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Must We Accept Every Church Council?

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Tim Staples draws on his new School of Apologetics course — Evidence for the Church — to address the growing reluctance of some Catholics to accept the authority of church councils. Where do councils get their authority, and how much deference must a Catholic give them?


Do I have to accept all of the councils of the church? Tim Staples, next.

Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and this time we address what I think is kind of a disturbing trend in the contemporary church, in the Catholic church around the world, and that is not people who are wild on the fringes rejecting church teachings but people who seem very, very solid in their Catholic faith who seem, by all external evidence, to be practicing that faith, celebrating the sacraments, accepting what the church has to say, but also at the same time questioning or being suspicious of or expressing suspicion about the Second Vatican Council. That is, that council is a dividing point for many people and many are not sure am I required to accept this council? It seems like so much has gone wrong since this council, is it the fault of this council, and all that.

Well, we thought Tim Staples is the guy to ask about that, in part because Tim has a new course for the Catholic Answers School of Apologetics called Evidence for the Church, in which he tackles this very question among many other questions about the Catholic church. I hope you’ll check it out at schoolofapologetics.com. As a matter of fact, we’re very proud of the School of Apologetics. They’re magnificent lectures, the videos are beautiful, lots of supplementary materials, and you get a college level course, you don’t get the college level credit, and you don’t have to take a final exam or write a paper, but you get all the material you’d get in a college level course from Tim, Evidence for the Church, and from the other apologists on different topics. You can check that out as I said at schoolofapologetics.com. Here’s what Tim had to say about whether or not Catholics can reject a council of the church.

Well, once again, welcome Tim Staples.

Tim Staples:

It is great to be with you, my good friend, Cy Kellett.

Cy Kellett:

Thank you for being with us. We’re drawing our conversation the last few times we’ve sat and talked with you, and this time as well, from your course, Evidence for the Church.

Tim Staples:

Yes.

Cy Kellett:

And I gather, especially as an apologist, that’s something we’re obliged to do, to give evidence for the church.

Tim Staples:

That is. That is. We just got a word from the Vatican that it’s binding under the pain of mortal sin.

Cy Kellett:

Oh that you’re required-

Tim Staples:

That’s a joke by the way, folks.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So the church has this long habit now of getting together and having these meetings called councils.

Tim Staples:

Yes.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So I want to talk this time about how much fidelity we have to give to the councils. Is it all infallible? What’s the role of those councils? Could I reject one, for example? Could I be like, look, I love all the councils of the church, but come on Florence, we all know. Could I do that or do you see what I’m saying? Let’s start with there. Do I have to accept all the councils of the church?

Tim Staples:

Yes. And you know, recently we’ve… what is the old saying? I’ve said this often to you, Cy, 1 Corinthians 11 verse 19. St. Paul says, “Heresies must come so that those who are approved among you may become manifest.” It’s an awesome line there that really is prophetic in that this has been the history of the church from day one. Errors flood into the church, not because God wills them, we don’t like heresy, God doesn’t. But it’s used over and over and over again to clarify what it is that we believe. And in recent times, the magisterium has really brought clarity on that very question, because we have a situation with the Society of St. Pius X.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Tim Staples:

And here is a group, they’re so close to our hearts because they’re so close to us, kind of like the Orthodox, only they are much closer to us than the Orthodox. They acknowledge the supremacy of the pope. They acknowledge seven sacraments. They can make the same profession of faith with us, except now it’s come down to they don’t accept Vatican Council 2, and that is why they are not in full communion with the church. And Cy, if you knowingly reject an ecumenical council, you will be lost for all eternity. That is objectively grave matter.

Cy Kellett:

Okay, that-

Tim Staples:

Of course we know in the situation with the Society of St Pius X, like I said, they’re so close to us and that’s what scares me sometimes because too much is given, much is required. And we know the struggles there and there may well be invincibly ignorant folks to be sure in that community, God’s the judge, we are not. So I don’t want folks to be saying, “Tim Staples just said they’re all going to hell.” No, I didn’t. But what I did say is what they are doing there is objectively grave matter because we must… that’s part of the profession of faith is to accept all the Catholic church has declared to be revealed by God and ecumenical councils are an act of the magisterial authority of the church. That is in general.

Tim Staples:

It doesn’t mean, Cy, that you have to accept every line from an ecumenical council, because there are levels of authoritative teaching, even within the council. Maybe we’ll talk about that a little bit in more detail in a moment, but I want to make the general point though, that when an ecumenical council is promulgated, that is a definitive act of the pope in union with all of the bishops and it’s promulgated to the universal church. That’s what you can’t reject. And unfortunately, that’s what the SSPX rejects. That’s not a valid council. That, my friend, is grave matter.

