Understanding the Infallibility Teaching

Author: Russell Shaw


Are Catholics under the impression that unless a doctrine is infallibly taught, they don't have to abide by it?

By Russell Shaw

By declaring that the doctrine barring women's ordination as priests has been taught infallibly, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cited the infallibility of the "ordinary and universal magisterium." Quite apart from the women's ordination issue, that was an unusual, important and widely misunderstood step.

Many people seem to have thought the Nov. 18 statement was referring to papal infallibility. That was the case, for example, with The New Republic, in an editorial criticizing the Vatican. Even Catholic News Service moved a story reporting that the doctrinal congregation said the doctrine on women's ordination "has been taught 'infallibly,' by Pope John Paul II."

That isn't exactly what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said. The congregation did not speak of papal infallibility. It said the teaching on women's ordination "has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium."

The distinction -- between papal infallibility and the infallibility of the "ordinary and universal magisterium" -- is important. But because relatively little has been said about the latter -- even the Vatican has been mum about it up to now -- the distinction isn't widely understood.

What it means

Most people have some idea of what papal infallibility means. That dogma, defined by the First Vatican Council and Pope Pius IX in 1870, affirms that God preserves the pope from error when he definitively teaches a doctrine of faith or morals.

The dogma of papal infallibility was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council (1962- 1965) in (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). Here, the council also made several other crucial points.

One is that infallibility is essentially a gift of God to the Church. When the pope teaches infallibly, one might say, he is exercising this divine gift on the Church's behalf. The same thing is true, the council remarks, when the pope and bishops convened in an ecumenical council join in a solemn teaching act.

Another important point made by Vatican II concerns the infallibility of the "ordinary magisterium" -- that is, the teaching authority of bishops in union with the pope, exercised in "ordinary" acts of teaching outside an ecumenical council.

Not everything taught by bishops in union with the pope is infallibly taught, but some things are. Section 25 of explains when.

"Taken individually," it says, bishops "do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility." Yet, under certain circumstances, they do "proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ."

As written in , that is so "when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor [the pope] the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they [the bishops] are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely."

The Second Vatican Council teaching states that four conditions must be met for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium of bishops around the world. These are:

1. That the bishops be in communion with one another and with the pope.

2. That they teach authoritatively on a matter of faith or morals.

3. That they agree in one judgment.

4. That they propose this as something to be held definitively by the faithful.

Conditions met

In appealing to the infallibility of "the ordinary and universal magisterium," in its Nov. 18 statement, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith implicitly was saying these conditions are met in the case of the teaching that women cannot be ordained as priests. The statement cited .

The doctrinal congregation did not develop this argument. Presumably, though, it was making the point that, whenever in the history of the Church the question of ordaining women as priests has come up, bishops with virtual -- though not necessarily absolute - - unanimity have taken the position that it simply cannot be done because it is contrary to the will of Christ.

Not much has been said about the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium since Vatican II adopted and Pope Paul VI approved in 1964. For obvious reasons, this is not a doctrine dissenting theologians call attention to. Even the Vatican has said very little about it, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church barely alludes to it (see no. 891).

In 1978, however, two American moral theologians -- Jesuit Father John Ford and Germain Grisez -- published what is probably the most important theological article to date analyzing and applying Vatican II's doctrine.

The article, in the journal Theological Studies, argued at length that the teaching that every act of contraception is intrinsically wrong has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium.

In reaching this conclusion, Father Ford and Grisez traced the history of the teaching on contraception over many centuries and examined the manner in which it was proposed by countless bishops in their individual exercise of teaching authority.

Even if a substantial number of bishops now or at some time in the future were to be doubtful about the teaching or not accept it, that would have no bearing on the fact that the conditions for infallible teaching already have been met, they argued.

The Father Ford-Grisez thesis has not been widely embraced by theologians, and the Vatican officially has not said anything about it. But their argument, though challenged or ignored by dissenters, has never been refuted. And, as they pointed out at the time, the same argument, if correct, applies not only to contraception but also to many other matters taught by the ordinary magisterium.

In a Nov. 24 address to members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope John Paul expressed regret that many Catholics apparently think they are at liberty to dismiss doctrines they don't agree with unless it is formally stated that they are infallibly proposed.

Different teachings do have different degrees of authority, he said. But he added, "That does not authorize people to think that pronouncements and doctrinal decisions of the magisterium require irrevocable assent only when it presents them with a solemn judgment or definitive act."

The Pope's regret was well-founded. Apparently, the Vatican concluded that nothing less than invoking infallibility would put an end to pressure for women's ordination -- and it remains to be seen whether even that will work.

In basing its case against ordaining women on the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, however, the Vatican has made use of a tool with many other applications besides this one. When, whether and in what context it will use the tool again are weighty questions.

Shaw is Our Sunday Visitor's Washington correspondent and director of public information for the Knights of Columbus

This article was taken from the December 17, 1995 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, Huntington, In 46750.

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