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The MOST Theological Collection: The Holy Spirit and the Church

"Introduction: Doctrinal Authority of Vatican II"


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Since we are going to study the Constitution on the Church (LG) of Vatican II, we should first speak of the doctrinal weight of this document.

It is often claimed that Vatican II meant only to be pastoral - and so we could ignore its teachings as we wish. Is this true? To get a start, we need to see that there are four levels of teaching in the Church.

1. Four levels of teaching:

a) Solemn definition. LG 25: No special formula of words is required in order to define. Wording should be something solemn, and should make clear that the teaching is definitive. Councils in the past often used the form: "Si quis dixerit... anathema sit." That is:" "If someone shall say.... let him be anathema." But sometimes they used the formula for disciplinary matters, so that form alone does not prove. Further, they also could define in the capitula, the chapters. Thus Pius XII, in Divino afflante Spiritu (EB 538) spoke of such a passage of Vatican I (DS 3006 -- saying God is the author of Scripture) as a solemn definition.

The Pope can define even without the Bishops. Of his definitions LG 25 said: "His definitions of themselves, and not from consent of the Church, are rightly called unchangeable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised him in blessed Peter. So they need no approval from others, nor is there room for an appeal to any other judgment." So collegiality even in defining is not mandatory. Yet most definitions of the Popes have been taken in collegiality, that is, with consultation of the Bishops. Even the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were such, for the Popes did poll the Bishops by mail.

b) Second level: LG 25:"Although the individual bishops do not have the prerogative of infallibility, they can yet teach Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is true even when they are scattered around the world, provided that, while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves, and with the successor of Peter, they concur in one teaching as the one which must be definitively held." This means: (1) The day to day teaching of the Church throughout the world, when it gives things as definitively part of the faith, (2)If this can be done when scattered, all the more can it be done when assembled in Council. Thus Trent (DS 1520) after "strictly prohibiting anyone from hereafter believing or preaching or teaching differently than what is established and explained in the present decree," went on to give infallible teaching even in the capitula, outside the canons.

To know whether the Church intends to teach infallibly on this second level, we notice both the language - no set form required - and the intention, which may be seen at times from the nature of the case, at times from the repetition of the doctrine on this second level.

c) Third Level: Pius XII, in Humani generis: "Nor must it be thought that the things contained in Encyclical Letters do not of themselves require assent on the plea that in them the Pontiffs do not exercise the supreme power of their Magisterium. For these things are taught with the ordinary Magisterium, about which it is also true to say, 'He who hears you, hears me.' [Lk 10. 16]... If the Supreme Pontiffs, in their acta expressly pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians."

We notice: (1) These things are protected by the promise of Christ in Lk 10. 16, and so are infallible, for His promise cannot fail. Though that promise was first given to the 72, it is certain that the Apostles were in the group, and as the trajectory advanced, it became clear that the full teaching authority was only for them - the mission given to the 72 was preliminary, and the full meaning was made clear later when the Apostles were given the authority to bind and to loose. This was part of the broader picture: Jesus wanted only a gradual self-revelation. Had He started by saying: "Before Abraham was, I am", He would have been stoned on the spot. (2)Not everything in Encyclicals, and similar documents, is on this level - this is true only when the Popes expressly pass judgment on a previously debated matter, (3) since the Church scattered throughout the world can make a teaching infallible without defining - as we saw on level 2 - then of course the Pope alone, who can speak for and reflect the faith of the whole Church, can do the same even in an Encyclical, under the conditions enumerated by Pius XII. Really, on any level, all that is required to make a thing infallible is that it be given definitively. When a Pope takes a stand on something debated in theology and publishes it in his Acta, that suffices. The fact that as Pius XII said it is removed from debate alone shows it is meant as definitive.

In this connection, we note that LG 12 says: "The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief." This means: If the whole Church, both people and authorities, have ever believed (accepted as revealed) an item, then that cannot be in error, is infallible. Of course this applies to the more basic items, not to very technical matters of theological debate. But we note this too: If this condition has once been fulfilled in the past, then if people in a later age come to doubt or deny it - that does not make noninfallible what was once established as infallible. Many things come under this, e.g., the existence of angels.

