THE EX CATHEDRA STATUS OF THE ENCYCLICAL "HUMANAE VITAE"
Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
FAITH & REASON, Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road,
Front Royal, VA 22630, (800) 877-5456, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring
1993. The article originally appeared in the September/November
1992 issue of "Living Tradition: The Organ of the Roman
In "Living Tradition," No. 12 (July 1987), the present writer
favourably reviewed a recent book by Fr. Ermenegildo Lio, O.F.M., "Humanae
Vitae e Infallibilita" (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1986),
in which the thesis is sustained that the teaching against contraception
in Pope Paul VI's encyclical letter "Humanae Vitae" (25 July 1968) is
infallible, not merely by virtue of being an instance of the constant,
ordinary and universal magisterium of the Popes and Catholic Bishops
against this practice, but because the encyclical itself contains (in
article 14) an "ex cathedra" definition. Lio claims, in other words, that
"Humanae Vitae" contains an intrinsically infallible pronouncement: an
instance of papal infallibility as defined by Vatican Council I.
To my knowledge Lio's book has been virtually ignored by the theological
community, in spite of his eminent qualifications as a professor of long
standing in Rome's Pontifical Lateran University, as a "peritus" at
Vatican Council II, and an adviser to Pope Paul VI over the birth control
issue--not to mention a personal autographed letter from Pope John Paul II
thanking Fr. Lio for the presentation of his book, which was published by
the Vatican Press.
Certainly, Lio's thesis goes against the common view of theologians (both
those who assent to "Humanae Vitae" and those who dissent from it), who
have usually described the encyclical as being, in itself, a
"non-infallible" document. Very often this conclusion seems to be drawn
merely from the fact that there is no definition of a "dogma"--a point of
"revealed" truth to be held as "of faith" ("de fide")--in Pope Paul's
encyclical. But Lio's point is that such definitions, while they represent
the most solemn form of papal teaching, are not the "only" form which
satisfies the conditions for an "ex cathedra" definition as laid down by
the constitution "Pastor Aeternus" of Vatican I. In this paper I propose
to develop this theme, in support of Lio's thesis, i.e., the "ex cathedra"
status of "Humanae Vitae."
I. PASTOR AETERNUS: A PERENNIALLY DISPUTED POINT OF INTERPRETATION
Even very soon after Vatican Council I and early in this century-- that
is, long before the present period of theological confusion and dissent
which has followed Vatican Council II--noted Catholic theologians were
expressing contrasting views in regard to one point raised by the dogmatic
definition of papal infallibility in the Constitution "Pastor Aeternus."
There was no dispute about the most basic affirmation of the newly-defined
dogma: that when the Pope solemnly defines something as a matter of
revealed truth, to be accepted by faith (i.e., as "de fide"), as he had
manifestly done, for instance, in defining Our Lady's Immaculate
Conception in 1854, he speaks infallibly, being protected from error by
the Holy Spirit. But what about papal decisions on doctrinal matters that
do not strictly qualify as revealed truth, but are nonetheless closely
linked to it? What is the status of such decisions, according to the dogma
defined in 1870? The distinction is a classical one in Catholic theology,
as Fr. James T. O'Connor points out in a recent work on "Pastor
Aeternus." He cites St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject of "the
corruption of faith" which occurs "when someone has a false opinion
concerning those things which pertain to the faith." The Angelic Doctor
Now, something pertains to the faith in two ways: in one way,
directly and principally, as, for example, the articles of
faith; the other, indirectly and secondarily, such as those
things from which the corruption of some article of faith
follows ("ea ex quibus sequitur corruptio alicuius
Some noted theologians, immediately after Vatican I, claimed that the
newly-defined dogma guaranteed infallibility for the Pope only in regard
to what St. Thomas called those things "directly and principally
pertaining to the faith"--that is revealed truth itself. Bishop Fessler of
Sankt Polten, Austria, for instance, who had been the General Secretary of
the Council and was regarded as one of the best scholars and canon lawyers
amongst the German-speaking bishops of that time, wrote a tract which was
translated into English in 1875 as "The True and False Infallibility of
the Popes." In this work, Fessler replied to an Old Catholic (schismatic)
tract purporting to refute the conciliar definition by a "reductio ad
absurdum" argument: the anti-Catholic author, Schulte, interpreted the
Vatican I dogma so broadly as to make it ascribe infallibility to
practically any papal pronouncement having to do with doctrine--an
obviously indefensible position in view of the acknowledged errors of some
Popes on certain occasions in the course of history. Fessler, then, was
writing in an apologetic, polemical context in which he needed to
emphasize not the full extent, but rather, the limitations, of papal
infallibility; and his reply was commended by Pope Pius IX, on the
recommendation of Roman theologians who translated it into Italian for
him, in a "warm letter of thanks and approval." In his tract, Fessler
asserts--not only as his own view but also as "the view of Catholic
theologians"--that for a papal utterance to be "ex cathedra," it must
expressly "declare this particular doctrine on faith and morals to be an
integral part of the truth necessary to salvation revealed by God."
In line with Bishop Fessler's interpretation of the definition, the Swiss
bishops in June 1871 issued a joint Pastoral Instruction on papal
infallibility which seemed to be very restrictive. They affirmed:
The Pope is infallible solely and exclusively when, as supreme
doctor of the Church, he pronounces in a matter of faith or
morals a definition which has to be accepted and held as
obligatory by all the faithful. Again: "It is the revelation
given by God, the deposit of faith," which is the domain
perfectly traced out and exactly circumscribed, "within which
the infallible decisions of the Pope are able to extend
themselves" and in regard to which the faith of Catholics can be
bound to fresh obligations.
Dom Cuthbert Butler notes that Pius IX "wrote to the Swiss bishops that
nothing could be more opportune or more worthy of praise, or cause the
truth to stand out more clearly, than their pastoral." Nevertheless, it
must be remembered that this papal accolade for the Swiss prelates, and
that for Bishop Fessler, were given in a private capacity by Pio Nono, and
with respect to entire documents, which included many points in addition
to the one singled out by us here. They cannot therefore be taken as in
any sense a definitive or authentic (in the sense of "official")
interpretation of the dogma, in regard to the precise point under
discussion in this paper. It should be kept in mind also that Pius IX had,
prior to the Council, given his approval to the first draft on papal
infallibility, which clearly did "not" restrict papal infallibility to the
"integral parts of revelation" and which was subsequently criticized by
the more liberal Council Fathers precisely because it contained no such
restriction. In contrast to these restrictive interpretations of the
Vatican I definition, other eminent theologians took a broader view of the
object of papal infallibility. Butler refers to an authoritative study by
Lucien Choupin, S.J., "a recognized authority on the subject," entitled
"Valeur des Decisions doctrinales et disciplinaires du Saint- Siege,"
first published in 1907. Choupin, according to Butler, was the chief
authority for the highly respected "Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique"
in its article "Infallibilite du Pape," written by Fr. E. Dublanchy in
1923. In this article, Dublanchy says:
An "ex cathedra" definition is an "explicit and final doctrinal
judgment" given by the Pope, relating to faith or morals, in
such sort that the faithful may be certain that the doctrine is
judged by the Pope to belong to revelation, "or to have with
revelation a connection that is certain;" and expressed in such
a way that the obligation is made clear to all of giving full
interior assent to the doctrine defined, or to the rejection of
propositions condemned as directly "or indirectly" counter to
Another outstanding theologian and a leading figure promoting the
definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I was Cardinal Henry Edward
Manning of Westminster. Immediately after the Council, in October 1870,
Manning issued a 200-page pastoral letter, entitled "The Vatican Council
and its Definitions," in which he also interpreted the definition much
more broadly, so as to include within the guarantee of infallibility not
only revealed truth, but also "dogmatic facts, censures less than heresy,
canonizations of saints, approbations of religious orders." Butler, in
referring to Manning's position, takes him to task for thus extending the
scope of infallibility:
All this is roundly asserted; even though Bishop Gasser, an
official spokesman of the deputation "de fide," had laid down
positively that the theological questions at issue were not
touched by the definition, but were left in the state of
theological opinion in which they were before the Council--and
Butler, then, is taking the side of Fessler and the Swiss bishops. But he
also quotes Dublanchy with approval, even though, as we have seen, this
theologian explicitly extends the scope of the 1870 definition to include
those doctrinal truths necessary for guarding revealed truth, as well as
revealed truth itself. This gives us some indication of the confusion and
the contradictions which have embroiled the issue of papal infallibility
right from 1870 onwards, in regard to the "object" of this privilege given
to the Successor of Peter. How can the confusion be resolved?
II. THE WITNESS OF FUNDAMENTAL ECCLESIASTICAL DOCUMENTS
Since the object of papal infallibility is an issue about which approved
theologians have differed, this dispute can scarcely be resolved simply by
quoting more theologians, or by counting heads on both sides of the
argument. If this dogma gave rise to confusion already in the years
following 1870, the confusion is much compounded today, in an era when a
prominent theologian (Hans Kung) can remain a priest with the exercise of
his faculties, in good standing with his bishop, when for more than twenty
years he has openly and publicly dissented from the whole dogma of papal
infallibility--an offence which, according to the dogmatic definition
itself, carries the penalty of excommunication. Even the most
publicized "assenting" work on infallibility to appear in English in
recent years, Peter L. Chirico's "Infallibility: The Crossroads of
Doctrine" (Kansas City: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, 1977) effectively
denatures the whole dogma, rendering it of little or no practical use.
Chirico claims that "Papal Infallibility Cannot Resolve Questions Disputed
in the Church," and reduces its role to something like that of a mere
foreman of the jury, who enunciates a consensus already existing. Although
Chirico denies that his position contradicts the dogma's explicit
assertion that the Pope's definitions do "not" require the consent of the
faithful in order to be binding, his denial seems to me mere
sophistry. He tells us, for instance, that the very fact of "Humanae
Vitae's" having been greeted by widespread dissent shows that it was not
infallible. On Chirico's terms, no theologians or members of the
faithful need ever feel "bound" to accept any papal declaration, no matter
how solemnly worded and promulgated, unless it has "the ring of truth in
their minds and hearts." That is, unless their own private judgment
agrees with it anyway! For the very fact of significant dissent from such
a declaration on the part of professing Catholics, according to Chirico,
shows that it is not infallible! The very fact that infallible definitions
have so often appended an "anathema" against dissenters shows how
flagrantly Chirico's interpretation of this dogma clashes with that of the
Popes and Councils which have promulgated such definitions. Nevertheless,
his book bears the imprimatur of the Archbishop of San Francisco, and is
promoted by Chirico himself in a supplementary volume of the highly
respected "New Catholic Encyclopedia" under the entry "Infallibility."
Clearly, then, we will need to base a solution to our present problem on
something more solid than the opinions of theologians. To establish with
certainty whether the 1870 dogma guarantees infallibility only to
definitions of revealed truth, or also to those of the secondary truths
necessary for guarding revelation, we will need to devote our attention to
the Church's official documents: in the first place, the Vatican I
Constitution itself; secondly, the teaching of Vatican II and the
post-conciliar magisterium; and finally, the official and highly
authoritative "relatio" of Bishop Vincent Gasser, who explained to the
Vatican I Fathers the authentic meaning of the schema which was being
presented for their vote, and which finally was promulgated as the dogma.
