Rorate Caeli

The Synod and the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church

Roberto de Mattei
Corrispondenza Romana
10th December 2014
As the 2015 Synod looms ahead laden with the unknown and [many] problems, a prime question is up for discussion.  What is the authority of ecclesiastical documents which may be produced by the ordinary Magisterium of a Pope or Synod?

The progressives, or better the neo-modernists, attach an infallible character to all the acts of the present Pontiff and to the results of the next Synod, whatever they may be.  They say – we need to obey these acts, since,  as in the case of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope or the bishops united to him, cannot fall into error. On the other hand, the progressives themselves deny infallible value to the teachings of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, and affirm that traditional morality in the marital field  needs to be up-dated, adapting to the “experienced convictions” of those Catholics that practice contraception, artificial insemination and non–marital cohabitation.

In the first case they appear to acknowledge the infallibility of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, identifying it with the living Magisterium of the Pope and Bishops after Vatican II; in the second case they deny the infallibility of the true concept of the Ordinary Universal Magisterim, expressed through the Tradition of the Church, according to the famous formula of Vincent of Lerins: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus.

We find ourselves faced with an evident overturning of the truths of faith regarding the ecclesiastical Magisterium.  The doctrine of the Church teaches in fact that when the Pope, alone or in union with the bishops, speaks ex cathedra, he is certainly infallible. But for a pronouncement to be considered ex cathedra, some requisites are necessary: 1) he must speak inasmuch as he is Pope and Pastor of the Universal Church; 2) the matter in which he expresses himself must regard the faith or traditions; 3) on this object he must pronounce a solemn and definitive judgment, with the intention of binding all of the faithful.

If even only one of these conditions is missing, the Pontifical (or Conciliar) Magisterium remains authentic, but it is not infallible. That is, it does not mean that it is wrong, but it means simply that it is not immune from error; it is, in a word - fallible.

We need to add however, that the infallibility of the Church is not limited to the extraordinary case of the Pope, who, alone or in union with the bishops, speaks ex cathedra, but it is extended also to the Ordinary Universal Magisterium.

To clarify this point, let us turn to an article by Padre Marcelino Zalba (1908 – 2009), on the Infallibility of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium and Contraception, which appeared in the January – March 1979 issue of Cardinal Giuseppe Siri’s magazine “Renovatio” (pp.79-90).

The author  who was considered one of the most trusted moralists of his time, recalled that other two noted American theologians, John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, in 1963, precisely five years before the promulgation of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae by Paul VI, had studied the level of certainty and truth that should be attributed in the theological field to Traditional Catholic Doctrine regarding the intrinsic and grave immorality of contraception (John C. Ford S.J., Gerald Kelly, S.J. Contemporary Moral Theology, vol. 2, Marriage Questions, Newman, Westminster 1964, pp. 263-271). 

According to the two Jesuit theologians this is a doctrine that needed to be considered normative for the conduct of the faithful.  It would be in fact inconceivable that the Catholic Church aided by the Holy Spirit in the conservation of doctrine and evangelical morality, would have affirmed explicitly in numerous interventions that contraceptive acts are a grave objective violation of the law of God, if it were not so in reality.  With an erroneous intervention, the Church would have been the cause of countless mortal sins, contradicting the promise of the Divine assistance of Jesus Christ.

One of the two moral theologians, Father Ford, in collaboration with the philosopher Germain Grisez, examined this problem in depth in a subsequent work: Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium  (“Theological Studies” , 39 (1978), pp. 258-312).  They concluded that the doctrine of Humanae Vitae should be considered infallible teaching, not in virtue of the act of promulgation (which was less solemn and categorical, for example, than Casti Connubii by Pius XI), but given that it confirmed the Ordinary Universal Magisterium of the Popes and bishops in the world. Though not being in itself infallible, Humanae Vitae became so when, in condemning contraception, it reaffirmed a doctrine perennially proposed by the Ordinary Universal Magisterium of the Church.

The constitution Dei Filius of the First Vatican Council, ascertained, in chapter 3, that there can be truths that must be believed, with Divine and Catholic faith in the Church, without  the need of a solemn definition, since they are expressed in the Ordinary Universal Magisterium. The conditions necessary for the infallibility of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium are that it concerns a doctrine with regard to faith or morals, taught authoritatively in repeated declarations by the Popes and bishops, with an unquestionable and binding character.

The word universal is meant not in the synchronic sense of an extension of space in a particular historical period, but in the diachronic sense of a continuity of time, in order to express a consensus that embraces all epochs of the Church (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,  Illustrative Doctrinal Note  of the conclusive formula of Professio fidei, 29th June 1998, nota 17).  For example, in the case of birth control, since the 3rd century the Church has condemned artificial methods.  At the beginning of the 19th century when this problem surfaced again, the declarations by bishops, in union with the Pope, stated, at all times, as definitive and binding doctrine of the Church, that contraception was mortal sin. The explicit declarations of Pius XI, Pius XII and of all their successors, confirmed traditional teaching.  Paul VI in Humanae Vitae confirmed this doctrine of the Ordinary Magisterium, “based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by Divine Revelation (n. 4) rejecting the pontifical commission’s conclusions, which had studied this problem as these “were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the Magisterium of the Church” (n. 6).

The position that Father Zalba, Father Kelly, Father Ford and Prof. Grisez make regarding contraception may be extended to artificial insemination, unmarried cohabitation or the divorced and remarried. Even in absence of extraordinary declarations by the Church on these moral issues, the Ordinary Universal Magisterium of the Church has declared itself in a coherent, constant and binding manner throughout course of the centuries: it is to be considered infallible. Moreover in the moral realm, praxis may never be in contradiction with what the doctrine of the Universal Magisterium has established definitively.

Quite different is the matter regarding doctrinal innovations included in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In those cases not only is an ex cathedra act missing by the Pontiff in union with the bishops, but none of the documents were exposed in a dogmatic manner, with the intention of defining a truth of the faith or morality and of binding the assent of the faithful.  In those documents there can only be some passages infallible where the perennial doctrine of the Church is confirmed. Catholic, in fact, is that which is universal, not what is in a given moment “in every place” believed by everyone - which can occur at a Council or a Synod - but what is perennially everywhere believed by everyone, without equivocations and contradictions. The hermeneutic debate still in progress on the innovations of the Vatican II texts confirms their provisional and disputable character, in no way binding.

How can blind and unconditional obedience to the fallible innovations of the Second Vatican Council and of the Synod on the Family which claim to contradict the infallible teachings of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium of the Church on the theme of conjugal morality be expected?

[Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana]