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Vatican II, infallibility and the Church today

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 Contents - Jul 2010AD2000 July 2010 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Religious education: the challenge of secularism - Michael Gilchrist
Events: Leading US Catholics to visit Australia
Archbishop Chaput defends the Pope and the Vatican over abuse lawsuits
News: The Church Around the World
Newly discovered World War II documents further vindicate Pius XII
Book launch: Cardinal Pell's new book 'Test Everything' launched - Michael Gilchrist
Trends: The Church in 50 years: John Allen's predictions - Frank Mobbs
FOUNDATIONS OF FAITH: What we can know about heaven from Scripture and the Church - John Young
Two views: Vatican II, infallibility and the Church today - James Bogle and John Young
New apologetics for the new evangelisation
Books: THE ABBESS OF ANDALUSIA: Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey, Lorraine Murray - Terri Kelleher (reviewer)
Books: CONVINCED BY THE TRUTH: Embracing the Fullness of Catholic Faith, John Fleming - John McCarthy (reviewer)
Books: HANDING ON THE FAITH IN AN AGE OF DISBELIEF, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - Br Barry Coldrey (reviewer)
Books: Order books from
Reflection: The challenge: how to spread God's word in a secular culture - Bishop Arthur Serratelli

The issue of the authority of Vatican II crops up with frequent regularity. This is no surprise since it has a direct bearing upon our knowledge of the truth and upon its teaching in the Church today.

My good friend and fellow writer, John Young, revisits the subject (AD2000, March 2010), as he did two years ago (AD2000, May 2008), criticising those who challenge the authority of Vatican II.

He is certainly right to criticise the challengers and he rightly shows the traditional tone of many of the Council documents.

That, however, does not, without more, mean that the teaching of Vatican II is pro-posed infallibly by the Church. True, it repeats much infallible teaching but it makes no definitions itself. Some of its documents are clearly fallible and some are not teaching at all but rather more akin to media statements or statements of public policy in the Church.

Fundamental dogmas

To invest all these documents with the same, equal authority would be quite wrong. It would be more wrong still to invest them with an infallibility that the popes and the fathers of the Council clearly did not intend or propose.

John rightly argued, in his earlier article, against the notion that some of the most fundamental dogmas of Christianity should be questioned because the Councils that taught them didn't have enough bishops in attendance for their decisions to be infallible. Most General Councils only ever had a minority of the world's bishops in attendance.

John next considered the infallibility of the Ordinary universal Magisterium and noted the description that Vatican II gives of it in Lumen Gentium 25. If the bishops, dispersed throughout the world but still maintaining the bond of communion with the successor of Peter, teaching on matters of faith and/or morals, are in moral agreement over time as to one position definitively to be held, then their teaching is infallible.

John Young rightly points out that this is not a question of mathematics but he spoils the effect of so saying by later suggesting that infallibility might be represented by a moral unanimity of, say, two-thirds of the bishops in Council, as if Catholic doctrine were a matter of some kind of Episcopal 'democracy' at a General Council.

This concept of conciliar authority was long ago condemned by the Church.

The Council of Constance in the Middle Ages sought to impose the error of Conciliarism upon the Pope and the Church, particularly in its decree Haec Sancta of April 1415, and with its view that two-thirds ( duarum partium) of the bishops in Council was a guarantor of infallible authority.

These Conciliarist decrees of the Council were later condemned.

The manner of functioning of the Ordinary infallible Magisterium does not imitate modern democratic parliaments where a vote is taken and a majority suffice not even a two-thirds majority. On the contrary, the Ordinary infallible Magisterium operates by way of a moral consensus over time, not by a one-off majority (or two-thirds) poll of the world episcopate.

The Extraordinary infallible Magisterium, by which is meant the solemn infallible teaching of a papally ratified Ecumenical Council, or the solemn infallible teaching of a Pope (ex cathedra), also does not require a poll of the world episcopate.

So what does give infallible teaching its authority?

In both cases, the decisive factor is the ratifying authority of the Pope, the successor of St Peter, to whom was given authority to bind and loose in that famous passage from Scripture: Tu es Petrus et superhanc Petram, aedificabo ecclesiam meam "thou art Peter [Rock] and upon this rock [Peter] I shall build my church" (Matt 16:18-19).

