Divine Substance and Changeable Accidents: an attempt to explain how the Church works.

Perishable building. Imperishable Truth. Source: wilfrid.com

In discussions about the Church and Her infallible Teaching a confusion frequently arises: how can this infallible Church so frequently commit errors? How is this infallibility and immutability to be reconciled with the obvious shortcomings and changes within the Church not only in the clergy’s behaviour, but even in the way the Church fulfills her task of evangelisation?

I will try to give here an answer in my own simple words, utterly un-theological and very much, well, pub-like. I invite everyone to bring in improving contributions, technical terms I have read but can’t locate now ;), and a general better precision of expression.

In my simple words, the answer to this apparent contradiction lies in recognising that the Church exists and operates simultaneously on different levels, whilst still remaining the One and Only Church. On a supernatural level, the Church exists without shortcomings.   This supernatural plane of existence is in my eyes the substance of the Church, that is: what she really is beyond her temporal manifestation and appearance.

Contrarily to the ecclesial communities, the Church does not originate from this world. As a result, besides being infallible She is imperishable and unchangeable in her essential traits, that is: indefectible.

On a different plane of operation of the same Church we have the Church militant, the Church we see in Her earthly operations: the Church which erects the buildings  and appoints the bishops, the Church of the politics and of the diplomacy, of the mistakes and sometimes of the outright crimes. This militant Church is exactly the same Church as the Church in Heaven and is therefore also supernatural, infallible (doctrinally) and indefectible, but in so far as she operates in this world, she experiences temporal changes which do not affect her substance, but are merely (and I quote Amerio here) “accidental changes to its being”.

As such, the Church militant functions according to the natural order in which she operates. In the same way as the consecrated wine is the accident of the substance that is the Real Presence, but will still become undrinkable if the laws of nature are allowed to operate on it, in the same way the militant Church will be subject to all the influences of the plane of reality in which it is called to operate without changing one jot in what she really is. The alcoholic priest can still validly administer the Sacraments, and the Sacraments are not changed by the priest becoming heretical.

The militant Church is run by men, with their own sinfulness; She will have church buildings subject to being bombed or to slowly decay without proper maintainance; She will go through phases of strenght or weakness; She will fulfil her task to go and make disciples of all the nations with various degrees of success; She will, in short, be subject to all those changes and imperfections and dangers and falls and rises which are the unavoidable mark of earthly existence. But with all this – being still the same and Only Church – she will keep all Her substantial traits intact. She will be infallible and indefectible even when plagued by corrupted priests, theological laziness, mediocre catechesis, and rampant heresy. 

In the middle, so to speak, of these two simultaneous planes of existence of the same and Only Church (the supernatural and the natural) operates the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not guide the clergy into being saintly stewards and all-round good chaps (as abundantly proven by 2000 years of Church history); He allows them to operate according to their own lights and their own choices, even if wicked, merely providing that the infallibility and indefectibility of the Church are preserved.

Importantly, this “protection” is extended only to the See of Rome. Individual priests and bishops or entire local churches can – as seen often in the past – stray. Seldom has the Church lived for long without any heretical tendency, overt or covert, brooding among the laity of within the clergy.

The militant Church “below” being the same Church “above”, there could be no change of even one of the essential traits of the Church without transforming the militant Church into something different, which would be tantamount to her destruction. Put in other words: whilst the militant Church will experience temporal changes which are merely accidental to what She is in her substance, she will never, ever experience essential changes, that is: changes that would let her become something different from what She is.

As a consequence, as long as the Church does not change her doctrinal substance (which she will never do, because of the Holy Ghost) She will be the same Church, and the Only Church, with her nature and claim unchanged, irrespective of the phases of corruption, stupidity, drunkenness or apparent advanced decay She may be experiencing.

This explains why the Church has gone through the most diverse phases, sometimes of great renewal and sometimes of great corruption, and why the people running her have been pretty much everything from very saintly men to very wicked ones, but She has always maintained her doctrinal integrity. She has never said, not even in times of great corruption, that henceforward divorce is okay, priestesses de rigueur, Transubstantiation a legend and Christ a frightfully nice chap who knew a lot about God.

No: the Church has always maintained what has been transmitted to Her, even through great schisms and heresy; even when these schisms came from within and have swept away a great number of bishops and local churches; even when her very existence could have appeared, to the poorly catechised eye, to be in danger.

This also explains why in the mind of the Catholic a frank and severe critic of the concrete working of the Church is never mixed with despair for Her destiny, or fear for Her survival or with the notion that the militant Church may, one day, undergo essential changes. 

