The Infallibility of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium

By Robert J. Siscoe

(Expanded 5/30/2019)

One of the more dangerous errors facing well-meaning Catholics today is extending infallibility beyond the limits taught by the Church.  While this error of excess may not have posed a problem for Catholics in the past, it certainly does today.  In fact, a brief perusal through the comments section of a Catholic blog shows that this error is one of the single greatest dangers for faithful Catholics today, due to the consequences that follow from it.  For in the current crisis of the Church and the Papacy, when confused and scandalized Catholics are searching for answers, an error of excess concerning the infallibility of the Pope (or of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium), often serves as a false premise that “logically” leads to one of two erroneous conclusions:

       1) That the Pope alone, or the Teaching Church as a whole, has done what a dogma of the Faith teaches is impossible (i.e., violated infallibility); or
       2) That the infallibility of the Pope demands that Catholics give an unqualified assent to whatever he teaches even if it conflicts with (a) the explicit teaching of the Scriptures, (b) the perennial doctrine of the Church, and (c) the consistent teaching of his predecessors (e.g., the doctrine of the licitness of capital punishment).

The first erroneous conclusion usually ends in a denial of the dogma of Papal Infallibility, which is quickly followed by a loss of faith in the Church.  The second erroneous conclusion undermines the objective nature and immutability of the revealed deposit and logically leads to the Modernist error of evolution of dogma, which maintains that the Church’s understanding of dogma changes over time, in such a way that what the Church taught in  the past can no longer be held today.[1]

Because of these dangers that the ecclesiastical crisis poses for Catholics of good-will today, a correct understanding of the conditions required for an exercise of infallible teaching authority is more important than ever, and morally necessary for those Catholics who hope to make it through the present trial with their faith and sanity intact.


Msgr. Van Noort defines infallibility as “the privilege by which the teaching office of the Church, through the assistance of the Holy Ghost, is preserved immune from error when it defines a doctrine of faith or morals.” Note the word define.  Infallibility only applies to doctrines that are defined, or definitive proposed by the Church, either by a solemn decree, or by the force of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.  Van Noort elaborates further on this point:

“The teaching office of the Church or, as they say, ‘the teaching Church,’ is made up of those to whom God entrusted the right and the duty to teach the Christian religion authoritatively. The words ‘in matters of faith and morals in such a way as to require of everyone full and absolute assent’ are included in the proposition because, according to Catholic teaching, the Church's rulers are infallible not in any and every exercise of their teaching power; but only when, using all the fulness of their authority, they clearly intend to bind everyone to absolute assent or, as common parlance puts it, when they “define” something in matters pertaining to the Christian religion. That is why all theologians distinguish in the dogmatic decrees of the councils or of the popes between those things set forth therein by way of definition and those used simply by way of illustration or argumentation. For the intention of binding all affects only the definition, and not the historical observations, reasons for the definition, and so forth. And if in some particular instances the intention of giving a definitive decision were not made sufficiently clear, then no one would be held by virtue of such definitions, to give the assent of faith: a doubtful law is no law at all.

“Although this proposition has never been defined in the precise form in which it is here stated, it is a dogma of faith by reason of the universal teaching of the Church.” (Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D., Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, Translated and Revised by John J. Castelot, S.S., S.T.D., S.S.L. & William R. Murphy, S.S., S.T.D., The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1957. pp 104.)

The Baltimore Catechism and Bishop Morrow's catechism, My Catholic Faith, provide the following explanation of the same point:

Baltimore Catechism:

“Question: 163: What is meant by the infallibility of the Catholic Church?

“Answer: By the infallibility of the Catholic Church is meant that the Church, by the special assistance of the Holy Ghost, cannot err when it teaches or believes a doctrine of faith or morals.

“Question 164: When does the Church teach infallibly?

“Answer: The Church teaches infallibly when it defines, through the Pope alone, as the teacher of all Christians, or through the Pope and bishops, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by all the faithful.

“(a) The Holy Father must intend to use his supreme, apostolic authority when he teaches infallibly.

"(b) The Pope can teach without speaking infallibly; for example, he does this in his encyclical letters.  Catholics must accept such teachings, not on faith, but in obedience to the authority of the Pope and in respect for his wisdom.” (Baltimore Catechism #3, Benzinger Brothers, 1949, p. 92.)

My Catholic Faith:

#67: Q: What is meant by the infallibility of the Catholic Church?

