Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the August, September, and October AD 2006
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

On Papal Infallibility

Question 1:  Why so late?

Question 2:  What else must we believe?

Question 3:  Is canonization infalllible?

    Question 1:  Wasn’t it a bit much to expect that papal infallibility would be accepted by Catholics so late in the history of the Church?  If the Pope is infallible, why did the Church wait until 1870 to say so?

    Answer:  Like all dogmatic definitions of the Church, the definition of papal infallibility was made only when the Church perceived a need for it.  All divinely revealed truths have been known (at least implicitly) since the time of the Apostles.  Only after an error contradictory to faith or morals gains currency will the Church solemnly define the truth.

   Over the centuries God has taken care to see that His people were aware of the things necessary for salvation.  At first, through Noe, Abraham and Moses, and later through the Prophets, God told us quite specifically about Himself and the way He wanted us to conduct ourselves in this life. 

    “In the fullness of time, He sent His only begotten Son,” not only to redeem us, but to teach us more about Himself, and to set up the mechanism by which future generations would receive His teaching.  That mechanism is His Church, for to It He has assigned the duty of “baptizing [all nations] ... teaching them to observe all that [He] had commanded,” promising to “be with [It] all days, even unto the consummation of the world.”[1]  “He appeared to the eleven [Apostles],” telling them to “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature.  He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned.”[2]

    God’s teaching was so important that men would either be saved or condemned by it—so they had to receive it accurately—to which end, God promised to be with His preachers “even unto the consummation of the world.”  He would send the Holy Ghost, “another Advocate to dwell with you forever, the Spirit of Truth.”[3]  He gave the Apostles, and particularly Peter, discretionary power:  whatever they would “bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven”;  whatever they would “loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven”[4]

    Clearly, God gave His Church power to teach in His name after our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven.  Equally clearly, He Church was based upon Peter, the one who most often is named first among the Apostles:

    Simon Peter answered and said: 

Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against It.  And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.[5]

    About 96 AD, Pope Clement I (90-99), wrote to the Corinthians to quell a sedition against the lawful clergy of that city.[6]  It was Clement of Rome—rather then John of Ephesus—even though the latter was an Apostle, still living—who took the initiative to correct the erring Corinthians.

    Ignatius of Antioch, himself a successor of Saint Peter in that city, wrote to the Church at Rome, expressing the primacy of that City in glowing terms.[7]

    Irenæus, the great theologian of the second century, wrote:

2. ... tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority -- that is, the faithful everywhere -- inasmuch as the Apostolic Tradition has been preserved continuously by those who are everywhere.

3. The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate.... To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric.... To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.[8]

    Saint Augustine, in the fifth century, declared the matter of the Pelagian heresy to be closed, for “Rome’s [Saint Innocent I’s] reply has come: the case is closed—causa finita est.[9]  And, of course, the reply came from Rome because a goodly number of bishops, acknowledging the Roman primacy, requested it of Pope Innocent I.[10]

    It is recorded that Council of Chalcedon (415) received Pope Leo I’s condemnation of Eutyches saying, “Peter has spoken through Leo.”  Likewise the Third Council of Constantinople (680) wrote to the Emperors about the condemnation of Monothelitism:

    We have had with us the most high Prince of the Apostles, for we have received encouragement and a written declaration of the sacred mystery from his imitator and the successor of his See; ... and Peter has spoken through Agatho.[11]

    The Council of Florence (1439)defined for the Greeks, returning to unity with Rome:

We also define that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons.[12]

    A testimony to papal infallibility is found even in a writing of Cornelius Jansen who “at the time of his promotion to the doctorate in 1619, had defended the infallibility of the pope in a most categorical thesis, conceived as follows: «The Roman Pontiff is the supreme judge of all religious controversies, when he defines a thing and imposes it on the whole Church, under penalty of anathema, his decision is just, true, and infallible.»”[13]

    The Vatican I definition in 1870 was quite narrow:

[W]e 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.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.

    When speaking to all Christians as head of the Church, defining a matter of faith or morals which all must believe, the Pope is protected from erring.  Not really different from what the Church had been saying all along.

[Continued from previous month]

    Question 2:  Given the truth that the Pope is infallible in making ex cathedra pronouncements about faith or morals for the whole Church—ex cathedra pronouncements seem so few and far between—are they the only things Catholics must believe?

     Answer: No. The ex cathedra pronouncements  are but one way in which the Church defines and teaches Her doctrines.  Somewhat more common are the pronouncements made by ecumenical councils—gatherings where all of the bishops of the Church meet under the presidency, or at least with the approval, of the Pope.  Such councils are also rare, averaging about one per century in the history of the Church, being called only when serious doctrinal errors threaten the well-being of Christians, and authoritative definitions of Christian doctrine are needed.

    The word “ecumenical,” properly used, refers to all the bishops who hold the true Faith which has come down from our Lord and His Apostles.  The modernist use, making the word refer to a gathering of people with widely differing beliefs is extremely misleading, for the objective of an ecumenical council is to define truth, not to make posturing statements indifferent to the theological errors held by the crowd.

