(Part II of a two-part series. Read Part I here.)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
“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 cathedra definitions 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 infallible teaching 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.
“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.
Dr. John Joy is the President of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies. His primary academic interests are in the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, dogmatic theology, and especially questions of infallibility and the magisterium of the Church. He is the author of “On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council” (Muenster: Aschendorff, 2017).