A: By the infallibility of the Catholic Church is meant that the Church, by the special assistance of the Holy Ghost, cannot err when it taches or believes a doctrine of faith or morals.

#68 Q: When does the Church teach infallibly?

A” The Church teaches infallibly when it defines, through the Pope alone, as the teacher of all Christians, or through the Pope and the bishops, a doctrine of faith or morals.” (My Catholic Faith, by Rev. Louis Morrow, S.T.D. Bishop of Krishnaray, 1954)

The Charism

Infallibility is a charism (gratia gratis data) that prevents the possibility of error.[2] It is not to be confused with inspiration, which is a positive divine influence that moves and controls a human agent in what he says or writes; nor is it to be confused with Revelation, which is the communication of some truth to man, by God, through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature.  The gift of infallibility pertains to the safeguarding and explanation of truths that have already been revealed by God, and which are contained in the Deposit of Faith, which was closed with the death of the last apostle.  It should also be noted that infallibility is not a habitually active charism, but is only engaged when the necessary conditions are met; nor does the charism reside in the person of the Pope, but is attached to the papal office, and only prevents a Pope from erring when he exercises the office, by teaching ex cathedra.  

The Object of Infallibility

The object of infallibility are the truths that can be infallibly taught by the Church. These are broken out into two general categories:

(a) the primary object consists of truths that have been formally revealed by God, and which are contained in the font of revelation, viz. Scripture and Tradition.  The immunity from error extends to both positive and negative decisions of a definitive nature. Positive decisions include such things as dogmatic decrees of a council, ex cathedra statements from a pope, and official creeds of the Church.  Negative decisions consist of the determination and rejection of such errors as are opposed to the teaching of Revelation.

(b) The secondary objects of infallibility comprise truths that have not been formally revealed by God, but which are intimately related to and necessary to preserve the revealed deposit.  These include such things as 1) theological conclusions (inferences deduced from two premises, one of which is revealed and the other verified by reason), 2) dogmatic facts (contingent historical facts), and 3) the doctrinal judgment contained within disciplinary laws (i.e., that a universal law does not directly contradict a revealed truth).[3]  We should note that the Church herself has never defined whether, or to what extent, infallibility embraces the secondary objects.[4]  However, theologians qualify it as theologically certain that infallibility does extend to all the secondary objects, with the exception of canonizations, which some qualify by the lesser note of the common opinion.[5]

The Organs of Infallibility

The organs through which the Church teaches infallibly are (a) the pope, (b) a general council, and (c) the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium (OUM), which consists of the bishops dispersed throughout the world, teaching in union with the pope. Each of these organs can teach infallibly, and indeed will do so, provided the necessary conditions are met; but infallibility will not prevent any of them from erring if the conditions are not satisfied.  For this reason, rather than saying the pope, or a council, or the OUM are infallible, it is more precise to say they are organs through which the Church can teach infallibly, since the former expression gives the impression that they are, per se, always infallible, and consequently unable to err at any time - which is the error that has caused so much confusion today.

Conditions for Papal Infallibility

Prior to the vote on Papal Infallibility during the First Vatican Council, the spokesman for the Deputation de Fide, Bishop Vincent Gasser, responded as follows when asked in what sense papal infallibility is to be considered absolute:

It is asked in what sense the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is absolute.  I reply and openly admit: in no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, Who is the first and essential truth and Who is never able to deceive or be deceived.  All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and it conditions under which it is considered to be present.  The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff.  For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions.  What those conditions may be should be deduced not a priori, but from the very promise or manifest will of Christ.  Now, what follows from the promise of Christ, made to Peter and his successors, as far as these conditions are concerned?  He promised Peter the gift of inerrancy in Peter’s relation to the universal Church. (…)  Peter, placed outside his relation to the universal Church does not enjoy in his successors, this charism of truth which comes from the certain promise of Christ.  Therefore, in reality, the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is restricted by reason of the subject, i.e., when the Pope, constituted in the chair of Peter, the center of the Church, speaks as universal teacher and supreme judge.  It is restricted by its object, i.e., when treating matters of faith and morals; and by reason of the act itself, i.e., when the Pope defines what must be believed or rejected by all the faithful.[6]

The conditions for Papal Infallibility were subsequently defined by the Council, as follows: The Pope enjoys infallible teaching authority when he teaches ex-cathedra, that is, when he 1) exercises his supreme apostolic authority, by 2) defining a doctrine 3) of faith or morals 4) to be held by the entire Church.  All four conditions must be satisfied for a Pope to be preserved from error.  