THE TESTIMONY OF "PASTOR AETERNUS"
The Vatican I Constitution "Pastor Aeternus" itself is clearly the most
basic source of all. Chapter IV of the document, which is entitled "On the
Infallible Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff' and ends with the solemn
definition itself, sheds considerable light on the question before us. It
refers to the past vigilance of the Popes in guarding the "saving doctrine
of Christ" ("salutaris Christi doctrina"); and in referring to past
exercises of papal infallibility, affirms that "the Roman Pontiffs...
defined as requiring to be held those things which by the help of God,
they knew to be in conformity with the Sacred Scriptures and the Apostolic
traditions" ("ea tenenda definiverunt, quae sacris Scripturis et
apostolicis traditionibus consentanea, Deo adiutore, cognoverant"). It
adds that the Holy Spirit is given to the successors of Peter in order
that they might "piously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or
deposit of faith handed on through the Apostles" ("ut traditam per
Apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirect et fideliter
exponerent"). The clear implication is that infallible definitions of
the Popes can include, and have included in the past, points of doctrine
necessary for "guarding and expounding" revealed truth, not only revealed
truth itself. The unqualified use of the word "tenenda" ("to be held")
demonstrates this more comprehensive meaning, since the standard
theological vocabulary uses "credere" ("to believe") or at least "tenere
tamquam de fide" ("to hold as of faith") when the intention is to specify
only revealed truth and the divine virtue of faith by which we accept it.
If we look at the solemn definition itself, along with its textual
history, it becomes evident that the Council did "not" restrict papal
infallibility to revealed truth as such. There were three drafts of the
definition. The first one said that the object of papal infallibility is
"what in matters of faith and morals is to "be held" by the universal
Church; and this prerogative of inerrancy or infallibility of the Roman
Pontiff reaches to the same object as the infallibility of the Church
extends to." That is indisputably a broad, rather than restrictive,
expression, since "tenere," as we have just indicated, includes the idea
of firm acceptance of something as true, whether it is revealed truth or
not. This draft had actually been approved for discussion at the Council
by Pope Pius IX.
The second draft was more restrictive, saying that the Pope was infallible
in defining what is to be "held. . . as of faith," or rejected "as
contrary to faith" ("tamquam de fide" and "tamquam fidei contrarium"
respectively). In other words, this second draft now covered only
matters of revealed truth, and its contrary, heresy, as falling within the
scope of papal infallibility. In explaining this change to the deputation
"de fide," the president of the Council's theological commission, Cardinal
Pilio, who had himself composed the first and more comprehensive draft,
made the following comments, according to one of those present, Bishop
Senestrey of Ratisbon (Regensburg). Senestrey, who along with Cardinal
Manning was a leading champion of a strong and extensive definition of
papal infallibility, recorded in his diary the substance of Bilio's
argument (with which he himself disagreed sharply):
No more can be defined [according to Bilio] concerning the
infallibility of the Pope than has been defined concerning the
infallibility of the Church; but of the Church this only is of
faith, that she is infallible in dogmatic definitions strictly
taken; therefore the question arises whether in the proposed
formula [i.e., the first draft] the infallibility of the Pope be
not too widely extended. The Cardinal did not deny, nay he
maintained as certain, that the Pope is infallible also in
dogmatic facts, in the canonization of saints, and in other
things of like moment, just as the Church is infallible as such.
He added that he greatly desired that at this Vatican Council it
should be defined that the Church is infallible not only in
dogmatic definitions, but also in dogmatic facts, in the
canonization of saints, and the approbation of religious Orders.
But as now there was question of defining the infallibility of
the Pope before the infallibility of the Church had been dealt
with, the formula said more than ought to be said.
In other words, the intention of the second draft was "neither to affirm
nor deny" the Pope's infallibility in the secondary matters. But the
objection of Senestrey and Manning was that such a formula would create a
misleading impression: if the Council limited itself to defining "only"
the Pope's infallibility in matters of revealed truth, to be held as "de
fide," then "it would be commonly taken that only such definitions "de
Fide" are infallible." In the light of subsequent experience, this
objection can be seen as prophetic. Even though, as we shall see, this
second and more "liberal" draft was subsequently rejected precisely
because of these conservative Fathers' misgivings, noted theologians after
the Council continued to say that the definition of 1870 guarantees
infallibility "only" for "de fide" definitions. We can imagine how much
"more" confusion would have ensued if the more restrictive formula had
been made dogma!
The fact is that if an authority fails to reassert a certain law or
teaching in a context in which such reassertion might arguably be
expected, those who are unhappy with that law or teaching will always
seize upon the omission in order to spread it abroad that the law or
teaching has now been officially abandoned, discarded or rejected. And all
the official "fine print" in the world (footnotes, explanatory remarks,
etc.) will not deter them nor suffice to arrest the success of their
propaganda. We have seen this process repeatedly after Vatican Council II.
The traditional order of the ends of marriage, for instance, was not spelt
out in the main text of "Gaudium et Spes"; and "progressive" theologians
have turned this into an "official" abandonment of that doctrine, official
comments and footnotes to the contrary notwithstanding. And the fact that
the "Declaration on Religious Liberty" did not spell out the duty of the
political community as such to recognize Catholicism as the one true
religion has been taken almost universally to mean that the Church no
longer believes or teaches that such a duty exists. Once again, official
commentary from the "relator" to the contrary has simply vanished down the
Bishop Senestrey also recorded in his diary the fact that all the leading
theologians regarded it as "at least theologically certain" that the Pope
is infallible in defining the secondary matters such as dogmatic facts,
censures short of heresy, and so on. So he wanted the dogmatic
definition to take account of that fact.
As matters turned out, Cardinal Bilio found that the new and more liberal
draft was not only unacceptable to Senestrey and Manning, but was
"displeasing to a great number of Fathers," and it was decided on May
22, 1870, to allow the Council Fathers to submit alternative formulae, so
that the best of these could then be adopted and put to a vote. In fact,
more than a hundred proposed definitions were put forward, and the one
finally selected and promulgated as dogma deliberately leaves out the
restrictive (and therefore controversial) references to "de fide" and "the
full obedience of faith." In effect, it reverts substantially to the
original and more comprehensive formula which Pius IX had approved for
discussion before the Council. The historic definition promulgated as
dogma on July 18, 1870, reads as follows:
The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks "ex cathedra," that is, when,
exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians,
he defines with his supreme apostolic authority a doctrine
concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church
("doctrinam de fide vel moribus ab universa Ecclesia tenendam
definit"), through the divine assistance promised him in St.
Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine
Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine
concerning faith and morals: and therefore such definitions of
the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves and not from
the consent of the Church.
The text itself, illuminated further by the history of its earlier drafts,
thus leaves it established beyond dispute that this dogma does not specify
"only" points of revealed truth, to be accepted by divine faith on pain of
heresy, as the object of papal infallibility.
THE TESTIMONY OF VATICAN II AND THE POST-CONCILIAR MAGISTERIUM
As is well known, Vatican Council I originally intended to promulgate a
further constitution on the Church, and the schema which had already been
prepared as a basis for discussion proposed to teach that the Church is
indeed infallible in teaching the secondary truths, not only revealed
truth itself. The Council was cut short because of the outbreak of war
between France and Prussia, but Vatican II, almost a century later,
finished off the work of Vatican I in the Dogmatic Constitution "Lumen
This new document of the magisterium affirms explicitly what is implied by
the affirmations in Ch. IV of "Pastor Aeternus" which introduce the solemn
definition: namely, that the Church's infallibility (including that of the
Pope acting alone) extends "as far as the deposit of divine Revelation, to
guard it religiously and faithfully expound it." This translation by
Fr. James O'Connor accurately conveys the sense of the Latin construction
using two gerundives: "infallibilitas [Ecclesiae]... tantum patet quantum
divinae Revelationis patet depositum, sancte custodiendum et fideliter
exponendum." These words follow closely those we have cited above from
"Pastor Aeternus," Ch. IV, where it is said that the successors of Peter
are given the assistance of the Holy Spirit, "ut . . . fidei depositum
sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent."
Unfortunately, the two most common English translations of the Vatican II
documents, that of Flannery's edition and that of Abbott's
edition, render the above words from "Lumen Gentium" 25 by a relative
clause: ". . . the deposit of revelation, which must be religiously
guarded and loyally and courageously expounded." This obscures the
close link between the last part of the sentence ("sancte custodiendum et
fideliter exponendum") and the reference to infallibility, turning the
former into a mere incidental description of "revelation." Such an English
expression is open to the interpretation that, while infallibility extends
to revelation itself, the guarding and expounding thereof might perhaps
have to be accomplished by some lesser charism which enjoyed no guarantee
of infallibility. If that is what the Council had wanted to say, it could
also have used a relative clause: ". . . depositum, quod sancte
custodiendum est atque fideliter exponendum." In fact, an accurate
translation of the Latin--even clearer, though less literal, than that of
O'Connor--would be: "[The Church's infallibility] . . . extends as far as
is necessary for religiously guarding and faithfully expounding the
deposit of divine Revelation." In any case, even if the Latin text were
ambiguous (which I do not concede), this inclusion of the secondary truths
under the guarantee of infallibility (both ecclesial and papal) has now
been spelt out explicitly by the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith," as an authentic interpretation of the conciliar text. This is
found in the Declaration "Mysterium Ecclesiae" (June 24, 1973). Here is
the relevant passage, which ends with a footnote referring to "Lumen
According to Catholic doctrine, the infallibility of the
Church's magisterium extends not only to the deposit of faith
but also to those matters without which that deposit cannot be
rightly preserved and expounded.
The Council did not define this point of doctrine (or any other point, for
that matter) as a new dogma of faith. Nevertheless, since the teaching had
already long been proposed as at least theologically certain (and possibly
even revealed) throughout the universal Church, its inclusion in a
Dogmatic Constitution of an Ecumenical Council simply underlines the fact
that it is infallible by virtue of the Ordinary Magisterium. In short,
Vatican II did in a real sense complete the work of Vatican I: it
clarified that the infallibility of the Church in regard to the secondary
truths is itself one of the secondary truths necessary for guarding and
expounding the deposit of faith. As such, Catholics are bound to accept it
with "ecclesiastical faith" (not "divine faith") as certainly and
irreformably true. That is, we accept it not as having been revealed by
God himself, but by virtue of our faith in the Church's power to guard and
expound revelation accurately and reliably, because of the divine
assistance He has promised her.
THE TESTIMONY OF THE OFFICIAL RELATOR FOR "PASTOR AETERNUS"
Having considered the official magisterial texts of both Vatican Councils
in regard to the secondary object of infallibility, we should take into
account another official document which sheds further light on the
interpretation of the 1870 dogma. On July 11, 1870, just a week before the
solemn proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility by Vatican I,
Bishop Vincent Gasser, spokesman for the deputation "de fide" (the
committee of Conciliar Fathers charged with drafting the solemn
definition), delivered a four-hour speech explaining and defending the
third (and, as it turned out, final) draft which was submitted to the
assembled Fathers for their vote. The importance of this learned, historic
dissertation lies in the fact that (apart from the subsequent Vatican II
and post-Vatican II magisterial statements discussed above) it is the only
"official" commentary on the 1870 definition. This speech informed the
conciliar Fathers beforehand "what they were to understand" by the formula
which was being presented for their vote. Therefore, if it should turn out
that the dogmatic definition, taken in isolation, is open to more than one
interpretation, that of Gasser must be seen as far more authoritative than
that of any subsequent theologians, since it has to be presumed that the
Council Fathers who were the formal authors of the definition intended it
to mean what Gasser told them it meant. Vatican II itself recognizes the
vital importance of Gasser's "relatio" by actually making the substance of
some of his comments part of the Dogmatic constitution "Lumen Gentium"
itself: he is quoted no less than four times in the official footnotes to
"Lumen Gentium" 25, which treats of infallibility.
