When is a teaching infallible? Must all infallible teachings be manifestly evident?

Canon law 749 n. 3 states: “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.”

This Canon raises a question concerning the interpretation of teachings of the Magisterium. Must it be manifestly evident that a teaching has been defined infallibly in order for that teaching to be infallible? If so, when did this requirement begin? If not, how shall we understand and apply this Canon?

This point of Canon law is paragraph 3; the first two paragraphs describe the infallibility exercised
(1) by the Pope (papal infallibility),
(2) by an Ecumenical Council (conciliar infallibility), and
(3) by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
These are the three ways that the Magisterium teaches infallibly. Now infallible teachings of the first two types are solemn definitions (defining acts). But the third type is comprised of a set of non-defining acts. First, the Pope and the Bishops dispersed through the world teach, under the non-infallible ordinary Magisterium. These teachings are not infallible definitions, so they are called non-defining acts. When, subsequently, one and the same teaching on faith or morals has been expressed in many non-defining acts, in such a way that “they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25), the teaching becomes infallible. But there is no one solemn definition; no defining act. The set of non-defining acts teaches the same doctrine, perhaps in many different wordings.

Since all three types of infallibility are within the same Canon, in the earlier two parts, the third part must be referring to all three types of infallibility, despite the phrasing “defined infallibly”. For an infallible teaching under the Universal Magisterium will not have a particular solemn definition, but it is in some sense “defined”, since the meaning is definitive and unchangeable.

But this point makes the problem of interpreting and applying this Canon worse. The Canon seems to narrow the teachings of the Magisterium so that no solemn definition by a Pope or Council, and no set of non-defining acts by the Pope and the Bishops dispersed through the world, can possibly be infallible unless this criterion is also met: that it be manifestly evident that it has been defined infallibly. The Canon in question was issued in 1983, but is also found, in similar form, in the 1917 Code of Canon law.

There are several possible interpretations:

1. One interpretation is that the Canon is simply stating what has always been the case for infallible teachings, such that no teaching of the Magisterium has ever been infallible without this criterion having been met: that it be manifestly evident that the idea has been taught infallibly.

The problem with this approach is that the First Vatican Council infallibly defined the dogma of Papal Infallibility, listing the criteria required for a papal teaching to be infallible, and “manifestly evident” is not one of the criteria. Vatican II reiterated this same teaching with the same criteria, in different wording, and again, “manifestly evident” was not a criterion. Vatican II also taught on what constitutes an infallible teaching of an Ecumenical Council, and of the Universal Magisterium. Again, none of the criteria included that the infallibility be manifestly evident.

Also, Vatican II says this about the teachings of Papal Infallibility: “they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others….” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25). But if no teaching of the Pope is infallible unless it is manifestly evident, then a type of approval of others is claimed as a requirement. For many others would need to agree that the papal teaching has been defined infallibly to establish that it is manifestly evident.

So it cannot be the case that the “manifestly evident” clause of Canon law is merely a statement of a requirement that has always existed in order for any teaching to be infallible. For Canon law does not have the ability to overturn the definition of Papal Infallibility, nor to contradict the teachings of Vatican II, whether infallible or non-infallible. If a Canon seems to say that no teaching is infallible unless its infallibility is manifestly evident, but the Magisterium contains no such requirement in its teachings, then the Canon is null and void — or it has been misinterpreted.

2. Another (worse) interpretation is that Canon law has (since 1917 or 1983) narrowed the meaning of past infallible teachings. Either the teaching itself has been narrowed or changed, or what is infallible has narrowed. This interpretation is untenable, since infallible dogma cannot change. The meaning of a dogma is certainly true, but no truth can be certain if it is changeable. Also, Canon law has no authority over the infallible teachings of the Magisterium, either to change them, or to determine their interpretation.

3. And this point suggests another interpretation, a Pharisaical approach, which claims that the teaching has not changed in any way, but we are not allowed to hold that the teaching is infallible, unless this is manifestly evident. This interpretation separates the believer from the truth, and so is untenable. God is Truth. Any law that would require a believer to refrain from believing any truth is an unjust law, and therefore not a law at all. But of course, in this case, the problem is not with Canon law, but with its interpretation. So if any law is interpreted in such a way that it is unjust, either the law or the interpretation is null and void.

