Vatican II and the Narrow Limits of Infallibility

An Answer to an Objection

Arnaud de Lassus

( July 12, 2006)

Objection: You maintain that there is only one subject (or holder) of infallibility. But mustn't we take into consideration the Second Vatican Council's teaching which gives us to understand (Constitution Lumen Gentium, # 22 and 25)  that there are two holders of  supreme power and infallibility in the Church: the Pope on the one hand, and on the other hand, the College of Bishops united with the Pope?


+  There is only one supreme power in the Church, that of the Pope

One must begin here in order to follow the course of the reasoning on the question of infallibility. That there can be only one supreme power in the Church is first of all a matter of common sense:  If there were two, neither of them would be supreme:

How can two plenary authorities co-exist in one society? Doesn’t the fullness of power conform to its unity? If one of these “two authorities” has power over the other, then this one is not a plenary authority. If both of them “share” authority, each one possesses a part of it and neither of them possesses it all.

The division of the subjects of authority thus divides the authority itself, and inversely, the non-division of authority, inseparable from its fullness, necessarily presupposes the unity of the subject possessing it.  [1] 

That there be a single supreme pastor is a point on which the Constitution Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I insists:

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

Perfectly clear doctrine. . . Still it has been – and continues to be – contested by a certain number of theologians. Here are three characteristic positions which are taken:

“The matter in question is the place of the episcopal Body in the Universal Church, with Peter and under his leadership. In other words, it is a question of seeing clearly the coordination of two plenary authorities.”  -   “The co-existence of these two authorities is real.” [2]

“Two supreme powers exist in the Church: the Bishop of Rome, the Pope; and the body of the Bishops, from the instant that the Pope is with them.... The                                                                                                                                                      primacy of the Bishop of Rome is therefore balanced by the collegiality of the episcopal Body. . .”  [3] 

“By the will of Christ the supreme proclamatory power of the Gospel (magisterium and government) in the post-Apostolic period resides on the one hand wholly in the Pope alone (Matt. 16:18) and on the other hand wholly in the Pope united with the episcopal Body or College of Bishops (Matt. 18:18). Thus, by divine right, two subjects, two exercises of the same power, but which are distinct only inadequately, inasmuch as the Pope is found both in the one and the other.” [4]


+  The teaching of the First Vatican Council on the Supreme Power in the Church

Here are two texts from the Constitution Pastor Aeternus which complete the aforequoted passage:

In order, then, that the episcopal  office should be one and undivided and that, by the union of the clergy, the whole multitude of believers should be held together in the unity of faith and communion, he set blessed Peter over the rest of the apostles and instituted in him the permanent principle of both unities and their visible foundation.

Upon the strength of this foundation was to be built the eternal temple, and the Church whose topmost part reaches heaven was to rise upon the firmness of this foundation.


+  Infallibility,[5]  a privilege attached to the pontifical function

The question was clarified thus in the Constitution Pastor Aeternus of the First Vatican Council:

Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, We likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment. The sentence of the Apostolic See, whose authority is unsurpassed, is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon.  And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman Pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.

The “supreme power of the magisterium,” in other words the supreme teaching power, is obviously the one enjoying infallibility.

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.

(Pastor Aeternus)


+  There is only one subject of infallibility: the Pope

Inasmuch as only one supreme power exists in the Church and inasmuch as the privilege of infallibility is attached to this supreme power, the holder of the supreme power, the Pope and the subject of infallibility are necessarily identical.


+ Under what conditions is the Pope infallible?

This point, defined as dogma by the Constitution Pastor Aeternus of  Vatican I, is summed up thus in the Catechism of St. Pius X:

 “When is the Pope infallible?”

The Pope is infallible only when, in his capacity as Pastor and Doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines, so as to be held by the whole Church, a doctrine concerning faith and morals.

This concerns the conditions known as “ex cathedra.”


+   How the error on the two supreme powers came about

The power of the Pope in the Church may be considered under a double aspect. The Pope is at the same time a Bishop and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.

As Bishop, he is included in the episcopal Body. As Supreme Pontiff (a function bound to that of the Bishop of Rome), he occupies the place of Jesus Christ; he is above the entire Church, above the episcopal Body.

Wherever there is a tendency (which is the Gallican tendency[6]) to see the Pope only as the Bishop of a diocese like any other, one may therefore consider the power of the episcopal Body as balancing that of the Pope, the latter being only “primus inter pares”  (the first among equals).


+   In summary:

The preceding considerations may be summed up thus:

-  The Sovereign Pontiff of the Catholic Church, considered not in his episcopacy only, but in his principality or pontificate, enjoys an absolute primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church, including the episcopal Body.

