e-mail us


Beware murky world of 'secondary truths'

When the Catholic Theological Society of America meets in June, much of the discussion is expected to swirl around a discussion paper challenging the church's ban on ordaining women to the priesthood.

The document, in preparation for a year, questions the grounding of the ban in scripture, tradition and the teaching of the "ordinary magisterium" -- that is, the teaching of the pope and the church's whole body of bishops.

Missing from the document is a development that has received little notice. The Vatican earlier this year backed off from its previous argument that the ban is founded in scripture or tradition. It is not considered a revealed doctrine, a primary truth contained in the deposit of faith. Rather, according to an interpretation given early this year by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the ban is "secondary truth," a doctrine connected with revelation or "supportive of the fabric of revelation."

The distinction is extremely important. It means, Ratzinger said at a little-noted news conference in January, that one who insists that women can indeed be ordained is not a heretic, since such a person is not denying a dogma of the faith.

It also means that the Vatican is essentially abandoning all the usual arguments for an exclusively male priesthood regularly invoked in papal statements and decrees from various congregations.

In a sense the Vatican, with few noticing the shift, had fled the fortress of revealed "primary truth" as its bulwark against proponents of women's ordination and had moved to the murky, more imponderable and probably more impenetrable fortress of "secondary truth."

The occasion for this new obfuscation was the formal excommunication of Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, who has served as an Oblate of Mary for half a century.

Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith claimed that Balasuriya had strayed too far from truth in his book Mary and Human Liberation. He was ordered to sign a specially composed declaration of faith that stated, among other things, "I firmly hold and accept that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women."

When the theologian declined to sign the declaration, a sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him as one who had denied the faith. Commentators immediately concluded that because the special declaration of faith incorporated the official line on women's ordination, the Vatican held that teaching to be a matter of faith, a divinely revealed truth.

However, at the news conference Cardinal Ratzinger said that was not so. "It is not true that Balasuriya was excommunicated for not wishing to recognize that the church has no authority to admit women to the priesthood," he said. There are "many things which are unacceptable" in Balasuriya's book, he said, including the treatment of the doctrine of original sin.

Ratzinger then turned his attention to his congregation's much-discussed Responsum ad dubium, which, when issued in 1995, claimed that the ban on women priests was an "infallible" teaching. What the responsum really intended to say, Ratzinger explained in January, is that the ban belongs to the "second level" of religious truths -- that is, truths that "though not formally revealed" are connected in such a way with revelation that one destroys "the fabric of revelation" by denying the content of the second level.

"Since these matters are not contained in the deposit of faith," rejecting them "would not be heresy in the strict sense of the word," Ratzinger said.

But they are to be considered infallibly true nonetheless.

The issue of secondary, infallible truths has a long, jumbled history. The First Vatican Council late in the last century left their interpretation in considerable doubt. As a result, supporters of unlimited papal power like Archbishop (later Cardinal) Henry Edward Manning of England tended to regard virtually all decrees of popes, including encyclicals, as infallible teaching. More cautious commentators like Cardinal John Henry Newman argued that infallible truth is more properly reserved to matters clearly found in the revealed word of God.

Finally, decades later, the matter seemed to be settled when the Second Vatican Council, in its document Lumen Gentium, stated, "This infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his church to be endowed in defining a doctrine of faith and morals extends as far as the deposit of divine revelation extends."

On the face of it, that seemed to resolve the question: Infallibility goes only as far as scripture and tradition go and cannot be attributed to so-called "related" matters. Yet in the past 25 years, we have seen a decided trend toward "creeping infallibility." For example, in 1973 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated in Mysterium Ecclesiae, "According to Catholic doctrine, the infallibility of the magisterium of the church extends not only to the deposit of faith, but also to those things without which this deposit cannot be properly safeguarded and explained." A similar interpretation is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Listed among these secondary truths by some theologians are official condemnations of propositions contrary to revealed truth, certain "dogmatic facts" (such as an assertion that a particular ecumenical council was truly ecumenical -- that is, representative of the universal church), the canonization of saints and the church's approbation of religious orders.

Other theologians question how infallibility can be so widely attributed and what, if any, its limitations are. In a sense, an appeal to secondary truths gives the magisterium a carte blanche for infallible teaching, minus the checks and balances involved in establishing that a doctrine has been revealed in scripture or tradition.

In the case of male-only ordination, Ratzinger's congregation need state only that the teaching, though not revealed by God, is necessary for safeguarding the "fabric of revelation." How and why this is so has yet to be explained.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997