It is important to note that infallibility does not prevent a pope from erring simply because he is teaching the Church by virtue of his office of supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians.  He must exercise his Supreme Magisterium with the express intention of defining a doctrine to be held by the entire Church.  

Bishop Gasser provided the Council Fathers with the following explanation of this point, prior to their vote on the dogma: 

In this definition we treat, First, the subject of infallibility, namely, the Roman Pontiff as Pontiff, i.e, as a public person in relation to the universal Church.  There is contained in the definition the act, or the quality and condition of the act of an infallible pontifical definition, i.e., the Pontiff is said to be infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (…) not, first of all, when he decrees something as a private teacher, or as the Bishop and ordinary of a particular See and province, but when he teaches as exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians.  Secondly, not just any manner of proposing the doctrine is sufficient even when he is exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher.  Rather, there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine, or of defining something by giving a definitive judgment and proposing the doctrine as one which must be held by the universal Church.  This last point is indeed something intrinsic to every dogmatic definition of faith or morals that is taught by the supreme pastor and teacher of the universal Church, and which is to be held by the universal Church.   Indeed, this very property and note of a definition, properly so-called, should be expressed, at least in some way, since he is defining doctrine to be held by the universal Church.[7]

Monsignor Van Noort explains the an ex cathedra teaching requires that the Pope 1) exercise his office a Supreme teacher, 2) at his maximum level - i. e., by binding the entire Church:

"The conditions for papal infallibility are summed up in the words: ‘when he speaks ex cathedra.’  A throne (cathedra – chair – judicial bench) is normally a symbol of authority and particularly of doctrinal authority.  The consecrated formula: ‘to speak ex cathedra’ or ‘an ex cathedra definition’ were in use in theological schools long before the Vatican Council.  They designate the full exercise of the papal magisterium. The Vatican Council, however, add this precise explanation: ‘that is: when exercising his office of supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, that some doctrine on faith or morals must be held by the universal Church.’  to speak ‘ex cathedra’ signifies two things (a) the pope is actually making use of his papal office – of supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians; (b) the pope is using his papal authority at its maximum level.  Both of these facts must be made known clearly and indisputably. (…)

"In reference to point a: A man holding office does not always act in his official capacity. Again, if the same person holds several offices simultaneously, he does not have to be constantly exercising the highest function. We must keep these points in mind when discussing the pope’s infallibility. He is not only the pope of the whole Church, he is also the local bishop of the diocese of Rome, metropolitan of its surrounding sees, and temporal sovereign of the Vatican state. Consequently, if the pope speaks merely as a private individual, or as a private theologian, or as a temporal sovereign, or precisely as ordinary of the diocese of Rome, or precisely as metropolitan of the province of Rome, he should not be looked on as acting infallibly. (…) As private theologian he might write a book on some aspects of the spiritual life. (…) Speaking precisely as ordinary of the diocese of Rome he might give a series of instructions or a retreat to the people of some definite parish in the city.  What is required for an infallible declaration, therefore, is that the pope be acting precisely as pope; that is, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians so that his decision looks to the universal Church and is given for the sake of the universal Church. (…)

"With reference to point b: A man who acts in an official capacity does not always make use of his full power, of the whole weight of the authority which he possesses by his very position. … Thus the pope, even acting as pope, can teach the universal Church without making use of his supreme authority at its maximum power. Now the Vatican Council defined merely this point: the pope is infallible if he uses his doctrinal authority at its maximum power, by handing down a binding and definitive decision: such a decision, for example, by which he quite clearly intends to bind all Catholics to an absolutely firm and irrevocable assent.

Consequently, even if the pope, and acting as pope, praises some doctrine, or recommends it to Christians, or even orders that it alone should be taught in theological schools, this act should not necessarily be considered an infallible decree since he may not intend to hand down a definitive decision. (…) For the same reason, namely a lack of intention to hand down a final decision, not all doctrinal decisions which the pope proposes in encyclical letters should be considered definitions. In a word, there must always be present and clearly presented the intention of the pope to hand down a decision which is final and definitive.[8]  

If a Pope does not exercise his office as supreme teacher with the express intention to define a doctrine, the charism of infallibility will not prevent him from erring.  Most Popes have never exercised the gift of infallibility that is available to them.

