Jeff Mirus’ Grave Doctrinal Errors on Infallibility

Dr. Jeff Mirus has a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Princeton University (1973). Although his degree studies focused on the history of the Church, he does not have a degree in theology. Even so, like any other layperson in the Church, Mirus is able to exercise the lay apostolate, assisting the Church in spreading the Gospel. However, his claims about what the Gospel contains and what Church teaches require some type of support, by the presentation of a theological argument. Only a Bishop can exercise the Magisterium, teaching both with the authority of Christ and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. All others must bring theological arguments.

Magisteriumism

My first point of criticism of Mirus’ position on infallibility concerns his methodology. He does not present a theological argument. As is the case in so many of his articles and posts, he merely explains his own position, on particular points of theology, and then he informs the reader that his own understanding is identical to magisterial teaching. He also asserts that all magisterial teachings are certainly true. The result is the twofold error of Magisteriumism, in which (1) the believer does not distinguish between his own fallible understanding of magisterial teaching and the teaching itself, and (2) the believer claims that all magisterial teachings are certainly true.

The result of these two errors is the implied conclusion that Mirus’ own understanding is infallible. He is simply presenting to you what the Magisterium teaches, and the Magisterium cannot err. He sees no need to make a theological argument to prove that he has understood that teaching correctly. He does not see any difference between his own understanding and the teaching of the Magisterium. He does not admit that any error can occur in any non-infallible magisterial teaching.

Therefore, he concludes that any theological arguments which contradict his own position must be ‘prima facie’ (on the face of it, without need for examination) false. First, he explains his own understanding of infallibility and Vatican II (which I will prove below is a misunderstanding). Then he states:

“It follows that any arguments which undermine this understanding, whether based upon the pastoral interests of the Council or any other factor, are specious.” (The Assent Owed to Vatican II)

It follows from what? He states his own understanding. It follows from his assumption that his understanding is entirely correct and without any possibility of error, that any argument to the contrary must be specious. He has the gall to say to his fellow Catholics that any argument contrary to his own understanding cannot be correct and is not worthy of consideration, regardless of its basis, whether on the pastoral intentions of Vatican II or any other factor. But all this assumes the false premise that Mirus cannot have misunderstood magisterial teaching on infallibility.

In the remainder of this article, I will present a theological argument to prove that what Mirus claims to be the inerrant teaching of the Magisterium on infallibility is actually a set of grave doctrinal errors. Mirus has badly misunderstood magisterial teaching on infallibility and on assent. And he is teaching these errors, leading many Catholics astray. Although he has stated that everyone should consider to be specious all arguments which contradict his own assertions, I ask the reader to consider the fact that Jeff Mirus is not the Pope, and so he cannot speak infallibly. An argument that undermines Mirus’ understanding could nevertheless be true and correct. He even says that “all faithful theologians” agree with him. So any arguments that undermine his position must be false, and any theologians who disagree must be unfaithful — apart from any consideration of the content of the arguments offered by these theologians.

Conditions for Papal Infallibility

The First Vatican Council infallibly taught the dogma, as a required belief under pain of heresy and automatic excommunication, of Papal Infallibility, specifically, that the Pope teaches infallibly (without any possibility of error) when his teaching meets certain conditions. The Second Vatican Council reiterated this teaching, with different wording, making the meaning of this dogma all the more clear. The criteria for Papal Infallibility are five:

First Vatican Council:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church”

Second Vatican Council:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with”

These criteria are the same. Now some authors combine the first and second criteria above, so as to arrive at only four criteria, but the meaning is the same. The usefulness of listing these criteria as five, including as the first criterion WHO is exercising infallibility, becomes apparent when we adapt these criteria to the infallibility of an Ecumenical Council, in which infallibility is exercised, not by the Pope alone, but the body of Bishops led by the Pope.

