Does Vatican II Carry the Note of Infallibility?

Assertions on Non-infallibility

First Claim: Vatican II declared itself to be non-infallible.

Reply: False. No document in the Council’s Acts makes such a statement. Rather, what we have is extra-conciliar statements by persons associated with the Council. These statements lack the authority of an Ecumenical Council. Even the statement of Pope Saint Paul VI was from a general audience, which could be classified as personal theological opinion, or at best non-infallible teaching. Note Well: the homilies of Pope John XXII were in error, but he clearly stated to the Church that this (what later turned out to be) error was his opinion only, and he permitted free disagreement.

The other statements are from the Theological Commission and the Council’s General Secretary. None of these statements were voted on by the body of Bishops and then approved by the Roman Pontiff. They are not “of the Council.”

Just as a pyramid cannot be balanced on its tip, the entire weight of an Ecumenical Council cannot be determined by extra-conciliar assertions which are opinion or at most non-infallible magisterial expressions.

Pope Saint Paul VI: “There are those who ask what is the authority, the theological qualification, which the Council wished to attribute to its teachings, knowing that it has avoided giving solemn dogmatic definitions, committing the infallibility of the ecclesiastical magisterium. And the answer is known to those who remember the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964: given the pastoral character of the Council, it avoided pronouncing in an extraordinary way dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility; but it nevertheless endowed its teachings with the authority of the supreme ordinary magisterium, which ordinary and so clearly authentic magisterium must be accepted docilely and sincerely by all the faithful, according to the mind of the Council regarding the nature and purposes of the individual documents.” [General Audience, 12 Jan 1966]

Pope Saint Paul VI states that the Council did not exercise the extraordinary Magisterium of a dogma, which would refer to Conciliar Infallibility in the form of a formal definition or dogmatic Canon. However, he also states that the Council exercised the authority of the “supreme ordinary magisterium” — not merely the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium, but the highest, that is, supreme version of the ordinary Magisterium, which would seem to be the ordinary universal Magisterium. On the other hand, when he states the acceptance of these teachings by the faithful, the wording appears to reference the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium. So there is a lack of clarity as to whether Pope Saint Paul VI thought Vatican II contained infallible teachings. This is cleared up by his letter to archbishop Lefebvre:

Pope Saint 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.”

In the above more recent statement (October 11, 1976) the lack of clarity in the previous statement (January 12, 1966) is removed. There are two types of assent, full assent of faith (divine and catholic faith) and religious assent. Since not everything in Vatican II requires the same assent, some teachings are infallible. And this is confirmed by the clear statement that the Council “affirmed by definitive acts” teachings which are the object of faith or related to faith. The type of assent required is the assent of faith, not religious submission. By 1976, Pope Saint Paul VI had become convinced that some teachings of the Council were infallible, whereas previously (perhaps) he thought they were all non-infallible.

Can a Pope or the fathers of a Council be mistaken about whether their teachings are infallible? Yes, certainly they can. First, the intention to teach infallibly is not one of the conditions for Papal Infallibility, nor for any other type of infallibility. Second, the authors of Sacred Scripture did not realize they were writing infallibly — there is no such indication in the texts. For example, Luke believed he was merely writing a letter on the Faith to Theophilus. And Paul’s letters also show a lack of this awareness that he was writing a book of Sacred Scripture.

Third, the authors of Sacred Scripture did not realize the full meaning of the texts they were writing. On the one hand, they certainly understood the words and sentences they were writing, as God used them as true authors. But on the other hand, the work of the Holy Spirit within those persons and those writings extended far beyond what each author understood. This is certain as the Old Testament texts contain implicit truths about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the New Covenant, and Christ that none of the Old Testament Scripture authors would have known.

Fourth, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis clearly meets the conditions for Papal Infallibility, and yet Pope Saint John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger did not realize this fact. They thought it was only infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium, and as material dogma in Tradition and Scripture.

Thus, the fathers of a Council and the Pope who approves it can teach infallibly without realizing that they are teaching infallibly. All that is necessary is the five conditions, discussed in my previous articles, especially that they be teaching definitively, as Pope Saint Paul VI states above.