Cy Kellett:

And there’s really no question that the Second Vatican Council meets all those criteria.

Tim Staples:

Correct.

Cy Kellett:

I mean it’s not like there was a competing claimant to the papacy or there was some inability of the bishops to gather. It was… everybody came.

Tim Staples:

And all the bishops of the world. In fact, every bishop’s conference in the entire world, all of the bishops readily, except in fact Pope Saint John Paul II famously said that Vatican Council II was the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit to the church in the 20th century. It really is a glorious council when you actually read the documents. Did some of the application get hijacked? Absolutely. Thanks be to God we’ve had popes that are steering the ship and bringing us into port here. Thank God for Pope Saint John Paul the great, Pope Benedict the 16th, and now Pope Francis, because there really are… they are bringing the spirit of Vatican II in the good sense to fruition.

Tim Staples:

But now I do think it’s important that folks understand that councils, generally speaking, have delineated teachings and levels of authority. For example, if you take the Council of Trent, the teachings that are definitive in the Council of Trent are the canons. There’s a reason why you have chapters, let’s say, session six on justification. Then you have a number of chapters where they teach various different aspects of justification, mostly against the Protestant reformers and others who deviated from the faith. Those teachings are authoritative, but they’re not infallible per se, unless they’re reiterating something that has already been taught infallible.

Cy Kellett:

I see. So they’re authoritative but not infallibly declared.

Tim Staples:

Yes. Not per se or not through the form itself. There are other ways that infallible teaching can be communicated even within an ecumenical council that is not a canon. For example, it can be teaching definitively all the bishops in union with the pope, and that could be a teaching of the universal and ordinary magisterium, which is infallible. But as the normal course, the difference between the chapters and the canons are that the chapters are generally not infallible, the canons are. That which is asserted by the canons infallible.

Cy Kellett:

Infallible teaching, yes. Okay, and this is something that I feel like sometimes we’re minimalists or something like, well, I just want to know what the infallible stuff is. But the authoritative stuff is there to… It has its purpose of teaching you and-

Tim Staples:

It does, and it’s binding, just on a different level. Yeah. I agree with you, Cy. The minimalist approach is dangerous. It’s a dangerous approach because as I remember my good friend, Father Joe Fessio, years ago saying, “In the early centuries leading up to Nicaea, they weren’t saying, “Oh, wait a minute, is that infallible or is that not infallible?” when they were talking about things, whether it be the hypostatic union, the divinity of Christ and such.” This was the teaching of the church. Are you kidding? Did you have to wait for the Council of Nicaea before Jesus became God? Of course not. And it was already authoritative.

Tim Staples:

And the papacy, folks have to understand long before it was infallibly divine in 1870, it was already an infallible teaching of the church and already binding upon the people of God for centuries and centuries before. So we have to be careful here, because when you start doing the… well that’s not infallible so I’m going to reject it. That is a fatal error because as the church has made very clear, even teachings that are not infallible, if they’re teachings of the ordinary magisterium, we are bound to believe, obey, and follow them as well just at a different level. We give what’s called religious ascent of the intellect and will.

Tim Staples:

Here’s one way to break down the difference, and I go through all of this, by the way, in the course. I get into a lot of detail on this. But here’s kind of a rule of thumb, if you or I, Cy, reject an infallible teaching, let’s say the assumption of Mary.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. You would pick the assumption of Mary.

Tim Staples:

It doesn’t matter, Cy, if you or I ever tell anybody. It could be in my heart of hearts where I say, “I ain’t buying that. Not believing it.” Never say a word. That’s grave matter. And if I knowingly and deliberately reject that, that is grave sin, mortal sin, and I’ll go to hell for all eternity. But if a teaching is on the ordinary level, not the universal and ordinary magisterial level which can be infallible, but on the ordinary level, a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. We’ll take, for example, did Mary die? I’m sticking with Mary.

Cy Kellett:

I know.

Tim Staples:

What can I say? I wrote the book. All right. Anyway. Let’s see. Because, as you know, that’s a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. In fact, when Pope Pius the XII promulgated the assumption in [inaudible 00:11:55], that wonderful document, eight times he mentions Mary died. And of course, this is a tradition in the church, east and west, the Feast of the Dormition, goes back centuries, has been taught magisterially, but not infallibly. So are we free then to run around and say, “Oh, Pius XII was wrong. He didn’t know. That knucklehead. He didn’t know that actually I’ve got insight. Saint Epiphanius says…”. No. We’re not free to do that. We can ask questions and if in our heart of hearts we don’t agree with the teaching of the ordinary magisterium like that, we’re not going to go hell for it, but we can be in trouble if we go out and publicly dissent and say, “It’s wrong and this is why.” That’s when we can be talking about grave matter. So that’s kind of a rule of thumb.

