Tuesday, March 5, 2024

When do popes speak ex cathedra?

Consider four groups that, one might think, couldn’t be more different: Pope Francis’s most zealous defenders; sedevacantists; Protestants; and Catholics who have recently left the Church (for Eastern Orthodoxy, say).  Something at least many of them have in common is a serious misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility – one which has led them to draw fallacious conclusions from recent papal teaching that seems to conflict with traditional Catholic doctrine (for example, on Holy Communion for those in invalid marriages, the death penalty, and blessings for same-sex couples).  Some of Pope Francis’s defenders insist that, since these teachings came from a pope, they must therefore be consistent with traditional doctrine, appearances notwithstanding.  Sedevacantists argue instead that, given that these teachings are not consistent with traditional doctrine, Francis must not be a true pope.  Some Protestants, meanwhile, argue that since Francis is a true pope but the teachings in question are (they judge) not consistent with traditional Christian doctrine, Catholic claims about papal infallibility have been falsified.  Finally, some Catholics have concluded the same thing, and left the Church as a result. 

I’ve addressed the doctrinal controversies in question at length elsewhere and will not revisit them here.  The point for present purposes is that, whatever one thinks of them, none of these inferences is sound, because they rest on the false assumption that Catholicism claims that a pope could not err in the ways Francis is in these cases alleged to have erred. 

The Church’s teaching, as famously defined at the First Vatican Council, is as follows:

When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

It is fairly widely understood that this does not mean that a pope is impeccable in his personal moral behavior, or that he cannot err when he speaks on some topic unconnected to faith or morals, or that he cannot err when he offers a personal opinion on some theological matter rather than teaching in his capacity as pope.  Rather, it is only when speaking as universal pastor of the Church on a matter of faith or morals that he is infallible.

However, what is somewhat less widely understood is that even this is not enough for an infallible ex cathedra statement.  As the passage from Vatican I says more than once, the pope also needs to be speaking to the universal Church on a matter of faith or morals in a manner that defines some point of doctrine.  And to “define” a doctrine is more than just putting it forward as binding on the faithful.  As the Second Vatican Council teaches in Lumen Gentium, even papal teaching that is not ex cathedra is normally binding (though as I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Church acknowledges rare exceptions).  To define a doctrine involves, in addition, putting it forward in an absolutely final, irrevocable manner.  When a pope defines some point of doctrine, he is teaching it in a way that is intended to settle the question for all time and can never be revisited.  It only when speaking with this maximum degree of solemnity that a pope is claimed by Vatican I to be making an infallible ex cathedra pronouncement. 

Such pronouncements are rare, and Pope Francis has never made one.  In particular, none of the doctrinal controversies referred to above involves any such pronouncement.  Neither Amoris Laetitia’s teaching on Holy Communion for those in invalid marriages, nor the 2018 revision to the Catechism on the topic of capital punishment, nor Fiducia Supplicans’s teaching on blessings for same-sex couples, involves any ex cathedra statement.  None of these documents is intended to “define” or settle in an absolutely irrevocable way any doctrinal matter.  Hence, if one or more of them really does contain doctrinal error, that would be – though regrettable and indeed scandalous – nevertheless compatible with the doctrine of papal infallibility, because none of them is the kind of pronouncement that is covered by infallibility.

Hence, none of the inferences referred to above is sound.  The fact that these doctrinal pronouncements were issued under the pope’s authority does not (contrary to some of Pope Francis’s defenders) by itself guarantee that they must be reconcilable with tradition, because they are not ex cathedra definitions.  Nor, if they are erroneous, would that entail that Francis is not a true pope, since (contrary to what some sedevacantists seem to think) even true popes are not infallible when teaching in the specific manner of the documents in question.   For the same reason – and contrary to what some Protestants and some Catholics who have lost their faith suppose – if Francis has erred in these cases, that would not falsify Catholic claims about papal infallibility, because the Church never claimed in the first place that popes are infallible when making pronouncements of the specific kind in question, since none of them involves an attempt at making an ex cathedra definition.

The teaching of the manuals

It is important to emphasize that this is in no way some novel interpretation of papal infallibility manufactured in order to deal with the controversies that have arisen during the pontificate of Pope Francis.  It is simply the way Catholic theologians have always understood the matter.  To see this, consider what is said in several standard theology manuals of the period between Vatican I and Vatican II.  This was, of course, the period when the popes were most keen to emphasize their power to settle matters of doctrine.  And yet the manuals say exactly what I just said about the conditions on an ex cathedra statement.  It is worth adding that these are manuals that received the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur.  That does not entail that they are infallible, but it does mean that what they say was regarded by ecclesiastical authorities as perfectly orthodox and unremarkable. 

Let’s begin with Scheeben’s 1874 Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics, Book One, Part One.  Commenting on papal authority infallibly to judge matters of doctrine, it tells us that “only those propositions or considerations which the judge evidently intended to determine peremptorily are to be regarded as judicially determined and thus infallibly true” (p. 331, emphasis added).  That is to say, unless the pope intends to settle a matter in a peremptory or final way, his pronouncement is not of an ex cathedra nature.  Accordingly, Scheeben says, “it is possible, notwithstanding the continuing operation of his authority, that the pope extra iudicum [i.e. not ex cathedra] should profess, teach, or attest something false or heretical” (p. 144, parenthetical remark in the original).

Brunsmann and Preuss’s 1932 Handbook of Fundamental Theology, Volume IV, tells us the following:

An ex-cathedra decision… implies the unmistakable intention of the pope to utter a definitive and binding doctrinal decision and to oblige the Universal Church to accept it with absolute certainty.  Hence if the pope, even in his capacity as supreme shepherd and teacher, were to recommend to all the faithful a certain doctrine regarding faith or morals, even if he commanded that doctrine to be taught in all the schools, this would be no ex-cathedra definition, because no definitive doctrinal decision would be intended.  The case is similar with regard to decrees issued by the Roman congregations, when they (as happens with the S. Congregation of the Holy Office, over which the pope himself presides) condemn a doctrine, and the decision is confirmed by the supreme pontiff and published by his authority.  Such decrees are not per se infallible… If and so long as there is a reasonable doubt whether the pope intends a definition to be ex cathedra, no one is in conscience bound to accept it as such.  (pp. 49-50)

Notice that Brunsmann and Preuss not only note that a papal pronouncement does not count as ex cathedra if it is not intended as “definitive” and as settling the matter with “absolute certainty,” but also offer specific examples of teaching that would, accordingly, not count as ex cathedra.  Even a doctrine that a pope in his capacity as universal teacher commends to all the faithful and commands to be taught, or a doctrine taught with his approval by the Holy Office (now known as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith), would not count as ex cathedra unless there were an “unmistakable intention” and no “reasonable doubt” that he intended it as an absolutely final and irrevocable doctrinal definition.

Ludwig Ott’s 1955 Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma says:

Not all the assertions of the Teaching Authority of the Church on questions of Faith and morals are infallible and consequently irrevocable.  Only those are infallible which emanate from General Councils representing the whole episcopate and the Papal Decisions Ex Cathedra.  The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible.  Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible. (p. 10)

The condition of the Infallibility is that the Pope speaks ex cathedra.  For this is required… that he have the intention of deciding finally a teaching of Faith or Morals, so that it is to be held by all the faithful.  Without this intention, which must be made clear in the formulation, or by the circumstances, a decision ex cathedra is not complete.  Most of the doctrinal expressions made by the Popes in their Encyclicals are not decisions ex cathedra. (p. 287)

Ott here reiterates the points we’ve already seen in the other manuals, and adds that “the ordinary and usual form” of papal teaching, including “most of the doctrinal expressions… [in] Encyclicals,” are not infallible. 

