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I have long admired Dr. John Joy’s work on the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. For instance, his doctoral dissertation On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council published by Aschendorff Verlag is a work I still highly recommend to all students of the magisterium. For this reason, I read his article Is There a Charism of Infallible Safety? with both intrigue and admiration, and what follows is my respectful response.

Dr. Joy begins by defining terms. He notes the “infallible safety thesis” means “the pope may teach some errors in his non-infallible magisterium, but not dangerous errors.” He also explains that if this teaching were true, then it would mean the pope could not teach heresy in his magisterium – though he could be a heretic as a private theologian. This definition is acceptable, but the term infallible in this context can be easily misunderstood – which is evident from Dr. Joy’s own misunderstanding of the term later in the article. Though I’ve used this term before, I think it is better to refer to the Church’s doctrine as a charism of safety in order to avoid all of the unnecessary rabbit trails the term infallible may lead to.

In order to attempt to steel man his opponent’s position, Dr. Joy addresses Pope St. John Paul II’s General Audience of March 24, 1993 – which seems to affirm a charism of safety. The pope says:

Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of the Holy Spirit’s assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals, but rather shed great light on the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases, but embraces in varying degrees the whole exercise of the magisterium.

Dr. Joy dismisses this as evidence for the doctrine of a charism of safety because the pope explicitly says that infallibility is limited to ex cathedra teachings of the pope and elsewhere he refers to “non-infallible expressions of the authentic magisterium.” In light of this, Dr. Joy argues:

“However, John Paul II also makes it clear in the very same General Audience that he does not intend this charism to be understood as a kind of infallibility, for he explicitly says that the pope is infallible “only when he speaks ex cathedra.”[3] If the difference between definitive and non-definitive papal teaching consisted merely in a distinction between kinds of infallibility (i.e. “infallibly true” vs. “infallibly safe”), it would be odd for teaching that is supposedly “infallibly safe” to be described simply as “non-infallible” without any qualification.”

Note Dr. Joy misses the point made by the pope because of an unnecessary preoccupation with the term infallible. He argues that a doctrine of infallible safety wouldn’t make sense if the pope distinguishes between infallible and non-infallible acts of the magisterium without any qualification. Dr. Joy entirely misses that the pope explicitly refers “the charism of the Holy Spirit’s assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals” and that the charism “is not limited to exceptional cases, but embraces in varying degrees the whole exercise of the magisterium.” In other words, the pope recognizes a charism of safety for non-infallible acts of the papal magisterium – which ensure a prevention of error in matters of faith and morals.

Dr. Joy’s position – that the pope can teach heresy in his authentic magisterium – is completely refuted by this assertion, and he failed to explain how his view could account for what the pope said due what appears to be an unnecessary preoccupation with the term infallible. One could simply replace the phrase infallible safety with charism of safety and completely bypass Dr. Joy’s objections. However, Dr. Joy would still have failed to account for what the Pope asserted and the charism of safety doctrine could continue to draw from the pope’s words for its own support.

Next, Dr. Joy presents Donum Veritatis as a source his opponents would present to affirm a case for a charism of safety. He recognizes the document refers to “divine assistance” for acts of the magisterium that “are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility” but he reduces this assistance to a prevention of what he calls “frequent errors.” He argues:

The Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Donum Veritatis is another magisterial text that speaks of a “divine assistance,” which is said to guide “magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility.” Such a text is far from conclusive, however, since it can easily be understood as asserting a special grace that protects the Church from frequent errors in the exercise of the authentic magisterium rather than from dangerous errors. As Donum Veritatis itself goes on to say, “It would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.”

Sadly, Dr. Joy misses a pivotal word in the quote from Donum Veritatis which entirely undermines his assertion – namely, the word or. Donum Veritatis notes the “divine assistance” is not only for “habitual” mistakes in the prudential realm, but also for a “divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.” These two concepts were distinguished in the document, but Dr. Joy conflates the two as the same thing – which cannot be done because they are conceptually distinguished by the conjunction or. In light of this, let’s read Donum Veritatis again:

It would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission. (emphasis mine)

So, one cannot argue that the assistance is merely reduced to preventing “frequent errors” because it also refers to an assistance for the “integral exercise” of the magisterium. Defenders of the charism of safety position would simply ask how can the position of papal heresy account for this latter portion of the sentence?

