The Authority of Vatican II
Finding Catholic Ground Between Two Extremes

Michael Davies (RIP)
Reprinted from The Remnant August 31, 1991

Pope John XXIII Convenes the

Second Vatican Council
(Posted November 25, 2008
What is the precise legal authority of the documents of Vatican II? The Council itself was undoubtedly an authentic Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church.  The Abbé Georges de Nantes is probably the fiercest and most longstanding of the serious critics of the Council, but in his Newsletter of June 1977 he accepts without reservation that it was “a true and legitimate Ecumenical Council of the Holy Roman Church.” 

It is necessary to stress this because a few confused individuals, claiming to be traditional Catholics, have gone to the extreme of questioning the Council’s legitimacy. Thus, as a General Council, teaching in conformity with the Pope, Vatican II was in a position to impose definitive teaching with the authority of the Extraordinary Magisterium, which would demand our absolute internal assent.  But it did not do so.  As will be shown, the Council deliberately refrained from imparting to any of its documents the infallible status of a definition of the Extraordinary Magisterium.

Some conservative Catholics have concluded that because a General Council can teach infallibly, that is, without the possibility of error that all its teaching must come into this category.  A typical example of such a claim comes in The Pope, the Council, and the Mass, a book produced by Catholics United for the Faith.

This, then, is the traditional teaching of the Church:  the teachings of an ecumenical council are protected from error and their decisions are binding on all Catholics.  Ludwig Ott says:  “It has been the constant teaching of the Church from the earliest times that the resolutions of General Councils are infallible.”

This statement is typical of a number made by conservative defenders of Dignitatis humanae, and, if correct, would mean that there was no point in so much as discussing the conformity of Dignitatis humanae with the traditional teaching as there would be no possibility of this not being the case.  Put in syllogistic form the conservative argument would seem to be as follows:

The teachings of an ecumenical council are protected from error. Dignitatis humanae is the teaching of a general council.  Dignitatis humanae is protected from error.

The mistake of the authors of the Pope, the Council, and the Mass occurs in the major premise of the syllogism, and it is a basic mistake in logic, that of treating the middle term, “teaching”, as univocal when, in fact, it is equivocal (using the term “equivocal” in its logical sense as “having different meanings equally possible”). The teaching of a general council can be invested with the authority of the Extraordinary Magisterium, in which case it is protected from error, or it can be invested only with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium, in which case the possibility of error cannot be excluded.  A fuller quotation from the passage from Ludwig Ott cited by the authors reads:

Two forms of the activity of the teaching office of the whole Episcopate are distinguished – an extraordinary form and an ordinary one.  The Bishops exercise their infallible teaching power in an extraordinary manner at a general or ecumenical council.  It is in the decisions of the General Councils that the teaching activity of the whole teaching body instituted by Christ is most decisively exercised.  It has been the constant teaching of the Church from the earliest times that the resolutions of the General Councils are infallible.

As will be explained in detail below, the terms “infallible” and “protected from error” can be taken as equivalent. An infallible pronouncement is simply one that is protected from error.  It does not in any way imply that the pronouncement is inspired.  Inspiration ended with the death of the last Apostle.  Nor does it imply that the pronouncement is expressed in the clearest possible manner, or that the doctrine which it teaches could not be presented more clearly in some future pronouncement.

The authors of The Pope, the Council and the Mass failed to realize that the explanation given by Ott clearly applies to the resolutions of General Councils presented to us as acts of the Extraordinary Magisterium, but not all the teaching of General Councils comes to us with that authority. A Council can, if it so chooses, invest its teaching only with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium, which means that it is not infallible and hence not certainly protected from error.

The reason that the middle term of the syllogism must be regarded as equivocal as has just been explained, is that the “teachings of an ecumenical council” could refer to teachings presented with the authority of the Extraordinary Magisterium, which are indeed protected from error, but the term could also apply to teachings presented only with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium, which would not necessarily be protected from error.  As was stated above, and as will now be made very clear, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council deliberately refrained from investing their teaching with the authority of the Extraordinary Magisterium.  They could have done so, but they did not.  Some “conservative” Catholics may well wish that the Fathers had done so, but such a wish cannot change the indisputable fact that they did not.

It is, therefore, beyond dispute that the conclusion of the syllogism is untenable. The teaching of Dignitatis humanae pertains to that teaching of an ecumenical council which is not protected from error.  The matter was expressed with absolute clarity by Cardinal Journet in L’Eglise du Verbe Incarne, when he stated that every general council “can teach with an absolute authority and in an irrevocable manner.”  Every General Council can indeed so teach if it wishes, but the Fathers of Vatican II did not wish to do so, and, surely, we must respect their decision.

