Are There Two Levels of Infallible Teachings?

Licit Theological Dissent

The faithful in Christ are permitted by holy Mother Church to sometimes disagree with a decision of the Roman Pontiff or of Church authority more generally on a matter of discipline, without sin. The reason is that ordinary decisions of the temporal authority are not infallible. The Church can err is matters of prudential judgment. The Pope can err in decisions of discipline and of administration, as is admitted by everyone in the case of Pope Saint Celestine V. However, the faithful cannot contemn the Pope or the Church for a such a decision, nor can they be certain that their judgment is correct and that of the Pope or Church is wrong. For while the gift of infallibility given to the Roman Pontiff, individually as well as working in union with the body of Bishops, and the gift of indefectibility is given to the Church, we individual Catholic faithful have no such gifts of infallibility or indefectibility.

The latter error is common today. Certain conservative Catholics speak as if they are absolutely certain on matters of discipline, such as who may receive Communion, and as if the Roman Pontiff were clearly in error, or even as if he were “propagating heresy”. Licit dissent from matters of discipline or doctrine never extends such that the faithful dissenter can claim infallibility for himself or for his group — unless he is the Roman Pontiff exercising Papal Infallibility, or the group is the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff, in an Ecumenical Council or dispersed in the world.

Licit dissent from matters of discipline has limitations. One cannot faithfully dissent from all or most decisions on discipline, nor can one proclaim that the Church has no real authority over discipline or temporal matters. For Peter has two swords, which are the authority over spiritual matters (doctrine) and over temporal matters (discipline and judgments of the prudential order). And the two keys of Peter represent the same two-fold authority. This doctrine is taught in Unam Sanctam, which document and teaching was confirmed by the Fifth Lateran Council, making the teaching infallible.

On matters of doctrine, the extent to which a faithful Catholic may licitly dissent is narrower than in matters of discipline. However, when a teaching of the Magisterium is non-infallible, the assent required of the faithful is of a different type and lesser degree: religious assent, also termed the religious submission of will and intellect. Ordinary non-infallible teachings require only this ordinary type of assent. And as is clear from Human Life in Our Day and Donum Veritatis, which speak of non-infallible and non-irreformable teachings.

The First Vatican Council infallibly taught that the teachings of the Roman Pontiff, exercising his own authority (that is, apart from Conciliar Infallibility and the ordinary and universal Magisterium) are only infallible when they meet certain conditions. This implies necessarily that teachings of the Pope short of infallibility are non-infallible. The claim that all teachings of the Roman Pontiff are infallible is a heresy which directly contradicts the dogma of Papal Infallibility.

Since these teachings are non-infallible and non-irreformable, and since, according to both the First and Second Vatican Councils, said teachings do not require the full assent of faith (divine and catholic faith), the faithful who disagree with a particular non-infallible teaching are not guilty of heresy, nor necessarily of any sin. For, as Human Life in Our Day and Donum Veritatis clearly say, some limited but licit theological dissent is possible, without any sin.

Of course, one can dissent from a non-infallible teaching unfaithfully and sinfully, as when the individual gives little regard to the authority of the Pope or the Magisterium, or when the individual exalts his or her own understanding above Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Licit dissent from a non-infallible teaching must be firmly based on the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, as well as other teachings of the Magisterium. And if one were to dissent from, or disregard, all non-infallible teachings, such dissent is gravely immoral and essentially a type of heresy. Ordinarily, heresy pertains to teachings which require theological assent (divine and catholic faith). But rejection of all non-infallible teachings implies rejection of a substantial part of the authority of the Magisterium, and that authority is a divinely-revealed dogma.

But now we come to the question of infallible teachings. The Magisterium teaches infallibly in any of three ways: Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, and the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

“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.” [First Vatican Council]

These teachings require the type of assent called theological assent, or the full assent of faith, or divine and catholic faith. Obstinate denial or obstinate doubt of such a teaching is the grave sin of heresy.

Now we come to an assertion found in very few places in the teachings of the Church. I have found nothing prior to the time of Cardinal Ratzinger’s leadership of the CDF making this assertion. It is taught in the doctrinal commentary of the CDF on the Profession of Faith written by Pope Saint John Paul II and also in Donum Veritatis:

“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.”

