Responsive image
Infallibility Explored

Infallibility Explored

- the Professor replies

by Professor Ladislas Orsy SJ
published in CéideMay/june 1999, vol 2 no 5, pp. 30-34. Moy Valley Resources, Ballina, Co. Mayo; here republished with permission of the editor.

Read first Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement.

I thank Cardinal Ratinger for his communication and for giving me the opportunity to reflect at a greater depth on the issue under discussion. He graciously recognizes that my original contribution was written “happily in an objective manner and without polemics”. I intend to continue in the same manner.

Right from the beginning to the very end of this article, the reader should be aware that this exchange is not about the acceptance of the articles of faith but about faith seeking understanding - to use an expression of St. Anselm of Canterbury. The deposit of faith is fully accepted, the authentic magisterium is respected. The debate is about the interpretation of historical and theological data. It is a communication of insights and judgements on a level where human minds are struggling with the intelligence of divine mysteries.

The reader should be aware also that the concern about the nature of “definitive doctrine” is spread far and wide in the theological community. The importance of the issue has been forcefully stated by the French Jesuit theologian Bernard Sesboué in an article in ‘Etudes’ in reference to Ad tuendam fidem:

No bishop, no priest, no cleric should remain unconcerned about a document that potentially carries such heavy consequences for ecclesiology; it is an effort to “put in place” (establish, construct) an ecclesiology.

The reason for this call to be concerned is that -

We are in the presence of a new domain of the exercise of the infallibility of the church.(1)

In other terms, the publication of Ad tuendam fidem is virtually as momentuous as the definition of the papal infallibility was at Vatican Council I.

If that is true, we are indeed witnessing a development that has heavy consequences for the internal life of the church, for the ecumenical movement, and for the correct presentation of the church to the human family.

In responding to Cardinal Ratzinger, I shall follow his numbering of the topics.

1. The category of “definitive teaching”

The central and principal issue in this debate, as it is perceived by many theologians (including Bernard Sesboué) is the following : Has there been an extension of the doctrine of the papal infallibiity by the introduction of the category of “definitive teaching’ ? If Yes, we are indeed dealing with a development of doctrine as momentuous as the first definition of the infallibility by Vatican Council I; if not, we still have the task of determining the precise standing (authority, weight, theological note) of the category of “definitive teaching” which has been made part of the official teaching of the holy See .

The resolution of this issue requires an examination of the pertinent historical and doctrinal data. A detailed and exhaustive study, however, within the framework of this article is not possible: yet, a substantial demonstration is necessary, otherwise the conclusion will not be convincing. I intend to give precisely such a brief but substantial answer. It will be an attempt to disentangle the elements of a complicated problem and to offer a reasonable solution; a solution that is no more than a theological opinion and a contribution to a much larger debate. Also, I feel that I can do justice better to the concerns of the Cardinal - and to the topic itself - by a concise systematic exposition than by reflecting on a few particular points.

The debate is, of course, necessary. Many of our beliefs and convictions reached maturity and enabled the magisterium to reach a final decision because the issues were thoroughly discussed “in the schools”. This is now the dogma of the immaculate conception, or of the papal infallibility, or more recently the doctrine of the episcopal collegiality has become part of our Catholic beliefs. There is no reason why the category of “definitive teaching” should not go through this traditional and venerable process.

Throughout my presentation, for charity’s sake, I shall progress by raising questions. The first one, the point of departure, is historical: What is the doctrine of Vatican Council I and II on papal infallibility?

There is an enormous amount of literature on this question; for our purposes it should be enough to answer it in a summary way:

Due to the assistance of the Spirit, the pope has the capacity to be an infallible witness of the revelation entrusted to the whole church; he can infallibly testify through a solemn ex cathedra definition; the proper object of his witnessing is the revelation; the faithful, to keep their communion with the church intact have the obligation to receive his testimony with an act of faith. The peaceful and universal reception of a definition by the faithful is the authentic sign that the pope has spoken in the Spirit.

