Are the teachings of Vatican I on the Papal charisms Dogma?

The First Vatican Council issued the dogma of Papal Infallibility. The question is whether the Council’s other teachings on the papal charisms — such as on his supreme authority and his never-failing faith — are also infallible. The answer depends upon the distinction between definitions and definitive teachings.

Does a teaching of the Magisterium need to be, always and necessarily, presented in the form of a definition, as found for example in the definitions on Papal Infallibility, on the Immaculate Conception, and on the Assumption? Or are those teachings also infallible which meet the same conditions as an infallible definition, but are definitively taught without the form of a definition?

The infallible teachings of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, in the Supreme Magisterium of the Church is not restricted to truths presented in a particular form as a definition. Jesus taught infallibly without the form of a definition. Sacred Scripture teaches infallibly without such a form, and so does Sacred Tradition. Then the ordinary universal Magisterium is a definitive teaching which is, by the very nature of this type of teaching expression, not a formal definition.

Therefore, as long as a teaching of the Magisterium meets the conditions for infallibility, either a formal definition or a definitive teaching is sufficient. Some infallible teachings have the form of a definition, and many other infallible teachings are definitive, but without a formal definition. Both types are infallible.

As we see in the teachings of Vatican II, both definitions and teachings issued by a definitive act can fall under infallibility:

Lumen Gentium 25: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.

“And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.”

When the Bishops are dispersed in the world, they can teach infallibly under the ordinary universal Magisterium. And this type of dogma does not have a single formal definition, but instead is a universal agreement among the Bishops, with the Roman Pontiff, on “one position definitively to be held”. No formal definition is needed, nor is one usually given. The teaching may be presented in many different wordings, as long as the position is in agreement as a required belief. Then in speaking about Papal Infallibility, Vatican II allows that such an exercise of the supreme magisterium can be a “definitive act”, which proclaims a doctrine, rather than a formal definition.

Of course, as the quote above also shows, the Magisterium sometimes teaches infallible with a definition and such definitions can also have the charism of infallibility.

Recall also that the Ecumenical Councils have often condemned heretics for their grave errors — which are contrary to dogmas of the faith and are therefore heretical errors — even before a formal definition was issued. So how can they be heretics, who are condemned by the Church at a Council for teachings they issued prior to the Council’s definitions? The answer is that the Church teaches infallibly by definitive acts, even without a formal definition.

Canon Law also confirms that the form of a definition is not an essential requirement for a teaching to be infallible:

Can. 749 §1. By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.

§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.

Notice that a doctrine which must be held definitively is an infallible doctrine, i.e. a dogma.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s Commentary on the Profession of Faith of Pope Saint John Paul II states clearly that a teaching of the Magisterium can be infallible without a definition:

The Magisterium of the Church, however, teaches a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed (first paragraph) or to be held definitively (second paragraph) with an act which is either defining or non-defining. In the case of a defining act, a truth is solemnly defined by an ‘ex cathedra’ pronouncement by the Roman Pontiff or by the action of an ecumenical council. In the case of a non-defining act, a doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of Peter. Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition, by declaring explicitly that it belongs to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium as a truth that is divinely revealed (first paragraph) or as a truth of Catholic doctrine (second paragraph). Consequently, when there has not been a judgement on a doctrine in the solemn form of a definition, but this doctrine, belonging to the inheritance of the depositum fidei, is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the Pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. The declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation by the Roman Pontiff in this case is not a new dogmatic definition, but a formal attestation of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church.

I disagree with Ratzinger’s claim that a doctrine to be held definitively is not a divinely-revealed doctrine, but is a different category of infallible teachings. To my mind, after reading carefully the different magisterial texts on this topic, divinely-revealed dogmas confirmed by the Magisterium infallibly are often categorized by the Church as “definitively to be held”. There is no such distinction, except in that infallibility applies to both what is explicit and what is implicit in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Things that have a necessary connection to divinely-revealed truths are also divinely-revealed, but implicitly. This is seen when the documents on the Immaculate Conception and on the Assumption reference Sacred Scripture to support these dogmas, even though these dogmas are not explicitly taught in Scripture. They are implicit in divine revelation, and so there is no lesser category of infallible teachings called “definitively to be held”. Instead, there is one category of infallible teachings, which includes what is explicit and what is implicit in divine revelation.