How, then, does Bishop Gasser's "relatio" bring further clarification to
the question we are considering? In explaining the decision to delete the
references to "of faith" ("de fide") and "the full obedience of faith," he
alluded to the complication ensuing from the fact that the Pope's
infallibility was being defined "before" the more fundamental (and amongst
Catholics, quite undisputed) infallibility of the Church as a whole had
been defined. Referring to "truths necessary for guarding the faith" even
though not themselves formally revealed, Gasser said:
"All Catholic theologians completely agree that the Church, in
her authentic proposal and definition of truths of this sort, is
infallible," such that to deny this infallibility would be a
very grave error. A diversity of opinion turns only on the
degree of certitude, i.e., on whether the infallibility in
proposing these truths--and therefore in proscribing errors
through censures inferior to the note of heresy--should be
considered a dogma of faith, so that to deny this infallibility
to the Church would be heretical, or whether it is a truth not
revealed in itself but one deduced from revealed dogma and as
such is only theologically certain.
Now, since what must be said about the infallibility of the Pope
in defining truths is completely the same as what must be said
about the infallibility of the Church defining, there arises the
same question about the extension of "pontifical" infallibility
to those truths not revealed in themselves but which pertain to
the guarding of the deposit of faith. "The question arises, I
say, as to whether papal infallibility in defining these truths
is not only theologically certain but is dogma of the faith,"
exactly the same question as has arisen about the infallibility
of the Church. Now, since it has seemed to members of the
Deputation, by unanimous agreement, that this question should
not be defined, at least not now, but should be left in the
state in which it presently is, it necessarily follows,
according to the opinion of the same Deputation, that the decree
of faith about the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff should be
seen in such a way that there is defined, as far as the object
of infallibility in definitions of the Roman Pontiff is
concerned, "that there must be believed exactly the same thing
as is believed in respect to the object of infallibility in
definitions of the Church."
We must note carefully what Gasser is "not" saying here. He is not saying
that the proposed dogmatic formula intends to leave undecided the question
of "whether or not" the Pope is infallible in defining the secondary
truths as well as formally revealed truths. The question which is "to be
left in the state in which it presently is" is only whether or not this
secondary infallibility is "de fide" or "merely" theologically certain. In
either case there is certainty and the obligation on all Catholics to hold
firmly that the Pope is infallible in defining the secondary doctrines
necessary for guarding and expounding the deposit of faith.
This is a somewhat subtle point, and has been missed, or misunderstood,
even by solidly orthodox theologians such as Butler. He refers to the
thesis of the Church's infallibility with regard to the secondary truths
as "the ordinary opinion of theologians," and then, a few lines later, as
"the common teaching of theologians." He says, "This is the common
teaching of theologians, but it has never been defined, and discussions
are still current over the whole question.... (T)he Vatican Council
deliberately left this question untouched, and defined the papal
infallibility in such a way as to leave these theological questions
undecided." What Butler says was left "undecided" was precisely the
thesis "that the infallibility of the Church does extend beyond the limits
of what is of divine faith as revealed by God." But as we have seen,
this is not what Bishop Gasser's "relatio" said was left "undecided";
rather, there was agreement on all sides that the Church is "certainly"
infallible in defining the secondary truths.
Moreover, Butler errs in describing this thesis as merely the "common
teaching of theologians." Gasser affirms that the thesis is either
"theologically certain" or else revealed truth. As any standard
theological work makes clear, "theologically certain" is a more
emphatic theological note than "common teaching of theologians": the
latter still belongs in the area of opinions which may be freely
discussed; the former does not.
Another point taken from Vatican I itself illustrates the fact that this
Council could not possibly have considered it open to free discussion as
to whether the Church is infallible or not in defining the truths
necessary in order to guard revealed truth. The fact is that at the time
when the infallibility of the Church and Pope were being discussed by the
Council Fathers, they had already promulgated, on 24 April, the Dogmatic
Constitution on the Catholic Faith, which itself defined infallibly one of
these truths--namely, the knowability of God's existence by natural human
reason. This is a classic example, given in most theology texts,
of a truth falling within the competence of the secondary object of
infallibility: naturally knowable truths which cannot be denied without
undermining revealed truth. Vatican I pronounces an anathema against those
who say that God's existence cannot be known certainly by the light of
natural human reason, thereby employing a form of words which, when used
for a doctrinal (not disciplinary) definition by an Ecumenical Council,
were and are universally understood to mark an infallible definition. It
would be absurd to maintain that the Council could have promulgated this
doctrine under pain of excommunication, whilst simultaneously leaving
theologians and the faithful free to discuss whether or not it was
certainly and irreformably true (i.e., infallible).
Bishop Gasser went on to make even clearer the sense of the proposed
definition. He pointed out that, in dealing with the object of papal
infallibility, it gives a general description ("doctrine regarding faith
and morals") and then a more specific qualification, namely:
that the very same thing must be confessed about the object of
infallibility when the Pope is defining as must be confessed
about the object of infallibility when the Church is defining.
These two parts always have to be taken together if the true
meaning of our definition is to be grasped.
The whole purpose of this change from the more liberal second draft--that
is, the deletion of references to "de fide" beliefs, and the definition of
papal infallibility directly and exclusively in terms of the Church's
infallibility--was to make the defined dogma scrupulously impartial and
"open-ended" regarding the point which Gasser said was for the time being
to remain undecided. That is, his meaning is that, if it should
subsequently be defined to be a part of revealed truth (to be held "de
fide") that the "Church" is infallible in defining the secondary truths,
then it will come to follow from the (already promulgated) dogma of papal
infallibility that the "Pope's" power of defining the secondary truths is
also "de fide." If, on the other hand, the Church's infallibility in these
matters is "not" in future made a dogma of faith, then it will still
remain theologically certain; and in that case it will follow from the
dogma of papal infallibility that the "Pope's" power of defining the
secondary truths is also "de fide." If, on the other hand, the Church's
infallibility in these matters is "not" in future made a dogma of faith,
then it will still remain theologically certain; and in that case it will
follow from the dogma of papal infallibility that the "Pope's"
infallibility in defining the secondary truths is also known with
theological certitude. Here are Gasser's own words (with emphasis added):
(I)n respect to those things about which it is theologically
certain- -but not as yet certain "de fide"--that the Church is
infallible, these things are also not defined by this decree of
the sacred Council as having to be believed "de fide" in respect
to papal infallibility. With the theological certitude which is
had that "these other objects, apart from dogmas of the faith,"
fall within the extension of the infallibility which the Church
enjoys in her definitions, so, "with that same theological
certitude, must it be held, now and in future," [i.e. from the
moment this schema on papal infallibility becomes dogma] "that
the infallibility of definitions issued by the Roman Pontiff
extends to these same objects."
Two other passages from Gasser's "relatio" make it still more indisputable
that the formula was officially understood to include the secondary truths
under the guarantee of papal infallibility, and not only "de fide"
definitions of revealed truth.
The first is an incidental, but very telling, remark. In replying to some
Fathers who urged that the procedures or form to be used by the Pope in
arriving at an infallible decision (i.e., his grave moral duty to pray for
guidance, diligently consult the existing teaching of the Church, etc.) be
included in the definition, Gasser replied:
But, most eminent and reverend fathers, this proposal simply
cannot be accepted because we are not dealing with something new
here. "Already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments
have gone forth from the Apostolic See;" where is the law which
prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments?
(The context makes it clear that, by the expression "dogmatic judgment,"
Gasser here means any infallible definition "having to do" with dogma, not
only with dogmas in the strict sense, because he notes in the same
paragraph that the Council is proposing to define that "the dogmatic
judgments of the Roman Pontiff are infallible"; and as we have seen, a
central point of the whole "relatio" is that the new formula being
presented to the Fathers does not limit papal infallibility to dogmas in
the strict sense, i.e., points of revealed truth.) In other words, Gasser
was able to assert "in passing"--that is, as something which did not need
arguing and would be taken for granted by his audience-- that there had
already been "thousands and thousands" of infallible definitions issued by
former Popes! Even allowing for the fact that he doubtless did not intend
to be taken quite literally here, and meant only to make the point that "a
great many" such definitions were "ex cathedra," it is obvious that he
cannot have had in mind "only" solemn definitions of revealed truth, such
as Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception a few years
previously. There have in fact been only a few such definitions. So Gasser
obviously meant to include the many papal definitions of secondary truths,
including censures less than heresy, as genuine "ex cathedra," infallible
definitions. In line with this, the noted dogmatic theologian J. M. Herve,
in his standard work, specifies all eighty of Pope St. Pius V's censures
against the errors of Du Bay (DS 1901-1980) as infallible definitions, as
well as all the errors condemned by Pius IX in the 1864 encyclical "Quanta
Cura." The conventional modern view that "ex cathedra" definitions are
"extremely rare" is thus at variance with the Vatican I "relator's"
view of the matter, and is evidently based on the falsely restrictive
presupposition which Gasser and the entire deputation "de fide" went to
such pains to exclude.
The second, and more weighty, passage of Gasser's "relatio" which
reinforces in the most explicit terms the point we have been arguing was
actually delivered on July 16, several days after his long discourse. It
was a clarification as to what was meant precisely by the term "defines"
("definit") in the dogmatic formula. Some of the more conservative
bishops--those who wanted to extend rather than limit the Pope's
infallible authority-- had complained that the word "defines" was "too
restrictive and too juridical." Apparently the word had been used by
some theologians to mean "only" the kind of definition which becomes
necessary in order to combat heresy in the strict sense--denials of
revealed truth--for the purposes of legally excluding such heretics from
the Church: many of the Tridentine definitions provoked by Protestant
dissent, for instance, would fall into that category. So, once again,
Bishop Gasser took the podium to reassure these Fathers by giving the
following explanation, which is of crucial importance, since it is the
"only" official explanation of what "define" means in the 1870 dogma:
It is obvious from the many exceptions that this word is an
obstacle for many of the reverend fathers; hence, in their
exceptions, they have completely eliminated this word or have
substituted another word, viz., "decree," or something similar,
in its place, or have said, simultaneously, "defines and
decrees," etc. Now I shall explain in a very few words how this
word "defines" is to be understood according to the Deputation
"de fide." Indeed, the Deputation "de fide" is "not" of the mind
that this word should be understood in a juridical sense (Lat.
"in sensu forensi") "so that it only signifies putting an end to
controversy which has arisen in respect to heresy and doctrine
which is properly speaking de fide." Rather, the word "defines"
signifies that the Pope "directly and conclusively pronounces
his sentence" about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith
or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the
faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the
mind of the Roman Pontiff; "in such a way, indeed, that he or
she knows for certain" that such and such a doctrine is held to
be heretical, "proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc.,
by the Roman Pontiff." Such, therefore, is the meaning of the
Gasser's words are so clear here that further comment on my part would be
One more point regarding the object of infallibility should be clarified.