Salaverri and Nicolau’s 1955 Sacrae Theologiae Summa, Volume IB notes that “to speak ex cathedra, according to Vatican I, implies that the Roman Pontiff teaches something… defining it as something that must be held, that is, obliging all to an absolute assent of the mind and deciding the matter with an ultimate and irrevocable judgment” (p. 216, emphasis in original).  They add that “the manifest intention of defining something is required” (p. 219, emphasis added).  In other words, and as the other manuals note, unless a pope explicitly tells us that he intends to settle some doctrinal matter in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, we don’t have an ex cathedra definition and thus don’t have an infallible pronouncement.

Van Noort’s 1957 Dogmatic Theology, Volume II: Christ’s Church comments on the matter at length:

The pope, even acting as pope, can teach the universal Church without making use of his supreme authority at its maximum power.  Now the Vatican Council defined merely this point: the pope is infallible if he uses his doctrinal authority at its maximum power, by handing down a binding and definitive decision: such a decision, for example, by which he quite clearly intends to bind all Catholics to an absolutely firm and irrevocable assent.

Consequently even if the pope, and acting as pope, praises some doctrine, or recommends it to Christians, or even orders that it alone should be taught in theological schools, this act should not necessarily be considered an infallible decree since he may not intend to hand down a definitive decision.  The same holds true if by his approval he orders some decree of a sacred congregation to be promulgated; for example, a decree of the Holy Office…

For the same reason, namely a lack of intention to hand down a final decision, not all the doctrinal decisions which the pope proposes in encyclical letters should be considered definitions.  In a word, there must always be present and clearly present the intention of the pope to hand down a decision which is final and definitive…

[W]hen he is not speaking ex cathedra… All theologians admit that the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith and morals when so speaking: either by proposing a false opinion in a matter not yet defined, or by innocently differing from some doctrine already defined.  (pp. 293-94)

Van Noort goes on to give an example of a case where a decree of a sacred congregation was issued with papal approval but turned out to be doctrinally erroneous:

It should be candidly admitted, we think, that the sacred congregation did condemn Galileo’s teaching by what was actually a doctrinal decree.  The opinion of some theologians that the decree… was a purely disciplinary decree… is, in our opinion, difficult to square with the facts of the case.  Likewise it should be frankly admitted that the Congregations of the Inquisition and of the Index committed a faux pas in this matter…

The pope was aware of the decree of the congregation, and approved it as a decree of the congregation. (pp. 308-9)

Van Noort’s discussion repeats the points made in the other manuals, and adds the positive explicit assertion that “the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith and morals” when not speaking ex cathedra, along with an example in which a Vatican congregation acting with papal approval did in fact issue a mistaken doctrinal decree.

Again, these manuals were all written after Vatican I proclaimed papal infallibility but before Vatican II and the doctrinal controversies that arose in its wake.  Hence no one can claim that they reflect some more limited, pre-Vatican I conception of papal authority.  Nor can anyone claim that they reflect the polemical interests of post-Vatican II progressives or traditionalists who, for very different reasons, would want to emphasize the limits of papal power.  They are also exactly the sorts of manuals sedevacantists like to appeal to in support of their position.  But in fact they undermine that position, because they show that the errors sedevacantists accuse the post-Vatican II popes of would (even if these popes really were guilty of all the errors they are accused of) be errors of precisely the kind the Church acknowledges can occur, consistent with what Vatican I says about the conditions on infallibility.

Again, I’m not going to revisit here the details of the doctrinal controversies surrounding Pope Francis.  But if the pope’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the 2018 revision to the Catechism, or the DDF declaration Fiducia Supplicans contain doctrinal error, then these would be the kinds of errors the Church acknowledges to be possible for a pope to make, because none of them is an ex cathedra pronouncement.  Hence they would not falsify Catholicism, nor would they show that Francis is not a true pope.

A heretical pope?

But what about the thesis that a pope might lose his office due to heresy, which was discussed by St. Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suárez, and others among the Church’s great theologians?  The first thing to say here is that what is in view in this thesis is formal heresy, not mere material heresy.  A material heresy is a claim that is in fact heretical in its content, whether or not the person who asserts it realizes that, or would persist in adhering to the claim after being warned that it is heretical.  A person who holds some view that is materially heretical would not for that reason alone suffer excommunication and thus cease to be a Catholic.  That would happen only as a result of formal heresy, which is a material heresy that a person persists in despite the attempts of ecclesiastical authority to correct him.  Moreover, we have to be careful in determining what counts as “heresy,” which in canon law is not just any old theological error, but specifically the denial of some teaching that the Church has officially defined.  A formal heretic, then, is someone who obstinately denies some doctrine that the Church has formally defined, despite the attempt of the Church to correct him.

The thesis in question is that if a pope were a formal heretic in this sense, he would cease to be a Catholic, and thus cease to be pope, since a non-Catholic cannot be a pope.  But as I have argued elsewhere, no one has succeeded in showing that Pope Francis is a formal heretic.  So the thesis that he might have lost his office due to formal heresy is moot.  But even if he were a formal heretic, the matter is still nowhere near as straightforward as sedevacantists suppose.  For one thing, the thesis that a pope could lose his office for formal heresy is not a teaching of the Church, but a theological opinion, nothing more.  Whether a pope really could become a formal heretic, and, if so, whether he would lose his office, are matters that have been debated but never settled, either by theologians or by the Church. 

Here is what Van Noort says on the matter:

Thus far we have been discussing Catholic teaching.  It may be useful to add a few points about purely theological opinions… Theologians disagree… over the question of whether the pope can become a formal heretic by stubbornly clinging to an error on a matter already defined.  The more probable and respectful opinion, followed by Suárez, Bellarmine and many others, holds that just as God has not till this day ever permitted such a thing to happen, so too he never will permit a pope to become a formal and public heretic.  Still, some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy.  They add that should such a case of public papal heresy occur, the pope, either by the very deed itself or at least by a subsequent decision of an ecumenical council, would by divine law forfeit his jurisdiction.  Obviously a man could not continue to be the head of the Church if he ceased to be even a member of the Church. (pp. 293-94)

Salaverri and Nicolau write: “Theologians concede that a general Council can licitly declare a Pope heretical, if this case is possible, but not to depose him authoritatively since he is superior to the Council, unless it is clearly certain that he is a doubtful Pope” (p. 217).

Note first that both manuals are tentative about whether it really is even possible for a pope to become a formal heretic, though some theologians do allow that this is possible.  There are two lessons to draw from this that are relevant for present purposes.  The first is that the Church does permit theologians to entertain and debate the possibility that a pope may not only err, but even fall into formal heresy.  This is important for properly understanding the doctrine of papal infallibility, because it shows that the Church is very far from claiming that everything a pope might say on matters of faith or morals is infallible.  Second, though, the common opinion is that even if a formally heretical pope is possible in theory, it is highly unlikely that divine Providence would allow this ever in fact to occur.  And this reinforces a point that should be obvious in any event, which is that a Catholic ought to be extremely cautious about accusing a pope of formal heresy, as opposed to some lesser degree of error. 

