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On the Modes of Exercise of the Magisterium – Part I

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Editor’s note: As we continue our exploration of the Church’s magisterium in light of some more recently troubling papal documents, we are pleased to introduce this work from Dr. des. John P. Joy. Joy wrote his doctoral dissertation in dogmatic theology “On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council” (SThD diss., University of Fribourg, Switzerland, 2017). He is also the Co-Founder and President of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies and resides in Madison, Wisconsin.

(Part I of a two-part series. Read Part II here.)


The State of the Question

If one consults books, internet articles, etc., on the various modes of operation of the Church’s magisterium, one is likely to find a bewildering array of differing descriptions of the matter with different theologians using the terms ‘extraordinary magisterium’, ‘ordinary magisterium,’ and ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ in different ways to mean different things.

Most theologians agree that the ‘extraordinary magisterium’ refers to the solemn and infallible judgments or definitions of popes and ecumenical councils. But they disagree about what counts as a solemn judgment or definition.

  1. Some would include any proposition of a matter of faith or morals that is set forth in a definitive way, that is, with the manifest intention of obliging the faithful to hold or believe it.
  2. Others would include only the definitive proposition of dogmas, that is, matters of faith or morals set forth specifically as divinely revealed truths.
  3. Still others would restrict this category still further to include only the definitive proposition of new dogmas, that is, matters of faith or morals set forth as divinely revealed truths which up until then had been open to legitimate dispute.

(I am convinced that the first position can be shown to be the correct one, but that is an essay for another day.)

Then regarding the ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’, most theologians agree that this is exercised by the college of bishops in union with the pope in their state of dispersion throughout the world.

  1. Some, taking the term ‘universal’ to refer to this universal dispersion of the bishops, extend their use of the term ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ no further than this.
  2. But others, taking the term ‘universal’ to refer instead to the universality of the episcopal college itself, also apply the term ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ to the non-solemn teaching of ecumenical councils.
  3. Still others, taking the term ‘universal’ to refer to the extension of authority over the universal Church, also apply the term ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ to the magisterium of the pope when he is teaching the universal Church without speaking ex cathedra.

I will argue in this essay that the first position is the correct one.

Finally, there is the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ without the addition of ‘universal’. Most theologians agree that this category includes whatever is left over from the other two categories, though the details of what exactly is included here will vary greatly depending on how broadly or restrictively one understands those other two categories.

 

The Question of Infallibility

As if all this weren’t enough, there is also the question of infallibility. Most theologians agree that the extraordinary magisterium is always infallible and that the ordinary and universal magisterium at least can be infallible (some hold that it is always infallible). And most agree that the ordinary magisterium (non-universal) is not infallible.

The most significant diversity of opinion turns on how one deals with the fact that the Church teaches (e.g. in Lumen gentium 25): that the pope and ecumenical councils are infallible when they define doctrine (extraordinary magisterium); and that the bishops dispersed throughout the world are infallible when they propose a doctrine as definitively to be held (ordinary and universal magisterium). Why do the bishops appear to have two modes of infallible teaching while the pope has only one?

1.) Most theologians hold that the proposition of a doctrine as definitively to be held by a pope or a council is not enough to constitute a definition of the extraordinary magisterium.

a.) Some of these, arguing that the pope’s infallibility cannot be more limited than the bishops’ and that the bishops gathered in council cannot have less authority than the same bishops dispersed throughout the world, conclude that when a pope or a council proposes a doctrine as definitively to be held, they do so infallibly in virtue of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

b.) Others argue that the ‘dissymmetry’ in the Church’s teaching between papal and episcopal infallibility is deliberate and that there is no such thing as an infallible ordinary magisterium of the pope or an infallible papal exercise of the ordinary and universal magisterium, so that a pope who proposes a doctrine as definitively to be helddoes not do so infallibly whereas the bishops dispersed throughout the world (and perhaps also the bishops gathered in council?) are infallible when they propose a doctrine as definitively to be held.

c.) Another option, however, which is mostly overlooked on account of the confusion about the nature of the extraordinary magisterium, is to deny the presupposition of both the above positions and hold instead that the proposition of a doctrine as definitively to be held by a pope or an ecumenical council simply is a definition and that the bishops’ unique mode of teaching definitively without defining is due to the state of dispersion in which it occurs. (I hold that this last position is the correct one.)

