The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church. It is also an ability; the Church has the ability as well as the authority to teach the truths of faith and morals found in the Sacred Deposit of Faith: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The Holy Spirit — working within the gifts of reason, free will, faith, and all the virtues — is the source of this ability. The Magisterium is a gift to the entire Church, but it can only be exercised by the Pope and by the Bishops in communion with him.
Some teachings of the Magisterium are infallible:
1) solemn definitions of the Roman Pontiff, meeting all of the conditions defined by the First Vatican Council,
2) solemn definitions of Ecumenical Councils, meeting a similar set of conditions but from the body of bishops led by the Pope, not the Pope alone,
3) the teachings of the Universal Magisterium, meeting the conditions taught by the Second Vatican Council:
“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held” (Lumen Gentium 25)
So the Bishops teaching individually, or in local groups such as a Bishops’ Conference, are unable to teach infallibly by themselves. But they can participate in the infallible teaching authority of the Church by teaching as a body, united with the Pope as their head, whether dispersed through the world (the ordinary and universal Magisterium) or gathered in an Ecumenical Council.
However, not all teachings of the Magisterium are infallible. Second Vatican Council taught that “the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility.” But they are nevertheless “authentic teachers”, whose teachings require the assent of the faithful:
“In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra….” (Lumen Gentium 25)
So even the Pope is not infallible in every teaching. He often exercises the authentic Magisterium, but without teaching infallibly.
When the Magisterium is exercised by the Pope or Bishop(s), but not infallibly, the teaching is termed “non-infallible”. This term is used to distinguish the authentic teaching of the ordinary Magisterium from infallible teachings (no possibility of error) and from fallible theological opinion (any degree of error is possible). The teachings of the Magisterium are never “fallible”, are never mere opinion. They are never subject to an unlimited degree of error. Rather, the type and degree of error is limited, by the work of the Holy Spirit. So while infallible teachings offer no possibility of error and are therefore irreformable, the non-infallible teachings have a limited possibility of error and reform (they are non-irreformable).
The infallible teachings require the full assent of faith, also called theological assent or sacred assent. The non-infallible teachings require a different type and degree of assent: the religious submission of mind and will, also called religious assent or ordinary assent. The difference is that the non-infallible teachings may contain limited error, and are subject therefore to limited reform. But this also implies the possibility of limited faithful dissent from non-infallible teachings. For God who is Truth never requires us to adhere to any falsehood or error.
There are many errors on this topic being spread among the faithful, especially online. Some persons claim that there is no such thing as a non-infallible teaching. Proof to the contrary is found in the teachings of both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger:
“This magisterium is not above the divine word but serves it with a specific charisma veritatis certum, which includes the charism of infallibility, present not only in the solemn definitions of the Roman Pontiff and of Ecumenical Councils, but also in the universal ordinary magisterium, which can truly be considered as the usual expression of the Church’s infallibility…. With respect to the non-infallible expressions of the authentic magisterium of the Church, these should be received with religious submission of mind and will.” (Pope John Paul II)
The term “religious submission of mind and will”, quoted by Pope John Paul II from Second Vatican Council, is applied by Pope John Paul II to non-infallible teachings. Therefore, Pope John Paul II interprets Vatican II as saying that some magisterial teachings are non-infallible. When the assent is religious assent, the teaching is non-infallible.
Cardinal Ratzinger, in his Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, rejects the idea that non-infallible teachings allow for any degree of dissent whatsoever: “The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms.” But he does admit that some teachings are non-infallible, and he refers to this type of teaching as: “a non-irreformable magisterial teaching.”
A theologian can dissent from such a teaching, to a limited extent, and such dissent can lead to real progress in the Church:
“the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.”
I should note, however, that most dissent in the Church today is not limited faithful dissent from non-infallible teachings. Dissent from infallible teachings is not legitimate or justifiable, and yet it is unfortunately very common. Moreover, dissent from non-infallible teaching is not unlimited. The dissent must be based firmly on the teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium. And no one would be justified in treating the entire set of non-infallible teachings as if they were mere opinion or full of falsehoods.
Another error common today is the claim that all of the teachings of the Pope, even those that are not given ex cathedra (under Papal Infallibility), are infallible. This error is actually a heresy, since it implies a total rejection of the dogma of Papal Infallibility taught by the First Vatican Council. The Council taught that the Pope teaches infallibly when his teaching meets certain conditions. The claim that everything the Pope teaches is infallible, regardless of those conditions, is inherently a rejection of the Council’s dogma. For if all that the Pope teaches is infallible, the conditions for Papal Infallibility taught by the Council become null and void. But whoever rejects a dogma as null and void commits heresy. We are therefore obliged by faith to believe that some papal teachings are non-infallible.
Another form of this same error is to divide the teachings of the Magisterium into two categories, infallible and non-infallible, but then assert that both categories are entirely free from error, and both categories require the full assent of faith. On the surface, this position seems to accept that some teachings are non-infallible. But the definition of non-infallible is only nominally different from infallible. In essence, this position, too, denies the teachings of the First and Second Vatican Councils that some teachings are non-infallible (and non-irreformable) and therefore require a substantially different type and degree of assent.
More in this post: Is it a Heresy to Believe that the Ordinary Magisterium is Infallible?
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has a perplexing post on this subject here. In the post, he quotes, approvingly, the opinion of Fr. Scanlon, who admits (barely) the existence of non-infallible teachings, but treats these teachings essentially the same as infallible teachings. The only difference he admits is one of formal classification; for practical purposes, he sees no difference in terms of freedom from error and requirement of assent.
