Bellarmine Forums

Infallibility in the Encyclicals (Fenton)
Page 1 of 1

Author:  Mike [ Sun Dec 24, 2006 9:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Infallibility in the Encyclicals (Fenton)

(The following is taken from the American Ecclesiastical Review, March, 1953, pages 177-198, published by the Catholic University of America Press. This is an exact reproduction of the text, and any emphasis in the text is from the original.)


Cardinal Louis Billot was certainly one of the greatest ecclesiologists of the generation just past. There are many who consider him the ablest writer on the treatise de ecclesia since the time of the Vatican Council. Fr. Joachim Salaverri, of the Jesuit faculty of theology in the Pontifical Institute of Comillas in Spain, holds very much the same position in the theological world of the mid-twentieth century that Cardinal Billot occupied in that of fifty years ago.

In general, the scientific tendencies manifest in Fr. Salaverri’s work are much the same as those that appeared in the writings of his distinguished predecessor. In several instances, the teaching of Fr. Salaverri actually appears as a legitimate and laudable development of the doctrine set forth in Billot’s volumes on the Church. Yet, on one important and highly practical point, their opinions are diametrically opposed. That point is the statement of the exact doctrinal value of teaching presented explicitly, unconditionally and directly in papal encyclical letters.

Thus it is the contention of Fr. Salaverri that “in doctrinal encyclical letters directed to the entire Catholic world, the doctrine which is taught assertive et principaliter is rightly proposed by theologians as something which must be held simpliciter as doctrina catholica.(1)

I have retained some of the key Latin terms in this statement by Fr. Salaverri because of their importance for any accurate understanding of his teaching. Thus a doctrine which is taught assertive is obviously something set forth unconditionally, without qualification. I make an assertion when I state that something is true. It is not an assertion, not a declaration made assertive, when I say that it would seem that something is true, or that it is not safe to hold that it is untrue. In other words, the assertion is the form in which a man ordinarily expresses a certain and definitive, as distinct from a merely opinionative or tentative judgment.

In its context, the word “principaliter” carries a two-fold meaning. A doctrine taught principaliter in a papal encyclical letter is one which the Holy Father manifestly intended to bring out in this document. It is thus something set forth data opera, and not as a mere obiter dictum. Moreover, it is the meaning primarily signified or expressed in any given statement, as distinct from the more or less immediate inferences which may legitimately be drawn from that declaration.

So it is that, according to Fr. Salaverri, the immediate, certain, and direct context of a teaching, set forth in definitive form by the Holy Father in one of his doctrinal encyclical letters, is rightly designated as simpliciter doctrina catholica.

Now, Fr. Salaverri has included two different definitions of doctrina catholica in his treatise on the Catholic Church. As he explains it, doctrina catholica in the strict sense of the term (stricte), is “that which the universal magisterium teaches in a merely authoritative manner (mere authentice), by an act which is of true doctrinal authority but which does not exclude the possibility of error.”(2) Catholic doctrine in genere, on the other hand, is “that which is taught by the universal magisterium either infallibly or in a merely authoritative manner.”(3)

It seems obvious that what Fr. Salaverri means by doctrina catholica simpliciter is identical with that which he designates as doctrina catholica stricte. Thus, he actually teaches that what the Popes set forth as direct and unconditional assertions in their encyclical letters must be accepted by Catholics as authoritative but definitely not as infallible doctrine.

Cardinal Billot, on the other hand, took an entirely different view of the matter. He held that the ex cathedra definition, described by the Vatican Council, is not the only kind of declaration in which the Holy Father exercises his charism of infallibility.

He sedulously distinguished two different kinds of acts of pontifical magisterium. One kind, of course, is the ex cathedra definition or declaration, which is always protected by the charism of doctrinal infallibility. The other kind are not definitions in the strict sense of the term, according to the Cardinal, because they do not contain any new dogmatic judgment. He found examples of this latter sort of pontifical doctrinal statement “in very many encyclicals of recent Pontiffs, wherein, exercising their apostolic function, they expound Catholic doctrine, but not as issuing definitions, that is, not as bringing in a new doctrinal judgment, but rather as instructing the faithful in those things that are in the preaching of the Church, the column and foundation of the truth.” He adds, however, that “although it would seem entirely beyond doubt (nullatenus dubitandum) that the Pontiffs are infallible in documents of this kind which are sent to the universal Church (and certainly with regard to what is said in them directe et per se, as has been said in like manner elsewhere), still we cannot find in these that locutio ex cathedra which the Vatican Council has in mind.”(4)

Objectively, then, it seems clear that what Cardinal Billot means by the teaching presented directe et per se in the papal encyclical letters is completely identical with what Fr. Salaverri describes as brought out assertive et principaliter in these same documents. Cardinal Billot regards it as quite certain that the Sovereign Pontiff acts infallibly in proposing such statements. Fr. Salaverri, on the other hand, seems to consider it unquestionable that, in expressing these judgments, the Popes are acting authoritatively but not infallibly. It is, I believe, a matter of vital importance that our theologians today should take steps to see which of these two great authors is in the right on this particular subject.

The process of investigation should not be overly difficult. There are certainly plenty of doctrinal encyclicals available for study, and we have no lack of norms for use in distinguishing the infallible teaching of the Sovereign Pontiff from that portion of his doctrinal message which is truly authoritative without being infallible in character. Yet, as far as the encyclical letters and certain other utterances of the Holy Father’s own ordinary magisterium are concerned, it is only all too clear that not great corporate effort has yet been made to apply these norms, and to try to see what is and what is not infallible in the doctrinal content of these documents.

Most of the time it would seem that the existence or the non-existence of infallible teaching in the encyclical letters has been treated as an assumption rather than a conclusion. Thus, considering only the examples of the two theologians whom we have already cited in the course of this article, Fr. Salaverri seems merely to assume that what is asserted directly in encyclical letters is authoritative and non-infallible in character, while Cardinal Billot seems likewise only to assume that in making these statements the Holy Father exercises his charism of infallibility. Each presents his opinion on this subject only incidentally.