A diligent search of the Scriptures will show that no such authority was ever given to an Ecumenical Council. It is ratification by the Pope that is decisive.

Similarly, the First Vatican Council, in its degree Pastor Aeturnus, expressly excluded from the operation of papal infallibility any dependence on the consent of the Church ( ex sese non autem ex consensu ecclesiae "of itself and not by the consent of the Church").


John suggests that Vatican II's decrees are all infallible because they were later "received" by the world's bishops and thus by the infallible Ordinary Magisterium.

That, too, is misleading.

In fact, the authority of a General Council does not depend upon its decrees being accepted and "received" at a later date by the world's bishops. It is the authority of the Pope which confers authority upon the final decrees of an Ecumenical Council. Council decrees that lack the ratification or the authority of the Pope are a legal and doctrinal nullity.

Such was the case with many of the decrees of the Council of Constance, for instance, and for that reason they were later simply dropped by order of a successor pope.

The other factors necessary to establish the infallibility of a teaching are that it must be a matter of faith and/or morals, taught definitively, to be held by the universal Church.

It is not right, therefore, simply to say that any teaching emanating from an Ecumenical Council or from a Pope must necessarily have been taught infallibly. That would be to embrace a species of fundamentalism unknown to, and alien to, the Catholic faith.

On the other hand, the Ordinary Magisterium operates through a moral consensus of popes and bishops and it teachings acquire the status of infallibility through being regularly and definitively taught over time.

An example of the infallible Ordinary Magisterium is the teaching that the "matter" of the Sacrament of Ordination is a baptised male. Since the early Church, there has been a definitive consensus of the popes and bishops on this teaching which, moreover, concerns a matter of faith to be held by the universal Church.

The teaching was re-affirmed in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II. There can be no doubt that the teaching is, therefore, infallible. God assigns roles to the sexes, the one maternal, the other paternal, and the priestly role is indubitably paternal and not maternal.

Vatican II teaching

What, then, of the teaching of Vatican II?

It is common ground among all theologians that the Council issued no solemn definitions. It did not therefore exercise the infallible Extraordinary Magisterium. Its teaching was that of the Magisterium but its teaching was not an exercise of infallibility. It did not define anything.

That is not to say that its teachings are somehow optional. Far from it.

Teachings of popes and councils, even when not infallible, should be given "religious submission of mind and will" ( Lumen Gentium, 25 and Can. 752) unless, of course, they clearly conflict with hitherto established or infallible Catholic teaching.

Pope John said of his Council, "there will be no infallible definitions" and Cardinal Ratzinger said that the Council, "defined no dogma at all". Pope Paul said similar. Infallible teaching must reflect definitive teaching. This is a requirement for the Ordinary Magisterium as well as the Extraordinary. Vatican II itself teaches this in Lumen Gentium, 25.

That need not surprise us. If a teaching is to be regarded as infallibly taught then it must be clear and well-defined. Vague and ill-defined teaching could hardly be regarded as infallibly taught. In the decrees of Vatican II such definitive teaching was deliberately and expressly avoided. The Council was to be a largely pastoral one.

The position is well explained by Ludwig Ott in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Something less than a definition is not infallibly taught.

In an explanation given by the Council's own Theological Commission and cited by the Secretary of the Council, Archbishop Pericle Felici, in a theological note appended to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, it is stated that "in view of conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith and morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so".

Moreover, the Council itself accepted the fact that it had put forth its teaching without infallible definitions by concluding the decree on the Church with the words decernimus ac statuimus ("we decree and establish") and not with the word definimus ("we define") or any similar definitive expression. The same formula was used for all the sixteen promulgated documents of the Council.

John is right to say that "Vatican II was no disaster" and that its decrees ought not to be regarded as lacking authority.

However, he is not right to invest all the decrees, declarations and statements of Vatican II with the same authority, still less with the definitive infallible authority of the Extraordinary Infallible Magisterium.

The documents he refers to, like that on the Church, are rightly to be praised and followed but it would be foolish to pretend that the Church has not gone into crisis since the Council. It plainly has not least over the clerical abuse scandals. It is an erroneous kind of loyalty that pretends that there is no crisis when there is one or which overlooks what is prologue to such a crisis.

No authority

Some Conciliar documents, such as that on religious liberty and on the Church in the modern world, are not true teaching documents at all. They are public policy statements at best and some-thing akin to media statements at least. They are, therefore, time-bound and not timeless statements of doctrine. They should not be invested with a doctrinal authority that they do not possess and which the Council never intended them to possess.

