Jacques Maritain Center : On the Church of Christ

IV

The Infallibility of the Church

The Church Considered in Her Unity and Her
Universality Cannot Err or Fail

1. The Church considered in her unity and her universality, or as person, and person assisted by God, cannot err or fail, -- Joan of Arc knew this well, and she knew also that the judges of Rouen were not the Church.

The person of the Church cannot make a mistake, although, there where it is not she who speaks and acts through their instrumentality,{1} Churchmen make mistakes as often and as gravely as men of the world (more gravely certainly, being given the importance of their responsibility), and although one sees them fall with as much facility as zeal into the traps put under their feet by each epoch of history, -- Christ seeing to it always that through all human failures, and however badly our myopia may see there, the progress of His mystical Body continues here on earth.

But it is the Church taken in her unity and her universality that we have here to consider. In her mission of transmitting to us the truths revealed by God by instructing us in the doctrine of faith and of morals, of sanctifying men by the Sacraments, and of pursuing herself the work of Christ by suffering with Him until the end of the world, she can neither err nor fail.

This follows immediately from this divinely received mission, and from the unceasing assistance which has been promised to her: "And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world" (Matt. 28, 20). This is why St. Paul tells us that she is "the pillar and bulwark of truth" (I Tim.3, 15).

2. If we imagined that at any moment since Pentecost the Church could make a mistake in transmitting to us the word of God, how could we believe with an absolute certitude -- because it is God Who has revealed them -- in the truths which she proposes to us, how could we be ready to die for the least article of the Credo? On the side of the object presented to the mind, to believe that God exists and that He wills the good of His creatures is the first article of faith. But on the side of the subject who believes, it is to believe in the Church which is the first article and first presupposition of faith consciously and explicitly professed. To shake in souls faith in the Church is to shake in them theological faith, and to lead them without their noticing it to slip away from grace.

Some Words on the Mythical Mode of Thinking
and on Demythization

1. In current language the word "myth" has a pejorative sense and is synonomous with fable. In reality it is with much respect, and a kind of veneration, that it is fitting to think of the religious myths under the regime of which lived formerly for centuries the whole of humanity, and live today more or less vast portions of it.

Works of creative imagination through which passed great intuitions, they carried along, mixed with many errors, many great truths, -- not grasped as such, to tell the truth, for the intellect still immersed in the senses had not yet disengaged the notion of truth in its intelligible purity. It is not surprising that God, while waiting until He will make Himself known through the Prophets, and until His Son will come on earth to announce the full truth, let the first education of men be accomplished under the regime of myth, nor even that in order to tell the chosen people the story of the creation He let the inspired writer use the mode of language and of thought proper to the primitive traditions, and instruct us by the means of a "myth which speaks the truth," as I noted in an essay on the second and the third chapters of Genesis.{2} What we read on the creation of Eve formed from the rib of Adam, and on the two trees which grew in the earthly Paradise, belongs still, in reality, to the mythical "literary genre," and presents to us under an imagery which it is not necessary to take literally, in other words under a fictitious form and in statements whose obvious sense is not the true sense, a content of truth of a sovereign importance, which it is asked of us to discover, or rather which it is asked of the Church to discover for us, as she did at the Council of Trent with regard to the original sin, its transmission and its effects (without any mention of the tree of the science of good and of evil, nor of the eating of its fruit; it is only Adam's betrayal of trust which is the object of the discussion, -- as mysterious as it is immensely grave).{3} I think that the case of these two chapters of Genesis, in which it is necessary to seek the true sense under an obvious sense which is not it, is unique in the Old Testament. For the Semitic mode of thinking, as soon as the genius of Israel became established, was a symbolic mode of thinking, not at all a mythical mode of thinking.

Be that as it may, when He Who is the Truth itself came among us in order to testify to the truth, to the point of dying for it between two thieves, that to which He testified as to be believed could include absolutely nothing fictitious to which it would be optional for us to give credit, His teaching could only be free from all trace of the mythical mode of thinking.

2. Let us remark here that the exegetes and the theologians who believe it their duty to demythize the Gospel and the Credo are victims of a prejudice current among the ideosophers of today, and according to which there cannot be any irreformable assertions.{4} This philosophical prejudice is worthless: it implies contradiction, for, in fact, those who say "there cannot be any irreformable assertions" utter there themselves an assertion held to be irreformable, just as those who say "there is no truth" utter there an assertion held to be a truth. And the prejudice in question is incompatible with the exercise of the intelligence; for each time that the intelligence utters an assertion which it holds as purely and simply consonant with the real, it states this assertion as irreformable. Even in contingent matter, if I say "in the moment that I write these lines, I breathe and my heart beats," that is an irreformable assertion. And in necessary matter, if I say "the human soul is spiritual and immortal," that is an irreformable assertion. These assertions can be explicitated, completed, perfected indefinitely; they remain in themselves irreformable: because truth is the adequation of the intelligence and of that which is (of that which is either for an instant in time which passes, or always by virtue of the nature of things). The philosophers who declare that there cannot be any irreformable assertions do not believe in truth, or believe that truth is the adequation of the intelligence with that which changes, not with that which is: as if in order to change it was not necessary first to be.