The Error of the Material Pope Thesis

Following the Second Vatican Council, an error arose of equating papal authority with papal infallibility.   This error maintains that the pope’s authority to teach (which he always enjoys, but may sometimes abuse), is one and the same as his infallible teaching authority (which he only enjoys when he is defining a doctrine).   This first error was quickly followed by a second - namely, that if a Pope has erred in an authoritative teaching, it must mean he lacks the authority of the papacy.  

This error of equating papal authority with papal infallibility has led to the absurd Material Pope Thesis, which maintains that the last 6 Popes have lawfully held the papal office (materially), but lacked the authority (the form) of the office they lawfully held.  

The following explanation that Bishop Gasser provided the Fathers of the First Vatican Council refutes this post-Vatican II novelty:

Indeed it should not be said that the Pontiff is infallible simply because of the authority of the Papacy, but rather inasmuch as he is certainly and undoubtedly subject to the direction of divine assistance. (…) But the divine assistance promised to him, by which he cannot err, he only enjoys as such when he really and actually exercises his duty as supreme judge and universal teacher of the Church in disputes about the faith. (…) the Pope is only infallible when, by a solemn judgment, he defines a matter of faith and morals for the Church universal.[9]

The authority of the pope is not what prevents him from erring.  What does so is the special divine assistance that he receives in virtue of his office, but which he only enjoys when he exercises the office by defining a doctrine “by a solemn judgment”.  If a pope were to error in an authoritative, but non-definitive teaching, it would not prove, nor would it suggest, that he lacks papal authority. 

None of the recent Popes have erred when defining a doctrine, ex cathedra. 

Conditions for Conciliar Infallibility

Just as the manifest intention of defining a doctrine is a condition for Papal Infallibility, so too is it for Conciliar Infallibility, as Fr. E. Sylvester Berry explains:

Certain conditions are necessary for the exercise of infallible teaching authority by the bishops assembled in council, namely: a) the council must be summoned by the Roman Pontiff, or at least with his consent and approval… b) The council must be truly ecumenical by celebration, i.e., the whole body of bishops must be represented. … c) Bishops assembled in a council are infallible only when exercising supreme authority as teachers of faith or morals by a definite and irrevocable decree that a doctrine is revealed, and, therefore, to be accepted by every member of the Church. But since the bishops need not intend such an irrevocable decision at all times [during the Council], it is necessary that an infallible definition be so worded as to indicate clearly its definitive character.[10]

Once again, we see that infallibility only extends to the doctrines defined by a council, and the definitive character must be clearly indicated. 

Bellarmine explains that the majority of the acts of councils are not de fide (infallible). He writes:

The great majority of the acts of [ecumenical] councils do not pertain to the faith.  For neither the disputations that precede the decrees, nor the reasons that are adduced, nor the things that are introduced to explain and illustrate them, but only the bare decrees themselves are de fide—and not all decrees, but only those that are proposed as de fide. (…) It is easy to tell from the words of the Council when a decree is proposed as de fide; for they are always accustomed to say that they are explaining the Catholic faith, or that those who think the contrary are to be considered heretics, or—what is most common—they pronounce an anathema against those who think the contrary, and exclude them from the Church.  But when they say none of these things it is not certain that the matter is de fide.[11]

From what we have seen thus far, it should be evident that infallibility does not extend to an entire document in which a definition is contained, but is limited to the definition itself.  In the article he penned for the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, Fr. P.J. Toner explains that infallibility is attached only to the strictly definitive sentences:

It need only be added here that not everything in a conciliar or papal pronouncement, in which some doctrine is defined, is to be treated as definitive and infallible. For example, in the lengthy Bull of Pius IX defining the Immaculate Conception the strictly definitive and infallible portion is comprised in a sentence or two; and the same is true in many cases in regard to conciliar decisions. The merely argumentative and justificatory statements embodied in definitive judgments, however true and authoritative they may be, are not covered by the guarantee of infallibility which attaches to the strictly definitive sentences — unless, indeed, their infallibility has been previously or subsequently established by an independent decision.[12]

In the case of Vatican II, for example, nothing new was defined, as Pope Paul VI himself observed [13] which means the charism of infallibility was never engaged.  The only infallible teachings contained within the 16 documents are those that were infallibly proposed prior to the Council.

