Ex Cathedra Does Not Mean Ex nihilo

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There seems to be an opinion in some circles that an ex cathedra pronouncement of dogma is essentially an innovation in thought, sprung new-formed from the head of whatever Pope happens to make the pronouncement. I look particularly at the oddities that surround both the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception. Both of these dogmatic pronouncements had extremely long histories of belief before they were articulated in priniciple by their respective posts.

I am reminded of this because of one of the pictures I saw either at the El Greco exhibit or in an adjacent gallery. The painting was of sixteenth century Spanish vintage and it was titled, "Mary {or perhaps "The Mother of God") of the Immaculate Conception." This was centuries before the pronouncement in 1854(?)

Why then the feeling that something new came to light with this dogmatic definition?

(1) It's a convenient club to further drub the Catholic Church about the head and shoulders.

(2) Protestants do not of their nature care for "tradition." They do not distinguish between "Tradition" and "tradition." Note that the enormously popular book by Rick Warren articulates this once again. A recent article by Christopher Hall in Christianity Today states why Evangelicals can honor the Church Fathers, but pretty much ignore the rest of Catholic Tradition (although his reasoning is somewhat better than Warren's).

So, to those who think that we invent new things to add on to what scripture reveals willy-nilly; please be aware that even very serious dogmatic pronouncements are not innovation, they are articulation--precise definition of what what has long been believed anyhow.

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I agree that ex cathedra does not spring ex nihilo out of the Pope's head, and the doctines that have been defined with ex cathedra authority have a long history.

At the same time, we need to be careful of implying that these doctrines were handed down in detailed and unchanged clarity from the Apostles. This is not true either.

Doctrine develops in clarity through a process of debate among theologians and discernment by the whole Church in the sensus fidei. Old questions are answered definitively giving rise to new questions, which eventually become old questions answered definitively giving rise to more new questions, etc.....

Throughout this circular process, the Church continually looks back to Scripture, as well as looking at popular piety, the opinions of theologians, and so forth until the teaching authority reaches a point of making a definition.

There is nothing static about the process, and soemtimes, the discussion takes a turn that seems to appear to introduce something new, but really reinforces what lie seminally in the Tradition the whole time.

As Catholics, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide this developing Tradition, and thus, we call the Tradition "sacred" when the teaching authority Christ gave the Church reaches a moral certitude to definitively answer questions.

Even as one who favors such an apparent change as women priests, I believe that we progressives have an obligation to demonstrate that what we argue did, in fact, lie seminally in the Tradition all along. We cannot simply invent doctrines ex nihilo, whether we are the Pope or those who withhold assent on non-infallible statements.

What is frustrating sometimes is not being heard when such an argument can be made intelligently.

What we seek is continuity with the past, though not mere blind imitation of the past.

But the basic premise of the conservative Catholic is correct: all revelation culminated in Jesus, and if we cannot demonstrate a doctrine develops in continuity with the past, it is not part of Sacred Tradition.

Peace and Blessings!

As soon as I read the word "greetings" I knew that it was you, dear jcecil! I just wanted to chime in that I substantially agree with you, not necessarily about the ordination of women , but about the necessity to thoroughly look at the entire history of Tradition, and look through a lens that recognises the adaptation of the Church to the time in which it dwelt in the particular expression of Tradition at that time. (Gadzooks, what a poor sentence!--but I am in a hurry, so suffer, I apologize).

I do agree that blind imitation of the past is not the proper approach. In fact, I think that it may often be the laity who does not understand this sufficiently. For us the past tradition often seems to be encompassed by the Church as it was known in the immediate pre-Vatica II period, setting aside all that came before the "Tridentine" era.

I have had people recoil in horror at a discussion of the evolution of the sacrament of reconciliation, as if it had sprung full-blown from the lips of the Lord, complete with grill,curtain and "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned..."

An example of well-considered Tradition would in fact be the Immaculate Conception.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 17, 2003 10:32 AM.

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