The standards of Papal Infallibility

How do we know whether a Pope is speaking ex cathedra?

First, the definition. From an EWTN article:

There are, clearly, four tests of infallibility: The Pope must be (1) intending
to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority (3) a matter of Faith
or morals (4) to be held by the universal Church.

From Vatican I, on the Holy Father as Supreme Judge in the Church:

8. 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 [52], and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment [53]. The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon [54]. 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.

Now, the definition of Infallibility:

9. Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema. .

Now, here’s what the Catechism says about infallibility anad obedience:

891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421

Now, this is rather important: speaking ex cathedra technically applies to matters of divinely revealed truth in theology. This is different from moral theology, which is known through the Natural Law (as well as through divine revelation). Technically, there cannot be an ex cathedra pronouncement on the wrongness of contraception, because that is a moral truth, which pertains to the natural law and can be argued with appeal to natural reason alone. This brings us to the next paragraph:

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent“422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

The Catechism is mostly quoting Lumen Gentium 25.

Now, let’s look at when it has been unquestionably exercised.

From Bl. Pius X, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854:

Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”[29]

Like any good Catholic dogma, this is followed with an anathema:

Hence, if anyone shall dare — which God forbid! — to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should dare to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.

Ven. Pius XII uses similar language in Munificentissimus Deus (1950):

44. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed
: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having
completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into
heavenly glory.

Again, with the anathema:

45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.

Let’s look at three more recent cases which may or may not have constituted infallible pronouncements either according to assent of faith or assent of religion.

My recent mysterious interlocutor acknowledged the following paragraph of Evangelium Vitae to be “infallible”

Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. 72 Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. 73

This is an interesting question. John Paul II is defining abortion as a “grave moral evil” That would seem to fall under CCC 892, not 891. However, it clearly uses the language of speaking ex cathedra, and it is contingent upon the ontological proclamation that life begins at conception.

It is also interesting that John Paul’s proclamation, to which my interlocutor has stipulated, is itself based upon what Paul VI says in Humanae Vitae (see the footnote, which refers to Humanae Vitae).

There is another passage in Evangelium Vitae which seems to carry the same weight:

Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. 51

Here, however, His Holiness confirms. He does not declare, because he is simply restating the content of the Fifth Commandment. He exerts his Petrine authority, but he does not “declare,” because he is dealing with something that has already been defined clearly by the Magisterium.

Another case where John Paul II reportedly used infallibility was in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994):

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

The language is much simpler, but His Holiness still uses the Petrine authority (Lk 22:32), and uses the word “declare,” and says, “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”. However, in some sense, we might argue that he should have used “confirm,” since, in the previous paragraph, he states that “the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents.”

Now, let’s look at the encyclical which theologians have spent great sophistry trying to reject over the past 40 years, teaching their students in “Catholic” schools and universities to do the same, Humanae Vitae.

First, on the commission itself:

However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.

So, basically, he’s admitting that the commission was corrupt.

The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, “noble and worthy.” (11) It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
. . .
Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. (14)

Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. (15)

Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means. (16)

Now, he does not invoke the authority of Peter. He does, as John Paul does in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and in the passage of Evangelium Vitae the killing of innocents, invoke the established doctrine of the Church, saying that he is merely reiterating what the Church has already defined (it would be nice if the term John Paul uses–confirm–were adopted by the Church for all such proclamations.

3 responses to “The standards of Papal Infallibility

  1. You are not educated in dogmatic theology and you are going to sew all these passages together while making editorial comments that the even less educated may be tricked by. The infallible condemnation of abortion is not contingent on Humanae Vitae which was introduced by Msgr. Lambrushini as not infallible. You are trying to undo his statement through the back door so to speak because you are too attached to this issue. Ex cathedra can be used for morals because natural law according to St. Alphonsus in his Theologia Moralis is something that is only plain on plain issues and saints disagree on natural law on non plain issues. That is why the decretals for centuries (the old canon law) supported the erroneous statement of Gratian that “all that is beyond principal is usury”. Calvin had our eventual answer of 1830 but he had it in 1545 in a letter to a friend. Canon law also supported the slavery of those born to slave mothers and now in section 80 of Splendor of the Truth, slavery is called an intrinsic evil which it is not because God gives the Jews permission for chattel slavery in Leviticus 25:46.
    It’s simple. Neither Rahner nor Haring nor Fuchs were disciplined by any Pope at all for their dissent on birth control. Live with it. Why the obesession? It’g gotten so that other sins now have free reign because Catholics think only of these hot button sex issues. Aquinas said that gluttony was a mortal not venial sin and could be done 5 ways:speed, qunatity, eating too early,too costly,too fussy. Now even our teens are overweight and not one Catholic in the US is worried about gluttony which actually is in the Bible and is totally ignored because of these sexual topics. No one worries about covetousnous or imprudence. All is sex.

  2. John C. Hathaway

    If you are going to continue to insult my intelligence and judge me, you really ought to at least tell me where you got your alleged “theology” degree.

    I think you won’t, because I think I know exactly where you got it, and why you are attacking me so vehemently.

    Actually, this website is not about “sex.” It’s about eugenics.

    “It’g gotten so that other sins now have free reign because Catholics think only of these hot button sex issues”
    Yeah, right.

    “not one Catholic in the US is worried about gluttony which actually is in the Bible and is totally ignored because of these sexual topics. “
    Not one says the anonymous self-proclaimed doctor of theology who accuses me of painting with broad strokes?
    Seems to me, orthodox Catholics like myself are always calling for *fasting*, whereas your type are always comnig up with execuses for *not* fasting.

    “No one worries about covetousnous or imprudence”
    Yeah, “imprudence,” the favorite sin that “compromisers” like to point out when condemning saints and prophets for being too “zealous.”

    “All is sex.”
    Well, Our Lady of Fatima said it is the main reason people go to Hell.

  3. I think Humanae Vitae is EX CATHEDRA infallible. Please see my article at

    I disagree with you that there cannot be an infallible pronouncement on morality.

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