimed among many other things, had liberated us from from child-like obedience to the magisterium. The only problem was that the actual letter of the documents of Vatican II were not quite as “liberating” as the so-called “spirit” was.

For example, Vatican II in Lumen Gentium spoke of the Infallibility of the ordinary magisterium when it said:

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine in- fallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among them- selves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held [definitive tendendam]. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith. (LG, 41)

Further, it also said,

Religious submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authoritative Magisterium (authentico magisterio) of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra; indeed, that his supreme Magisterium be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, according to his manifest mind and intention.” (Lumen Gentium 25.2)

Oh Yeah? As you may remember, if you’re a bit older, or may suspect even if younger, the dissenting theologians of the late 60s and 70s parsed every word of these paragraphs, not to richly understand them, but to be done with them. And, as you may have guessed, they could find almost no instance in which the criteria set forth for the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium or submission to the non-infallible teachings of a pope, actually or ever applied. Reams and reams of papers were published trying to minimize or neutralize the notion that we should open to being taught in faith and morals by the ordinary magisterium,  and that if something wasn’t infallibly declared by the Pope (a rare exercise of the extraordinary Papal Magisterium), we were simply free to go our way, confident that the the ordinary magisterium or the the local bishop was no wiser that we in just about anything, including faith and morals.

Docility (teachableness) and obedience were on vacation.

Further, those were the times in which the great indoor sport of most prominent theologians was to show how nothing really applied, and how what seemed to have been quite plainly stated, did not mean what it actually said. Scripture was diced and sliced. Apparently Jesus never really said or did most of what Scripture sets forth. And plainly stated biblical morality didn’t really mean what it apparently and rather plainly stated. And, as we have seen, the actual texts of the Second Vatican Council had to yield to the spirit in which they were “obviously” intended. Actually quoting the texts was “indelicate,” “reactionary” and indicated “rigidity.” Ah, such were those heady days.

But today, I am concerned that such an attitude is not the sole mindset of dissenters on the theological left. The attitude is becoming increasingly widespread among most of the faithful, whether theologically liberal or conservative. Further, the attitude is less theologically considered and more just an unquestioned, even unconscious assumption, to wit: if something is not infallibly taught, I am free to wholly disregard what the bishops and even the Pope is saying. Of course what is meant by “infallibly taught” is a concept only vaguely understood by many, and very narrowly defined and interpreted by others. At some point, infallibility, a valid theological distinction, can become a sort of legalism.

Imagine a child explaining to his parent why he is ignoring them: “You didn’t threaten me with significant punishment, so I just ignored you.” But frankly a parent shouldn’t have to threaten a child, a child should be willing to be taught even without official threats and pronouncements. And yet many Catholics exhibit just this sort of attitude when it comes to the Church, our Mother: an unwillingness to be taught unless very stern and strict pronouncements are forthcoming or very specific formulae are iterated (As one theologian opined: mater si, magistra no! – Mother yes, teacher, no!).

Pervasive – As I have said this attitude was once the domain, largely, of the theological left. But now many on the theological right, irritated by a few decades of Bishops who, according to them, have strayed politically left, or have not towed the line tightly enough on liturgy, pro-life, etc., are also adopting an attitude, that they can wholly ignore the Bishops, who have a teaching office, unless we are dealing with something “infallibly” taught.

Last week on the blog I posted the issue of Capital Punishment, and while granting that the death penalty was not intrinsically evil, wondered if it wasn’t time to allow our shepherds (the Pope and the world’s bishops) to lead and teach us in the matter that, given our struggle with the culture of death, we ought to stand against the use of the death penalty in all but the rarest cases. The answer I got back from most readers was an emphatic “no.” And many reasoned that, since the matter was not definitely taught they had no obligation whatsoever to consider or stand with the Pope and the Bishops on this.

Many of the same Catholics are shocked and angered at the decision of some bishops and liturgists to simply ignore or withstand the Pope’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, encouraging more widespread use of the Traditional Latin Mass. But such are the times in which we live, where the climate of camps and the rigid refusal to be taught or be open to even non-infallible issues is common throughout the Church.

Some will argue that the Bishops have strayed beyond faith and morals when they issue letters on immigration, the economy, healthcare and the like. Possibly, but in all these areas there ARE important moral issues, biblical teachings, and Catholic social teachings that OUGHT to be brought to the discussion. Bishops do have duties to keep Catholic and Biblical teaching part of the discussion. And Catholics especially, ought to be more open to being taught, even when the matters are non-infallible and even if the view is at odds with their own political, economic and scientific views.

