Rorate Caeli

Lamont Responds to Fastiggi (et al.): Pope Francis’s “wedding garment of faith” is not “formed faith”

Response to Fastiggi (et al.): Pope Francis’s “wedding garment of faith” is not “formed faith”

Dr. John Lamont

Dr. Robert Fastiggi has published (here) a response to “The teaching of the Catholic faith on the reception of the Holy Eucharist,” a statement recently issued by a number of Catholics in response to Pope Francis’s statements and actions concerning the requirements for worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist, espcially his statements in the Apostolic Letter Desiderio desideravi. Dr. Fastiggi holds the Bishop Kevin M. Britt Chair of Dogmatic Theology and Christology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Some of his objections to the statement have been raised by other Catholics. As a theologian and a signatory of the statement, I wish to make a response.

Dr. Fastiggi rejects the possibility of any Pope making a heretical statement in a magisterial document, on the following grounds:

It is a very serious matter to accuse the Roman Pontiff of contradicting an infallible teaching of an ecumenical council. Such an accusation itself seems to contradict what another ecumenical council—namely Vatican I—teaches when it says that “this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error” (Denz.-H., 3070) and “the charism of truth and of never-failing faith was conferred upon St. Peter and his successors in this chair” (Denz.-H, 3071). The signers of this recent statement claim that popes can publicly teach error when not teaching infallibly. They seem to assume that popes can teach even grave error and heresy in their ordinary magisterium. They cite sources, however, that are themselves questionable and subject to error. These sources have difficulty reconciling their claims with what Vatican I and other magisterial documents teach about the indefectibility of the Apostolic See. This indefectibility does not prevent popes from sinning and making prudential mistakes. It does, however, protect them from grave error and heresy in their ordinary magisterial pronouncements.
          Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I does not limit “the charism of truth and of never-failing faith” to only infallible pronouncements of the Roman Pontiff. This charism, of course, does not mean that every ordinary teaching of the pope is infallible in the strict sense of being definitive and irreformable. The papal charism of truth and never-failing faith, however, prevents the Roman Pontiff from teaching grave error or heresy.

There is an unclarity in the first paragraph of this criticism. The term “ordinary magisterium” is usually used to refer to the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church. This magisterium is exercised when the Pope and Catholic bishops throughout the world propose for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed in the course of their general activity of teaching and instructing the faithful. The ordinary universal magisterium is infallible. The statements of Pope Francis in the Apostolic Letter Desiderio desideravi do not form part of an exercise of the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church. This letter is an exercise of what is sometimes referred to as the pope’s authentic magisterium. This magisterium is composed of papal statements that are not mere expressions of personal opinion and that have a claim to authority, but that do not satisfy the conditions for an infallible teaching.

Dr. Fastiggi asserts that the claim that Desiderio desideravi teaches heresy contradicts the teaching of Vatican I in Pastor aeternus on the charism of truth given to the Roman pontiff. This issue is addressed by the statement as follows:

The Apostolic Letter Desiderio desideravi is not an infallible teaching, because it does not satisfy the necessary conditions for an exercise of papal infallibility. The canon of the Council of Trent is an exercise of the infallible teaching authority of the Church. Therefore, the contradiction between Desiderio desideravi and the defined doctrine of the Council of Trent does not falsify the claim of the Catholic Church to be infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit when by an exercise of her teaching office she requires all Catholics to believe a doctrine as being divinely revealed. On the possibility of a pope publicly teaching error, see the Correctio filialis addressed to Pope Francis by a number of Catholic scholars, and the discussions in the book Defending the Faith against Present Heresies (Arouca Press, 2021).

Dr. Fastiggi does not assert that Desiderio desideravi satisfies the conditions for an infallible magisterial teaching. He accepts that it is not infallible. His argument is that the teaching of Vatican I on the charism of truth given to the Roman pontiff not only excludes error in papal statements that satisfy the conditions for an infallible teaching, but also excludes grave error or heresy in magisterial papal statements that do not satisfy these conditions.

This is false. The teaching of Pastor aeternus on papal teaching authority is solely concerned with infallible papal teaching:

This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.
          But since in this very age when the salutary effectiveness of the apostolic office is most especially needed, not a few are to be found who disparage its authority, we judge it absolutely necessary to affirm solemnly the prerogative which the only-begotten Son of God was pleased to attach to the supreme pastoral office.
          Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. 