The Vatican I definition has to do only with "doctrine concerning faith
and morals," whether this doctrine be promulgated by the Pope alone or by
the Church as a whole. In other words, the traditional teaching that the
Pope also speaks infallibly in canonizing saints, approving religious
orders, and in defining dogmatic facts, is simply left untouched by the
1870 decree. ("Dogmatic facts" are contingent, historical facts which it
is necessary to insist on in order to guard revealed truth--for instance,
the fact that such-and-such a Council which proclaimed certain revealed
truths was in fact a lawful and valid "Ecumenical" Council, or that
such-and-such a condemned book or document does "in fact teach" a certain
false doctrine.) Before Vatican I the great majority of Catholic bishops
and theologians who already believed that the Pope is infallible in
defining "doctrine" seem to have believed that he is infallible in these
other areas as well. However, those few who did not believe he is
infallible in those other areas were not obliged to start believing that
he is by the 1870 dogma. All Catholics, however, "were" obliged by it to
believe that the Pope is infallible in defining not only dogmas of faith,
but also the secondary truths, denial of which would be "proximate to
heresy" or "erroneous, etc.," as Bishop Gasser explained.
We are now in a position to summarize what we have established about the
true meaning of Vatican I's dogma from our examination of the primary and
1. The dogma obliges all Catholics to believe by divine faith a rather
broadly expressed point of revealed truth: that whatever is true about the
Church's infallibility in defining doctrine of faith or morals must also
be said of the Pope in regard to his personal definitions in that area.
2. A doctrinal statement counts as a "definition" (and therefore as "ex
cathedra" and infallible) provided that the Roman Pontiff in promulgating
it makes it clear that it must be held by the universal Church, and
provided also that the statement directly and conclusively pronounces
sentence. That is, it must be made clear that the statement intends to put
an end to any controversy there may be about the doctrine in question.
(There does not have to "be" any significant controversy about it: by the
time Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma in 1854 there
was already a nearly unanimous and a peaceful acceptance of the teaching
throughout the Church.)
3. The Pope's "ex cathedra" definitions may be either of revealed dogma,
to be believed with divine faith, or of other truths necessary for
guarding an expounding revealed truth. (In the latter case denial of them
would be "proximate to heresy," "erroneous, etc.," as Bishop Gasser
4. Vatican Council II and the post-conciliar magisterium have explicitly
affirmed #3 above, which was already taught implicitly in Chapter IV of
"Pastor Aeternus" and in the dogmatic definition of 1870 itself (and made
explicit by Bishop Gasser in his authentic explanation of the text). That
is, the contemporary magisterium explicitly affirms as Catholic doctrine
the truth that both ecclesial and papal infallibility extend to the
secondary doctrinal truths necessary for guarding and expounding
revelation. It has still not resolved, however, the point left undecided
by Vatican I, namely, whether this doctrine is "de fide" or only
5. In the light of this continuing uncertainty over the precise
theological note to be attached to this doctrine, nobody can be "obliged"
to give the assent of divine faith to it. However, in the light of the
centuries-long unanimity amongst bishops and theologians (Gallicans and
Ultramontanes alike before Vatican I) that the Church as a whole can
certainly and definitely teach these secondary doctrines infallibly, the
Vatican I definition makes it just as certain and definite that the Pope
can also teach them infallibly when acting alone. This can conveniently be
set out in syllogistic form:
"Major: Whatever is true regarding the object of the Church's
infallibility in doctrinal definitions is also true regarding
the object of papal infallibility: (de fide," as a result of the
1870 dogma of papal infallibility).
"Minor: The Church is infallible in defining the secondary
doctrinal truths:" (theologically certain, by virtue of its
constant teaching by Popes and Bishops throughout the world as
definitely to be held, and by virtue of the fact that they have
sometimes defined such truths under pain of anathema when
gathered in Ecumenical Councils.--Cf. "Lumen Gentium" 25).
"Concl: Therefore, the Pope is infallible in defining the
secondary doctrinal truths:" (theologically certain, as the
logical conclusion of the two preceding premises, and now also
taught explicitly by the magisterium since Vatican Council II).
Obviously the conclusion can only be as strong as its weakest premise, so
the conclusion cannot be "de fide." It follows that the precise censure to
be attached to denial of the conclusion--that is, denial that the Pope is
infallible when defining doctrinal truths necessary for religiously
guarding and faithfully expounding the deposit of faith--is not heresy but
"error." (This is the qualification given by theologians to opinions which
contradict truth which is certain, though not revealed.)
III. POINTS OF THE NATURAL MORAL LAW ARE INCLUDED IN THE OBJECT OF PAPAL
If our argument so far has been valid, we have resolved in section II the
confused question which we set out in section I: that is, we have shown
that all Catholics must accept as certainly and irreformably true that the
Pope is infallible in defining the secondary truths under discussion.
Since our principal theme in this study is the status of the encyclical
"Humanae Vitae," it is now necessary to consider whether points of the
natural moral law in fact belong to these secondary truths necessary for
guarding and expounding the revealed deposit. Textbooks of "dogmatic"
theology naturally do not usually deal with this issue, but the Church's
infallibility in the area of natural law can be found asserted in approved
works of moral theology. Noldin and Schmitt, for instance, assert that
"the Church can infallibly declare and interpret the natural law."
More importantly, this is again implied in the very definition of papal
infallibility itself. The dogma states that infallibility extends to the
definition of "doctrine" to be "held" ("tenendam"), not "believed," in
matters of morals as well as of faith. In other words, it no more
restricts infallibility to revealed truth in the practical order
("morals") than it does in the speculative order ("faith"). Thus,
naturally knowable truths in the moral order, as much as naturally
knowable truths in the speculative order, fall within the scope of
infallibility if they are necessary for guarding and expounding correctly
the revealed deposit.
This point too is clarified by a response of Bishop Gasser to a suggestion
from one of the conciliar Fathers at Vatican I. Bishop Colet of Lucon,
France, asked that the expression "matters of faith and morals" in the
definition be replaced by "what must be "believed" by the Universal Church
as of faith in matters of faith and the 'principles of morals.'"
Gasser replied that the Deputation "de fide" could not accept this
proposal, because this expression would be completely new, whereas the
expression "matter of faith and morals," i.e., doctrine of faith and
morals, is very well known and every theologian knows what is to be
understood by these "words." In other "words," to know whether
specific questions of natural law morality (such as contraception) are
understood by Vatican I to be necessary for guarding and expounding the
revealed deposit, and are therefore included within its definition of the
object of papal infallibility, it is necessary only to know whether
specific questions of that sort were understood by approved theologians of
the nineteenth century to fall within the category of "matters of morals."
And it is easy to establish that they (like all approved theologians in
this century as well) included specific questions of natural law under
this category. As a matter of fact, two of the most trusted
theologians--advisers to the Deputation "de fide"--were most explicit on
this point, namely J. B. Franzelin and J. Kleutgen. O'Connor's commentary
at this point is illuminating:
Now what was understood by "matters of morals?" It was a very
wide understanding indeed. "Matters of morals" included not only
what was directly revealed by God, but also the natural law, and
the specific, concrete decisions which the Church had to make on
moral matters for which an answer was not found in revelation.
That the matters of morals were interpreted thus broadly can be
seen by looking at two of the major theologians present at the
Council itself. The Jesuit John Baptist Franzelin (1816-1886)
held that the natural law was included under "matters of morals"
(cf. his "Tractatus De Divina Traditione et Scriptura," 4th
ed., Rome, 1896, p. 112, "tum leges practicae [et in his etiam
lex naturalis scripta in cordibus hominum rarione
utentium].....").. . Another Jesuit, Joseph Kleutgen
(1811-1883), a philosopher and theologian, went to Vatican I as
the theologian for Konrad Martin of Paderborn, and was the
official presenter to the Deputation "de fide" of the draft
chapter of the proposed dogmatic constitution on the Church. In
his remarks at the time, Kleutgen set forth the position that
holds that "matters of morals" include particular and specific
moral decisions for which "an answer cannot be found in
revelation itself' (cf. "Mansi," 53, 327,#4).
O'Connor also gives a more detailed quotation of Kleutgen's address to the
Deputation "de fide." The reader should keep in mind that, although this
was not an official or authoritative intervention in itself, it is
supremely relevant by virtue of the fact that Gasser obviously had
theologians like Kleutgen in mind when he told the assembled Fathers that
"matters of faith 'and morals'" in the definition is to be understood in
the normal ("very well known") sense which is familiar to "every
As far as the extension of infallibility and the "matters of
morals" was concerned, Kleutgen said: "What we have said
generally about the doctrine of faith, must be especially
considered in the discipline of morals. The condition of human
life is so various and multiform that innumerable questions
arise about morals for which we find no answer in revelation
itself. And nevertheless, the Church in her judgment has defined
many of these questions, affixing to these evil opinions the
censures about which we have spoken.... For, if the Church in
proscribing opinions is able to err, what follows except that it
would be able to happen that all the faithful would be compelled
by the Church, under severe edict and the proposed penalty of
excommunication, to embrace errors which corrupt faith and
morals?" ("Mansi," 53, 327.)
Kleutgen's argument reaches the heart of the whole question of
infallibility. The reason it was possible to "define" ecclesial and papal
infallibility as revealed truth nearly nineteen centuries after revelation
itself ceased is of course, that this was not really a "new" doctrine.
Centuries before the word "infallible" appeared in the Catholic
theological vocabulary in the Middle Ages, the reality expressed by that
word had been implicitly taught and claimed every time the Church
condemned certain doctrines absolutely and obliged the faithful absolutely
to accept others. Anyone who (rightly or wrongly) insists that someone
else accept his view of something "absolutely and irrevocably, on his
authority," is implicitly claiming that there is no possibility of his
being in error, i.e., that he is infallible in regard to that matter. The
unspoken major premise of Kleutgen's argument above is that Christ
promised the Church his unfailing presence and assistance by the Holy
Spirit until the end of time, that the gates of hell would never prevail
against her, so that she would be able to lead humanity to salvation by
teaching all nations "all things that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:
19-20 etc.). However these promises would fail if the Church could ever
come to bind all her children to embrace errors which corrupt them,
leading them away from sanctity and salvation. But since the Church "has
in fact" bound her children definitively in many non-revealed moral
matters, and since Christ s Promises "cannot" fail, it follows logically
that she must be infallible in such matters. In a word, the extent of the
Church's infallibility can be determined by seeing "what" she has in
practice bound her children to accept as certainly and irrevocably true.
It needs to be remembered that the "reason" the Church has the power of
infallibly guarding and expounding the deposit of revealed truth is
precisely because revelation itself is oriented towards salvation--a
supremely "practical" goal! God does not reveal Himself in a merely
abstract and speculative way-- knowledge for its own sake. But "all" of
the divine law--both natural and revealed--is supremely relevant for our
salvation; and this shows us immediately why a certain and sure exposition
of the natural law is vitally necessary for "religiously guarding" the
revealed deposit itself If the Church were incapable of discerning with
certainty what is right and wrong at the level of natural law, her binding
decisions on such matters might well corrupt, instead of sanctify, her
followers in which case the revealed deposit would be radically betrayed
by being rendered ineffective. "To what avail" would the Church infallibly
teach us the revealed truths of faith if she were at the same time leading
us away from salvation in the area of morals? What she gave with her right
hand would in effect be taken away with her left!