Cardinal Billot states his belief in the course of his examination of the elements included by the Vatican Council in its explanation of an ex cathedra pronouncement. Fr. Salaverri, on the other hand, brings his opinion on the subject into his explanation of the thesis that “an internal and religious assent of the mind is due to the doctrinal decrees of the Holy See which have been authentically approved by the Roman Pontiff.” Neither theologian offers anything like an adequate and direct backing for his own view on the relation of infallible teaching to the encyclical letters.

Nevertheless, if we examine the pertinent theological literature, we shall find that there are certain truths and assumptions which are more or less tacitly considered as arguments against the existence of infallible teaching in the encyclical letters. It goes without saying, of course, that we are concerned here with the infallibility or non-infallibility or statements which are made authoritatively only in the encyclicals themselves, or in some other document of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium. It is obvious that, should the Holy Father, in one of his encyclicals, quote some definition of an oecumenical council or some dogmatic definition proposed by himself or by one of his predecessors in the Roman Pontificate, he is uttering an infallibly true statement. Quite manifestly, a previous infallible definition of the Church loses nothing of its infallible character through being quoted in an encyclical letter or in some other utterance of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium. The point at issue was and remains the question as to whether a statement contained in an encyclical letter, and proposed in an authoritative manner in no other document of the Church’s magisterium, can be accepted as not only authoritative but infallible in character.

What may be considered as the principal arguments militating against the existence of such infallible teachings in the encyclical letters can, I believe be summed up under these four headings:

1) The encyclicals are documents of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium, and the Holy Father does not exercise his charism of infallible doctrinal decision in the ordinary magisterium.
2) The Holy Father teaches infallibly only when he speaks ex cathedra, and the encyclical letters are not ex cathedra documents.
3) The Holy Father has the power to speak authoritatively in doctrinal matters without using his charism of infallibility, and the encyclical letters are documents in which he speaks in this way.
4) The Code of Canon Law states explicitly that “nothing is understood to be declared or defined dogmatically unless this be manifestly certain,” and what is stated only in encyclical letters is not manifestly and certainly defined in a dogmatic manner.

It is my belief that even a brief examination of these arguments will actually bring out rather serious evidence in support of the very thesis against which they are generally employed. Fundamentally none of them gives any adequate ground for the teaching that the encyclicals do not contain statements which must be accepted as infallibly true on the authority of the encyclicals themselves.

First of all, there is the question of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium. Interestingly enough, Fr. Salaverri does not base his position on any denial of the possibility of infallible teaching within the compass of the Pope’s ordinary doctrinal activity. He teaches clearly and firmly that the Holy Father can teach infallibly in his ordinary, as well as in his solemn or extraordinary, magisterium.(5)

It is interesting to note, incidentally, that there are some theologians who hold that an ex cathedra definition, the kind of declaration which the Vatican Council described in its definition of the Holy Father’s doctrinal infallibility, is necessarily a solemn or extraordinary doctrinal act.(6) Cardinal Billot and Fr. Salaverri, strangely enough, agree on this point.(7) They likewise agree, moreover, that the Holy Father can teach infallibly other than in an ex cathedra declaration.(8) They differ in that Cardinal Billot includes what is taught explicitly and directly in encyclical letters within the compass of this infallible but not ex cathedra teaching, while Fr. Salaverri definitely excludes this material.

Now one very serious argument that has been alleged against the possibility of infallible teaching within the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium has been taken from the text of the encyclical letter Humani generis itself. The now-famous twentieth paragraph of that document has been interpreted in such a way as to make it seem to exclude the possibility of infallible teaching in the ordinary papal magisterium, or at least in the encyclical letters.

The Latin text of this paragraph reads as follows:
Neque putandum est, ea quae in Encyclicis Litteris proponuntur, assensum per se non postulare, cum in iis Pontifices supremam sui Magisterii potestatem non exerceant. Magisterio enim ordinario haec docentur, de quo illud etiam valet: “Qui vos audit, me audit” (Luc. 10:16); ac plerumque quae in Encyclicis Litteris proponuntur et inculcantur, iam aliunde ad doctrinam catholicam pertinent. Quodsi Summi Pontifices in actis suis de re hactenus controversa data opera sententiam ferunt, omnibus patet rem illam, secundum mentem ac voluntatem eorumdem Pontificum, quaestionem liberae inter theologos disceptationis iam haberi non posse.(9)

The English translation of the Humani generis issued by the NCWC renders the first part of the paragraph as: “Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: ‘He who heareth you, heareth me.’…”(10)

In the brilliant paper which he read to the sixth annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Detroit in 1951, Fr. Edmond D. Benard noted that the NCWC translation takes no cognizance or the word “etiam” in the second sentence of the paragraph in question, and went on to say that “The obvious sense of the Holy Father is that even though the Ordinary Magisterium is not the supreme exercise of the Teaching Power, to the Ordinary Magisterium also may be applied the words, ‘He who heareth you, heareth me.’”(11)

If we are to retain the commonly accepted teaching that the supreme apostolic doctrinal power of the Sovereign Pontiff is exercised only and always in one of his infallible doctrinal statements, then it would certainly appear that Dr. Benard interprets the text of Humani generis as denying the existence of infallible doctrinal declarations or decisions in the documents of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium. Such an interpretation, however, seems to be based ultimately on two presumptions, neither of which can easily be verified. In the first place, this interpretation rests apparently on the assumption that, in the first sentence of the twentieth paragraph in the Humani generis, the “cum” clause expresses actual Pontifical teaching. In the second place, it depends upon the belief that the word “etiam” distinguishes the “magisterium ordinarium” of the second sentence from the “suprema Magisterii potestatem” of the previous sentence.