Notice that in my presentation of Papal Infallibility above, I cite and quote the First Vatican Council and the Second Vatican Council. See the full documents here:
First Vatican Council, First dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ, Chapter 4. On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff.
Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 25.
And see my more lengthy theological arguments on the charisms of infallibility here:
The Three Charisms of the Sacred Magisterium

Mirus’ error on Papal Infallibility is to misstate these criteria:

“The second thing to note is that by the very nature of things both an ecumenical council (that is, a council whose decrees are promulgated by the pope) and the pope alone are protected from error whenever they clearly intend to (1) teach (2) by virtue of their apostolic authority (3) to the whole church (4) on a matter of faith or morals.” (The Assent Owed to Vatican II)

Mirus lists four criteria, but the fifth (WHO is teaching infallibly) is implied by his initial assertion, that either an Ecumenical Council or a Pope may exercise infallibility. So his enumeration of the criteria as 4, rather than 5, total criteria is not an issue. His errors occur in his numbered points (1) and (3) as well as in his preamble to those points. Both Vatican I and Vatican II taught that an infallible teaching must be a definitive act, i.e. that the Pope must be defining, not merely teaching. This point could not be more clear when the Magisterium itself refers to its own non-infallible decisions on doctrine as teachings; in other words, not every teaching is the proclamation of a definitive act, not every teaching is a definition of doctrine. By changing this criterion from definitive teaching, to any teaching, Mirus extends infallibility beyond what the dogma of the First Vatican Council allows.

Another error that Mirus makes is to misstate the fifth criteria (his third criteria). As Vatican I taught, to fall under Papal Infallibility a teaching must be presented by the Pope as something that “must be held by the whole Church”. Mirus distorts this criterion, broadening it substantially, by saying that the teaching must merely be taught to the whole Church. He makes no assertion concerning whether that teaching is taught as something that “must be held”. Again, he takes away from the definitiveness required in the criteria for Papal Infallibility.

By these two errors, Mirus subtracts from the dogmatic definition of the First Vatican Council: that the teaching must be definitive and that it must be presented by the Pope as something to be held by the whole Church. Instead, he substitutes the claim that the assertion of the Pope must merely be a teaching, not necessarily definitive, and that it must merely be addressed to the whole Church. These two errors constitute material heresy. Mirus is rejecting the definition of Papal Infallibility issued by the First Vatican Council:

“So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.” (First Vatican Council, First dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ, Chapter 4)

Perhaps Jeff Mirus does not realize that his teaching on Papal Infallibility contradicts the infallible definition of the First Vatican Council, in which case his error is merely material heresy, not formal heresy. But in any case, it is an objective mortal sin to reject an infallible teaching, and it is another objective mortal sin to teach that grave error to others. By a combination of ignorance of the Church’s teaching, and arrogance in teaching without first having learned, much harm is being done to the faithful by Mirus, Akin, Rhonheimer, Erlenbush, and many other false teachers (on various subjects of faith and morals). And there is no correcting them. They cannot even imagine the possibility that they have believed and taught grave errors, rather than truth.

Intention

There are additional errors in Mirus’ above quoted explanation of Infallibility. In his preamble to his numbered list of criteria, Mirus says that the Pope or the Council must “clearly intend” each of those criteria. But the criteria for Papal Infallibility stated by Vatican I and Vatican II do not list intention, nor that the intention be clear, as criteria. Of course, a Pope cannot teach under Papal Infallibility by a slip of the tongue, by accidentally saying something that he did not mean. The criteria that he is exercising Apostolic authority, and teaching definitively, implies that he intends to do so. But on the other hand, the Pope need not intend, explicitly and specifically, to exercise infallibility. As long as each of the 5 criteria are met, the teaching is infallible, even if the Pope does not realize that he exercised Papal Infallibility.

So, for example, if a Pope teaches infallibly prior to Vatican I, he could easily meet all of the criteria, and yet not be thinking to himself “I intend to teach under Papal Infallibility”. When Pope Boniface taught infallibly in Unam Sanctam:

“Moreover, that every human creature is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, we declare, we state, we define, and we pronounce to be entirely from the necessity of salvation.” (Unam Sanctam, n. 9),

he perhaps did not realize he was exercising Papal Infallibility. (But if anyone wishes to argue, and to claim that the above teaching of Boniface is false, a subsequent Ecumenical Council, the Fifth Lateran Council, also exercised infallibility to teach the same doctrine.)