In any case, Ratzinger plainly states that an infallible teaching of the Roman Pontiff need not be in the form of a definition. He can, for example, confirm or reaffirm the infallible teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium. Ratzinger believes that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is such an example of a dogma of the ordinary universal Magisterium that is confirmed by the Roman Pontiff. My opinion is that OS also is an example of Papal Infallibility, as it meets all the conditions. The main point, though, is this: “Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition.”

The same must also be true of Ecumenical Councils. For no teaching or decision of an Ecumenical Council has any authority without the approval of the Roman Pontiff. Nothing is “of a Council” without the approval of the Pope. This point is clearly taught by Pope Leo XIII in Satis Cognitum n. 15, where he states:

Pope Leo XIII: “The 28th Canon of the Council of Chalcedon, by the very fact that it lacks the assent and approval of the Apostolic See, is admitted by all to be worthless.”

Therefore, an Ecumenical Council can teach infallibly without a formal definition, such as by issuing a decision on faith or morals in a defining act or a definitive teaching, or by confirming what has been the constant and ancient teaching of the Church, the latter case is an example of the ordinary universal Magisterium.

Pope Leo XIII: “Indeed, Holy Writ attests that the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven were given to Peter alone, and that the power of binding and loosening was granted to the Apostles and to Peter; but there is nothing to show that the Apostles received supreme power without Peter, and against Peter. Such power they certainly did not receive from Jesus Christ. Wherefore, in the decree of the Vatican Council as to the nature and authority of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, no newly conceived opinion is set forth, but the venerable and constant belief of every age (Sess. iv., cap. 3) [Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3].”

Notice that the Roman Pontiff must teach with the body of Bishops for any teaching, whether of an Ecumenical Council or of the ordinary universal Magisterium to be infallible. The successors to the other Apostles did not receive supreme power over doctrine or discipline “without Peter”, nor certainly ever “against Peter”.

Then Pope Leo XIII plainly states that the teachings of Vatican I on the nature and authority of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff are “the venerable and constant belief of every age”. Such a teaching described in that manner certainly falls under the ordinary universal Magisterium. Then Leo cites Pastor Aeternus chapter 3, not the formal definition at the end of chapter 4. So Leo is not referring to the formal definition of Papal Infallibility, but to the other teachings on the nature of the papacy — the other papal charisms.

So what Ratzinger describes as an infallible teaching — an doctrine of the ordinary universal Magisterium confirmed by the Roman Pontiff — can also be the same confirmed by an Ecumenical Council approved by the Roman Pontiff. And this applies to the First Vatican Council, and Leo XIII plainly says.

Now Vatican I itself also teaches on the infallibility of the Magisterium, clearly without a requirement that every infallible teaching be presented to the faithful in the form of a definition:

“Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.” [Dei Filius, chapter 3, n. 8]

When something must be believe with “divine and catholic faith”, it is a dogma and a required belief under pain of heresy and automatic excommunication. But this includes anything “proposed”, not only those things that have the form of a definition; and such a proposal can be from solemn judgment (Papal Infallibility or Conciliar Infallibility) or the ordinary universal Magisterium.

Then as Vatican I continues to teach, we see repeated examples of infallible teachings, without a formal definition such as is found at the conclusion of the Council’s teachings in the definition of Papal Infallibility.

The conclusion of Dei Filius contains a series of Canons with attached anathemas. These are infallible teachings. Whether one considers each of these brief infallible Canons to be formal definitions or definitive teachings without such a form is irrelevant as the anathemas clearly indicate that these teachings are infallible. There are 18 of these Canons in Dei Filius.

But the document Pastor Aeternus is what concerns this article. That document is on the charisms of the Roman Pontiff. Those who refuse submission to Popes and Councils wish to represent its teachings as non-infallible, other than the definition of Papal Infallibility. In the introduction to Pastor Aeternus, the Council describes the structure of the Church established by Christ, with the Pope as its visible head. And then these statements are given:

7. This doctrine is to be believed and held by all the faithful in accordance with the ancient and unchanging faith of the whole Church.

8. Furthermore, we shall proscribe and condemn the contrary errors which are so harmful to the Lord’s flock.

Any doctrine which is “the ancient and unchanging faith of the whole Church” falls under the ordinary universal Magisterium. So when Vatican I states that the aforementioned doctrine must be believe and held by all the faithful, it is declaring an infallible teaching based on the ordinary universal Magisterium, just as is discussed earlier in this article.

Pastor Aeternus chapter 1: “We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord.”

