Those who reject the Magisterium, grasp at straws seeking its replacement.
Click here for a list of my Roman Catholic theology books and booklets, including books about the future.
To read the Kindle versions of my books, without a Kindle device, get the free cloud reader — or — any of the free Kindle reading apps.
The CPDV — my conservative Catholic translation of the Bible, from the Latin Vulgate into English, is available at Amazon.com in Kindle format and online here.
Subscribe to my RSS Feed. (If you use Google Chrome, first add a Chrome RSS reader or extension.)
The Roman Pontiff and the Ordinary Universal Magisterium
Can the body of Bishops teach infallibly without the Roman Pontiff having taught or approved the same doctrine? This question applies to Conciliar Infallibility as well as to the ordinary universal Magisterium.
In the case of an Ecumenical Council, nothing is “of a Council,” and therefore no conciliar teaching can be infallible, without the approval of the Roman Pontiff. In some Ecumenical Councils, the Pope takes the lead in teaching and in forming the dogma to be taught by the Council. An example would be the First Vatican Council, where Blessed Pope Pius IX was closely involved in writing Pastor Aeternus, while the Bishops submitted some proposed changes, most of which were simply rejected (as explained in the Relatio on the different “suggested corrections” here). But the Bishops did vote and approve the final text, which also had the approval of the Roman Pontiff.
Then the opposite extreme for approval of conciliar teachings by a Roman Pontiff is the case of Pope Vigilius, after he ceased to be an antipope who taught manifest heresy, and had become the true Pope, that is, after he was converted into a Rock of faith by the grace of God. For the Second Council of Constantinople was held at the behest of the emperor, and its decisions were written without participation by Vigilius, who at first opposed the Council. But when the documents (“the Three Chapters”) were completed and agreed upon by the Council, they still sought the approval of the Roman Pontiff, Vigilius. And some time passed during which he refused to approve. But they did not cease from seeking his approval, as they knew that nothing agreed and taught by an Ecumenical Council is truly a teaching of the Roman Catholic Faith, unless approved by the Supreme Pontiff. And this is true even when the Pope was formerly a wicked antipope who taught heresy (prior to becoming true pope). Then the emperor himself pressured Vigilius by sending him into exile, and finally, after some months in exile, the Roman Pontiff agreed to approve of the teachings of the Council.
So in the case of Vigilius, his mere reluctant approval for the teachings of the body of Bishops made him a teacher with them of the same doctrines. He did not participate in writing the documents. But without the approval of the teaching by the Roman Pontiff, making those teachings also the teaching of the Vicar of Christ, the teachings of the body of Bishops gathered in an Ecumenical Council is not formally of the Council and cannot be infallible (in the case, of course, when a Council has some dogmatic teachings). Then in the case of Blessed Pope Pius IX, we have the other extreme, in which the Pope composes the teachings and then asks for the assent of the body of Bishops. Then their approval, without much participation in writing the doctrines, constitutes their participation in teaching the same.
But in both cases, one extreme and another, the Roman Pontiff must assent and become a participant in teaching the same doctrine as the Bishops, or the teaching of the Council is not infallible, nor even “of a Council”.
The Ordinary Universal Magisterium
The above principle for the teachings of an Ecumenical Council, that the Roman Pontiff must approve of the teachings or they cannot be infallible (in the case of dogmas), is instructive on the nature of the ordinary universal Magisterium. For a teaching to be infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium, the Roman Pontiff must participate in teaching this same doctrine as is taught by the body of Bishops. If the entire body of Bishops were to teach one position, definitively to be held, throughout the world, while remaining in communion with the Roman Pontiff, BUT without the express approval of the Roman Pontiff for that teaching, it is not a teaching under the ordinary universal Magisterium and does not fall under that type of infallibility. For the body of Bishops correctly understood includes its head, the Pope. So the Pope must assent to, confirm, or in some other way teach what the body teaches, or else the teaching is not of the ordinary universal Magisterium.
This is proven first by the comparison with Conciliar Infallibility. The difference between the two types of infallibility is mainly that the Bishops are gathered in one case, the Council, and dispersed in the world in the other case. Vatican II explains it this way:
In the above teaching, the bishops “dispersed through the world” teach infallibly as a body only when maintaining the bond of communion with their head. Then the text says that “they” (apparently meaning the individual bishops) must be “in agreement on one position as definitively to be held”. This would seem to leave unanswered the question as to whether (A) the Roman Pontiff must also be in agreement, in some way expressing or approving of the “one position” being taught, or whether (B) he can be silent on that position and the bishops merely need to be in communion with him. But certainly if (C) the Pope opposes the position held by the body of Bishops, they must bend to his will and accept his teaching, as he is the Vicar of Christ and they, successors to the Apostles though they be, are not the Vicar of Christ.