This does not mean, however, that the Pope is to be only the echo of the faithful.

d) Level 4: LG 25:"Religious submission of mind and of will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking."

We note all the qualifications in the underlined part The key is the intention of the Pope. He may be repeating existing definitive teaching from Ordinary Magisterium level - then it is infallible, as on level 2. He may be giving a decision on a previously debated point - as on level 3, then it falls under the promise of Christ in Lk 10. 16, and so is also infallible. Or it may be a still lesser intention - then we have a case like that envisioned in Canon 752 of the New Code of Canon Law: "Not indeed an assent of faith, but yet a religious submission of mind and will must be given to the teaching which either the Supreme Pontiff, or the College of Bishops [of course, with the Pope] pronounce on faith or on morals when they exercise the authentic Magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim it by a definitive act." If they do not mean to make it definitive, then it does not come under the virtue of faith, or the promise of Christ, "He who hears you hears me". Rather, it is a matter of what the Canon and LG 25 call "religious submission of mind and of will." What does this require? Definitely, it forbids public contradiction of the teaching. But it also requires something in the mind, as the wording indicates. This cannot be the absolute assent which faith calls for - for since this teaching is, by definition, not definitive, we gather that it is not absolutely finally certain.

How can anyone give any mental assent when there is not absolute certitude? In normal human affairs, we do it all the time. Suppose we are at table, and someone asks if a dish of food came from a can, and if so, was it sent to a lab to check for Botulism. It is true, routine opening of a can would not detect that deadly poison. Yet it is too much to check every can, and the chances are very remote, so much so that normal people do not bother about it - yet their belief takes into account a real but tiny possibility of a mistake. Similarly with a doctrine on this fourth level. And further, the chances of error on this level are much smaller than they are with a can of food. Similarly, in a criminal trial, the judge will tell the jury they must find the evidence proves guilt beyond reasonable doubt. He does not demand that every tiny doubt be ruled out, even though it may mean life in prison or death.

If one should make a mistake by following the fourth level of Church teaching, when he comes before the Divine Judge, the Judge will not blame him, rather He will praise him. But if a person errs by breaking with the Church on the plea that he knew better - that will not be easily accepted.

2. On what Level does Vatican II Teaching Come?

a) We notice the distinctions of the kinds of documents - constitutions, decrees, declarations. Even the least of these would qualify for level four.

b) Early statements on its authority tend to minimize the level.

(1) John XXIII in his opening address to the Council said: "Often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Often she has condemned them with very great severity. But today, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of today by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations."(AAS 54. 792)

Hence the Council never used the classic formula: "If anyone says... let him be anathema." However, as noted above, there can be infallible teaching even without this formula - no special wording is required, only that there be an intention to define, made clear in any way. If it is not made clear, it is not to be considered as a definition.

(2) Yet John XXIII did not mean to contradict any previous teaching. In the same speech he said: "The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously." And he added: "But from the renewed, serene and tranquil adherence to all the teachings of the Church in its entirety, transmitted with the precision and concepts which are especially the glory of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, the Christian, Catholic and Apostolic spirit of all hopes for a further step in the doctrinal penetration, in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine." [emphasis added] - We notice two things: (1) He wants perfect fidelity to past teaching, (2)He wants further doctrinal penetration.

(3) He added: "The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another." Hence the Decree on Ecumenism §6 says: "If... there have been deficiencies in the way that Church teaching has been formulated - to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself - these can and should be set right at the opportune moment."

So the language of presentation may need improvement - but the substance is not to be changed. Hence Paul VI, in Mysterium fidei, Sept 3, 1965, 23-24: "The norm... of speaking which the Church... under the protection of the Holy Spirit has established and confirmed by the authority of the Councils... is to be religiously preserved, and let no one at his own good pleasure or under the pretext of new science presume to change it.... For by these formulae... concepts are expressed which are not tied to one specific form of human civilization, nor definite period of scientific progress, nor one school of theological thought, but they present what the human mind... grasps of realities and expresses in suitable and accurate terminology.... For this reason these formulae are adapted to men of all times and all places" (AAS 57. 758).

