Dogma is only Infallible when properly Understood

I’m dismayed to see that fundamentalism is on the rise among my fellow Catholics.

The fundamentalist Protestant believes that Sacred Scripture is infallible. I agree. But then the fundamentalist puts forward his interpretation of Scripture as if it were not an interpretation. Scripture teaches this, and Scripture is infallible, therefore, you must believe this. There is no acknowledgement, for the fundamentalist, that one’s own understanding of Sacred Scripture is fallible and may have erred. The Protestant fundamentalist also oversimplifies the teaching of Scripture, and, ironically, adds attributes false ideas to infallible Scripture by misinterpretation.

The fundamentalist Catholic behaves similarly concerning past magisterial teachings and Sacred Tradition. This happens among many conservative Catholics and traditionalist Catholics today. Their limited understanding of what the Magisterium has taught in past centuries is treated as if it were infallible. There is no acknowledgement that they may have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misapplied that teaching. Infallible dogmas are not treated as an infallible teaching that must be properly interpreted, in the light of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Instead, they speak as if there were no interpretation of dogma. And if the Magisterium in recent years has clarified its teaching on that point, in contradiction to their own views, they do not accept it.

They also treat any past non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium as if it were infallible, if they agree with it. They treat any past opinion of a Saint or Doctor as infallible, if they agree with it. And they treat many of their own false assumptions and misunderstandings as if these were dogma. Some have even proclaimed that various points of discipline, such as the form of the Mass, cannot be changed by the Church. They have dogmatized discipline.

This fundamentalism is made worse by the internet. Scattered fundamentalists come together online in various discussion groups and blogs. And when they find that hundreds or thousands of other fundamentalists have the same over-simplified and distorted understanding of dogma, they speak and act as if they cannot be wrong, as if their role now is to correct the Popes, the Bishops, and the Church. Pride goeth before a fall.

In truth, dogma is only infallible when properly understood.

For example, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception requires a proper understanding of original sin in order to be properly understood. It is a common misconception to apply the benefits of the Immaculate Conception only to the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But she was prevented from inheriting all of the effects of original sin, and the Council of Trent teaches that original sin affects body as well as soul. Therefore, the Immaculate Conception provided the Blessed Virgin Mary with a soul that was in the state of grace from conception, but also with a body that was never in a fallen state.

Another example would be the teachings of the Magisterium in past centuries on salvation. There are many assertions, some dogmatic, that one can only be saved by membership in the one holy Catholic Church. True. But Catholic fundamentalists distort this dogma by oversimplification, claiming that only Catholics can be saved, or only Christians, or that anyone who knows about the Church and outwardly rejects Her cannot possibly be a member implicitly. But that interpretation of those past teachings is incorrect.

The fundamentalist ignores recent magisterial teachings that disagree with his or her misunderstanding of past dogmas. For example, Pope Saint John Paul II clearly taught that the dogma “no salvation outside the Church” is only true if we properly understand membership in the Church. He taught that a person can be a non-formal (or mystical or implicit) member without being a Catholic or a Christian. Sometimes a person “outwardly rejects” the Church, yet becomes a member implicitly.

Since Christ brings about salvation through his Mystical Body, which is the Church, the way of salvation is connected essentially with the Church. The axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus”–“outside the Church there is no salvation”–stated by St. Cyprian (Epist. 73, 21; PL 1123 AB), belongs to the Christian tradition. It was included in the Fourth Lateran Council (DS 802), in the Bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII (DS 870) and the Council of Florence (Decretum pro Jacobitis, DS 1351). The axiom means that for those who are not ignorant of the fact that the Church has been established as necessary by God through Jesus Christ, there is an obligation to enter the Church and remain in her in order to attain salvation (cf. LG 14). [All Salvation Comes Through Christ]

The failure to become Catholic, when one possesses sufficient accurate knowledge of Catholicism, is objectively a mortal sin. But someone might fail in this obligation to formally join the Church without committing an actual mortal sin, due to a sincere but mistaken conscience. Such a person is not deprived of grace or salvation for acting in good conscience. For they are invincibly ignorant of the requirement to join the Church formally.

For those, however, who have not received the Gospel proclamation, as I wrote in the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, salvation is accessible in mysterious ways, inasmuch as divine grace is granted to them by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, without external membership in the Church, but nonetheless always in relation to her (cf. RM 10). It is a mysterious relationship. It is mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her. [Ibid.]

Those who do not know about the Church cannot be expected to join; they have no “external” or formal membership. But they can still be saved by Christ, through a membership in the Church that is internal or non-formal. They can receive an implicit baptism of desire:

Letter from the Holy Office (the CDF) to the Archbishop of Boston: “To gain eternal salvation, it is not always required that a person be incorporated in reality (reapse) as a member of the Church, but it is necessary that one belong to it at least in desire and longing (voto et desiderio). It is not always necessary that this desire be explicit as it is with catechumens. When one is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good disposition of soul by which a person wants his or her will to be conformed to God’s will.” [Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, DS 3870; ND 855 (1949).]

And I maintain that even an atheist or agnostic can have an implicit baptism of desire, if they reject the idea of God due to a sincerely mistaken conscience, and choose to love their neighbor in full cooperation with grace.

“The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” [Pope Saint John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 10]

Some points of salvation theology are still open questions. But the fundamentalist treats nearly all theological questions as definitively answered by his or her own understanding (or misunderstanding) of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

When Pope Francis teaches on salvation theology soon (probably in 2015), many of these fundamentalists will declare him to be a heretic because he contradicts their own misinterpretation of dogma. They say that Tradition and Scripture and Church dogma are infallible. But what they really mean is that their own understanding of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium is infallible. If they agree with the teaching of a Pope, they treat it as infallible, and if they disagree, they reject him utterly.

Ironically, they both claim that one must be a formal member of the Catholic Church to be saved, and depart from that formal membership by rejecting Church teaching on salvation and other topics. I believe that such persons can still be saved, if they are acting on a sincere but mistaken conscience and so retain an implicit membership in the Church, by the state of grace, while unfortunately departed from the Church due to their misunderstandings of dogma.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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