Thursday, May 24, 2007

Error has no rights

The title of this post is an assertion that is found in the social justice encyclicals of Leo XIII, and it may seem a curious assertion. The following section from Romano Amerio's Iota Unum helps shed light on it by examining the species of error in the context of how the Church responds to it. (Note: when the author speaks of what the Pope says, Amerio is speaking of John XIII's opening speach of Vatican Council II.)

40: a new attitude towards error

The Church, so the Pope says, is not to set aside or weaken its opposition to error, but “she prefers today to make use of the medicine of mercy, rather than the arms of severity.” She resists error “by showing the validity of her teaching, rather than by issuing condemnations.” This setting up of the principle of mercy as opposed to severity ignores the fact that in the mind of the Church the condemnation of error is itself a work of mercy, since by pinning down error those laboring under it are corrected and others are preserved from falling into it. Furthermore, mercy and severity cannot exist, properly speaking, in regard to error, because they are moral virtues which have persons as their object, while the intellect recoils from error by the logical act that opposes a false conclusion. Since mercy is sorrow at another’s misfortune accompanied by a desire to help him (Summa, II, II, q.30,a.1), the methods of mercy can only be applied to the person in error, whom one helps by confuting his error and presenting him with the truth; and can never be applied to his error itself, which is a logical entity that cannot experience misfortune. Moreover, the Pope reduces by half the amount of help that can be offered, since he restricts the whole duty of the Church regarding the person in error to the mere presentation of the truth: this is alleged to be enough in itself to undo the error, without directly opposing it. The logical work of confutation is to be omitted to make way for a mere didascalia (direct instruction) on the truth, trusting that it will be sufficient to destroy error and procure assent.

This papal teaching constitutes an important change in the Catholic Church, and is based on a peculiar view of the intellectual state of modern man. The Pope makes the paradoxical assertion that men today are so profoundly affected by false and harmful ideas in moral matters that “at last it seems men of themselves,” that is without refutations and condemnations, “are disposed to condemn them; in particular those ways of behaving which despise God and His law.” One can indeed maintain that a purely theoretical error will cure itself, since it arises from purely logical causes; but it is difficult to understand the proposition that a practical error about life’s activities will cure itself, since that sort of error arises from judgments in which the non-necessary elements of thought are involved. This optimistic interpretation of events, asserting that at last error is about to recognize and correct itself, is difficult enough to accept in theory; but it is also bluntly refuted by facts. Events were still maturing at the time the Pope spoke, but in the following decade they came to full fruition. Men did not change their minds regarding their errors, but became entrenched in them instead, and gave them the force of law. The public and universal acceptance of these errors became obvious with the adoption of divorce and abortion.

I will post Amerio on Capital Punishment next.

It makes no sense that we grant the use of unrestricted lethal force to a citizen with no judicial oversight, and simultaneously claim that the state has no right to the use of restricted lethal force with full judicial oversight.


  1. The Church, so the Pope says, is not to set aside or weaken its opposition to error, but “she prefers today to make use of the medicine of mercy, rather than the arms of severity.”


    Your analysis seems quite correct to me, but the above is not infallibly defined teaching, is it?

    It seems the Church is making its compromise with the Enlightenment and with 'modernity', i.e. the spread of democratic ideas in the post Enlightenment world. It's like they are saying, 'It would cause too much disturbance to the social order to oppose error in the former ways.'

    Now it seems to me that moral truth is fixed by God in the same way as are the natural laws. If you jump off a high building with no artificial flying aid, you are going to hit the ground hard after your little 'flight.' No use protesting about your 'right to fly!'

    We have the 'freedom' to commit murder, but not the right.

    Upon historical examination, it would appear that the Church has indeed been wrong on certain points at times, but the question must be if these cases were infallibly defined. I am no expert in these matters, but as a loyal Catholic, I must believe that such cases were not infallibly defined.

    So where does that leave us with regard to certain documents of Vatican II, or certain pronouncements of the Pope himself? May we be under obligation to obedience, but yet understand that said teachings are not infallible teachings of the Church?

    I must admit these are deep and confusing questions to me...

  2. You are correct in proposing that the quoted remark of John XXIII is not a magisterial pronouncement. It does, however, reflect a decision of prudential judgment which some would argue with good cause, was not a good decision.

    I agree with you that these things are difficult, and the hard part is to join them together, the new and the old, as a single construction made up of different perspectives of the same thing (Truth). I believe that is what the Holy Father is driving towards with the recent Motu Proprio and the accompanying document from the CDF; unity of doctrine and faith, not rupture. It makes sense that we are not seeing correctly if we break the continuity, one way or the other.

    I suspect that the traditionalist is right when he rejects the (erronious) interpretations of VII which reject all that came before VII; but they would err in failing to see any continuity in the documents themselves. On the other hand, the modern who rejects what came before VII is simply wrong.

    do not feel bad about being confused here, it's been a long 40 year walk in the wilderness, but it will be sorted out. Trust in the Lord, and follow in His Way.