Many Catholic Christians believe that what the Church teaches on one or more subjects regarding faith and morals is wrong. Such Catholics try to legitimize their dissent from those teachings by appealing to cases where a teaching has apparently “changed”, or they note that such a teaching has “never been taught infallibly”.
Since the Church has supposedly flip-flopped on her teaching in the first case, they argue, it can happen again in another case. In the second case, believing the teaching hasn’t been taught infallibly, they appeal to the primacy of the individual conscience, which promotes “the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1782).
In either case, such people don’t feel it necessary to assent to the teaching that they would like to see changed. We will see why such notions are completely erroneous and show that Catholic Christians are bound to assent to such teachings even if they haven’t been formally revealed (e.g., the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men). Since the Church’s teachings on sexual morality are constantly attacked, the majority of this essay uses examples concerning sexual morality.
Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium
First, a doctrine does not need to be infallibly defined by the Pope through his extraordinary Magisterium (that is, when he speaks ex cathedra) to be infallible. The Pope, as well as the bishops in communion with him, can infallibly teach by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The ordinary Magisterium is defined as follows by Frs. John Trigilio, Jr. and Kenneth Brighenti:
The second way that an infallible teaching is taught to Catholics is through the Ordinary Magisterium, which is the more common and typical manner, hence the reason why it’s called ordinary. …
It’s never a new doctrine but rather one that has been taught ubique, semper et ab omnibus (Latin for everywhere, always and by all). In other words, when the pope reinforces, reiterates, or restates the consistent teaching of his predecessors and of the bishops united with him around the world, that’s considered the Ordinary Magisterium and should be treated as infallible doctrine. …
So-called dissent from papal teaching in encyclicals isn’t part of Catholic belief. The Catholic faithful willfully conform to papal teaching and don’t dispute it. (“What Are Extraordinary Magisterium and Ordinary Magisterium?”)
Theologians Fr. John C. Ford, S.J. and Germain Grisez give one such example of this from Church history:
… [T]he ordinary and universal magisterium determines an object of faith when it proposes something to be believed even without defining it. [Bishop Konrad] Martin’s example was this: All Catholic bishops believed in the divinity of Christ before the Council of Nicaea, but this doctrine was not openly defined and openly declared until that Council; therefore, in the time before the Council of Nicaea, this dogma was taught by the ordinary magisterium.
Three Categories of Belief
In 1998, Pope St. John Paul II promulgated Ad Tuendam Fidem, which added to the Code of Canon Law “new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church …” (Op. cit., Preface). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) also issued a doctrinal commentary along with the motu proprio in order to explain more clearly what teachings Catholics are bound to accept. You can find a summary of that commentary here. Let’s unpack it.
There are three categories of belief as described in the above summary:
- Teachings that are divinely revealed,
- Teachings that are definitively proposed, and
- Teachings that are of the authentic ordinary Magisterium.
The teachings in the first category are either revealed in Scripture, Tradition, or “defined with a solemn judgment of the Church as divinely revealed truth.” The teachings in the second category are “definitively proposed by the Church on faith and morals which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed.” The teachings of the first two categories are always and everywhere to be given “full and irrevocable consent” by the faithful; they are to be “held definitively”.
The third category of belief contains “all those teachings on faith and morals—presented as true, or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium,” whether of the Pope or of the College of Bishops. According to the CDF, “They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with these truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error”. But even these teachings require the “religious submission of will and intellect” (Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei 10).
Defining and Non-Defining Acts
The teachings in the first two categories of belief can be either a defining act or a non-defining act. As the CDF’s commentary made clear:
In the case of a defining act, a truth is solemnly defined by an “ex cathedra” pronouncement by the Roman Pontiff or by the action of an ecumenical council. In the case of a non-defining act, a doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of Peter. Such doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition …. Consequently, when there has not been a judgment on a doctrine in the solemn form of a definition, but this doctrine, belonging to the inheritance of the depositum fidei [deposit of faith], is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the Pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. (CDF 9; italics in original)
The CDF’s commentary further elaborates: “With regard to the nature of the assent owed to the truths set forth by the Church as divinely revealed (those of the first [category]) or to be held definitively (those of the second), it is important to emphasize that there is no difference with respect to the full and irrevocable character of the assent which is owed to these teachings” (CDF 8; italics added).
