Fr Adriano Garuti O.F.M.
Pontifical Athenaeum 'Antonianum'


The crisis of authority that has exploded in recent years in civil society has also had strong repercussions within the Church, particularly expressed in dissent from the Magisterium.

The problem was indirectly addressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the publication of the new Professio fidei (1989), and more directly with the Instruction Donum veritatis (24 May 1990). The first document, aside from its practical purpose of providing a new text for making the profession of faith called for by ecclesiastical legislation, includes an innovation of a doctrinal nature with the addition of the three concluding paragraphs, for the sake of better distinguishing the order of the categories of the truths, along with the different degrees of authority for the doctrines proposed by the Magisterium and the corresponding kind of assent required of the faithful. The second document deals more expressly with the subject, as appears from its very title "on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian" and from the explicit discussion of the issue in the fourth part.

A presentation, however concise, of the Instruction Donum veritatis would perhaps take us too far afield. But as a premise to the document we intend to explain,[1] it seems appropriate to say a few things about the Professio fidei. Although it was promulgated to clarify the various degrees of authority of magisterial documents and the corresponding assent required, it became in fact the object of the most varied interpretations, doubts and explicit rebuttals, especially regarding the category of truths contained in the second paragraph.

Particularly significant is the book by Fr Francis A. Sullivan, Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium (New York: Paulist Press, 1996; Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996). Starting with the assertion, now commonly recognized — and stressed besides by Donum veritatis (n. 17) — of the need to apply hermeneutic principles to documents of the Magisterium (cf. pp. 4-5), he expressly states that he intends "to describe the criteria that a theologian would use in performing" his own task of "determining the relative degree of authority attached to the various statements of the magisterium, and the corresponding level of response due to them". At the same time, he acknowledges that he does "not know any better way to do this than to comment on the new Formula for the Profession of Faith" (p. 13).

The author then goes on to examine the kinds of doctrine implied in the three concluding paragraphs and the corresponding level of assent required (pp. 13-27). Actually, he concentrates mostly on the teaching of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which he includes among the truths considered in the third paragraph. At first he says he is "not aware of any ... language quite so strong as the final sentence of this recent letter", but then, on the basis of Cardinal Ratzinger's assurance "that it was not the intention of John Paul II to speak ex cathedra", he writes that "this statement excluding the ordination of women to the priesthood would have to be put at the very top of any scale measuring the degree of authority that has been exercised by popes in their ordinary magisterium" (pp. 22-23). The vagueness of this statement is clarified in the Afterword: "At that time I considered this judgment expressed by Pope John Paul II, despite the very strong language he used, to fall into the category of ordinary papal teaching. Obviously that meant that I did not think it had been infallibly defined by the pope". He adds that in an article published in The Tablet in June 1994 he had written that it seemed to him "at least doubtful that the judgment expressed in this papal letter had been infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium" (p. 181).

In the meantime the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Reply to the "dubium" (28 October 1995), which affirms that "the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women belongs to the deposit of the faith and has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium".[2] Leaving it to Scripture scholars to discuss whether in fact this teaching can be considered as divinely revealed, Fr Sullivan denies that it has been infallibly taught. After recalling some examples of "propositions which, up to a certain point in time, seemed to be the unanimous teaching of the whole episcopate, and yet, as a result of further development of doctrine, are no longer the teaching of the church" (p. 182), he concludes: "The question that remains in my mind is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons as Pope John Paul II evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith. Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium" (p. 184).

The reason for this obsessive questioning is that the Congregation "has not invoked any" of those criteria which official documents have proposed for "establishing that a doctrine is taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium: consultation of all the bishops, the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians, and the common adherence of the faithful" (p. 183). He thus forgets that the value of a magisterial pronouncement is not based on the reasons or theological arguments it puts forward, but on a doctrinal foundation, something essentially different from theological arguments and explanations. The Reply to the "dubium" simply meant to recall that the Roman Pontiff, although not using a technical formula but nevertheless appealing to his ministry of confirming his brethren in the faith, confirmed and reaffirmed a teaching infallibly set forth by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, and therefore "this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful". The Pope could not state in such an obvious and format way that a doctrine was to be considered definitive tenenda, unless he was convinced that he was infallibly proposing a doctrine belonging to the deposit of faith; but it is not up to him or to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to show that this teaching has been manifestly set forth by the ordinary and universal Magisterium; that demonstration is left instead to theological reflection, which will certainly be able to clarify and more deeply study the arguments supporting the magisterial pronouncement, but it can never question it or, worse, criticize it. In any case, it is not the constant and universal consent of theologians that enables one to determine whether or not a doctrine has been taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Thus, it obviously seems to be Fr Sullivan's conviction — shared however by many other authors, ecclesiastical associations and even some Bishops — that a magisterial teaching cannot be considered infallible unless it has been solemnly defined by a Council or by the Roman Pontiff speaking ex cathedra; this conviction is accompanied by an unclear grasp of the meaning of the expression definitive tenenda in relation to the actus definitorius.

