A Discussion Of Infallibility

Author: Fr. John Trigilio


Father John Trigilio

Any dogma is an infallible doctrine, divinely & formally revealed by God as a necessary truth for salvation.

Extraordinary Magisterium is an ex cathedra pronouncement of the Roman Pontiff (Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX) or a de fide statement of an Ecumenical Council (Justification, by the Council of Trent).

Ordinary Magisterium is the perennial teaching of the Pope and the Bishops in union with him around the world. To capriciously say that only extraordinary Magisterium dogmas are infallible is false and heretical. Lumen Gentium n.25, Humani Generis n.21, both solemnly teach on the supreme teaching authority of the Ordinary Magisterium.

Some Catholics wrongly believe that only "ex cathedra" Papal Statements are infallible. This would limit infallible dogma to two, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Obviously, only 2 infallible dogmas in 2,000 years sounds very sparse. Some theologians incorrectly proliferate a notion that only the Extraordinary Magisterium is infallible. Even Raymond Brown has abandoned this notion. Ergo, propositions like "the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the B.V.M. is not infallible," are ridiculous. If in doubt, the best resource is Denziger's Enchiridion Symbolorum. Next, is Ludwig Ott's monumental work, The Fundamentals of Dogma. There, one can find the theological distinctions made between divinely revealed truths (De Fide) and those which are only theologically certain.

DE FIDE is the highest level of theological/doctrinal truth. They are INFALLIBLE statements by their very nature, like the Holy Trinity, The Real Presence, etc.

Next, are VERITATES CATHOLICAE (catholic truths) like the existence of God which can be known through reason alone.

Finally, there are four types of THEOLOGICAL OPINIONS:

1. SENTENTIA FIDEI PROXIMA (proximate to the Faith) like the Trinity can be known only through Revelation.

2. SENTENTIA CERTA (theologically certain) like Monogenism, i.e., that the human race came from one set of parents.

3. SENTENTIA COMMUNIA (common teaching) like the Church's prohibition & proscription of artificial contraception.

4. SENTENTIA PROBABILIS (probable teaching) like the premise that the Virgin Mary died before being Assumed into Heaven.

According to Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis & Vatican II in Lumen Gentium n.25, even non-infallible teachings are to receive the submission of mind and will of the faithful. While not requiring the assent of faith, they cannot be disputed nor rejected publicly, and the benefit of the doubt must be given to the one possessing the fullness of teaching authority. The heterodox concept of a dual magisteria, i.e., (the pope & bishops plus) the theologians, is not based on scriptural nor traditional grounds. Some have gone as far as to propose a triple magisteria, (adding) the body of believers. While it is true that as a whole, the body of believers is infallible in that SENSUS FIDEI is that the Church as the Mystical Body cannot be in error on matters of faith and morals, the TEACHING AUTHORITY (Magisterium) resides solely with the Roman Pontiff and the College of Bishops in union with him.

EWTN: Originally given in 1995 on Catholic Resource Net's bulletin board as an answer to a question, the above reflects the state of the matter as generally discussed by theologians historically, such as in the works cited (Denzinger and Ott).

It should be noted that the Latin sententia (generally translated into English as opinions) does not refer to a subjective judgment of individuals, each of which is equally valid in conscience, but to a theological judgment by recognized theologians and based on the Faith (Scripture and Tradition), including the definitive sententiae of the Magisterium, and supported by reason from the Faith as at least probable. An "opinion" can never be probable which occurs in a vacuum unsupported by evidence from the Sacred Tradition and the theological tradition.

While these categories still represent, therefore, valid distinctions, a more contemporary and a magisterial assessment can be found in Pope John Paul II's Ad tuendam fidemandProfessio Fidei, and in the explanation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its "Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei." (See also my Summary.) This formula makes it clear that definitive theological judgments of the ordinary magisterium, are every bit as binding in Faith as are exercises of the extraordinary magisterium. Both are protected by the Church's charism of infallibility, exercised by those who hold supreme pastoral office in the Church (the Pope, or the College of Bishops in union with the Pope), so that the Church remains indefectibility in her faith and her sacraments — something absolutely necessary for her salvific mission, and guaranteed by Christ (cf. Mt. 28: 18-21).

These authoritative texts came about precisely as a result of the kinds of arguments cited by Fr.Trigilio which restrict the obligations of faith to the extraordinary magisterium, and which also largely ignore matters obliged by religious submission of intellect and will (LG 25). The propaganda in favor of the licitness of contraception and the validity of women's ordination, especially the latter since the sacramental integrity of the Church depends on valid orders, are the context leading to the Magisterium's clarifications — of both the weight of certain teachings taught semper et ubique (always and everywhere), as well as the weight of teachings declared definitive, i.e. defined, by the ordinary magisterium.

One final thought, contraception is an assault on the life of the human being, and not just preventively, as the low-dose estrogen pills of recent years also fall under the definitive condemnation of abortion in Evangelium vitae. The push for the ordination of women is an assault on the life of the Church and souls, since it attacks the validity of the sacramental mission and the possibility of salvation. It is no coincidence that this assault on the material and spiritual lives of human beings are occurring together, and often by the same human powers and principalities. Without doubt, they are other powers and principalities behind them.

Colin B. Donovan, STL