4. A philosophical interpretation

“No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.”

This statement, analyzed philosophically, is circular. For our purposes, we can consider the concept of circular definition to include: a criterion for a statement to be true, which presupposes that the statement is true. This arrangement is circular because the statement cannot be true without the criterion, but the criterion cannot be true without the statement: no doctrine is infallible, unless it is manifestly evident that it is infallible. In other words, a doctrine is not infallible, unless it includes the quality of being “manifestly evident” in its infallibility. The manifestly evident criterion is a requirement of infallibility, but infallibility is found within that criterion. What is manifestly evident? its infallibility.

As a purely philosophical analysis of this statement, the statement can never be true. Any doctrine we examine to see if it is infallible, under this test of infallibility, cannot be infallible because it lacks the criterion of being “manifestly evident” in its infallibility. In other words, we would have to decide that the doctrine is infallible before it can be manifestly evident in its infallibility. But the statement claims that no doctrine can be infallible without this manifestly evident criterion.

Does this mean that no doctrines are infallible? No. All it means is that the statement is poorly formulated.

5. A reasonable limited interpretation

Can Canon law change infallible teachings of the Magisterium?

“If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”

“Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.” (First Vatican Council, On Faith and Reason, n. 3, 14).

Dogmas do not change. The Magisterium, whether exercised by the Pope, or an Ecumenical Council, or all the Bishops dispersed through the world led by the Pope, does not have the ability or authority to change an infallible teaching. So neither does Canon law have that ability or authority. If anyone claims that Canon law is able to change the sense that is assigned to the dogmas defined by the Church, he falls under the sentence of anathema of the First Vatican Council.

A strict interpretation of the Canon fails, because of the foolishness of the way that this Canon is worded. A Pharisaical interpretation of the Canon, such that the law is given power over the infallible Magisterium, is contrary to the teaching of Pope Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam, that the spiritual (teaching) authority of the Church is above the temporal authority of the Church. Therefore, this Canon cannot be used to narrow the meaning of any infallible teaching, nor to determine which teachings are infallible, nor to determine which meaning is infallible. To say otherwise is to give Canon law the ability to retroactively change, nullify, or reduce the authority of, past infallible teachings of the Magisterium.

My reasonable limited interpretation of this Canon is as follows.

If a doctrine is legitimately disputed as to whether it is an infallible teaching or a non-infallible teaching (or a theological opinion), then, for the purposes of Canon law, it cannot be treated as an infallible dogma. For example, if a priest expresses an opinion on a matter of faith or morals, and if the charge is that he has committed a offense against the faith by denying a dogma, in order for action to be taken under Canon law, there must be no legitimate theological dispute as to whether or not the doctrine has been taught infallibly. The proper forum for such a dispute is theological discussion, not Canonical action.

Contra Akin

In yet another astounding feat of misinterpretation and theological error, Jimmy Akin claims the following:

“… infallible definitions must be construed narrowly. Thus the Code of Canon Law provides: “Canon 749 §3. No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.” One results of this is that we must ask what the council was trying to define. If it is manifestly evident that a particular proposition was intended then that proposition is defined infallibly. If it is not manifestly evident then it is not to be regarded as infallibly defined.”

Akin asserts that “infallible definitions must be construed narrowly” without providing any support for the claim. There is no such magisterial teaching, of which I am aware. There is no Canon of any Ecumenical Council teaching us that infallible definitions must be interpreted narrowly. Akin makes a baseless claim, then uses it as a premise to establish his conclusion.

The Canon that he cites does not say that infallible definitions must be construed, i.e. interpreted, narrowly. By saying ‘Thus…’ he seems to imply that this Canon supports his assertion, but it says nothing of the kind. Narrow interpretation is not required.