It would seem that the grammatical structure of the first sentence and the mentality of the encyclical itself both militate against the probability that the “cum” clause in this sentence is to be taken as an expression of the teaching of the Holy Father himself. This first sentence is, in effect, an order, manifestly forbidding the faithful to hold a definite belief. The forbidden tenet is either one of two things. It is simply “the things proposed in the encyclicals do not demand assent of themselves,” or it is the complete statement that “the things proposed in encyclical letters do not demand assent of themselves because the Popes do not employ their supreme doctrinal power in these documents.”

If the “cum” clause had been put between “neque” and “putandum,” the first and second words of the opening sentence, then that clause would manifestly have been the expression of papal teaching. Then it would have been unmistakably clear that the Holy Father intended to say that he does not use the supreme power of his teaching authority in writing encyclical letters. But when the clause is placed, as it actually has been, at the end of the sentence, it can at least equally well be interpreted, not as an expression of Pontifical teaching, but rather as a part of the statement which the encyclical condemns.

Incidentally, the official Italian translation of the Humani generis, published in the same issue of L’ Osservatore Romano in which the Latin text itself first appeared, supports this last interpretation. It renders the word “cum” in the first sentence of the twentieth paragraph of this encyclical with the expression “colpretesto.”(12) The Vatican translator himself obviously considered the “cum” clause not as an expression of the Holy Father’s own teaching, but rather as a part of the statement which the document forbade the faithful to hold.

It must be observed, however, that the Humani generis certainly does not mean to condemn, and must not be interpreted as condemning, the notion that the Popes do not exercise their supreme doctrinal authority in the encyclical letters. This condemnation affects the statement only as a reason alleged by some Catholics as an explanation of their failure to accept teachings contained in the encyclicals on the authority of the encyclicals themselves. The Humani generis says nothing, one way or another, about the truth or falsity of this statement considered in itself. It is impossible to prove either the existence or the non-existence of infallible teachings in the encyclical letters from the text of Humani generis.

There is likewise serious reason to believe that the word “also,” in the second sentence of this twentieth paragraph, is not used to set the notion of the ordinary papal magisterium apart from that of the supreme power of the papal teaching authority. In the official documents of the Church itself, as well as in the literature of Catholic theology, the ordinary magisterium of the Church and of the Sovereign Pontiff is customarily mentioned as something distinct from the solemn or extraordinary teaching activity. It is at least quite probable that such is the meaning intended here in the text of the Humani generis. It is surely as likely that the encyclical means to say that, in the ordinary magisterium as well as in the solemn, the words of Our Lord find valid application, as it is that this document implies that these words are true with respect to the ordinary magisterium as well as with reference to the exercise of the supreme pontifical doctrinal authority. Thus the twentieth paragraph of the Humani generis does not support a denial of infallible teaching in the encyclical letters.

The second reason commonly alleged against the existence of infallible teaching in the papal encyclicals is founded on the two-fold contention that the Holy Father speaks infallibly only when he issues a definition or declaration ex cathedra and that a statement in a papal encyclical cannot be an ex cathedra pronouncement.

Both Cardinal Billot and Fr. Salaverri oppose the first of these statements. Both are convinced that there are infallible doctrinal statements issued by the Holy Father which do not lend themselves to classification as ex cathedra judgments. It is in line with this conviction that Cardinal Billot was willing to admit the existence of infallible teachings in the papal encyclicals, which he did not consider to be ex cathedra documents.

Yet a good number of theologians hold firmly that there is no such thing as an infallible pontifical statement which is not an ex cathedra pronouncement.(13) To me it seems that their position is absolutely correct. Moreover, I do not believe that the Vatican Council’s description of an ex cathedra pronouncement in any way excludes the possibility of such a statement in an encyclical letter or in any other act of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium.

The description of the ex cathedra definition is to be found in the Council’s solemn declaration of the dogma of papal infallibility.

…We teach, and we define it to be a divinely revealed dogma, that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, exercising his function as pastor and teacher of all Christians, he defines on his supreme apostolic authority a doctrine about faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, enjoys, through the divine assistance promised to him in the Blessed Peter, that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished his Church to be equipped in defining doctrine about faith or morals; and that therefore the definitions of the same Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not by reason of consent of the Church.(14)

Thus, according to the teaching of the Vatican Council itself, the Holy Father speaks infallibly when he issues a definition ex cathedra, and he issues a definition ex cathedra when the following conditions are verified:

A. He speaks in his capacity as the ruler and teacher of all Christians.
B. He uses his supreme apostolic authority.
C. The doctrine on which he is speaking has to do with faith and morals.
D. He issues a certain and definitive judgment on that teaching.
E. He wills that this definitive judgment be accepted as such by the universal Church.

There are many excellent theologians today who tend to believe, with Cardinal Billot and Fr. Salaverri, that the Vatican Council’s description of an utterance ex cathedra only applies to a solemn or extraordinary act of the Holy Father’s magisterium, and who are convinced, as a result, that the above description could never fit any teaching set forth in one of the papal encyclicals. Yet even a brief examination of the various elements which the Vatican Council noted as characteristic of an ex cathedra papal statement will, I think, serve to show that there is inherent weakness in this position.

Obviously the first of these conditions is fulfilled in the encyclical letters. These are documents which the Sovereign Pontiff sends out to the episcopate of the Church universal either directly or indirectly. Most of the encyclicals are, as a matter of fact, sent directly to the Catholic episcopate of the entire world. Others, those sent to the episcopate of one country or region, are promptly entered into the Acta of the Holy Father, and are thus indirectly sent, as normative documents, to the faithful of the entire world.

The same, it should be noted, can be said of those allocutions and other papal instructions, which, though primarily directed to some individual or group of individuals, are then printed in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis as directives valid for all the Church militant. We must not lose sight of the fact that, in the encyclical Humani generis, the Holy Father made it clear that any doctrinal decision printed in the pontifical Acta must be accepted as normative by all theologians.(15) This would apply to all decisions made in the course of the Sovereign Pontiff’s ordinary magisterium.

