Are Ecumenical Councils infallible on faith or morals?

The Second Vatican Council is often rejected by conservatives by means of a particular argument. First, it is stated that the Council chose not to issue dogmatic definitions, which would be in the form of Canons with attached anathemas or the like. It is assumed, therefore, that nothing in the Council’s teaching can be infallible — but that is not true. A read through several of the early Ecumenical Councils, the ones with teachings on faith or morals, finds dogmas established by definitive teachings without formal definitions. In addition, letters to Ecumenical Councils, approved by the Council and entered into its acts, have also been used to establish dogmas. It is clear, then, that any definitive teaching of an Ecumenical Council is infallible, including but not limited to formal definitions.

Therefore, the teachings of the Council of Trent are infallible, both in the Canons and in the paragraphs of teachings that precede the Canons. And this is true also of Councils without Canons or definitions. Their definitive teachings on faith or morals are infallible.

Sometimes one hears the claim that no Ecumenical Council has ever taught infallibly on morals. Pope Saint John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor disagrees with that notion. He states:

Saint Paul declares that “the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation — repeated by the Council of Trent” — lists as “mortal sins” or “immoral practices” certain specific kinds of behaviour the willful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.

Trent condemned immoral practices as objective mortal sins. And since this is a definitive teaching of an Ecumenical Council, it is infallible.

What makes the teachings of an Ecumenical Council infallible? It is the same criteria as taught by Vatican I and II on Papal Infallibility, except that the body of Bishops teaches with the Roman Pontiff.

Vatican I:

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”

Vatican II:

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”

The modifications needed to apply the criteria for Papal Infallibility to Conciliar Infallibility would be that (1) the persons teaching are the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops, not the Pope alone, and that (2) the body of Bishops are teaching by virtue of their respective offices as successors to the Apostles while the Pope teaches in his office as the successor of Peter, who confirms his brethren in the faith. The rest of the conditions remain the same: (3) a definitive teaching, or a definition (4) on faith or morals (5) that is a required belief.

So when we say an Ecumenical Council teaches on faith or morals, the criteria numbered as 1, 2, and 4 are met. The Pope and Bishops are teaching at any Ecumenical Council by virtue of their respective offices and the subject is faith or morals. Then the fact that this teaching is issued by the Council with the approval of the Roman Pontiff — this only applies to teachings issued by the Council with papal approval — makes it clear that these teachings must be held by the whole Church. This is not a teaching of a Bishop with authority over one diocese, or of a Bishops’ Conference with authority over one region. Councils which are called general or ecumenical are necessarily teaching in a way that is binding on the whole Church. This confirms that the fifth criterion is met.

The only condition left is the third, that the teaching be definitive. The two terms used are:
“he defines”
“by a definitive act, he proclaims”

To issue a definition is certainly to define something. It is not clear from that term whether it can be understood beyond a formal definition. But the terminology in Vatican II is broader. Any definitive act which proclaims a truth on faith or morals to the whole Church would be infallible. This means that the paragraphs in the Council of Trent as well as the numbered Canons are infallible. It means that all of the teachings of Vatican I are infallible, not only the definition of Papal Infallibility. And it means that everything taught by the Second Vatican Council on faith or morals is infallible — as long as it was definitive.

Examples of things that are not definitive: When the Council of Trent defined the Canon of Scripture infallibly, but in passing named the authors of each book of the Bible. This does not define the authorship of each book. This is undeniable since some of the Letters attributed to Paul by the Council of Trent plainly state, in the text of the Letter, that Paul wrote them with other persons. So in addition to being a teaching on faith or morals, the assertion must be definitive. It must be a direct clear assertion of truth, and not merely something that is implied (indirectly), nor an expression used in passing. For example, the use of certain terms to refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Second Vatican Council would also not establish those terms as dogmas in Mariology.

Thus, not everything said by an Ecumenical Council on matters of faith or morals is definitively taught and therefore infallible. But this position on Conciliar Infallibility does expand the number of teachings established as infallible to a great extent.

This has implications for Papal Infallibility. The Relatio of Vatican I by Bishop Vincent Gasser states that Papal Infallibility has been used thousands of times. This can only be true if Papal Infallibility includes definitive teachings, and not only formal definitions. And that is my opinion on Papal Infallibility as well. The number of infallible teachings under Papal Infallibility is much larger than anyone realizes. Every definitive teaching of any Roman Pontiff is an exercise of Papal Infallibility, just as every definitive teaching of every Ecumenical Council is an exercise of Conciliar Infallibility.