Lastly, this having never changed her essential traits is at the same time proof of the Divine origin and nature of the Church: in the entire history of Humanity you won’t find another organisation which has lived so long, expanding all over the planet by remaining extremely centralised, and still keeping her doctrinal patrimony intact.

This was not short, and probably theologically not frightfully accurate either. Still, I do think that this is the gist of the matter. Improving comments and suggestions are extremely welcome.


Posted on August 8, 2010, in Catholicism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I believe that many Catholcis and non-Catholics alike confuse infallibility with impeccability. Infallibility, which was solemnly defined as a dogma of the Church (that has always been believed) by Pius IX, puts it pretty simply. When the Holy Father (not a Bishop, not a priest, not a nun, not a columnist but the Pope only) pronounces a truth on a matter of faith and/or morals only, and when he invokes the full authority of his office to make that pronouncement, and when he binds the entire Church to accept that teaching, then the Holy Ghost will protect him from speaking error. If the Pope discusses the weather, political opinions, or invokes non-binding pastoral councils such as Vatican 2 then the protection of the Holy Ghost is not present. We may listen with great interest, even reverence, to his views on the weather, politics and pastoral gatherings but we are not bound by them.

    Many, however, believe that the Pope can make no error at all, that he is, in fact, impeccable, and it is this wrong-headed belief that has given rise to both papolatry on the one hand and sede-vacantism on the other. I know I am perhaps stepping on some toes here and I ask the reader’s forgiveness if I speak rather bluntly, but I would say that a perfect example of how seriously wrong a Pope can go would be the recent example of the previous pontificate. While not forgetting the good things that the man said his actions (and inactions) were often a source of terrible scandal. True, he never came right out and spoke error, but John Paul II nibbled around the edges of error on many a sad occasion and when opportunities arose to correct the doctrinal errors of others he was extremely slow to act, and in some instances didn’t act at all, leaving us a Church ungoverned falling into one catastrophe after another.

    The spectacle of the actions of this troubled Pope gave impetus to the sedevacantists: since the Pope cannot err and since his errors are obvious for all the world to see, then he must be a false Pope, so goes their misguided reasoning. The papolators, seeing his disastrous actions, said that since he is the Pope and cannot err then all these idiotic innovations must be good or, failing that, they would come up with some tortured reasoning to try and prove that John Paul II couldn’t possibly have meant what he said. This is what happens when infallibility is confused with impeccability.

    And this is why those of us who are sickened by the shenanigans on Vatican II can take comfort in the fact that Popes John XXIII and Paul VI made it perfectly clear that no doctrines were to be defined there, nor any anathemas to be handed out. It ws to be, they said, a pastoral Council only. And since they were perfectly correct to say that I feel no obligation whatsoever to hold the “teachings” of that Council any higher than those that did define infallible doctrines.

    Papal infallibility will carry us through the rough times ahead but we must be discerning and not fall into the confused state that so many others have fallen into.

    • You are absolutely right, Schmenz.

      One day I will write something extra about about infallibility, impeccability and indefectibility, I think.

      I also agree that some Pope go if not dangerously near to heresy, certainly stupidly saying things whioch will induce others to wrogn conclusions themselves.
      JP II kissing Korans, indirectly endorsing Assisis mad ecumenism ( I mean not endorsing it, but making it possible), talking bollocks about wars and almost giving the impression that the Church had changed Her immutable doctrine about it certainly didn’t help. But it is greatly reassuring to see that even when it may superficially seem that the Church may have changed a doctrine, a closer exam proves that it was a just a very populist interpretation of the 2000 years old doctrine.
      But JP II’s populism (and let us say it frankly, the man was a specialist at muddling the waters and telling things in a way making it easier to understand them the wrong way) died with him, the Church’s Doctrine will live forever.

      Also I agree that V II can be put into the dustbin in its entirety without any doctrinal damage being made. We’ll get there I think, though I doubt we both we’ll see it happen.


  2. I am finding this discussion very helpful, because I do find the outcome of Vatican II hard to accept.

    People have said that unless one is obedient to the Magisterium and to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one cannot describe oneself as a Catholic. I never questioned the pre-Vatican II magisterium and, as that surely cannot have changed, what is wrong with obedience to that alone? As for the catechism, there are sections that border on the heretical. For instance, we are told that Islam should be “held in esteem.” Esteem? Really? The Moslems and the Jews apparently worship the same God as we do, so says the catechism. The same Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is that? I don’t think so.

    I am afraid that some dogmas have been abandoned under the current magisterium, which makes me adhere only to the pre-conciliar one. What happened to “extra ecclesiam, nulla salus”? Was burial only, cremation not an option, a doctrine or just a discipline?