This non-infallible teaching of then-Cardinal Ratzinger proposes a second level of infallible teachings, which do not required the full assent of faith, but only require that they be “firmly accepted and held”. As the Profession of Faith says: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” And Canon Law 750, following the Profession of Faith text, states that these teachings on faith and morals are “to be held definitively”. But, as Cardinal Ratzinger says in his doctrinal commentary, whoever refuses to give “firm and definitive assent to these truths” is not guilty to the extent of heresy, but “would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”

Now, this non-infallible teaching, distinguishing two different levels of authority to the infallible teachings of the Magisterium, and two different types of assent required, is problematic.

What distinguishes the two types? The first, requiring divine and catholic faith, is taught infallibly by the Magisterium as a truth which is divinely-revealed in Sacred Tradition and/or Sacred Scripture. The second is infallibly taught by the Magisterium under Papal Infallibility, or Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium as a judgment definitively to be held:

“Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a ‘sententia definitive tenenda’.”

So Cardinal Ratzinger is saying that an infallible teaching, under any of the three types of infallibility, can be both infallibly taught and yet not taught as part of divine revelation. The subject area is faith and morals, not dogmatic facts (which are infallible, but not teachings on faith and morals). From which sources does the Magisterium teach infallibly, apart from divine revelation? When the Magisterium teaches from natural law, it teaches truths also found, at least implicitly, in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. So these moral truths are found in divine revelation. In fact, all the truths of natural law, and all moral truths, are found at least implicitly in Sacred Scripture. Every sin can in some way be related to the Ten Commandments, and to the two great commandments, love God and neighbor. Thus, the subject of this type of infallible teaching are truths which are implicit in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.

And now we come to the question of two dogmas taught under Papal Infallibility: the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Each of these dogmas is implicit in Sacred Scripture. And each dogma was not found explicitly in Sacred Tradition from the very beginning. So these are truths which fit the description of having a necessary connection to the truths explicitly taught in divine revelation. Yet they are taught as divinely revealed, and they require the full assent of faith.

The assertion of Ratzinger that these secondary truths are “definitively to be held” conflicts with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (LG 25) which states that all the teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium are “one position as definitively to be held”. In fact, the Second Vatican Council, the First Vatican Council, and all the prior Councils which exercised infallibility have never made such a distinction.

Certainly, some truths are explicitly taught in Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture, and other truths are implicitly taught. These latter are termed truths which have a necessary connection to the former truths. But both are divinely-revealed. If we can only call truths divinely revealed when they are explicitly taught in Divine Revelation, then many dogmas would fall into the second lesser category of belief, including many dogmatic canons with attached anathemas. The Conciliar Fathers at many different Councils certainly did not intend a lesser type of assent for such teachings. And the attached anathema indicates that they considered any failure to believe these infallible teachings — many of which clearly meet the criteria of Ratzinger for the lesser type — to be believed with anything less than divine and catholic faith under penalty of heresy.

The examples of the second type, given by Ratzinger in the doctrinal commentary, are problematic. He claims that prior to the First Vatican Council, the teaching on the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff was itself an infallible teaching, but not yet taught to be divinely-revealed until that Council. Such a claim is difficult to substantiate, since every text going back to the early Church fathers, discussing this truth cites the words of our Lord on Peter as the Rock, Peter as holding the keys, and Peters as the person whose faith does not fail because Jesus prays for him and his successors.

Therefore, a better position on that point is that the teaching on Papal Infallibility was infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium prior to Vatican I, and became infallible also under Conciliar Infallibility, with greater clarity at to its limits or conditions at the Vatican Council. The Church’s understanding and teaching of dogmatic truths increases in clarity and specificity, often, as time passes. She understands the truths of Divine Revelation ever better, and this is reflected in Her teachings.

Strangely, Cardinal Ratzinger gives, as an example of the second type of infallible teaching, that priestly ordination is reserved only for men. And yet he states that this truth is “founded on the written word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” So it is infallibly taught, and found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Nothing would seem to keep it from being found in the first category of infallible truths, yet it is claimed to be in the second.

