Four Levels of the Church's Teaching

Author: Fr. William Most


Fr. William Most

First level:

a) Solemn definition. LG 25: No special formula of words is required in order to define. Wording should be something solemn, and should make clear that the teaching is definitive. Councils in the past often used the form: "Si quis dixerit. . . anathema sit." That is: "If someone shall say. . . . let him be anathema." But sometimes they used the formula for disciplinary matters, so that form alone does not prove. Further, they also could define in the capitula, the chapters. Thus Pius XII, in Divino afflante Spiritu (EB 538) spoke of such a passage of Vatican I (DS 3006 -- saying God is the author of Scripture) as a solemn definition.

The Pope can define even without the Bishops. Of his definitions LG 25 said: "His definitions of themselves, and not from consent of the Church, are rightly called unchangeable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised him in blessed Peter. So they need no approval from others, nor is there room for an appeal to any other judgment." So collegiality even in defining is not mandatory. Yet most definitions of the Popes have been taken in collegiality, that is, with consultation of the Bishops. Even the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were such, for the Popes did poll the Bishops by mail.

b) Second level: LG 25: "Although the individual bishops do not have the prerogative of infallibility, they can yet teach Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is true even when they are scattered around the world, provided that, while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves, and with the successor of Peter, they concur in one teaching as the one which must be definitively held." This means: (1) The day to day teaching of the Church throughout the world, when it gives things as definitively part of the faith, (2) If this can be done when scattered, all the more can it be done when assembled in Council. Thus Trent (DS 1520) after "strictly prohibiting anyone from hereafter believing or preaching or teaching differently than what is established and explained in the present decree," went on to give infallible teaching even in the capitula, outside the canons.

To know whether the Church intends to teach infallibly on this second level, we notice both the language -- no set form required - and the intention, which may be seen at times from the nature of the case, at times from the repetition of the doctrine on this second level.

c) Third Level: Pius XII, in Humani generis: "Nor must it be thought that the things contained in Encyclical Letters do not of themselves require assent on the plea that in them the Pontiffs do not exercise the supreme power of their Magisterium. For these things are taught with the ordinary Magisterium, about which it is also true to say, 'He who hears you, hears me.' [Lk 10. 16]. . . If the Supreme Pontiffs, in their acta expressly pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians."

We notice: (1) These things are protected by the promise of Christ in Lk 10. 16, and so are infallible, for His promise cannot fail. Though that promise was first given to the 72, it is certain that the Apostles were in the group, and as the trajectory advanced, it became clear that the full teaching authority was only for them - the mission given to the 72 was preliminary, and the full meaning was made clear later when the Apostles were given the authority to bind and to loose. This was part of the broader picture: Jesus wanted only a gradual self-revelation. Had He started by saying: "Before Abraham was, I am", He would have been stoned on the spot. (2) Not everything in Encyclicals, and similar documents, is on this level - this is true only when the Popes expressly pass judgment on a previously debated matter, (3) since the Church scattered throughout the world can make a teaching infallible without defining - as we saw on level 2 -then of course the Pope alone, who can speak for and reflect the faith of the whole Church, can do the same even in an Encyclical, under the conditions enumerated by Pius XII. Really, on any level, all that is required to make a thing infallible is that it be given definitively. When a Pope takes a stand on something debated in theology and publishes it in his Acta, that suffices. The fact that as Pius XII said it is removed from debate alone shows it is meant as definitive.

In this connection, we note that LG 12 says: "The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief." This means: If the whole Church, both people and authorities, have ever believed (accepted as revealed) an item, then that cannot be in error, is infallible. Of course this applies to the more basic items, not to very technical matters of theological debate. But we note this too: If this condition has once been fulfilled in the past, then if people in a later age come to doubt or deny it -- that does not make noninfallible what was once established as infallible. Many things come under this , e. g. , the existence of angels.

This does not mean, however, that the Pope is to be only the echo of the faithful.

d) Level 4: LG 25: "Religious submission of mind and of will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking."

We note all the qualifications in the underlined part The key is the intention of the Pope. He may be repeating existing definitive teaching from Ordinary Magisterium level - then it is infallible, as on level 2. He may be giving a decision on a previously debated point - as on level 3, then it falls under the promise of Christ in Lk 10. 16, and so is also infallible. Or it may be a still lesser intention - then we have a case like that envisioned in Canon 752 of the New Code of Canon Law: "Not indeed an assent of faith, but yet a religious submission of mind and will must be given to the teaching which either the Supreme Pontiff, or the College of Bishops [of course, with the Pope] pronounce on faith or on morals when they exercise the authentic Magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim it by a definitive act." If they do not mean to make it definitive, then it does not come under the virtue of faith, or the promise of Christ,"He who hears you hears me". Rather, it is a matter of what the Canon and LG 25 call "religious submission of mind and of will." What does this require? Definitely, it forbids public contradiction of the teaching. But it also requires something in the mind, as the wording indicates. This cannot be the absolute assent which faith calls for - for since this teaching is, by definition, not definitive, we gather that it is not absolutely finally certain.

How can anyone give any mental assent when there is not absolute certitude? In normal human affairs, we do it all the time. Suppose we are at table, and someone asks if a dish of food came from a can, and if so, was it sent to a lab to check for Botulism. It is true, routine opening of a can would not detect that deadly poison. Yet it is too much to check every can, and the chances are very remote, so much so that normal people do not bother about it - yet their belief takes into account a real but tiny possibility of a mistake. Similarly with a doctrine on this fourth level. And further, the chances of error on this level are much smaller than they are with a can of food. Similarly, in a criminal trial, the judge will tell the jury they must find the evidence proves guilt beyond reasonable doubt. He does not demand that every tiny doubt be ruled out, even though it may mean life in prison or death.

If one should make a mistake by following the fourth level of Church teaching, when he comes before the Divine Judge, the Judge will not blame him, rather He will praise him. But if a person errs by breaking with the Church on the plea that he knew better - that will not be easily accepted.