But it is, in any event, not up to just any old Catholic with a stack of theology manuals and a Twitter account to make this determination.  Note that the manuals make reference to the action of a council against a pope guilty of formal heresy.  For to whom does the task fall to warn a pope that he is in danger of such heresy?  And who has the authority to decide that, after having been warned to no avail, his heresy is obstinate and thus has in fact passed from being material to being formal?  If just any old Catholic could claim the right to do this, the result would be precisely the sort of chaos that the institution of an authoritative hierarchical Church is supposed to prevent.  Hence the common view is that, if a pope were to fall into formal heresy and if he were to lose his office as a result, the latter could only occur after some authoritative ecclesiastical body had made the juridical determination that he had in fact fallen into formal heresy and ipso facto lost his office.

Yet even this, as I have argued elsewhere, would by no means solve all the problems that arise in such a scenario.  And this reinforces the point that we are dealing here not with any actual teaching of the Church, but with highly controversial and problematic theological theories, albeit ones the Church permits us to speculate about.  And it is merely on such speculative theories, rather than on official Catholic doctrine, that the sedevacantist position is grounded. 

Ex cathedra heresy?

So far we have been discussing papal teaching that is not presented in the first place as if it were an irrevocable ex cathedra pronouncement.  But what if a pope attempted to teach some heresy in an ex cathedra way?  Is this possible even in theory?  Sometimes Catholics say things to the effect that were a pope ever to try to do this, God would strike him dead before he could carry it out.  Interestingly, though, Scheeben treats the matter as being more complicated than that.  He writes:

Infallibility in itself does not absolutely rule out the possibility that the judge of last resort may place… a formally invalid act of judgment.  In this sense, therefore, many theologians in the Scholastic period were able to deem the judicial infallibility of the pope consistent with the possibility that he, out of wantonness or fear, might place personal acts, even with the claim of his authority, which should not be regarded at the same time as acts of his authority or of his See and hence, without prejudice to the infallibility of the latter, could be erroneous.

Those theologians considered… the sole [hypothetical] case of obvious and absolute temerity the one in which the pope would attempt to define a notorious heresy, or, what amounts to the same thing, to reject a notorious dogma that is held without doubt by the entire Church and thus to require the whole Church to abandon her faith; for in this case, they said, the pope would behave not as a shepherd but as a wolf, not as a teacher but as a madman, while on the other hand the Church or the episcopate could and would have to rise up immediately as one against the pope, although we could not say that she was rising up over or even merely against papal authority; rather she would rise up only against the arbitrariness of the person who hitherto had possessed the papal authority, but plainly through the questionable act renounced it and relieved himself of it. (p. 310)

What Scheeben appears to have in mind by a “notorious heresy” or the “reject[ion of] a notorious dogma” is the explicit denial of something manifestly previously defined as irreformable doctrine.  And by the “attempt to define” such a heresy, Scheeben seems to have in mind a case where a pope issued a decree like the following: “Using my full authority as successor of Peter and universal teacher of all the faithful, I hereby declare and define by a solemn and irrevocable decree that Jesus of Nazareth was not the Son of God,” or something similarly manifestly heretical. 

Scheeben does not claim that Providence might ever in fact allow such a thing, but he does discuss it as an abstract possibility that would not be strictly ruled out by the doctrine of papal infallibility.  But how could it not be ruled out?  Scheeben’s view (or at least, the view of the Scholastic theologians he has in mind) is that such an act would be “formally invalid” precisely because it would manifestly conflict with previously defined dogma.  The idea seems to be that among the conditions on an ex cathedra definition is that it be logically consistent with previous definitions.  After all, when proclaiming papal infallibility and setting out the conditions on ex cathedra pronouncements, Vatican I explicitly says that:

The Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

The position Scheeben is describing, then, would seem to be that an attempt to define a manifest heresy ex cathedra would be a kind of misfire, a failure right from the get-go to fulfill a basic condition on making an ex cathedra definition – just as a failure explicitly to speak in one’s capacity as pope, or a failure to manifest one’s intention actually to define a doctrine irrevocably, would be a failure to fulfill the conditions on an ex cathedra pronouncement.  (In this respect, the position Scheeben is describing would be analogous to Fr. Thomas Weinandy’s thesis about the conditions on magisterial teaching more generally, which I discussed in a recent post.)

Some might object to this position (as some have objected to Fr. Weinandy’s thesis) that it amounts to an appeal to “private judgment,” the very thing Catholics criticize Protestants for.  For if a Catholic were to judge some papal definition heretical, wouldn’t this precisely be to rely on his own judgment rather than that of the Church?

But this objection rests on a crude misunderstanding of the notion of “private judgment.”  The Church has never claimed that we have no understanding at all of scripture, tradition, or past papal teaching apart from what the current pope happens to say about it.  And such a claim would be manifestly false.  You don’t need the pope to tell you, for example, that scripture teaches that God created the universe, that he made a covenant with Israel through Moses, that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and so on.  Non-Catholics no less than Catholics can know that much just from reading the Bible and noting how it has always been understood for millennia.  It’s not as if the text is just a bunch of unintelligible squiggles that we can make absolutely no sense of unless the current pope tells us: “This is what this squiggle means, this is what that squiggle means, etc.” 

What the Magisterium of the Church is needed for is to settle matters that go beyond what the text has always been understood to say – finer points of interpretation, implications for doctrinal controversies, applications to current problems, and so on.  For example, it is open to the Church to say: “This is what divine creation of the universe amounts to,” or “Here is the right way to reconcile this passage with that one.”  It is not open to the Church to say: “Actually, God did not create the universe after all,” or “It turns out that we’ve always been misunderstanding scripture when we took it to be saying that God created the universe.” 

To deny this would be to empty of all content the Church’s claim to her own infallibility.  It would be to say, out of one side of one’s mouth, that the Church always teaches in accord with scripture and tradition – but then, out of the other side, effectively to take this back by saying that if the Church ends up contradicting some teaching that has always been regarded as part of scripture and tradition, then it must not really have been part of scripture and tradition after all.  That would be an instance of what is known in logic as a “No true Scotsman” fallacy.  It would make the Church’s claim to infallibility unfalsifiable.

Furthermore, as I have shown at length elsewhere, the Church has always acknowledged that it can in some cases be legitimate respectfully to criticize popes, even on doctrinal matters.  The Church could not have done so if every criticism of papal teaching necessarily amounted to “private judgment.”

So, Scheeben is correct to hold that, if a pope were to try to define ex cathedra a claim like “Jesus of Nazareth was not the Son of God,” that would be a manifest heresy, and it would not amount to “private judgment” to say so.  On the contrary, it would be precisely to adhere, not to one’s own private judgment, but to what the Magisterium itself has in the past always insisted is irreformable teaching.

But now another objection to Scheeben’s thesis (or rather, the thesis he is entertaining) might arise.  For doesn’t this thesis itself also make the doctrine of papal infallibility unfalsifiable?  For doesn’t it amount to saying that popes always speak infallibly when making an ex cathedra pronouncement – but then going on to insist that if they do utter some error in what purports to be an ex cathedra pronouncement, it must not really have been an ex cathedra pronouncement after all?

But that is not in fact what Scheeben says.  What he says is that if a pope attempts to define ex cathedra some “notorious heresy,” then in that sort of case it would not amount to a genuine ex cathedra act but rather only to a failed attempt at such an act.  Again, he evidently has in mind cases where a pope would deny some doctrine that has manifestly been formally defined by the Church as irreformable doctrine (for example, the teaching that Jesus is the Son of God).  But Scheeben does not address cases where a pope might attempt to define ex cathedra some heresy that is not notorious or blatant, but more subtle.  And here, one might argue, is where the doctrine of papal infallibility might open itself to falsification even if one accepts the thesis discussed by Scheeben.