The degree of confusion in these matters can be seen especially clearly in the case of Pope John Paul II’s declaration in Ordinatio sacerdotalis regarding the reservation of the priesthood to males alone.

1.) Some regard this declaration as an infallible definition of the extraordinary magisterium because in it the pope, acting as supreme head of the Church, proposes a doctrine of faith or morals as definitively to be held.

2.) Others regard it as an exercise of the ordinary magisterium because it defined nothing new but only confirmed what had always been held and taught in the Church.

a.) But some among these regard it as an infallible act of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

b.) Others argue that it the ordinary and universal magisterium can only be exercised by the universal episcopate and not by the pope alone and so this declaration can only belong to the non-infallible ordinary papal magisterium.

(I believe that the first position can be shown to be the correct one, but again, that is an essay for another day.)

 

A Question of Context

I am convinced that the root of the confusion surrounding these issues is the assumption that the terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium refers to just one distinction, whereas in fact it applies to two separate but overlapping distinctions in two separate but overlapping contexts. The result is that the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ in particular is highly ambiguous (it means different things in different contexts) and thus arguments involving the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ easily fall into the fallacy of equivocation.

Let me begin by setting out these two different contexts in which the terminology of ordinary and extraordinary arises. The original context is that of the rule of faith (regula fidei) within the field of fundamental theology. The focus here is on the nature of divine revelation, the virtue of faith as man’s response to divine revelation, the relationship between faith and reason, Scripture and Tradition as the sources of divine revelation, and the role of the Church in safeguarding and transmitting divine revelation. At Vatican I, this was treated in Dei Filius, the dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith; at Vatican II, this was treated in Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation.

The second context in which the same terminology arises is the nature of the Church within the field of ecclesiology. The focus here is on the nature of the Church, the members of the Church, the hierarchical structure of the Church, authority and jurisdiction in the Church, the Church’s mission of teaching, governing, and sanctifying, etc. At Vatican I, this was treated in Pastor Aeternus, the first dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ (a second constitution was intended but never completed); at Vatican II, this was treated in Lumen gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church.

 

The Origins of the Terminology

The terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium was invented by the German Jesuit neo-scholastic theologian Joseph Kleutgen in the middle of the 19th century in the context of his treatise on the rule of faith. The first question he set out to answer in his massive and highly influential work Die Theologie der Vorzeit verteidigt (a defense of scholastic theology) was: what are Catholics obliged to believe? And his principal concern in answering this question was to oppose the dogmatic minimalism, especially prevalent in contemporary German theology, according to which Catholics are only obliged to believe what has been formally and infallibly defined by the Church. Against this idea, he asserts that the Church exercises a double magisterium: the one is “ordinary and perpetual” (ordentlich und immerwährend) and it consists in all those ongoing apostolates of the Church by which the faith is handed down through the living tradition; the other is “extraordinary” (außerordentlich) and is used only at special times when false teachers disturb the Church (Kleutgen, Die Theologie, 1st ed., 47).

What did he mean by these terms and what exactly was the nature of the distinction between them? In Kleutgen’s works, the term ‘extraordinary magisterium’ refers to the explicit definitions of the Church in matters of faith and morals (see especially Die Theologie, 40–46). Let us look at each part of this definition in turn:

  • The object of the extraordinary magisterium is ‘matters of faith and morals’, whether contained directly in the deposit of faith (primary object) or intrinsically connected to the deposit of faith (secondary object).
  • The subject of the extraordinary magisterium is ‘the Church’, which means that it can be exercised only by those who bear supreme authority in the Church, namely the pope and the college of bishops (which includes the pope).
  • The act of the extraordinary magisterium is the act of ‘definition’, which means that the doctrine in question is proposed to the Church in a ‘definitive’ or ‘conclusive’ way as something that must be firmly believed or definitively held.
  • The distinguishing feature of the extraordinary magisterium as compared with the ordinary magisterium lies in the fact that its definitive teaching is ‘explicit’, which means that it is visibly and tangibly enshrined in a public document of the magisterium.

