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 Moral Authority of Papal Pronouncements on Social Questions 
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Joined: Tue Feb 12, 2008 9:11 pm
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New post Moral Authority of Papal Pronouncements on Social Questions
Hello. Any thoughts on this particular excerpt from Papal Social Principles? It touches on questions pertinent to today's Crisis. Thank you.

Papal Social Principles: A Guide and Digest
Fr. Thomas J. Harte, C.Ss.R., Ph.D.
Bruce Publishing Co.

Moral Authority of Papal Pronouncements on Social Questions

Are Catholics bound in conscience to accept and adhere to the positive teachings contained in the social pronouncements of the Holy See? If they are, in what way are they obliged?

These two fundamental questions are of vital concern to all Catholics since they involve important issues of doctrine and discipline.

The social doctrines of the popes, whether proposed in en­cyclical letters or epistles, allocutions, motu proprios, radio ad­dresses, or in special decrees and instructions, ordinarily belong in the general category of noninfallible teaching. In other words, papal statements on such issues as the rights and duties of workers, or the social responsibilities of governments, cannot be considered as formal ex cathedra, or infallible, definitions. Consequently the Catholic has no positive obligation to accept them as doctrines of divine or ecclesiastical faith. On this point there is no particular difficulty: the popes usually have no intention of making infallible declarations when they draw conclusions or state principles and directives pertaining to soci­ety. Whether they could or ever will use their extraordinary magisterial power (which can be taken as synonymous with the power to teach infallibly) in pronouncing on social issues is another question which will not be discussed here.

One qualification to the above discussion needs to be added here. Not infrequently the popes' social pronouncements include statements of divinely revealed doctrines or of doctrines defined infallibly by the Church at some previous date. Such restate­ments occur quite often in the encyclicals on marriage, but are to be found in other social pronouncements as well. Obviously these doctrines lose none of their original authority by repetition in a noninfallible context. The point made here is that infallible declarations or definitions do not ordinarily originate in the so-called social encyclicals.

This conclusion - that the social teachings of the popes are not infallible -cannot be taken to mean that they have no binding force whatsoever. The opposite is indeed true. Catholics are obliged to accept the whole body of doctrine proposed by the official teaching authority of the Church. Declarations which proceed from the ordinary, or noninfallible, teaching authority of the popes belong to that doctrine just as much as those proposed infallibly, though, of course, they do not oblige in quite the same way. That Catholics must accept and adhere to the noninfallible teaching of the Holy See is clear both from reason itself and from authoritative declarations of recent popes.

Christ's original commission to the Church as teacher of all nations was certainly not restricted to the exercise of its extraor­dinary teaching power over revealed truths. To restrict its function in that way would have been unreasonable in view of its mission. Part of its essential mission is to guide and rule the faithful, to interpret the natural moral law and divine positive law for men so that they can know the will of God and be secure in achieving their ultimate goals. The power of the Church and of its supreme teaching authority, the Holy See, would be quite ineffective if the popes could oblige the faithful only on matters belonging strictly under the virtues of divine or ecclesiastical faith and by the exercise of the fullness of their power. The pope is Christ's vicar on earth; as such he is supreme pastor and teacher, and in that capacity he has the obligation to expound and explain Catholic doctrine, to admon­ish, enlighten, and encourage the faithful. It is therefore neces­sary for him to have the power to tell them what they must accept and what they must do without calling upon his supreme authority, without speaking ex cathedra.

There is one further important aspect of the distinction between the extraordinary and the ordinary teaching power of the pope which remains to be considered. It is a doctrine of Catholic faith that when the Holy Father speaks ex cathedra, or infallibly, he is guided by the Holy Spirit, and that there is no possibility of a mistake being made in matters of faith or morals in such declarations. There is no such guarantee of direct divine inspiration and guidance for individual, non­infallible declarations of the Holy See. Are we to conclude, then, that the popes can make mistakes, just as any other mortal men, when, exercising their ordinary Magisterial power, they teach on social questions? Theologians seem to agree that although the guarantee of infallibility applies in its strictest sense only to the exercise of the extraordinary magisterium, that is, to ex cathedra pronouncements, yet even in exercising his ordinary Magisterial powers the pope has the protection and guidance of the Holy Ghost, to the extent at least that almighty God would not permit him to make a serious error in teaching the universal Church. They argue that this providential pro­tection is necessary if the Holy See is to fulfill its divinely appointed commission of guiding men safely and surely to their eternal destinies. Therefore, the clear and certain teaching of the popes on social questions is to be taken as the only true doctrine on the points covered. The possibility of doubt or debate ceases when the Holy See has spoken definitively.[1]

The popes themselves have clearly taken this position with regard to their ordinary teaching authority. In their social pronouncements they frequently cite the statement of a previous pope, or an earlier statement of their own, as a conclusive argument from authority. Such is true, they seem to argue, because the Holy Father has said it, even though he was not speaking infallibly when he made the statement. But there is no need to rely on indirect statements or inferences, for the popes have spoken repeatedly on the binding force of all papal teaching. A few specific references will suffice to show this.

Pope Leo XIII makes a pointed reference to the obligation in his encyclical letter, Sapientiae christianae:

In determining the limits of the obedience owed to pastors of souls, but especially to the authority of the Roman pontiff, it must not be supposed that it pertains only to dogmas, the obstinate denial of which cannot be distinguished from heresy.... But this also must be considered the duty of Christians: that they allow themselves to be governed and directed by the author­ity and leadership of the bishops, and above all of the Holy See.