We must be on our guard against seeking to minimise the scope of the Church's infallibility but also against seeking to over-extend it beyond its due limits and beyond the limits which the Church itself has set.

Equally, however, we are not permitted to regard teachings of the Magisterium which are not infallibly taught as merely optional.

If we avoid the extremes of both excessive liberalism, on the one hand, and fundamentalism, on the other, then we have a better chance of identifying the proper status of the teachings proposed to us by the Church's Magisterium.

James Bogle is a barrister in private practice based in London, UK, Chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain and the author of Heart for Europe , a biography of the Blessed Charles of Austria.

Infallibility and Vatican II: John Young responds

I regret to say that James Bogle's article (pages 12-13) seriously misrepresents what I said in the pieces he alludes to, and which appeared in AD2000 for May 2008 and March 2010. First I'll summarise what I said there, then make come comments on his article.

I explained the concept of the ordinary universal Magisterium, and applied this to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II describes the ordinary universal Magisterium in these words: "Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed throughout 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 ( Lumen Gentium, 25).

I stated that this applies to many of the teachings of the Council. The bishops at the Council were unanimous, or practically so, on many points of doctrine and morality, and the Pope confirmed their decisions. So those points were taught infallibly by the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium.

I gave these examples: the inerrancy of Scripture, the obligation to belong to the Catholic Church, the evil of abortion, the obligation of the State to allow religious liberty. All these teachings of Vatican II are taught infallibly by the Council.


James Bogle rightly points out that Vatican II repeats much infallible teaching, but he says it makes no definitions itself. He cites Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Ratzinger in support of this, but he fails to realise that they were speaking of definitions of the Extraordinary Magisterium, as is shown by the use of such words as "infallible definitions" and "defined no dogmas".

In theological terminology those expressions are reserved for teachings of the Extraordinary Magisterium. Every science, including Sacred Theology, has its own terminology and if we are not careful with the terms we are liable to misunderstand.

James says that I am not right "to invest all the decrees, declarations and statements of Vatican II with the same authority, still less with the definitive infallible authority of the Extraordinary Infallible Magisterium". But I did no such thing! To quote my words in the AD2000 of May 2008, Vatican II exercised the ordinary universal Magisterium "whenever a matter of faith or morals was definitively taught by the council, with unanimous, or nearly unanimous, agreement among the bishops, and the ratification of the Pope."

The same strange statement about investing all the documents with the same equal authority is also made early in his article. I find it perplexing that I could have been so grossly misunderstood.

Another strange misunderstanding relates to my reference ( AD2000, May 2008) to the possibility that about two-thirds of the bishops, including the Pope, may under certain qualifications constitute a sufficient majority for a statement to be seen as having infallible authority.

From this James links my thought with a concept of conciliar authority long ago condemned by the Church. My statement was nothing of the kind, but was simply to indicate the degree of unanimity we might expect if the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium was operative.

James asserts more than once that agreement over a period of time is necessary for a teaching to be infallible through the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium, and he even says Vatican II taught this in Lumen Gentium, 25. It did not, and it is not a requirement. In order to be satisfied that something is infallible we may need to see it taught over a long period (or we may not), but this is not a requirement for its infallibility. What Church pronouncement ever said it was a requirement? None.

I certainly did not suggest that all Vatican II's decrees are infallible because later received by the Church.

Minimised authority

There are people in the Church, both on the so-called extreme right and extreme left, who reject some of Vatican II's teachings, and who for this reason minimise its authority. It is easy to be misled by these people.

So they like to talk about it as "a pastoral Council", as though that excluded infallible statements. We shouldn't be fooled by their specious arguments.

Take the pronouncement of Vatican II about the civil right to religious liberty. It was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Council Fathers, and confirmed by the Pope. If that is not an instance of an infallible teaching (of the ordinary universal Magisterium), what is?

I hope the above comments clarify the matter. While James Bogle and I disagree on this issue, we agree on many others, and he is doing good work for the Church in Britain. I was in England recently in connection with the publication there of my book The Scope of Philosophy, and I very much appreciate the help I received and the friendship of James and his wife Joanna.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 23 No 6 (July 2010), p. 12

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