His position is that no faithful dissent is possible from non-infallible teachings. And yet, in this very same post, Fr. Regis Scanlon, a priest in the Archdiocese of Denver, dissents from the non-infallible teaching of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. Fr. Scanlon quotes the U.S. Bishops as teaching that some limited dissent from non-infallible teaching is permissible. But he also rejects this teaching, calling it a false notion:
Unfortunately, this false notion was unwittingly given a boost by none other than the bishops of the United States. On November 15, 1968, a few months after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, the bishops issued their pastoral letter, “Human Life in Our Day,” to help Catholics interpret the Pope’s encyclical. The bishops said in no. 51 of that document that in some cases, a Catholic could dissent from “non-infallible authentic doctrine” of the magisterium. They explained: “The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and is such as not to give scandal.”
So, the bishops did approve of limited dissent from papal teaching in faith and morals.
This position was given even more credence later by the powerful and widely quoted Cardinal Bernardin when he was Archbishop of Chicago. Shortly before his death in 1996, Cardinal Bernardin initiated his Catholic Common Ground Project, to bring factions of the church together in “dialogue.” According to a Nov. 14, 1996, article in Origins (pp. 353-356), the axis of Cardinal Bernardin’s legacy was the belief that “limited and occasional dissent” from the magisterium of the Church was “legitimate.”
The hypocrisy of this post by Fr. Scanlon is astounding. He emphatically asserts that no dissent from non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium is legitimate. Then he cites a non-infallible teaching of the U.S. Bishops and a U.S. Cardinal, and he dissents from that teaching. How can any faithful Catholic, with the full use of his faculties of reason and free will, read such a contradictory set of claims and see no problem?
My position on this topic is simple: I accept the teaching of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger that some teachings of the authentic ordinary Magisterium are non-infallible and non-irreformable. And I accept the teaching of the U.S. Bishops and Cardinal Bernardin that some limited dissent from non-infallible teachings is legitimate and faithful.
Cardinal Dulles held the same position. He has an enlightening article at First Things magazine on the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor on intrinsically evil acts. In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II offers a list of grave injustices, quoted from the Second Vatican Council, to which the Pontiff adds the assertion that all these injustices are intrinsically evil acts (something not asserted by the Council). Dulles offers a theological argument of limited dissent from this assertion. His article is a good example of limited faithful dissent from non-infallible teachings.
And while I don’t hold the same position as Dulles on this point, I notice that Cardinal Dulles is not a dissenter, but a theologian of such merit that he was raised to the position of Cardinal while remaining a priest (non-Bishop Cardinals are a rarity), and he held the position of advisor to the USCCB committee on doctrine.
Over at another Catholic blog, In The Light of the Law, Dr. Edward Peters criticizes a post by Fr. Michael Orsi on infallible versus non-infallible teachings. [For some strange reason, Fr. Orsi uses the term "non-fallible"; the term commonly used in theology and in a few magisterial documents is "non-infallible".] Although he does not say it outright, Dr. Peters seems to imply that there is no such distinction:
First, what is the difference between “infallible” and “non-fallible” doctrines, and who divides Church teaching into these two categories? Cdl. Ratzinger surely did not.
OK, I’ll answer that question. The difference is that infallible teachings have no possibility of error, are irreformable, and therefore require the full assent of faith (theological assent). By comparison, the non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium are non-irreformable (Cardinal Ratzinger’s term) and therefore may contain limited error, and do not require the full assent of faith. The assent required of non-infallible teachings is religious assent.
When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. (Cardinal Ratzinger)
Who divides Church teaching into these categories? Pope John Paul II (see above), Cardinal Ratzinger, Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium), the U.S. Bishops Conference and Cardinal Bernardin (see above), and the CCC. After discussing the infallible teaching of the Magisterium, the Catechism teaches:
892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.
The CCC plainly states that some magisterial teachings are not infallible, are not taught definitively, and do not require the same type or degree of assent as infallible teachings require. Teachings that require only religious assent, not theological assent, are termed “non-infallible” by Pope John Paul II.
How can the Church require us to adhere, even with the lesser type of assent called religious submission of mind and will, to a set of teachings that may contain some error? The errors that are possible never reach to the extent of leading the faithful away from the path of salvation. So religious assent cannot harm your eternal salvation. But the Pope and the Bishops are not God-incarnate. They do not have the ability to teach with constant infallibility. They do not have the Beatific Vision of God, who is infinite truth. They are fallen sinners. And so they need to be able to teach with some possibility of error, non-infallibly. Only Christ Jesus can teach with constant unfailing infallibility.
Some of the faithful claim that all the teachings of the Magisterium are infallible, and they also denigrate the role of theological opinion; in this way, they attempt to make the Faith seem more secure and more certain. But by no means, in this life, can we have absolute certitude on every question of faith and morals. Now by faith in the teachings of the Magisterium, we can be certain of particular truths and of the path to salvation. But only when we have the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven will our knowledge of the Roman Catholic Faith be absolute, and entirely certain. In the meantime, we must live by faith and reason, adhering to infallible teachings, as well as to non-infallible teachings (which might contain some limited error), and making substantial use of fallible theological opinion. For without the non-infallible and the fallible, the infallible by itself would not be sufficient to guide us to salvation.
A moderate diversity of opinions is compatible with the unity of the faith and with fidelity toward the teachings and norms of the magisterium. The rejection of this permissible legitimate diversity of opinion is a worrying trend in Catholic discussions online and in print. The scant consideration accorded to speculative theology is also problematic. Many Catholic authors speak as if every theological position is a dogma. The time-tested saying, In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. is being slowly replaced by: In all things unity.