Magisterial Teachings and Levels of Assent

The Magisterium is one authority (and ability) given to the Church by the Holy Spirit. But since the Magisterium teaches either infallibly or non-infallibly, we can divide the Magisterium, conceptually, into two types of exercises of that authority:

1. infallible (no possibility of error)
2. non-infallible (limited possibility of error)

There would then seem to be two levels of assent to magisterial teachings:

1. the full assent of faith (theological assent, or sacred assent) for infallible magisterial teachings.
2. the religious submission of will and intellect (religious assent, or ordinary assent) for non-infallible teachings.

However, before Pope Benedict XVI became Pope, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he asserted a duality to the infallible teachings of the Magisterium and a corresponding duality to the assent required of infallible teachings. But after he became Pope Benedict XVI, as far as I know, he did NOT teach the same idea under the papal magisterium. So this duality appears to be the non-infallible teaching of one Prefect of the CDF, and not the teaching of any Pope. In addition, this teaching of Cardinal Ratzinger is reflected in Canon Law, in the distinctions of teaching and assent between Canon 750 n. 1 and n. 2.

The teaching is summarized by Ratzinger in Donum Veritatis (n. 23):

“When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.

“When the Magisterium proposes “in a definitive way” truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.

“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.”

So the first type of infallible teaching (1A) is divinely revealed. And the second type of infallible teaching (1B) is not proposed as divinely revealed, but is “strictly and intimately connected with Revelation”, i.e. with divinely revealed truths. However, the second type may, at a later time, be proclaimed as divinely revealed, elevating these teachings to the first type.

The assent required of the first type (1A) is “the assent of theological faith”, also called “divine and catholic faith.” The faithful are to believe these truths because they are definitively taught by the Magisterium to be divinely revealed.

The assent required of the second type (1B) is that they are “to be held definitively”.

What is the basis for this difference?

“The difference concerns the supernatural virtue of faith: in the case of truths of the first paragraph [1A], the assent is based directly on faith in the authority of the word of God (doctrines de fide credenda); in the case of the truths of the second paragraph [1B], the assent is based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium (doctrines de fide tenenda).”

I disagree that the difference is that 1A is based on faith in the authority of the word of God, since 1A teachings only requires theological assent if also taught infallibly by the Magisterium. If they are taught non-infallibly, or if the Magisterium has no teaching on how a particular aspect of Tradition or Scripture is to be understood, theological assent is not required. So the truths of the first type require the full assent of faith based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium. And that is exactly the same reason that truths of the second type [1B] require assent.

Both types of teachings are infallible, and both rest for their infallibility on God. For the Word of God in Tradition and Scripture are from the Holy Spirit, as are all the infallible teachings of the Magisterium. Therefore, we cannot say that the difference is that the first type are divinely revealed, and the second type are not divinely revealed. For the second type are revealed by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Magisterium and by their necessary, strict, and intimate connection with divinely revealed truths.

Furthermore, all infallibility is from God. So the difference is not really that one is divinely revealed and the other is not. They both are divinely revealed. The difference is that the first type are explicit in Divine Revelation, and the second type are implicit in Divine Revelation. But the second type is no less divinely revealed. For many of the truths about Christ, taught explicitly in the New Testament, are also implicit in the Old Testament.

Ratzinger states that the faithful who reject the first type of infallible teaching fall into the sin of heresy. But if they reject the second type of infallible teaching they “would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.” What is the difference between being separated from the Church due to heresy (i.e. automatic excommunication) and no longer being in full communion? There is little, if any, difference. For the person, in each case, is knowingly and deliberately rejecting a truth infallibly taught by the Magisterium. And in each case they are separated from the Church.

In addition, both types of teaching, Ratzinger explains, can be taught under Papal Infallibility, or Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium. And this presents quite an obstacle to the claim that there exist two types of infallible teachings. For the Church can teach a truth under Papal Infallibility or Conciliar Infallibility or the ordinary and universal Magisterium, and yet somehow it is not divinely revealed? But it is of the Holy Spirit, teaching through the Magisterium on a truth with a necessary, strict, and intimate connection with divinely revealed truth. So the claim that the second type are not divinely revealed is not tenable.

For both types are infallibly and definitively taught, the second as much as the first:

“The fact that these doctrines may not be proposed as formally revealed, insofar as they add to the data of faith elements that are not revealed or which are not yet expressly recognized as such, in no way diminishes their definitive character, which is required at least by their intrinsic connection with revealed truth.”

So as we continue to examine the two types of infallible teachings, no substantial difference presents itself.