Extending Infallibility Beyond what the Church Teaches

Another post Vatican II novelty is the belief that if a Pope signs a concilar document, the infallibility he enjoys will ensure that everything contain therein is entirely free from all error.  This error has led many to conclude that the errors in Vatican II must mean Paul VI, who signed the documents, could not have been a true Pope. On the contrary, the ratification of a council by a Pope only guarantees that the definitions and decrees of the council are infallibly true, and therefore binding on the faithful.  An error in a non-definitive teaching of a council might cause confusion in the Church, but it is not contrary to the Church’s infallibility - which is only attached to definitive judgments - nor would it call into question the legitimacy of the Pope who signed it.

The Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium

Just as the Pope and Bishops can teach infallibly when gathered together at a council, so too can they teach infallibly when dispersed throughout the world, while residing in their respective diocese.  Hence, the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium (OUM) is also an organ of infallibility, but, as with the other two organs, the body of Bishops dispersed throughout the world only teaches infallibly when they all – as with a single voice - impose a doctrine definitively, and as binding on the entire Church.  Salaverri explains:

The bishops, successors of the Apostles, are infallible, when in agreement with the Roman Pontiff they impose a doctrine to be held definitively by the faithful. (…) In the conditions which the thesis assigns, bishops teach: a) as a College, because [they are] in agreement under the Roman Pontiff, b) with the highest grad of doctrinal authority because they teach definitively, c) with an obligation imposed under the danger of salvation, because they impose a doctrine that must be held absolutely, d) the whole flock of the faithful, because all the residential bishops are the ones who teach.”[14]

Notice that the College of Bishops only teach infallibly when, as with a single voice, they definitively impose a doctrine definitively and as binding on all the faithful as a matter of salvation. The difference between the Ordinary Magisterium, and the Extraordinary Magisterium, is the way in which this condition is satisfied.

The Difference Between a Definitive Teaching of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium

When a doctrine is defined by the Extraordinary Magisterium, the definitive character is known by a single definitive act, to which the charism of infallibility attaches, thereby preventing the possibility of error.  With an infallible teaching of the OUM, however, the definitive character not manifest by a single act, but by the convergence of a multitude of non-infallible acts, which combine in such a way that it is evident to all that the doctrine must be believed by all Catholics, with the assent of divine and Catholic faith.    Dom Paul Nau explains:

The infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium, whether of the Universal Church or that of the See of Rome, is not that of a judgment, not that of an act to be considered in isolation, as if it could itself provide all the light necessary for it to be clearly seen.  It is that of the guarantee bestowed on a doctrine by the simultaneous or continuous convergence of a plurality of affirmations or explanations, none of which could bring positive certitude if it were taken by itself alone. Certitude can be expected only from the whole complex (…).  In the case of the universal Magisterium, this whole complex is that of the concordant teaching of the bishops in communion with Rome [synchronic universality]; in the case of the pontifical Magisterium, it is the continuity of teaching of the successors of Peter [diachronic universality]: In other words, it is the tradition of the Church of Rome.[15]

When a pope teaches a doctrine in continuity with what was taught by his predecessors, and the Bishops throughout the world all teach the same doctrine as definite and binding on all the faith, the diachronic universality of the Papacy, and the synchronic universality of the episcopal body, would give definitive clarity necessary for an infallible proposition.

In his book, The Relations of the Church to Society (1875), Fr. O'Reilly observes that in order for a doctrine that has not been solemnly defined to acquire the definitive character necessary to be infallible, “it must be preached so decidedly, and so constantly, and so universally as a revealed doctrine [i.e., primary object of infallibility] that the voice of the Church propounding it is unmistakable.”[16]

It needs to be emphasize that for a doctrine to be infallibly taught by the force of the OUM, it must be proposed with the same definitive and binding force as an infallible decree from a Council, or an ex-cathedra definition of a Pope.  If it is not manifestly evident that the doctrine is taught by the entire episcopate as binding on all the faithful, it is not to be considered infallible by the force of the OUM.  Zapelena writes: 

"The episcopal college, the successor to the Apostolic College, is infallible in proposing revealed doctrine or things connected with revealed teachings, as we saw in the preceding thesis [on ecumenical councils]. But this College is not less present in the ordinary and scattered teaching of the bishops, than in the extraordinary and conciliar. Therefore the bishops are no less infallible when they teach in unison by their ordinary magisterium, than when they exercise the solemn or extraordinary magisterium...