    The Tridentine Mass was codified and surrounded with Anathemas directed against anyone who had the temerity to change it. Of course, nobody did change it. Instead we got a completely new Mass, very loosely based on the old Mass and full of theological anomilies. This Novus Ordo Mass is at the root of the crisis into which the Church has been plunged over the last fifty years. We were not relieved of the obligation of attending Mass every week, but forced to go to one that has been injurious to the Faith.

    I understand what papal infallibility means and accept that none of the last three Popes have availed themselves of this authority, but we are expected to respect their leadership and pay lip service to the “spirit of Vatican II”. In fact, I think the last three popes have been a disaster, failing to put a stop to heresy or the many abuses in the Church. Benedict XVI is the best of the three, although he seems to want to “run with the hare and chase with the hounds”. I wish him multos annos. God knows what the next Pope will be like!

    • Misericordia, I see it in this way:
      1) True, if one is not obedient to the magisterium, one cannot describe himself as a Catholic.
      2) There is no “pre” and “post”-Vatican II magisterium. There is the magisterium. This is the authority of the church to teach. The Church can only teach what has been transmitted to Her by Jesus, the Apostles or the Holy Ghost. There is no “new magisterium” after VII, not could there ever be a new magisterium. The Church is not the “owner” of what She teaches, she merely transmits it. She cannot take away anything, and she cannot add anything.
      3) That islam should be “held in esteem” is no doctrinal position. The doctrinal position is that heresy must be hated. If you mention to me the source in detail, you’ll see it is not in contradiction with tradition (otherwise it would just be the private opinion of those epxressing that, and a very bad one at that). Very often, V II is given with oversimplified position, but those were not V II positions. Anyway, as V II has not given any dogmatic definition and was purely pastoral, whatever bollocks they might have said does not impinge the Truth that She teaches.

      4) No dogma has ever been abandoned. No dogma could ever be abandoned. “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” is valid now as it has ever been. What has happened after V II is that the possibility of God saving anyone has been stretched at a level where it causes confusion. This is matter of CONFUSION, of BAD TEACHING, not of dogmas being “abandoned”.
      If a teacher is bad at teaching history, history is not changed as a result.

      5) Burial only was never a matter of doctrine. You can’t be Catholic and say that this was immutable doctrine and the Church has changed it, this is like saying that the Church is no more. Not all that the Church says is doctrinal matter; a lot actually isn’t.

      6) The Novus Ordo is not anathema, just very shallow. Again, one can’t be Catholic and say that the Church doesn’t make a catholic mass (see above), therefore the mass is not anathema and cannot be anathema (this would deserve a longer discussion).

      7) No one is obliged to pay lip service to Vatican II. We must hear what the Pope says with deference. I read with deference what the Pope says, compare what he says to *how this reflects the immutable Truths he is called to protect* and then decide, with deference, how good his job was.

      I’d say Paul VI has been a catastrophe of historical proportions, JP II a notable improvement but too weak, too gullible and with a penchant for doing the wrong things and trusting the wrong people. Loved popularity too, which is never good. Benedict is a notable improvement on JP II: not a crusader, but again the barque is now steering in the right direction.

      The cardinals are very conservative. I think that the next pope will be more conservative than B XVI. This is why he is so prudent: he chooses the cardinals and by choosing a majority of conservatives ones he knows very probably his successor will accelerate his work. I am confident that the next Pontiff will be a notable improvement on him.


    • Misericordia, a suggestion from me before I go to bed: if we want to reflect the catholic faith accurately, it is vital that we never EVER say to anyone, under any circumstance, that the church has changed doctrine, discarded dogmas or the like. This is what heretics and sedevacantists say and is simply not true.

      What has changed is the quality of her teaching, not the subject taught. The teaching was once very good and is now very bad, that’s all. Has happened often in the past, will continue to happen in the future.

      There is no document in V II, not even the atrociously formulated passages, which can be said to be heretic. They are just extremely badly formulated. Lefebvre signed all of them.

      Please use the arguments given above (=bad teaching, not change of subject) and you will not give the Protestants ammunitions to say that the Church militant is not the same Church in Heaven (which she can never be, if she teaches different things, so they would be right) or to the liberals ammunitions to say that you disobey the Church.

      You are obedient, but critical.
      Your critics is made by comparing what the Church says with how well she reflects the immutable Truth she is called to teach to all nations.
      This is what has been done this 2000 years and is the reason why we say that the Church was in better shape in certain times and in worse shape in others.


  3. Thank you, Mundabor.
    I’m off to bed now as well – with quite a lot to think about!

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