What, then, does Kleutgen intend by the term ‘ordinary magisterium’? The term ‘ordinary magisterium’ refers to the organic transmission of the contents of divine revelation through the living tradition of the Church (see especially Die Theologie, 46–53). Let us again look at each part of this definition:

  • The object of the ordinary magisterium is ‘the contents of divine revelation’, which is the same as saying ‘matters of faith and morals’.
  • The subject of the ordinary magisterium is ‘the Church’, which Kleutgen specifies as meaning the body of bishops in union with their head the pope (Die Theologie, 42).
  • The activity of the ordinary magisterium is the ‘organic transmission’ of divine revelation, which refers to the daily teaching, preaching, and handing on of the faith that occurs within the Church through her ‘living tradition’.
  • The distinguishing feature of the ordinary magisterium as compared with the extraordinary magisterium lies in its relative intangibility; it is the infallible teaching of the Church that occurs apart from the formal and visible documents of the Church’s magisterium.

The last point requires further explanation. The teaching of the extraordinary magisterium is found by looking within the documents of the magisterium; the teaching of the ordinary magisterium, by contrast, is found by looking outsidethe formal teaching documents of the magisterium to all the other sources of the living tradition, and in the first place to Scripture itself. Since the Church proposes all of Scripture as the divinely revealed word of God, as soon as one sees that a truth is clearly proposed in Scripture, one can also see that it is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed truth and so one must accept and believe it as a dogma of faith (i.e. taught by the ordinary magisterium). It would be heresy to deny, for example, that Christ was transfigured on the mount, that the holy family fled to Egypt, or that Christians have a moral duty to love their enemies, even though none of these things have been formally defined by the Church. And then together with Sacred Scripture one looks to the writings of the Church Fathers, who are the privileged witnesses of Sacred Tradition, and then also to the Doctors of the Church and other eminent Catholic theologians, to the customs, liturgies, and laws of the Church, to the monuments of antiquity, the consensus of the faithful, and the statements of individual bishops and local councils.

Kleutgen’s main purpose in speaking at all about an ‘ordinary magisterium’ was to re-assert against the dogmatic minimalists of his time (who are still with us today) the binding authority of the living tradition of the Church; he wanted to re-direct our attention away from an obsessive fixation on the formal teaching documents of the Church toward the broader horizons and greater depths of the entire living tradition. At the same time, however, he was also wary of asserting the authority of Scripture and Tradition apart from the explicit judgments of the Church without linking them in some way to the magisterium in order to maintain (against the Protestant principle of private interpretation) the Catholic principle of ecclesiastical mediation according to which Catholics believe all that and only that which God has revealed and which has been proposed as such by the Church. Hence his reinterpretation of the living tradition of the Church, by which Scripture and the oral Tradition are perpetually handed down in the Church, as an exercise of the magisterium of the Church.

There are two concluding points worth emphasizing about Kleutgen’s understanding of the ordinary magisterium.

First, the ordinary magisterium is exercised only by the whole Church in its state of being dispersed throughout the world for the quite simple and obvious reason that the teaching of popes and ecumenical councils are necessarily formal and explicit acts of teaching formulated in public documents of the supreme magisterium (which is exactly what the teaching of the ordinary magisterium is not). Hence, for Kleutgen it would be quite absurd to talk about an ecumenical council or a pope exercising the ordinary magisterium as is commonly done today.

