The Pope Said Something about Condoms… Ho-Hum…

There has been a widespread media and blogosphere outcry surrounding the Pope’s recent remarks on condom use.  Suffice it to say, the statement has been as overblown as a popped rubber membrane.

I have one thing to contribute here (plenty of others have said more, just type pope and condoms into Google) and that is on the verbal/written authority structure through which the Church expresses her teachings.  This often misunderstood area is one I used to poke fun at Catholics over, until I became one and figured it out.  I had to, because in order to do bioethics in the Catholic Church one really needs to be able to tell how authoritative different documents really are.

The first thing to know is that the pope is certainly not automatically infallible in whatever he says – authority is almost always very carefully controlled in its application and scope.  The second thing to know is that the papal interview containing this statement has no authority to it; the pope is speaking as a private citizen or perhaps a moral theologian, not as the successor of St. Peter.  There is no “interview” category on the hierarchy of magisterial authoritative teaching.  It would be the equivalent of a 0) on my list below.  However, it does give insight into Pope Benedict’s brain, which is interesting.

Here is my list of how I rank magisterial teaching authority, with a brief explanation, from lowest to highest authority.  Now, I renumbered the list a few times and this is a simplification, not the gospel truth, but I believe it is a fair approximation of the levels of teaching authority most of us will ever run into.

0)         Papal commission study.  For example the study “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” by the International Theological Commission.  This is just an advisory document to the pope, not official teaching of the church.  But like an interview it can show where the Church might be trending in the future.

~1)       Compendium documents.  For example the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  These documents are hard to place in a ranking because they are composed of bits from often hundreds of other documents which all vary in authority, from 2) to 6) on this scale.  So each teaching within the compendium must be investigated for exactly what teaching authority it actually contains, by examining its reference.  Thankfully, that is usually easy to figure out from the footnotes.

2)         Papal allocution, that is, a papal speech.  Papal allocutions abound and form the basic building block of church authority.  Pope John Paul II has about three library shelves of allocutions bound into volumes.  Allocutions are important because they tend to appear again as bits in documents of higher authority.

3)         Teaching instruction.  This is a specific teaching instruction from the Church, for example the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1987 Donum Vitae, which answered specific questions on bioethical issues pertinent to the time.  These are often clarifying documents, based on what the Church already teaches, simply extended into more contemporary ethical debates.

4)         Papal letter.  For example an apostolic letter like Pope John Paul II’s 1988 Mulieris Dignitatem or an encyclical like Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 Caritas in Veritate.  The encyclical is the highest authority level among kinds of papal letters, and is typically the most commonly referenced type of authoritative document.  For example, if someone wants to know what the Church teaches on labor, one goes to the social encyclicals like Rerum Novarum or Laborem Exercens.  While there are two still higher levels of authority, encyclical will usually suffice.

5)         Conciliar documents.  These are documents from the ecumenical councils like Vatican I or II.  Because they are approved by all the bishops together they have a still higher level of authority than an encyclical.  An example would be Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II.

6)         Infallible teachings, including both ordinary and extraordinary infallibility.  Ordinary infallible teaching are things that have been taught from the beginning of the Church, such as that Jesus is both human and God.  These teachings are simply not up for debate, they are core to the faith itself.  A lot of these teachings are straight from the bible, as understood through the tradition.  Extraordinary infallibility is the least used of all types of authority, having been used, for example, to define in 1950 the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven.

Go here to get a look at some of the documents available and to see how authority is parsed in practice.

And that is all I am going to say about that.


6 responses to “The Pope Said Something about Condoms… Ho-Hum…

  • Mary Anne Ashley

    Hey “Brian, Catholic”–
    Thanks for posting this synopsis. I had been wondering about the authority of that interview myself–and was more than a little surprised about the media attention–and your analysis here was helpful in clarifying its relative importance. Mary Ashley

  • Matthew Gaudet

    Hi Brian,

    This is a helpful delineation of magisterial authority. Two questions and a comment though – 1) Where would you place statements from National Bishop’s Conferences (e.g. The Challenge of Peace or Economic Justice for All)? and 2) It’s sad that I don’t know this, but is this list your take or an official hierarchy? The reason I ask is that I’m not sure 4 and 5 are in the correct order as far as actual practice goes (e.g. much of the conciliar decrees of Vatican II have since been undercut not by later conciliar documents – since there hasn’t been another council – but by papal letters and even teaching instructions.) Perhaps this is because the conciliar documents were left open to interpretation and the papacy has chosen to interpret them in a certain way, but I think an argument could be made that Conciliar documents and Papal letters are considered at least of equal stature in practice.