The text of Pastor aeternus here clearly states that the gift of truth and never-failing faith conferred on Peter and his successors with which it is concerned is the gift exercised by popes in pronouncing infallible definitions of the faith. The “prerogative which the only-begotten Son of God was pleased to attach to the supreme pastoral office” of which it speaks is the prerogative of infallible teaching. Pastor aeternus says nothing about non-infallible papal teaching. Moreover, its definition and description of papal infallibility were deliberately formulated to rule out the position of papal maximalists like the English theologian W.G. Ward, who argued that the assertions of papal encyclicals were infallible pronouncements.

Dr. Fastiggi can of course argue that his position on non-infallible papal statements is true despite it not having been taught by the First Vatican Council. He must concede that since a teaching authority that is not infallible is by logical necessity fallible, some errors can exist in non-infallible papal teaching documents. His thesis seems to be that although non-infallible papal utterances can contain some kinds of errors, they cannot contain other kinds of errors; and that the errors that they cannot contain include grave errors or heresies.

There are no reasons for accepting this thesis and there are conclusive objections to it. We can accept that Catholic teaching requires that most or even virtually all of non-infallible papal teaching should be accepted as true. If such teaching was not true most of the time, it would be unreasonable to give it any credence. But it does not follow from this that in the minority of cases, however small, where the content of such teaching is not true, the false assertions in question cannot be grave errors or heresies.

The subject matter of non-infallible as of infallible papal teachings concerns Catholic faith and morals. Non-infallible teachings of their nature can contain false statements. But a false statement concerning faith or morals is either a heresy or a grave error. Falsehood concerning faith or morals are what heresy and error consist in.

Consider as well what is involved in a guarantee of freedom from heresy or grave error. The charism of infallible teaching is possible only through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, since an infallible discernment of truth surpasses the powers of human and indeed of created nature. But the same thing can be said about absolutely guaranteed freedom from heresy and grave error. This surpasses the power of human nature, just as freedom from error itself does. It must be a gift of the Holy Spirit. We are justified in believing in the existence of such a gift only on the basis of divine revelation. But the existence of such a gift is not part of the divinely revealed Catholic faith. There is no indication of it in Scripture or tradition.

There are examples of non-infallible papal teaching concerning faith or morals that flatly contradict each other; the teaching on the morality of the death penalty is a good example. Pope Francis’s teaching contradicts that of earlier papal teachings on this subject. (See the analysis of Fr. Brian Harrison here.)

Finally, since non-infallible papal teaching is by its nature concerned with faith and morals, holding that it cannot contain grave error or heresy makes such teaching indistinguishable for all religous purposes from infallible teaching. This confers on teaching that does not have the assistance of the Holy Spirit a charism that is only promised to infallible teaching. This is precisely the objection that was made to papal maximalists such as W. G. Ward prior to the First Vatican Council and that determined the formulation of that Council’s definition of papal infallibility.

Dr. Fastiggi also claims that Pope Francis does not make the heretical assertions about the Eucharist that the statement attributes to him. Dr. Fastiggi notes that on March 14, 2018, Pope Francis insisted on the necessity of confession prior to receiving Holy Communion. On this occasion, Pope Francis said:

I cordially greet Polish pilgrims. In the “Our Father”, in saying to the Lord: “Give us this day our daily bread”, we ask not only for food for the body, but also the gift of the Eucharistic Bread, nourishment of the soul. We know that one who has committed a serious sin should not approach Holy Communion without having first obtained absolution in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Lent is an opportunity to approach the latter, to confess well and to encounter Christ in Holy Communion. The encounter with Him gives meaning to our life. I bless you from my heart. [source]

This was certainly a good and correct assertion on Pope Francis’s part. However, the question is not what he said in 2018, but what he said in 2022 in Desiderio desideravi. Popes, like other men, can change their minds and contradict themselves.