What about the types of assent? The first type is said to require theological assent, while the second requires the truth to be held definitively. But the second type can be later elevated to be a teaching that is now said to be divinely revealed. If you definitively hold a teaching to be infallible, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Magisterium, I see no increase in belief if it is then elevated to be a divinely revealed truth. In fact, as already discussed, the second type are essentially divinely revealed.

The only difference between the two types of infallible teachings seems to be that the first is divinely revealed in Tradition or Scripture, that is to say, explicitly taught, while the second are implicitly taught. For the second type have a necessary, strict, and intimate connection with divinely revealed truths in Tradition and Scripture. So the second type are found within Tradition and Scripture, implicitly, but this makes those truths no less divinely revealed. And the fact that the second type can be later elevated to fall under the first type confirms this fact.

However, the second type of infallible teachings are further subdivided into two connections to the first type: logical or historical. And here we do find a substantial difference.

“There are truths which are necessarily connected with revelation by virtue of an historical relationship, while other truths evince a logical connection that expresses a stage in the maturation of understanding of revelation which the Church is called to undertake.”

Revealed truths implicit in Tradition and Scripture include the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Neither is mentioned explicitly in the Bible. And yet both are implied by the holiness of Mary and her perfect imitation of her Divine Son. There is a logical connection between the explicitly stated truths in Revelation, and those implicit truths about Mary, eventually defined under Papal Infallibility.

Examples of historical truths seem to be nothing other than dogmatic facts:

“With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations.”

The phrase “dogmatic facts” in parentheses above is in the original text; it was not added by me. Dogmatic facts are not explicit or implicit in Tradition or Scripture — unless perhaps we extend Tradition to include the events found in the living Tradition. Dogmatic facts are not divinely revealed, but they are infallible by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Magisterium. And since they are facts, and not divinely revealed truths, it does make sense to use differing terminology, such as “to be held definitively” versus to be believed with “divine and catholic faith”.

So the distinction that Ratzinger makes is useful and is based on real differences. However, I would say that truths taught by Tradition or Scripture implicitly (logical connection) are no less divinely revealed, and require no less from the faithful than the full assent of theological faith. But the truths of dogmatic facts are to be held definitively, in a different way than revealed truths.


I think it is a real error to say that some teachings of Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, and the ordinary and universal Magisterium do not require the full assent of theological faith, but only a lesser assent called “to be held definitively”. There exists no such distinction in the teachings of past Ecumenical Councils. The First Vatican Council, within the very definition of Papal Infallibility, allows for no such distinction, since all teachings under Papal Infallibility are said “to be held by the whole Church.”

Furthermore, the First Vatican Council definitively teaches that:

“Therefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”

There is no room in that teaching of the Council for other teachings of solemn judgment (Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility) or the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which are not “to be believed as divinely revealed” and which do not require “divine and Catholic faith”.

And then the Second Vatican Council uses the term “definitively to be held” — which Ratzinger restricts to a subset of infallible teachings — for all the teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium [Lumen Gentium 25].

The Council of Trent uses the simple phrase “to be held” for its infallible declaration on the Canon of Sacred Scripture. Are we to conclude that the Canon itself of Sacred Scripture — written Divine Revelation — is not a divinely revealed teaching?

The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are each infallible under Papal Infallibility, and each are divinely revealed, yet neither is explicit in Tradition or Scripture. Both dogmas have that logical, necessary, strict, and intimate connection with explicitly taught truths, placing them in the second type of infallible teachings. And yet it is certainly heresy to deny either dogma, which would place them in the first type.

The CDF document, Mysterium Ecclesiae, uses the phrase “to be held” for each type of infallible teaching, Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, the ordinary universal Magisterium, and thought the document also uses the phrase “divine and catholic faith”, it is not used as referring to a distinct type of assent or infallibility:

In carrying out their task, the pastors of the Church enjoy the assistance of the Holy Spirit; this assistance reaches its highest point when they teach the People of God in such a manner that, through the promises of Christ made to Peter and the other Apostles, the doctrine they propose is necessarily immune from error. This occurs when the bishops scattered throughout the world but teaching in communion with the Successor of Peter present a doctrine to be held irrevocably. It occurs even more clearly both when the bishops by a collegial act (as in Ecumenical Councils), together with their visible Head, define a doctrine to be held, and when the Roman Pontiff “speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, exercising the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, through his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.”

So from all of the above, we can conclude that Cardinal Ratzinger’s division of infallible teachings into two types contains some truth and some error. Infallible truths taught by the Magisterium can be explicit or implicit in Tradition and Scripture. But when either type of truth, explicit or implicit, is taught by the Magisterium, the full assent of theological faith is required. The lesser type of assent to the infallible only applies to dogmatic facts (i.e. historical connection to revealed truth).

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

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