SSPX: the declaration of the Theological Commission of March 6, 1964, and repeated by the Council’s General Secretary on November 16, 1964: “In view of conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith or morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so.” [SSPX, FAQ]

The Theological Commission and the General Secretary speaking by himself do not have the authority of an Ecumenical Council, and they do not exercise infallibility themselves. Therefore, their statement can be in error. Moreover, the above statement, carefully considered, does not state that the Council did not teach infallibly, but only states that the Council’s teaching is finding and does define when the Council so declares. The above quote is often followed by the assertion that the Council never did so. But where is the proof of that? A quote followed by a baseless assertion is not a theological argument. In fact, there are clear expressions of definitiveness in the teachings of the Council.

Examples of Infallible Teachings

Lumen Gentium 25 has been used by the Magisterium and theologians almost universally as if it were an infallible statement on the ordinary universal Magisterium and on the assent due to non-infallible teachings — so much so that this section entered into Canon Law as the requirement due to different types of teaching, infallible and non-infallible.

Inter Mirifica, when speaking on rights and morality is certainly definitive. Ecumenical Councils, teaching on such an important subject for all of humanity, are clearly proclaiming a definitive truth found in natural law and the deposit of faith. (All the truths of natural law are at least implicit in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.)

Dignitatis Humanae declares: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” A declaration by an Ecumenical Council on a human right is certainly a definitive teaching. And as the document continues, it is clear that this teaching is not one from which the faithful might licitly dissent, as is the case for non-infallible or merely pastoral (as some claim) assertions.

Christus Dominus: “Since the apostolic office of bishops was instituted by Christ the Lord and pursues a spiritual and supernatural purpose, this sacred ecumenical synod declares that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs properly, peculiarly, and per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

This declaration by the Second Vatican Council is definitive. It refers to a matter of faith directly from Christ the Lord to the Apostolic See, and it is declared to be a right of that See or to whatever Church authority the Holy See might appoint to that task (such as a dicastery).

Lumen Gentium: “But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church,(156) and made him shepherd of the whole flock;”

The above teaching concerns the very nature of the Church and the Apostolic See as well as the body of Bishops, and its teaching is expressed in a manner that is clearly definitive and irreformable. Therefore, this is also an example of an infallible teaching. For the Church teaches infallibly not only when She uses a certain formula to express a formal definition, but also whenever She proclaims truths of the Gospel or of natural law in a definitive manner. For then the subject being taught by the Magisterium is of grave necessity to the path of salvation, the Church cannot equivocate or refuse to perform Her duty to guide the faithful on that path with illumination and surety.

The final example is the many teachings of past Ecumenical Councils that did not offer formal Canons or definitions, and yet condemned heresy and taught dogma. A review of the various teaching Councils (as opposed to those which only exercised the authority over discipline, because that is what the Church needed at the time) shows this very clearly. And to those who are disposed to continue arguing, recall that some early Councils have no written acts extant. We know WHAT they taught, but not the wording. And yet these teachings are dogmas, even to the present day. This proves with certitude then that the Church has the authority to teach infallibility and with a requirement of the full assent of divine and catholic faith, without a formal definition.

If this were not so, then anyone who disliked a dogmatic definition could claim that the exact wording is not sufficient to constitute a definition, and thereby nullify any infallible teaching that they wished to reject. To the contrary, the authority of the Church is supreme, full, ordinary, immediate, and universal — just as was defined by several Ecumenical Councils, including Constantinople IV, Florence, and Vatican I.

Ordinary universal Magisterium

When the body of Bishops meets with the Roman Pontiff in an Ecumenical Council (or when at least he approves their acts at the end of the Council), the authority of the Church is not diminished. The gathering of the successor of Peter with the successors of the other Apostles in no way reduces the authority of the Church over doctrine or discipline. Therefore, the ordinary universal Magisterium can be exercised by an Ecumenical Council, despite the lack of the usually stated condition — “even though dispersed through the world”. For that condition is non-essential to the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium, just as certain aspects of the Sacraments are common, but non-essential (e.g. holding a marriage ceremony in a sanctuary, which is dispensable). Thus, this dispersion, being non-essential to the teaching authority, is not an absolutely requirement. So the ordinary universal Magisterium does not disappear or become suspended at an Ecumenical Council.

Ecumenical Councils exercise the ordinary universal Magisterium whenever they meet the conditions for infallibility, but with a definitive proclamation on a matter of faith or morals to the whole Church in place of a formal definition. Either mode of expression of an infallible non-irreformable teaching — a definition or a definitive proclamation — meets that particular criterion for infallibility. Now sometimes an Ecumenical Council decides not to issue a definitive judgment, as when the Council of Trent decided to approve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, but without deciding the doctrine (later a dogma). Another example of an act of a Council that is not infallible would be a decision of the Council regarding one particular group, with which the Council wishes unity (after their correction or reform). Whatever is not directed to the whole Church as a definitive teaching on faith or morals would not be infallible.