In another example, when Pope John Paul II taught that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, his teaching met all 5 criteria for Papal Infallibility, and yet the subsequent discussion revealed that he did not realize he was exercising that type of infallibility. He considered himself to be teaching what was already infallible under the infallibility of Sacred Tradition, and of Sacred Scripture, and of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. So he realized he was teaching infallibly, but did not realize he was doing so under Papal Infallibility, as opposed to other modes of infallibility. But there is nothing to prevent a Pope from exercising Papal Infallibility on a point of doctrine already infallible under a different mode of infallibility.

So one type of intention is required for Papal Infallibility, specifically and only whatever intention is inherent in any of the 5 criteria. But no other type of intention is required, since such an additional requirement would constitute an additional criterion.

Clarity

The use of the expression “clearly intend” in Mirus’ explanation of Papal Infallibility indicates perhaps another error, the claim that what is taught infallibly must be clear to the faithful. But ask yourself these questions: Is every infallible teaching of Sacred Tradition clear to all or to most of the faithful? Is every infallible teaching of Sacred Scripture clear? Is every teaching of the Magisterium, infallible and non-infallible, clear? And is such clarity necessary for the teaching to be definitive, or to be binding, or to be infallible?

The answer is found in the Second Vatican Council: “And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment.” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

The clarity of an infallible teaching to the faithful is not one of the criteria for the teaching to be infallible. Certainly, the Holy Spirit helps the faithful to understand the teachings of the Magisterium, which are given through the assistance of the same Spirit. But even when most Catholics disagree or misunderstand a teaching, its infallibility is not in jeopardy. The only criteria for Papal Infallibility are the five stated by Vatican I, and reiterated by Vatican II. The clarity of the teaching, or any intention beyond what is necessarily implied by those criteria, is not necessary to Papal Infallibility.

The Body of Bishops

There are so many errors in that one statement by Mirus. And yet here is another error, when he says “an ecumenical council (that is, a council whose decrees are promulgated by the pope)” and when he describes the Magisterium elsewhere, Mirus seems to attribute infallibility only to the Pope. This is a common error in those who adhere to Magisterium-ism. You see, a problem arises with the claim that no errors at all can occur in any teaching of the Magisterium — it is to be observed that individual Bishops disagree in their magisterial teachings. So how can the Magisterium be said to be entirely without error?

The heretical solution to this dilemma is to deprive (to a great extent if not entirely) the individual Bishops, other than the Pope, of the Magisterium. The claim is stated or implied that individual Bishops only exercise the Magisterium when they are teaching what the Pope has already taught. It is as if the Twelve Apostles were one Apostle, Peter, plus eleven papal spokespersons. To the contrary, the Second Vatican Council taught that the individual Bishops can exercise the non-infallible Magisterium:

“For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

The fact that the Bishops must be in communion with the Pope to exercise the Magisterium does not imply that they can only repeat or explain what he has first taught. The type and degree of assent required of the magisterial teachings of individual Bishops is religious assent — ordinary assent to the ordinary non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium. Vatican II goes on to say that this same type of assent must be given to the ordinary teachings of the Pope, “even when he is not speaking ex cathedra,” in other words, when his teaching does not fall under Papal Infallibility.

So the claim that the Magisterium cannot err in its non-infallible teachings is proven false by a proper understanding of the exercise of the Magisterium by the individual Bishops. They can and do disagree, and they can and do err. For example, when the Bishops of Canada issued their notorious Winnipeg Statement, undermining the teachings of Humanae Vitae, the U.S. Bishops rebuked this erroneous teaching of the Canadian Bishops, with their statement, Human Life in our Day. Both groups of Bishops could not be without error in exercising the Magisterium on this topic.