    In Christianity, an ecumenical council or general council is a meeting of the bishops of the whole church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice.  The word is from the Greek Οικουμένη/Oikoumene, which literally means "inhabited", and was originally a figure of speech referring to the territory of the Roman Empire since the earliest councils were all convoked by Roman Emperors. In later usage it was applied in a more general way to mean all places that are inhabited by human beings, therefore "world-wide" or "general."[14]

    Very often, the ecumenical councils have worded their pronouncements rather pointedly in order to make it clear that these definitions must be accepted by all who claim to be Catholics.  Often, after giving a general description of some Catholic belief, the councils have provided a list of “canons”—“κανονες—kanones”=“rules” which must be beleved under pain of “anathema—Ανάθεμα,” which in Christian usage is more or less equivalent to “excommunication or” even self incurred “damnation.”  The canons might then take the form: “If anyone believes (a specific error fills in these parentheses), let him be anathema—anathema sit.”

    The dogmatic canons of the ecumenical councils of bishops in union with the Pope, together with the ex cathedra pronouncements made by the Pope alone, are said to be an exercise of the Church’s “extraordinary magisterium”, or “extraordinary teaching authority.”

    We also speak of the Church’s “ordinary magisterium”—this is simply the common teaching of the entire Church over all of the years it has been in existence.  Here is Donald Attwater’s definition of what, exactly, that means:

    The ordinary magisterium is continually exercised by the Church especially in her universal practices connected with faith or morals, in the unanimous consent of the Fathers (q.v.) and theologians, in the decisions of the Roman Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the common sense (q.v.) of the faithful, and various historical documents in which the faith is declared.  All these are founts of teaching which as a whole is infallible.  They have to be studied separately to determine how far and in what conditions each of them is an infallible source of the truth. [15]

    There is, as Attwater points out, some difficulty in know exactly which truths are taught with the Church’s ordinary authority—it is at least as much a difficult historical question as it is theological.  When some article of the Faith that has been taught by this universal ordinary magisterium is called into serious question or otherwise increases in importance, it may become the subject of an extraordinary pronouncement.

    For example, the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament has been taught since the Apostles.  Only in response to heretical theories to the contrary did ecumenical councils like Constance (1414-18), Florence (1435-38) and Trent (1545-63) spell out the doctrine with their extraordinary magisterial authority.

    Another example would be the belief in the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven.  We have evidence of this doctrine being taught as early as the second century, and none opposing it.  Since time immemorial, both the Eastern and Western Churches have observed the liturgical feast day of the Assumption on August 15th—and have continued to do so for almost a thousand years since their separation.  Yet, perhaps because of the incredulity of the modern world, Pope Pius XII made an extraordinary pronouncement of the doctrine as recently as 1950.

    Occasionally, someone will question the authority of a particular Church document:  “Was such and such a pronouncement issued with the extraordinary infallible authority of the Catholic Church?”  In modern times the Church has answered this question in Her Code of Canon Law:  “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.”[16]  That is to say that if a reasonable person can question whether or not the pronouncement intended to invoke the extraordinary authority of the Church, then it did not—not much point in having infallible authority if reasonable people cannot figure out when it is being used.  In practice, Popes and councils employ phrases like “such and such must be believed by all the faithful,” or “if anyone believes such and such, let him be anathema.”

    Although an infallible pronouncement may be contained in a large document, it will be short enough—a line or two—to preclude any confusion as to exactly what must be believed.  The documents of Popes Pius IX and Pius XII defining the Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854.) and the Assumption (Munificentissimus Deus, 1 November 1950) both run to about twenty-five pages in pamphlet form, but the infallible pronouncements are each but a sentence long.

    The student interested in reading the more important pronouncements of the Church is directed to
The Jesuit Fathers of St. Mary’s College, The Church Teaches (B. Herder, 1955—TAN reprint 1973) and to Henry Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Roy J. Deferrai, trans. (Fitzwilliam NH: Loreto Publications).  Many of the documents can be found on the Internet in more complete form.

[Continued from previous month]]

    Question 3:  Isn’t the canonization of saints an infallible exercise of the Church’s teaching authority?  It doesn’t seem directly related to faith or morals, but more to the fact that a person is or is not in heaven.  Do the canonizations of recent years have the same force as those declared years ago?

    Answer:  There are a number of ways in which the Church is said to teach about secondary objects of Her infallibility.  Canonization is one of them.  The Catholic Encyclopedia (edited somewhat) says:

    In the Vatican definition infallibility (whether of the Church at large or of the pope) is affirmed only in regard to doctrines of faith or morals.... This, however, is clearly understood to be what theologians call the direct and primary object of infallible authority: it was for the maintenance and interpretation and legitimate development of Christ's teaching that the Church was endowed with this charisma. But if this primary function is to be adequately and effectively discharged, it is clear that there must also be indirect and secondary objects to which infallibility extends, namely, doctrines and facts which, although they cannot strictly speaking be said to be revealed, are nevertheless so intimately connected with revealed truths that, were one free to deny the former, he would logically deny the latter and thus defeat the primary purpose for which infallibility was promised by Christ to His Church....