Here would be an example.  Suppose a pope were to attempt to make an ex cathedra definition like one of the following: “Using my full authority as successor of Peter and universal teacher of all the faithful, I hereby declare and define by a solemn and irrevocable decree that the death penalty is intrinsically evil,” or “Using my full authority as successor of Peter and universal teacher of all the faithful, I hereby declare and define by a solemn and irrevocable decree that same-sex sexual activity can be morally acceptable.” 

Such pronouncements would not contradict any past formal doctrinal definition – a previous ex cathedra papal pronouncement, a conciliar definition, or the like.  But they would manifestly contradict the clear and consistent teaching of scripture and of the ordinary magisterium of the Church for two millennia.  And the Church holds that scripture and the consistent teaching of the ordinary magisterium cannot be in error on a matter of faith or morals.  Hence, if a pope attempted to make an ex cathedra pronouncement of one of the kinds just described, he would clearly be teaching error.

Hence, I would say, if a pope were to make such a pronouncement, that would falsify the doctrine of papal infallibility.  And I am myself not inclined to agree with the thesis entertained by Scheeben either.  That is to say, I am inclined to say that, if a pope tried to define ex cathedra a “notorious heresy” like the claim that Jesus was not the Son of God, that too would falsify the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Since I have no doubt that that doctrine is true, I would predict that such a thing will never in fact happen.  The doctrine is falsifiable in the sense that it makes substantive empirical claims that can be tested against experience.  But it has passed every such test for two millennia, and will continue to do so.

Related posts:

When do popes teach infallibly?

Popes, heresy, and papal heresy

What counts as magisterial teaching?

The Church permits criticism of popes under certain circumstances

Aquinas on St. Paul’s correction of St. Peter

Papal fallibility

The error and condemnation of Pope Honorius

Can Pope Honorius be defended?


  1. Very interesting. Thank you. I'm not a Roman Catholic, and so don't believe in the doctrine, but I appreciate that one rarely finds a prominent and learned Roman Catholic discuss the various possibilities this clearly.

    One thing that struck me was your saying that certain positions would render the doctrine "unfalsifiable." But it does not strike me that unfalsifiability is a criterion of truth, in your (or my) epistemology. I think I get where you're going, and I entirely agree with your analysis, but I would be interested in hearing a little more detail on this fine point, should you be in the mood.


  2. Dr. Feser, it might be helpful to have included one or two historical examples Ex Cathedra pronouncements defining a Dogma, and quoting the specific language used in making these infallible pronouncements.

    1. There are two that almost all authors submit as instances of papal ex cathedra definitions:

      1. Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus:

      Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”[29]

      Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.

      2. Pope Pius XII, Munificentissumus Deus, 1950:

      For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

      Some people erroneously infer that because these two are universally cited, they are the only ones. That's nothing like correct, and most careful theologians allow more - some suggest 8 or 10, I have heard a suggestion of 17.

      I believe
      I believe
      that John Paul II, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 1994 provides a case that is even clearer than the two above:

      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, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), 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.

      The text of Vatican I that describes the conditions is:

      And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (Luke 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter.”

    2. I would greatly recommend Jimmy Akin's book "Teaching with authority" on this topic

  3. Thank you, Dr. Feser, this is a great post.

    Have you written about Dignitatis Humanae anywhere? That is a question that I've been struggling with a lot recently. It seems to me that papal condemnations of religious freedom were repeated often enough to fall under "Universal and Ordinary Magisterium." My understanding is that Dignitatis Humanae, as a declaration of a council, the key teaching of which has been repeated by a number of popes, is listed in the catechism, etc. would also fall under "Universal and Ordinary Magisterium." I've not yet read a persuasive argument about how to reconcile this, and I'm wondering what your take is.

    God bless,

    1. I have not written much on it, but I'd recommend the work of Thomas Pink. Google his articles on the subject at Public Discourse, for example.

    2. Pink does a great job in some areas, but his theory on Dignitatis Humanae is fraught with some serious doctrinal implausibilities. For instance, his theory implies that civil authority's capacities to act regarding religion, powers that arise due to natural law alone, (i.e. without supernatural writ granted by divine intervention) ceased to be operative over the entire world when Christ empowered the Apostles to rule the Church and by extension to constrain civil authority in certain matters. (And this applied even to civil authorities in China and the Americas, even though they would not hear of Christ for a thousand years.) In my opinion his theory also makes hash of Pope Leo XIII's dictum that God made both the civil authority and the ecclesiastical authority each to be supreme in its own proper sphere.

      I suggest that one point helps A LOT to resolve the apparent difficulty: the denunciations of religious freedom, especially those emanating from the period of Voltaire on to Pius X, were directed at a meaning of "religious freedom" that is excessively absolute, recognizing NO restraints at all. The condemnations in the Syllabus of Errors, for example, properly only condemn the specific phrasings of the error in the specific works listed, and (at least typically) the works listed had those outrageously absolute meanings to religious freedom. But that means that more restrained senses of religious freedom would not necessarily fall under the condemnation. E.G. a version that says the state may appropriately continue to outlaw "religious" child sacrifice.

      My suggested solution rests on where DH says

      Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

      I observe that "just public order" can be read narrowly or expansively, and I would read it expansively in the cases of Catholic states: in such a state, state-supported and promoted celebration of the Mass and of other religious ceremonies is PART OF "public order." Similarly, in such a state, the correct (natural law) observation that marriage is for life (and broadly) does not permit divorce from valid marriage.

      Similar results would not necessarily obtain for non-Catholic states as to their just order. I think that these conclusions fit into the older denunciations of religious freedom.

    3. Thanks. I've read a few articles by Pink and his argument is the most persuasive one I've read so far. But I'm still struggling with one passage of Dignitatis Humanae.

      Pink's argument, as I understand it, is that the Church once authorized civil authorities to suppress non-Catholic public worship. Civil authorities were essentially acting as agents of the Church by suppressing proselytism of false religions.

      Section 6 of Dignitatis Humanae states:

      "If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.
      Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens."

      This seems to pose a problem for Pink's argument, since DH is saying that a state should not act on behalf of a religious body to suppress or discriminate against (!) other faiths.


      God bless,

    4. Bellomy here.

      It looks to me like the document is talking about what is practical in current circumstances, not what is necessarily a matter of permanent or divine law. I'd read it in that light.

    5. since DH is saying that a state should not act on behalf of a religious body to suppress or discriminate against (!) other faiths.

      The revolutionaries following in the steps of Voltaire insist that everybody has a right to believe what they want , and rejects all limits on that freedom. DH says that "freedom" is protected for all...but also notes that such freedoms have limits. It lists one such: just public order.

      If a person has a right to believe whatever he wants, does he have the right to believe "I am free to go into the store and take the money"? Is he free to believe "I am Bill Gates, I can go to the bank and withdraw a billion dollars"? No, society can licitly say that it is going to "suppress" these beliefs if you try to act on them. Because they upset public order. More broadly, the state can act to suppress such errors as are patently and manifestly is contrary to reason, if (and to the extent) doing so is necessary for public order. The beliefs of crazy people - when not harmful and don't affect anyone else - we can tolerate, but if they harm others, we can intervene to inhibit actions that will harm others.

      Another area DH talks about limits is in disseminating your own religious beliefs: you have a right to do this...within certain limits, such as the limit of not using means and methods that are contrary to the rights of OTHERS to seek the truth. This entails, for example, that you don't have a right to lie to others in order to persuade them. (It also entails that you have a duty of due diligence of checking your facts when you make significant claims (such as the claim that Catholics worship Mary).) More broadly, DH notes that our right to freedom of thought rests on our reason and its teleological orientation to know (and to learn), and this implies that offenses against the rights of others to learn and to know can be suppressed.