Since our inquiry centres on the question of whether or not the scope of the pope’s infallibility has been extended, we should pay special attention to the object of infallibility as it was determined by the two Vatican Councils. For this, we have the statement of Gerard Philips who has thoroughly investigated the mind of Vatican Council I and played a major role in the debating of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, at Vatican Council II. He writes:

. . Vatican Council I has occupied itself with the [object of infallibility only tangentially... The Constitution Pastor aeternus, Chapter 4, affirms simply that the assistance of the Holy Spirit is assured to the successor of Peter to conserve religiously and to proclaim faithfully {sancte custodire et fifeliter exponere) the revealed doctrine. The Fathers of Vatican Council II specify today that the privilege of infallibility extends as far as the conservation and proclamation of the deposit of the faith entrusted to the church requires it. That far and no farther. Once this limit is set, it includes a certain number of fundamental truths determined by philosophy as far as they are expressions of universal human experience. If someone, for example, held that the human reason is for ever unable to grasp truth with certainty, logically, he could not accept an article of faith either. Total relativism or agnosticism are not condemned by the revelation for the simple reason that neither the Scriptures nor the early church has come across a similar error. The theologians include under the same title of “indirect object” of infallibility a whole series of other elements, among them those which they call dogmatic facts. All this belongs to the domain of professional theology; the Council itself is content to affirm the basic principle; all the rest it leaves tothe cure of technical treatises. (Emphasis is mine.)(2)

That is, for Vatican Council I, the object of an infallible definition extended as far as the revelation, neither more, nor less. The Council did not wish to pronounce any further. Whatever teaching and knowledge existed beyond that field was left to professional theologians to explain and to qualify. On the basis of Gasser’s well known report, the Council fathers understood but did not define that - if the need ever arose the pope could exercise his infallibility with a solemn ex cathedra act to affirm a truth that is not explicitly in the revelation but is absolutely necessary to safeguard it.

Vatican Council II confirmed that the privilege of infallibility extended as far as the preservation and proclamation of the revelation demanded it. Both Councils were clear that a solemn ex cathedra act was a sign of an infallible definition.

Thus, the two Vatican Councils left us with two distinct levels of knowledge, one infallibly defined, another not defined. The second level was a complex continuum. The theologians had the task of handling it. They did and they assigned differing authorities (“theological notes”) to various parts of it. They qualified some propositions as being of “catholic faith”, they called others “theological opinions”. (To speak of “levels of knowledge” is, of course, figurative speech; some theologians prefer to use the term “parcels” for the same classification; the French introduced the word “baskets”, corbeilles de connaissance.)

From the Councils we turn to the recent documents of the Holy See, especially to Ad tuendam fidem: they speak with authority of the theological reality of “definitive teaching”. What is this category? We can find the answer in the Commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Bertone; I shall follow them closely, often word by word. They introduce their explanation by comparing the nature of “definitive teaching” with that of infallible definition.

What is the capacity of the magisterium? How far does the privilege of infallibility extend? The magisterium has the capacity to teach infallibly both doctrine divinely revealed and doctrine to be held definitively. In each case, the magisterium can teach either with an act that is defining or with an act that is not defining. If the act is defining, the magisterium is teaching ex cathedra with a solemn definition; if the act is not defining (that is, a proposition is stated definitively), the magisterium is still teaching infallibly. It follows that the infallibilty of the magesterium can become operational either with a solemn definition or with a definitive statement.

Comment: papal infallibility is operational in definitive statements; no solemn ex cathedra act is required.

What are the objects of “definitive statements”? They are points of doctrine that determine dogmas or norms of morality and are necessary for keeping and expounding the deposit of faith but are not proposed by the magisterium as formally revealed. Such teachings are linked to the revelation either by historical relationship or by logical connection.

What is the theological standing (weight, authority) of propositions definitively taught? They are irreformable. They can, therefore, be solemnly defined by the pope when he speaks ex cathedra or by the college of bishops gathered in council; they can be stated infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium; the same magisterium can propose them as dogmas.

What is the obligation of the faithful? The faithful should respond to the solemn definitions and to the “definitive declarations” with firm and definitive assent based on faith in the Holy Spirit who confers the charism of infallibility on the magisterium. There is no difference in the nature of the assent owed to revealed doctrine and to the doctrine to be held definitively: in each case the assent must be full and irrevocable.

