Ecclesiam Apostolicam

The Infallibility of the Church: A Marian Mystery

Roch Kereszty

“The incorruptible permanence of the Church in the divine truth [is] a requirement of the Church’s virginal and, ultimately, Marian nature.”

The development of Christian doctrine does not take place in a historical vacuum, nor is it only the result of the Christian people’s piety or theological reflection. The challenges of the changing cultural environment and the errors deriving thereof are often the stimulant for seeking greater clarity and conceptual articulation of a truth of revelation. A milestone in the development and formulation of the dogma of the Church’s infallibility and, in particular, that of the pope’s participation in it took place in response to the Enlightenment, which attempted to enthrone human reason as the only authority. As a result, theologians, and finally the First Vatican Council, formulated the Church’s teaching on the role and limits of human reason in matters of divine revelation and asserted the final authority of Peter’s successors in defining with the assistance of the Holy Spirit what is and what is not revealed doctrine. In formulating the doctrine of infallibility Vatican I concentrated only on this disputed issue by proving it from the scriptural deposit of divine revelation and the immemorial tradition of the Church. In our age, however, theology and Church praxis alike have turned from investigating individual dogmas in themselves toward focusing on the whole of the Christian mystery, from further differentiation of doctrine toward re-discovering the original, comprehensive vision of Christian faith. This dialectic of contrary movements, from further differentiation back to the undifferentiated whole, and vice versa, provides an antidote to theological “forgetfulness” and enriches our understanding of the Christian faith.

Such re-rooting of the dogma of infallibility in the totality of revelation has achieved notable success in Karl Rahner’s theology. He has argued convincingly that infallibility is ultimately a necessary, a priori condition of effective divine revelation.1 Unless there is an infallible criterion for us to judge what is and what is not divine revelation, we cannot accept God’s word the way it ought to be accepted, with the absolute surrender of our intellect and will. Without such a final criterion, faith can only mean—as Tillich has logically deduced—a state of ultimate concern without any definite object. The traditional objection to an infallible Magisterium has been the claim that it divinizes the Church, and in particular, the papacy, since God alone is infallible. Rahner, however, has shown that the Catholic dogma does exactly the opposite: it safeguards the divine efficacy of God’s self-communication. Without an agency that can interpret with certainty what God has revealed and explain its meaning, God would have proved to be a woefully ineffective communicator. Thus, the Catholic dogma safeguards God’s transcendent power rather than idolizing human beings.

A few theologians, however, discovered not only its roots in the biblical doctrine of apostolicity and Petrine ministry, but also its link to the Marian mystery of the Church. In other words, whereas most of contemporary theology treats the Church’s infallibility as required by the effectiveness of God’s revelation, patristic and medieval theology see the incorruptible permanence of the Church in the divine truth as a requirement of the Church’s virginal and, ultimately, Marian nature. In this article I plan to summarize the relevant data of this nearly forgotten tradition, and explore its implications for a deeper understanding of the doctrine of infallibility. Finally, I will show how the mystery of Mary is indeed the “Catholic dogma”—to use in a positive sense Barth’s disparaging statement—that assures the orthodoxy of the main doctrines of Christianity.2

1. Mary and the Church

The mystery of Mary and that of the Church appear so closely linked as to imply a certain identity already in the Book of Revelation (12:1–18). The vision of the Woman clothed with the sun, resting her feet on the moon and giving birth amid loud wailing and under attack by the dragon, the ancient serpent, is a complex symbol. The twelve-star crown on her head symbolizing the twelve tribes presents her as Israel; and her struggle with the ancient serpent indicates that she is the new Eve who will not be conquered by Satan. Her giving birth in pain, however, cannot refer to the happy birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In the light of John 16:21 and 19:25–27, she is also Mary, the virgin daughter Zion, who completes her birth of the Messiah when she suffers the “sword piercing her heart” (Lk 2:35) as she witnesses Jesus enthroned on the cross and taken up to heaven in the resurrection. Finally, Mary, the new Eve and the virgin daughter of Israel, is also the Church, the mother of those who bear witness to Jesus (Rev 12:17).

In the same perspective, Irenaeus presents the symbol of the womb, which is both the womb of Mary and the Church:

The pure One [Christ] opens purely that pure womb, which
regenerates men unto God and which He Himself has made
pure. 3

There is a plethora of patristic texts in which Mary and the Church interpenetrate each other and are seen as it were in a perichoresis. The Marian church is a spotless, immaculate virgin, the spouse of Christ, the mother who bears children configured to Christ, the first-born of many brothers, or—what is equivalent to the latter—she gives birth to Christ unceasingly by regenerating people through baptism and by preaching to them the word of Christ. In the Letter of the Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, written probably by Irenaeus, we find the Church described as a virgin and mother who rejoices over those Christians who had first denied the faith under torture, but with the help of their martyr brothers and sisters were “conceived” again and “reanimated” and thus made ready for martyrdom.Watching the revived Christians being torn to pieces by the wild beasts in the arena, Alexander, a Christian physician, acted out in pantomime the pangs of labor. By acting out Mother Church’s childbearing, he was interpreting to the martyrs what was happening to them in the arena.4

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