Every Definitive Teaching of Every Pope or Council is Infallible

Papal Infallibility has five criteria.

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”

Most analyzes of Papal Infallibility list 4 criteria. They are simply combining #1 and 2 above. The reason for separating them is so that the same criteria, with minor modifications, can be applied to Conciliar Infallibility and the ordinary universal Magisterium. In that case, the first criterion is the Pope and the body of Bishops, and the second is each exercising his office as the successor of Peter or as the successors of the other Apostles, that is to say, the Apostolic College with the Roman Pontiff as its head.

When a Roman Pontiff teaches the whole Church in an encyclical or similar papal document, he is exercising his office as “teacher of all the faithful” and as the successor of Peter who has the charism of never-failing faith (Lk 22:32). And since the Pope is teaching by virtue of that office, and not merely expressing an off-the-cuff opinion to the press, nor even a personal theological opinion in a book of private theology (as Pope Benedict XVI did), he is therefore teaching the whole Church.

Now we use the term “teaching” or “doctrine” in the Catholic Faith to indicate specifically teachings on faith or morals. So if the Pope is teaching on economics or world hunger or politics, that is only a matter of doctrine, if the particular teaching is in Divine Revelation or natural law. That may or may not be the case. The Church has social doctrine of course. And good morals can be applied in any field of human endeavor. But when we say teaching or doctrine, we mean on faith or morals.

When that teaching is definitive, then it is binding on all the faithful, and all the criteria for Papal Infallibility are met.

The error that has become the majority theological opinion is in claiming that Papal Infallibility only applies to formal definitions, such as on the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of our Lady. But while Vatican I says “he defines”, Vatican II says “by a definitive act, he proclaims”. And both expressions are open to both expressions: a formal definition or a definitive teaching.

I don’t believe that all these many teachings of Popes throughout the history of the Church to the whole Church on important matters of faith or morals are all non-infallible and can be rejected for what seems to any member of the faithful as a good reason. And we are seeing the rotten fruits of that theological position currently. Anyone who wishes to reject a teaching of Vatican I or II, or any other Council, such as Lateran V’s subjection to the Roman Pontiff and the necessity of salvation, can simply claim it is non-infallible and then cite the ability of the faithful to licitly dissent from non-infallible decisions of doctrine or discipline. That claim has allowed the conservatives and traditionalists to cast doubt and set aside Vatican I’s teachings on the never-failing faith of the Pope, which is certainly infallible under both Conciliar Infallibility and the ordinary universal Magisterium. It has allowed many persons to claim that Vatican II was merely pastoral, and can be rejected en bloc. And it has allowed the papal accusers to utterly reject the teachings of Pope Francis as if these were heresy.

Solution One: The already clear dogmas of indefectibility, never-failing faith, and the unblemished Apostolic See.

Solution Two: a clarification that every definitive teaching of every Pope, as described above, as well as every definitive teaching of every Ecumenical Council — even without a formal definition — falls under infallibility. The canonization of Saints, infallible. Amoris Laetitia, infallible. Fratelli Tutti, infallible. Vatican II, infallible. Humanae Vitae, infallible. Veritatis Splendor, infallible. Evangelium Vitae, infallible. Traditionis Custodes, a decision on discipline that is non-infallible. Mediator Dei, infallible.

All it will take is a formal definition under Papal Infallibility, something all accept as certainly infallible, to define the above broader understanding of the infallibility of Popes and Ecumenical Councils.

And then all this noise against Pope Francis is done. He cannot be guilty of heresy, apostasy, or idolatry for his infallible teachings. Vatican I and II cannot be rejected or ignored, as they are infallible.

Consider Canon 749:

“Can. 749 §2. The college of bishops also possesses infallibility in teaching when the bishops gathered together in an ecumenical council exercise the magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals who declare for the universal Church that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively; or when dispersed throughout the world but preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter and teaching authentically together with the Roman Pontiff matters of faith or morals, they agree that a particular proposition is to be held definitively.”

All that is needed is “to be held definitively” and not a formal definition. And since this is sufficient for Conciliar Infallibility and the ordinary universal Magisterium, it is sufficient 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 did not fall under the extraordinary Magisterium, as the Council did not issue dogmatic Canons. How can Vatican II be infallible? Here is what Pope Francis says:

“This is magisterium: the Council is the magisterium of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point. The Council should not be negotiated….”

That sounds like infallibility, and not a set of pastoral decisions that are non-infallible. And there are two ways that a Council teaches infallibly, one is by a formal definition, and the other is by teaching definitively without a definition.