The second condition requisite for the issuance of an ex cathedra and infallible pontifical definition may likewise be verified in the Holy Father’s encyclical letters and in the other acts of his ordinary magisterium. This is the use of the Pope’s supreme apostolic doctrinal authority.

In itself, the apostolic doctrinal authority is nothing else than the power to issue doctrinal judgments which the followers of Jesus Christ Our Lord are obligated in conscience to accept with a sincere, internal, and religious assent. The supreme apostolic doctrinal authority, with can be exercised only by the Holy Father himself or by the apostolic collegium of which he is the divinely constituted head, is the power to issue an irrevocable and definitive doctrinal judgment on matters of faith and morals, which decision the faithful are bound in conscience to accept with an absolute and irrevocable assent. If that supreme power is exercised within the field of dogma itself, that is, by declaring that some particular truth has been revealed by God and is to be accepted by all men as a part of God’s revealed message, then the assent called for by the definition is that of divine faith itself. If, on the other hand, the Holy Father, using this supreme apostolic authority, does not propose his teaching as a dogma, but merely as completely certain, then the faithful are bound to accept his teaching as absolutely certain. They are, in either case, obliged in conscience to give an unconditional and absolutely irrevocable assent to any proposition defined in this way.

In other words, when we examine the matter closely, what I have listed as the second of the five conditions requisite for the existence of an ex cathedra pontifical doctrinal decision turn out to be not a distinct condition at all. It is necessarily present whenever and wherever the other four elements are to be found. Whenever the Holy Father speaks precisely as the spiritual ruler and the supreme authoritative teacher of the universal Church militant, dealing with matters concerning faith or morals, and definitively settling some point hitherto controverted or subject to controversy, in such a way that the faithful are bound to accept this definitive decision for what it is, then certainly he is using the supreme apostolic doctrinal power he has received from the divine Head of the Church.

If any of the other four characteristics for an ex cathedra utterance should be wanting, then there is definitely no use of the Sovereign Pontiff’s supreme apostolic doctrinal power. But, where these other four conditions are verified, the Holy Father is by that very fact speaking ex cathedra, speaking from the Roman chair of Peter, to instruct the flock which Our Lord has entrusted to his care. It would be unthinkable that the Vicar of Christ could speak, in his official capacity to the entire Church militant, on a matter of faith or morals, definitively settling a question by a decision which he wishes to constitute as irrevocable and which he commands the faithful to accept as irrevocably and absolutely true, without being protected by his charism of doctrinal infallibility.

Thus, circumstantial solemnity, as such, has no absolutely necessary connection with the infallibility of a pontifical definition. That solemnity, of course, is a good and glorious thing within the Church of God. Those who saw and heard the Holy Father solemnly define the dogma of Our Lady’s bodily assumption into heaven know from happy experience the spiritual good engendered by an act of this kind. Yet it remains obvious that the visible head of the universal Church militant does not require or depend upon such solemnities in order that he may speak effectively and infallibly to the flock for which he is responsible to Christ.

The third condition can be and is surely verified in the doctrinal encyclicals. It would be extremely difficult to deny that these documents deal with matters of faith or morals.

The fourth condition can be and, it would seem, not infrequently, is, verified also in the papal encyclical letters. It is, however, a condition which demands very close examination.

It is, I believe, to be presumed that the Vicar of Christ speaks to the faithful in a way they are able to understand. If he is proposing something as morally certain, as a statement which, though quite firm as it is now proposed, may still possibly turn out to be erroneous, it is presumed that he will, in his very expression of that statement, bring out its ultimately conditional character. If, on the other hand, he makes an absolutely unqualified assertion about some matter that concerns faith or morals, it would seem that he should be presumed to be presenting a teaching that is definitive and irrevocable. That, at least, would seem to be the presumption or line of conduct most consistent with the presentation of truth, and with the reception of doctrine in the Catholic Church.

In other words, if we examine the content and the immediate implications of the Vatican Council’s teaching on an ex cathedra or infallible papal definition, it appears that the Council had nothing to say about the more or less solemn character of the papal document in which a teaching is set down, but had everything to say about the quality of the judgment or decision rendered by the Holy Father in the course of his teaching. What is required for the issuance of an ex cathedra judgment is a pontifical definition, an absolutely definitive and irrevocable decision on some point which had hitherto been subject to free discussion among Catholic theologians. In any infallible papal teaching it goes without saying, the absolutely definitive and irrevocable character of that decision must be apparent.

It is quite clear that one way in which these qualities may be apparent is through the use of the solemn formulae employed in dogmatic bulls and constitutions. But it is also clear that these solemnities need not be employed for every absolutely certain and definitive decision issued by the Sovereign Pontiff. Any man who is teaching, and who is setting forth some doctrine which, though “morally certain,” might still turn out to be incorrect, will present his teaching for what it is. He certainly will not be in a position to propose such a doctrine in an absolutely unconditional categorical statement, particularly when he is a teacher who is recognized as competent to propose infallibly true doctrine.

The fifth and last condition indicated by the Vatican Council as requisite for an ex cathedra papal definition is that the Sovereign Pontiff should show that he intends to bind all the faithful to accept his definitive and irrevocable decision by an absolutely certain and irrevocable assent. There has, it would seem, been a certain amount of misleading discussion about this condition. Sometimes the Catholic scholar is led to believe that for every doctrinal statement by the Holy Father, there must be a definite warning or command that this statement is to be accepted with firm and sincere inward assent by the faithful. They are likewise led sometimes to imagine that there could be no such thing as an infallible definition by the Holy Father without an explicit and solemn accompanying warning that this decision is to be accepted by all with an absolutely unwavering assent.