On the pretext that any philosophy whatever can serve theology and exegesis, just as any condiment can be useful to a cook, and therefore that theology and exegesis must use the philosophy, whichever one it may be, prevalent in the intelligentsia of their time, some of those who would like to be, in sacred matters, the most intrepid pioneers of research have accepted with eyes closed the sophism to which I have just called attention. That is doubtless why they feel so at ease in the field of the demythization of the sacred.

All That Which Christ Taught Is, Such As He Said It,
Eternally True

The parables to which Jesus had recourse have nothing to do with the mythical mode of thinking. They are stories, enigmatic tales which present themselves clearly as such, and as proposing to the intelligence some divine truth to be discerned, -- and which were easy to decipher for minds sufficiently pure and enlightened, whereas they only astonished and disturbed the others. He took care moreover to explain them to His disciples when they did not understand them, and to disengage for them the meaning of them, -- a meaning eternally true.

And each time that Jesus speaks openly, -- "ecce nunc palam loqueris, et proverbium nullum dicis,"{5} -- in other words each time that He declares something in direct terms and by absolute mode, it is clear for the Christian that His assertion -- that which He says, such as He says it -- is purely and simply true, absolutely true, true as no merely human assertion can be, at once by the light which it gives us and which lifts the veil, and by the sacred night in which it leaves the divine depths of the revealed mystery.

"If you live according to my teaching, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."{6}

All That Which the Person of the Church
Transmits to Us As Revealed by God
Is, Such As She Says It, Eternally True

With regard to the Credo of the Church, the definitions of the Councils, or the dogmas, like that of the Immaculate Conception and that of the Assumption, proclaimed by the Pope, let us say all that which is matter of faith, the enterprise of demythization in vogue today is no less stupid than it is with regard to the teaching of Christ. Are there not demythizers according to whom Jesus returned from the dead only in taking life again in the preaching of the apostles (what they call "kerygmatic resurrection")? These people betray the faith by a kiss of their so-called charisma.

Let us repeat as many times as it will be necessary that which the irrecusable texts declare; is not the Church the "flesh of the flesh" of Christ,{7} "the Bride immaculate, without stain"{8} of error or of sin? is she not "the plenitude" of Christ?{9} the "Body of whom He is the Head"?{10} This human multitudinous person whom Christ has espoused, and whom He cherishes as Himself{11}, is she not "the pillar and bulwark of truth"?{12} Does not the Spirit of Truth, come down into her in order to "guide her to all truth,"{13} dwell in her since Pentecost and for always?{14} Has not Christ promised her to be with her until the end of the world?{15} It is to the common person of the Church, in other words to the Church considered in her unity and her universality that this promise was made. When she speaks, Christ is the guarantor of her word.

The truths which she proposes to our faith and which she formulates in human words (she is fully free to invent words for this, like the word "consubstantial" for example, which are not taken from Holy Scripture, from the moment that these words make precise in a more exact and more pure manner the meaning of the sacred text) are truths revealed by God. They transcend time as God Himself does.

In other words, all the assertions which since the apostolic age the Church, in her unity and her universality, has stated as truths of faith are irreformable assertions, which it is necessary to understand as they are stated, by absolute mode, and according to their obvious meaning which is their true meaning, -- a meaning eternally true. One can add to these assertions other assertions which develop them and complete them; one cannot change the meaning of them. "The dogmatic formula can be perfected and be made more explicit, it cannot change meaning.{16}

To claim that these are only "settings-in-perspective," and to ask of the weak human head of such or such laureatus to unveil to us, by putting his eye to this telescope, the meaning (or the successive meanings, there will be as many of them as there will be of little prophets to come) supposedly hidden behind the obvious meaning of the assertions of faith, is to deny the infallibility of the Church, or to make of it an infallibility which does not know that which it says. One forgets then that in every revealed truth it is God Himself Who has lifted the veil. The Church knows that which she says. And this remains doubtless always perfectible, but this is true, irreformably true.

Supposing, in order to imagine for a moment the impossible, that no one of our human assertions is irreformable, those of Christ telling us that which He has heard from God" and those of the Church transmitting to us the revealed datum would still be irreformable, the only irreformable assertions which would be in that case offered as food to our intellect.