This is the context that occasioned the Commentary, which is not presented as a new document added to the text of the Formula for the Profession of Faith, but as an explanation or interpretation of it.

After a brief reference to the earliest formulas of faith, already present from the Church's very beginning and further developed over the centuries, the Commentary makes a precise statement about the "specific and proper functions of persons who act within the Church". In other words, it stresses that "it is clear that, on questions of faith and morals, the only subject qualified to fulfil the office of teaching with binding authority for the faithful is the Supreme Pontiff and the College of Bishops in communion with him" (n. 4). It then goes on to interpret the three concluding paragraphs of the Profession of Faith, explaining respectively the object taught, the manner of teaching, the assent owed and the censure incurred by someone who does not give this assent (nn. 5-11).

A preliminary difference concerns the relationship between the various truths and divine Revelation: those of the first paragraph are proposed "as formally revealed", since they "are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down"; those of the second, on the other hand, are not "proposed as formally revealed", but as "necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith". Both, however, are "taught infallibly". In fact, the Commentary explains, the truths of the second paragraph also "are necessarily connected with revelation by virtue of an historical relationship" or "evince a logical connection that expresses a stage in the maturation of understanding of revelation which the Church is called to undertake". This leads to a conclusion: "The fact that these doctrines may not be proposed as formally revealed, insofar as they add to the data of faith elements that are not revealed or which are not yet expressly recognized as such, in no way diminishes their definitive character, which is required at least by their intrinsic connection with revealed truth" (n. 7).[3]

The same conclusion is reached by the Commentary's explanation of the defining or non-defining act: even if a defining act, i.e., "a judgement in the solemn form of a definition", has not occurred, whenever the Roman Pontiff confirms a doctrine by explicitly declaring that it belongs to the inheritance of the depositum fidei and "is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the Pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. The declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation by the Roman Pontiff in this case is not a new dogmatic definition, but a formal attestation of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church" (n. 9). In conclusion, a doctrine can be taught not only by a strictly defining act but also by a non-defining act, as in the case of a teaching (or practice connected with a teaching) of the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter, which can be confirmed or reaffirmed as such by the Roman Pontiff as Head of the College of Bishops, without recourse to a solemn definition: such a doctrine is also taught infallibly and is therefore definitive tenenda, although not de fide credenda.

Consequently, even if there is a difference in the "nature of the assent owed to the truths set forth by the Church as divinely revealed (those of the first paragraph) or to be held definitively (those of the second paragraph), it is important to emphasize that there is no difference with respect to the full and irrevocable character of the assent which is owed to these teachings". The only difference concerns the supernatural virtue of faith: "in the case of truths of the first paragraph, the assent is based directly on faith in the authority of the Word of God (doctrines de fide credenda)', in the case of the truths of the second paragraph, the assent is based on faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium (doctrines de fide tenenda)" (n. 8).

A confirmation of this interpretation is found in the Motu Proprio promulgated by John Paul II on 18 May 1998,[4] in which some additional norms are inserted into the Codes of the Latin and Eastern Churches for the precise purpose of expressly imposing the obligation of adhering to the truths proposed definitively by Church's Magisterium, with an indication of the respective canonical sanctions.

In fact, to remedy a lacuna in the Church's universal legislation regarding the category of truths indicated in the second paragraph of the Professio fidei, modifications have been made to canons 750 and 1371, n. 1 of the CIC, and to canons 598 and 1436 of the CCEO, thereby establishing that whoever does not adhere to propositions taught by the Magisterium as definitive tenendae is opposing a doctrine of the Catholic Church and will have to be punished with a just penalty. The Commentary further explains: "Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church" (n. 6).

In the final part (n. 11), the Commentary offers, merely as a non-exhaustive illustration, some examples of doctrines belonging to the paragraphs explained above. We need only recall that one of them is the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved to men alone. We should thus hope that in this particular area — and naturally on the various specific themes listed — there would be no more of that dissent which could be called systematic, after such clear teaching from the Magisterium. It is true that we are not dealing with a new document but simply a Doctrinal Commentary, which nevertheless is one of a series of interventions insistently recalling the need for the faithful, and especially theologians, to adhere more consciously to magisterial pronouncements, as well to recognize their irreplaceable role. It is also a constant invitation to reflection, which, with the modifications made to the Codes of Canon Law by the Motu Proprio of John Paul II, also acquires a legislative and disciplinary significance.



1 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei, L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 15 July 1998, pp. 3-4.

2 In fact, the Reply states that the teaching, "founded on the written Word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" and "is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith".

3 An interesting statement is also made: "Moreover, it cannot be excluded that at a certain point in dogmatic development, the understanding of the realities and the words of the deposit of faith can progress in the life of the Church, and the Magisterium may proclaim some of these doctrines as also dogmas of divine and catholic faith".

4 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Ad tuendam fidem, by which certain norms are inserted into the Code of Canon Law and into the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 15 July 1998, p. 1).


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano ©
Weekly Edition in English
22 July 1998, 6-7


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