The fact of the matter is that every doctrine taught by the Holy Father in his capacity as the Vicar of Christ must, by the very constitution of the Church militant of the New Testament, be accepted by the faithful for what it is. If it is an infallible declaration, it is to be accepted with an absolutely firm and irrevocable assent. If it is a non-infallible statement, it must be accepted with a firm but conditional mental assent.

Actually there is no such thing as a teaching issued by the Holy Father in his capacity as the spiritual ruler and teacher of all the followers of Jesus Christ which is other than authoritative. Our Lord did not teach in any other way than authoritatively, nor does His Vicar on earth when he teaches in the name and by the authority of his Master. Every doctrine proposed by the Holy Father to the entire Church militant is, by that very fact, imposed upon all the faithful for their firm and sincere acceptance.

Hence, if we find in an encyclical letter, or, for that matter, in any document of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium which has been registered in his official Acta, a doctrinal declaration proposed precisely as morally certain, all the faithful owe to that declaration a full and morally certain assent or adherence. If, on the other hand, we find in these same documents some teaching set forth absolutely without qualification, either directly, or through unqualified condemnation of its contradictory as heretical or as erroneous, it would seem to follow that all Christians are bound to give that proposition an absolutely certain and irrevocable assent.

Thus it would appear that there is nothing whatsoever in the Vatican Council’s explanation of an ex cathedra declaration by the Holy Father which could be said to militate against the presence of such ex cathedra pronouncements in the papal encyclical letters. If we are to follow the directions of the Council, we shall look for infallible pontifical teachings, not by examining the solemnity of the documents in which these teachings are set down, but by considering the expression of the teachings themselves as they have been proposed by the Vicar of Christ.

The third formula used as an argument against the presence of infallible teachings in the papal encyclical letters may be expressed in this way: “The Holy Father has the power to teach authoritatively but without using his charism of doctrinal infallibility, and the encyclical letters are documents in which he teaches in this way.”

Scientific theological discussion of the authoritative but non-infallible magisterium of the Holy Father has been carried extensively on only since the days of Pope Pius IX. The immediate sources of our knowledge on this matter are to be found in the teachings of the magisterium itself. There is, however, a highly pertinent and important theological teaching introduced by Cardinal Franzelin and developed by Fr. Palmieri and by Cardinal Billot. We shall first consider the documents of the magisterium which speak of authoritative but non-infallible teaching by the Holy Father to his Church.

There are, of course, several pronouncements by the Holy See with reference to the assent due to teachings set forth by various Roman Congregations or by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, with the approval of the Sovereign Pontiff himself. It goes without saying that such teachings are not guaranteed by the papal charism of doctrinal infallibility. The assent due to teachings of this sort is manifestly firm, sincere, internal, and religious in character. It is not, however, absolutely irrevocable.

We are concerned here, however, with teachings proposed by the Holy Father himself, and not those given to the Church, with his approval, by the various agencies of the Roman Curia. Several statements of the magisterium are commonly cited by theologians as having reference to authoritative but non-infallible teaching issued by the Sovereign Pontiff himself.

The letter Tuas libenter, written by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 21, 1863, to the Archbishop of Munich, is often cited as the first pontifical document to deal at any length with the matter of the ordinary magisterium. It does not contain, however, anything like a direct teaching on the existence or non-existence of infallible teaching in the papal encyclicals. It warns Catholic scholars that they must take cognizance of dogmas proposed by the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church as well as those defined “by explicit decrees of the oecumenical councils or the Roman Pontiffs or of this See.” Furthermore, it calls attention to the fact that these scholars are bound in conscience to accept and to reverence the doctrinal decisions proposed by the Pontifical Congregations as well as those “held by the common and constant consent of Catholics as theological truths, and as conclusions which are so certain that, although opinions opposed to these points of doctrine cannot be characterized as heretical, they still deserve another theological censure.”(16)

Thus the Tuas libenter in referring to the doctrinal acts of the Holy Father speaks only of those which are, in effect, dogmatic definitions. It takes no cognizance whatsoever of any teaching emanating from the Sovereign Pontiff himself, which could be designated as other than infallibly true.

The famous encyclical Quanta cura is likewise quoted from time to time on the matter with which we are concerned. Like the Tuas libenter, it has, however, no direct reference to any non-infallible teaching proposed by the Holy Father himself. The Quanta cura vigorously condemns the teaching that, “without sin and without any damage to a man’s profession as a Catholic, assent and obedience can be refused to those judgments and decrees of the Apostolic See which have as their object a reference to the general good of the Church and its rights and discipline, as long as this refusal does not affect dogmas of faith and morals.”(17) Evidently here, as well as in the Tuas libenter, Pope Pius IX set out to condemn a Catholic minimism which would restrict the fields of necessary doctrinal obedience in the life of the faithful in the region of explicit statements of dogma alone. The doctrine of the Quanta cura had not immediate reference to the existence or non-existence of infallible teachings in the encyclical letters.

The famous monitum appended to the Vatican Council’s dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius is more to our point. The Council ruled that “Since the avoidance of heretical wickedness is not sufficient unless there is also a careful avoidance of those errors which more or less closely approach to it, we warn all of their obligation to observe also the Constitutions and Decrees in which such evil opinions as have not been explicitly reproved here are proscribed and forbidden by the Holy See.”(18)

Vacant believes that the Constitutiones envisaged in this monitum are documents issued by the Holy Father or by an oecumenical council, while the decreta are issued by the Holy Father or by one of the congregations of the Roman Curia.(19) Thus, among the decreta envisioned by the Council in this monitum, there are certainly some which are not presented with the charism of doctrinal infallibility. But, once again, there is no question here of any document of doctrinal import emanating from the Holy Father and bearing an authoritative but non-infallible character. The matter is simply not discussed in this place.

