Is the Non-infallible Magisterium fallible or infallible?

Is the Non-infallible Magisterium fallible or infallible? Neither.

Over at the National Catholic Register, Pat Archbold teaches without first having learned. His post The Magisterium of the Now is a series of false assertions and distortions on the topic of the non-infallible Magisterium. Pat Archbold doesn’t know what the word Magisterium means. He has badly misunderstood the topic. And he is teaching others his errors. Teachers will have the stricter judgment (cf. James 3:1).

First Error: “There are different kinds of Magisteria the infallible and the non-infallible kind.”

Correction: The teaching authority of the Church is one Magisterium. The documents of the First and Second Vatican Councils, the CCC, and other authoritative sources only speak of one Magisterium. For example:

“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ…. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.” (CCC 85, 86 quoting Dei Verbum 10)

The Magisterium of the Church is exercised in several different ways. The Magisterium is exercised infallibly in any of three ways:
1. Papal Infallibility
2. Conciliar Infallibility
3. the ordinary and universal Magisterium

The Magisterium is exercised non-infallibly whenever the Pope, an Ecumenical Council, or the Bishops exercise the Magisterium apart from the conditions required for an infallible teaching. But the Magisterium itself is one teaching authority from Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Second Error: “Of course, non-infallible is just a nicer way of saying fallible. As Catholics, we all hold to the infallible teachings of the Church, but there are other teachings as well: the fallible kind or in other words, the non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium.”

Correction: When the Pope or an Ecumenical Council or any Bishop or group of Bishops exercises the Magisterium non-infallibly, they teach with the authority of Christ. They teach in persona Christi. They teach with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

Some foolish persons have tried to say that non-infallible teachings cannot err, and that the only difference between a non-infallible teaching and an infallible teaching is that infallible teachings are formally defined. Not so. The First Vatican Council infallibly taught the conditions under which a Pope teaches infallibly (apart from the body of Bishops). Anyone claiming that the Pope teaches infallibly at all times, even short of those conditions, is essentially rejecting the dogma of the First Vatican Council. So we absolutely cannot represent the non-infallible teaching of the Pope as if it were necessarily free from all error. Non-infallible teachings may contain some errors.

The other error is that of Pat Archbold: the claim that non-infallible teachings are merely fallible, as if they were no different from a fallible opinion by a Pope. Not so. Whenever the Pope speaks or writes as an “act of the Magisterium”, he speaks with the authority of Christ and with the help of the Holy Spirit. And the same is true when the Bishops exercise the Magisterium, even individually. Second Vatican Council makes this point very clear:

“For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith.” (Lumen Gentium 25)

The claim that the Pope, or an Ecumenical Council, or a Bishop exercises the teaching authority of the Church (the Magisterium) fallibly, is incompatible with the teaching of the Church that they speak with the authority of Christ and the ability of the Holy Spirit. But many teachings of the Church clearly fall short of the Church’s own criteria for an infallible teaching. What is the third possibility then?

The answer is the proper understanding of the term: “non-infallible”. A non-infallible teaching is not infallible, and so some degree or type of error is possible. But it also rises far above the term “fallible” because the non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium have only a limited possibility of error. The Holy Spirit assists the Pope and the Bishops such that their exercise of the authentic non-infallible Magisterium can never lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.

And that is why the Church is justified in requiring the religious submission of intellect and will to non-infallible teachings, despite the possibility of error. The non-infallible teachings are eminently useful on the path of salvation, and they can never err to a grave extent, taking one away from that path to eternal life.

Third Error: “It should be obvious that daily homilies and secular interviews are also considered non-infallible teachings of the Pope’s ordinary Magisterium….”

A secular interview with the Pope is not an act of the Magisterium, neither is a homily (typically). For example, Pope John XXII (22nd, not 23rd) gave a series of homilies at Masses in which he asserted the erroneous opinion that the souls in Heaven lack the Beatific Vision until after the general Resurrection. When people objected to that view, he asserted that it was in the realm of theological opinion, not an act of the Magisterium. As for interviews with the press, no one thinks these assertions by the Pope fall under the Magisterium at all, except a few ignorant persons.

Fourth Error: “Under this broad class of non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium, we find things such as encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and even the documents of the Second Vatican Council, as that council chose not to make any solemn dogmatic definitions, while at the same time reiterating many Catholic truths that are infallible.”

Correction: Documents are not classified as infallible documents or non-infallible documents. Only acts of the Magisterium, that is to say, teachings of the Church, are so classified. One and the same document might contain an infallible teaching under Papal Infallibility, or an infallible teaching under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, as well as non-infallible teachings and some assertions which are not teachings at all: observations on the current state of the Church or society, judgments of the prudential order, decisions on liturgical form, etc.

As for the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, I believe that the Council did teach infallibly. The Church is not constrained so that She can only teach infallibly in certain types of documents, or only in a formal Canon with an attached anathema. There are teachings of the Second Vatican Council which, to my mind, meet the criteria for a teaching to fall under Conciliar Infallibility. For example, this teaching of Lumen Gentium:

“This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful.” (Lumen Gentium 18)

The phrasing “to be firmly believed by all the faithful” is often used to indicate an infallible teaching. [See Cardinal Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei”, n. 6.]

Furthermore, the following teaching of the Second Vatican Council is likewise taught definitively; it is proposed to be firmly believed by all the faithful:

“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)

There may be other examples of teachings of the Second Vatican Council that are infallible under Conciliar Infallibility. But I say more. Since the time of Vatican II, the successive Popes and the body of Bishops in communion with the Pope, have continually taught many teachings found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. These teachings, having now been taught universally under the ordinary Magisterium, are infallible. They fall under the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church.

So it is false to represent the teachings of the Second Vatican Council as if they were entirely non-infallible.

Fifth Error: “But when the Popes of today seem to ignore the previous magisterium and neglect efforts to establish continuity and reconcile previous Papal statements for us, there is a gap and that gap will be filled.”

Correction: When I started my Catholic blog, no one told me that being a Catholic blogger gave me the authority to judge and correct the Popes. But I gather from the way that so many Catholic bloggers speak about each Pope that such is the case. Is it not?

To phrase this point less sarcastically, it is exceedingly arrogant for Pat Archbold to criticize “the recent Popes” for not teaching in the way that he supposes is best, by summarizing and commenting on all past magisterial teaching on any subject. Here is a man who has badly misunderstood the very word “Magisterium” and who teaches without first researching a subject. Yet he feels he is qualified to judge and rebuke multiple Popes for not exercising the Magisterium as he sees fit. And if he thinks it is his role to judge and correct the Pope, how can he possibly be corrected by any Pope? The arrogance of Catholic authors today is just as astounding as their ignorance.

Pat Archbold’s post supposedly corrects various errors on the Magisterium by his fellow Catholics. But actually, the post is full of its own errors and misunderstandings. Unfortunately, most of those Catholics who go around online spreading various errors on Catholicism are so full of pride that they never accept correction from anyone. Not from the Pope. Not from an Ecumenical Council. And certainly not from anyone as lowly as me.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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