The assent, however, in the case of revelation is based on faith in the authority of the word of God; in the case of “definitive teaching” is based on faith in the assistance of the Holy Spirit to the magisterium, of the Spirit who endows the magisterium with the charism of infallibility.

What would be the consequence of the rejection of a point of doctrine definitively stated? It would be the loss of full communion with the Catholic church.

Comment: Traditionally, the loss of full communion cannot mean anything else than schism or heresy.

Is there a ditference between the doctrine of the Councils and that of the Commentary? Yes, the evidence is compelling and the conclusion is inevitable: a development has taken place. With the introduction of the category of “definitive teaching”, we have three levels (parcels, corbeilles) of knowledge: the first one contains propositions defined, the second one teachings definitively proclaimed, the third one other official pronouncements of the church.

The category of the “definitive teaching” as it is presented in the Commentary is new.

The scope of papal infallibility. however, has been extended only if this new category has virtually the same characteristics as the first one. Hence the question: Is there a real difference between infallible definitions and definitive statements?

To answer this question, we must compare them. To compare them, we must know the nature (or the essence in scholastic language) of each type of teaching.

No need to delay with the doctrine of infallible teaching as it emerges from the two Vatican Councils - many reliable explanations exist.(3) For the theory of “definitive teaching” we have ample information in the Commentary. Its principal characteristics are: it is guaranteed by the assistance of the Holy Spirit; it is irreformable; its rejection is equivalent to a loss of full communion with the church.

That is, according to the Commentary, a “definitive statement” has all the essential characteristics of an infallible definition. In each case the truth of a proposition is assured by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the teaching is irreformable, and the acceptance of it is a condition of full communion.

Again, the evidence is compelling and the conclusion is inescapable: the Commentary presents the nature of “definitive teaching” (no matter what the vocabulary) as equivalent to that of an infallible ex cathedra definition. Both are equally irreformable (there are no degrees in irreformability); both are irreformable because of the assistance of the Holy Spirit (there is no purely human way of reaching irreformability); both demand assent to keep the communion intact (there are no degrees in full communion). Bernard Sesboué writes:

The key word that conveys the intention of the text (of the document Ad tuendam fidem is the word definitive. Now, the terms definitive, irreformable, and infallible are interchangeable (they have a common meaning). We are therefore, in the presence of a new domain of the exercise in the infallibility of the church.(4)

This text is so important that for the sake of accuracy it should be quoted in the original.

Le mot clé qui l’intention du texte, est ici celui de définitif. Or les notions définitif, d’irréformable et d’infallible communiquent entre elles. Nous sommes donc en présence de la revendication d’un nouveau domaine de l’exercice de I’infallibilité de l’Eglise.)

If there are differences between the two types of teaching, they are found in modalities. In the case of an infallible definition the pope must speak solemnly ex cathedra and leave no doubt about his intention. In the case of a definitive teaching it is enough for him to indicate that his statement is intended to be definitive; no more is required. In the case of an infallible definition, faith focuses on the word of God, in the case of a definitive statement faith focuses on the magisterium assisted by the Spirit. Be that all as it may, the end result is the same: an irreformable decision with the assistance of the Spirit and essential for full communion.

All considered, it would follow that the doctrine of “definitive teaching” (as explained in the Commentary ) opens a new and vast field for infallible teaching. If that is correct, there is a practical need to adjust our textbooks of ecclesiology; there is also a need to revise our apologetics. We cannot say any more that the pope is infallible in those rare and solemn instances when speaking ex cathedra he intends to define an article of faith. We must say in all honesty that the field is broader. The pope is infallible whenever he intends to make a definitive statement.

To know all this conceptually is not enough. We need to realize what the implementation of this new doctrine would mean in practice. This can be shown by construing a hypothetical case on the basis of the Commentary. There is the issue of the validity of the Anglican orders. As it is now, not many theologians would be of the opinion that Apostolicae curae of Leo Xlll was an infallible definition. The Commentary, however, lists it as an example of “definitive teaching”. It would follow that if a bishop, or a priest, or a theology professor ever said that the decision of Leo Xlll could be revised, he could be found guilty of breach of full communion with the church, he could be deprived of his office and even excommunicated. Of course, any lay person who would voice a differing opinion could be excommunicated as well.