There is, however, one passage in the famous encyclical Immortale Dei, issued by Pope Leo XIII on Nov. 1, 1885, which is directly pertinent to our material. Pope Leo intended to show the individual Catholic what his duties were “tam in opinionibus quam in factis,” with reference to the lessons contained in the Immortale Dei and in similar documents issued by the Holy See. In the field of intellectual judgment (in opinando), as distinct from the field of activity itself, “it is necessary to hold whatever the Roman Pontiffs have taught or are going to teach as accepted with firm assent and to profess these things openly whenever the occasion requires it.”(20)

The great Pontiff then went on to apply this principle directly to the main points brought out in the Immortale Dei. What he has said is to be understood “nominatim about the things called the liberties sought in most recent times.” With reference to these, he insisted, “it is necessary for all to stand by the judgment of the Apostolic See, and that all must judge as it has judged (et quod ipsa senserit, idem sentire singulos).”(21)

Does this passage in the Immortale Dei teach that all the doctrinal points proposed authoritatively in encyclical letters must be accepted by all Christians, but only as opinions, and not as infallibly certain truths? Does it imply that all the doctrines about modern freedom contained in papal documents are presented in such a way as to leave room for the possibility of error?

I believe that a careful examination of the passage in question will show definite and manifest evidence that both of these questions must be answered in the negative.

We must take cognizance of the fact that the Holy Father has distinguished, not between opinion and certitude, but between the realm of intellectual judgment and that of practical activity. There is a definite standard to be followed or observed with reference to all the lessons taught authoritatively by the Holy See. That standard comes down to the axiom, “Sentire cum Ecclesia.” It is valid in the realm of opinion, as well as in that of moral certitude and in the field of absolute certitude. The Holy Father’s teaching about opinions implies, a fortiori, the same instruction with regard to teachings which are proposed, not as opinions, but as certainties. The Holy Father insists that all the faithful must accept as their own tenets the doctrines which are set forth in pontifical documents.

The Immortale Dei, then, cannot correctly be interpreted as teaching or implying that all the teachings presented in vehicles of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium are limited to the realm of opinion. It would seem, however, that it does clearly imply that some of these teachings are to be classified as opinative in character.(22) The Holy Father’s letters are clear enough. What he wills the faithful to accept sincerely and firmly as an opinion is obviously marked as an opinion in its very expression in the very document containing the instruction. Rather obviously, it would seem, the unqualified and absolute statements contained in these documents are not to be accepted as opinions at all, but as really certain judgments.

The Decree Lamentabili sane exitu calls attention to the fact that the Church can rightly command the faithful to accept its judgments and condemnations with an internal assent.(22) The encyclical Humani generis speaks of the necessity of accepting the papal teachings, and states that, once the Holy Father has placed in his official Acta some judgment or decision about a matter which has hitherto been controverted, that subject must no longer be considered open to debate among theologians.(23) Nowhere, however, is there the slightest trace in the documents of the Church’s magisterium of any assertion or implication that truths proposed explicitly and without qualification in the encyclical letters or in other vehicles of the Holy Father’s doctrinal activity are to be accepted by the faithful merely with moral certainty, as teachings which may possibly turn out to be incorrect.

There is, of course, a highly important body of theological teaching about doctrines which are presented in the Church’s magisterium as authoritative but not as infallibly true statements. The man who first developed this portion of sacred theology to any great extent was Cardinal Franzelin. The Cardinal, developing the teaching of the great eighteenth-century Jesuit theologian Francesco Zaccaria, distinguished between a veritas infallibilis and an infallibilis securitas in doctrinal statements emanating from the Roman Pontiff. He claimed that “the man who would deny this distinction between the ultimate definitive judgment of the Pontiff speaking ex cathedra and the other doctrinal provisions and prohibitions would be forced to hold all the edicts of the Holy See which pertain in any way to doctrine indiscriminately as definitions ex cathedra.(24)

As Cardinal Franzelin described it, the authority of doctrinal providence (the source of the infallibility of security within the Catholic Church) had reference to doctrines which could or could not be held safely by the faithful.(25) Fr. Salaverri, however, agrees with Palmieri and De Groot in teaching that this truly authoritative though non-infallible doctrinal power of the Holy See can envisage teachings, not merely as safe, but as true and as morally certain.(26) In this, it would seem, he is perfectly correct.

Yet the unquestionable existence of an auctoritas providentiae doctrinalis should not be allowed to distract our attention from the central and essential fact that, when the Sovereign Pontiff issues an absolutely unqualified decision on a matter which has hitherto been a subject of legitimate debate among the theologians of the Catholic Church in an authoritative document addressed directly or indirectly to the universal Church militant, there is no reason to assign this decision merely to the realm of doctrinal providence or security. An absolutely unqualified decision in such a document calls for an adequate acceptance on the part of the faithful. It is difficult to see how that adequate response could be a conditioned judgment, even though such a judgment might be qualified as practically and morally certain. And, in the doctrinal life of the true Church, an absolutely irrevocable or unconditioned response is tendered only to a teaching given or proposed infallibly.

It does not seem that the statement in the Code of Canon Law can properly be used as an objection against the presence of infallible teaching in the papal encyclicals. What the Code declares is that “nothing is to be understood as declared or defined dogmatically unless this be manifestly certain.”(27) There is nothing at all in this statement which could legitimately be taken to imply that manifest certainty of infallible definition is never to be found in the papal encyclicals.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe that, in actual practice, Catholic scholars accept the unqualified and authoritative judgments or decisions expressed in the encyclicals as absolutely true, rather than as merely morally or practically certain. The Mystici Corporis taught the identity of the Catholic Church and the Mystical Body of Christ.(28) It condemned the doctrine of a twofold Church, the one visible and the other invisible.(29) It taught the conditions necessary for membership in the Church.(30) The Humani generis repeated the teaching about the identification of the Catholic Church with the Mystical Body.(31) These truths, as a group, have not been proposed authoritatively other than in the encyclicals. Yet, because the practice of our theologians frequently runs ahead of their theorizing, there would be very few teachers in the Catholic Church who would represent these teachings as other than absolutely and infallibly true.