      Limitations for the sake of just public order will have different practical implications for different social groups: e.g. college professors vs blue collar workers. And a Catholic society vs a pluralistic society.

    6. I should probably re-read Pink, it's been a while, but...

      Tony: "his theory implies that civil authority's capacities to act regarding religion, powers that arise due to natural law alone, (i.e. without supernatural writ granted by divine intervention) ceased to be operative over the entire world when Christ empowered the Apostles to rule the Church and by extension to constrain civil authority in certain matters."

      Really? How so? Doesn't Pink's argument refer to Catholic rulers, who are necessarily obligated in virtue of their solemn baptismal promises, to uphold the divine law revealed by God, which brooks no caveat "except when I'm acting as civil ruler"?

      Brian: "it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice."

      Okay, fine; but that leaves open the question, what exactly does 'religious freedom' mean/entail? It clearly doesn't (and couldn't) mean 'absolute freedom,' since that would entail an incoherent conflict of incompatible absolute freedoms, whereas real civil freedoms must be mutually limiting so as to form a defined, coherent whole, ordered towards a functional society. So a "recognition of religious freedom" in no way entails the impossibility of "discrimination against" certain religions or manifestations of religion (a point which is just common sense, if you think about it).

      Likewise, "equality of citizens before the law" leaves open the question of what exactly the law says. In particular, "equality of citizens" before the law does not entail "equality of religions" before the law (and indeed, any assertion of "equality of all religions before the law" is always and necessarily mere liberal-sophistical nonsense which abstracts from and ignores the substantive content of diverse real religions).

    7. Consider it this way, Brian: The just preservation of 'civil religious freedom' may precisely *require* suppression of or discrimination against 'absolute religious freedom.' (And this is true for any civil freedom.)

    8. Really? How so? Doesn't Pink's argument refer to Catholic rulers, who are necessarily obligated in virtue of their solemn baptismal promises, to uphold the divine law revealed by God, which brooks no caveat "except when I'm acting as civil ruler"?

      @ David

      I would have to go re-read a few articles to find the quotes that would apply even to non-Catholic rulers, and I don't have time, so let's take just the application to Catholic rulers for now.

      As I understand it, Pink's position entails that Catholic rulers were empowered by the Church to use state power (e.g. police powers) to arrest and punish those who were acting or teaching religious tenets contradictory to Catholic teaching. So a civil ruler would be using such empowerment to take direct action against a Luther 2.0 who publicly asserts doctrinal error. For my point, let us assume (largely consistent with typical historical examples) that in addition to pushing his own novel theories, Luther 2.0 also spouts false claims about what the Catholic Church teaches (like worshiping Mary). The Catholic ruler could (and would) use the force of the state to stop him teaching, including fines or imprisonment. Now, along comes the Church in 1965 and issues DH, which (based on Pink's framework) retracts the permission granted to (Catholic) civil authorities to restrain religious acts with the civil (police) powers. As a result, our current Catholic ruler no longer can use civil powers of force to stop Luther 2.0 even as to his publicly making false claims about what Catholic teaching says.

      For a more serious issue, let's raise the point often asserted in Medieval (and later) times, that a Roman Catholic who received confirmation (in addition to receiving sacramental grace) was also entering into a contractual obligation with the Church, by which he agreed to follow certain rules and be bound by certain constraints, among which were obligations to accept certain teachings, and not teach contrary ideas. As I understand Pink's notion, because of DH, a Catholic ruler is no longer permitted to enforce that contract with civil powers, even if not enforcing is harmful to the state in temporal concerns. In effect, (a) a person who publicly apostatizes has no contractual obligation any more, i.e. he can break the contract at will; and (this may be even more damaging in current affairs), (b) a person need not even publicly apostatize in order to be free to break the contract at will, because if the state were to try to enjoin compliance, he could simply apostatize to be free of the contract.

      It is of course highly problematic to affirm that a person may break a contract at will, without penalties, just because he had a change of heart. This eviscerates the idea of "contract", which is pretty darn important to civil order. On the other hand, we don't often want the state to enforce contract terms that neither contracting party requests to be enforced. The tension between these competing goods is unavoidably sticky, and an assumption that the latter necessarily trumps the former in all societies and for all situations is not the sort of thing that could be easily proven from natural law principles. One could imagine situations where one party's representative refuses to ask for enforcement of a contract out of malfeasance or grave neglect of his own proper duties in the state, in which a state might refuse to give credit to his lack of requesting that the contract be enforced.
      And one might imagine societies in which the state is automatically considered "another party" to contracts which can be enforced by state powers.

      In any case, DH on its own terms attempts to declare a kind of religious freedom right that obtains not because the Church has retracted permission for the state to act on her behalf, (a contingent condition), but because of the very nature of the human person.

    9. Tony: "In any case, DH on its own terms attempts to declare a kind of religious freedom right that obtains not because the Church has retracted permission for the state to act on her behalf, (a contingent condition), but because of the very nature of the human person."

      And this is your critique of Pink: you think that DH does this, but that Pink says it doesn't? (I'm not at all clear what you're getting at here.) What I've quoted above seems to me a very false framing of the issue(s). There is no question for Pink that there is "a kind of religious freedom right" grounded in "the very nature of the human person." The question is about the limits of that right, and the nature of the coercive remedies that may be rightly applied, and by what authority such remedies may be applied -- in keeping with the demands of divine revelation -- to those who abuse their legitimate right to religious freedom.

    10. DH, 3: "Furthermore, those private and public acts of religion by which people relate themselves to God from the sincerity of their hearts, of their nature transcend the earthly and temporal levels of reality. So the state, whose peculiar purpose it is to provide for the temporal common good, should certainly recognise and promote the religious life of its citizens. With equal certainty it exceeds the limits of its authority if it takes upon itself to direct or prevent religious activity."

      How many bishops informed the state (or their clergy, or the lay faithful) during corona lockdowns that the state was exceeding the limits of its authority by taking upon itself to prevent religious activity? Next to none. So at least as important as what DH actually means is the fact that in any case most bishops clearly don't believe it -- or, just as bad, they are too cowardly or indifferent to make any effort to uphold its claims.

  4. Hi Dr Feser (or all), where have you addressed the blessings for same-sex couples controversy? I'm interested in reading your take.

    1. Hi, check out:




  5. Dr. Feser,

    Could you address the topic of infallible safety at some point in the future? As I understand it, it’s the position that papal teaching which does not qualify as ex cathedra is still prevented from being heretical. Hence, even if the teaching is implicated in a lower level of error, it cannot be erroneous in such a way as to require one to assent to heresy and endanger their salvation.


  6. Very good post, Ed. The points that you made in the three paragraphs before the last one were what I was arguing for in the previous blog discussion on Pope Francis. I know that the Papal Infallibility doctrine of Vatican I affirmed that certain previous statements (such as that concerning the immaculate conception of Mary) as having been made ex cathedra, but there has only been one ex cathedra statement made since then, as far as I am aware.

  7. Like Ed, I don't cotton to Scheeben's theory. But instead of saying that such a hypothetical case "would falsify" infallibility, I prefer to reject the hypothesis and say that at least implicitly, the fullness of the doctrine of infallibility excludes this hypothetical, and there is no need to consider it viable. If we have to read the "doctrine" of infallibility as covering more territory than solely what is explicit in Pastor Aeternus, so be it: the Church existed for over 1900 years before that.

  8. Do you just have a folder full of topical comics panels or something?

  9. You say, that a heresy must be a matter that is defined. But in current canon law, it is actually more specific than that: "Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith" (i.e. a dogma). Two kinds of teachings are infallible: primary order aka dogmas, and secondary order of infallibility.