So much the better, a fideist will perhaps say, for at least we would be thus delivered from the incessant hullabaloo of a multitude of deceptive assertions which bombard our ears. Vain hope! The animal endowed with reason must endure the endless hubbub of the false doctors, as it must endure headache and toothache. And it is in placing confidence in reason and in its irreformable assertions, in reason comforted itself by faith, that he passes through the hubbub, -- following the example of his Lord: transiens per medium illorum, ibat, -- in order to attain to the regions of silence where the true makes itself heard.

Apropos of Prescriptions,
Whether Doctrinal or Prudential,
Concerning the Regulation of Morals

1. The teaching of the Church concerning the doctrine of morals is as infallible as her teaching concerning the doctrine of faith. She gives us furthermore prescriptions which concern the application of these general norms in given cases and at a given epoch, and which no longer relate to her doctrinal infallibility, but to her prudence."{18}

These prudential prescriptions have an eminently concrete character which seems to me very remarkable, and which confers on them a kind of prophetic value. They are given at a moment when, if they were understood and obeyed according to all their bearing, irreparable evils would be avoided for the future. Once misunderstood by men and neglected by them, the evil is done. And after many centuries it is in order to warn of other evils threatening human history that the Church will have to declare other prescriptions and interdictions, which will also run the risk of being neither understood nor obeyed.

I like to reflect (is this by malicious delight?) that the second Council of Lateran (1139) prohibited the use of the crossbow in tournaments (where a weapon which kills at a long distance is an unfair weapon). In actual fact the crossbow has disappeared from our tournaments, but in order to be replaced by the cannon. If however men had understood! We would not have today the atomic bomb.

2. But what prompts above all my admiration is the multiple condemnations,{19} declared of old against usury, which relate at one and the same time to the prudence of the Church, and, as to the very principle of usury (money itself and by itself must yield, or bring forth offspring) to her doctrinal infallibility. Later, by virtue of the same principle, instead of simply investing money in an enterprise in the fortune or misfortune of which one will participate, it is the enterprise itself which one will submit to the law of the greatest possible profit yielded by the money placed, at the cost of the misery to which, in the nineteenth century, the workers (even children) will be reduced, and which will with good reason rouse the indignation of Karl Marx.

If men had understood the whole bearing of the condemnation of usury by the Church, there would not have been any capitalistic regime or any society of consumption, or all that which ensues . . . .

3. It seems to me that it would perhaps not be without profit (intellectual) to think of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in the perspective which I have just indicated.{20} I have an idea that, as in the case of the prohibition of usury, the superior prudence of the Church and her doctrinal infallibility have each their part in it.


{1} Cf. further on, Ch. XI.

{2} Cf. my article "Faisons-lui une aide semblable à lui," Nova et Vetera, Oct.-Dec. 1967.

{3} "Concerning the Fall itself, the Council is content with recalling that it consisted in the transgression of a precept given by God. Nothing is said about the nature of this precept, except that it was accompanied by the threat of being subject to death. One refers clearly to the story of Genesis, as the incidental clause "in Paradise" also shows, but nothing more is specified. Exegetes and theologians retain all liberty to scrutinize the sacred text and to interpret it according to their lights, while safeguarding always 'the analogy of faith.' " M. M. Labourdette, Le Péché originel et les origines de l'homme, Paris, Alsatia, 1953, p. 36.

{4} There is a multitude of assertions which are, in themselves, reformable: not only the hypothetical or probable assertions, but also the assertions themselves with which explanatory theory (I do not speak of that which is mere verification of a fact) constructs itself in the sciences of phenomena, which are a knowledge of the observable as such, and refrain from piercing the crust of the observable. However far indeed one may extend it the observation remains inevitably limited, it is impossible to extend it infinitely far: so that, in itself, every system of rational interpretation of phenomena on the plane itself of phenomena can have to give way to a different system, occasioned by new observations and more fully comprehensive. No scientific theory is irreformable or absolutely true; it is true only relatively to the state of science at the different stages of its progress. In the rationalization of the observable effected by the sciences of phenomena, truth is the adequation of the intelligence with that which falls under an observation as complete as possible at a given time of human history.

It is altogether different with knowledges such as philosophy and theology. Philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of nature, moral philosophy. . .) is capable of emitting irreformable assertions, in other words absolute truths, because it bears on intelligible being itself, or the real attained purely and simply (and not only as to the observable as such). When it says the true, and to the extent that it says the true, that which it says is absolutely true, and true for always. This is that to which the primary and most deep-seated élan of the intelligence tends, and that for which it is most fundamentally thirsty.

When we say that truth is the adequation of the intelligence and of that which is, this is understood therefore primarily and above all of the adequation of the intelligence with "that which is" purely and simply, as it is the case for philosophy and theology. And it is understood secondarily (by extension to a type of knowledge enclosed completely in that which appears to the senses) of the adequation of the intelligence with "that which is" under a certain relation only (under the relation of observability), as it is the case for the sciences of phenomena.