In the case which especially interests us at present--the issue of
contraception--the link with revealed truth is particularly obvious
because it concerns a vitally important aspect of marriage, which is a
sacrament of the Church and the subject of a considerable body of revealed
doctrine in Scripture and Tradition. In fact, it would be very rash to
assert that revealed truth itself has nothing to say on the subject of
contraception. Quite apart from the Biblical condemnation of Onan's
"abominable" contraceptive act (Gen. 38:9-10, which cannot plausibly be
explained away as merely a rebuke to Onan's unwillingness to comply with
the Levirate marriage custom, in the light of the relatively mild penalty
prescribed for the latter offence in Deut. 25:7-10), Pope John Paul II has
stated (though not in an "ex cathedra" way) that although the norm against
contraception is not explicitly formulated in Scripture, it has been so
frequently asserted in Tradition that "it becomes evident" that this norm
"belongs not only to the natural moral law, but also to the "moral order
revealed by God" (Pope John Paul II, "Reflections on Humanae Vitae"
[Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1984], pp. 9 10).
Pope Paul in "Humanae Vitae" itself repeatedly uses the word "doctrine" in
regard to the moral question he is deciding in the encyclical, and in
article 6 he speaks of the Church's "moral doctrine" ("doctrina moralis")
on marriage, thereby using the very words of the 1870 definition
("doctrinam de fide vel moribus") which designate that area (or general
subject-matter) within which infallible definitions are possible. He
asserts in article 4 the close link between this "moral doctrine"
regarding contraception and revealed truth: it is "a doctrine founded on
the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine revelation." He then
asserts in the same article that the Church's interpretation of the
natural law falls under the divine mandate to teach all of Christ's
commandments to the nations--and to do so with "His divine authority"
(Matt. 28: 18-19). This, of course, is one of the "loci classici" in
Scripture implying the Church's infallibility, since, if the Church could
err while binding her children absolutely to hold a certain doctrine "in
the name of Christ," she would in fact be speaking as Antichrist: the
gates of hell would have prevailed against her.
There can be no doubt, then, that specific, practical questions of natural
law fall within the scope of the Church's infallible teaching authority.
One final observation is in order. We are insisting on this point in order
to counteract the possible objection that, even if "Humanae Vitae"
exhibits the other features typical of an "ex cathedra" definition, it is
not in fact "ex cathedra" because its subject-matter falls outside the
area in which infallible definitions are possible. But this objection has
presuppositions which undermine the whole doctrine of papal infallibility:
it envisages as possible a situation wherein theologians or other members
of the faithful may sit in judgment on the Church's supreme judge on
earth, in regard to a given exercise of his supreme judgment--which is
absurd. It envisages as possible a situation in which all "the formal"
requirements for an infallible judgment are present: the Pope addresses
the universal Church, invokes his supreme apostolic authority, manifests
his intention to give a final, definitive judgment which is to be held by
all Catholics with interior assent, and then specifies the particular
teaching which is to be thus held by them; but, as it happens, this
particular matter falls outside the range of matters within which
infallible definitions are possible. Therefore other Catholics have the
right to regard it as non- infallible, and therefore possibly mistaken.
However, if this were to happen, and the Vicar of Christ were in fact to
err under such circumstances, Christ's promise to Peter and the Church
would have failed: the Pope would be attempting to impose falsehood on the
whole Church, in the name of Christ's own authority. It would be
impossible to defend the dogma of papal infallibility under those
circumstances, since it would turn out that the Pope is capable of error
even when pronouncing judgment in the most solemn possible way!
In the light of these considerations, we can conclude that, provided the
"formal" conditions of an "ex cathedra" pronouncement are evident in a
papal utterance, the rest of the faithful can know "ipso facto" that the
material conditions are fulfilled as well, i.e., that the Holy Father has
been protected by God from transgressing the proper limits of
subject-matter. When the Pope, as it were, hands us a package marked
"INFALLIBLE," the rest of us can know immediately with complete certainty
that it contains the truth, and we are bound to accept it even before
opening the package to see what it contains.
This is precisely the point which Fr. Chirico and other liberal
theologians are unwilling to accept. Referring to the "Ecumenical Appeal"
of the tame, toothless tiger which he presents as papal infallibility
(i.e., the view that infallibility can never settle disputes and can
merely give formal expression to what all Catholics are already agreed
upon), Chirico expresses the hope that it will make the dogma somewhat
more acceptable to Protestants, certain of whose "fears" he admits sharing
himself. He says:
Many Protestants have been fearful of papal arbitrariness, of an
imposition of a temporally-conditioned belief upon all, of a
limiting of the open-endedness of God's truth, and of an
attribution to the pope (or to the Church) of an infallibility
which belongs to God alone. Each of these fears, it seems to me,
has had some basis in the popular manner of presenting
infallibility. I acknowledge that the existence of such fears
was one of the key factors that led me to rethink the whole
question from a Roman Catholic viewpoint.
But this "popular manner of presenting" the dogma, which Chirico has felt
led to "rethink," is simply the universally accepted, natural and
self-evident meaning of the dogma itself-- unquestioned by all Catholic
theologians for a century before Chirico did his "re-thinking." The whole
idea of a binding and definitive judgment--a definition which is "to be
held" ("tenendam") by the whole Church--obviously involves the possibility
that some such definitions will "impose" on some Catholics a belief which
hitherto went against their own private judgment. The Protestant "fears"
referred to by Chirico are nothing other than that old fundamental
Protestant principle of private judgment, by which the last word in
deciding the true meaning of Christ's revelation always stays with the
individual believer, never with any higher Church authority. This
principle is utterly destructive of all Catholicism. If someone asks, "But
what if some Pope in the future gets up and declares in a solemn, formal,
binding way some wild idea that has nothing to do with revealed truth?,"
then the correct response is definitely "not" to say that in that case the
rest of us could know that it was not truly an "ex cathedra" statement,
and so would not be obliged by the Vatican I dogma to accept it. The
correct response is to assure the "fearful" questioner that such a thing
could never possibly happen, and indeed, that to understand and accept the
Vatican I dogma aright means to believe "with divine faith" that "by the
divine assistance promised to the Pope in blessed Peter," no successor of
Peter will ever be permitted by God to plunge the Church into such a
calamity. Let the last word in this section be given to a far better
theologian than Chirico, J. M. Herve:
It is also up to "the Church" to decide "how far" her
infallibility extends: otherwise there could never be any
certainty as to whether, in defining something, she had
transgressed the limits of her magisterium. In that case
infallibility would be placed in grave peril, and the whole of
religion would turn out to be placed in doubt. From this it
follows that, if the Church declares that something pertains to
her magisterium, or proposes it as requiring the assent of faith
("credendum"), such a decree is to be held as infallible.
IV HUMANAE VITAE FULFILS THE VATICAN I CONDITIONS
From what has been said so far, all that remains to be shown in order to
demonstrate the "ex cathedra" status of Paul VI's prohibition of
contraception in "Humanae Vitae" is that it exhibits the "formal"
characteristics of an "ex cathedra" definition.
Before doing that, however, it will be worthwhile disposing of a commonly
raised "red herring." The mere possibility of "Humanae Vitae's" being an
"ex cathedra" statement is often scornfully dismissed by referring to the
fact that Monsignor Ferdinando Lambruschini, the Vatican spokesman who
announced the encyclical to the press and the world, said that it was not
infallible. As a matter of fact Lambruschini was not authorized to say any
such thing, as is evidenced by the fact that this remark was conspicuously
omitted from the Osservatore Romano report of his statement the following
day. However, the main point is not whether or not there is historical
evidence that the Pope was pleased or displeased with Lambruschini's
remark. The main point is that, from a serious theological point of view,
his remark is irrelevant. In an age when our consciousness is largely
dominated by the mass media, comments by people such as press spokesmen
receive an exaggerated importance at times. A moment's reflection ought to
make it clear that such a grave issue as the infallibility or
non-infallibility of a pontifical document could never be decided simply
by reference to the mere "ipse dixit" of a decidedly non-infallible press
spokesman! Indeed-- strange as this may seem at first sight--it could
never be decided even by seeking out independent historical evidence as to
whether or not Pope Paul himself considered Humanae Vitae to be
infallible. Popes were making ex cathedra pronouncements for many
centuries before the dogma was defined, and before even the notion of
infallibility was explicitly worked out in theology. We cannot possibly
know now just how explicit or accurate their individual understanding was
of their own defining powers, at least as regards the more subtle points
and implications which were debated at such length at Vatican I--and in
any case it does not matter. When Moses descended from the mountain
bearing the infallible commandments of the Law, he did not know that his
face was radiant from his intimate converse with God; yet this was evident
to the People of God. (Cf. Ex. 34: 29-35).
What does matter, of course, is the public document itself and its
objectively expressed meaning. If the wording and content of "Humanae
Vitae" do not fulfil the conditions laid down by the 1870 dogma, then a
press-spokesman's comment to the media could not somehow "make" it
infallible, even if that spokesman happened to be the Pope himself! And
conversely, if the document "does" manifestly fulfil those conditions,
then Catholics can know with certainty that God protected the Pope from
error in making that pronouncement, even if the Holy Father himself was
not fully certain of that fact at the time. (As a matter of fact, Paul VI
revealed his state of mind regarding "Humanae Vitae" to the College of
Cardinals in his end-of-the-year address on the year's events on December
23, 1968. He said that as a result of his long and scrupulous examination
of the arguments against the traditional teaching on birth control, "this
teaching showed itself to Us anew in all its severe and yet 'serene
The 1983 "Code of Canon Law" (c. 749: 3) states that "No doctrine is to be
understood as infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such
("nisi id manifeste constiterit")." And the way to establish this clearly
is not to depend on criteria as uncertain or transient as the private or
unofficial opinions of Popes (much less of Vatican press spokesmen), nor
on the latest head-count of theologians--especially at this time of almost
unprecedented confusion, decadence and dissent in the world of Catholic
theology. The correct way, I trust, is that followed in this paper: to go
back to the most primary, official and authoritative sources in order to
gain the most exact possible understanding of the 1870 dogma of papal
infallibility; and then to methodically apply the resulting criteria to
the document under consideration--in this case "Humanae Vitae"--in order
to show how it clearly meets the required conditions for an "ex cathedra"
pronouncement. This we shall now proceed to do.
The dogmatic definition specifies four elements which constitute an "ex
1. The Pope must speak as "the pastor and teacher of all Christians" ("cum
omnium Christianorum pastoris et doctoris munere fungens"). As Bishop
Gasser explained, this means "not . .. when he decrees something as a
private teacher, nor only as the bishop and ordinary of a particular
province." Nobody can possibly doubt that this condition is fulfilled
in the case of "Humanae Vitae." A papal encyclical, by its very nature,
is a document in which the Pope speaks in this universal capacity.
