Is 'Ordinatio Sacerdotalis' an Infallible Exercise of the Extraordinary Papal Magisterium?

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr Peter Pilsner Much of the discussion has been focused on whether the Holy Father's statement "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" is an infallible exercise of the extraordinary papal magisterium. The point has been well made by Jeff and others that it is. Other theologians, mostly those who are quoted in newspapers and are eager to find the smallest loophole, will stress that the declaration is "non-infallible" and express hopes that some future pope will reverse it. And again, others hold, as a well-founded opinion that it is an infallible exercise of the ordinary papal magisterium. Ratzinger it seems, would fall into this last group.

One point that was well established by Jeff and others was that the pope does not have to use a specific formula of words when he makes an infallible definition. What I would like to do is cite some relevant texts that I have not yet seen on the board, just for the sake of contributing to the discussion.

At the First Vatican Council a group of bishops (called a "Deputation") was given the task of drafting the definition of papal infallibility. The first draft they submitted was accepted as a working document, and suggestions were made for corrections and additions. A second draft, which tried to incorporate the suggested changes, was presented to the Fathers of the Council on July 9, 1870. The part containing the definition read as follows:


After this draft was presented, it was the role of Bishop Vincent Gasser (bishop of Brixen in the Tyrol from 1856 to 1879) to explain its meaning to the bishops at the Council, so they would be clear about what they were voting on. In explaining the nature of an "infallible pontifical definition," he stated the following, on July 11:


Even though Bishop Gasser did say that "this very property and note of a definition, properly so-called, should be expressed, at least IN SOME WAY," it still seemed to many of the Fathers of the Council that the use of the word "define" (e.g. "there is required the manifest intention of DEFINING doctrine") was too restrictive and juridical. So, Bishop Gasser addressed the Fathers again on July 16, to explain further. Part of his explanation is as follows:


In his commentary on Bishop Gasser's explanation, Msgr. James T. O'Connor (who was one of my professors at St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie) writes the following:


The final quote I offer is again from Msgr. O'Connor, about the issue of infallibility in Lumen Gentium:

It is clear that the teaching of Vatican II on papal infallibility is a verbatim re'sume' of the definition of the First Vatican Council.... The infallibility promised by Christ to the entire Church is individually present in the Successor of Peter who acts not as a private person but as supreme teacher of the entire Church.

Vatican II inserts into its teaching at this point a reference to the Pope as "Head of the College of bishops," something not specifically mentioned in Vatican I. It may be inferred from this that a papal definition of faith is, in some way, a collegial act. i.e. an act of the college of bishops, by way of what we could call an "executive decision." The Pope individually is able to act for the entire college of bishops in such an act and do so without previous consultation or subsequent approbation. This infallibility is exercised when the Pope "proclaims by a definitive act doctrine concerning faith and morals." Vatican II's use of the word "proclaims" (proclamat) is significant here. It does not use the word "define." At Vatican I, some of the bishops objected to the use of the word "define" claiming that it was too restrictive and too juridical, implying the use of a specific formula or limiting the Pope to putting an end to a controversy which had arisen about something which was already a matter of faith. The word was accepted only after Bishop Gasser had assured the bishops that the word "define" was not to be understood in a juridical sense but rather "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." By substituting the word "proclaims" for "defines" Vatican II has, in effect, answered the objections of those bishops at Vatican I who wanted some other word substituted for "defines." Closely following Gasser's explanation, however, Vatican II immediately shows that it considers the words "define" and "proclaim" to be equivalent by using the word "definition" when it states: "Therefore his definitions are rightly called irreformable, etc."

BTW, I want to make it clear that none of what is quoted above represents my own scholarship. It is all from the book, "The Gift of Infallibility," which contains a complete translation of Bishop Gasser's speech to the Fathers of Vatican I, with footnotes and commentary by Msgr. James T. O'Connor, and also a long article on infallibility by the same Msgr. O'Connor. (St. Paul Books, 1986.)

With respect to "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" my question would be, if it is not exercise of the extraordinary papal magisterium, what is it lacking, that would otherwise make it so? As far as I can tell, it lacks nothing at all. To demonstrate my point, let me make a little comparison of what Bishop Gasser said to the Fathers of Vatican I and "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" by John Paul II:

Gasser >>When the supreme Pontiff speaks "ex cathedra," not, first of all, when he decrees something as a private teacher, or only as the bishop and ordinary of a particular See and province, but when he teaches as exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians.

JPII>>in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. 22:32)

Gasser>> Secondly, not just any manner of proposing the doctrine is sufficient even when he is exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher. Rather, there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine or of defining a thing...

JPII>>Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself...

Gasser>> a DEFINITIVE JUDGEMENT and proposing that doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church. This last point is indeed something intrinsic to every dogmatic definition of faith or morals which is taught by the supreme pastor and teacher of the Universal Church and which is to be held by the Universal Church.

JPII>>I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this JUDGMENT is to be DEFINITIVELY held by all the Church's faithful.

With all due respect to Cardinal Ratzinger, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...guess what?

Fr. Peter

(Father's comments are taken from a message on CRNET.)