In other words, if a teaching of the Church belongs to one of the first two categories, then that teaching is infallible and true. Earlier in the document, the CDF makes it clear:
Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths 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. (Ibid. 6.2; italics in original)
Humanae Vitae is Infallible
Let’s look at one aspect of the Church’s teaching that is contested by many Catholics: the prohibition of contraception, particularly in Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Human Births). Many theologians and clergy immediately, openly dissented from Bl. Paul’s reaffirmation of the grave sinfulness of artificial contraception. But since he had not defined this teaching ex cathedra, some dissented by asserting that the pronouncement was not infallible, and therefore this teaching could be ignored in good conscience. This notion couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, the Church teaching on contraception falls into either the first or second category; it is to be “held definitively” by the faithful. Russell Shaw, author and former secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, explains it thus:
If the teaching [on contraception] was universal, however, was it also proposed to Catholics as something to be held definitively? Several considerations show that it was. The first consideration is a negative one. No evidence has come to light that anyone proposed this teaching as a private opinion, a probable judgement, or a lofty ideal which there was no blame in failing to achieve. It was proposed instead as an obligatory moral teaching … .
Neither Pius XI, Pius XII, nor Paul VI says the teaching on contraception has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium; but that is not the point. …a review of the data establishes that the teaching on contraception has been proposed in a manner which meets Vatican II’s criteria for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium. The controversy of the last [fifty] years does nothing to change this fact, nor, if one accepts the criteria, does it call into question the objectively certain truth of the teaching. It is not the teaching which needs to be rethought but the widely held supposition that the teaching is or could be false. (“Contraception, Infallibility and the Ordinary Magisterium” 293, 294)
Shaw anticipates that questions and objections will be made in response. In order to more fully understand the three “categories of belief”, his answer to the following question is especially pertinent:
This discussion does not consider the question of whether the Church’s teaching on contraception is divinely revealed [the first category]. Many of those who have handed on the teaching have said explicitly that it is, and this fact cannot lightly be set aside. At the same time, for purposes of this discussion, it is conceded that the teaching might not be divinely revealed. [Theologian John T.] Noonan, for example, argues that, in condemning contraception, the Fathers of the Church were not restating primitive teaching but were making a fresh initiative. Supposing for the sake of argument that this is so, this should be viewed as a case of an authentic development of earlier Christian moral doctrine rooted in revelation. Such a view is entirely compatible with the view that the teaching on contraception has been infallibly proposed [the second category] by the ordinary magisterium. (Shaw 294-295)
To Be Continued …
We are sure that this teaching on contraception is really something that belongs to the deposit of faith because we know that popes, bishops, saints, and theologians throughout the centuries have condemned the act of frustrating the conjugal act to render procreation impossible, calling it gravely sinful. As the Catholic Answers tract points out, “The apostolic tradition’s condemnation of contraception is so great that it was followed by Protestants until 1930 and was upheld by all key Protestant Reformers.” As such, it falls within at least the second category if not the first, and thus requires “full and irrevocable consent” by the faithful.
Suppose that someone wanted to take this development of doctrine even further to say that artificial contraception is licit in certain circumstances. Would they have a case? The same question could apply to specific cases of euthanasia, or specific cases of adultery. How do we practically apply everything put forth here? In Part II, we’ll explore all this and articulate why, even if we have doubts, we should always submit to the Church’s teaching in matters of faith and morals.
[Editor’s Note: The dogma of the Assumption has been defined as divinely revealed. The article has been revised to correct an earlier error.]