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 Cardinal Franzelin - The True Sense of the Vincentian Canon 
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New post Cardinal Franzelin - The True Sense of the Vincentian Canon
Cardinal Johann Baptist Franzelin S.J. (1816-1886)

[Translated by John S. Daly, and added as an appendix to the TradiBooks bilingual (Latin and English) edition of the Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lerins, which could be considered the very Mandate of the traditional Catholic resistance to Vatican II. ]

Thesis concerning the true sense of the Vincentian Canon.

1. The Canon [or theological rule] of Saint Vincent of Lerins (Commonitorium Chapters 2, 4, 27 and 29) which assigns universality, antiquity and consensus of faith as characteristics of Catholic doctrine is perfectly true in the affirmative sense. In other words, a doctrine bearing these marks is certainly a dogma of the Catholic faith. It is not however true in the exclusive sense, i.e. if it be understood to mean that nothing can belong to the Catholic faith which has not been explicitly believed always, everywhere and by all.

2. In the context of the Commonitorium itself, the purport of the rule is simply to state two marks, either of which is sufficient to prove the absolute antiquity, or apostolicity, of a doctrine, viz : (a) the present consensus of the Church, and (b) the consensus of relative antiquity, i.e. as it stood before the controversy arose.


The Canon in question is stated by Saint Vincent of Lerins in the following terms: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic... This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity and consensus.” (Chapter 2) Note first that the reference is not to any points whatsoever that are held and observed in the Church irrespective of the way in which they held. It is to those which are believed, i.e. held by faith. Now a thing can be believed in either of two ways: explicitly, or only implicitly. Whatever is contained in the deposit of objective revelation has certainly been believed at least implicitly everywhere, always and by all Catholics and nothing can be contained in the deposit of revelation which is not so believed. One would at once cease to be a Catholic if one were not ready to believe everything which has been sufficiently proposed to one as divinely revealed—or if one’s habit of faith did not extend to the assent to be accorded to everything included in revelation. But in this sense “to have been believed always and everywhere” cannot be given as a criterion and theological touchstone for recognising what is contained in revelation, for the objects of implicit faith are not in themselves known as revealed. And on the other hand, to investigate whether something has been at least implicitly believed everywhere, always, by all, is the same thing as investigating whether it is contained in objective revelation and Tradition; and it must therefore be established in the light of some other criterion—it cannot be itself a means of establishing it. So although it is true, both in the affirmative sense and in the exclusive sense, that everything belongs to the deposit of faith which has been at least implicitly believed everywhere, always, and by all, and that nothing belongs to this deposit which has not been so believed, nevertheless this cannot be the meaning of the Vincentian Canon.

It follows that the proposed criterion can only be understood of explicit faith. Now it has been established in the preceding theses that a universal consensus in recognising some dogma as a doctrine of faith, at whatever period this consensus may exist, is a definite criterion of divinely transmitted doctrine.93 There is therefore no doubt that such an agreement or consensus in antiquity proves divine Tradition, and that the consensus of all ages does so most splendidly.94 So whatever has been believed always, everywhere and by all, cannot but have been revealed and divinely transmitted.

However it has been no less established in the foregoing that certain points of doctrine can be contained in the deposit of objective revelation which were not always contained in the manifest and explicit preaching of the Church, and that for as long as they were not sufficiently proposed it was possible for them to be the object of controversy within the limits of the Church without loss of faith and communion.95 So a given point of doctrine can be contained in objective revelation and can also, with the passage of time—when it has been sufficiently explained and proposed—come to belong to those truths which must necessarily be believed with Catholic faith, while yet this truth, though always contained in the deposit of revelation, has not been explicitly believed always, everywhere and by all; nor was there any necessity that it should be so believed. So although the marks listed in the Canon, if present, constitute manifest proof that the doctrine they relate to is a dogma of the Catholic faith, their absence by no means necessarily proves that a given doctrine was not contained in the deposit of faith; neither does it prove that a doctrine, which, for want of sufficient proposition at a given time, did not need to be explicitly believed, may not at some other time be the object of obligatory belief. So the Canon is true in the affirmative sense, but cannot be admitted in the negative and exclusive sense.


If the Canon is considered in context, and together with the explanations set forth by Saint Vincent, it appears that its meaning is as follows:
a) The absolute antiquity or apostolicity of a doctrine is not proposed as a mark whereby to establish anything else; it is itself the very point being investigated.

b) As marks by which the apostolicity of a doctrine can be known, two characteristics are proposed:
i) universality, i.e. the present consensus of the Church, and,
ii) the consensus of antiquity,96 to be understood in a relative sense, i.e. a consensus shown to have existed before the controversy arose.

By either of these two marks absolute antiquity can be known and inferred. For when, by virtue either of a solemn judgment of the authentic magisterium (whether of an ecumenical council or of the pope) or by the unanimous preaching of the Church, a universal present consensus is clear and manifest, this alone suffices of itself; but if, through the arising of a controversy, this consensus were to become less apparent, or were not acknowledged by the adversaries to be confuted, then—says Vincent—appeal must be made to the manifest consensus of antiquity, or to solemn judgements, or to the consentient convictions of the Fathers.