In this case, Paul VI goes even further and addresses the non- Catholic
world--perhaps because the doctrine he is teaching is in this case a
matter of natural law, accessible and objectively binding on all human
beings as such. The encyclical is explicitly addressed: "To the venerable
Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops and other local ordinaries in peace
and communion with the Apostolic See, to priests, the faithful and to all
men of good will." The definition adds after "fungens" the words
"prosuprema sua Apostolica auctoritate"--"by virtue of his' supreme
Apostolic authority." Some commentators make this a separate or
independent condition, but Bishop Gasser did not mention it as such. In
fact, it is only by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority that the
Pope "can" speak "as the pastor and teacher of all Christians," so there
could be no question of his ever speaking in that capacity "without making
use of," or depending on, his supreme apostolic authority. In any case,
this aspect of an "ex cathedra" decision is also spelled out in "Humanae
Vitae." In article 6 the Pope declares that the decision he is about to
announce is being promulgated "by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by
Christ" ("vi mandati Nobis a Christo commissi"). He has just asserted
in article 4, in regard to that "mandate," "Jesus Christ, when
communicating to Peter and to the Apostles His divine authority and
sending them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as
guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law." This, he says,
"is indisputable, as our predecessors have many times declared." It is
thus evident that in this document the Pope is speaking precisely as the
Successor of Peter the Apostle, by divine mandate and authority as the
Church's supreme teacher on earth. He thereby indisputably fulfils the
first condition for an "ex cathedra" statement.
2. The next element specified in the dogmatic definition of 1870 is that
regarding the subject-matter of an "ex cathedra" definition: it must be
"doctrinam de fide vel moribus"--doctrine of faith or morals. We have
already shown in sections II and III of our study that this condition is
fulfilled in the case of "Humanae Vitae."
3. The dogma of 1870 then adds that in an "ex cathedra" pronouncement,
this doctrine must be proposed as "ab universa Ecclesia tenendam,"
literally, "requiring to be held by the universal Church." This obligation
of all Catholics to accept the doctrinal decisions is repeatedly expressed
in the encyclical. In the definition itself, the three practices
proscribed (direct abortion, direct sterilization, and contraception) are
all declared to be "absolutely excluded as licit means for regulating
birth" ("omnino respuendam... ut legitimum modum numeri liberorum
The word "omnino" means "absolutely," "entirely," "wholly," "utterly," as
any Latin dictionary will show. And "respuere" means "reject," "refuse,"
"disapprove," "not accept." The Pope thereby unambiguously proclaims that
there is an absolute, unqualified obligation on all married couples to
abstain from such practices, which of course means requiring them to hold
("tenere") at the intellectual level that they are under that obligation.
Since decisions of the will must first be understood and assented to in
the intellect, every command to do or not to do something carries with it
necessarily a command to "assent mentally" to the obligation of doing or
not doing it. Since the Encyclical is addressed to the universal Church,
this obligation of mental assent extends to all Catholics, not only to the
married couples most directly affected. This is evident, because
doctrine--as distinct from discipline--is by its nature the same for
everyone in the Church. Not all doctrines have the same binding force, of
course, but "to the extent that" a given doctrine binds any Catholic, it
binds all Catholics.
In this case, there is still more to be said. The final article of the
central doctrinal section (art. 18) affirms, with respect to the laws just
proclaimed, "Of such laws the Church was not the author, nor consequently
can she be their arbiter," even though, as the Pope says, "It can be
foreseen that this teaching will perhaps not be easily received by all."
He thereby makes it clear that this is "divine" law, which by its very
nature must be accepted with full interior assent by the whole Church,
even though he foresees that not everyone will easily give that assent.
Again, at the beginning of Section III (mainly pastoral directives), which
concludes the encyclical, the Pontiff refers back to his doctrinal
declaration in these words: "having recalled men to the observance and
respect of the divine law regarding matrimony,..." ("homines, antea ad
Dei legem de coniugio servandam colendamque incitatos..."). Again in
article 20 he asserts, "The teaching of the Church on the regulation of
birth, which promulgates the divine law, ("quae legem divinam ipsam
promulgat"), will easily appear to many to be difficult or even impossible
of actuation." He then, of course, goes on to insist that it is "not"
impossible, and that couples who fall into sin should "not be
discouraged," but rather, "have recourse with humble perseverance to the
mercy of God, which is poured forth in the sacrament of Penance." This
again expresses without ambiguity the obligation on the whole Church to
accept the teaching. Finally, this obligation is asserted again in article
28, where the Pope tells priests: "Be the first to give an example of the
sincere internal and external obedience which must be accorded to the
Church's Magisterium" ("vos primi... exemplum sinceri obsequii edite,
quod interius exteriusque ecclesiastico Magisterio tribuendum est").
That obedience, he continues, "obliges... because of the light of the Holy
Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in
order that they may illustrate the truth." In other words, the Pope
repeatedly asserts that the teaching he has reaffirmed in this encyclical
is "divine" law, which by its very nature is binding on "the universal
Church" (and, in this case, on all men and women, since it concerns the
natural law). Priests, of course, should be the first to give the example
to the laity in manifesting that "internal" assent which is required of
From all this it is evident and undeniable that Paul VI proposes his
doctrine as "requiring to be held by the universal Church," thereby
fulfilling the third requirement laid down by Vatican I for an "ex
cathedra" definition. Naturally, he does not assert that the teaching be
held "de fide," since he is not defining it as a point of revealed truth.
As we have shown in section II, "ex cathedra" definitions are envisaged by
Vatican I as including doctrines which are to be held with theological
certainty, and this is a case in point.
4. The final condition for an "ex cathedra" pronouncement is that the
Roman Pontiff "define" ("definit" in Latin) the doctrine he is proposing
for acceptance by the whole Church. Probably in view of the uncertainty
manifested by some Vatican I Fathers about this word--an uncertainty which
Bishop Gasser had to clear up by carefully explaining that it was not as
restrictive as they thought it might be--Vatican II replaces this single
word by three words which are evidently held to express the same meaning,
but more clearly: "definitivo actu proclamat"--"proclaims by a definitive
As we saw, Gasser explained that what this means is that the teaching be
pronounced "directly and conclusively." The key notion here is that of
"finality"--of "terminating" whatever doubt or controversy there may be
about the doctrine in question. As Gasser made clear, there does not have
to be a significant controversy in order for an "ex cathedra" decision to
be made. But it goes without saying that when there is a serious
controversy that threatens the unity of the Church in truth, then an "ex
cathedra" decision is certainly appropriate, in which case there is a
"forensic" or "juridical" quality to the Pope's decision. He is acting not
only as supreme teacher but as supreme "judge," settling a controversy
which needs definitive, final, resolution. The Latin word "definire" has
its root in "finis," meaning end, termination, conclusion, limit. Of
course, the Pope, not being omnipotent, does not have it within his power
to end a doctrinal controversy "de facto," since each member of the
faithful always retains his or her free will and can continue rejecting
and disputing even solemnly defined doctrines. This, of course, has
happened throughout history, giving rise to various schisms, and it has
notoriously happened in the case of "Humanae Vitae." But what does indeed
lie within the Pope's power is to settle the doctrinal controversy "de
jure," by making clear the "duty" of every Catholic to accept the Pope's
decision as final, binding, and certainly true. "Roma locuta est, causa
finita est. "
Now, the fact that Pope Paul in "Humanae Vitae" meant to end the
controversy over birth control (in the sense just explained) is evident
both from the text of the document itself and from the historical
circumstances in which it was prepared and issued. As is well-known by all
those who have followed recent Church history, the 1968 encyclical came at
a time of deep and widespread discontent, anguish, dissension and
uncertainty over the question of birth control within the Catholic fold
itself. That is precisely the kind of situation where an "ex cathedra"
decision- -a final, doubt-dispelling, certain resolution of a very
specific doctrinal question--is an urgent pastoral necessity, in order to
restore peace to millions of troubled Catholic consciences. The question
had been formally reserved for the "judgment" of the Supreme Pontiff
during the recent Ecumenical Council, which stated that, after the papal
commission had completed its study of this and related problems, the
Supreme Pontiff would be able to "pass judgment" ("iudicium ferat").
Now in that kind of situation, the "judgment" which is awaited from the
supreme ecclesial tribunal on earth--not the "Roman Rota" nor the
"Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" but the Successor of Peter in
person, from whose judgment no appeal is possible--is by its very nature a
"definitive" judgment: the last word; the end of the argument.
Pope Paul VI was well aware that this kind of "definitive, certain"
judgment was being expected of him, and made clear in his encyclical that
he intended to give it there and then. In the introductory section, he
states that he enlarged the papal commission so as to gather "opportune
elements of information." This would better enable him to give "an
adequate reply to the expectation not only of the faithful, but also of
world opinion." Then, in article 6, the Pope makes it clear that this
encyclical will give the reply which the world has been anxiously
The conclusions at which the Commission arrived could not be
considered by Us as manifesting the force of a certain and
definitive judgment ("vim iudicii certi ac definiti prae se
ferrent"), dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally
such a grave and momentous question ("quaeque Nos officio
liberarent, tam gravis momenti quaestionem per Nosmetipsos
Already the implication is completely clear: "the Commission" could not
produce a statement with "the force of a certain and definitive judgment,"
but "the Pope" can and will give such a judgment after having "personally
examined" the matter. The Holy Father then formally announces his
intention (still in article 6) to hand down the long-awaited judgment in
this present document. His solemn words are usually diluted or weakened in
vernacular translations. The following is an accurate rendition of this
Wherefore, having carefully pondered the documentation placed
before Us, having most diligently examined the matter in mind
and spirit, and after having raised ceaseless prayers to God, We
now resolve, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ,
to give Our reply to these grave questions.
Article 6 thus makes manifest the Pontiff's intention to give, in this
document, a "definitive" teaching on birth control--one handed down with
no less than divine authority. It is worth remembering that the "mandate"
from Christ referred to here is specifically his teaching authority, not
merely the governing authority by which the Pope can make disciplinary
decisions. Pope Paul has just asserted in article 4, "It is in fact
indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that 'Jesus
Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the apostles His divine
authority,' constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters 'of
all the moral law.'"
It is not only article 6 in isolation that makes manifest the Pontiff's
intention to teach by "a definitive act" in this document. The whole
structure of "Humanae Vitae," from a semiotic viewpoint, shows that this
is no ordinary papal encyclical. Most encyclicals, like the documents of
Vatican Council II, are pastoral documents covering a quite wide range of
teaching: the Church, work, social problems, Christian marriage, divine
revelation, Christian education, Scripture studies, the sacred Liturgy,
"errors of the present day," and so on. In such documents a number of
contemporary issues are raised; guidelines, commentary and pastoral
directives are often given, and various points of doctrine are often
asserted or reasserted. But it is seldom that any one of them is singled
out over all the others, or introduced, as it were, by a trumpet fanfare
or solemn drum-roll such as the words we have just cited from article 6 of
"Humanae Vitae." To use another analogy, we could call them
"hill-and-valley" documents: they cover a fairly large area of countryside
consisting of rolling hills. There are a number of "peaks"--key points of
the document-- interspersed among the "valleys" of background explanation,
commentary, and pastoral exhortation. Such documents constitute the
"authentic" teaching of the magisterium, not claiming to be definitive,
final decisions in themselves (although much of their content may well be
infallible by virtue of constant and emphatic teaching by the Popes and
Bishops in their Ordinary Magisterium).