Second, in Kleutgen’s writings there is no distinction between an ‘ordinary magisterium’ and an ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’. There is only one ordinary magisterium and it is always infallible. Because he is writing in the context of the rule of faith, only the infallible teaching of the Church comes into view, for only infallible teaching can oblige the faithful to give an assent of faith. Non-infallible teaching does not constitute part of the rule of faith because the response due to the non-infallible but still authoritative teaching of the Church is a religious submission (obsequium religiosum) rather than the submission of faith (obsequium fidei). The distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary magisterium occurs for Kleutgen within the context of the Church’s infallible teaching as a distinction between doctrines that have been defined as of faith (de fide definita) and doctrines that are of faith (de fide) even without having been defined as such (de fide non definita).

 

Pope Pius IX and Vatican I

The substance of Kleutgen’s teaching on the ordinary magisterium was taken up and confirmed by Pope Pius IX in the apostolic letter Tuas libenter and by the First Vatican Council in the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius. In each of these documents the same distinction (between the explicit judgments or definitions of the Church and the ordinary magisterium of the Church) is introduced in the same context (the rule of faith) in order to oppose the same problem (dogmatic minimalism):

Pope Pius IX: “For even if it were a matter of that submission which must be manifested by an act of divine faith, nevertheless, this would not have to be limited to those matters that have been defined by explicit decrees of ecumenical councils or by the Roman pontiffs and by this Apostolic See, but would also have to be extended to those matters transmitted as divinely revealed by the ordinary magisterium of the whole Church dispersed throughout the world and, for that reason, held by the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians as belonging to the faith” (Tuas libenter, Denz. 2879).

Vatican I: “All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith that are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which by the Church, either in solemn judgment or through her ordinary and universalmagisterium, are proposed for belief as having been divinely revealed” (Dei Filius, Denz. 3011).

The discussions that took place among the fathers of the First Vatican Council and the official explanations and clarifications of the intended meaning of the text that can be found in the conciliar acta make it clear that the intended sense of this distinction in the conciliar text corresponds closely to the way in which Kleutgen understood it. An important point is that the word ‘universal’ was added to the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ specifically in order to express the same thing that Pius IX had expressed in speaking of the “ordinary magisterium dispersed throughout the world” and in order to make it clear that the text did not speak about a papal exercise of the magisterium (Mansi 51:322).

There is still no distinction between an ‘ordinary magisterium’ and an ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’. The ordinary magisterium simply is universal in the sense that it is exercised by the Church dispersed throughout the world (as opposed to by the pope or an ecumenical council). No explanation of this is given in the magisterial texts themselves, but if we understand that the ordinary magisterium refers to the transmission of Scripture and Tradition through the living tradition outside the documents of the magisterium, then it makes perfect sense why this must be the case.

 

A Shift in Meaning and Application

An important shift occurred in the understanding and use of these terms after Vatican I. After the definition of papal infallibility, it was generally understood that the pope exercised the extraordinary magisterium in his solemn definitions ex cathedra; but many of the magisterial acts of the popes clearly fell short of being solemn definitions ex cathedra; thus they were attributed to an ordinary magisterium exercised by the pope. The concept of an ordinary papal magisterium was thus born and this had several effects.

The first effect was a distortion in the original meaning of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’. Since this ‘ordinary’ teaching of the popes (for example, in their encyclical letters) was quite explicit and documented, Kleutgen’s emphasis on the ordinary magisterium as a means of transmitting the faith apart from the explicit documents of the hierarchy faded from view. The concept of an ordinary magisterium, which had been intended to move beyond a narrow focus on the statements of the hierarchy toward a broader view of the rule of faith grounded in Scripture, Tradition, the liturgy, etc., was reinterpreted as just another kind of magisterial document.