Of course, the fact that the ancient language expressed truth correctly, even if not always in the best possible way, does not excuse us from studying what the terms meant at the time they were written - for languages do change over time. We must not impose a modern meaning on an ancient expression.

We should notice too: At times we can see that some things were in the minds of the writers, which they did not set down on paper, e. g, the Aristotelian-Thomistic notions of substance and accidents. But Divine Providence protects only what is set down on paper - not also what is merely in the minds of the writers. God has made two commitments - to protect the teaching, and to allow human freedom. At times He must as it were walk a tight line, protecting what is really written, but not what is merely in the minds of the drafters of the text. (Cf. also the case of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII in their statements on Church-state, as compared with Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty. )

(4) Paul VI, in an address to the opening of the second session on Sept 29, 1963 said (AAS 55. 848-49): "It seems to us that the time has come to explore, penetrate and explain more and more the doctrine about the Church of Christ; but not with those solemn statements which are called dogmatic definitions, but rather in the form of declarations in which the Church in more explicit and considered teaching presents that which she holds."

(5) The Secretary of the Council on Nov. 29, 1963, when the Council was to vote on the Constitution on Liturgy and the Decree on the Media for Communication, said (Osservatore Romano Nov. 30, 1963. p. 3): "The schemas which are to be voted and promulgated the next Dec. 4 are of a solely disciplinary nature." We note one of these was a Constitution - which really contains little of dogmatic nature - it is mostly legislative.

(6) Doctrinal Commission on Lumen Gentium: Nov 16. 1964. The Commission was asked about the doctrinal note of LG. It referred the questioner back to its own declaration of March 6, 1964: "Considering the Conciliar custom and the pastoral goal of this Council, this Holy Synod defines that only those things about matters of faith and morals are to be held by the Church which it will have declared clearly as such. As to other things which the Holy Synod proposes as the doctrine of the Supreme Magisterium of the Church, all and individual faithful persons must accept and embrace them according to the mind of the Holy Synod itself, which becomes known either from the subject matter or from the manner of speaking, according to the norms of theological interpretation."

(7) Paul VI, opening speech to Third Session (AAS 56, 808- 09), referring to coming work on the Constitution on the Church: "In this way the doctrine which the Ecumenical Council Vatican I had intended will be completed.... It is proper for this solemn Synod to settle certain laborious theological controversies about the shepherds of the Church, with the prerogatives which lawfully flow from the episcopate, and to pronounce a statement on them that is certain. We must declare what is the true notion of the hierarchical orders and to decide with authority and with a certainty which it will not be legitimate to call into doubt [emphasis added]." From the underlined words, it seems there was an intention to be definitive, and so, infallible, even without the solemn form of a definition.

c) Later statements:

(1) Paul VI: General audience of Jan 12, 1966: "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 us teaching with the authority of the ordinary Magisterium, which must be accepted with docility...."

(2) Paul VI, Allocution to Consistory of Cardinals, May 24, 1976 (Osservatore Romano, English, June 3, l976), complained: "It is even affirmed that the Second Vatican Council is not binding."

d) Conclusion on teaching level of Vatican II. Paul VI said it falls on Ordinary Magisterium level, as in the quote above from audience of Jan 12, 1966. This means we have nothing on level 1, solemn definitions. But we can find things on levels 2, 3, or 4. An item that is quite new, never taught before, such as some things in the Declaration on Religious Liberty, probably are on level 4. But the Constitutions on the Church and on Divine Revelation seem to have the intention to settle debated points - cf. the text of Paul VI (b. 6 above) in his speech to the opening of Third Session, saying the Constitution on the Church intended to complete the work of Vatican I on that topic, and to settle certain debated points. He mentioned some of them - as to others, each one would need individual study.

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