Now some might object to this assertion that Ecumenical Councils may exercise the ordinary universal Magisterium. Another way to categorize this teaching power of an Ecumenical Council would be to place it as one of two types of Conciliar Infallibility, rather than of the ordinary universal Magisterium. In other words, we may say that Conciliar Infallibility includes both definitions and definitive proclamations.

Some persons claim that the ordinary universal Magisterium is only exercised when the teaching is the perennial teaching of the Church from Her earliest days. But this claim is a grave error in that it restricts the teaching authority of the Church to what historians determine to have been always taught. Rather, the living Magisterium can make explicit that which was long implicit in the deposit of faith and implicit in past magisterial teachings. So the ordinary universal Magisterium can be vertical, in the sense of a perennial teaching (e.g. that the Roman Pontiff has a never-failing faith), or it can be horizontal, as when the body of Bishops and the Pope, at a certain point in time, are in agreement on one position definitively to be held, as Lumen Gentium 25 teaches.

In any case, whether this type of definitive teaching without a formal definition is categorized under the ordinary universal Magisterium or Conciliar Infallibility — perhaps the latter is a clearer manner of classification — it is certain that the Church, exercising the authority of Christ, is not restricted to only teach infallibly when She issues a formal definition. For this would greatly reduce the ability of the Church to save souls by teaching definitively, and would weaken the Keys of Peter and his Christ-given place as the never-failing faith Rock on which the Church is founded. Therefore, the Church is not constrained to only teach infallibly when She uses a certain formulation in Her teaching, called a definition or a Canon.

To claim that the Roman Pontiff, exercising Papal Infallibility, or an Ecumenical Council, exercising Conciliar Infallibility, cannot use the teaching authority given to them unless they use a certain type of phrasing that makes the teaching also a formal definition deprives the Church of Her full authority from Christ and is therefore patently false. Every definitive teaching of a Pope or of an Ecumenical Council on faith or morals, binding on the whole Church, is infallible. For then the Roman Pontiff is exercising his role as the successor of Peter, or the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops are exercising their respective roles as the successors of the Apostles and as Teachers and Pastors of the flock of Jesus Christ.

Subsequent Church Teaching

Regardless of whether an Ecumenical Council can be said to be exercising the ordinary universal Magisterium during the Council or not, after the Second Vatican Council, the successive Popes and the body of Bishops dispersed in the world have in fact incorporated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council into nearly every substantial document on every important topic of faith and morals, and even of discipline (since doctrine supports discipline). This means that many teachings of the Second Vatican Council have become infallible under the ordinary universal Magisterium regardless of whether one thinks that the teachings were originally non-infallible.


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4 Responses to Does Vatican II Carry the Note of Infallibility?

  1. M. Jean-Paul Benoist says:

    My dear Friends,

    We must no judging.

    But it resting a little doubt.

    Faith, Esperance and Charity impose the Divine Patience…

    In praying the Holy Rosary with yours,

    God save the world!

    A sinner.

  2. franciscofigueroa1 says:

    Vatican 1 has explicit defined dogmas (anathemas attached), yet they still reject those infallible teachings by rejecting Pope’s authority or Holy Mother’s Church authority. So, no matter what, those people just want to search for an excuse in order to follow their own reasoning above having faith in the Church that Christ has established. All Ecumenical Councils are interconnected or joined together, if you reject one, you reject all (James 2:10).

    “If anyone says that the condition of the faithful and those who have not yet attained to the only true faith is alike, so that Catholics may have a just cause for calling in doubt, by suspending their assent, the faith which they have already received from the teaching of the Church, until they have completed a scientific demonstration of the credibility and truth of their faith: LET HIM BE ANATHEMA”.

    “if anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the Lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole Church militant; or that it was a primacy of honor only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our Lord Jesus Christ himself: LET HIM BE ANATHEMA”.

    “Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: LET HIM BE ANATHEMA.”

    “So, then, if anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the Church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the Churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: LET HIM BE ANATHEMA”.