A further result of this distortion was a new application of the same terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium to a different distinction. The same terminology that had been used within the context of the rule of faith to distinguish between defined and undefined doctrines of faith, now began to be applied within the context of the evaluation of individual acts of magisterial teaching to distinguish between definitive and non-definitive acts of explicitly documented magisterial teaching. And this new distinction has been superimposed upon the original distinction, as illustrated below:

The root of the difficulty is this: if the extraordinary magisterium is the organ of Church teaching that is at once both explicit and definitive, then two very different kinds of teaching can be contrasted against it, and both will appear to be ‘ordinary’ by comparison. One is the teaching of the Church that is definitive but not explicit, and this is what Kleutgen had in mind, and what was intended by the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ as it was used by Pius IX and by Vatican I. The other is the teaching of the Church that is explicit but not definitive, and this appears to be what Pius XII, for example, has in mind in Humani generis when he calls for a religious assent (but not an assent of faith) to the teaching contained in papal encyclical letters. The former ‘ordinary magisterium’ is the infallible living tradition itself; the latter ‘ordinary magisterium’ is the authentic but not infallible magisterium of the pope and bishops. These are completely opposite forms of teaching, sharing in common only the fact that neither is a third thing, namely the extraordinary magisterium. Calling them both by the same name is a little bit like calling angels and apes by the same name simply because neither are men.

Let me repeat that point. I am convinced that the most important thing to understand, in order to gain some clarity regarding the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium, is that this terminology covers not one distinction but two. One usage refers to the distinction between defined and undefined doctrines taught infallibly by the Church; another usage refers to the distinction between infallible and merely authentic acts of teaching. And whereas the meaning of the term ‘extraordinary’ is the same in both cases, the two meanings of ‘ordinary’ are very different. It is this ambiguity of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ that breeds constant confusion and derails so many arguments.

 

Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council completely avoided the use of the terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium in its constitution on the Church Lumen gentium, which outlines three basic forms of magisterial teaching: (1) the authentic (i.e. authoritative) but not infallible teaching of the pope and bishops; (2) the infallible definitions of popes and ecumenical councils; and (3) the infallible teaching of the bishops dispersed throughout the world (a footnote referring to Tuas libenter and Dei Filius makes it clear that this is a reference to the ordinary and universal magisterium).

I believe that much confusion could be avoided if we were to follow the example of Lumen gentium in speaking consistently of the ‘authentic magisterium’ of popes and bishops when it is a question of their non-infallible teaching, while reserving the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ for the infallible teaching of the Church dispersed throughout the world.

And we would do well to pay closer attention to employing the right distinction in the right context. When it is a question of evaluating the degree of authority exercised in an individual act of teaching and the response owed to that particular act of teaching, the relevant distinction is between definitive and non-definitive acts of teaching; that is, between the exercise of the ‘infallible magisterium’ or the ‘merely authentic magisterium’ (following Lumen gentium, where the context is the magisterium).

When it is a question of evaluating the status of a given doctrine and the source of our obligation to believe or hold that doctrine, then the relevant distinction is between defined and undefined doctrines taught by the Church; that is, between the ‘extraordinary magisterium’ and the ‘ordinary magisterium’ (following Dei Filius, where the context is the rule of faith).

The ambiguity of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ makes this topic unnecessarily complex. If we would only resolve the ambiguity by substituting the term ‘authentic magisterium’ for ‘ordinary magisterium’ whenever we are dealing with magisterial documents that do not contain solemn definitions, the whole question would immediately become much clearer and simpler, which would be a good thing if our goal is clarity and truth rather than confusion and obfuscation.

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On the Modes of Exercise of the Magisterium – Part II: Evaluating Amoris Laetitia

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(Part II of a two-part series.)

In the first part of this essay I attempted to cut through some of the confusion that frequently surrounds discussions of the various modes of exercise of the magisterium, particularly with reference to the term ‘ordinary magisterium’, which can mean two different things in two different contexts.

To recap briefly, the original meaning of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’, as it was intended to be understood when it was originally invented in the middle of the 19th century, referred to the infallible transmission of divine revelation (Scripture and Tradition) through the living tradition of the Church apart from the official documents of the supreme magisterium (popes and ecumenical councils). Over the course of time, the same term came to be used to refer to the teaching contained in the magisterial documents of popes and ecumenical councils whenever this teaching fell short of being an extraordinary definition. The first ordinary magisterium (often called the ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’) is infallible; the second ordinary magisterium (sometimes called the ‘authentic magisterium’) is not infallible.