    1. Yes, there are actually several distinctions to be made about when someone can be called a heretic. Ed made one with the difference between material heresy (believing a wrong proposition X, but not knowing that the Church has taught the opposite, not-X) versus believing in X while knowing that the Church has taught not-X. But beyond that, there is a distinction between believing in X while knowing that the Church has taught not-X, and believing in X while knowing that the Church has taught not-X definitively. And then the difference in those acts of belief made interiorly, vs making your belief manifest by public statements. And the difference between public statements that show you probably believe X while you know the Church teaches otherwise, and statements that establish it with sufficient certainty for an ecclesiastical court to determine guilt. And then the difference between your HOLDING X, and your holding X obstinately in the face of direct abjuration that continuing to hold X is heresy and will result in penalties.

      Thus a person can have the interior guilt of the sin of heresy, without being able to be publicly charged and found guilty of the ecclesiastical crime of heresy as specified in law. Without noting these many distinctions, arguments about this usually get bogged down in opponents talking past each other.

  10. Its been quite a while since i read some social enciclicals, so perhaps the answer in the texts is obvious, but how about enciclicals like the ones condeming fascism and communism or pope Francis Laudato Si?

    Sure, the contingent historical circunstances and data mentioned on the texts can't be infalible, but how about the principes like the incompatibility of these ideologies and the faith or the necessity of caring for nature? I suppose that assent is necessary, of course, but are these views protected from error?

    Both communists and libertarians tend to just ignore some of these enciclicals, so i just have the doubt.

    1. Well, you first need to be clear about the kinds of things the particular ideologies make claims about.

      When a libertarian says that the free market is the most efficient allocation of resources, they are not making a moral or theological statement, so the repudiation of libertarianism as expressed in Rerum Novarum cannot be an infallible denouncement of that proposition. You can at the same time believe that the free market is efficient without believing that every market ought to be free.

      Similarly, a person could be convinced of the Marxist thesis that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is something that is going to happen without making a value judgement about whether or not it should. Further, in practical terms, many who identify with the label of "communist" do so because they identify with the critiques of particular injustices that occur in unregulated economies, not necessarily because they agree with all the proscriptions that Marx said about how to fix them. Many of those critiques are considered valid and acknowledged in Rerum Novarum and elsewhere.

      Basically what I'm getting at, since while economics has a moral component, it also has a scientific component, and since the Church cannot in principle make infallible statements about science, at best you're going to get a broad swath of acceptable opinions about how to go about achieving the kind of society that Catholic social teaching says we should be working towards.

    2. @Anon

      Your points are well taken, i agree that the Church can't give us the answers on the scientific questions, but i'am thinking of more philosophical ones.

      For instance, some catholic libertarians here affirm that the State is necessarily illegitimate and that any law is a violation of freedom. Some catholic marxists here say that there is no right to private property it is aways a injust legal fiction.

      Now, catholic social teaching clearly disagrees with views like these, but as i understand the infallibility doctrine, it could be a open question if these teachings are infallible or not in a way that teachings like Our Lord divinity or the reality of men free will are not.

    3. @Talmid

      I agree that those kinds of philosophical views are incompatible with Catholic social teaching. The only thing If add is that while something like Rerum Novarum doesn't seem to issue an infalliable declaration about those topics doesn't mean we have "wiggle room" to dissent. We get infallible doctrine other ways than papal fiat in pronouncements of ecumenical councils and (applicable here) the universal and consistent ordinary teaching of the church.

      I would say this topic is analogous to sexual teaching. I don't think there is an infallible declaration in Humanae Vitae, either.

    4. I see, good point there. It is true that these kinda of ideas are contrary to pretty much all of the teachings we got from the Church on the topics, so we can be sure they are not acceptable.

  11. This a great post. One thing is necessary to make it more complete. At the end you state: :the consistent teaching of the ordinary magisterium cannot be in error on a matter of faith or morals" This, I believe, was a short hand way of referring to that other source of infallible teaching: the " ordinary and universal magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world in communion with the Pope."

    This is the collective teaching of Bishops outside a council. All of the same criteria apply, they must be teaching authoritatively, on a matter of faith and morals, and they must be in agreement (moral unanimity) and they must agree on one position, and , here is the key, it also must be somehow indicated to be definitive. See Lumen Gentium 25; CIC 749, para 2. A good popular summary is found in Jimmy Akin's book at paragraph 458. An academic discussion by arguably the pre-eminent theologian in this area is in Chapter 7 of Creative Fidelity by Francis Sullivan. There is also an interesting discussion of this source of infallibility in John Joy's "On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium form Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council"(first edition, haven't read the second). Sullivan in particular thinks the "definitive" criteria could possibly be satisfied by the "consensus of theologians" based on the papal letter Tuas Libenter. Joy also discusses this. They both realize the problems with setting the parameters around a "constant" consensus of theologians across space and time. Also , both seem to initially interpret the key passage in Tuas Libenter in way that strikes me as the fallacy of "If A, then B; B, therefore A."

    Because this source is not going to be documented in a Papal document or a Conciliar decree , canon , or anathema , it has been called the undocumented magisterium.

    And this makes it difficult to establish that last criteria if one doesn't take into account the problematic evidence of the constant consensus of theologians which has its own evidentiary problems . Often Traditionalists will point to a common teaching that has been taught by Bishops for centuries. Although this is important and necessary for the above criteria, it is not sufficient. Somehow, in their manner of teaching there must be some characterization of the teaching as definitive , or unchangeable, or irreformable, or permanent or something along those lines. It is not sufficient that that the Church has taught something for a very long time. I further note that "No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident". CIC 749, para 3. So this always puts the burden of proof on those asserting a prior or current doctrine has been defined infallibly. Making it even harder to make the case where the dispersed bishops are without conciliar decrees etc which can more easily satisfy this requirement that it be manifest.
    That does NOT mean , the Church should just recklessly overturn a teaching that has been authoritative although not definitive. But that is for another discussion.

    1. Todd, great comment. I have not had the opportunity to get the sources you mentioned, so if you can pull out a few quotes, that would be even better.

      I have a few comments to propose slight adjustments:

      they must be teaching authoritatively, on a matter of faith and morals, and they must be in agreement (moral unanimity) and they must agree on one position, and , here is the key, it also must be somehow indicated to be definitive.

      I submit that precisely because an individual bishop, acting in his own diocese, does not enjoy the charism of infallibility, he cannot pronounce a teaching "definitively" in the sense that papal ex cathedra definitions and conciliar dogmatic definitions are "definitive". By the very nature of the case, he cannot.

      However, he CAN state his teachings firmly as "to be held", i.e. in a manner that clearly requires assent. This must, I think be the sense intended by Lumen Gentium 25. If all the other bishops teach the same thing in the same manner, THEN it becomes an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium, but it becomes infallible on account of the universal agreement of their teachings, NOT on account of the firmness of their separate teaching acts. Thus it is the Holy Spirit guiding the many to act concertedly (while apart) that manifests the divine protection of the content that they taught.

      In my opinion, in the ideal this should not be called "definitive", neither the content itself, nor the individual acts of the bishops so teaching, precisely because it CANNOT have the same character as an act of extraordinary infallible definition by pope or council. It would become definitive content when it is confirmed as "definitively to be held" by a pope or council, in a specific act made at a specific time, a dogmatic definition. But to call it definitive before that is to obscure the meaning of "definition" in all of the "definitive" pronouncements. The singular character of infallible teachings of the ordinary magisterium is that they are infallible even though one cannot possibly state the exact moment they became infallibly taught. And therefore there is, (of practical necessity), a period of time during which it is rightly held to be probably taught infallibly, but not "definitively" so.