In fact, many infallible definition are inherently broad in meaning. For example, the definition of the Immaculate Conception is very broad in that Mary was preserved from original sin in its entirety and from all of its effects. At her conception, she could not have been given any more grace and blessings than she was given. She could not have been brought any further away from original sin. The gift is exceptionally broad. A common interpretation of this dogma even includes the understanding that she was made sinless from conception and that she was full of grace from conception. A narrow interpretation would exclude this understanding. When did the Magisterium teach us only to interpret dogmas narrowly? NEVER.

The next error that Akin makes is to assert that the phrase ‘manifestly evident’ refers to the meaning of what is being taught, not to whether it was defined infallibly. The Canon addresses whether or not a doctrine is to be considered infallible. The answer is that, for purposes of Canon law, it is to be considered infallible if it is manifestly evident that the doctrine is that type of teaching: infallible as opposed to non-infallible. But Akin claims — again without any basis in any magisterial teaching and without any basis in the Canon from which he supposedly draws this point — it must be manifestly evident that the Council intended that particular proposition. In other words, he applies the term ‘manifestly evident’ to the meaning of the teaching, not to whether it is infallible. And next he utters the nonsensical claim that if it is manifestly evident that a particular proposition was intended, it is defined infallibly. This is patently NOT what the Canon says, and there is no such teaching of the Magisterium.

Furthermore, infallibility depends, simply stated, on a particular type of exercise of the Magisterium by the Pope, or by the body of Bishops led by the Pope. Whether or not something — anything — is manifestly evident to other persons can NEVER be a criterion for a teaching to be infallible because it would shift the exercise of the Magisterium to persons other than the Pope and the Bishops, to those persons for whom the proposition or its infallibility would or would not be manifestly evident. But the Magisterium can only be exercised by the Pope and the Bishops.

The Criteria for the Three Types of Infallibility

What makes a teaching infallible under Papal Infallibility?

The teaching of the First Vatican Council on Papal Infallibility can be conveniently summed up with a list of criteria that a teaching must meet in order to obtain “that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed….”

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church” [Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4]

The Second Vatican Council taught the same doctrine, in different words:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with” [Lumen Gentium, n. 25]

What makes a teaching infallible under an Ecumenical Council?

We can adapt the above definitions of Papal Infallibility to answer the question.

1. the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops gathered with him
2. in virtue of their respective offices, the Pope as the supreme Shepherd and Teacher of all the faithful, and the Bishops as fellow Shepherds and Teachers in communion with him,
3. by a definitive act, they proclaim
4. a doctrine of faith or morals,
5. which must be held by the whole Church

What makes a teaching infallible under the Universal Magisterium?

We can adapt the above definitions to answer the question.

1. the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops dispersed through the world,
2. in virtue of their respective offices, the Pope as the supreme Shepherd and Teacher of all the faithful, and the Bishops as fellow Shepherds and Teachers in communion with him,
3. authentically teaching, in agreement on one position,
4. on a matter of faith or morals,
5. definitively to be held by the whole Church

When ALL these criteria are met, the teaching is infallible under Papal Infallibility, or Conciliar Infallibility, or the Universal Magisterium, regardless of whether or not the infallibility, or the meaning of the doctrine, is manifestly evident. No other criteria is necessary. The Pope need not intend to exercise Papal Infallibility; that criterion is not listed. The Ecumenical Council need not intend to teach infallibly; that criterion was not taught by Second Vatican Council. The Pope and the Bishops, teaching under the Universal Magisterium, need not intend to teach infallibly; that criterion was not taught by Second Vatican Council.

No other criteria that anyone might claim or dream up, can change the above criteria, taught by the Magisterium, as to when the Magisterium teaches infallibly.

[Galatians 1]
{1:6} I wonder that you have been so quickly transferred, from him who called you into the grace of Christ, over to another gospel.
{1:7} For there is no other, except that there are some persons who disturb you and who want to overturn the Gospel of Christ.
{1:8} But if anyone, even we ourselves or an Angel from Heaven, were to preach to you a gospel other than the one that we have preached to you, let him be anathema.
{1:9} Just as we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone has preached a gospel to you, other than that which you have received, let him be anathema.

Si quis vobis evangelizaverit præter id, quod accepistis, anathema sit.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

My books of theology
My work with Sacred Scripture

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