Other magisterial statements, however, could be described as "mountain"
documents. A mountain is centered on one specific point, which is very
small in relation to the whole, but of supreme importance, standing out
clearly visible from a distance of many miles: the summit. That is like
the brief, direct, solemn definition of a specific doctrinal point (or
perhaps two or three closely linked ones), which is the whole purpose of a
"mountain" document. Just as the mountaineer is only really interested in
getting to that little, sharply-defined peak of supreme importance to him,
so a "mountain" document finds all its real importance in that one terse
little definition, which has been eagerly awaited by a wide public. All
the earlier part of the document is simply a gradual ascent of the
mountain, preparing the way and anticipating the summit, perhaps, in a
less formal manner. Then comes the summit itself, the formal assertion of
the point which is being decided, probably introduced by one or more verbs
reinforcing the gravity and finality of the decision: "We declare," "We
define," "We proclaim," etc. That gravity is evident not only from the
words themselves, but also from their surrounding literary terrain, just
as the beauty or rarity of a precious diamond is set off, enhanced and
emphasized by the costly and elaborate ring or pendant in which it is set.
Now, once we look at the case before us from this semiotic perspective,
the character of "Humanae Vitae" as a definitive act, a "mountain"
document, becomes quite obvious to anyone who reads it impartially. The
only other papal documents in recent history that I know of which are
structured in this way are the two which are universally recognized as
containing "ex cathedra" definitions: the Apostolic Constitutions
"Ineffabilis Deus' of Pius IX (1854) and "Munificentissimus Deus" of Pius
XII (1950). In each of these, as is well known, the Pontiff issued a
lengthy document culminating in a short, solemn definition of a precise;
specific point of doctrine: Our Lady's Immaculate Conception and her
Assumption respectively. While, of course, "Humanae Vitae" does not define
any revealed dogma, as those two documents do, it follows a structure
which is similar in many ways.
The official title of the encyclical is not, as many suppose, "Human
Life"--a very broad topic which is more what we would expect in a
typical "hill-and-valley" encyclical. It is entitled, "On rightly ordering
the propagation of human offspring"--a very precise, restricted area
of doctrine. Then begins the ascent of the "mountain": the background to
the controversy is set out: the Pope's intention to give a definitive
settlement of it is formally announced in article 6; and the doctrinal
principles underlying the decision are then explained. The coming judgment
is already hinted at in the "foothills" (rhetorical questions in article
3), and, as the summit is approached, it is affirmed in a non-
definitive way at the end of article 11: "Nonetheless, the Church...
teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the
transmission of life." Finally, in article 14, the summit itself is
reached, and the solemn definition is proclaimed. It can be distinguished
as the "punchline" from all that precedes and follows it with the same
ease that the words of consecration can be distinguished from all others
in the Eucharistic Prayers, or the ease with which the kernel of a nut can
be plucked from its shell. The Pontiff asserts:
In conformity with these landmarks in the human and Christian
vision of marriage, we must once again declare ("iterum debemus
edicere") that the direct interruption of the generative process
already begun is to be absolutely rejected ("omnino respuendam")
as a legitimate means of limiting the number of offspring--
especially direct abortion, even for therapeutic purposes.
Equally to be condemned ("Pariter... damnandum est"), as the
Church's Magisterium has repeatedly taught, is direct
sterilization, whether of men or of women, either permanent or
Similarly to be rejected ("Item. . . respuendum est") is any act
which, in the anticipation or accomplishment of conjugal
intercourse, or in the development of its natural results,
intends-- whether as an end to be attained or as a means to be
used--to impede procreation.
It is worth noting that the language used here is very strong. The key
verb, "edicere," is used only for important and binding official
decisions. The most authoritative Latin-English dictionary (Lewis and
Short) shows that practically all usages of the word in classical Latin
were for judgments and ordinances of the Senate and other public
authorities. The entry says: "of magistrates: declare, publish, make known
a decree or ordinance, etc., hence to establish, decree, ordain by
proclamation. "Respuere" is also a very forceful word for "reject," its
literal and original meaning bearing overtones of contempt: "to spit out"
or "spit back." The Pope clearly meant to use the word as a synonym for
"damnare" ("condemn"), since after the first use of "respuere" for
abortion, he says that sterilization (which would here include
contraceptive pills to the extent that they produce "temporary"
sterilization) is "equally to be condemned." "Damnare" is about the
strongest verb of disapproval which exists in Latin. Finally, the word
"omnino" ("absolutely," "totally," "entirely"), which is used in the first
paragraph of the definition, is certainly intended to apply equally to the
verbs of condemnation in the second and third paragraphs, as is shown by
their respective first words, "Pariter" and "item." "Pariter" means
"likewise," "equally," "in the same manner" and in this context--a list of
several related affirmations--so does "item." Lewis and Short give as the
first meaning of "item:" "implying comparison--just so, in like manner,
after the same manner, likewise, also (cf. "ita, pariter, eodem modo")."
Let us return to our semiotic observations on "Humanae Vitae." The main
structural difference between the encyclical and the documents of Pius IX
and Pius XII mentioned above is that "Humanae Vitae" has a long "descent"
from the summit as well as an ascent up to it, whereas the other two have
the solemn definitions (of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption
respectively) placed almost at the end. Paul VI decided to add a third
section containing pastoral directives (articles 19-31), as was
appropriate in a document with such sweeping practical implications for
the everyday lives of millions of Catholics. But the summit itself is
certainly no less obvious for its central, rather than terminal, location.
By what the Pope "declares" in his definition against abortion,
sterilization and contraception, and by the literary and historical
context of that definition, especially article 6 of the encyclical, it is
evident that this pronouncement fits the official explanation given by
Bishop Gasser to the Vatican I Fathers as to what the word "defines" means
in the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility: "the Pope directly and
conclusively pronounces sentence" about the doctrine in question; and he
does so "in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain... of
the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way that he or she knows for
certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate
to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff." In the
present case, in which there is no mention of heresy, revealed truth, or
something to be held "de fide," the appropriate qualification is simply
"certain." Any reasonably intelligent member of the faithful who reads
Humanae Vitae with an open mind, taking note of the fact that the Pope
here claims to be teaching with a mandate from Christ, and that he
prohibits "absolutely" the three specified methods of birth control as
being contrary to the "unchangeable" natural law given by God, can be
left in no doubt whatever that "in the mind of the Roman Pontiff," this
doctrine is completely "certain." This was also the conclusion of the
noted theologian Cardinal Charles Journet, whose authoritative commentary
in "L'Osservatore Romano" shortly after "Humanae Vitae" was published
affirms: "The Pope manifestly has the intention of settling a controversy"
("ha evidentemente l'intenzione di dirimere una controversia"); his
response has been given "with precision and certainty" ("conprecisione e
certezza"); and "brings with it certitude" ("e apportatore di
We have now carefully examined, word for word, the four characteristics of
an "ex cathedra" definition specified in the dogmatic definition of 1870,
in the light of Bishop Gasser's authoritative explanation of the text and
the subsequent teaching of Vatican Council II. We have also examined
"Humanae Vitae," presenting evidence that the definition in article 14 of
the encyclical clearly manifests all four characteristics. We conclude,
therefore, that this definition is indeed an "ex cathedra"
proclamation--infallible and irreformable in itself.
It remains to consider two possible objections to this conclusion. First,
some readers may feel that I seem to have made out a good case--but that
there must be something wrong with it, because after all, only a small
handful of theologians have made such a claim for "Humanae Vitae." How
could the great majority of the Church's scholars--even orthodox ones who
completely accept the teaching against contraception--be wrong about such
an important matter? In reply, I would naturally ask above all that the
argument be taken on its merits, and that it not be judged merely by "peer
group pressure"--the simple weight of numbers against it up till now.
Also, one can point to a number of different factors which have worked
together to obscure the full authority of this landmark encyclical: the
longstanding confusion (even amongst orthodox theologians) regarding the
precise point which the 1870 definition left undecided, and the resulting
widespread (though clearly false) impression that it guarantees
infallibility only for "de fide" definitions of revealed truth, or of
heresies which directly oppose it; the failure of many theologians to go
back to the sources and study Bishop Gasser's "relatio" carefully; the
massive power of the media in our time, which ensured that the false
"image" of "fallibility" was attached to "Humanae Vitae" from the very day
of its promulgation, in the minds of millions of Catholics and others, by
virtue of the unauthorized comment of the Vatican press spokesman; and
finally, the widespread unpopularity of the encyclical's content, which
ensured that it would often be read (or left unread!) with strong
prejudices by Catholics who would clutch at any straw in order to diminish
its authority. And when thousands of people clutch at the same straw, the
mutual illusion is quickly created that it is really a life-belt.
This brings us to the second objection--one which has probably been the
most common straw clutched at by those who do not accept the "ex cathedra"
status of "Humanae Vitae." It is said, "Well, if Paul VI wanted to make
this teaching "ex cathedra," why didn't he make it "really obvious"? Why
didn't he add a few more big words ("declare, pronounce and define"), a
few more flourishes ("for the glory of God and the salvation of souls"),
or pile up a few more expressions of authority ("by the authority of Jesus
Christ, of the Blessed Apostle Peter, and Our own authority?").
One is reminded here of the story of how the atheist Emile Zola was shown
an array of discarded crutches at Lourdes. He is said to have replied
stonily that he would be more impressed by artificial limbs. Just as one
can always resist the evidence for a miracle by demanding something still
more miraculous, one can always evade the force of clear language by
demanding still greater clarity. Furthermore, the objection is based on a
comparison with the two best-known "ex cathedra" definitions of recent
centuries: the Marian dogmas to which we have already alluded. But there
is no reason why the solemn reprobation of certain shameful sins should be
proposed with the kind of joyous, festive pomp which was appropriate for
the proclamation of two glorious privileges of Our Blessed Lady. That
would be just as grotesque as insisting that, in order to make Ash
Wednesday and All Souls Day stand out better from ordinary celebrations of
Mass, they should be celebrated like great Feasts, with goldfringed white
vestments, repeated "Alleluias," and a massed choir singing the Gloria,
accompanied by the pealing of bells! When the emphasis is on human sin,
the Church's extraordinary acts are carried out with the appropriate
Furthermore, we must remember Bishop Gasser's warning to the Vatican I
Fathers, some of whom were falling into the appealing but perilous trap of
wanting some single, definite, uniform form of words which should mark an
"ex cathedra" statement: a "standard formula" so obvious as to do away
with all possible doubt or confusion as to whether any given papal
utterance was infallible or not. Gasser pointed out that the Council had
no power to legislate for the past: previous Pontiffs had used a variety
of verbal formulae over the centuries to express their definitive
doctrinal decisions. Nor, he continued, had the Council any power to
legislate for the present or future Popes as to what exact form they
should use: that would be the heresy of conciliarism--putting Councils
above the Pope. In particular, there is no "magic" in the verb
"define," as if the presence or absence of an "ex cathedra" definition can
be established by the simple criterion of seeing whether the Pontiff uses
that word or not. Theologians, for instance, recognize as "ex cathedra"
Pope Innocent X's condemnations of certain Jansenist heresies,
although the word "define" never appears: after the heretical
propositions, the Pope appended (with no pomp and less ceremony) a simple
five-word thunderbolt: 'Declarata et damnata uti haeretica" ("Declared and
condemned as heretical").