Also, the U.S. Bishops, in that same document, taught that the faithful may dissent licitly from non-infallible teachings:

“Norms of licit theological dissent
“There exist in the Church a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and also general norms of licit dissent. This is particularly true in the area of legitimate theological speculation and research. When conclusions reached by such professional theological work prompt a scholar to dissent from non-infallible received teaching the norms of licit dissent come into play. They require of him careful respect for the consciences of those who lack his special competence or opportunity for judicious investigation. These norms also require setting forth his dissent with propriety and with regard for the gravity of the matter and the deference due the authority which has pronounced on it. The reverence due all sacred matters, particularly questions which touch on salvation will not necessarily require the responsible scholar to relinquish his opinion but certainly to propose it with prudence born of intellectual grace and a Christian confidence that the truth is great and will prevail.” (Human Life in our Day)

This teaching of the U.S. Bishops falls under the ordinary Magisterium. The teachings of the ordinary Magisterium is not certain to be without error, and so it must still be true that dissent can be faithful and responsible. Our God who is Truth does not require us to adhere to falsehoods.

And then there is the disagreement between Cardinal Burke and the USCCB on voting ethics and abortion. Each is teaching on a matter of morals as acts of the Magisterium, and yet their teachings are incompatible. One or the other has erred.

So how does the adherent of Magisteriumism resolve this conflict between different magisterial teachings among the individual Bishops? By speaking as if the individual Bishops cannot exercise the Magisterium at all, except by repeating what the Pope has taught.

But this results in an additional error when an Ecumenical Council and its teachings is considered. Are the Bishops AND the Pope exercising infallibility in an Ecumenical Council? Or are the infallible decisions of the Council on doctrine only infallible because of the approval (“promulgation” as Mirus has it) of the Pope?

Mirus seems to imply that the teachings of an Ecumenical Council are only infallible because of the Pope’s approval of the Conciliar documents. It is as if the infallibility of those documents comes only from the Pope, not the body of Bishops led by the Pope. What does the Second Vatican Council say on this point? Quite the opposite of Mirus’ position:

“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. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

Individual Bishops cannot exercise the Magisterium infallibly, but only non-infallibly. This assertion of the Council is sufficient to refute the foolish claim of Mirus that all of the teachings of the Magisterium, infallible and non-infallible, are certainly without error. Individual Bishops can exercise the non-infallible Magisterium. If that non-infallible Magisterium cannot err and if the faithful must necessarily adhere to that error-free teaching, then the individual Bishops, for all intents and purposes, would be teaching with infallibility. But the Council taught that they cannot do so. How anyone can claim that the Magisterium never errs, while at the same time blatantly contradicting numerous magisterial teachings, is beyond my understanding.

So if the Bishops cannot exercise infallibility, would this imply that the infallible teachings of a Council are only infallible due to the exercise of the Papal Magisterium? Not at all. The Council says that the “individual” Bishops cannot teach infallibly, but that they “nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly” when teaching as a body with the Pope, whether they are dispersed through the world (teaching under the Universal Magisterium), or gathered in a Council (teaching under Conciliar Infallibility). The Council specifically teaches that the Bishops are, in both those cases, “judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” So the idea that the infallible character of the teachings of a Council or of the Universal Magisterium is solely from the Pope is refuted by the plain teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The body of Bishops led by the Pope are together exercising Conciliar Infallibility.

All of the above explanations, with quotes and citations from magisterial documents, are needed to refute the several grave errors taught by Jeff Mirus in this single sentence:

“The second thing to note is that by the very nature of things both an ecumenical council (that is, a council whose decrees are promulgated by the pope) and the pope alone are protected from error whenever they clearly intend to (1) teach (2) by virtue of their apostolic authority (3) to the whole church (4) on a matter of faith or morals.” (The Assent Owed to Vatican II)

How quickly and easily errors can be expressed, and how difficult and time-consuming it is to refute them.

But there are yet further errors in what Mirus teaches on this subject. His claim that the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium cannot err, requires further examination, as does his claim that religious assent is essentially no different than the full assent of faith.