Tim Staples:

Now, there are levels of teaching even among the ordinary teachings as well. You can have lower level teachings where the church is not so quick to put the hammer down, teachings that haven’t been taught for centuries and centuries and are kind of drifting and that sort of thing. So, there is a fine science here, but generally speaking, that’s a good rule of thumb.

Cy Kellett:

What if I were to make a critique of say a document of the Second Vatican Council?

Tim Staples:

Yes.

Cy Kellett:

And I would just to pick a document at random, since there’s no individual document on Mary, I would pick that one, but there’s nothing.

Tim Staples:

Although Lumen Gentium has a lot to say about Mary from paragraphs 52 to 69, my friend.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So let’s say I say something like this, and I have heard people say this, nostra aetate, it’s badly organized and poorly expressed. It requires too much explanation. It’s an unhelpful document. Did I say anything that’s wrong in that?

Tim Staples:

Right. No, you can say I have problems with nostra aetate for the reasons that you said, but what you didn’t say is I don’t have to accept it.

Cy Kellett:

Okay, okay. Fair enough. Yeah.

Tim Staples:

So yes, we can have problems. I mean, I know folks who have problems with the Council of Trent and some of the imprecisions and such, why didn’t-

Cy Kellett:

Big liberal council, Trent.

Tim Staples:

Well, you’ve heard me say, and it’s okay to say for example, that the Council of Trent talks about the unanimous consensus of the fathers representing infallible teaching. Well great, but it didn’t tell us what is unanimous consent. What does that mean? And the reason is because different fathers at the council didn’t agree with each other so they didn’t define it. And so some would argue well, it’s kind of a meaningless dogma if you don’t know what it means. But you know what? That’s where we are. This is where the Holy Spirit has brought us. Does it have to be, for example, unanimous consent of the fathers, does that mean every single father has to teach it positively? That seems unreasonable because most fathers, some fathers like Ignatius of Antioch, who only gave us a little tiny bit of information [inaudible 00:15:13]-

Cy Kellett:

So how are they going-

Tim Staples:

How are they going to… that seems unreasonable, but the church doesn’t say. How many can or is it that none can contradict? None can say no, or can one. Maybe just one father or two? What does unanimous consent mean? So those sorts of things are fine. Respectfully speaking and saying, “I wish the Council of Trent would have done this, and they’re really not clear.” And of course the Council of Trent really led to Vatican I, because there’s nothing on the papacy. There’s just nothing. You’re screaming for it, but it didn’t happen because Trent, the fathers there, they had a lot to deal with and they couldn’t get to the papacy for whatever reason. They got to a lot, but they didn’t do that.

Tim Staples:

So is that a criticism? Sure.

Cy Kellett:

I see.

Tim Staples:

But that doesn’t mean, oh, I reject the Council of Trent because they didn’t talk about the papacy and they did this and they did that. Oh my goodness, the scrutiny over each council. I mean, how about those who say that our Eastern friends, the Council of Trent, there’s virtually… in fact, some Eastern Catholics, not Eastern Catholics but Orthodox would say the mass of St. Pius V commonly known as the Tridentine Mass is invalid because there’s no epiclesis or virtually no epiclesis in the traditional Latin mass, the Tridentine Mass.

Cy Kellett:

I didn’t know that.

Tim Staples:

I mean it’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it’s so muted.

Cy Kellett:

So you haven’t even begun the Eucharistic prayer [crosstalk 00:16:53]

Tim Staples:

Yeah, you guys don’t even have… I mean, that’s what they’ll say. It’s there. It’s just it is muted in the Tridentine Mass. You don’t have… in fact, that’s one of the things Vatican II brought back is a very clear epiclesis that actually made the East happy.

Tim Staples:

But the point is saying little critiques here and there, as long as you don’t go to the point like the Orthodox that the, or some amongst the Orthodox, that say the Tridentine Mass is invalid because there’s no epiclesis. That’s where you go too far and you have that with Vatican Council II. You can have problems with… by the way, I happen to like nostra aetate. I like all 16 documents to be honest. I wish it would have been clearer in some areas, but guess what? That’s going to happen at every council. Just be very careful before you say, “And here’s where the council was wrong.”

Cy Kellett:

Right, right.

Tim Staples:

That’s where you get… Look, what Cardinal Ratzinger used to say, I remember in his interview book, God in the World, he would say… I believe it was in that one where he… I don’t even remember the question, but I love the way he said, “Out of respect for the magisterium, let me phrase it like this,” and he asked a question. That’s what you do. If you have trouble with a document of the church, you ask a question. That seems to be saying this. That seems to be a bit toward polygenism here and [inaudible 00:18:21] 22. Well, that’s one thing to say there seems to be somewhat of a polygeny tinge to saying that’s heresy.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Right.