I wish I could engage Dr. Joy’s attempt to steel man his opponent’s position further, but that was the extent to which he went to present the best case for his opponent’s thesis. In other words, he made no effort to engage the numerous instances from the magisterium that one may appeal to in order to substantiate a case for a charism of assistance.

Next, Dr. Joy shifts to objections for a position of an “infallible safety.” He first argues that it is “hard to accept” that some errors are dangerous and others are safe because “how could it be safe to embrace any error at all?” If we simply make distinctions within the very wide range of errors in the theological notes, this wouldn’t be hard to do. However, I’ll offer an example. If the Church were to teach that the Catholic faith requires us to believe that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch and then later it reverses this teaching by an ex cathedra act that asserts Moses was not the author and the faith does not require us to believe that he was, would it have been harmful for Catholics to have embraced the hypothetically erroneous view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch? How would their souls have been in jeopardy if they had embraced this hypothetical error? Numerous other instances can be marshalled to distinguish between errors that are inherently destructive to souls vs. errors that do not immediately place one’s soul in jeopardy but this one should suffice.

In the next section, Dr. Joy raises the case of Pope Honorius as proof against the charism of safety position. He argues that one must conclude one of the three options:

Either (1) he really taught heresy in his letter to Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and was rightly condemned for it; or (2) he did not teach heresy and was wrongfully condemned; or (3) he did not teach heresy, but was nonetheless rightly condemned because his teaching, although technically orthodox, contributed to the spread of the Monothelite heresy by appearing to provide support for it through its ambiguous formulations.

Even if one were limited to these three options, the doctrine of a charism of safety would still be unscathed; however, I will not directly engage his responses to each of these options at this time as there is at least one more option Dr. Joy doesn’t seem to be aware of, namely that the council did not condemn Pope Honorius for teaching heresy but for being a heretic as a private theologian. It is another matter as to whether Honorius actually was a heretic as a private theologian, but even if it were true, such a distinction was already noted by Dr. Joy as consistent with the charism of safety position in the beginning of his article. Thus, Dr. Joy has not sufficiently demonstrated that the case of Honorius disqualifies a person from holding to the Church’s doctrine of a charism of safety.

I’ll also note that Dr. Joy conspicuously failed to engage the fact that in a previous session the council fathers embraced the position that all of Pope Agatho’s predecessors (which includes Pope Honorius) were “undefiled” and have “never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition”. Did the council fathers contradict themselves? Or were they assuming a distinction between papal teachings vs. acts of a pope as a private theologian? If one embraces the latter, then one is safely on the side of the charism of safety position, but if one rejects the latter and adopts the former, then we have a very serious problem since the council fathers embraced the view that all of Agatho’s predecessors have “never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition” due to a divine promise that Jesus made to St. Peter and his successors. The council fathers explicitly embraced the words of Pope Agatho, which state:

For this is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of Almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end, according to the divine promise of the Lord and Saviour himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, Peter, Peter, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that (your) faith fail not. And when you are converted, strengthen your brethren. Let your tranquil Clemency therefore consider, since it is the Lord and Saviour of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, how it is known to all that the Apostolic pontiffs, the predecessors of my littleness, have always confidently done this very thing: of whom also our littleness, since I have received this ministry by divine designation, wishes to be the follower, although unequal to them and the least of all.

Note that Pope Agatho taught the teaching authority of the Apostolic See is based on a divine institution and its teachings remain unblemished and free from error due to a promise from Jesus himself. He then asserts that this promise has been preserved in all of his predecessors, which includes Pope Honorius. The council fathers wrote back to Pope Agatho and explicitly affirmed the letter and all of its contents. In other words, if one maintains that the council fathers changed their mind in a later session, then this means the fathers abandoned the doctrine they had embraced about Christ and the successor of St. Peter in a previous session. This would be a doctrinal change, not merely a change in historical fact. At this juncture, one might rightly ask upon what basis should one take their Christological doctrines and conclusions seriously if they were susceptible to ecclesiological errors several sessions prior?

As one may have suspected, towards the end of the article Dr. Joy reveals the motives for rejecting the Church’s doctrine of a charism of safety, namely, Pope Francis’ pontificate. He argues:

A speculative theological position like “infallible safety” may have seemed more plausible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the popes were thundering orthodox teaching with great clarity. But the list of perplexing things said by Pope Francis continues to grow. Even if every statement could be carefully (if laboriously) explained in an orthodox fashion, we would at least have to concede, based on the facts, that the papal magisterium is not protected from ambiguous formulations that insinuate or suggest dangerous errors, or from which dangerous errors might be taken away by reading texts at face value or in their natural meaning.