“Whenever the Council teaches something about faith and morals, what it teaches is certainly true, either through the specific note of infallibility or from the religious submission of mind and will owed to the ordinary magisterium.” (The Assent Owed to Vatican II)

Here again are multiple errors in a single assertion. First, Mirus reduces the criteria for infallibility of a Council to merely: (1) the Council (2) teaching (3) on faith or morals. He repeats the same error we already discussed, of saying that a Pope or Council need merely be teaching, not defining. I’ve already refuted this error by quoting Vatican I and Vatican II, each of which requires that the teaching be a definition, or a defining act, not merely any teaching. But this point becomes all the more clear in this nice summary of the infallibility of the Magisterium given by Pope John Paul II speaking to the U.S. Bishops:

“This magisterium is not above the divine word but serves it with a specific charisma veritatis certum, which includes the charism of infallibility, present not only in the solemn definitions of the Roman Pontiff and of Ecumenical Councils, but also in the universal ordinary magisterium, which can truly be considered as the usual expression of the Church’s infallibility…. With respect to the non-infallible expressions of the authentic magisterium of the Church, these should be received with religious submission of mind and will.” (Address of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of the United States on their ‘ad Limina’ visit. 15 October 1988)

The holy Pontiff states that the infallible teachings of the Pope and of Councils are “solemn definitions”, not merely teachings. He also clearly states that some teachings of the Magisterium are non-infallible. Infallible teachings require the full assent of faith (an exercise of the theological virtue of faith), whereas non-infallible teachings require only the religious submission of will and intellect (an exercise of reason and free will).

The criteria for a Council to teach infallibly must be much the same as for a Pope, since in both cases there is an exercise of the same Magisterium, to the same degree, infallibly. So the criteria for Papal Infallibility:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church”

can simply be modified to apply to a Council:

1. the body of Bishops and the Roman Pontiff
2. speaking in the discharge of their respective offices as shepherds and teachers of the faithful
3. they define
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church”

The difference is that the Pope is teaching with the body of Bishops, rather than alone. All the Bishops are Apostles, led by the chief Apostle, the Roman Bishop. They are all exercising Apostolic authority, though the Pope does so as head of the Church, and the Bishops do so as a body of Apostles. But otherwise, the criteria must be the same. It must be a solemn definition, not merely any teaching, and it must be presented as a doctrine on faith or morals that must be held by the whole Church.

This last of the criteria is not met if the teaching is merely addressed to the whole Church. A Pope or Council might address many different words to the whole Church, including disciplines, Canon law, judgments of the prudential order, and non-infallible teachings. The doctrine must not be merely addressed to the whole Church, but presented as something that must be held by the whole Church.

But apart from his misstatement of Conciliar Infallibility, much along the lines of his errors on Papal Infallibility, Mirus also errs by making no substantial distinction between an infallible teaching requiring theological assent, and a non-infallible teaching requiring religious assent. He claims that both types of teachings are certainly true, and that no legitimate dissent is possible under either type of assent. This claim in effect nullifies several different teachings of the Magisterium.

The First Vatican Council infallibly taught that the Pope only teaches infallibly, by himself, when his teaching meets certain criteria. Teachings of the Pope which fall short of these criteria are non-infallible. To say otherwise is to reject the dogmatic definition of that Council and to fall under its anathema. Mirus seems to affirm that the Pope teaches non-infallibly when his teaching falls short of these criteria. But his explanation of non-infallible teachings and of the assent required is the same as for infallible teachings. He claims that the Pope’s non-infallible teachings are just as certainly true as his infallible teachings, and that the assent required is essentially no different. The effect of this lack of any real substantial distinction between infallible and non-infallible teachings, and between theological assent and religious assent, is to imply an heretical rejection of the definition of the First Vatican Council.

“So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”

Mirus has the temerity to nullify the definition of that Council by claiming that when the Pope’s teaching falls short of the Council’s criteria for infallibility, his teaching is nevertheless just as certainly true. He uses the term non-infallible, but he gives that term essentially the same meaning as infallible.

Mirus speaks of the “religious submission of mind and will owed to the ordinary magisterium”. Yes, the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium require the religious submission of will and intellect. The infallible teachings of the Sacred Magisterium (Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, or the Universal Magisterium) require theological assent. The latter is an exercise of the theological virtue of faith; the former is an exercise of free will and intellect, in cooperation with grace, but not specifically an exercise of the theological virtue of faith.