  3. Robert L Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you for your good insights on infallibility and Vatican II. As you know, many people believe Vatican II only contains infallible teaching when it is reaffirming prior infallible teachings as Lumen Gentium does regarding Vatican I’s teachings on the Church. Some of the theological experts at Vatican II, however, believed there were indications of infallibility in the doctrine of Vatican II itself.

    Within a year after Lumen Gentium [LG] was promulgated in 1964, there appeared a series of essays written by some of the experts (periti) of the Council. These essays were published in 1965 as La Chiesa del Vaticano II [The Church of Vatican II] General Editor, Guilherme Baraúna, O.F.M.; Italian version editor, Samuele Olivieri, O.F.M. (Florence: Vallechi Editore Firenze, 1965).

    In his essay entitled, “In place of a conclusion” (In luogo di conclusione) in this volume, Fr. Yves Congar, O.P., made this claim:

    “The Council did not wish to formulate new dogmas in the strict sense of the term. The only instance in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which could be considered a true and proper dogmatic declaration, is that which concerns the sacramentality of the episcopacy (chap. III, n. 21). This, in fact, resolves a question freely taught by theologians up till now. Nevertheless, it is proposed as a teaching on the same level as the others, without those emphatic formulas—repeated and solemn—that normally introduce a ‘definition.’ … The mode of expression is not that of a dogmatic definition, it is true, but the matter is of such great importance and its part in the doctrine of the episcopate so decisive that it proves difficult to admit that the Council did not pronounce here a definitive judgment. But, without doubt, this is the only case of this kind [pp. 1262-1263].

    Another perspective in this volume is offered by Fr. Umberto Betti, O.F.M., who was a professor at the Antonianum in Rome, an official of the Holy Office, and later Rector of the Lateran University in Rome In his essay entitled “The Theological Qualification of the Constitution” (Qualificazione teologica della Costituzione), pp. 267-274, Fr [later Cardinal] Betti offers these insights:

    “In fact, [in LG] such expressions are not used which manifest the Council’s intention to give any definition regarding the doctrine contained within. One, therefore, must conclude that no truth is to be considered as de fide, or anyhow irreformable, on the strength of a particular formulation adequate to propose it as such. This does not mean, though, that infallibility cannot be determined by other criteria …” (p. 269).

    Regarding Lumen Gentium’s dogmatic character, Fr. Betti observes:

    “First of all, it deals with a dogmatic Constitution … This indicates that the universal Magisterium is pledging itself, as such, to propose the doctrine contained therein … the dogmatic Constitution intends to set forth the doctrine concerning the Church ‘ex professo.’ The general words of introduction leave no doubts in the proposition: ‘She intends to declare with greater clarity to the faithful and to the whole world the nature of the Church and her universal mission, following the teaching of previous councils’” (p. 271).

    Fr. Betti goes on to say: “Just as, in fact, an infallible definition always expresses the conviction of the universal Church, just so the conviction of the universal Church indicates that the doctrine, which is its object, is infallible” (Come, infatti, una definizione infallibile esprime sempre la convinzione della Chiesa universale, così la convinzione della Chiesa universale indica che la dottrina che ne è l’oggetto è infallibile) [pp. 272-273].

    He then offers this conclusion:

    “These brief considerations lead to this conclusion, which actually seems inevitable: the doctrine presented in the Constitution, viewed as a whole, is irrevocable. Its intrinsic validity surpasses the exterior modalities of its expression. The essential elements, of which it consists, even if subject to a fuller maturation, have from now on eternal validity. For these reasons, the doctrine of Vatican II on the Church, like that of other ecumenical Councils, now becomes part of the Catholic religion in an irreversible manner. It has every right to be inserted into the formula of the profession of faith, in addition to and complementary to how there is now professed the doctrine taught, in particular, by the Council of Trent and Vatican I” (p. 274).

    We see here that two of the leading experts of Vatican II believed there were infallible teachings in the Council. Fr. Congar thought only LG, 21, qualified as a dogmatic declaration, but Fr. Betti believed that the teaching of LG—because it represented the conviction of the universal Church—was infallible. I think what Fr. Betti meant was that LG represents the definitive judgment of the ordinary universal magisterium on the nature of the Church. According to LG, 25, such definitive judgments of the ordinary and universal magisterium are infallible.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Yes, and why would the Church be unable to exercise the ordinary and universal magisterium, merely because the successor of Peter gathers with the successors of the other Apostles? This gathering cannot reduce her authority, and so any Council can teach infallibly by the OUM as well as by formal definitions. So I agree with Fr. Betti.

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