    And the comment – I get your point that the interview statement has little magisterial value. However, it does carry a significant political weight. History has shown this pope to be somewhat less than suave when it comes to the political ramifications of his statements, so this may have just been an off the cuff remark without any deeper meaning than one man’s loosely formed opinion. However, I think there is more too it than that – something along the lines of your comment that “it can show where the Church might be trending in the future.” I’m not convinced that this is indicative of a future teaching on condoms, but it does seem like there is room for debate now where there has not been for decades. I think we very well may come to see this as the opening serve of a long volley to follow.

  • Brian

    Hi Mary and Matt,

    I ‘m glad this was helpful and could generate some discussion! Matt, I want to address your two points. I am currently thinking I’ll rework this into a “Vatican Authority Richter Scale” for a future post. Ha! I think that will be fun and educational. And each time the media buzzes about something I’ll be “that’s a 1 on the Vatican Richter scale!”

    Bishops conference documents… I’m not sure how they would fit in, I will have to think about it. They might be like compendium documents… I’m not sure they even have any authority in their own country except insofar as they reiterate teaching that already has authority. Obviously, there is a little disagreement in the Church about how centralized the teaching authority actually is, and that is another problem. I was just focusing on the Vatican since it gets the hype. I will think about it. What do you think?

    And yes, this is my list, not an “official” list by any means. I’m not sure there is an official list anywhere, it might just be institutional tradition, I’m just summarizing based on talking to people and my exposure to reading lots of these things and the general feel I’ve gotten from the way the citation networks form. That is, if you want to drop the bomb on somebody, you cite the Bible or a conciliar document, not an allocution. On the other hand, for really new ethical issues you will have to rely on allocutions usually, but you will want to get the highest authority level you can, so then you search the instructions, then the letters, etc.

    As for encyclicals and conciliar docs being out of order, I would like you to be more specific: do you have an example? Authority can get very convoluted at times, which is part of the fun of dealing with it. Councils are where the really earth-shaking nine on the Richter scale changes take place, like allowing religious freedom, etc. That was such a big deal it effectively caused schisms. But encyclicals usually just elaborate teachings already made, and often cite conciliar docs and ordinary infallible teachings to make their points. Like I said, I need a specific example, and if you can change my mind, that is better now than later. 🙂

    Lastly, I really don’t think B16 was trying to open up any space for debate on condoms. I’m sure he’s thought about it a lot and no doubt feels pressured from all sides. There may well be volleys to follow, but I doubt they will have much impact at the magisterial level. They will be in the popular media and maybe with some moral theologians. I may well be wrong, it’s just my intuition. When dealing with something already considered intrinsically evil, I’m not sure the Vatican wants to get into “what’s the better way to commit an intrinsically evil act,” which is really what the Pope was talking about in his example. That’s fun for moral theologians to debate, but not so much for authoritative Church teaching.

  • Matthew Gaudet

    Let me get back to you on a specific example re: councils vs. papal dictum.

    As for the condoms issue – I think there is a great deal of pressure coming from the African conference to reopen this discussion and my sense is that this is the starting gun for that conversation. We’ll just have to wait and see who’s right. It wouldn’t be the first time the Church gradually eased its own teachings until the point it had reversed them (think slavery, capital punishment for example).

    • Matthew Gaudet

      Here is an interesting take on the issue from NCR.

      “We would dare to further reduce Lombardi’s clarification to a sentence: In this instance, Benedict was being a pastor.

      “He moved the mark on condoms, providing those in the field dealing with real threats to life a lot more room to maneuver in confronting the disease. And though he’s caused some of the most loudly self-proclaimed guardians of orthodoxy to go apoplectic at the thought that the pope might be shading a bit to the relativist side, much of the world and, we presume, most Catholics welcome this new development as a concession to common sense.”

  • The New Vatican Richter Scale of Teaching Authority « TheMoralMindfield

    […] list is meant to be a semi-humorous expansion of my previous post on this subject (and borrows liberally from it) concerning when, during a papal interview, the Pope mentioned […]

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