I said cautiously, it would follow and I remarked conditionally if that is correct because there remains one substantial and thorny question: What is the theological standing of the category of “definitive teaching”? Not of any particular doctrine contained in it but of the new category itself.

That is the crux of this whole complicated problem. On the one hand, the official documents of the Holy See uphold this new category with all its characteristics, on the other hand, as yet, no pope, no council has infallibly approved of it.

Now there is the traditional rule of interpretation of doctrine incorporated into canon law but certainly a norm more theological than legal: “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated” (Canon 749 3).

This canon has a double effect on our considerations: it leads us to a conclusive statement and invites us to do further research.

The conclusive statement is that the second category of knowledge with all its characteristics as it is described in the Commentary does not and cannot have the standing of an infallible definition. We need not believe that the scope of papal infallibility has been extended. We are on sound theological ground if we continue to profess the doctrine of the two councils and abide in theory and in practice by their definitions.

At the same time, we are invited (we have the obligation) to do further research into the nature and theological authority of the category of “definitive teaching”. It has been presented to the church universal by the Holy See, it must be received with due obsequium, “respect”. Yet, as of now, we do not have a full comprehension of its place in our Tradition. It represents a new development that demands a considered response from the part of the episcopate and the community of the theologians.

We must look also carefully into the ecumenical consequences of the doctrine of “definitive teaching”. Are we really explaining a Tradition commonly held with the Orthodox churches? Or, are we unilaterally setting up of a new impediment to the reunion of the sister churches who all intend to be faithful to the one common Tradition?

2. The “Signs of the times”.

The Cardinal states: “I do not find it objective that Fr. Orsy constructs an opposition (contradiction) to Vatican II. He writes that the Council intended no threats and penalties because the Fathers of the Council ‘trusted that truth will attract by its own beauty and strength’ whereas the first reforms of the present Code of Canon Law does precisely that. It invokes threats and punishments”. Then the Cardinal concludes that I am against penal law in the church, and to make his point he brings up the case of priests who are guilty of pedophilia.

My statement was different. I never raised the question whether or not the Church should have penal law. still less have I even remotely suggested that priests guilty of pedophilia should not be punished. That is what I have written:

At some later age, church historians will probably point out how much the “signs of the times” have changed from the years of Vatican Council II to the end of this century. The Fathers of the Council wanted no threats or punishments in their documents; they trusted that truth will attract by its own beauty and strength. As it happens now, the first reform of the present Code of Canon Law includes precisely that, threats and punishment.

I spoke of a change in the “signs of the times”. To show that such change has occurred, here are two texts animated by different dynamics.

First, a quote from the address of Pope John XXIII to the Council Fathers at the solemn opening of Vatican Council II, on October 11,1962.

“The church has always opposed errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.....

That being so, the Catholic church, raising the torch of religious truth by means of this ecumenical council, desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the children separated from her.....

She opens the fountain of her lifegiving doctrine which allows men, enlightened by the light of Christ, to understand well what they really are, what their lofty dignity and their purpose are. and, finally, through her children, she spreads everywhere the fullness of Christian charity, than which nothing is more effective in eradicating the seeds of discord, nothing more efficacious in promoting concord, just peace and the brotherly unity of all.”(5)

Second, here is the opening paragraph of the apostolic letter Ad tuendam fidem:

“To protect the Catholic faith against errors arising from the part of some of the Christian faithful, in particular from those who studiously dedicate themselves to the discipline of sacred theology, it appeared highly necessary to us, whose principal task is to confirm his brethren in faith (cf. Lk 22:32), to add ( new ) norms to the text of the presently valid Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, in order to impose expressly the duty to preserve the truths proposed definitively by the magisterium of the church, and, concerning the same matter, to institute canonical sanctions (against the violators ).”