   Catholic theologians are agreed in recognizing the general principle that has just been stated, but it cannot be said that they are equally unanimous in regard to the concrete applications of this principle. Yet it is generally held, and may be said to be theologically certain, (a) that what are technically described as "theological conclusions," i. e. inferences deduced from two premises, one of which is revealed and the other verified by reason, fall under the scope of the Church's infallible authority. (b) It is also generally held, and rightly that questions of dogmatic fact, in regard to which definite certainty is required for the safe custody and interpretation of revealed truth, may be determined infallibly by the Church. Such questions, for example, would be: whether a certain pope is legitimate, or a certain council ecumenical, or whether objective heresy or error is taught in a certain book or other published document.... (c) It is also commonly and rightly held that the Church is infallible in the canonization of saints, that is to say, when canonization takes place according to the solemn process that has been followed since the ninth century. Mere beatification ... is not held to be infallible, and in canonization itself the only fact that is infallibly determined is that the soul of the canonized saint departed in the state of grace and already enjoys the beatific vision. (d) As to moral precepts or laws, as distinct from moral doctrine, infallibility goes no farther than to protect the Church against passing universal laws which in principle would be immoral. It would be out of place to speak of infallibility in connection the opportuneness or the administration of necessarily changing disciplinary laws, although, of course, Catholics believe that the Church receives appropriate Divine guidance in this and in similar matters where practical spiritual wisdom is required.[17]

    As the Encyclopedia says, there is some disagreement among the theologians as to which are the indirect objects of infallibility.  J.M. Hervé and G. Van Noort seem identical, and claim theological certainty in adding to the list given by the Encyclopedia: “ecclesiastical laws passed for the universal Church for the direction of Christian worship and Christian living,” and “the approval of religious orders.”  Adolphus Tanquerey is similar to Hervé and Van Noort, but lists things in a different order and makes much briefer work of universal laws and religious rules, which he puts together under a single head with no claimed degree of certainty.  Ludwig Ott’s list of secondary objects includes historical facts associated with revelation, but says nothing about laws and the statutes of religious orders; censures are implied in the lead in paragraph and the introduction of the book, but are not on the list.  He attributes the same degree of certainty to all of the secondary objects (including canonization).[18]

    In all of these indirect objects of infallibility there seems to be a need for great diligence on the part of the authorities.  “Theological conclusions” must be formulated with the most careful logic.  Censors must be educated in the topic, fluent in the language, careful, and unbiased in their reading.  The myriad consequences  of religious life must be considered in the approval of an Order.  The Catholic Encyclopedia suggested this same diligence is exercised, “when canonization takes place according to the solemn process that has been followed since the ninth century.”

    That last idea—that canonization depends on the process—can be expressed as a question:  To what degree are the Church authorities held to due diligence when making a pronouncement about one of the secondary objects?

    For the censure of books, how well does the censor have to understand the topic at hand?  how well does he have to know the language in which it was written?  What steps must he take to avoid bias if the author is a member of a different religious order, a foreigner, a graduate of a different university, or out of favor with the religious or civil authorities for reasons not associated with the book?

    For canonization, just how much process is required?  is there some minimum below which there is no guarantee that the decision is made with infallible authority—do we have to read the candidate’s writings?  all of them? — could six miracles be reduced to four? to two? to one? or to reduce the question to absurdity, could saints be selected out of a century old telephone phone book?  What about biases that might cause one to overlook the flaws of a countryman, or of one sharing the same private errors?  What if the authority just wants to pile up large numbers?

    All of the secondary objects involve human reasoning, knowledge, and perhaps experience as part of the decision—to what degree does the Holy Ghost protect those who approach the task with less then a hundred percent effort?  That may not have been a question that needed to have been asked in centuries past—indeed it would probably have been considered indiscreet before 1958—but it is germane today.  The answer can come only from competent authority in the future.



[1]   Matthew xxviii: 19-20.

[2]   Mark xvi:  14-16.

[3]   John xiv: 16-17.

[4]   Matthew xviii: 18 (the Apostles in general);  Matthew xvi: 16 (Saint Peter in specific).

[5]   Matthew xvi: 16-19.

[7]   The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans , Introduction,

[8]   Irenæus, Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 3,

[9]   Augustine, Sermon cxxxi, x.

[11]   “Consideranti mihi.” Denzinger,  Editio XXXIII, Nos. 542-545.

[12]   “Lætentur cæli,” Denzinger 694 (1307 in newer editions)

[13]   CE. s.v. “Jansenius and Jansenism,”

[15]   D Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary (NY: Macmillan, 1958), s.v. "Magisterium," p 301

[16]   Old Canon  1323  §3;  New Canon  749  §3.

[17]   C. E. s.v. “Infallibility.”

[18]   J.M. Hervé, Manuale Theologiæ Dogmaticæ (Westminster: Newman, 1946) Vol. I,  p.503-518.;  Ad. Tanquerey, Synopsis Theologiæ Dogmaticæ (Tornaci: Desclée, 1922) T. I, p. 540-555;  G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, ch. III, art. I, sec  IV;  Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: TAN, 1960 reprint), introduction, 297-300.


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