The above teaching is infallible. The Council goes on to explain that this teaching is found in Sacred Scripture, saying: “To this absolutely manifest teaching of the Sacred Scriptures, as it has always been understood by the Catholic Church….” When a teaching of Scripture is absolutely manifest to the Church, and has always been understood as one position, which is that taught and declared by an Ecumenical Council approved by the Pope, such a teaching is infallible doctrine, i.e. dogma. It is a teaching of Sacred Scripture and the ordinary universal Magisterium, confirmed by the body of Bishops teaching the universal Church definitively on faith and morals with the Roman Pontiff. And this “doctrine is to be believed and held by all the faithful.” Then in chapter 1, n. 6, Pastor Aeternus goes on to issue an anathema against anyone who asserts a contrary position. It should then be obvious to all the faithful that such a teaching of the Church is dogma, and the contrary is heresy.

Chapter 2 of Pastor Aeternus begins with this teaching: “That which our lord Jesus Christ, the prince of shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the Church, must of necessity remain forever, by Christ’s authority, in the Church which, founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time. For no one can be in doubt, indeed it was known in every age that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, the pillar of faith and the foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our lord Jesus Christ….”

Such a teaching can only be infallible. For it is of Jesus Christ in Sacred Scripture, and is a grave matter of faith, established by the authority of Christ. Then the Council states that “no one can be in doubt” about this teaching, and that this teaching is “known in every age”. These two assertions confirm the requirement of belief without doubt, and that the teaching is from the ordinary universal Magisterium. The chapter then goes on to teach that “it has always been necessary for every Church — that is to say the faithful throughout the world — to be in agreement with the Roman Church….” Such a necessity cannot be based on a non-infallible teaching with which the faithful might disagree licitly (as can occur with what is non-infallible). And the chapter then ends with an attached anathema, condemning authoritatively the claim that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy over the whole Church, that is, in the primacy described in the chapter which precedes the anathema.

To disagree with these teachings of Pastor Aeternus on the Roman Pontiff is to reject the infallible teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium, confirmed by the First Vatican Council, and such a disagreement results in the application of the attached anathema. When a Catholic falls under an anathema for a knowing and deliberate refusal to believe an infallible doctrine, he or she loses communion with the Church and is no longer a full member in good standing in the one holy Church. When such a failure to believe has the culpability of formal heresy, it carries the canonical penalty of automatic excommunication. Then the refusal to submit to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff, or an Ecumenical Council approved by the Roman Pontiff is a schismatic error; formal schism carries the penalty of automatic excommunication.

But an attached anathema is not absolutely necessary. As long as a teaching is infallible under the Magisterium, knowing and deliberate rejection of that dogma by a Catholic is formal heresy.

Then chapter 3 of Pastor Aeternus states the following:

“And so, supported by the clear witness of Holy Scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman Pontiffs and of general councils, we promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical Council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians,”

Such an assertion clearly indicates a dogma of an Ecumenical Council. these are teachings of Divine Revelation (Holy Scripture), already defined by a previous Council, which must be believed by all the faithful, and which is now reaffirmed by Vatican I. The text continues:

“namely that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church. All this is to be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons.”

So the above teaching is also infallible under both the teachings of the Council of Florence and the First Vatican Council. And regardless of whether one considers such a teaching to be in the form of a definition or not, it is a required belief and a dogma of the Faith.

Pastor Aeternus then continues:

“2. Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.

3. In this way, by unity with the Roman Pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith , the Church of Christ becomes one flock under one Supreme Shepherd.

4. This is the teaching of the Catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.”

The above doctrine is taught and declared by the Council and is stated to be “the teaching of Catholic truth” and clearly a required belief since, “no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.” These assertions indicate an infallible doctrine, a dogma, of Vatican I. And this dogma is certainly supported by the previous references to Sacred Scripture and by references (before and after the text) to the teachings of past Ecumenical Councils.

As this teaching on the Roman Pontiff continues, the Council condemns and rejects contrary opinions, and continues to teach definitively on the charisms of the Roman Pontiff. In addition, the Council asserts that “they stray from the genuine path of truth” who contradict these teachings on the supreme authority and other charisms of the Pope. Then chapter 3 ends with another attached anathema against all who reject or disagree with the teachings presented by the Council: “let him be anathema.”

Chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus also presents infallible teachings, in addition to its final teaching in the definition of Papal Infallibility. This chapter contains multiple teachings on the Roman Pontiff, which are clearly presented to the whole Church by the Council as infallible teachings and required beliefs.