Consider the following quote from the Catechism:

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it. (Catechism 892)

Now, some will want to endlessly parse the words, and so strictly define everything, that the statement above almost never applies.

But pastorally what # 892 says to me is that I should be willing to be taught by my Bishop and that what he, and especially the bishops as a whole teach together, ought to be a very important part of my thinking. What the Republicans or Democrats or talking heads think may be an influence, but how much more so my Bishop, in matters local, and all the Bishops and the Pope, in matters more universal.

Why should a newspaper editor, or political party influence me more than the the bishops of the Church? At bare minimum I should seriously consider what is taught by the bishops, and, even if I come to a technically different conclusion on some policy matter, I will at least take seriously the Catholic and Biblical principles they enunciate, and seek to include them in the policy considerations of the temporal order.

Having quoted this Catechism paragraph to one of the interlocutors in the Capital Punishment combox they (in effect) sniffed and said, that # 892 is not an infallible teaching and “I am free to disregard it.” I will not even argue the question of infallibility here, but the point stands that we ought to be more willing to be taught.

To conclude we might reflect on two virtues that are critical to having faith: docility and obedience.

The word docility is scorned in the modern world and caricatured as causing one to be a pushover, easily brainwashed etc. But docile in Latin means to be “teachable.” Hence, to be docile means to be teachable, to be open to the wisdom and knowledge of others. Like it or not, our Bishops do have a teaching office and, like it or not, they are the bishops God has permitted and intended for us. We ought not simply dismiss what we do not like, but remain open and teachable. Docility, though often maligned, is the door to deeper knowledge and faith and it better disposes us for wisdom.

Obedience too is maligned by the modern age. But here too there are Latin roots that disclose the deeper meaning: ob + audire means “to give a hearing to,” “to listen with open ears.” Hence obedience too implies that we are willing to listen, to be taught, and to strive to understand what someone in authority is teaching and setting forth as a course of action. Like it or not, our Bishops have authority and, unless they are setting forth evil or error, we ought to give careful consideration to what they teach and the vision they set forth.

I wonder if the “noninfallibilists” of our time will have anything to do with these notions. But my question remains, are we really free simply to ignore the bishops, and the Pope except when they clearly teach infallibly? Are we not in fact defining faith and Church-life downward by this attitude? What of docility and obedience in more ordinary matters? Is it really an all or nothing scenario, or are we on more of a continuum here where the default setting ought to be a listening ear and a teachable spirit?

I am sure many of you will have responses and distinctions to make. Remember I am starting a conversation not issuing an edict (as if I could). But I only ask this, that you might be careful not to so distinguish docility and obedience that they cease to exist as real categories. I know there are distinctions to be made and scenarios to consider which I have not set forth here, but there is also a general norm to be followed of docility and obedience, of religious assent of mind and heart. So have at it, and remember: caritas, caritas!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On The “Noninfallibilists” and How They Diminish Virtues of Docility and Obedience

  1. Toby says:

    I agree with all of that. Great piece- thanks.


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Apart from one point of detail : while granting that the death penalty was not intrinsically evil (it is, in fact, intrinsically evil ; killing anyone is a mortal sin, even in those cases where it is morally unavoidable and where forgiveness for that sin is granted by simple confession) ; that’s a fairly good article, I agree.


  3. toadspittle says:


    What the dictators of this world – of whatever political or religious stripe – enjoy more than anything in their unhappy subjects are ‘docility’ and ‘obedience.’
    Given that, Toad thinks that putting too high a premium on these “virtues” can prove perilous.


  4. teresa says:

    A really good article. Yes, and applicable to both extremities which can be found in the Church.

    Toad, try think it the other way around: a State has its Codes of Law, and the citizens have the duty to obey, the power of interpretation of Law Codes lies not in the hand of each individual but in the hand of State institutions like the Constitution Court (at least in Germany).

    A Church must be hold together with a homogeneous set of dogmata and laws, if they are allowed to be rejected by any individual according to everyone’s own liking and subjective judgement, what would we have: yes, clearly, an anarchy, and in some places there IS already an anarchy.

    Every democratic States has authority over its citizens, though not unlimited authority, but a well defined one, and the same with the Church.