Ratzinger: “Other examples of moral doctrines which are taught as definitive by the universal and ordinary Magisterium of the Church are: the teaching on the illicitness of prostitution and of fornication.” We know that Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition have always condemned these types of immoral behavior. So here are two more examples of truths which are said to fall into the second type of infallible teachings, and yet Sacred Scripture clearly teaches these truths (the condemnation of prostitution and fornication), making them divinely-revealed truths.

Thus, some of the examples given by Ratzinger as falling into the second type clearly fall into the first type, the category of divinely-revealed truths infallibly taught by the Magisterium. Some other examples said to fall into the second type are as follows:

“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.”

I would argue that the canonization of Saints is not infallible at all. I know that the position of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints is that it is not a teaching of the Magisterium, but only the majority opinion of theologians, that the canonization of Saints falls under the secondary object of Papal Infallibility.

Dogmatic facts are not teachings of faith or morals, so they don’t meet that condition stated by Ratzinger for the second category. I would place dogmatic facts as a type of infallible exercise of the temporal authority of the Church. This includes the list of valid Popes and valid Ecumenical Councils, and the declaration in Apostolicae Curae. Dogmatic facts are infallible, and are not divinely-revealed, and they do not require the full assent of faith, yet they are definitively to be held. So, in my view, even though dogmatic facts are not teachings of faith and morals, but only truths having a necessary connection to the teachings on faith and morals, they are the only thing that falls into this second category of infallible teachings.

Therefore, every truth on faith, morals, and salvation, taught infallibly by the Magisterium, is in fact divinely-revealed, as being either explicit or implicit in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. There are no truths on faith, morals, and salvation, other than dogmatic facts, which are infallible yet not divinely-revealed.

I personally give my full assent of faith — divine and catholic faith or theological assent — to every infallible teaching of the Magisterium, whether taught by Papal Infallibility or Conciliar Infallibility or the ordinary and universal Magisterium, whether the truth is explicit or implicit in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. And I consider every dogmatic fact as requiring my definitive assent, which I never withhold or doubt.

This conclusion, however, implies that Cardinal Ratzinger erred in a teaching of the non-infallible Magisterium, in so far as some of the infallible truths he categorizes as requiring lesser assent actually require the full assent of divine and catholic faith. I am faithfully and licitly dissenting from his non-infallible teaching, based on the teachings of past Ecumenical Councils, which presented every infallible teaching as requiring the full assent of faith under pain of heresy, and on the teachings of the First and Second Vatican Councils, which also do not make such a distinction.

So here is an example of licit theological dissent from a non-infallible teaching. Everything that the Magisterium teaches, infallibly, is found at least implicitly in Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture. And all such teachings require the full assent of faith.

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

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6 Responses to Are There Two Levels of Infallible Teachings?

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    I will ask this here, since your Q&A seems closed to comments.
    Can a priest give absolution in Confession by radio? Say some miners are trapped in a cave-in and cannot be reasonably rescued in time to save them. Could a miner confess by smartphone? Or say an astronaut is dying on the ISS and wished to make a Confession.

    • Ron Conte says:

      No. Confession has to be made in person. In a grave situation, a person can make an act of perfect contrition, with the intention to confess later, if possible.

  2. Emanuel Costa says:

    Great article. Thanks for your hard work. If you don’t mind, I have a question for you not related to this topic. On today reading (Mk 5: 1-20), there is a line saying, ” Send us into the swine. Let us enter them. And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine.” My question is: Did Our Lord obey the devil? If so, how does it make sense?
    Thanks,
    Emanuel

    • Ron Conte says:

      They asked to enter the swine because they knew that our Lord has authority over all things. He agreed because the plan was, unknown to the devils who asked, part of the providence of God. The people of that region should not have been raising swine, as these animals are unclean. And the rushing of the swine to their deaths becomes a figure of persons immersed in unclean behaviors, who fail to repent and so are, in effect, rushing toward Hell.

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    Another off topic question besides mine.
    Perhaps you should just post a Q and A on the first of every month, and keep it open for the whole month?

  4. Matt Z. says:

    According to Fr.Hardon the demons did not know if Jesus was the Savior, they were not sure. At what point they became sure I dont know. Maybe the demons were testing Jesus to see if he was the Savior and God by requesting to be driven into the swine.

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