This is the last Catechism Thursday post for several weeks as I will be taking a little downtime, and Paragraph 92 is probably as good a segment as any to illustrate why I need to clear my head. The full body of the text comes from St. Augustine, writing in the early fifth century, and the belief that the Church cannot err in matters of faith and morals has been passed along as a pillar of Catholic identity through the present day. By way of review, Para. 92 is situated in the series of statements treating of the transmission of divine revelation, the first line of the Creed, “We believe in One God…”
Augustine’s phrasing has been a matter of great debate over time, and it has not always been interpreted with the necessary subtlety. Although phrased as a timeless truth, Augustine’s writing has a historical setting that bears upon its interpretation. As the renowned bishop of Hippo in Berber North Africa, Augustine faced struggles both within and outside the Church. Within the universal Church, Augustine was compelled to deal with one of the most significant early medieval heresies, Pelagianism. This school of thought maintained that the human being was born into this world as an essentially good being, not mortally wounded by Adam’s [original] sin. Its primary proponent, a British priest Pelagius, developed his teaching as a pastoral encouragement to Christians, arguing that they were in fact strong enough to overcome sin and vice.
Augustine recognized that Pelagianism undercut Christianity’s basic belief that Christ’s Incarnation and death on the cross were absolutely necessary for salvation; Augustine makes his famous case for infant baptism in the heat of this debate, and a millennium later Martin Luther would borrow heavily from Augustine in his assertion that justification comes entirely from the saving grace of God, and not the works of man. Para. 92’s command that “the whole body of the faithful…cannot err in matters of belief” can be read as a static truth or an episcopal exhortation. Given the context of the following sentence, which has a futuristic or utopian ring, the episcopal exhortation strikes the tone of a bishop calling for a unity of belief throughout the Church. (If this is your summer to take a plunge into St. Augustine, Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (updated, 2000) is the gold standard of introductions.)
The Bishop of Hippo had other problems to address, particularly to his north. In 408 A.D. an army of Goths, mercenaries, and home-grown dissenters sacked the City of Rome. By 408 the center of the Roman Empire had been moved to Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and renamed Constantinople, so Rome itself was in political and cultural decay. Alaric’s upheaval in this context was a psychological blow. Christians entertained apocalyptic fears that the City of Peter and Paul was being destroyed, along with the religion it shepherded. Pagans, for their part, saw the Gothic invasion as the wrath of their gods poured out upon the Western Roman Empire for defecting to Christianity.
It was in this context that Augustine produced his classic City of God, where he refutes the pagan charges and develops the philosophy of history that we embrace today, a linear flow of time between creation and the Last Judgment. A thoughtful Christian long after Augustine would think of himself as living in “the middle times” or “middle ages” between creation and judgment. (Impress your friends: “Did the people in the Middle Ages know they were living in the Middle Ages?”) Augustine went on to make a distinction between the City of God (the world of the Christian believers) and the City of Man (the sinner, the unbaptized, the unbeliever). Augustine, wise man that he was, understood that it was only for God to know the citizenry of each “city.” Thus, he defines the City of God as a matter of faith, using the phrase sensus fidei to connote the inner unity and sense of belonging from bishop to layman.
The challenge of para. 92 is its application to theology, authority, and catechetics over time and particularly at this juncture where we live on Augustine’s time line. The general understanding of the Church’s assertion that as a body it “cannot err in matters of belief” is that the Church will never lose its mission of fidelity to the message of Christ passed on by the Apostles through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. Years ago, our catechisms used the term “indefectibility” to describe the impossibility of the Church losing its core mission, something of a safety net in the bigger picture of things. Vatican II’s description of the Church as “the pilgrim people of God” suggests, however, that while the core of the Apostolic Tradition remains unchanged, our understanding, our teaching, and our discipline based upon Tradition has undergone a historical development. Moreover, at times the Church has taught matters that greater experience with the Spirit has corrected, refined, or even rejected.
The phrase “universal consent in faith and morals” must be addressed carefully. Like the beatitudes, this unity is an open-ended challenge, not an established or completed fact. In this year of Martin Luther, we are well advised to reflect upon his claim that the Church is semper reformanda, always in need of change. In 1962 many of the Bishops went to the Council with a working definition of the Church as the Spotless Bride of Christ. While there may be some who still carry this ecclesiological model, the newspapers and the confessional—not to mention our honest self-knowledge—are concrete evidence that we are deeply in need of reformanda in matters of faith and morals. To speak of the Church as having reached this plateau already is an egregious stretch.
Moreover, para. 92 goes to great pains to talk about a unity of belief in faith and morals. “…from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” It is not clear—as it was not clear to Augustine, either—precisely who comprises “the whole body of the faithful,” which is why he spoke of the body itself as mystical and metaphysical. Do Christians of other traditions, for example, share in at least a partial inclusion in this unity of faith? The bigger omission, though, is the lack of acknowledgement that all the baptized have a wisdom to share in the contemporary expression of faith, but more so in morals, which derive in large part from the experience of the faithful. Pelagius erred in his overestimation of human religious instinct. It is entirely possible that our present-day sin is underestimating it. Ordination is a sacrament of leadership, Baptism and the Anointing beget living wisdom.
I am taking some downtime, so the next Thursday post will be August 17 on Paragraph 93.