The editors of Commonweal have posed a three-part question on the church and the confession of error. The nature of the answer depends on the meaning given to the noun "church." One assumes, first of all, that we are speaking of the Catholic church, and not the worldwide Body of Christ. If we are speaking, on the one hand, of the church as the people of God, at least portions of that church have confessed error, time and time again, often openly and without equivocation. And this continues today in the public statements of various Catholic organizations, in the writings of theologians and other Catholic scholars, and in editorials and articles published in journals like Commonweal itself.
If, on the other hand, "church" applies to the hierarchy, that is, those who exercise the official ministries of teaching and pastoral leadership, then three points need to be made by way of a reply: (1) The church can confess error. (2) While the Roman magisterium has been reluctant (to say the least) to admit error, the hierarchical magisterium more broadly understood has already begun to do so. (3) We have a model for the hierarchical magisterium's admission of error in the statements of the German and French bishops on the Holocaust.
I will take up each of these points in turn.
1. The church (understood hereafter as the hierarchy) can confess error with regard to a particular teaching or disciplinary decree if none of these pertains to the deposit of faith, that is, if the charism of infallibility has not been engaged in their original promulgation. The reason is self-evident. If something is not infallible (literally, "immune from error"), it must be fallible (literally, "subject to error"). In fact, the number of infallible teachings and decrees is infinitesimally small in relation to the total corpus of teachings and decrees spread over the course of the church's two-thousand-year history. Moreover, where there is a doubt about their infallible status, it must be assumed that they are not infallible. This is in accordance with the Code of Canon Law: "No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such" (can. 749.3). The criteria for an infallible teaching were laid down by the First Vatican Council in its own dogmatic teaching on papal infallibility. Not even a high-level congregation of the Roman curia can make up new criteria as we go along.
Some have argued that the church cannot confess error because the church is a mystery, with divine as well as human elements. Individual members of the church may err, but not the church "as such." This argument rests on the fallacy of denying the human and pilgrim nature of the church. Indeed, Scripture discloses specific errors that Jesus himself made, notwithstanding the fact that he was completely free from sin (Hebrews 4:15). He was mistaken, for example, about the identity of the high priest at the time David entered the house of God and ate the holy bread which only the priests were permitted to eat (Mark 2:26); it was Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1-6) who did so, not Abiathar, as Jesus thought. He was in error, too, about the fact that Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, was killed in the Temple (2 Chronicles 24:20-22); it was not Zechariah, son of Barachiah, as Jesus said (Matthew 23:35).
What applies to Jesus applies a fortiori to the church. If the church can commit an error (where the charism of infallibility is not engaged), on what possible grounds-theological, doctrinal, or pastoral-can it not admit the error, correct it, and move on?
2.A. The Roman magisterium, represented by the pope and the Roman curia, has been reluctant to admit error. Although the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom acknowledged that in the course of history "there have at times appeared patterns of behavior which were not in keeping with the spirit of the gospel and were even opposed to it" (n. 12), not even
this forward-looking document could bring itself to an explicit admission of error in the Roman magisterium's previous teachings on the subject of religious liberty. …