 

How to Evaluate Magisterial Documents

When evaluating the degree of authority of the teaching contained in any individual papal document (the same principles apply to ecumenical councils), the first step is to identify what judgments are being proposed in matters of faith or morals (as opposed to purely disciplinary legislation or to assertions about other areas of human knowledge not connected with faith or morals).

The next step is to identify the quality or note of the doctrinal proposition:

  1. If a doctrine is proposed as one that must be firmly believed as divinely revealed, then we have an infallible definition of dogma by the extraordinary magisterium of the pope speaking ex cathedra. The response due to this kind of teaching is the assent of divine faith. Its rejection would be heresy.
  2. If a doctrine is proposed as one that must be definitively held by all the faithful, then we have an infallible definition of doctrine by the extraordinary magisterium of the pope speaking ex cathedra. The response due to this kind of teaching is a firm and definitive assent based on faith in the Church’s infallibility in these matters. To reject such a doctrine would separate one from full communion with the Church.
  3. If a doctrine is proposed as true or sure but without the note of definitive obligation, then we have an authoritative (but not infallible) proposition of doctrine by the authentic magisterium of the pope. The response due to this kind of teaching is a religious submission of will and intellect. Failure to assent to this kind of teaching, without grave reason, would be rash.
  4. If a doctrine is proposed merely as possible or probable, then it does not rise to the level of magisterial teaching and does not impose any obligation of assent or adherence.

 

The Case of Amoris laetitia

In the case of Amoris laetitia, there is a general consensus that it represents, at least in the main, an exercise of the authentic magisterium (category 3 above), though there may be portions of the text that don’t even rise to that level.

The kind of response owed to this kind of teaching is specified by Vatican II in Lumen gentium 25 where it says that a “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.” There is a lengthy discussion in the 1990 CDF document Donum veritatis (§§ 23–31) about what this kind of response entails. To put the matter briefly, a genuine internal assent to the truth of the teaching is generally expected, although there can be cases were it is legitimate to withhold this kind of assent for serious reasons. This is because we are dealing precisely with the non-infallible teaching of the Church, which by definition could be mistaken; at the same time, since the Church enjoys a special divine assistance in the exercise of her mission, even when the charism of infallibility is not involved, it would be wrong to conclude that the Church could be habitually mistaken in these matters.

 

A Particularly Egregious Exaggeration of the Authority of Amoris laetitia

Stephen Walford, in his February 2, 2017 piece in the Vatican Insider, takes this “charism of special assistance” as his point of departure for constructing an argument on the basis of which he concludes:

“We must affirm that Pope Francis cannot possibly be in error in his ordinary magisterium concerning issues of faith and morals, and thus his teaching that under certain, carefully considered cases, Holy Communion can be given to persons in irregular situations is perfectly valid and influenced by the Holy Spirit.” (My emphasis)

That is an audacious claim. Let’s try to follow the steps of his argument. His first premise, drawn from Pope John Paul II’s commentary on Lumen gentium 25 in his Wednesday Audience of March 17, 1993, is that the ordinary magisterium of the pope enjoys a “charism of special assistance” even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. So far, so good.

He then adds that Amoris laetitia is certainly an exercise of the ordinary magisterium, which is unobjectionable as long as we understand that the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ in this context refers to the ‘authentic magisterium’ of the pope not speaking ex cathedra and not to the ‘ordinary magisterium’ of the bishops dispersed throughout the world, which is infallible. These are, as I argued earlier, two very different things.

Walford continues:

“Can a Pope teach error in his ordinary magisterium in matters of faith and morals? St John Paul’s answer is a definite no.”

