Reprinted from September A.D. 2000
Our Lady of the
Rosary Parish Bulletin
FAQ: Can a Pope overrule a previous Pope? overrule an Ecumenical
Council? Can a council overrule a Pope? (I.C.) Are Papal encyclicals and
Council documents always infallible?
Answer: We need to start out with a few definitions. The Church
is competent to make rulings that can be said to fall into three broad classes:
faith, morals, and discipline. We will address faith and morals first and return
to discipline toward the end of this article.
Propositions of faith deal with divine truths which
Catholics are expected to believe (e.g. God exists in a Trinity of Persons, Mary
was conceived Immaculate, etc.). Moral propositions define the way God expects
people to behave (e.g. with honesty and chastity, without theft or murder,
etc.). Propositions of faith or morals can be said to be either true:
"Jesus Christ is God," or "God forbids birth control"; or
they can be false: "God wants men to steal," or "Mary is the
fourth person of the Trinity." A proposition of faith or morals is true or
false for everyone, regardless of time or place. Murder is wrong for all; the
Trinitarian existence of God is true for all; neither will ever change.
Some propositions of faith and morals are known to us
quite directly from Sacred Scripture, expressed by God Himself. Obviously, the
Church is as incapable of changing such things as the revealed prohibition of
murder or adultery or false religion as it is of denying the existence of
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. What the Church does is take the truths that we
know from divine revelation and pronounce upon their implications and
applications under practical circumstances—It does not create new information
out of nothing—It has no mechanism for divining new truths not somehow
implicit in revelation. When we speak of the infallibility of the Pope or the
Church, we are referring to a divine gift which keeps one or the other from
defining something erroneous—not a gift that allows something unknown to
Propositions of faith or morals, once authoritatively
defined, can never change. They cannot change because truth cannot change. No
Pope or Council will ever be able to declare, for example, that Mary was not
Assumed into heaven because the fact of her Assumption has been declared to be
true by the highest authority of the Church.
The words "authoritatively defined" in the
paragraph above naturally give rise to the question: "How do Catholics know
what the Church teaches authoritatively, and what they are consequently expected
Probably the most obvious (but incomplete) answer is that
the Church "defines authoritatively" when it exercises its
"extraordinary teaching authority," otherwise known as its
"extraordinary magisterium." This occurs when a Pope, either by
himself or together with the bishops gathered together in council, issues a
pronouncement in his (their) capacity as supreme head of the Church (a), on
a matter of faith or morals (b), which is to be believed by all who wish to
be members of the Church (c). Such extraordinary pronouncements are
infrequent (d), tend to be concise and simply worded (e), and clear in
the assertion that they infallibly define the truth (f).
Lets examine the phrases with letters next to them.
(a) Popes and councils do many things at levels below that of
"supreme head" or "supreme teacher." A decree about who may
be admitted into the Vatican gardens doesn't qualify as an extraordinary
(b) The Church has no extraordinary authority over matters unrelated to
faith or morals -- science, economics, politics, music, art, etc.—unless one
of these disciplines raises a moral or dogmatic question in its practice. The
Church prescribes no particular political system, but it must speak to moral
questions that arise from the practice of a particular system (e.g. usurpation
of rights to life, property, religion, conscience, and so forth).
(c) An extraordinary pronouncement must concern some vital religious
truth of grave importance to living the Christian life, so important that one
could not be a Christian while repudiating it or the authority that utters it.
(d) Most of what we need to know to be Christians is already known.
Extraordinary pronouncements satisfy a pressing need for clarification—something only occasionally necessary. The last extraordinary pronouncement of
the Church came fifty years ago in the definition of Mary's Assumption into
(e) An infallible pronouncement is of very little value if people have
no idea what it means, or if they have to accept its interpretation by fallible
(f) Equally useless in a pronouncement of questionable authority. If
reasonable people can debate whether or not a proposition is infallible, it is
In a less formal manner, the Church also teaches by
exercising its "ordinary magisterium," or "ordinary teaching
authority." The ordinary magisterium is exercised by the Pope and bishops
separately when they teach the truths which they agree must be believed by all
Catholics. Many theologians include in the exercise of the ordinary magisterium
"[the Church's] universal practices connected with faith or morals, in the
unanimous consent of the Fathers and theologians, in the decisions of the Roman
Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the common sense of the faithful,
and various historical documents in which the faith is declared."
