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.