Finally, if, in some polemical altercation, the heretics were to go so far as not even to venerate the authority of the preceding Fathers, he admits that we have no remaining common principle between them and us save the authority of Scripture. That the foregoing interpretation is the true one is clear from the entire context of Saint Vincent’s Commonitorium.

a) He says that one must hold “what has been believed everywhere, always and by all,” without distinguishing whether it was so believed implicitly or explicitly (Chapter 2). But then he indicates marks by which we can come to know whether something was thus believed everywhere, always and by all, and these marks are: universality, antiquity and consensus. “This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consensus.” Hence, “what has been believed everywhere, always and by all” is not itself a criterion [of the duty to believe] but is rather something to be established by means of distinct criteria, namely universality, antiquity and consensus.
b) What Vincent means by universality he explains straight away: “We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses.” Hence universality is the agreement of the entire Church, and, insofar as it is distinct from the mark of antiquity, it is the consent of the Church at this present time when the controversy has arisen. This is manifest from Chapter 3 in which Vincent contrasts universality, as the present consensus, which can be troubled by newly invented errors, with antiquity, i.e. the agreement of the previous age “which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty”. Moreover in the Chapter 29 he says that universal consent is to be followed “lest torn from the integrity of unity and carried away to schism,” which he illustrates in Chapter 4 by the example of the Catholics in Africa, who “detesting the profane schism [of Donatus], continued in communion with all the churches of the world [which were at that time in agreement].”
c) The mark of antiquity is understood by Vincent in the sense of relative antiquity, whereby absolute antiquity or apostolicity is to be inferred: this is clear from his entire manner of reasoning. For he invariably situates antiquity in the judgement of preceding Fathers or Councils—a judgement existing before the appearance of the heresy to be refuted or the controversy to be decided. “In antiquity itself..., to the temerity of one or of a very few, they must prefer, first of all, the general decrees, if such there be, of a Universal Council, or if there be no such, then, what is next best, they must follow the consentient belief of many and great masters.” (Chapter 27)97 And in Chapter 28 he says that to ancient heresies one should oppose councils which took place before those heresies arose, while, if even these councils are condemned by the heretics, there remains only the common source of Scripture to use in argument against them.
d) Finally, Saint Vincent of Lerins everywhere clearly teaches that either one of these two marks—i.e. universal consent and the agreement of antiquity—suffices to demonstrate the apostolicity of a doctrine. Thus in Chapter 3 he writes : i) “What then will a Catholic Christian do if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member?” Here universal consent is opposed to local error. ii) “What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity.” Here antiquity is appealed to in the event that contemporary controversies should have muddied the waters and made it hard to establish for the time being the belief of the universal Church. There can therefore be no doubt that the true sense of the Vincentian Canon is the sense explained in our thesis. Any doctrine which is supported by neither of these two marks must be considered as being, at best, not yet sufficiently proposed to Catholic faith; and a doctrine which is repugnant to either mark must be considered to be a profane novelty.

Publishers’ Note. The foregoing text appears as Thesis XXIV in Franzelin’s masterpiece De Divina Traditione et Scriptura (Rome, 1875).

93 See Theses V, n. iii ; VIII, nn. I, ii ; Corollary I to Thesis IX; Thesis XI, n. ii.
94 See Theses XIV, XV.
95 See Corollary ii to Thesis IX and Thesis XXIII.
96 Vincent’s apparently tripartite division in certain chapters : universitas, antiquitas, consensio, in fact contains not three but only two truly distinct parts, as is apparent from the author’s own explanation., and in Chapter 29 (i.e. the Recapitulation which is all that survives of the second Commonitorium), he himself reduces the three to two: “Regard must be had to the consentient voice of universality equally with that of antiquity.”
97 There are no grounds for seeing in this or other passages from Saint Vincent of Lerins an error against the infallible authority of the definitions of the Roman Pontiff. Saint Vincent’s intention is to set out criteria of doctrinal apostolicity not only for the benefit of Catholics, but also for polemical use against the novelties of heretics—criteria which no one shall be able to refuse.
a) He offers these criteria against “only...those heresies which are new and recent, and that on their first arising.” (Chapter 28) So, given his supposition that no direct judgement has yet been made against them, he could not fittingly appeal to a papal definition either.
b) The criteria which he adduces are entirely true. His choice of them does not imply that he denies and excludes other criteria that may be applicable according to circumstances.
c) In the criteria which he sets forth, the authentic judgement of the Apostolic See is at least implicitly included. For when such a judgement exists, either it authentically declares the antiquity of the consensus, or else it most certainly brings about universality. Hence if there is an extant pontifical definition promulgated in will always be possible to appeal to “the consentient belief of many and great masters” (Chapter 27).
d) For Vincent of Lerins, as for Irenæus before him, it is enough to appeal to the authority of the Apostolic See in order to establish the apostolicity of a doctrine. He makes this quite clear in Chapter 6: “It has always been the case in the Church, that the more a man is under the influence of religion, so much the more prompt is he to oppose innovations. Examples there are without number : but to be brief, we will take one, and that, in preference to others, from the Apostolic See, so that it may be clearer than day to everyone with how great energy, with how great zeal, with how great earnestness, the blessed successors of the blessed Apostles [i.e. the Roman Pontiffs] have constantly defended the integrity of the religion which they have once received.” He then recounts the innovation of the re-baptisers from Agrippinus of Carthage, before pursuing in the following terms : “When then all men protested against the novelty, and the priesthood everywhere, each as his zeal prompted him, opposed it, Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, in conjunction indeed with his colleagues but yet himself the foremost, withstood it, thinking it right, I doubt not, that as he exceeded all others in the authority of his position [“loci auctoritate superabat”], so he should also in the devotion of his faith. In fine, in an epistle sent at the time to Africa, he laid down this rule: Let there be no innovation—nothing but what has been handed down... What then was the issue of the whole matter? What but the usual and customary one? Antiquity was retained, novelty was rejected.”

Wed Mar 26, 2008 10:26 am
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