    2. Often Traditionalists will point to a common teaching that has been taught by Bishops for centuries. Although this is important and necessary for the above criteria, it is not sufficient.

      Actually, I don't believe this is "necessary". What is essential is the unanimity of the bishops. If, at one particular time, ALL of the bishops teach X in the manner required, it is by that fact part of the ordinary magisterium taught infallibly. So, if all of the bishops in the year 200 had done so, whereas in the year 100 not all of the bishops taught it, the fact that the entire history of the Church was less than 175 years, that would not prevent the teaching from becoming infallible in the year 200.

      And infallibility from unanimous agreement only goes one way: once agreed, always an infallible teaching. This is, I think, a necessary implication of the very category of "infallible teaching". So, if all of the bishops of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries agreed and taught X doctrine as to be held firmly, a later group of heretical bishops rebelling against X can't "undo" the infallible status of the teaching by their LACK of unanimity with prior bishops.

      From the many bits and pieces I have read over the years, I surmise that constancy over time also plays an important role, but does so in a unique way. The requirement of universality is not meant to entail that kind of completeness that includes every single bishop throughout the world. Even in an ecumenical council, there can be a few hold-outs who vote no on a decree, but the decree is still affirmed by the vast majority and is pronounced infallibly. More to the point: other than for the half-dozen basic truths that they have to teach every year, not every single bishop in the world is likely to even say anything at all about a specific teaching - especially not for the ideas that are narrower or deal with more refined concepts. And some bishops are sick, or aged, and so on, and some maybe never committed their ideas to paper, so we can't check on their being part of the consensus. I think that the intention of the passage in LG is that of practical unanimity - which allows for the kinds of gaps of some bishops never mentioning X in their letters or books, and even of a handful of bishops whose ideas are squirrelly on the topic. Taking account of the bishops over the ages greatly expands the number of bishops who can be consulted on the matter, and allows for the unanimity of those who spoke out on X topic to speak louder than the bishops of any one moment in time. Suppose during the 2nd through 10th centuries, 60% of the bishops of each separate period taught X as to be firmly held, and included X in their writings, and no bishops spoke out against it. Even though at no one specific time would you have an overwhelming percentage of the bishops who had explicitly taught X, the overwhelming concensus created by that vast multitude of bishops (always at each moment a majority), with no dissent being known, would (I think) represent the kind of unanimity that satisfies the criteria.

      But there is no specific period of time that one can say is always sufficient for that result. There are too many variables and nuances. This is the stuff of prudence, not of scientific precision.

    3. I wonder if the "consistent teaching of the ordinary magiaterium" which cannot be in error on matter of faith and morals is more clearly formulated as "the consistent ordinary teaching of the magisterium as passed down from the Apostles." I think that reframing helps ground what the teaching actually is saying and why it ought to be considered infallible in the first place. Christ started his Church off with correct doctrines, even if the way they were formulated originally is not as formalized and systematized as we prefer to think of things today.

      In this way, the passage of time does indeed help us see that a particular teaching of the ordinary magisterium is a definitive moral teaching because the passage of time helps us see that a teaching is in fact a universally applicable moral principle when it is reiterated in different situations and contexts.

    4. Tony - Thank you and I can see the problem you helpfully point out. Another way to deal with it is that even if a Bishop (or a couple Bishops) use language such a "definitively or unchangeable or equivalent" - that is not sufficient - you need a consensus what Akin would call a moral unanimity . Across time (constant) and space. Absent that the 1 or 2 Bishops are teaching "authoritatively" in their dioceses and their teaching should be given religious submission of will and intellect (with all the allowances for inability to assent under certain conditions including not making appeals through media). Your other points are well taken too. Yes this source of infallible teaching is a bit of quagmire the more you get into it and prudence is required - more of an art than a science as you say. I think it should be resorted to with caution - far less than it is in the social media commentariat than it is today. Especially when you consider the burden of proof to establish a definitive, irreformable teaching. I would type out some long quotes from Sullivan but just don't have the time right now. Sullivan certainly has a perspective (and isn't infallible :-)) but the book has rigor and is well worth it. Jimmy's is amazingly good for a popular work. In fact, I found it more helpful in some ways than Cardinal Dulles book which I also read. The other heavyweight in this area is Galliardetz who I have not read.

    5. I have thought the same thing. IIRC, however, apparently it is actually quite difficult to trace either the assumption of Mary or the immaculate conception actually to the Apostles ( I can't remember which, off hand). In effect, it runs into the difficulty of ascertaining how far a tradition goes back, when the very point of "tradition" is that it might not be written down in a record that can be attributed and dated.

      I am not well read on these particular points, so if there is something on point, I would love to hear of it.

  12. We need an Inquisition to root out heresy and unbelief. We need a church militant

    1. We need a new Peter. Douglas Farrow writes:

      'Were Peter himself to be returned to us and take his own chair in St Peter’s, I fancy he would read to us his second epistle, supplemented perhaps by a few reflections on Acts 5, and then act accordingly. “The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God, and if it begins with us…” (2 Pet. 4:17). He would probably dismantle a good deal of the Vatican machinery, not being content with John Paul II’s disposal of the sedia gestatoria. He would certainly drive out from his own house (as John Paul II did not or could not) those “who secretly bring in destructive heresies” and those who “have hearts trained in greed” or “entice unsteady souls” (2 Pet. 2:1ff.), even if he had to appeal to God to use a “speechless donkey” to get the job done.'

      (From Farrow's "The conversion of the papacy and the present Church crisis.")

      I appreciate Feser's present piece and I truly don't mean to be dismissive, but I wonder if too much focus on infallibility isn't haggling over minutiae, while the real spiritual battle rages elsewhere.

  13. I would say that all the distinctions made here don't make it easy. Traditionally, it was always understood that the ordinary magisterium, although not infallible, was reliable enough to keep the faithful out of all such error as would endanger their eternal salvation. This was a sentence de fide in the pre-Vatican II manuals of theology. Nowadays this position is completely shattered. Nobody can simply follow his pastors, because the danger to be led completely astray is overwhelwing. So it doesn't help much to explain the fine print on the extra-ordinary magisterium at all, for simple Catholics don't know about these distinctions. The ordinary magisterium must be trustworthy (although not infallible), or the Church is done.

    1. Mt 18:6.

      (Also, as JPII pointed out, the Marian dimension of the Church supersedes the Petrine.)

  14. Is there a name for the view that if a pope attempted to teach ex cathedra a recognized heresy , he would lose his office, and be excommunicated? That would preserve the doctrine of papal infallibility, because he would no longer be pope.

    1. I will suggest "removal by the law itself" (canon 194). As Douglas Farrow writes:

      "Now, it will be pointed out that there is no canonical process for passing judgment on a pope; indeed, that there is no earthly court in which such judgment can be passed. To which two responses may be made: First, the process of which we are speaking is not a juridical one, and could never become such without a change in canon law. A pope can resign, but he cannot be removed from office by his brethren; he can only be removed “by the law itself” (canon 194), that is, by reason of having “publicly defected from the Catholic faith or from the communion of the Church.” Second, if the process, which is a personal and collegial one, were unsuccessful at its private stage, it would likely lead either to resignation or to the appearance of some formal heresy that would bring canon 194 into play. That this, or some still sadder or more troubling outcome, can be imagined is no reason for refusing the Pauline duty, to shirk which is to leave the faith itself at risk."
      (From his piece "The Francis Reformation.")