Philosophy, which bears on the intimate intelligible structure of that which is, absolutely speaking, and theology, which bears on the intimate superintelligible mystery of Him Who is, absolutely speaking, are types of knowledge exceptionally lofty and universal, and exceptionally difficult in themselves. This is why man has so often erred in them.

In science, knowledge less elevated and more narrow, which is a late fruit of human thought (it began only in the sixteenth century to disengage itself in its proper nature), and which bears on the rational interpretation and the rational organization (above all, there where it is possible, mathematization) of that only which appears to the senses, man errs also but does not cease to correct his errors with an inviolable regularity, because the retracing of the work of the intelligence imposed by such a type of knowledge requires particularly rigorous methods and specializations; but the truth with which we have then to do is truth only secundum quid, approximate truth.

The Scientists know this; the noninitiated do not know it. Let us turn, in a last remark, to the side of the human community. If the idea that no higher knowledge, neither philosophy, nor theology, is capable of absolute truth became generally accepted, the result would be that the world of culture would find itself, -- not through the fault of science, -- mystified by science. For it is the assertions of science, haloed with its dazzling applications, which a multitude of people who are not scientists would take then for "the truth" (absolute) of which by virtue of the very nature of the intelligence they experience unconsciously the need; whereas the scientists would continue to know, and better and better, that, however precious the progresses of science may be, irreformable assertions and absolute truths are not of the domain of the latter.

{5} John 16, 29.

{6} John 8, 32.

{7} Ephes. 5, 29.

{8} Ephes. 5, 27. -- Cf. Apoc. 19, 7; 21, 2 and 9; 22, 17. She is "the Bride of the Lamb."

{9} Ephes. 1, 23.

{10} Col. 1, 18; Ephes. 1, 23; 4, 15.16.

{11} Ephes. 5, 25; 5, 29-30.

{12} ITim. 3, 15.

{13} John 16, 13. Cum autem venerit ille Spiritus Veritatis, docebit vos omnem veritatem, hodêgêsei humas eis tên alêtheian pasan, he will guide you to all truth. Cf. 14, 26.

{14} Cf. I Cor. 3, 16; 6, 19; and Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Ch. I, n. 4.

{15} Matt. 28, 20.

{16} M. M. Labourdette, Le Péché originel et les origines de l'homme, Paris, Alsatia, 1953, p. 57.

{17} John 8, 40: "Nunc autem quaeritis me interficere, hominem, qui veritatem vobis locutus sum, quam audivi a Deo. Me, a man who has told you the truth which I have heard from God, tên alêtheian ên echousa para tou theou."

{18} A prudential judgment is more or less prudent. A doctrinal proposition is true or false. One can speak of perfect or sovereign prudence (it was surely the case of that of Christ). The expression "prudential infallibility," employed by theologians who are dear to me, is for me devoid of sense.

It is fitting therefore, in my opinion, to distinguish between the truths which constitute the doctrina de moribus (cf. further on, Ch. VII, pp. 53-54), -- they correspond analogically, it seems to me, to what moral philosophy is in the natural order, and the Church teaches them to us infallibly, -- and the particular applications by which she directs us, at a given epoch and in given cases, with a prudence of a higher order.

I shall say, for example, that the indissolubility of marriage is a truth which relates to the doctrinal infallibility of the Church, whereas the prohibition of the crossbow in tournaments, of which I speak in the present section, relates to her prudence, and that in the Conciliar decrees concerning usury, of which I speak also in this section, prudence (as to the diverse means prescribed in order to struggle against usury) mingles with doctrinal infallibility (as to the true role of money, -- to use the latter as if it was made in order to engender more money by itself is contrary to the natural law; it brings a legitimate gain only by means of the value of a thing which it has aided one to obtain or to produce).

It is curious, let us add, to note that as regards prudential decisions, even if made by the supreme authority, grave failures in prudence have been able to occur in very important matters (cf. Chapter XIII, concerning the institution of the Inquisition); whereas the higher prudence of the person of the Church passed in very secondary matters (like the use of the crossbow in tournaments). Everything depends there on the liberty which the high personnel of the Church leaves in its mind to the instrumental motion issuing from the person of the latter, or on the obstacles which it opposes to it under the pressure of very heavy human solicitudes (caused most often, in former times, by the Christian leaders of State).

{19} As early as the Council of Nicaea and Pope St. Leo, but above all in the Middle Ages, from Alexander III to Gregory IX.

{20} Cf. Beatrice Sabran, L'Église et la sexualité, Paris, Ed. du Club de la Culture Française, 1969. Mme Sabran, who is a psychologist, was the pupil of Roland Dalbiez and worked with him. I hope that this remarkable book will have a second edition in which the too numerous typographical mistakes of the first will be corrected.

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