Now it has been widely held that all teachings of Vatican II are non-infallible. This claim is contradicted by a reference in a letter of Pope Saint Paul VI to archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Paul VI: “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.”

There are only two types of assent: the full assent of faith given to what is infallible, and the religious assent (religious submission of mind and will) given to what is non-infallible. (See my comments below on the position of Cardinal Ratzinger.) So if the Second Vatican Council does not require an assent of the same nature to all its teachings, there must be some infallible teachings. Then Paul VI does on to say some of these teachings of Vatican II are “definitive acts” and truths requiring “an assent of faith”. This unmistakably refers to infallible teachings. For non-infallible teachings only require religious assent, not the assent of faith.

But on the point of infallibility, Pope Saint Paul VI clearly believed that Vatican II contains some infallible teachings. But it certainly contains no dogmatic definitions, and therefore: “only what is affirmed by definitive acts as an object of faith or as a truth related to faith requires an assent of faith.” Any definitive act by a Council, such as a definition OR a definitive teaching, with faith or morals as the object of the assertion is infallible. And this object can be faith (or morals) or else a truth related to faith. The distinction here is between truths found explicitly in Tradition or Scripture (the Deposit of Faith) or truths found implicitly.

Certainly, many of Vatican II’s teachings are definitively taught. For example, Lumen Gentium 22, which states that the Bishops have no authority without the Roman Pontiff. That is a definitive direct statement on a matter of faith. And how many of the Council’s teachings are definitive? I would say almost all of them, including controversial teachings, such as freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. It is absolutely false to say that a supposedly unclear or ambiguous teaching is therefore not definitive. It is absolutely false to say that a teaching which is not “received” by the “faithful”, because it is disputed by those who reject their duty to offer the obedience of faith, is therefore not definitive. The definitiveness of the teaching is found in the text itself, not in the minds of those who receive it, not in the minds of those who teach it (for they might not know that they are teaching under infallibility), and not in the minds of those who exalt themselves above Popes and Councils to judge them.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner,’ they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful ‘are to adhere to it with religious assent’ which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.”

Again, notice the two ways that the Magisterium teaches infallibly: by an infallible definition or by pronouncing in a definitive manner. Then, in order to refer to the non-infallible ordinary Magisterium, the CCC has to exclude both of those types of teaching. When the Pope or the body of bishops with the Pope are NOT teaching by EITHER of those two ways (definition; definitive manner), only then is the teaching non-infallible, and only then does the teaching require religious assent, rather than the assent of faith.

Intention to Teach Infallibly

Can it be the case that a Pope or a Council may teach infallibly without realizing that the teaching is infallible? Yes. For example, 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? First of all, 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 the Teachers realizing that their own teachings were infallible. They knew the teachings were of the Gospel of Christ, were of the Deposit of Faith. They knew that these teachings were on faith and morals, and were needed to help the faithful on the path of salvation. They do not need to know at every turn which teachings are infallible and which are non-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 if you disagree with me, it is nevertheless already a dogma taught 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.

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.”

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: “It has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church from the earliest times that the teachings of the General Councils are infallible.”

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, certainly not to the extent that I have described. But if Ludwig Ott and Saint Robert Bellarmine are correct, then everything definitively taught by every Ecumenical Council on faith or morals is infallible. None of the above quotes specifies “faith or morals”, but that is essentially in the definition of “doctrine” or “teaching”, when used in the sense of a doctrine or teaching of the Roman Catholic Magisterium.

Lateran 649

Lateran Council of 649: “If anyone does not, following the holy Fathers, confess properly and truly, in word and mind, to the last point, all that has been handed down and proclaimed to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of God by the holy Fathers and by the five venerable ecumenical councils, let him be condemned.”

The above proclamation of the Lateran Council of 649 (not a General Council) states the understanding of the Church at that time that every teaching of every Ecumenical Council is required belief “to the last point”. For what a Council teaches on faith and morals is truly part of the Church and is part of the Faith being handed down. Those who reject any of these points, “let him be condemned.”

This teaching at the Lateran Council further supports the belief that every teaching of every Council is infallible. Only an infallible teaching would be required to be confessed to the last point. The term “confess” is not used of non-infallible teachings. Neither would someone be condemned for refusal of belief of what is non-infallible.


The definitive teachings of Pope Francis are infallible, without any error; the rest of his teachings, though non-infallible, cannot err gravely, and neither can his decisions on discipline err gravely. The result is that everything taught or decided by Vatican II and by Pope Francis is either infallible or at least cannot err gravely. And this utterly refutes the claims of the opponents of Pope Francis.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Please consider reading my new book, Reply to the Papal Accusers: Volume One, available in print and in Kindle formats.

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