I won’t spend much space here defending Pope Francis from the numerous accusations that have been made against his pontificate since I’ve already devoted countless hours to that on Reason & Theology. However, I fear that some have allowed their theological conclusions to be determined by their predetermined biases against Pope Francis. This is especially troubling when nothing Pope Francis has taught in his magisterium actually falsifies the Church’s charism of safety doctrine and the one instance Dr. Joy provides as evidence to the contrary does not suffice. He states:

For example, to believe that certain passages of Scripture are no longer materially true or teachable—a position Pope Francis recently espoused in one of his responses to Dubia—at least suggests a dangerous error because of its implications for the truth of Scripture in general, even if the particular Scripture passages might not seem to be of great importance.

It is interesting that Dr. Joy spends only one sentence substantiating his claim about Pope Francis, and even then he does not quote the pope or provide a link to the reader to consider what the pope actually said. Here is a what the pope said:

On the other hand, it is certain that the Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but it is also true that both the texts of Scripture and the testimonies of Tradition need an interpretation that allows their perennial substance to be distinguished from cultural influences. It is evident, for example, in biblical texts (such as Ex 21, 20-21) and in some magisterial interventions that tolerated slavery (cf. Nicholas V, Bull Dum Diversas, 1452). This is not a minor issue, given its intimate connection with the perennial truth of the inalienable dignity of the human person. These texts need an interpretation. The same holds for some New Testament considerations about women (1 Cor 11, 3-10; 1 Tim 2, 11-14) and for other texts of Scripture and testimonies of Tradition that cannot be materially repeated today.

It is clear the pope was not saying that some things in Scripture are not “materially true” as Dr. Joy suggests. The pope simply stresses that Scripture must be properly interpreted by the magisterium and that some of its “cultural influences” no longer apply to today. This is something that should be obvious to any student of Biblical exegesis.

Dr. Joy concludes by asserting ipse dixit:

Peter is the rock on which Christ founded the Church. But the faithful are ultimately preserved from dangerous error not by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the pope, but by his judicious use of the keys of the kingdom, entrusted to him by Christ, when he binds and looses the minds of the faithful by his infallible judgments and definitions ex cathedra.

It should be noted that the claim Catholics are preserved from dangerous error “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the pope” is – to my knowledge – not a position that any theologian has actually asserted and it is certainly not the position of those who hold to the Church’s doctrine of a charism of safety. Thus, it appears to be a straw man.

I’ll also add that Dr. Joy’s reduction of a charism for the preservation from dangerous error to the setting of ex cathedra teachings not only conflicts with what we have seen explicitly stated by Pope St. John Paul II above, but it also conflicts with Pope Leo XIII who taught:

Wherefore it belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.

The above was asserted by the papal magisterium in the context of the entire papal magisterium – including its non-definitive acts. If the pope could teach heresy in his merely ordinary magisterium, then it could not be said that his magisterium is a “safe guide” that ensures a safe path to “eternal salvation.”

Many other magisterial teachings could be offered to substantiate the position of a charism of safety, but suffice it to say, Dr. Joy did not successfully engage the relevant magisterial teachings for its support, nor did he sufficiently invalidate the doctrine by what he did provide. In other words, if the doctrine of a charism of safety is false, one would not be able to conclude that by what Dr. Joy has offered.

Lastly, as shown above, Dr. Joy concedes that the pope can teach heresy, or any other doctrine that is destructive to souls, with the exceptions that they can’t be taught ex cathedra or be “frequent” in nature. This unfortunate concession means that Dr. Joy maintains the teaching authority of Jesus Christ on earth can become an agent for the destruction of souls – a concession that I suspect many Protestants and Eastern Orthodox would gleefully applaud. No amount of nuance or distinctions can subtract from the conclusion that this position means the gates of hell have – for all practical purposes – prevailed against the Church.

This article originally appeared on the Reason and Theology website. Re-published with permission.


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Michael Lofton is a graduate of Christendom College Graduate School of Theology where he received his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (Cum Laude) in 2018. He is currently working on a doctorate in Theology with Pontifex University and is writing a dissertation on the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Michael is the founder of the Reason & Theology show, where he has interviewed many of the leading figures in contemporary theology. He has worked with Catholic Answers as an affiliate apologist and also appeared on EWTN, SiriusXM Radio, Radio Maria. He has also contributed frequently to various newspapers and websites.

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