Dr. Fastiggi’s defence of Desiderio desideravi itself is more to the point. He gives this defence of Pope Francis’s assertion that “To be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word (cf. Rom 10:17)”:

I don’t think there is a tension between what Pope Francis says in Desiderio 5 and what Trent teaches in canon 11 on the Eucharist when each text is read within its proper context. The wedding garment of faith is understood by the Church as a faith that includes hope and love (cf. the Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, chap 7; Denz.-H. 1531). This is the faith that gives life. What Pope Francis says in Desiderio 5 should be read within this Catholic understanding of faith as well as its more immediate context. When St. Paul says “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28), he assumes a faith “working through love” (Gal 5:6). We should assume that Pope Francis understands faith in the same way. The Council of Trent speaks of faith “as the foundation and root of all justification” (Decree on Justification, chap. 8; Denz.-H., 1532). The wedding garment of faith is necessary for entrance into the heavenly banquet, but, as Pope Francis says, “the Church tailors such a garment to fit each one with the whiteness of a garment bathed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14).” The whiteness of the garment can be lost by mortal sin, which makes one unworthy to receive the Eucharist. Both Trent and Pope Francis affirm this truth.

However, from the fact that the Council of Trent affirms that repentance from mortal sin is necessary for worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist, we cannot simply infer that Pope Francis affirms this as well. Whether or not he affirms this is precisely the point at issue.

The sentence “To be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word” is a straightforward verbal contradiction of the Council of Trent’s definition, “If anyone says that faith alone is sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist, let him be anathema.” The document does not contain any clarification explaining this sentence in an orthodox sense, or any mention of the necessity of repentance for worthy reception of the Eucharist.

Dr. Fastiggi rejects the prima facie heretical meaning of Pope Francis’s assertion by claiming that Desiderio desideravi should be understood in an orthodox sense. He asserts that the faith that Pope Francis describes as the sole requirement for admittance to the Eucharist includes the theological virtues of hope and charity, and thus requires repentance and confession of sin. He therefore concludes that Desiderio desideravi does not contradict Catholic doctrine on this subject. The issue is therefore what Pope Francis means by the term “faith” in the passage under consideration.

The standard meaning of “faith” in Catholic theology is the faith involved in the theological virtue of faith, not the faith informed by charity that is necessary for salvation and the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. This faith is thus described in Dei filius: “Faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, is a supernatural virtue by which we, with the aid and inspiration of the grace of God, believe that the things revealed by Him are true, not because the intrinsic truth of the revealed things has been perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” If “faith” were to be standardly read as “formed faith,” then Catholic theology would have no term available for faith as described by Dei filius. This standard theological meaning of the term “faith” is the one that should be ascribed to the term when it is encountered in a papal document.

Close analysis of Francis’s text confirms that this is the meaning it possesses. The expression “the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word (cf. Rom 10:17)” can be parsed in two ways; as “{the wedding garment of faith}, which comes from the hearing of his Word,” or as “{the wedding garment} of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word.” In the former interpretation, “which comes from the hearing of his Word” is the predicate that applies to the subject “the wedding garment of faith.” In the latter interpretation, the division of predicate and subject is different; the predicate is “of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word,” which is applied to the subject “the wedding garment.” On both interpretations, the character of faith is specified as being something that comes by hearing. The differences between the two possible parsings are thus not significant when it comes to understand the character of the faith that is said to be the only thing that is necessary for reception of the Eucharist. This faith is the faith that comes by hearing. This is the meaning of the faith mentioned in Romans 10:17, which the text refers to in order to elucidate the passage being discussed. Romans 10:17 states that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

This meaning of the term “faith” is the one that is used in the anathema of the Council of Trent. Since Francis asserts that this kind of faith is sufficient for the worthy reception of the Eucharist, he falls under the Council’s anathema. Dr. Fastiggi’s interpretation of “faith” as meaning “formed faith,” faith informed by charity, cannot be maintained. The faith that comes from hearing is not formed faith, because charity, which is a part of formed faith, does not come by hearing. What comes by hearing is belief in the word of God. Theological faith does not imply the presence of charity. As Romans 2:13 states, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God: but the doers of the law shall be justified (οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ τῷ θεῷ, ἀλλ’ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται).”

Dr. Fastiggi supports his interpretation of Desiderio desideravi by instancing Pope Francis’s reference to faith as the wedding garment necessary for entrance into the banquet. The wedding garment is a reference to the parable in Matthew ch. 22:

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 2 The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, 3 and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” 5 But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7 The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.” 10 And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.