One might make a simple analogy with a driver taking out insurance for his automobile. He can, if he so wishes, opt for fully comprehensive insurance which will cover him even for accidents to his car caused by his own negligence. If, however, he decides to save money by opting only for third party, fire, and theft, he could hardly expect to be reimbursed by his insurance company if he damaged his car by backing it into a lamppost.

Infallible or Non-infallible

The testimonies which follow should be more than adequate to convince any reasonable person that the documents of Vatican II do not pertain to the Extraordinary Magisterium, and are, therefore, not infallible, and, therefore, not divinely protected from error.  It is not my purpose here to claim that they actually contain error, simply to prove that they are not protected from such a possibility.

The first testimony should, in itself, suffice to do this, as it is the testimony of a Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Paul VI.  In his General Audience of 12 January 1966, he explained:

In view of the pastoral nature of the Council, it avoided any extraordinary statements of dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility, but it still provided its teaching with the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium which must be accepted with docility according to the mind of the Council concerning the nature and aims of each document.

What could be more clear?  Pope Paul states unequivocally that the documents of Vatican II do not pertain to the Extraordinary Magisterium, and that they are not endowed with the note of infallibility.

The next testimony could, short of being a statement of the Sovereign Pontiff, hardly be more authoritative. It is an explanation given by the Council’s own Theological Commission, cited by the Secretary of the Council, Cardinal Pericle Felici, in a theological note appended to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

In view of conciliar practice and the pastoral purpose of the present Council, this sacred Synod defines matters of faith and morals as binding on the Church only when the Synod itself openly declares so.

Needless to say, as was made clear in the subsequent statement by Pope Paul VI, which has already been quoted, the Council did not invest any of its teaching with the note of infallibility. This was made very clear in an article by Bishop B.C. Butler, one of England’s most active and most Liberal Council Fathers, in which he explained that not “all teachings emanating from a pope or an ecumenical council are infallible.  There is no single proposition of Vatican II – except where it is citing previous infallible definitions – which is in itself infallible.”  The Bishop has made an important distinction here.  The documents of Vatican II do contain infallible teaching, but this teaching is infallible because it had already been proclaimed as such, and not because it is contained in a document of the Council.

An article by Father E. Doronzo, OMI, which appeared in the 14 September 1972 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, made a distinction between infallible and non-infallible statements of the Extraordinary Magisterium.  Strictly speaking, if the statement is not endowed with the note of infallibility it does not pertain to the Extraordinary Magisterium.  What Father Doronzo is evidently attempting to do here is to stress the fact that the two sources of the Extraordinary and Infallible Magisterium, the Pope and a general council, are not infallible in all their pronouncements.  He explains:

The extraordinary Magisterium consists in a formal, explicit, and solemn declaration of doctrine made only by the supreme authority, expressed by the formula or mode of declaration; this Magisterium can be either infallible or non-infallible.  Examples of the former are the definitions of the primacy and infallibility of the Pope by the First Vatican Council, of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX and of the Assumption by Pope Pius XII.  Examples of the non-infallible Extraordinary Magisterium include the various documents of Vatican II and most of the great papal Encyclicals from Leo XIII to Paul VI.

The fact that the Magisterium can indeed present teaching that cannot be said with certainty to be free from error was admitted candidly by the German Bishops in a very important Joint-Pastoral in September 1967.  Their concern was principally with what the attitude of the faithful should be to such teaching, the attitude of theologians in particular.  That there can be magisterial teaching open to the possibility of error was taken for granted.

Beyond her guardianship of the inner substance of the faith the Church has, even at risk of going sometimes into error, to formulate teachings which have a certain degree of authority, while yet, since they are not definitions of faith, they are sufficiently provisional to admit a possibility of error.

Dignitatis humanae could certainly appear to come within this category of teaching.  It is (a) teaching with a certain degree of authority; (b) it is not a definition of faith (and, therefore, not infallible); it is sufficiently provisional to admit a possibility of error.

In his article “Magisterium” in A Catholic Dictionary of Theology, Father Joseph Crehan, S.J., provided an interesting insight into the degree of assistance given by the Holy Spirit to the Magisterium when it is not producing infallible decrees:

If, as Molina held, human weakness is a limiting factor even in the work of an ecumenical council, so that we ultimately get only the decrees that we deserve, and not all that the Spirit might have given us, then much more reasonably is a place to be found for human weakness in the day-to-day working of the Magisterium.