Now to say that the pope “cannot teach error” in his ordinary magisterium is the same as saying that the pope is infallible in his ordinary magisterium. That’s just what infallible means. Prior to Vatican II it was fairly common for theologians to argue that the ordinary magisterium of the pope is infallible, but this is a rare claim these days. Does John Paul II really teach this? Walford quotes a text that does seem to support this idea:

“Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of the Holy Spirit’s assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals, but rather shed great light on the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases.” (John Paul II, Wednesday Audience of March 24, 1993)

I have to admit that the first time I read this text I also thought that the pope was endorsing the infallibility of the ordinary papal magisterium. But one of my theology professors at the time helpfully drew my attention to some other remarks that John Paul II makes in the same context. In his Audience of March 10, 1993, he contrasts the ordinary papal magisterium against the ex cathedra definitions of the pope, which he identifies with the extraordinary magisterium; then in the Audience of March 24, 1993, he clearly asserts that the pope speaks infallibly only (‘solo’) when he speaks ex cathedra. Taken together these statements exclude an infallible exercise of the ordinary papal magisterium.

So if we are to assume that John Paul II is not just contradicting himself, I think we have to interpret the statement quoted by Walford as referring to a general protection from habitual error rather than an infallible protection from all error.

Walford’s next authority is Pope Innocent III, who says:

“The Lord clearly intimates that Peter’s successors will never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith, but will instead recall the others and strengthen the hesitant.” (Pope Innocent III, Apostolicae Sedis Primatus, 1199)

What Walford needed to do at this point was to show that these words apply not only to the ex cathedra definitions of the popes but also to their teaching when they are not speaking ex cathedra. Instead he turns aside to the question about whether a pope can fall into heresy as a “private theologian,” which is really irrelevant to the question of Amoris laetitia unless Cardinal Burke is right that it does not even rise to the level of being an act of the magisterium. In any case, however, the idea that the pope cannot fall into error as a private theologian has never been more than the private opinion of some people; it has never been endorsed by the Church.

Next up is a pair of even less relevant quotes from Pope Pius XII which demonstrate the “supreme importance of the papacy.” Since when was that the point at issue? Then there is some meandering commentary about how the popes have the task of teaching the truth, supporting the truth, and guarding the true faith not only in their ex cathedradefinitions but also in their ordinary teaching, which is all absolutely true and does absolutely nothing to prove that they receive the additional grace to do all of this infallibly in their ordinary magisterium.

Finally, Walford appeals to the text of Pope Pius IX’s Tuas libenter, in which we are reminded that the dogmatic teaching of the Church is not limited to the solemn definitions of popes and ecumenical councils but includes the dogmatic teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church dispersed throughout the world. Walford offers no commentary on this text but simply moves directly to his conclusion that:

“Pope Francis cannot possibly be in error in his ordinary magisterium concerning issues of faith and morals, and thus to his teaching that under certain, carefully considered cases, Holy Communion can be given to persons in irregular situations.”

This, however, completely overlooks the fact that Pius IX was speaking explicitly about the authority of the ordinary magisterium of the Church dispersed throughout the world, which is, as I argued previously, an allusion to the living tradition of the whole Church, and not to the magisterial teaching of the popes when they are not speaking ex cathedra.

I have to admit that it can seem very tempting to reason that the ordinary magisterium of the pope must be infallible because the ordinary magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world is infallible. But to do so is to commit the fallacy of equivocation, because the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ means different things when applied to the Church dispersed throughout the world and when applied to the pope. In the former case, it means the infallibleteaching of the living tradition transmitted apart from the documents of the magisterium; in the latter case, it means the non-infallible teaching of the pope and bishops contained in the documents of the magisterium. Once the terms are clearly understood the argument contains its own refutation.

Before ending, Walford throws off a couple of rhetorical questions and cites some additional authorities to reinforce his position.

He asks:

“Do we then pick and choose which teachings of which popes to accept? That would be tantamount to a form of Protestantism. The Council of Lyons stated the Pope: ‘has the duty to defend the truth of the faith, and it is his responsibility to resolve all disputed matters in the area of faith’.”