Tim Staples:

This is polygenism, oh my goodness and I’m going to reject the council and that’s the problem we have. And not just with Vatican Council II, but councils throughout history, Cy, after every ecumenical council, you have folks who split away.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Who say, “Nope. I’m not going with it.” Right, yeah. But this is part of the… I mean, it’s the great gift of the Catholic faith, this ongoing teaching magisterium, which you can see in things like the fact that we can respond to modern things like in vitro fertilization, which Jesus doesn’t say, I don’t know if you know this, but He doesn’t say anything about in vitro. So this is-

Tim Staples:

He didn’t even mention Petri dishes.

Cy Kellett:

He never even-

Tim Staples:

Can you believe it?

Cy Kellett:

I know. What kind of Messiah? But this is a great gift then of this ongoing teaching magisterium, one that constantly though tempts us to, oh really, I have to… now I’ve got to accept what these Vatican II fathers had to say? But we do. We do. We have to treat it all as a gift.

Tim Staples:

We do, Cy, and I think you’ve hit on something really important that I do touch on in my course on defending the church that unfortunately in our day and age, we have a heart problem too often, and that is that our Holy Mother Church is not presented as our holy mother often.

Cy Kellett:

That’s well said.

Tim Staples:

She’s, “The church,” and “Oh, what are they going to say now?” And I have to confess, I’m one of them.

Cy Kellett:

I know what you mean.

Tim Staples:

I have the tendency. And I’ll give you a case in point. I remember when the catechism came out, the first version in 1992. And I remember saying, because I happened to love the catechism of the Council of Trent, and I’d read it through. I used it, referenced it. If you see my copy right now, it’s all yellow and orange and everything from marking it up. And honestly, I said, “Oh my goodness. What are they going to come out with? What…”.

Cy Kellett:

Vague.

Tim Staples:

It’s going to be vague, it’s going to be… Oh my goodness. And actually what they did is blow away the… I mean, it’s not even close. The catechism account, as much as I love it and I loved it, it’s not even close. This new catechism is so much better, so much richer, theologically astute. It quotes fathers galore, scripture is dripping off of every page. It is absolutely extraordinary. And so, you know what I’ve learned over the decades? Is I try to read as many of the church documents as I can. I said when Pope Francis became Pope, I want to read everything the man writes. I haven’t, but I’m getting there.

Cy Kellett:

I don’t think he has either.

Tim Staples:

Yes, that’s right.

Cy Kellett:

That’s kind of a smart aleck remark, but there are speeches and things.

Tim Staples:

Oh there are.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Tim Staples:

There are. I mean it’s the same with all popes right? Did I say that?

Cy Kellett:

People are going to think I mean that against Pope Francis and I don’t, it’s just part of the job.

Tim Staples:

Oh it is, it is. And that’s why they have to clear up things afterward. Before they go into the [inaudible 00:21:42] which are the official teachings of the pope. They have to comb through them, ah, we want to change that before it goes in there and that sort of thing. But the point is that we need a heart change and to understand the way the sons and daughters of the church should approach church documents is with excitement and joy in saying, “Wow. What is the Holy Spirit going to say to me here?” And then you read and you imbibe. And if you have questions, you ask questions.

Tim Staples:

And if we keep it that way, it’s going to keep us from falling, going astray and doing what I see often from folks who call themselves Catholic, and they are Catholics, don’t get me wrong, who just pick apart everything that document says.

Cy Kellett:

I know.

Tim Staples:

And they end up taking it out of context and saying the opposite of what it says. And you think my goodness, what’s going on here? There’s a heart problem, Cy. We need to read the documents of the church as good sons and daughters of the church with thanksgiving in our hearts, because this is the gift of the Holy Spirit to us.

Cy Kellett:

All right, we’ll leave it there. Thank you, Tim.

Tim Staples:

God bless you.

Cy Kellett:

I don’t want to be too wordy about this or go on and on and on about it, but you have to give a clear answer when people ask, “Do I have to accept all of the councils of the Catholic Church with gratitude as a matter of fact, each one of them, a gift of the Holy Spirit? Do I have to?” So here’s the answer in full, yes. We’ll see you next time on Catholic Answers Focus.

Oh, wait. First I got to say a few things. Send us an email [email protected] We’d love to hear from you. [email protected], especially if maybe there’s some question that you felt we gave short shrift to here, because we do want to cover this in full, and if this raised another level of question that you want to ask, go ahead. I think this is a great topic and we’d love to keep talking about it. Send us an email at [email protected] You can support us financially at givcatholic.com. And if you’re watching on YouTube, like and subscribe right down here and don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, because that way you’ll be notified when new episodes come out. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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