    2. Thanks for your helpful reply. You may in fact have quoted the piece where I initially saw this position explained.

  15. If the rule of prayer informs the rule of faith(lex orandi, lex credendi), then one should be able to easily point to where, in public prayer, every faith requirement is prayed by the clergy and laity. That they pray the same thing together over the course of the liturgical cycle is how anyone knows what those who pray together actually believe, to be honestly in communion with each other , and in particular for Latin Rite Catholics to be in honest communion with the Bishop of Rome. That there are precious few - if any - clear prayers related to the authority of and limits thereto of the Bishop of Rome tells this observer that Latin Rite Catholics don't really believe in common anything about the Pope, and that all the keystrokes spent above and elsewhere over the centuries is just speculation and opinion - and certainly nothing remotely necessary as a faith requirement for salvation. If you don't pray it, how can anyone tell that you believe it?

    1. Lex is translated as "law, " not "rule."

    2. To the Anonymous (whose name is likely "Stephen")

      Which communion, in public prayer, regularly and identifiably prays the prayers in which it professeses that every faith requirement has to be prayed by the clergy and laity in public prayer?

      If you can't answer this question affirmatively (I can't, FWIW), perhaps you should reconsider reading stuff into the formula quoted above (which AFAIK nobody revelant actually understood in this sense)?

  16. The fact that the ordinary magistery is not infallible does not mean that it can contain constant anti-Christian teachings (calling them "heresies" would be an understatement), because the ordinary magistery has some protection from God. It is not something like the gibberish from a drunkard.

    Having a"Pope" that contradicts basic doctrines of the faith, even engaging on acts of idolatry and contradicting Jesus in proselytism and marriage does not prove that bergoglio is not Pope per se. But it is a sign that something is terribly wrong and this possibility cannot be discarded. We are not talking about a Pope being heretic in private.

    We are not talking about a Pope who is heretic on private, but a constant and public flow of apostasy, including the declaration about God wanting
    the plurality of religions or the Old Covenant being still valid for the Jews.

    I know that every new "crime" from Francis produces a new round of rationalizations, which are more and more convoluted because Francis is more and more daring so their actions are more and more anti-Christian. But he is more and more extreme because he knows that everything would be rationalized.

    When enough is enough? It is coming to the point that Bergoglio will proclaim "God does not exist" and people will say: it is not ex cathedra.

    Sometimes, if it walks like a non-Christian and endlessly quacks like a non -Christian, the guy could be non-Christian after all and hence not Pope. Not because quacking is a Aquinas-level proof but it is a sign that there may be some proof.

    While he is destroying the Church and the doctrine, we are debating the sex of the angels.

    1. In War and Peace Tolstoy argued that is was a mistake to think Napoleon was 'the cause' of the Napoleonic conquest of Europe, as if it wasn't also every single individual who joined in and fought for him that was also 'the cause.' Likewise, "he is destroying the Church" isn't completely lacking in truth, but it's probably more realistic to think of Francis as a symptom, or a tool -- and one who is indeed, like the diversity of religions, permitted by God in his providential wisdom -- more than as 'the cause.'

  17. As others have asked innumerable times: Why can't he allow those craving souls to have their reverent, doctrinally sound, spiritually comforting, and restorative Masses?

    Well, we know the answer. It's just not what he's peddling.

    It is quite reasonable that he should wonder aloud if he is the man to provoke a schism in the Church: as he essentially leaves those who take the historic faith of the Church or the teachings received in their youth seriously, squeezed into a place where they have no choice but to virtually apostatize along with him, or distance themselves from Sodom.

    In a sense then, the sexual scandals and abominations rampant and tolerated, excused and uncorrected in the institutional or bureaucratic Church, are, in one sense, a welcome indicator for the perplexed faithful.

    The institutionalized tolerance of these abominations cannot be reconciled as consistent with the faith of the Apostles.

    There is a great deal that can be passed off as a matter of Christian pastoral emphasis. The sly-eyed blessing of putrid abominations cannot.

    At some point, if the course is not corrected, the choice will be Catholicism the Husk, or Jesus and the Apostolic tradition.

    The perverts in the sanctuary, constitute the bright line.

    1. What is your religious affiliation DNW? It is obvious from your numerous contributions that you are not a Catholic, or even a Christian, but you are still deeply perturbed emotionally by events occuring within this religion. Why is this?

    2. Anonymous
      March 12, 2024 at 12:53 AM
      What is your religious affiliation DNW? It is obvious from your numerous contributions that you are not a Catholic, or even a Christian, but you are still deeply perturbed emotionally by events occuring within this religion. Why is this?"


      Pony up with a consistent ID over a substantial number of contributions; provide us with your own bona fides regarding your religious or philosophical investments; and then, deliver a good reason why I should humor your request, when all persons of any consequence here who expressed any interest in the question, have already seen my comment on that issue some months ago.

      So, until then, quit your puling, shove off, and look it up for yourself.

    3. That was tough, wow!

  18. Hi Ed. Thanks for an interesting post. You argue that (i) Popes are infallible only when they are issuing a final decision on a doctrine that is to be held by all the faithful; and (ii) if a Pope were to attempt to define a doctrine that ran contrary to the "clear and consistent teaching of scripture and of the ordinary magisterium of the Church for two millennia," then that would falsify the doctrine of papal infallibility.

    With regard to (i), which papal statements do you think qualify as final decisions on doctrine, to be held by all the faithful? Depending on which theological authority you consult, the number varies from 2 to 7 (Klaus Schatz) to 15 (Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique) - and that's not counting canonizations.

    Some people say it doesn't matter how many papal dogmas there are, because they are dwarfed by the number of dogmas defined infallibly by ecumenical councils. Rev. Joseph Horn has a list of 255 Infallibly Declared Dogmas of the Catholic Faith plus 102 Certain Truths Not Yet Defined by the Magisterium, over at http://holyjoe.org/dogmas.pdf . As far as I can tell, it's based on Dr. Ludwig Ott's "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma."

    But things are not as simple as that, because you maintain in (ii) that even if the Pope attempted to issue a dogma that contradicted the Church's infallible ordinary magisterium, that would falsify the doctrine of papal infallibility, too. However, there's no list of doctrines which make up the Church's infallible ordinary magisterium, and theologians disagree as to which doctrines it includes. For instance, is monogenism on the list? [Few theologians defend this doctrine nowadays.] What about limbo for unbaptized infants? [Pope Benedict XVI didn't seem to think this should be on the list.] What about the permissibility of capital punishment? [John Finnis would disagree with you here.] What about the intrinsic wrongness of contraception within marriage? [There seems to be general agreement that marital rape constitutes an exception to this rule, as it's not really a marital act; but what about women exposed to the Zika virus?] (By the way, I notice that none of these doctrines is on either of Fr. Horn's lists.)

    I conclude that the doctrine of papal infallibility remains unclear on a number of key points. Cheers.

  19. Well, do you accept Catholic jurisprudence? It says there are different grades of law. Canon Law, insofar as it does not refer to eternal law, natural law or divine law is human law. Now it also teaches that lower law cannot contravene higher law. As I understand it, it is a matter of divine law that a formal heretic is ipso facto not a member of the Church.

    Now being legally declared a heretic is not what it means to be a formal heretic. All it takes to be a formal heretic is to know what the Church truly teaches, to know that the Church is the true Church and to persevere in the heresy anyway. Those who insist that someone has to legally declare it are saying that it is possible for humans to contravene divine law, that someone can ontologically be a heretic and not lose membership because humans are too lazy or scared to declare anything.