Finally, there is a particular reason why Paul VI probably did not use the
word "define," or other expressions which would have made the definition
in "Humanae Vitae" look even more like those used for proclaiming the
recent Marian dogmas. There has been a strong tendency for Popes to use
the word "define," in practice, in those "ex cathedra" statements which do
in fact proclaim dogmas- -truths revealed by God. As we saw, some
conservative Fathers at Vatican I were worried precisely for that reason
by the use of "definit" in the text of the dogma: they thought it might be
taken to restrict the Pope's infallibility to matters of revealed truth
and its opposite, heresy. Gasser had to explain to them most carefully
that, in this document, the word "definit" does not have that restricted
meaning, and must be understood to include decisions regarding matters
less grave than heresies and revealed, "de fide" dogmas. However,
since in practice "definimus" has usually been the word Popes have used
for proclaiming strictly revealed truths, we can readily understand why
Paul VI would not have wanted to use it here, nor other expressions which
might resemble too closely those which modern Catholics associate with the
dogmas of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception. Such wording might
have led to confusion over whether the Pontiff was making the immorality
of contraception a dogma of faith, to be accepted as such under pain of
excommunication. Pope Paul had no intention of doing that, and so he
carefully chose words which could not be taken in such a way. However, he
manifestly did intend to affirm with "certainty" (as he later told the
College of Cardinals) an immutable norm of the natural law written by God
in the human heart. And his manner of doing so in "Humanae Vitae" enables
all Catholics who understand the 1870 definition correctly to see on the
face of this document the radiance of the Pope's intimate converse with
God as he made this decision: the radiance of infallibility.
1. this review article is reproduced as Appendix III to the present
writer's book, "Religious Liberty and Contraception" (Melbourne: John
XXIII Fellowship Cooperative, 1988), pp. 168-181. (Available for $14.00,
including postage, from Catholics United for the Faith, 50 Washington
Avenue, New Rochelle, New York 10801.) It also appeared in "Fidelity,"
2. James T. O'Connor, "The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on
Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I" (Boston: St.
Paul Editions, 1986), pp. 117-120.
3. Ibid., p. 117 (O'Connor's citation of "Summa Theologiae," II-IIae, q.
11, art. 2 corp.)
4. Cuthbert Butler, O.S.B., "The Vatican Council," 1869-1870, Collins,
Fontana Library, 1962 (first ed. 1930), p. 459.
5. Cited, ibid.
6. Cited, ibid., pp. 463-464.
7. Cited, ibid., p. 464 (emphasis added).
8. Ibid., p. 465.
9. Ibid., p. 376.
10. Ibid., p. 467.
11. Cited and translated by Butler, ibid., pp. 467-468 (emphasis added in
the last three emphasized passages, i.e., all those except for the first
line, where the emphasis is in the original).
12. Cited, ibid., p. 461.
14. Denzinger-Schonmetzer (DS) 3075. "If anyone should presume to
contradict this our definition -- which God forbid -- let him be
anathema." Also cf. 1983 "Codex Iuris Canonici," c 1364, no. 1.
15. Chirico, op. cit., p. 234. (The words cited here form the subheading
of a section of the chapter on papal infallibility.)
16. Ibid., p. 241.
17. Ibid., p. 235.
18. Ibid., p. 242.
19. Chirico, the author of this article, describes his own thesis as "the
new approach" to infallibility. "New Catholic Encyclopedia," vol. 17
(Washington, D.C.: McGraw-Hill, 1979), pp. 291-292.
20. DS 3069.
22. DS 3070.
23. Butler, op. cit., p. 385 (column A of schema), emphasis added.
24. Cf. ibid., p. 376.
25. Ibid., pp. 379, 385 (column B of schema).
26. Cited, ibid., pp. 376-377.
28. Cf. Harrison, "Religious Liberty and Contraception," op. cit., pp.
63-82 and 136-137.
29. Cf. Butler, op. cit., p. 377.
30. Ibid., p. 381.
31. DS 3073-3074.
32. Cf. O'Connor, op. cit., pp. 82-83, 118.
33. "Lumen Gentium," no. 25, cited and translated here by O'Connor, op.
cit., p. 83 (emphasis added).
34. Austin Flannery, O.P. (ed.), "Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and
Post-Conciliar Documents," revised ed. (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1988).
35. Walter M. Abbott (ed.), "The Documents of Vatican II" (New York:
America Press, 1966). Cf. p. 48, last paragraph.
36. Flannery, op. cit., p. 380 (emphasis added).
37. Cited in O'Connor, op. cit., p. 83. The Latin text reads: "Secundum
autem catholicam doctrinam, infallibilitas Magisterii Ecclesiae non solum
ad fidei depositum se extendit, sed etiam ad ea, sine quibus hoc depositum
rite nequit custodiri et exponi." AAS 65 (1973), p. 401.
38. Cf. footnotes 43, 44, 45 and 46 in "Lumen Gentium," no. 25 (Flannery,
op. cit., pp. 380-381).
39. Cited in O'Connor, op. cit., pp. 76-77 (emphasis added).
40. Butler, op. cit., p. 380.
41. Ibid. (emphasis added).
42. E.g., L. Ott, "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" (Rockford, IL: TAN
Books, 1974), pp. 9-10; M. Schmaus, "Dogmatica Cattolica," vol. I (Casale:
Marietti, 1959), p. 111.
43. DS 3026. Another example of a secondary truth necessary for guarding
revealed truth would be the same Council's definition of the permanence in
meaning of the Church's dogmatic formulae: DS 3043. Revelation itself does
not teach the philosophical principle that nominalism is to be rejected;
nevertheless this principle is obviously necessary to undergird the whole
corpus of revealed truth. Retaining the mere words of traditional belief
while altering substantially their meaning would clearly undermine the
whole of the Catholic faith as an intelligible body of belief.
44. E.g., Ott, op. cit., p. 9, no. 6.3.
45. Cited, O'Connor, op. cit., p. 77.
46. Ibid., pp. 78-79.
47. Ibid., p. 47 (emphasis added).
48. Cf. DS 2896. Cf. J. M. Herve, "Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae," vol. I
(Paris: Berche & Pagis, 1935), pp. 488, 490.
49. Cf. Canon Law Society of America, "The Code of Canon Law: A Text and
Commentary" (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), p. 547.
50. O'Connor, op. cit., p. 73 (citing Mansi, 52, cc. 1276-1302).
51. Cited, O'Connor, op. cit., pp. 73-74 (emphasis added).
52. The word "definire" ("define") has in fact been commonly used in
defining dogmas of faith, but its use is by no means necessary. Its
occurrence or absence cannot be seen as a kind of "litmus test" or "rule
of thumb" for deciding whether a given papal statement is "ex cathedra" or
not. Perhaps to emphasize this point, Vatican II avoided the verb
"definire" when treating of papal infallibility in "Lumen Gentium," no.
25. Instead, it affirms that the Pope is infallible when he "proclaims" a
doctrine of faith or morals "by definitive act" ("definitivo actu
53. "Ecclesia potest legem naturae infallibiliter declarare et
interpretari." H. Noldin & A. Schmitt, "Summa Theologiae Moralis," ed.
XXVIII, vol. I (Barcelona: Herder, 1951), p. 124.
54. Cited, O'Connor, op. cit., p. 68.
55. Cited, ibid., pp. 68-69.
56. Ibid., p. 69.
57. Ibid., pp. 82-83.
58. Cited, ibid., p. 120 (emphasis in original).
59. Chirico, op. cit., p. 242.
60. Herve, op. cit., p. 507 (present writer's translation, emphasis in
61. "The Pope Speaks: the Church Documents Quarterly," vol. 13, no. 4,
1969, p. 309. (. . . il costante e comune insegnamento della Chiesa, il
quale ci e apparso cosi nuovamente nella sua severa e insieme serena
certezza). AAS 61 (1969), p. 38 (emphasis added).
62. Cited O'Connor, op. cit., p. 73.
63. "Acta Apostolicae Sedis," AAS 60 (1968), p. 481.
64. Ibid., p. 484, no. 6.
65. Ibid p. 490, no. 14.
66. Ibid., p. 495, no. 19.
67. Ibid., p. 495, no. 20.
68. Ibid., p. 499, no.
69. Ibid., p. 501.
71. "Lumen Gentium," no. 25 (cf. note 52 above).
72. "directe et terminative." Cf. citation over note 51 above.
73. "Gaudium et Spes," note 14 in Part II, Chapter I (in no. 51 of the
Pastoral Constitution). Sacrosanctum Oecumenicum Concilium Vaticanum II,
"Constitutiones, Decreta, Declarationes," Vatican City, Typis Polyglottis
Vaticanis, 1974, p. 763.
74. AAS 60 (1968), p. 484, no. 5.
75. Ibid., p. 484, no. 6.
76. Ibid., p. 485. The Latin text is: "Quare, actis ad Nos missis accurate
expensis, re diligentissime mente animoque excussa, assiduisque Deo
admotis precibus, vi mandati Nobis a Chirsto commissi, nunc gravibus huius
generis quaestionibus responsum dare consemus."
77. Ibid., p. 483 ("Christum Iesum, cum Petrum ceterosque Apostolos
divinae potestatis suae participavisset").
78. Using the first two words of the encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," the St.
Paul Books and Media (Boston) version of the encyclical is entitled "Of
Human Life." While papal and conciliar documents are commonly referred to
by the first two or three words in Latin, these do not constitute the
79. "De propagatione humanae prolis recte ordinanda," AAS 60 (1968), p.
80. Ibid, pp. 482-483.
81. Ibid., p. 490. The Latin text of the definition is: . . . "iterum
debemus edicere, omnino respuendam esse, ut legitimum modum numeri
liberorum temperandi directam generationis iam coeptae interruptinem, ac
praesertim abortum directum, quamvis curationis causa factum.
Pariter, sicut Ecclesiae Magisterium pluries docuit, damnandum est seu
viros seu mulieres directo sterilitate, vel perpetuo vel ad tempus,
Item quivis respuendus est actus, qui cum coniugale commercium vel
praevidetur vel efficitur vel ad suos naturales exitus ducit, id tamquam
finem obtinendum aut viam adhibendam intendat, ut procreatio impediatur."
82. Cited, O'Connor, op. cit., p. 74. (Cf. text over note 51 above).
83. "Humanae Vitae," no. 18, states that the Church can never "declare to
be licit that which is not so by reason of its unchangeable opposition to
the true good of man" ("numquam fas erit licitum declarare quod revera
illicitum est, cum id suapte natura germano hominis bono semper
repugnet"). AAS 60 (1968), p. 494.
84. L'Osservatore Romano (daily Italian edition), 3 October 1968, pp. 1-2
(present writer's translation).
85. Gasser's "relatio" was unavailable in English in its entirety until
O'Connor's translation was published in 1986, well over a century after
Vatican I itself. It has been widely ignored: in a book of some three
hundred pages on infallibility, for instance, Chirico (op. cit.) fails
even to mention Gasser or his "relatio."
86. Also contributing to the common error is the fact that the 1917 "Code
of Canon Law" (c. 1323.3) said, "Nothing is to be understood as
dogmatically ("dogmatice") declared or defined unless it is manifestly the
case." The Code did not state or imply that dogmatic definitions--which
seemed to mean definitions of strictly revealed truth--are the only kind
of infallible definitions there are. But simply by omitting all mention of
any other type, it tended to leave that impression. And "Humanae Vitae" is
not in fact a definition of dogma. The 1983 "Code of Canon Law" has
corrected the apparent ambiguity by substituting "infallibiliter"
("infallibly") for "dogmatice" (cf. c. 749.3).
87. Cf. O'Connor, op. cit., p. 47.
88. Denzinger 1092-1096 (DS 2001-2006).
89. Cf. O'Connor, op. cit., p. 74 (citation over note 51 above).