    Authority is not per se bad, the authoritarian Dictators ask for unlimited authority in every aspect of the life of its citizens, but it is not the case with the Authority of the Church over us Catholics, we do enjoy certain freedom.


  5. JabbaPapa says:

    Docility is not a Christian virtue, but it is the 19th century Church especially that put a certain amount of emphasis on the word. The 19th century Church was very concerned with central Authority, as an overreaction following the Reformation and Counter Reformation ; and as a reflection of the prevailingly Newtonian vision of a clockwork universe that dominated the philosophy of the period, as well as the theology.

    Going into the Latin origins, docilitas means “being able to learn” ; which would be rendered into English by something like “receptivity” instead of “docility”. Please note that I first translated the Latin as if a verbal form, to illustrate the more dynamic meaning in the original than modern nouns typically permit — this is an active quality, a kind of desire to be taught ; rather than the passive submission to teaching that the author seems to be promoting.

    The basic meaning of the word is “having the ability to be led” ; which had not just positive connotations, but negative ones. The connotations in the English “docile” are far more negative ones, generally.

    The root meaning of doc-/duc- is “to pull” — as one more comment on the dynamic relationship which is implied in the Latin, the teacher trying to pull the learner in one direction, and the learner being advised to allow himself or herself to be taken in that direction. Fundamentally then, docilitas is a consequence of trust, therefore a consequence of Faith ; rather than being a prerequisite for Faith as the author is suggesting.

    The ability to learn can hardly be a universal Christian virtue then, either ; given its foundation in individual gifts rather than everyone having received the same measure or form of intellectual abilities.

    Nor is obedience one of the cardinal virtues, for that matter ; and indeed, the Catechism itself outlines how obedience must be provided only in certain circumstances, but it must be denied in others, as dependent on a higher obedience to both divine Authority and our own individual (God-given) Conscience ; and obedience to the more important Church teachings in cases of conflicts with the less important ones.


    I think that the problem with the bad theology that the author is referring to is a problem of bad hermeneutics, rather than a problem of disobedience as such (although the bad hermeneutics when applied in the domain of moral theology can in turn become a source of poor obedience).

    The basic category of fallible versus infallible generally concerns lay catholics, rather than clergy. That is to say that many Catholic teachings are considered fallible in the sense that lay Catholics who contradict them do not cease to be Catholics. Clergy have a far stricter discipline laid on them as concerns these teachings, curates of parishes even moreso, bishops and abbots even more, and so on up the hierarchy.

    Yes, there are a few of the teachings that are considered to be fallible due to their inherently uncertain nature ; but it is a clear theological Error to consider that all fallible doctrines may be freely denied by theologians and clergy. The Pope and all of the other leaders of the Congregations of the Church and the Bishops have no ordinary freedoms to teach any otherwise than the contents of the doctrines, including all fallible doctrines.

    Fallible doctrines may be debated, they may be reviewed and sometimes even changed by the Magisterium ; but it is not permissible to teach that whichever denial of such doctrines could be considered as Catholic teaching, and it is certainly not permissible to describe their deniability as if meaning that theologians and clergy could just completely ignore the contents of these teachings. That is to go beyond a simple doctrinal variation, which is permissible in the case of individual fallible doctrines, and to head down the pathway towards Protestantism and Apostasy.


  6. toadspittle says:

    Telling us what ‘docility’ meant in Latin is, as Jabba rightly points out (at least Toad thinks he does) beside the point. What matters is what it taken to mean now, in English.
    And that is debatable up to a point. Because words like docile, terrible, impertinent and awful, not to mention ‘momentarily’ – (a pet Toad ‘peeve!’) have changed their meanings over the years.


  7. JabbaPapa says:

    You’re right toad, the Latin meaning of “docile” is quite beside the point of what that author has said in English ; and I was indeed trying to point out that his justification on the basis of that Latin is a false one anyway, IMO.

    Catholicism teaches that docility can sometimes be a virtue, and sometimes a vice. This is how and why I have some disagreement with the author on the basics of his text.


  8. JabbaPapa says:

    I’ve just come across a rather good (and short!) video about the question of infallibility, given from the point of view of an ex-Protestant convert to Catholicism.

    Now, my own focus is typically doctrinal — but I have to say that this person’s understanding of a far more pastoral and scriptural aspect of the question is not just enlightening, but strikes me as being quite perfectly aligned with my own more abstract understandings of it, but with a lot more human warmth and feeling than my own rather dry approach… 🙂



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s