When is a teaching of the Church infallible?

The infallible Sacred Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church can be exercised in any of three ways.

I. Papal Infallibility

The Pope has, in and of himself, by virtue of his office, the full ability and authority of the Sacred Magisterium. Therefore, the Pope can exercise the Sacred Magisterium without the participation of any of the Bishops. The criteria under which the Pope exercises Papal Infallibility are five, as defined and taught by the First and Second Vatican Councils.

First Vatican Council:

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”

Second Vatican Council:

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”

Whenever the teaching of the Roman Pontiff falls short of meeting all of these criteria, then his teaching is non-infallible. If anyone claims that the teaching of the Pope is always infallible regardless of these criteria, or that his teaching is infallible under a greater or lesser set of conditions, then he contradicts the infallible definition of the First Vatican Council on Papal Infallibility, and he falls under the anathema of the Council.

First Vatican Council: “If anyone, God forbid, should presume to contradict this our definition, let him be anathema.”

II. Ecumenical Councils (the body of Bishops gathered with the Pope as their head)

It is not necessary for every Bishop to participate in order for a such a gathering to exercise the infallible Sacred Magisterium. However, the body of Bishops must be sufficiently represented. A gathering of local Bishops from only one nation or one area would not be representative of the body of Bishops and of the universal Church which they authoritatively teach and guide. All such gatherings must occur under the authority, teaching, and guidance of the Pope. No matter how many Bishops gather together, and no matter what they say, the Bishops cannot exercise the Sacred Magisterium apart from the Pope. For the Pope has a special charism from God to oversee the Bishops whenever they exercise the Sacred Magisterium. Without such oversight, the Bishops cannot exercise any type of infallibility under the Magisterium.

An Ecumenical Council is the body of Bishops with the Pope as their head. Each and every valid Ecumenical Council possesses the full authority given by Christ to the Pope and the body of Bishops. Therefore, a Council can exercise both the teaching authority and the temporal authority. And the teaching authority may be exercised by a Council either infallibly or non-infallibly. The temporal decisions of a Council are not teachings; they are decisions of the prudential order on matters of discipline, not doctrine. Such decisions are changeable and revocable. A Council’s non-infallible teachings, like all non-infallible teachings, have a limited possibility of error, and so also have a limited possibility of reform. A Council’s infallible teachings, like all infallible teachings, have no possibility of error and are irreformable.

The Pope is not personally infallible; rather, it is his teaching that is infallible when it meets certain criteria. Similarly, Ecumenical Councils are not in and of themselves infallible; rather, it is their teaching that is infallible when it meets certain criteria. Although there is no formal definition telling us when a Council is teaching infallibly, we can apply the criteria of papal infallibility, with slight modification, to the infallibility exercised by a Council.

1. the body of bishops gathered with the Pope as their head
2. speak ex cathedra (by their office as shepherds and teachers of the Church)
3. they define
4. that a doctrine concerning faith or morals
5. must be held by the whole Church

Not every teaching of every Council is infallible. This is particularly clear in the more ancient councils, when infallible teachings were distinguished as separate Canons with attached anathemas for those who would reject the teaching. But there were also various teachings that were non-infallible, such as the introductory material before a set of infallible Canons, and various exhortations to holiness, outside of the infallible Canons.

III. The Universal Magisterium (i.e. the ordinary and universal Magisterium)

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.”

1. the body of bishops, dispersed through the world, with the Pope as their head
2. speak ex cathedra (by their office as shepherds and teachers of the Church)
3. they teach, universally,
4. that a doctrine concerning faith or morals
5. is definitively to be held by the whole Church

This particular type of exercise of the Sacred Magisterium is often called ‘ordinary and universal’ because it takes place in the course of the daily teaching and witness of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world yet united with the Pope, and not in the course of a particular gathering or a particular document. First, many Bishops, individually or in local groups, in various ways, at various times, exercise the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium on a particular point of doctrine. Eventually, this non-infallible teaching becomes taught universally, both by Bishops throughout the world, and by the Pope as their head. When such a teaching, which initially was taught under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, is finally taught definitively by the Bishops dispersed through the world and by the Roman Pontiff as the head of the Bishops, then this ordinary teaching becomes a universal teaching, and therefore infallible. For the whole body of Bishops led by the Pope cannot err when they are in agreement on one position of faith and morals definitively to be held by all the faithful.

The Universal Magisterium is exercised when the Bishops dispersed through the world, and the Pope also, teach one and the same doctrine, from the Deposit of Faith, as a required belief for all the faithful. Such an exercise occurs over time within the daily preaching and witness of the Bishops and the Pope. It may find various written expressions in various times and forms, but those particular expressions are not themselves an infallible exercise of the Sacred Magisterium. The universality of such a definitive teaching is what moves the teaching from falling initially under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium to fall finally under the infallible Sacred Magisterium.

The Universal Magisterium cannot be exercised apart from the Pope because the Pope is the head of the body of Bishops. If no Pope has ever taught or witnessed to a particular teaching, then it is not a teaching of the Universal Magisterium, nor does it fall under any exercise of the Sacred Magisterium.

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

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