"3. The agreement of the scattered episcopate, since it is by no means as solemn as that of a council, is not so easily perceived; the same is true of the intention to teach from the fullness of the magisterial power. Hence, since in accordance with the norm of Canon Law, 'No matter is to be understood as dogmatically defined unless this fact is manifestly evident', this makes it difficult to discern with certainty in regard to a particular dogma from the Ordinary Magisterium alone. Nevertheless, suitable means are not lacking by which it can be known sufficiently: for example, from catechisms published for the use of the people and approved by the bishops, from encyclicals and pastoral letters, from the decrees of particular councils; or from the fact that the doctrine, everywhere in the world, in sermons to the people, is habitually preached as Catholic, or condemned as heretical ...” Timotheus Zapalena, S.J. (De Ecclesia Christi, pars altera, Rome, 1940, p. 67.)

  As Msgr. Van Noort explains, for a doctrine to be infallibly by the force of the OUM (and hence require the assent of divine and Catholic faith), the manner in which it is proposed as de fide must be unmistakably definitive.  He further explains, that normally it is only the fundamental doctrines of the faith will meet the criterion and hence be infallible by the force of the OUM:

Clearly, if a truth is capable of being declared an object of divine-catholic faith through the force of this ordinary and universal teaching, there is required such a proposal as is unmistakably definitive. The proposal must be of such a nature that without any misgivings, it is proven that the doctrine in question is taught throughout the entire world as revealed and, consequently, as something necessarily to be believed by every Catholic. Now since a definitive proposal of this sort must blossom forth from countless activities which individually are neither definitive nor infallible, the existence of such a [definitive] proposal (with the exception of some fundamental truth) is frequently enough not too obvious.[17]

The article on Infallibility in the Original Catholic Encyclopedia says the following about the difficulties of a doctrine being infallibly taught by the OUM:

We have already seen that it is only in the episcopal body which has succeeded to the college of Apostles that infallible authority resides, and that it is possible for the authority to be effectively exercised by this body, dispersed throughout the world (…). During the interval from the council of the Apostles at Jerusalem to that of their successors at Nicaea this ordinary everyday exercise of episcopal authority was found to be sufficiently effective for the needs of the time, but when a crisis like the Arian heresy arose, its effectiveness was discovered to be inadequate (…). And while for subsequent ages down to our own day it continues to be theoretically true that the Church may, by the exercise of this ordinary teaching authority arrive at a final and infallible decision regarding doctrinal questions, it is true at the same time that in practice it may be impossible to prove conclusively that such unanimity as may exist has a strictly definitive value in any particular case.[18]

If it is “impossible to prove” that a doctrine has been infallibly proposed, it does not meet the condition for infallibility.  As Van Noort explained above, to require the assent of divine and Catholic faith, the doctrine must be “unmistakably definitive,” and the definitive character must be “of such a nature that without any misgivings, it is proven that the doctrine in question is taught throughout the entire world as revealed.”

An example theologians give of an undefined doctrine that has been infallibly proposed by the OUM is the teaching that the definitions of a general council, which have been accepted and approved by a Pope, are infallible.  Even though this has never been solemnly defined by the Church, the constant teaching and practice of the Church proves that it is de fide.

Modern Error

Another recent error is the belief that even if a council does not define a doctrine, everything contained in the documents it issues should be infallible, due to the fact that a Council is a gathering of all the Bishops of the world, teaching in union with the Pope (the OUM).  Based on this error, they conclude that because the documents of Vatican II contain errors, it "proves" that Paul VI was not a true pope, since the Bishops of the world, teaching in union with the Pope, are infallible.

Setting aside the fact that an ecumenical council is an act of the Extraordinary Magisterium, nor the Ordinary Magisterium, the very reason infallibility was not engaged during Vatican II is because no doctrine was definitively proposed.  Hence, any errors in the Conciliar documents lack the character necessary for a definitive proposal, regardless of which organ of infallibility is teaching.  Furthermore, every general council is a gathering of the world’s bishops with the Pope, yet, as we have seen, only the definitive teachings of a council are infallible. 

As should be obvious by now, this error, which has been promoted by Sedevacantists for many years, is based on the erroneous notion that the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium will prevent even non-definitive teachings from containing error, which is entirely false. 