Concerning the need for penal law in the church: Not once, in all my writings and lectures over forty years, have I stated that the church should have no penal law or that the penalty of excommunication should be altogether abolished. Interestingly, the Cardinal refers approvingly to St. Paul; so do I in my book Theology and Canon Law, in a chapter critical of Sohm’s theory: “Paul did not hesitate to give directions to the Corinthians, and he did so quite forcefully”.(6)

In reference to excommunication, however, I have consistently held (and do hold) as follows:

  1. Automatic excommunication (latae sententiae) should have no place in modern canon law because it is an anachronism; it compels a person to be the accused and the judge in his own case and it allows persons and communities to be condemned without the benefit of a hearing. Such a procedure is hardly in harmony with the Scriptures and it offends contemporary sensitivities concerning human rights.
  2. In our age in doctrinal matters excommunication is not an effective policy to lead an errant soul back to the “obedience of faith”. St. Peter Canisius, a person vastly experienced in dealing with rebellion against faith. pleaded repeatedly with his Superiors to do what they can to convince the Roman authorities not to use the weapon of excommunication against the Reformers; it only consummated a breach that perhaps could have been healed. His respected biographer, James Brodrick writes:

The Bull, In Coena Domini, (by Pius IV) which was so named because issued afresh each Holy Thursday, made him {Peter Canisius) very sad when it reached him in April, 1564, as it contained nothing but threats and prohibitions. “Would to God”,he wrote, “that we could find some means of helping both pastors and people in the present great corruption, especially as every mortal thing seems full of excommunications. Nobody cares to give a little aid and consolation to the unhappy pastors who still sweat and labor for the religion that is dear to them”. This was, Brodrick continues, “an old complaint” of the Saint who desired “to secure a more kindly treatment for Germans in the matter of ecclesiastical censures, and to obtain greater consideration in Rome for parish priests who desire and are able to help the Catholic cause”.(7)

3. The reform of the Code of Canon Law

The Cardinal states: Fr. Orsy presents as a novelty that the reform of the Code of Canon Law is possible.

In truth, I have not discussed the possibility of the reform of the Codex at all. All theologians and canon lawyers know that such possibility exists. I was simply reporting a fact: the first step in a reform process had been taken.

Legal historians know well that every legislator is reluctant to undertake the first step that breaks the original unity of a code; it can convey a message of instability. There is the ancient adage: mutatio legis odiosa est. For this reason the first change has a symbolic value. It signals that the legislator is willing and ready to undertake necessary reforms. In this sense I wrote “the introduction of new norms into the Code has a positive dimension - even if it is a threat of punishment”.

This gives hope. Vatican Council II has identified immense sources of vital energies in the church, such as the graces and charismata of baptised lay persons, the collegial power of the episcopate, the unique value of the local churches or of the churches in a common cultural region, the particular gifts of the Spirit to non-Catholic Christian churches and communities. Such energies cry out for appropriate legal structure. To channel and to insert them into the Code should be easier now. It is a cause for joy that the process of adjusting our laws to new theological insights has started.

4. The Profession of Faith

Cardinal Ratzinger does not share my concern about keeping the ancient and sacred name of “Profession of Faith”, symbolum fidei, precisely and exclusively for that: articles of faith.

I have raised the issue of the new Profession of Faith in an ecumenical context, especially in relation to our obligation to promote the union of Christian churches. I asked whether or not the imposition of the new Profession of Faith in the Roman Catholic church serves the cause of unity. I reported the concern of the ecumenists of other Christian churches: they are wondering if the Roman Catholic church intends to make the new Profession a condition of reunion.

The fundamental problem with the new Profession is that it comprises articles of faith and matters which are not of faith; it does not have an organically unified context. For this reason it is not traditional. Yet, the whole complex is officially called Profession of Faith. The traditional purpose of a symbolum fidei has always been to set apart the articles of faith from all other knowledge, never to contain and distinguish different levels of knowledge.

The Protestant professions that the Cardinal invoked to show that there is a precedent for such an unusual structure in a Profession of Faith are not suitable examples. Protestant professions were not formulated in communion with the universal episcopate (including the see of Peter) and they were never intended to bind the faithful in the same way as the ancient symbola. They were considered by the Reformers themselves not as norma normans, rule that binds, but as norma normata, rule that is under another rule; in this case under the rules of the private judgement and of the solo scripture.