Father Crehan also drew our attention to the fact that the Council accepted the fact that it had “put forth its teaching without infallible definitions: by concluding the decree on the Church with the words decernimus et statuimus (‘we decree and establish’) and not with the word definimus.”  The same formula was used for all the sixteen promulgated documents of the Council.  It will be explained in great detail below that infallibility pertains only to definitions.  As Bishop B.C. Butler remarked in respect to papal definitions, but with equal applicability to those of a general council:  “Infallibility is involved only when the papal definition is propounded as binding the whole Church finally and forever.”

In a profound study intended to enhance the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium, Dom Paul Nau, O.S.B., cites a number of authors who reckon the duty of Catholics when confronted with a document of the Ordinary Magisterium “to be that of inward assent, not as of faith, but as of prudence, the refusal of which could not escape the mark of temerity, unless the doctrine rejected was an actual novelty or involved a manifest discordance between the pontifical affirmation and the doctrine which had hitherto been taught.”

Dom Paul, basing himself upon the Encyclical Humani Generis, insists that this attitude of mere prudence cannot be made a general rule to be observed towards the Ordinary Magisterium and he is undoubtedly correct.  He warns, with equal correctness, that a pronouncement of the Magisterium “always has the right to claim the benefit of any doubt”.  He adds that Humani Generis reserves such an attitude to an isolated pronouncement having a bearing on a matter which is still in dispute:

In this event, if the Sovereign Pontiff does not mean to commit himself to pronouncing a conclusive judgement, such a judgement would not fulfill the conditions required for infallibility and consequently it could not call for faith, but only for a respectful and prudent obedience.

It is hard to imagine a more evident case of a document than Dignitatis humanae to which the Sovereign Pontiff did not wish to commit himself to pronouncing a conclusive judgment.  It would also be hard to imagine a document which, to a greater extent than Dignitatis humanae, contained teaching that was “an actual novelty or involved a manifest discordance between the pontifical affirmation and the doctrine which had hitherto been taught.”

As a final comment on the possibility of a magisterial pronouncement being open to the possibility of error, an explanation by Dr. Germain Grisez in the July 1984 Homiletic and Pastoral Review is very pertinent:

Obviously, teachings which are proposed infallibly leave no room for dissent on the part of faithful Catholics.  However, other teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium can be mistaken, even though they may require and demand religious submission of mind and will.  Such teachings can deserve acceptance inasmuch as they are the Magisterium’s current best judgement of what God’s word requires of Christians.  However, that judgement, on the leading edge of developing doctrine and in truly prudential matters, can be mistaken, and faithful Christians can be led by superior claims of faith itself to withhold their submission to it.

Dom Paul Nau’s insistence that the withholding of submission of inward assent to a pronouncement of the Ordinary Magisterium could only occur in the most exceptional circumstances is echoed by Dr. Ludwig Ott.  He explains our duty towards the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium as follows:

The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible.  Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible.  Nevertheless normally they are to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See (assensus internus supernaturalis, assensus religious).  The so-called silentium obsequiosum, that is “reverent silence”, does not generally suffice.  By the way of exception, the obligation of inner agreement may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive conclusion that the decision rests on an error.”

As was stated above, this is not intended to prove that any teaching contained in Dignitatis humanae rests on error.  It is intended simply to prove that the teaching of the Declaration is not divinely protected from error.  The documentation already provided should have been more than adequate to establish this. Having cited unimpeachable authorities to establish that the teaching of Dignitatis humanae most certainly cannot be considered as a definition of the Extraordinary Magisterium, and hence infallible, it now remains to explain in detail the conditions necessary for a magisterial teaching to be classified as a teaching of the Extraordinary Magisterium, but before doing so it is necessary to understand the precise meaning of infallibility.

What is Infallibility?

 God alone is absolutely infallible. The infallibility with which He endowed His Church has limits and conditions. Infallibility is concerned primarily with certainty rather than with truth.  The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was as true before Ineffabilis Deus of Pius IX in 1854 as it was after the definition. The definition gave us certainty of the truth of the dogma.  Infallibility is the impossibility of falling into error, and an infallible pronouncement is one that is incapable of error. 

The Church is infallible in her office of teaching owing to the perpetual assistance of the Holy Ghost promised to her by Our Lord, when, either in the exercise of her Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, or by a solemn pronouncement of the supreme authority (Extraordinary Magisterium) she proposes, for the acceptance of the universal Church, truths of faith or morals that are either revealed in themselves or connected with revelation. This article is concerned only with the Extraordinary Magisterium.

