Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Is Vatican II infallible? (Part 1 of 6)


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A post submitted by Fr. 'Romanus' (edited by Don Paco).

Quaeritur: Is Vatican 2 Infallible?

Respondeo per partes: That’s one of the most crucial issues that traditionalists press in the face of the “neo-conservatives” who accuse them of being heretics for siding with pre-conciliar doctrines when there is an (apparent) contradiction between Vatican II teaching and pre-conciliar popes. Let's break down the issue into several questions (dealt with in different posts).


Is everything that is stated in an ecumenical council necessarily infallible? –No. Doctrines are taught infallibly only when they are:

(a) Defined by the Extraordinary Magisterium as a doctrine that is "to be held" (tenenda) or "to be believed" (credenda) definitively by all the faithful,

(b1) Pronounced by the Ordinary Magisterium as a doctrine that is "to be held" (tenenda) definitively by all the faithful, or

(b2) Taught by the Ordinary Magisterium in consonance with previous Magisterial teaching.

Let me explain. The Magisterium of the Church has two functions, called the “extraordinary Magisterium” and the “ordinary Magisterium”:

a. The “Extraordinary Magisterium” includes the teachings of a pope when he is speaking ex cathedra, and the solemn dogmatic or moral definitions and doctrinal condemnations of an ecumenical council (traditionally expressed in conciliar canons and decrees).

b. The “ordinary Magisterium” includes the group of papal and episcopal teachings that are not ratified by a solemn definition, even if these teachings take place within the context of an ecumenical council.

Now, both ordinary and extraordinary functions of the Magisterium are infallible:

“Wherefore, 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 (credenda) as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal Magisterium.” (First Vatican Council, Dei Filius 8.)

However, the criteria for the infallibility of these two functions of the Magisterium are different.

a. Any individual dogmatic definition made by the extraordinary Magisterium is by itself infallible.

b. In contrast, for a certain doctrine of the ordinary Magisterium to be infallible, one of two things must obtain:

(b.1) it must be either a doctrine that is "to be held" (tenenda) definitively and universally by all the faithful--e.g., John Paul II's non-ex-cathedra pronouncement that women cannot receive the sacrament of orders and that this teaching is to be held: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." (Declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi, hancque sententiam ab omnibus Ecclesiae fidelibus esse definitive tenendam.)

(b.2) or it must have been taught repeatedly, consistently, and unanimously by the pope and/or the bishops in communion with him.

A priest from the SSPX expressed this last point nicely (although I don’t necessarily agree with everything else he says in the book):

The infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium, whether of the Universal Church or of the See of Rome, is not that of a judgment, nor that of an act to be considered in isolation, as if it could itself provide all the light necessary for it to be clearly seen. It is that of the guarantee bestowed on a doctrine by the simultaneous or continuous convergence of a plurality of affirmations or explanations; none of which could bring positive certitude if it were taken by itself alone. (Fr. Paul Nau, "Pope or Church?" p.18)

So, in short we have three possibilities for infallible magisterial teachings:

(a) The Extraordinary Magisterium solemnly defines a doctrine as one that is "to be believed" (credenda) or "to be held" (tenenda) by all the faithful.

(b.1) The Ordinary Magisterium teaches a doctrine as "to be held" (tenenda) by the faithful.

(b.2) The Ordinary Magisterium has always taught a certain doctrine consistently.



Given these principles, we can now ask, is everything within a council infallible?


In short, no. Councils can contain doctrines that are not: (a) officially defined (Extraordinary Magisterium), nor (b.1) taught as "to be held" (Ordinary Magisterium), nor (b.2) taught in consonance with previous unanimous teaching (Ordinary Magisterium). Obviously, conciliar canons and decrees, which officially and ex professo define doctrine and condemn errors, are infallible and irreformable because they fulfill (a). However, canons and decrees are a very slim portion of the proceedings of any council. For example, the proceedings of Trent occupy shelves after shelves of volumes, whereas its decrees and canons occupy only a few hundred pages. Thus, these parts of conciliar documents do not fulfill (a) or (b.1). But still, normally the conciliar doctrine that lies outside of the canons and decrees—that is, outside of extraordinary pronouncements—is itself part of a broad and unanimous consensus among the different popes, councils, sacred congregations, bishops, etc., and hence fulfills condition (b.2) for infallibility. This is normally the case. (However, Vatican II presents a problem and possibly an exception to all three possibilities—see part no. 5).


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