Now a problem arises for this position on infallibility as it is applied to the Second Vatican Council. It is well know that the fathers of the Council considered that their teachings generally fell under the ordinary Magisterium, and not the extraordinary Magisterium. But this could be understood as the ordinary universal Magisterium. Though the Council defines the ordinary universal Magisterium in its most common expression, when the Bishops are dispersed in the world, nothing prevents the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops from exercising the ordinary universal Magisterium while gathered together. Surely, when all the successors to the Apostles gather under the supreme authority of the successor of Peter their authority to teach is not diminished in any way. They do not thereby lose the ability to teach under the ordinary universal Magisterium.

Now it has been widely accepted that these teachings of Vatican II are non-infallible, for the most part. There is a reference in a letter of Pope Saint Paul VI implying that some teachings of Vatican II were infallible. But even then, the letter goes on to speak as if most teachings were non-infallible.

“Again, you cannot appeal to the distinction between what is dogmatic and what is pastoral to accept certain texts of this Council and to refuse others. Indeed, not everything in the Council requires an assent of the same nature: only what is affirmed by definitive acts as an object of faith or as a truth related to faith requires an assent of faith. But the rest also forms part of the solemn magisterium of the Church to which each member of the faithful owes a confident acceptance and a sincere application.”

Some of Vatican II’s teachings are infallible. But I am saying most of its teachings are infallible.

Can it be the case that a Pope or a Council may teach infallibly without realizing that the teaching is infallible? Yes. The teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis meets the criteria for Papal Infallibility. Yet Pope Saint John Paul II believed that it was infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium. How is it possible that a Pope or Council would teach without realizing their teaching is infallible? Well, that is not one of the criteria. The criteria for Papal Infallibility do not state that the Pope must intend to teach infallibly. Popes and Councils need only realize that they are teaching the true Faith with the help of the Holy Spirit to the Church. They need not know at every point, which teachings are infallible and which are non-infallible. In fact, for most of the Church’s history, the term non-infallible was unknown. The Pope and Bishops taught, and the people believed.

So it is entirely possible that Popes have taught under Papal Infallibility thousands of times, and that the Second Vatican Council taught infallibly on hundreds of points of doctrine, without realizing that these teachings were infallible.

Some teachings of Vatican II and other Councils can still be non-definitive, and therefore non-infallible. But it is unknown for any Ecumenical Council to have ever had a teaching corrected or condemned by a subsequent Pope or Council, as if the Council had erred in any significant way. And even if my position on this issue, when judged by the Magisterium, turns out to be incorrect, it is nevertheless already determined by Vatican I that the Roman Pontiff and Apostolic See, and therefore any Ecumenical Council approved by the Roman Pontiff, cannot err gravely on faith or morals, nor on discipline.

Would I extend the determinations of an Ecumenical Council on discipline to be definitive and therefore infallible? That is not my position currently. I would leave that to the Magisterium to decide. It does seem that since faith and morals is more important, it has a greater use of infallibility than discipline.

Saint Robert Bellarmine: “A general Council represents the universal Church, and hence has the consensus of the universal Church; therefore, if the Church cannot err, neither can a legitimate and approved Ecumenical Council err.”

Saint Robert Bellarmine: “It must be held with Catholic faith that general Councils confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff can neither err in faith nor morals.”

Ludwig Ott:, 2018, “It has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church from the earliest times that the teachings of the General Councils are infallible.” Ott, The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma Revised and Updated Edition (London: Baronius Press, 2018), p. 321.

Saint Robert Bellarmine, and Ludwig Ott in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma each assert that Ecumenical Councils cannot err when teaching on faith or morals. So this position is not new; it is not heterodox. The opponents of Pope Francis and of Vatican I and II do not wish the Popes and Councils to have this charism of infallibility to the extent that I have described. But they are willing to believe so little.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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3 Responses to Are Ecumenical Councils infallible on faith or morals?

  1. M. Jean-Paul Benoist says:

    My dear Friends,


    Difference: Vatican II is the unique Council “Pastoral”.

    Curious, is’n’it?

    No judgement, evidently.

    A miserabilous sinner.

    For you, Ron, I’m praying for your Mother, I shall remember always!

    In union of prayers.

  2. john says:

    The devil is in the detail. Even Protestants accept the judgement of the “Councils of the Church”. They just disagree about which meetings are Councils.

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