-  All the powers and prerogatives derived from this ordinary and immediate primacy belong properly to the Supreme Pontiff. He is therefore their proper subject, to the exclusion of all others.

-  In the exercise of his Supreme Pontificate, the Pope is not included in the episcopal Body, but stands above it as Vicar and Lieutenant of Christ himself.

-  The extraordinary or solemn magisterial function, derived not from his episcopacy, but from his supreme pontificate, belongs properly to the Sovereign Pontiff, to the exclusion of any other, whether understood individually or collectively.


-  There are not two, but only one supreme authority in the Church: the Pope;

-  There are not two, but only one subject of infallibility;

-  There are not two, but only one set of conditions which the Pope must fulfill in order to be infallible: the ex cathedra conditions.

- How else could we understand the aforecited texts of the First Vatican Council and St. Pius X?


+   The text of the Constitution “Dei Filius” on the two kinds of infallible teaching

Infallibility in the Church does not stop there. Alongside the infallible teaching of the Pope expressing himself ex cathedra figures the infallible teaching known as “constant magisterium”[7] or  “ordinary and universal magisterium,”[8] (that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all).[9]

The existence of these two categories of infallible teaching in the Church is referred to in an oft-quoted text of the Constitution Dei Filius of Vatican I:

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

In his encyclical Satis cognitum of June 29, 1896, Leo XIII emphasized thus the importance of this text:

The Fathers of the Vatican Council laid down nothing new, but followed divine revelation and the acknowledged and invariable teaching of the Church as to the very nature of faith, when they decreed as follows: "All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written or unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, either by a solemn definition or in the exercise of its ordinary and universal Magisterium"

+   Conclusion

The objection in question at the beginning of this article leads us to emphasize the capital point on which everything hangs:  a sole supreme power in the Church, a power which alone enjoys infallibility, and only under ex cathedra conditions.

The Catholic doctrine on infallibility (referred to and in part defined as dogma by the First Vatican Council) focuses on two points: the infallibility of the magisterium (the word magisterium being understood in the sense of teaching) of the Pope when speaking ex cathedra; the infallibility of the constant magisterium  — or ordinary and universal magisterium — (the word magisterium being understood in the sense of teaching)”[10]  Any extension of infallibility beyond the limits just indicated leads outside Catholic doctrine.

Such an extension is frequent today. It was favored by the ambiguities of Vatican II (especially by articles 22 and 25 of the Constitution Lumen Gentium).

Catholic doctrine on infallibility is simple and precise; let’s keep it that way without modifying it…. and let’s know how to put it in practice by keeping in mind the following considerations:

When it comes to explaining the principles of Christian morality and the essential dogmas of the Church, whatever does not appear in the Tradition of all time and especially in antiquity, is right there not only suspect, but bad and to be condemned; and that is the principal foundation above all others on which all the holy Fathers and Popes have condemned false doctrines, there being nothing more odious to the Church than novelties. [11]  

For the Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

(Pastor Aeternus)


[1] Abbé Raymond Dulac, La collégialité  épiscopale au deuxième  concile du Vatican, p. 126.

[2] Abbé Colson, in “La France Catholique,” September 27, 1963, p. 7, quoted by  R. Dulac, op. cit., p. 125.

[3] Fr. Chenu, La Vie Catholique Illustrée, Oct. 2 1963, p.26, quoted by Fr. Dulac.

[4] Abbé Charles Journet (future Cardinal), Entretiens sur l’Eglise, 1966, p. 109.

[5] Here it’s a question of infallibility in the subjective sense: a quality of a physical person or of a moral person who, under certain conditions, cannot err.

[6] According to the  Dictionnaire de Theology Catholique,  “ Gallicanism is  a whole set of tendencies, practices and above all, doctrines relating to the constitution and scope of the spiritual power, especially as deployed in old France  and variously opposed  to certain prerogatives of the pope in regard to the Church and of the Church in its relations to the state.”  Gallicans  generally believe that the government of the Church  is essentially  more aristocratic than monarchical. Whence the tendency to grant infallibility to an episcopal Body  in  the bosom of which  the Pope would be “primus inter pares.”

[7] Popes rarely use their privilege of infallibility. The faithful must depend especially on the infallibility of the constant magisterium.

[8] The word “universal” must be understood here in its double meaning of universality in time and space.

[9]  Cf. the criterion figuring in St. Vincent de Lerins’ Commonitorium,  and long since adopted by the Church:  “Curandum est, ut id  teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.”  One must be careful to hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all.  And St. Vincent adds: “Hoc est enim vere proprieque catholicum.”  That’s what is Catholic in the true and proper sense.

[11]  A  text from Bossuet quoted by Louis Salleron in “Carrefour,”  Jan. 5 1972.