When does the Pope teach infallibly?

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By Father Brian Morris

A brave individual wrote a letter to the editor, which is being published in this week’s edition, in response to my article on Papal infallibility. May I first say how happy I am to have received a response. This is the kind of dialogue that Fathers Brice and Battey and I were hoping to spark with our columns. So please, follow this example and send us your questions or comments about what we are writing. We love to hear how we can improve our answers and even our own understanding of questions about our faith and our Church.

In my previous article I mentioned that the pope has only used his ability to speak infallibly twice. I referred to this as the pope speaking “ex-cathedra” or “from the chair.” A chair is the symbolic figure of a bishop’s authority. Bishop Tobin’s chair in the cathedral has his episcopal crest on it as a symbol of his authority here in the Diocese of Providence as a successor of the Apostles. If you go to Mass at the Cathedral, you’ll notice that unless he is the presider, that chair remains empty, for only he has the right to sit there.

What I failed to mention is that there are in fact three different modes in which the Church speaks infallibly. The teaching office of the Church is called the “magisterium” and it is divided between the ordinary universal magisterium and the extraordinary magisterium, under which papal ex-cathedra statements fall. The other half of the Church’s extraordinary magisterium comes in the form of ecumenical councils. Although this does not mean that every ecumenical council teaches something infallibly. Vatican II, our most recent one that took place between 1962 and 1965, did not teach anything infallibly. It was a primarily pastoral council. Vatican I, as I mentioned in my previous article, issued the infallible statement that the Pope can teach infallibly. The Nicene Council in 325 and the First Council of Constantinople in 381 infallibly gave us the Nicene Creed, which we profess every Sunday. There are other teachings by many other councils that address things such as the natures of Christ, His institution of the sacraments, and so on, that have been taught by ecumenical councils.

The other mode is called the Ordinary and Universal magisterium. Lumen Gentium, 25 discusses this as follows: “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.” A recent example of this was when Pope St. John Paul II officially declared that the Catholic Church has no power to ordain women in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994. He was not speaking solely as the Roman Pontiff, ex-cathedra, but as the head of the universal body of bishops throughout the world.

There was a question about the Catechism and the Code of Canon law, and whether or not they are infallible documents. They by themselves are not. Both have been updated over the years. Many of you may remember the Baltimore Catechism that you had to memorize in Sunday school. Also, the code of canon law is updated from a previous 1917 code. Both documents contain infallible teachings of the Church, but they also contain pastoral teachings that can be updated with time. The code also contains many procedural codes that are in no way infallible. Just because it’s not infallible does not mean that Catholics are not bound to follow them, hence we are bound by the rules set down in the code, even if those rules could be updated at a future time.

Finally, I agree with the writer of the letter that we have a duty to avoid anything that directly contradicts the teachings of the pope when he is exercising his authentic teaching authority, even when not teaching infallibly. It is certainly part of the leap of faith that Christ asks us to take in trusting in the magisterium of the Church, both fallible and infallible. One of the beautiful things about the history of our Church is that so much of our teaching has come out of discussions and use of reason to find the greater truths that God wants to share with us. I hope this answers the questions put forth. And I really hope it has inspired others to write us!

“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers.

Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.