I answer: We accept all of the infallible teachings of all of the popes and we accept all of the non-infallible teaching of all of the popes insofar as it does not conflict with the infallible teaching of the Church.

I fail to see anything very Protestant about that. And the citation of Lyons is, of course, true — but once again beside the point. Popes defend the truth and resolve disputed questions of faith through their ex cathedra definitions. Indeed, that is the principal purpose of ex cathedra definitions. If Walford wants to argue that this text of Lyons goes beyond ex cathedra definitions he will have to provide some reasons for thinking so.

Then he asks:

“If protection from the Lord were only to apply to rare ex cathedra declarations how could all disputes of faith possibly be resolved? We must remember St Ambrose’ famous phrase: ‘Where Peter is, there is the Church. Where the Church is, there is no death but life eternal’.”

I answer: All disputes of faith could be resolved by ex cathedra definitions, which need not be as rare as they are and are probably much less rare than Wolford supposes.

They are only rare by comparison with the ordinary (universal) magisterium, which is exercised literally every day in the preaching and teaching by which the faith is handed down all over the world. Even several ex cathedra definitions per month would still be rare by comparison. At the First Vatican Council, in the official explanation of the intended sense of the definition of papal infallibility, Bishop Vincent Gasser, speaking on behalf of the deputation charged with the drafting of the definition, remarked that it was impossible to specify the form in which ex cathedra definitions had to be given, since “already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See” (Mansi 52:1215). Granted, this is not part of the definition itself, but the understanding of the text as presented in Gasser’s speech was the basis upon which the council fathers voted to pass and promulgate the text, so it counts for something in determining the right interpretation of the text of Vatican I.

As for St. Ambrose’s famous phrase: “Where Peter is, there is the Church. Where the Church is, there is no death but life eternal,” this is a beautiful expression of the necessity for salvation of membership in the Roman Catholic Church and of the primacy of Rome as the center of the Church’s unity. But I thought we were arguing about whether the ordinary papal magisterium is infallible?

To paraphrase Walford’s concluding lines, I would say that if we claim to hold Tradition dear, if we claim to defend Tradition with all our strength, then we must accept and defend the magisterium of Pope Francis insofar as it does not deviate from Tradition. There is no other interpretation available; the Church has spoken.

 

Donum Veritatis on Non-Infallible Church Teaching

Since Amoris laetitia does not contain any ex cathedra definitions, and since the pope is only infallible when he defines ex cathedra, the charism of infallibility is not involved in Amoris laetitia. 

But since Amoris laetitia does contain teaching in matters of faith and morals, and since the authentic magisterium of the pope is engaged in such teaching even when it is not ex cathedra, the charism of divine assistance is potentially involved in Amoris laetitia, and this charism excludes the probability but not the possibility of error.

Because authentic magisterial teaching is probably true (in the abstract), we owe to it a religious submission of will and intellect, which is a genuine internal assent to the truth of the teaching. But because it is also possibly false, this assent is at best provisional rather than definitive, and there can be serious reasons for withholding assent entirely, such as would most obviously be the case if it were in conflict with infallible teaching which always requires absolute and definitive assent.

What to do in such a case? The CDF, in the instruction Donum veritatis, 24, says this:

“It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.”

A theologian who finds himself unable to assent to some teaching of the authentic papal magisterium should not present his own opinions as though they were non-arguable conclusions (DV 27). And he should “refrain from giving untimely public expression to them” (DV 27), which implies that there may be a timely public expression of disagreement. And then, DV 30:

If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.

In the case of Amoris laetitia, it seems clear to me that this is exactly the course of action that the Cardinals who submitted the dubia to Pope Francis are faithfully trying to pursue. Not to mention Code of Canon Law, 212, 3.

 

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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2 Responses to CONFUSED ABOUT INFALLIBILITY, READ THIS

  1. I must read this article again..maybe 3 times…to digest all of it. It is an amazing essay! Thank you Bishop, for posting this.

  2. Let me just say this: I wasn’t confused about infallibility before but I am now!!!

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