Editor’s note: Courtney Ray’s recent column addressed issues concerning the Seventh-day Adventist Church internally but also touched on issues of Catholic theology. In the spirit of productive interfaith dialogue, the following is a response from a Catholic perspective.
One of the things the Catholic Church is often criticized for is their belief in the Pope as Vicar of God, rendering him infallible. Clearly, history is replete with examples of the Pope making questionable and downright erroneous decisions. From the Middle Ages to the modern day, we see examples that demonstrate the Pope’s lack of Divinity. This doesn’t merely pertain to the theological issues we can name, but rather to moral problems that the Catholic Church perpetuated under the guidance of various papal leaders.
-From "When We Get It Wrong" by Courtney Ray
I find it a bit ironic that in an article titled “When We Get It Wrong,” which is, essentially, a mea culpa from an SDA minister about a number of things the SDA Church has gotten wrong in the past as well as the present, that the very first paragraph is, well, for lack of a better word—wrong.
For instance, the Catholic Church does not teach that the Pope is unable to make an "erroneous decision," nor does it teach the "divinity" of the Pope. It continually baffles me to see ministers and theologians, across the denomination spectrum, consistently misrepresent this teaching of the Church, especially when it is so readily available to one and all. The Catholic Church’s definition of infallibility, as it pertains to the office of the Pope, is not some secret teaching that the Church tries to keep hidden from the public. No, it is right there, in paragraph 891 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I will briefly define this teaching on papal infallibility here so as to hopefully help folks better understand it and better convey it to others. The Pope is infallible when, as head of the Church, he proposes a doctrine in the areas of faith and morals, as necessary for belief by all the faithful. That's basically it. It is a very narrow definition of infallibility. It's what is known as a negative charism. In other words, infallibility simply means the Pope cannot teach error, in the areas of faith and morals, as head of the Church, to the entire Church. Period.
So, papal infallibility does not mean the Pope is infallible in every and all of his actions and decisions, or even in all of his teachings. Popes can, theoretically, be heretics. However, as long as they do not teach the heresy as a doctrine necessary for belief by all of the faithful, then the dogma of infallibility still holds. A Pope can be an absolute moral reprobate and scoundrel. The Catholic Church has had a few Popes along those lines. But the moral, or rather immoral, behavior of any given Pope is not germane to the doctrine of infallibility.
Infallibility has to do with, and only with, the Pope’s teachings in the areas of faith and morals, as head of the Church, to the entire Church. I'm not asking you to necessarily agree with Catholic teaching on the infallibility of the Pope (although, of course, I think you should), I'm just asking for it to be accurately and fairly represented.
In addition to what was said about papal infallibility, Minister Ray denied the infallibility of the SDA church. I was under the impression, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that at least some of the teachings, if not all, of Ellen Gould White are considered to be infallible, aren’t they? And, if they are not infallible, then the irony of ironies is that every distinctive SDA doctrine and practice could, in theory, be wrong. After all, they would be nothing more than the teachings of a human being, and as Minister Ray says in her article, “To err is human.”
I will close this brief response to Ray’s article with the question she closed her article with: “The question is, when can we admit our faults and change for the better?” Will the SDA church as a whole admit that they have misunderstood and misrepresented Catholic teaching on the infallibility of the Pope and change for the better?
John Martignoni is the founder and president of the Bible Christian Society, a Catholic apologetics organization, and Director of the Office Evangelization for the Diocese of Birmingham.
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