The ordinary magisterium teaches infallibly in so far as
these elements are in agreement throughout the Church and across the ages.
Obviously, knowing what is obliged through the exercise of the ordinary
magisterium is not all that simple. It is possible for a Pope or bishop to
mistakenly think that something is demanded by the ordinary teaching of the
Church when it is not. But again, truth is unchanging and applicable to all—the ultimate proof that a teaching is ordered by the ordinary magisterium lies
in being able to find it repeated by the Church authorities over the centuries
Care ought to be used to avoid ambiguities with this word
"magisterium." Ordinary or extraordinary, "magisterium" is
the authority of the Church to teach the truths of faith and morals infallibly.
The teaching authority (a) is logically distinct from (b) those men
who exercise that authority, and from (c) the pronouncements made by those
men exercising that authority. For example, the phrase "loyal to the
magisterium" can mean three different things, depending upon which of the
three meanings is intended for the word "magisterium"; the power, the
people, or the product.
In practice, the idea that an entire encyclical or similar
length council document might be infallible can usually be dismissed out of
hand. The only exceptions might be lists of "anathemas" like those
that made up some of Trent's whole documents. In most other cases there will be
matters mentioned that are simply not subject to infallible pronouncement—like the history of the matter under consideration, or the economic theory that
underlies it, or a discussion of competing theories. And, certainly, there are
documents that address important issues, but contain no infallible
pronouncements at all. The Church is careful to "manifestly" indicate
when a "doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined." It does not
leave the faithful to guess what has been defined or if it has been defined.
So far we have seen that Popes and councils can (but do
not always) define the truth about issues of faith or morals—likewise, less
formally, when the Church has been united in teaching such a proposition in all
times in places. Such definitions, together with direct divine revelations are
the truth, and are not subject to revision by anyone. We mentioned that the
Church also made a third kind of ruling.
Disciplines, the third class of propositions, are neither
true or false, but relate to the ways in which the Church requires Her members
to behave (above and beyond the moral behavior demanded by God). "Catholics
are expected to abstain from meat on Fridays" and "Women are expected
to wear hats in church," are examples of disciplinary pronouncements. Note
that they do not necessarily apply to all people, and that the Church can modify
them. Protestants are free to eat meat on Friday. Some Fridays are not
abstinence days. In some places Catholics used to abstain on Wednesdays and
Saturdays as well as Fridays. Disciplines may apply differently to men and
women, to clergy and laity, to bishops and priests, to young and old, to people
in various countries or major divisions of the Church
Disciplines are not "true" or "false"
in that way that articles of faith or morals are, and are therefore subject to
change, dispensation, or elimination by the authority that made them. Normally,
the Church has been slow to change matters of discipline, so as to avoid
confusion and inconvenience to its members. But to answer part of the question
posed above, one who is competent to make a disciplinary law (or his superior or
successor) is competent to change or abolish it.
Note that many disciplinary matters are delegated to local
authorities: holy days of obligation, fasting, and abstinence are generally
subject to local rule and dispensation. One with such delegated authority may
administer the law as circumstances require, but may not increase or diminish it
beyond the scope of his own ordinary authority.
God has always distinguished His chosen people by allowing
them to know Him and what He expects of them. In the Old Testament this was done
through the Prophets; since the time of Christ it is accomplished through His
Church, founded upon the Rock of Peter, with the authority to bind and loose on
 Cf. Code of Canon Law, o.c.
1323; n.c. 749.
 Donald Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary (NY:
Macmillan, 1958), s.v. "Magisterium," p. 301.
 Cf. Matthew xvi.