Interpretation “A” is my position, and “C” is certain. But first, note the comparison between the ordinary universal Magisterium and Ecumenical Councils in the quote above: “This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges….” Since an Ecumenical Council requires the approval of the Roman Pontiff, and not merely that the body of Bishops gathered in the Council be in communion with the Roman Pontiff, this implies that the ordinary universal Magisterium also requires the positive assent to the teaching of the Roman Pontiff. He might actively teach the position, as a comparison with Blessed Pope Pius IX being actively involved in Vatican I; or he might simply approve of the teaching and wording chosen by the Bishops dispersed in the world, as a comparison with Pope Vigilius.
The argument from comparison with an Ecumenical Council is useful but not entirely decisive. However, it is important in that it teaches us how the Magisterium and especially the infallible Magisterium works in the Church. Infallibility resides in the Roman Pontiff, individually. Infallibility also resides in the body of Bishops, but ONLY “when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.”
So the above quote seems to clarify the question left unclear in the first quote from Lumen Gentium. The infallibility that resides in the body of Bishops requires that body to exercise the Magisterium “with the successor of Peter.” And that would seem to indicate a requirement that the Pope teach with the body of Bishops whenever they teach infallibly, whether in an Ecumenical Council or in the ordinary universal Magisterium.
Then the reason for this requirement was explained earlier, in Lumen Gentium 22:
The body of Bishops “has no authority” without the Roman Pontiff. So how can they teach infallibly under the ordinary universal Magisterium without the Roman Pontiff teaching or at least approving of the same doctrine? They cannot. For the teaching power of the body of Bishops only exists “with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.” But if the body of Bishops were to teach infallibly in the ordinary universal Magisterium, without the Roman Pontiff teaching or approving of the same position, they would be exercising “supreme and full power over the universal Church” without their head, which is impossible.
Then the teaching above next states this requirement even more clearly: “This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff.” The power in question is “supreme and full power over the universal Church.” And it can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, it is not sufficient for the body of Bishops to merely remain in communion with the Roman Pontiff. He must consent to their exercise of the supreme and full power over the universal Church, the height of which is certainly Her infallible teaching power. For when the body of Bishops are teaching the universal Church a dogma under the ordinary universal Magisterium, they are exercising this supreme power. Therefore, interpretation “A” of Lumen Gentium 25 is the correct understanding. The Roman Pontiff must consent to, approve, or actively teach the same position as is taught by the body of Bishops dispersed in the world for that position to be an infallible teaching under the ordinary universal Magisterium.
Lumen Gentium 22 continues on this subject:
First, the document teaches that a Council is never Ecumenical without the confirmation or acceptance of the Roman Pontiff. And then the document compares this requirement to the same requirement for a teaching under the ordinary universal Magisterium. This same “collegiate power” of the bishops to teach as a body is exercised while the bishops are dispersed in the world — so this is the ordinary universal Magisterium now — provided that the Supreme Pontiff who is the head of that body, the head of the Apostolic college, calls them to act together as a body, or approve or accepts that united action.
Thus, the document of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, makes this comparison between the ordinary universal Magisterium and an Ecumenical Council in order to assert that the Roman Pontiff must be involved in much the same way in either type of infallible teaching with the other Bishops: by calling the Council or calling the body of Bishops to “collegiate action” while dispersed in the world, and by approving or accepting the teaching of the Council or the teaching of the body of Bishops dispersed in the world. The Pope must be actively involved in both cases. He cannot merely sit in Rome (or Vatican City) and silently acquiesce. He must approve or confirm the teaching, or he may do more, by actively teaching the same.
And then we have the same understanding of the teaching in Lumen Gentium in Canon Law:
Here in Canon Law, the point is made even more clearly. The ordinary universal Magisterium is described in about the same language as Lumen Gentium, as dispersed throughout the world, etc. And then the requirement that the bishops be in communion with one another and with the Pope is stated. But this Canon also states a specific teaching requirement by the Pope: “and teaching authentically together with the Roman Pontiff matters of faith or morals”. The body of Bishops must be teaching with the Pope. Then the fact that their communion with the Pope is also mentioned, separately, proves that this is an additional requirement. Being in communion with the Roman Pontiff is not sufficient. The Pope must also be teaching that same “particular proposition” that is “to be held definitively”.