However, Mirus errs by claming that this requirement of religious assent implies that non-infallible teachings are “certainly true”. Not so. Only an infallible teaching has the ‘charism of certain truth’, as Pope John Paul II explains:

“This magisterium is not above the divine word but serves it with a specific charisma veritatis certum, which includes the charism of infallibility, present not only in the solemn definitions of the Roman Pontiff and of Ecumenical Councils, but also in the universal ordinary magisterium….” (Address of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of the United States on their ‘ad Limina’ visit. 15 October 1988)

Any magisterial teaching that is certainly true, is an infallible teaching. That is what infallible means: not fallible, not in error, certainly true, certainly not in error. By definition, a non-infallible teaching does not have the charism of infallibility. That is why the ‘non-‘ is added to the word ‘infallible’. To claim that non-infallible teachings are just as certainly true as infallible teachings is absurd.

As for the different types of assent, I have already shown, in the quote above from the U.S. Bishops on the norms of licit dissent, that non-infallible teachings permit faithful dissent. This dissent is called “legitimate” and “licit” and the theologian who dissents is called “responsible”; the U.S. Bishops even stated that he need not necessarily “relinquish” his position. Such is not the case with infallible teachings; to dissent from an infallible teaching is heresy. The distinction between these two types of assent is very substantial. And this teaching of the Magisterium, that some dissent from non-infallible teachings is permissible, includes the recommendation to the dissenting theologian that he have “a Christian confidence that the truth is great and will prevail.” In other words, perhaps his position is correct, and will prevail; or perhaps the non-infallible teaching is correct and will prevail. But this magisterial teaching does not assert that the dissenting opinion cannot be true, nor that the non-infallible teaching must be true.

The implication is very clear. A non-infallible teaching can err, though only to a limited extent, and never to such an extent that the faithful would be led away from the path of salvation. So this lesser type and degree of assent (religious submission of will and intellect) allows for some faithful dissent. Therefore, Mirus’ claim that the requirement of religious assent implies that the teaching is certainly true is a false claim.

How can the Church require even a lesser type and degree of assent if the non-infallible teaching to which one must assent could possibly err? First, the Magisterium allows for the possibility of licit dissent; so no one is being required to adhere to what he or she understands to be a falsehood. Second, the non-infallible teachings, as a body, are necessary for salvation. We cannot be led to salvation by little islands of individual infallible teachings alone; some explanations and further clarifications need to be given, to connect all the infallible teachings into a coherent whole, and to make all of these teachings comprehensible and accessible. Third, no error in any non-infallible teaching, nor any set of errors, can lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.

Therefore, it is entirely reasonable for the Church to require religious assent to non-infallible teachings. The teachings are needed for salvation. They cannot lead you away from salvation. And you may dissent from individual points that you believe are in error, if you have sufficient basis for that dissent in the teachings of Tradition and Scripture and the other teachings of the Magisterium. But such a requirement to give religious assent does not imply that everything is certainly true. Only the infallible teachings are certainly true, and therefore require the full assent of the theological virtue of faith.

Conclusion

Germain Grisez gives a good explanation of this distinction between infallible and non-infallible teachings, along with the assertion that non-infallible teachings may contain errors, in chapter 35 of his book: Fulfillment in Christ. He states that when “Not all the conditions for an infallibly proposed teaching are met; the teaching could be erroneous.” (p. 416). He goes on to say that “if a higher source drawn from faith itself makes it clear beyond reasonable doubt that some teaching, although proposed authoritatively, is mistaken, one can only judge according to the higher source.” (p. 419).

His explanation is in accord with all of the magisterial sources quoted or cited in my explanation above. Non-infallible teachings could possibly contain error, though to a limited extent. We can faithfully dissent from a non-infallible teaching, if there is a basis in a higher source: Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the other teachings of the Magisterium.

For more on this topic, see my article:
Sacred Assent, Ordinary Assent, and Faithful Dissent

Post Script: It is strange that Jeff Mirus can claim all magisterial teachings are without any error, and yet reject the definitive teaching of the Magisterium on contraception. Here is my article proving that Mirus’ claim about contraception, that it is not immoral outside of marriage, is contrary to the clear and definitive teachings of the Magisterium.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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