Leo's saintly successor, Pope Pius X, refers specifically to the binding force of the great social manifesto, Rerum novarum. It is the duty of all Catholics, he wrote to the Church in Germany, a duty to be faithfully and inviolably observed in private and in public life, to profess the principles of Christian truth entrusted to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, especially those principles set forth by Leo XIII in Rerum novarum.

Pope Pius XII has likewise stressed the binding force of the ordinary teaching authority of the Holy See in his encyclical letter, Humani generis, of August 12, 1950.

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in encyclical letters does not of itself demand consent, since in such letters the pontiffs do not exercise their supreme magisterial power. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who hears you hears Me" (Luke 1:16), and generally those things which are proposed and in­culcated in encyclical letters already pertain to Catholic doctrine for other reasons. But if the supreme pontiffs purposely pass judgment in their pronouncements on subjects which were con­troversial up to that time, it is obvious that such a matter, accord­ing to the mind and will of the same pontiffs, cannot be con­sidered any longer as a question open to discussion among theologians.[2]

From this clear and authoritative evidence there is but one conclusion: Catholics are obliged to accept and adhere to the whole teaching of the Holy See, the noninfallible as well as the infallible. They are therefore bound to accept and put into practice the teachings of the popes on social questions.

Furthermore, the vehicle or channel through which this teaching authority is exercised cannot be considered of primary importance. The pope can teach by means of a radio address or an allocution just as well as through an encyclical letter. Such certainly seems to be the mind of Pope Pius XII, who has made many of his most significant declarations initially over the air waves or in addresses to special audiences. The same prin­ciple is applicable to encyclical epistles which are addressed to particular countries: for example, Sertum laetitiae (1939) to the Church in the United States, or Au milieu (1892) to the Church in France. There are usually two distinct types of declarations in such letters: statements of a broad general nature, and statements which are clearly applicable only to the particular country addressed. The mind of the pope is usually quite clearly specified if he wishes to restrict the application of his teaching. General directives or statements of principle may be taken as universally binding; the particular applications made in these documents obviously pertain to the country addressed.

The second problem posed at the beginning of this discussion has to do with the nature of the obligation to accept the social teaching of the Holy See. Theologians tell us that there are three possible levels of assent to the doctrines and teachings proposed by the Church: assent of divine faith, assent of ec­clesiastical faith, and religious assent. Revealed truths and truths infallibly defined as such must be accepted with divine faith; truths which, though not revealed, are related in some way to revelation and infallibly defined by the Church must be accepted with ecclesiastical faith. All noninfallible pronouncements of the papacy must be given religious assent. Catholics are obliged, therefore, by religious obedience to accept whole­heartedly this latter category of the Church's teaching; to reject it, in whole or in part, would involve moral guilt.

In addition, their acceptance of or assent to papal teaching on social questions must be firm and internal. Once the pope has spoken, a mere external conformity, or "keeping an open mind" attitude, ceases to be possible. Catholics must yield both judg­ment and will to the teaching authority of the Church, even though they may not completely understand a principle or directive unequivocally stated by the Holy See. Obedience to the Vicar of Christ is imperative for all the faithful. Specialists in particular fields, in the social sciences, for example, may encounter, understandably, some difficulty on certain proposi­tions thus proposed. It is their privilege, should such difficulties arise, to appeal to the Holy See for permission to reopen the question and to discuss it among their colleagues. It is hardly likely that permission will be granted to challenge papal teach­ing publicly in the classroom, on the platform, from the pulpit, or in the press.


[1] The following are among the best theological discussions in English on the pope's ordinary teaching power: Edmond D. Benard, "The Doctrinal Value of the Ordinary Teaching of the Holy Father in view of Humani generis,"Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Convention, The Catholic Theo­logical Society of America (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic Theological Society of America, 1951), pp. 78-107; Joseph C. Fenton, "The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals," American Ecclesiastical Review, CXXI (1949), 136-150 and 210-220; "Infallibility in the Encyclicals," ibid., (;XXVIII (1953), 177-198; John F. Cronin, S.S., Catholic Social Principles Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1950), pp. 55-61; Etienne Gilson (ed. ), The Church Speaks to the Modern World (Garden City, N. Y.: Image Books, 1954), pp. 4-5.

[2] AAS, XLII (1950), 568. On the broader question of the basic right of the Church to teach on social questions, see Pius XII's allocution, Magnificate Dominum, delivered on November 2, 1954. AAS, XLVI (1954), 666-677.

Fri Feb 22, 2008 3:15 am
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Joined: Wed May 17, 2006 3:38 pm
Posts: 483
New post Re: Moral Authority of Papal Pronouncements on Social Questions
Dear Sir,

Thank you for posting this excellent explanation of Catholic teaching regarding a Catholic's moral obligation to accept with a religious assent all non-infallible papal teaching. I would also refer you to Msgr. Fenton's excellent explanation of the doctrinal authoritiy of Papal Allocutions, posted on this forum on February 12th, which also treats this subject. viewtopic.php?f=2&t=667

I am in full agreement that this teaching is very relevent and even critical to grasp in our day. I plan on printing this excerpt that you posted for my library and I appreciate you taking the time to scan/type this.

Yours in JMJ,


Yours in JMJ,

Fri Feb 22, 2008 7:38 pm
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