Then in the 1968 Credo of Pope Saint Paul VI, the same point is made against, that when the body of Bishops teaches infallibly, the Pope must also teach with them:
Infallibility is also assured to the body of Bishops only when “it exercises with him”, that is, with the Pope, “the supreme magisterium”. And the Magisterium is supreme when it is teaching infallibly. Thus, for both Ecumenical Councils and the OUM, the Pope must exercise the magisterium with the body of Bishops.
Pope Leo XIII
In Satis Cognitum, Pope Leo XIII teaches the following doctrine on the relation between the successors of Peter, the Popes, and the successors of the other Apostles, the Bishops:
So nothing is conferred on the other Bishops, except that it is conferred through the Pope, and then never “without Peter”, that is without the Pope, “participating in it”. So this is a clear statement, in addition to what has already been said, that the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, a mode of infallible teaching by the Magisterium, cannot be exercised without the Pope participating in it. And the quote by Pope Leo XIII is from Pope Leo I (the great). The abbreviation “S. Leo M.” means Saint Leo Magnus, which is Latin for great.
1. What if every Bishop in the world teaches one position definitively to be held on a matter of faith or morals, except for the Bishop of Rome, that is, the Roman Pontiff, who teaches the opposite? ]
In that case, the teaching of the body of Bishops would not be infallible. And due to perpetual assistance of the Holy Spirit to the Vicar of Christ, the majority of the Bishops would submit to the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff, and the Pope’s teaching would prevail.
2. What if every Bishop in the world teaches one position definitively to be held on a matter of faith or morals, except for the Bishop of Rome, that is, the Roman Pontiff who is silent on the question?
Then the teaching of the Bishops is not infallible; it is non-infallible. Nothing is infallible under the Magisterium, until and unless a Roman Pontiff teaches the doctrine. There is no infallibility under the Magisterium except from or with the Pope.
Now what is the theological reason why the Bishop of Rome must be teaching that same doctrine as taught by the body of Bishops, in order for it to be infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium? There are over 4,000 Bishops in the world today. If they all agree, is that not sufficient?
No. And the reason is shown by the history of the Church. The Bishops gathered at Basil tried to teach the error of conciliarism, in which Ecumenical Councils are above the Roman Pontiffs in authority. No Pope approved that teaching, and later Councils rejected the idea as heresy (especially Vatican I). In another example, at the Council of Chalcedon, Canon 28 (which made Constantinople equal to Rome in Church authority) was approved by that Ecumenical Council, but rejected by the Roman Pontiff. The body of Bishops is capable of going astray from the true Faith, whenever they are separated from the Roman Pontiff as their Head, even when they are gathered in a Council. But as long as the body of Bishops remains not only in communion with the Roman Pontiff, but submissive and obedient to his decisions on doctrine and discipline, they participate in his supreme authority over the Church. If they decide to teach apart from his teaching, they do not have infallibility.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus teaches that the indefectibility of the Church depends upon Peter and his successors as the Rock on which the Church is founded. In Luke 22:32, Jesus promises to Peter and his successors the charism of a never-failing faith. But the end of the verse tells us that the Roman Pontiff, possessing this never-failing faith, is then able to confirm the faith of his brethren, the body of Bishops.
Luke 22:32 “But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.”
So the body of Bishops only possesses a never-failing faith when they are confirmed in their faith by the Roman Pontiff. And this applies also to the exercise of the Magisterium, such that the teachings of the body of Bishops, in order to exercise the Magisterium to its fullest extent in infallibility, must be confirmed by the Roman Pontiff. But if the Bishops act without the participation of the Pope, then their authority is not supreme and not infallible. For authority in the Church flows from Christ to Peter, to his successors the Roman Pontiffs, and only thereafter to the Bishops. A Bishop who rejects or ignores the Pope loses his authority.
So it is not correct to say that the body of Bishops, dispersed in the world, can teach infallibly under the ordinary universal Magisterium merely by being in communion with the Roman Pontiff. Instead, the Pope must also teach or approve or confirm that teaching, or else it does not fall under infallibility. Bishops can teach under the non-infallible ordinary Magisterium without the Pope having taught the same doctrine. Sometimes a teaching under the ordinary universal Magisterium begins as a non-infallible ordinary teaching of individual Bishops. But eventually the Roman Pontiff must weigh in and teach the same doctrine, or approve of or confirm the same doctrine. If he is silent on that particular topic, then the teaching of thousands of Bishops remains non-infallible and does not fall under the ordinary universal Magisterium.
Why? It is because the Roman Pontiff represents Christ. So if the body of Bishops teaches what the Vicar of Christ has not taught, they do not teach with the full authority of Christ.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.