To the editors:

Holy cow! Your Cecil Adams is somethin’ else! I quoted verbatim right from the Catholic Church’s own official document (Dei Filius) what she teaches about the infallibility of her own twofold magisterium (the extraordinary and the ordinary) and Cecil quotes from the Encyclopaedia Britannica to prove she doesn’t know what she’s saying [Letters, December 18]!

Is he kidding? Is Cecil for real, or is he the underground equivalent of Betty Crocker? I mean, does he read and write and think independently, or is “he” really a computer or something into which “facts,” right or wrong, are fed, but not intellectually assimilated?

I said it was understandable that a non-Catholic like he should have some confused notions about what the Church teaches, since even some of her American prelates have the same problem, but Cecil isn’t even trying to understand. It seems to be an ego thing with him, but it’s really not a question of who’s right or wrong. It’s what’s right or wrong. Does he, too, claim to be infallible?

Why would anyone refer to the EB for correct info on what the Catholic Church teaches, when there are so many authentic, original, official documents published by the Church herself? It boggles the mind. He could at least have consulted the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Then, again, he could have done worse. He could have called someone in the Chicago chancery.)

Cecil did not tell us who authored the EB article. We have a right to know, since it conflicts with what the Church herself teaches, but I bet I know already. Charles Curran or Hans Kung? Or both?

Cecil’s brief quote from the EB is merely their clumsy (and incorrect) way of explaining one of the ways the infallible magisterium is manifested or exercised, i.e., when a pope speaks from his throne (ex cathedra) in his capacity as the supreme apostolic authority. The constitution Pastor aeternus of Vatican I sets out the conditions required before such a judgment or declaration is infallible and it doesn’t equate infallible with ex cathedra, as the EB does. It defined with precision the infallibility of the pope in making solemn judgments which were, at that time, the objects of burning controversies.

This is the point that has escaped Cecil. The personal infallibility of the popes had been long disputed. Vatican I placed that dispute beyond all controversy, but in doing so it happened that the truth universally recognized up to that time (that the ordinary magisterium is likewise infallible) was somewhat overshadowed. That is why it was restated in Dei Filius, a complementary constitution of the same council.

To students of Church doctrine, this is not surprising. It was the purpose of Vatican I to make clear errors which were threatening the doctrine of papal infallibility, not to recall truths and traditions which no one was challenging. That isn’t the purpose of ecumenical and dogmatic councils. They never explain truths which, as the saying goes, the faithful “possess in tranquillity.”

I hope your readers noticed that the statement “The ordinary teachings of the Church, by contrast, are not infallible” was not from the EB. Those were Cecil’s own words, so he’s quoting himself to prove that Dei Filius is wrong. I hope he has an authority more reliable than Vatican Council I. Who is it? He doesn’t tell us.

(This habit must be a disease peculiar to the secular media–never consult an outstanding theologian who defends the Church. Always quote those who hate her or have been excommunicated by her: the “popular,” “mainstream” variety, like Dan Maguire of Marquette, or Andrew Greeley. It’s de rigueur at the Tribune and Sun-Times. I guess it’s Pollyannaish to expect anything different of the Reader.)

The pope may, indeed, say “anything he likes about birth control” but if it conflicts with what the Church’s ordinary magisterium has always taught about the issue and he tries to pass it off as the Gospel, nobody, least of all conservatives, would be obliged to obey him.

Liberals would be delighted to “obey” such a decree, i.e., they’d continue using contraceptives, but conservatives would know something was wrong when the McBriens, the Currans, and many of their episcopal defenders like Bernardin and Weakland, are suddenly elated by a Vatican directive. When Greeley and company applaud a papal order, we’re in big trouble.

The whole point is this: Humanae Vitae is infallible, as infallible as Ineffabilis (the bull promulgating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) because it reaffirms what the Church’s ordinary magisterium has always taught. It requires the same complete assent of faith from Catholics as any dogma proclaimed ex cathedra. (Greeley and company would go to the stake rather than admit that, but it’s the truth nevertheless.)

As I pointed out in my original letter, ex cathedra pronouncements are rare. Few of the doctrines Catholics profess faith in (as codified in the Apostles’ Creed, for instance) have been declared to be infallible by formal, ex cathedra bulls. The Trinity is a good example. No Catholic can deny it just because no pope ever demanded it in an encyclical. It’s always been taught “possessed in tranquillity.” Those who denied it were excommunicated in the early Church, but no single, elaborate decree was ever issued, summing up the entire doctrine in an exhaustive manner, as is the case with infallibility itself, or the Immaculate Conception.

I rest my case. For those with open minds, the truth is clear: the ordinary magisterium is just as infallible as the extraordinary, as Dei Filius teaches, with no apologies to the EB. If Cecil and others are in the habit of consulting their doctors to find out what the fine print in their auto insurance means, that’s their privilege. The Church admits their freedom to do so by her teaching on free will, but she warns of the consequences, too.

Cecil’s other two defenses are simply fatuous, but the points aren’t worth arguing. If he had explained what he meant by “spiritual capacities,” there would be no problem. The context was infallibility and whether a scandalous life compromised it, not whether consecrations or absolutions were invalidated. His “list” was chronological from start to finish. He should have said it was not meant to be complete, instead of “it goes on” precisely where it stops. But if we can be friends again, I’ll overlook such trivia.

Richard O’Connor

Highland, Indiana

Cecil Adams replies:

Richard, this grows tiresome. At issue here is the following statement from my column: “papal infallibility applies only to certain formal pronouncements regarding faith and morals.” Since you don’t seem to think much of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, permit me to quote from the article entitled “Teaching Authority of the Church (Magisterium)” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967):

“The ordinary exercise of the teaching office of the pope . . . is an essential element of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the college [of bishops] but it is not to be identified with it, and, hence, it is not necessarily infallible. . . . Just because the pope should express his opinion or show his approval of something, it is not to be thought that he always wishes to close the debate.”

Again, from the article entitled “Encyclical”: “It should be noted that encyclicals pertain per se to the pope’s exercise of his ordinary magisterium. One must distinguish this from his extraordinary infallible magisterium, exercised in such solemn functions as the definitions of dogmas or the official approbation of the decrees of an ecumenical council. . . . Since [the contents of an encyclical] belong to the ordinary papal magisterium, they are capable of change. . . . While encyclicals are not of themselves infallible pronouncements, and although their teachings are subject to change, Catholics are nevertheless obliged to assent to their doctrinal and moral content.”

I hope this is sufficiently clear. If it makes you feel any better, you did catch me out on one point. I said that “the ordinary teachings of the Church . . . are not infallible.” I should have said the ordinary teachings of the pope.