We should also note that for all the Bishops throughout the world at a given time (synchronic universality) to believe and definitively teach that a particular doctrine is a revealed truth that must be believed by all Catholics, the doctrine taught would have to be consistent with what Catholics have believed from antiquity (diachronic universality).  Hence, there would have to be a synchronic universality in the teacher (the subject), and a diachronic universality (at least implicitly) in the doctrine taught (the object) for the definitive character to be manifest.  One thing is certain: it has never happened, nor will it ever happen, that a novelty or error is so clearly and definitively taught as a revealed truth, by the Pope and all the Bishops dispersed throughout the world, that it acquires the definitive character necessary to be binding on the faithful.

Finally, novelties and errors that arise within the Ecclesia Docens (Teaching Church), and the Ecclesia Discens (Taught Church), are not contrary to the infallibility of the OUM when properly understood - even if such errors cause profound turmoil and confusion within the Church (as occurred, for example, during the Arian crisis).  The reason is because, as Bishop Gasser explained during Vatican I, the infallibility of the present preaching of the Magisterium is not negative, but positive.  It does not prevent individual members of the Magisterium from falling into error or heresy, or from teaching it; nor does it prevent individual magisterial acts from containing such errors.  Rather, ordinary infallibility operates in a positive sense by providing a doctrine with the definitive character necessary to be infallibly proposed, and binding on all.  Bishop Gasser explains:

Everyone knows that this rule about the consent of the Churches in their present preaching is valid only in its positive sense and, by no means, in its negative sense.  This means that everything that the universal Church, consenting to, receives and venerates in its present preaching as revealed, is certainly true and Catholic [doctrine].  But, what happens if disagreements arise among the particular Churches and are followed by controversies about the faith?  Then, according to Vincent of Lerins, one must have recourse to the consent of antiquity, that is, to Scripture and the holy Fathers; and, from the consent of antiquity, differences in present preaching are to be resolved.[19]

That is what Catholics should do during the present crisis.  Don’t expect clarity to come from the Pope or hierarchy anytime soon - nemo dat quod non habet (one can’t give what they don’t have).  Until the day of sanity and clarity returns, Catholics should look to antiquity, and believe what Catholics have always believed.  In other words, they should follow the teaching of St. Paul by standing fast and holding to tradition (2 Thess. 2:14) which, as St. Vincent of Lerins rightly teaches, “can never be led astray by any lying novelty.”

[1] “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.” First Vatican Council, Session III, Chapter 4, Canon 3.
[2] There is also a general positive assistance available to the members of the Magisterium, but this positive assistance does not prevent the possibility of error, as history proves.
[3] For example, this would prevent the Church from promulgating a universal law permitting Catholics who are divorced and remarried to receiving communion, but it would not prevent the Church from permitting this on a case by case basis as an exception to the general norm.  Consequently, even if Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is interpreted in the worse light, it is not a violation of disciplinary infallibility since the document explicitly states that the permission for Catholics living in “irregular situations” is not “a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.”  And without defending the Amoris Laetitia, it should be noted that the exception is not given so those in the state of mortal sin can receive communion, but is granted on the basis that it “can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” (Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8).
[4] See Gasser’s relatio, The Gift of Infallibility (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 80
[5] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1961), p. 117
[6] The Gift of Infallibility, p. 49
[7] Ibid. 77-78
[8] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, pp 292-293
[9] The Gift of Infallibility, p. 46.
[10] Berry, The Church of Christ, (Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, 1955), pp. 260-261
[11] Bellarmine, On the Authority of the Councils, bk.2, ch.12.
[12] Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), vol. VII, p. 800
[13] “There are those who ask what authority, what theological qualification, the Council intended to give to its teachings, knowing that it avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions backed by the Church’s infallible teaching authority.” (Paul VI, General Audience December 1, 1966)
[14] Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae, Summa, 1B, On the Church of Christ, On Holy Scripture, 3rd Edition, (Keep the Faith, Inc., 2015), pp. 201-3.
[15] Dom Paul Naw, O.S.B. “An Essay on the Authority of the Teaching of the Sovereign Pontiff,” July 1956
[16] E. O’Reilly “The Relations of the Church to Society, Irish Monthly, Volume 3 (1875) p. 332
[17] Van Noort, The Sources of Revelation, (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1961), p. 222
[18] Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), vol. VII, p. 795
[19] The Gift of Infallibility pp. 55-56