The wedding garment of the parable is interpreted by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church as meaning either charity, or faith together with charity. We can accept that one or other of these meanings is a correct interpretation of the parable. But we cannot assume that because that is what the Scriptures mean by the wedding garment, it is what Francis means by the wedding garment. Whether or not Francis means this is the point at issue. The question is what Francis means, not what the Fathers and Doctors of the Chuch—and the Scriptures themselves—mean. The Fathers and Doctors all say specifically that the wedding garment is charity, or faith informed by charity. Charity is explicitly mentioned by them. Francis does not do this. He identifies the wedding garment with faith only. His words and his mention of Romans 10:17 makes it clear that by “faith” he means the “faith that comes by hearing.” If he wanted to mean that formed faith is the wedding garment, he would have said so; and if he did not say so, then he can be understood to mean by “faith” what that word means in the dictionary and in Catholic theology; he means belief. The wedding garment in the parable is what gets you a place at the feast, rather than being thrown out to wail and gnash your teeth. When Francis alludes to faith as the wedding garment, he is underlining that faith—belief in the word of God—on its own gets you into heaven, as Luther said.

One might point out that the things described in Our Lord’s parables often have clear meanings attached to them that do not require interpretation or commentary, and that these meanings can be taken for granted. The son in the parable, for example, is undoubtedly Our Lord. The wedding garment does have an undoubted meaning in the parable; having it is required for staying at the feast and not being thrown out. But this undoubted meaning does not contain a characterization of faith as formed faith. So we cannot conclude simply from the reference to the wedding garment that the faith that is identified with this garment is formed faith.

Dr. Fastiggi cites Francis’s mention of being the garment being “bathed in the blood of the Lamb” to support his interpretation of the pope’s words. But the expression “being bathed in the blood of the Lamb” can be understood in a Lutheran sense, and is indeed a theme of many Lutheran hymns, as can be seen from examining a Lutheran hymnal. Francis’s use of it in no way implies that he understands the faith necessary for salvation and worthy reception of the Eucharist in the sense held by the Council of Trent.

The statement on the reception of the Holy Eucharist criticised by Dr. Fastiggi cites Francis’s endorsement of Luther as grounds for its interpretation of his position on reception of the Holy Eucharist. Pope Francis expressed himself on this subject as follows:

I think that Martin Luther’s intentions were not mistaken; he was a reformer. Perhaps some of his methods were not right, although at that time, if you read Pastor’s history, for example—Pastor was a German Lutheran who experienced a conversion when he studied the facts of that period; he became a Catholic—we see that the Church was not exactly a model to emulate. There was corruption and worldliness in the Church; there was attachment to money and power. That was the basis of his protest. He was also intelligent, and he went ahead, justifying his reasons for it. Nowadays, Lutherans and Catholics, and all Protestants, are in agreement on the doctrine of justification: on this very important point he was not mistaken. He offered a “remedy” for the Church, and then this remedy rigidified in a state of affairs, a discipline, a way of believing, a way of acting, a mode of liturgy. But there was not only Luther: there was Zwingli, there was Calvin… And behind them? The princes, “cuius regio eius religio.” We have to place ourselves in the context of the times. It is a history that is not easy to understand, not easy… Then things moved on. Today, the dialogue is very good and I believe that the document on justification is one of the richest ecumenical documents, one of the richest and most profound.

Francis does not say that “Luther in fact agreed with the Catholic doctrine of justification” or “Luther held the view agreed on in the joint Catholic-Lutheran document of justification”. He says that on the important point of justification, Luther was not mistaken. He does not qualify this assertion by saying “he was not mistaken because he held the doctrine that Catholics and Lutherans and all other Protestants all agree on.” He says that Luther was not mistaken, full stop. Luther’s correctness about justification is not described in terms of his agreeing with Catholic doctrine, or as conditional on his agreeing with Catholic doctrine. If it was, Pope Francis’s words could be read in an orthodox sense. But there is no such qualification. His statements about agreement and the document on justification are independent of the claim about Luther and justification. Since Pope Francis has publicly stated his agreement with the (heretical) views of Martin Luther concerning justification, we ought to interpret his words on the reception of the Eucharist as agreeing with Luther’s position on that subject.