“1. That apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff possesses as successor of Peter, the prince of the apostles, includes also the supreme power of teaching. This Holy See has always maintained this, the constant custom of the Church demonstrates it, and the ecumenical councils, particularly those in which East and West met in the union of faith and charity, have declared it.”

This charism of the “supreme power of teaching” must be dogma. For the Apostolic See has “always maintained this”, and the same is the “constant custom of the Church” — indicating an infallible teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium. Then this same doctrine has been declared by the Ecumenical Councils. Such a teaching must be infallible, for the Church is indefectible and cannot lead the faithful astray from the path of salvation.

Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4 then reaffirms the teachings of other Ecumenical Councils: Constantinople IV, Lyons II, and Florence, and so this teaching must also be infallible. For what the Ecumenical Councils teach again and again to the whole Church throughout the centuries is infallible under both the ordinary universal Magisterium and Conciliar Infallibility.

The Council then cites “the long established custom of the Churches and the pattern of ancient usage referred to this Apostolic See,” which again references the ordinary universal Magisterium. The Church has always sought definitive answers to questions of faith and morals in the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff. “This was to ensure that any damage suffered by the faith should be repaired in that place above all where the faith can know no failing.” Thus, the Church has always held that the decisions of the Apostolic See on the Faith cannot fail gravely.

Chapter 4, n. 6 expounds upon this teaching, by confirming that it is the ancient and constant teaching of the Church:

“Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ [Lk 22:32].”

The Apostolic teaching of the Roman Pontiff was embraced by “all the venerable fathers” of the Church and followed by “all the holy orthodox doctors” of the Church. Again, this indicates a teaching under the ordinary universal Magisterium, that the teachings and decisions of the Roman Pontiff under the Keys of Saint Peter are free from any grave error — for a less-than-grave error in a non-infallible decision would not be considered a blemish or stain on the Apostolic See. And the Ecumenical Council of Vatican I is confirming this ancient and constant teaching of the Church.

Notice that this teaching is based on Sacred Scripture, and so is divinely revealed. Then the meaning of the Scripture passage, as interpreted authoritatively by the Magisterium at Vatican I is the same interpretation given by the ordinary universal Magisterium throughout Church history:

7. “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.”

Chapter 4, n. 6 quotes Luke 22:32, and n. 7 then references Mt 16:18, by describing the Church standing firm “against the gates of hell.” This teaching of Sacred Scripture is certainly the ancient and constant teaching of the Church, as proven in this set of references from Popes, Councils, Saints, Martyrs, Doctors, and Fathers of the Church. The Church has always taught that the meaning of Luke 22:32 is that the Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith. And when Vatican I confirmed this teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium, it then is certainly infallible under Conciliar Infallibility. For the infallibility of Popes and Councils is not limited to formal definitions, but extends also to whatever is definitively taught on faith and morals, by the Pope or the Pope with the body of Bishops, and which must be held by all the faithful.

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.

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2 Responses to Are the teachings of Vatican I on the Papal charisms Dogma?

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,
    Thank you for another very fine article. I agree with you that the teachings of Vatican I on papal charisms are infallible dogmas. When Cardinal Ratzinger claims that some doctrines taught definitively are not divinely revealed, I think he has in mind what are sometimes called “secondary objects of infallibility.” It’s true that some of these are divinely revealed in an implicit manner, but others are definitive conclusions based on what has been divinely revealed. For example, Leo XIII’s 1896 judgment that “the ordinations carried out according to the Anglican rite have been and are absolutely null and utterly void” (Denz.-H, 3319) is definitive and infallible. This definitive judgment of Leo XIII is a conclusion based on what has been divinely revealed so it’s possible to claim that it is divinely revealed implicitly. I think, though, Cardinal Ratzinger would say that this judgment of Leo XIII is an infallible conclusion based on what has been divinely revealed about valid ordinations. In itself, though, the judgment is not divinely revealed, and, therefore, a person would not be guilty or heresy who rejects Leo XIII’s definitive judgment. He or she would, however, be guilty of denying a definitive and infallible judgment of the Church, which is the type of teaching corresponding to the second concluding paragraph of the 1989 Profession of Faith. These definitive teachings and judgments (along with dogmatic facts) require irrevocable assent on the part of the faithful because the Holy Spirit will not allow the Magisterium to make definitive judgments in error. To deny such definitive teachings makes one liable to a just penalty even if such a denial does not result in automatic excommunication as in the case of heresy. In any case, this is how I understand what Cardinal Ratzinger says in his Commentary.

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