There is another highly interesting testimony in this direction. Previous articles in this review have called attention to a statement in the Institutiones ecclesiastici of His Eminence Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Fr. Benard dealt with that statement at length in his paper, “The Doctrinal Value of the Ordinary Teaching of the Holy Father in View of Humani generis.”(32)

Cardinal Ottaviani, in the second edition of his Institutiones, published in 1935, classified the teaching that bishops receive their power of jurisdiction immediately from the Roman Pontiff as “probabilior, immo etiam communis.”(33) In 1943 the encyclical Mystici Corporis appeared, and in it an absolutely unqualified description of episcopal authority as “immediate sibi [episcopas] ab eodem Pontifice Summo impertita.”(34) The third edition of Cardinal Ottaviani’s work, published in 1947, took cognizance of the teaching set forth in the Mystici Corporis.(35) In this third edition the thesis is described as “hucusque considerata probabilior, immo communis, nunc autem ut omnino certa ex verbis Summi Pontificis Pii XII.”(36) It goes without saying that a decision which is conditioned, which is only morally or practically certain, which admits the possibility of error, could never be qualified as omnino certa.

The attitude manifest in the Institutiones of Cardinal Ottaviani is one which follows the actual instruction of the Holy Father and which faithfully pays attention to the Holy Father’s teaching. It is not an attitude which tends to minimize the unequivocal and unconditioned statements of Christ’s Vicar, addressed in encyclical letters to the entire Church militant, by acting on the assumption that such teachings cannot be more than practically certain, or that they must be subject to the possibility of error. In terms of the dispute we have been considering, it is an attitude towards the doctrinal value of papal encyclicals more in line with the opinion of Cardinal Billot than with that of Fr. Salaverri.

Joseph Clifford Fenton
The Catholic University of America
Washington D.C.

1. Salaverri, Tractatus de ecclesia Christi, Lib. 2, cap. 2, art. 3, n. 664, in the Sacrae Theologicae Summa, edited by the Jesuit professors in the theological faculties of Spain, Vol. I, by Salaverri and Nicolau (2nd edition, Madrid: La Editorial Catolica, 1952), 698 f.
2. Salaverri, op. cit., n. 892, p. 784.
3. Op. cit., n. 893, p. 784.
4. Billot, Tractatus de ecclesia Christi, sive continuatio theologiae de Verbo Incarnato (5th edition, Rome: Gregorian University, 1927), I, 656.
5. Cf. Salaverri, op. cit., nn. 647 f., pp. 692f.
6. For example, Yves de la Briere, L’Eglise et son gouvernement (4th edition, Paris: Grasset, 1935), p. 30; Charles Heris, L’ Eglise du Christ: son sacerdoce: son gouvernement (Juvisy, France: Cerf, 1930), p. 41; Msgr. Cesare Manzoni, Compendium theolgiae dogmaticae (4th edition, Torino: Berruti, 1928), I, n. 378, p. 225; and Bishop Hilarinus Felder, Apologetica sive theologia fundamentalis (2nd edition, Paderborn, 1923), II, 266 f. Ludwig Lercher, in his Institutiones theologiae dogmaticae (2nd edition,Vienna, 1933), I, n. 498, p. 519, says that some people call the Holy Father’s authoritative but non-infallible magisterium his ordinary magisterium. Lercher himself seems to approve of this designation. Fr. Edmond D. Benard of the Catholic University also supports the contention than an ex cathedra pronouncement is always a solemn pronouncement in his paper “The Doctrinal Value of the Ordinary Teaching of the Holy Father in view of Humani Generis,” published by The Catholic Theological Society of America, in its Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Convention, pp. 78-107. Fr. Antoine Chavasse not only holds that the Holy Father teaches infallibly solely in solemn or ex cathedra pronouncements, but shows a bitter animus against theologians who presume to defend the opposite opinion. Cf. his essay “La veritable conception de l’infaillibilite papale,” in the symposium Eglise et unite (Lille: Catholicite, 1948), pp. 80 f.
7. Cf. Billot, op. cit., I, 655 ff.; Salaverri, op. cit., n. 643, p. 692; n. 648, p. 693. It is to be noted that Cardinal Billot does not teach this thesis explicitly, but that, from the examples of an ex cathedra definition he give, it is apparent that he understands it as always a solemn pontifical judgment.
8. Cf. Billot, op cit., I, 656; Salaverri, op. cit., n. 648, p. 693.
9. The text is found in The American Ecclesiastical Review (AER) CXXIII, 5 (Nov., 1950), 389.
10. NCWC translation, p. 10.
11. Benard, op. cit., p. 90, note 22.
12. L’ Osservatore Romano for Aug 11-22, 1950, p. 2.
13. Thus, Lercher, loc. cit., Manzoni, loc. cit., and Benard, pp. 80 f.
14. DB, 1839.
15. “Quodsi Summi Pontifices in actis suis de re hactenus controversa data opera sententiam ferunt, omnibus patet rem illam, secundum mentem ac voluntatem eorumdem Pontificum quaestionem liberae inter theologos disceptationis iam haberi non posse.” Par. 20, in AER, CXXIII, 389.
16. DB, nn. 1683. f.
17. DB, 1698.
18. DB, 1820.
19. Cf. Vacant, Etudes theologiques sur les constitutions du Concile du Vatican: La constitution Dei Filius (Paris and Lyons, 1895), II, 335.
20. DB, 1880.
21. Ibid.
22. Salaverri, op. cit., n. 674, p. 702, opposes the contention of Schiffini who taught that doctrines proposed by the authoritative but non-infallible magisterium are to be accepted as opinions. He and the authors with whom agrees prefer to call a conditioned but firm assent by the name of moral or practical certitude. The text of the Immortale Dei, however, gives some backing to the contention of Schiffini.
23. DB, nn. 2007 f.
24. Humani generis, loc. cit.
25. Franzelin, Tractatus de divina traditione et scriptura (2nd edition, Rome, 1875), pp 127.
26. Cf. Franzelin, op. cit., p. 127.
27. Cf. Salaverri, op. cit., n. 677, p. 703.
28. Canon 1323, #3.
29. “Iamvero ad definiendam describendamque hanc veracem Christi Ecclesiam – quae sancta, catholica, apostolica, Romana Ecclesia est – nihil nobilius, nihil praestantius, nihil denique divinus invenitur sententia illa, qua eadem nuncupatur ‘mysticum Iesu Christi Corpus.’” Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS), XXXV, 199.
30. “Quapropter funestum etiam eorum errorem dolemus atque improbamus, qui commenticiam Ecclesiam sibi somniant, utpote societatem quondam caritate alitam ac formatum, cui quidem – non sine despicientia – aliam opponunt, quam iuridicam vocant.” AAS, XXXV, 224.
31. “In Ecclesiae autem membris reapse ii soli annumerandi sunt, qui regenerationis lavacrum receperunt veramque fidem profitentur, neque a Corporis campage semet ipsos misere separarunt, vel ob gravissima admissa a legitima auctoritate seiuncti sunt.” AAS, XXXV, 202.
32. Paragraph 27, in AER, CXXIII, 5 (Nov., 1950), 391
33. Cf. Benard, op. cit., pp. 105 f.; and Fenton, “The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals,” AER, CXXI, 149f.; “The Humani Generis and the Holy Father’s Ordinary Magisterium,” AER, CXXV, 61 f.
34. Ottaviani, Institutiones iuris publici ecclesiastici (2nd edition, Vatican City, 1935), I, 461.
35. AAS, XXXV, 212.
36. Ottaviani, Institutiones iuris publici ecclesiastici (3rd edition, Vatican City, 1947), I, 413.