Of course, new Professions ot Faith were formulated in the West, but as far as I am able to ascertain they all were intended to focus on articles of faith as they were known at that stage of doctrinal development. Besides, all of them had a somewhat limited life. Now we are speaking of an addition to the Nicean-Constantinipolitan Creed, the Creed that has been, and is, a living bond among separated Christian churches and ecclesial communities

Can we ever forget the bitter resentment that the insertion of Filioque into the Creed has generated throughout the Orthodox churches, a resentment that lingered for more than a millennium and which by the grace of God is being healed in our days? Is this the time to add new paragraphs to a sacred text and call the whole new formula symbolum fidei? How could anything that is not of faith be a symbol of faith? If one day God in his mercy brings us to the threshold of union, shall we insist that their patriarchs, metropolitans, and bishops of the Orthodox church must recite our new Profession of Faith? How does all this correspond to the spirit of the encyclical Ut unum sint?

The ecumenical concern remains

5. The Commentary

Theologians and canon lawyers the world over will be grateful to the Cardinal for the clarification of the theological authority of the Commentary. Although the Congregation and the pope had it “gebilligt”; that is approved it but not in a formal sense, they decided not to publish it as an official document of the Holy See

Be that as it may, it is a document of importance. I do not know of any other where the whole theology of the category of the “definitive teaching” is explained so thoroughly.

No theologian should take this explanation lightly, but no theologian should grant it final authority. An analogy comes into my mind: the weight of this Commentary may be similar to that of the draft documents of Vatican Council II which have been approved by the central preparatory commission and the pope himself and declared worthy to be sumbitted to the judgment of the Council. As we know the Council radically changed them

We may be in a similar situation. We have a document that originated in the offices of the Holy See, a document that contains matters of grave concern for the universal church. It needs now the scrutiny of the universal episcopate, the scholarly dialectics of the theological community, the probing of its depth by the senus fidelium. God’s Spirit is no, less with his church today than he was during the Council.


I want to thank Cardinal Ratzinger again for the opportunity of this exchange. Differences undoubtedly will remain but they are well within the parameters of faith. Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine may help us to understand, handle, and even respect such differences. He insists throughout his Essay that the “Christian idea” is so rich and has so many facets that no human person, no matter how holy or learned can receive, perceive, and express all its aspects; in Newman’s mind not even one of the apostles could have done it. We all share in these riches. “Christianity is dogmatical, devotional. practical, all at once; it is esoteric and exoteric; it is indulgent and strict; it is light and dark; it is love, and it is fear” . As our understanding struggles with such an immense gift, “new lights will be brought to bear upon the original statements of the doctrine put forward: judgments and aspects will accumulate until there emerges the complete image as seen in combination of diversified aspects, with the suggestions and corrections of many minds, and the illustration of many experiences” Chapter 1, Section 1).

This is the only way that faith can seek and find understanding.


1. See Etudes. October 1988 pp,357,359.

2. Gérard Philips. L’Eglise et son mystère. Paris Desclée 1967,vol.1.pp327-328.

3. See e.g. Gérard Philips, L’Eglise et son Mystère pp. 317 ff.

4. Etudes, loc.cit. p.359

5. Council Daybook. Washington DC National Catholic Welfare Conference 1965.pp.27-28

6. Ladislas Orsy, Theology And Canon Law New Horizons for Legislation & Interpretation Collegeville.Liturgical Press, 1992, p183.

7. James Broderick, St. Peter Canisius.London. Sheed & Ward 1938.pp 611-612 .

This Reponse will also be published in the May issue of Stimmen der Zeit.

Read: Theologians and the Magisterium, by Richard A. McCormick. From Corrective Vision, Explorations in Moral Theology, Sheed & Ward, 1994, Chapter 7.

Please, credit this document
as published by www.womenpriests.org!

Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women

JOIN AS A MEMBER by donating monthly, and as a Thank You we will send you a free copy of Dr Ally Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).


We are a network of scholars and volunteers who fight for gender equality in the Christian Churches and other religions.

Donations from taxpayers in the USA, UK, Netherlands, are tax deductible:

UK: Registered Charity Number 1053251;

Netherlands: KvK no. 41056067;

USA: Registered 501(c)3 non-profit, EIN: 26-3430065.