The supreme authority of the Church, her Extraordinary Magisterium, is exercised by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra – that is, when by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.  The definitions of a General Council also constitute an exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium and are infallible providing that they are ratified by the Pope.  But the Pope does not require the ratification of a General Council or of the bishops of the Church for his own definitions.

Pastor Aeternus, the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ of the First Vatican Council, teaches that “such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not in virtue of the consent of the Church.” Pastor Aeternus declared the extent of the infallible teaching to be the same for the Pope and the Church.  The full text of the solemn definition of Pastor Aeternus follows, and what it states with regard to an ex cathedra definition of the Pope applies equally to a doctrinal definition of a General Council.  The four conditions which are necessary for a papal or conciliar definition to be considered infallible will be explained in detail after the definition.

The Solemn Definition

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith for the glory of God our Saviour, the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and the salvation of Christian people, with the approval of the sacred council, We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed:  that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith and morals to be held by the Universal Church, is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith and morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.


But if anyone, which may God avert, presume to contradict this Our definition, let him be anathema.


Infallible Definitions

The conditions for an infallible definition of the Extraordinary Magisterium are, therefore:

1)    It must be a definition of the supreme teaching authority in the Church, either the Pope alone teaching ex cathedra in his official capacity as shepherd and pastor of all Christians; or the bishops of the world assembled together in union with the Pope in an Ecumenical Council.

2)    An infallible definition must concern a matter of faith or morals. The Revelation committed to the Church by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and which ended with the death of the last Apostle, is the direct or primary object of infallibility. But the scope of infallibility is not confined to Revelation. There is an indirect or secondary object of infallibility. This is comprised of truths which, though not formally revealed, are so intimately connected with revealed truth that one could not be denied logically without denying the other.  Teaching which comes within the scope of the Church’s secondary infallibility is known either as a theological conclusion or a dogmatic fact.

3)    The decision must bind the universal Church. Decrees which bind only part of the Church are not definitions.  It is not absolutely necessary that the decree should be directly sent or addressed to the entire Church. It is sufficient for the supreme authority to make clear its intention of binding the Universal Church.  A pope could address the hierarchy of a single country, condemning a heresy prevalent within that country, but using terms which made it clear that the heresy, no matter where it manifested itself, was not compatible with the Catholic faith.

The intention of binding the Universal Church must be exteriorized, that is, made clear beyond any possible doubt. It must be manifest that the definition constitutes an explicit, final, and irrevocable judgment binding the entire Church to an irrevocable internal assent. No specific formula is essential to prove the final and irrevocable nature of the definition.  All that is necessary is that it should be the manifest intention of the supreme authority to settle the matter for ever. This is because no believer who pays due attention to Christ’s promises can refuse to assent with absolute and irrevocable certainty to a definition of the Extraordinary Magisterium.  But before being bound to give such assent the believer has a right to be certain that the teaching in question is definitive (since only definitive teaching is infallible). The clear principle governing the interpretation of the authority of a teaching of the Magisterium is that given in the Code of Canon Law – where the Church’s intention to bind definitively is not expressed clearly there is no right to speak of an infallible decree.  But even here there is a final but vital restriction on the scope of infallible teaching.  Where a document of the Magisterium contains a doctrine which is to be treated as definitive and infallible, it is only that part of the document containing the actual definition which is infallible.  For example, the Bull Ineffabilis Deus, proclaiming the Immaculate Conception is quite lengthy, but the strictly definitive and infallible portion is comprised in the concluding sentences only, beginning with the words:  “To the glory and honour of the holy and undivided Trinity…”  In the documents of Trent and Vatican I, statements of Church teaching, which are sometimes very detailed, are summarized in brief “canons” imposing the essence of this teaching under pain of anathema.  The reasons and arguments upon which a definition is based do not form part of the infallible definition itself, unless these reasons or arguments are expressly defined. The solemn definition of papal infallibility from Pastor Aeternus, cited above is, in itself, an excellent example of an infallible definition of the Extraordinary Magisterium.

The imposition of a definition under pain of anathema (excommunication) is a common but not essential method of indicating that the supreme teaching authority has made a final decision.  Some expressions universally accepted as certainly signifying a definitive decision are: definimus and auctoritate apostolicae definimus.  Thus, in defining the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX gave irrefutable proof of the definitive nature of the decree with the words: “By the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, We declare, pronounce, and define the doctrine…to be revealed by God and, as such, to be firmly and immutably held b all the faithful.