Author:  Mike [ Thu Feb 28, 2008 2:27 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Infallibility in the Encyclicals

Now posted on this forum for Bellarmine Forum readers.

Author:  austinmarie [ Tue Mar 18, 2008 9:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Infallibility in the Encyclicals

"Both Cardinal Billot and Fr. Salaverri oppose the first of these statements. Both are convinced that there are infallible doctrinal statements issued by the Holy Father which do not lend themselves to classification as ex cathedra judgments."

What other means is it agreed among theologians through which the Pope can issue infallible statements, apart from through encyclicals, on which point the two theologians in discussion disagree. Do they both agree the Pope could issue infallible statements in allocutions? What else?

Author:  Mike [ Wed Mar 19, 2008 7:13 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Infallibility in the Encyclicals

Dear Austin,

The vehicle used by the Holy Father to make an infallible utterance, is not the issue, it is whether the four criteria are present as taught by the Vatican Council.

I have posted below this excellent explanation from Fr. Edmond D. Benard, in his address given to the Sixth Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in 1951, titled, "The Doctrinal Value of the Ordinary Teaching of the Holy Father in View of the Humani Generis." Msgr. Fenton, by the way referred to this paper of Fr. Benard, as "brilliant," in the article posted above. I hope to have the entire text of Fr. Benard's paper online as soon as possible. I believe that this explanation from Fr. Benard provides a clear answer to your question.

It is a divinely revealed dogma, according to the Conciliar definition, that the Roman Pontiff speaks infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra. The Council explains also just what it means by this “cum ex cathedra loquitur”; it goes on to say, “id est….” – that is when (1) in performance of his office as Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, (2) in the supreme exercise of his Apostolic Authority, (3) he defines a doctrine of faith or morals (4) to be held by the universal Church.

Clearly, then, as far as the Vatican definition goes, to say that the Pope speaks infallibly, and to say that he speaks ex cathedra are two ways of describing the same concrete act; they both mean that he has fulfilled the description given in the four conditions outlined in the definition. The fulfillment of the conditions equals an ex cathedra pronouncement equals an infallible pronouncement. This is just as true read backwards: an infallible pronouncement equals an ex cathedra pronouncement equals the fulfillment of the four conditions; or in any sequential arrangement that can be made of the three elements. In the language of logic, we would say that the Council’s definition gives the same extension to “ex cathedra” that it gives to “infallible”: all ex cathedra pronouncements are all infallible pronouncements. Through whatever vehicle of dissemination he employs, when the Sovereign Pontiff speaks infallibly, he speaks ex cathedra. [7]

Author:  austinmarie [ Wed Mar 19, 2008 10:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Infallibility in the Encyclicals

The vehicle used by the Holy Father to make an infallible utterance, is not the issue, it is whether the four criteria are present as taught by the Vatican Council.

I think Fenton points out that both theologians agree there are other "vehicles" the pope employs in teaching infallibly, apart from solemn statements. Whether encyclicals are included is contended. What other "vehicles" are agreed upon? I hope you understand my question.

By the way, thanks so much for the post. God bless you and Mr Lane for these articles from the AER. They simply inflame me!

Author:  Mike [ Thu Mar 20, 2008 12:20 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Infallibility in the Encyclicals

Dear Austin,

The last sentence of the excerpt from Fr. Benard's paper that I posted are very clear in that any vehicle that the Holy Father uses which contain the four criteria given by the Vatican Council, would be an infallible statement. Fr. Benard stated:

Through whatever vehicle of dissemination he employs, when the Sovereign Pontiff speaks infallibly, he speaks ex cathedra. [7]

It is not an issue of the type of vehicle that the Holy Father uses, it is whether the four criiteria given by the Vatican Council are present in that statement.

But, it must be also remembered, for those that unclear about this, even statements that are not infallibe but officially taught by the Holy Father, must be believed and assent must be given by the faithful to those statements under pain of sin.

I hope this help. I am very happy to hear that you have benefited from Msgr. Fenton's works. I will keep tyring to post more of his works. and your enthusiasm motivates me to try to move faster in this. God bless you as well.

Yours in JMJ,


Page 1 of 1 All times are UTC
Powered by phpBB © 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 phpBB Group