Questions Answered – February 2022

What Is the Church’s Magisterial Teaching?

Question: Do we owe religious submission of intellect and will to those teachings of the Pope contained in documents (addresses, allocutions, letters, etc.) that were not published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis? Are such teachings even to be considered authentic ex officio teachings of the Pope?

Answer: The Doctrinal Commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger on the Profession of Faith now required for those who teach in the Church lists three distinctions in the exercise of the teaching of the Magisterium. (Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Doctrinal Commentary of the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei, Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 1998, henceforth Professio.)

The first distinction is both the extraordinary Magisterium and the ordinary Magisterium teaching in a solemn manner taken together.

These doctrines are contained in the word of God, written or handed down and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks “ex cathedra” or by the college of bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal magisterium. (Professio, 5)

Examples of this are:

 [. . .] the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and the Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in inspired sacred texts; the doctrine of the grave immorality of the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being. (Professio, 11)

The assent which required for this type of declaration is “theological faith,” a lack of which is punished by a censure of “heresy.

Lumen Gentium speaks of this kind of authoritative teaching in paragraph 25, where the teaching of Vatican I, which applies this to the Pope, is then expanded to include the College of Bishops. Indeed, this is the purpose of the decree in Vatican II. The Doctrinal Commission clearly states that:

The infallibility with which Christ willed his Church be instructed is absolutely (prorsus) identified with the infallibility of the teaching Church; and in fact (quidem): either of the whole episcopate or uniquely (singulariter) of the Roman Pontiff. (Synopsis of Notes of Doctrinal Commission, 458 Henceforth: Synopsis)

Vatican II, therefore, did not change this manner of teaching doctrine in any way. What the Council did address was the question of the relation of the bishops’ magisterium to this extraordinary Magisterium. In fact, this relation is dealt with in the second and third distinction made by Cardinal Ratzinger, which reflects the innovative teaching of Vatican II on this matter.

The second distinction respects a further distinction in the ordinary Magisterium. The formula in the profession of faith on which Ratzinger comments is, “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” Notice that in relation to the doctrines in the first distinction, these are “definitively taught” but not taught “in a solemn manner.”

The object taught by this formula includes all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area, which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed. (Professio, 6)

The assent demanded by these teachings is not one that falls directly under the virtue of faith, but an assent which is “firm and definitive.” A person who did not assent to these teachings “would no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Examples of this sort of teaching are those connected “by logical necessity” with revelation. This necessity can also be an historical necessity. Some concrete examples would be:

 [. . .] the development in the understanding of the doctrine connected with the definition of papal infallibility, prior to the dogmatic definition of the First Vatican Council. [. . .] the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men. [. . .] the illicitness of euthanasia [. . .] the illicitness of prostitution and of fornication [. . .] the legitimacy of the election of the Roman Pontiff or the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonization of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration [. . .] on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations [. . .] (Professio, 11)

It would seem that Humanae Vitae and the teaching on birth control could be added to this, because this teaching involves a conclusion of logical necessity on the data of revelation concerning sexual ethics, even though contraception is never specifically mentioned in Scripture. This is because Scripture includes in its moral teaching all that is contained in the Natural Law. Here the true relation between reason and faith is very evident.

Both sorts of teaching — namely, that which is divinely revealed, and that which is held definitively by logical connection to what is divinely revealed — are taught infallibly. In the case of the second kind of doctrine, one held definitively in a non-defining act by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of bishops, “such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition.” (Professio, 9) Ex cathedra infallibility spoken of by Vatican I described a solemn definition by a Pope alone. However, Vatican I did not limit the infallibility of the Church to teach doctrine to this one act. This act was merely a special instance of the action of the Holy Spirit.

In addition to these two kinds of teaching, which are both infallible, there is a third. These are “all those teachings on faith and morals presented as true or at least as sure, even if they are not defined by a solemn judgement or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” (Professio, 10) The assent demanded of these teachings would be a “religious submission of will and intellect.” (Professio, 10) Teachings contrary to these truths are certainly erroneous and must not be taught.

As examples of doctrines of this sort, Cardinal Ratzinger quotes Lumen Gentium almost verbatim. “[O]ne can point in general to teaching set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and will manifested [. . .] by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.” (Lumen Gentium 25) Such doctrines would be those generally taught in the manner of theological discussions, or, e.g., encyclicals on devotion to the Sacred Heart. These are not definitive teachings, but they still require religious submission of the will and intellect because they are made by a religious authority.

I think this list is complete and clear. I do not know what you are referring to as doctrines not published in the official compilation of published documents which is the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. You give the example of letters, etc. I would say these are not documents which express the Magisterium, though I would have to have an example to be very sure. The Pope does publish “Apostolic” letters which would fall under the third type if they involve faith and morals. There is a link on the Vatican website for these.

What Makes a Member of the Church?

Question: I’ve been told that a Roman Catholic is anyone who is in communion with the Roman Pontiff. This definition seems wide. Is it accurate?

Answer: As a result of the teaching of Lumen Gentium in Vatican II, especially the famous phrase that the Church subsists in the Catholic Church, many people seemed confused about who exactly was a Roman Catholic. First let us state that Roman Catholic can refer to the various Eastern churches if they are in communion with the Pope, but must not be taken in the strict sense because they may have their own patriarchs and their own traditions.

Who, then, is fully a member of the Church? This is not just a legalistic question. St. Thomas states that Christ is the head of his Mystical Body but only those who believe in everything taught by the Church, who are in the state of grace (possessing the Spirit of Christ), and are in communion with the visible structure presided over by the Pope and bishops, are fully members of the Church. This faith and communion includes three elements: profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical government.

Various terms were discussed to express this relationship. In the end the term reapse (in reality) was used. This term for those fully in communion with the Church goes back the Mystici Corporis, the famous encyclical of Pius XII on the Church. (1943) Pius XII makes a distinction in this encyclical between those who are really members of the Church and those who are only members in voto (by desire). The requirements for being really a member of the Church are listed in the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law.

But the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion: profession of one faith received from the apostles; common celebration of divine worship, especially the sacraments; apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders maintaining the fraternal concord of God’s family. (CCC, 815)

Those baptized are in full communion with the Catholic Church here on earth who are joined with Christ in his visible body, through the bonds of profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance. (Canon 205)

From this is it clear that the Council teaches in accord with all Catholic tradition that only those who accept all of the dogmas of the faith are fully members of the faithful and thus form the People of God. This was proclaimed in the previous chapter, when the identification of the Church with the Catholic Church was made (Lumen Gentium, 8).

Other Christians are related to the faithful in different ways. These Christians either do not believe in, or are not in communion with, the “Chair of St. Peter.” In both cases, though, these Christians have many objectively positive connections with the People of God. Nonetheless, these connections are characterized by either a lack of faith or a lack of communion.

So the fullness of communion as a member of the Church must involve all the articles of faith, affirmation of all the sacraments, and the affirmation of papal authority not just of honor but also of jurisdiction according to the traditions of each rite, Eastern or Roman. It also demands moral conformity to the law of God.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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