Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

The infallibility of the Magisterium, the male-only priesthood, and the intrinsically evil nature of contraception

July 9th, 2012, Promulgated by b a

The question of infallibility has been debated at various times on this blog and elsewhere. This post is intended to alleviate the need for some of the back-and-forth banter that goes on when such an argument begins.  I will attempt to lay out the framework by which one might know the degree of certainty of particular Church teachings and what kind of response is expected from the faithful.  I will articulate what qualifies a teaching as infallible and will put forth an argument that two of the more disputed doctrines by progressivists (the male-only priesthood and the intrinsically evil nature of contraception) have indeed been taught infallibly by the Magisterium.  I will not explain why the Church teaches as she does, although that is an important topic.  I believe those arguments are more well known and readily available.  For this post, I’m more concerned with how one might discover to what degree of certainty particular teachings of the Church are taught.  And thus, I don’t intend this post to change someone’s mind who is set on believing the Church is wrong about the aforementioned teachings.  Instead, what I plan to do is to show these are infallible teachings according to the Catholic Church and therefore one cannot in good conscience dissent on them. If you think the Church is wrong, then fine – you are free to do so. However, one cannot make that claim while also claiming to be in full communion with the Church.  To dissent on these topics is to “oppose the doctrine of the Catholic Church” and to separate one’s self from full communion with the Church.  It disqualifies one from being an authentic teacher of Catholic thought.  It is not a matter of personal opinion.  It is a difference of being pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic. Why is it such a big deal to dissent on infallible teachings?  I’ll offer this quote (source to be explained later on):

The problem of the development of doctrine is a complex one. We certainly do not wish to deny that there can be and has been genuine development of Catholic teaching on many subjects, including marital morality. We do not claim that genuine development must be limited to the mere explication of consequences already entailed by truths always believed. However, we do maintain that no genuine development in the Church’s teaching, once it has been infallibly proposed, can contradict what was previously proposed, properly understood in the sense in which it was proposed. If the Church infallibly proposed a teaching at one time and later proposed a contradictory teaching as an authentic development of its basic doctrine, then the Church’s teaching would lose its meaning.  An incoherent succession of statements cannot form a unified process in which identity is maintained through progress; contradiction would end the tradition of faith, not guard it as inviolable and expound it with fidelity.
CIOM – p293

“contradiction would end the tradition of faith.”  And this is why it matter so much for me, personally.  It was no small hurdle for me to accept many of the Church’s teachings when I began investigating Catholicism. It was difficult for me because I had to accept that many Christian doctrines which I took to be unquestionably true were, in fact, entirely false.  As difficult as that was, the even more difficult part was getting my moral life in line with Catholic teaching.  Even for the average “good” and “nice” person, there are probably plenty of things they do on a normal basis which are not in line with Catholic morality.  Ultimately, I realized that it all comes down to truth and authority.  Either the Church is who she claims to be, and therefore she cannot err when teaching infallibly or it’s all hogwash and I might as well remain Protestant or agnostic.  And in fact this is what many Catholics of my generation have chosen to do.  Or they do what’s even worse – consider themselves to be Catholics when they are actually Moralistic Therapeutic Deists who happen to have enough of a sentimental liking to the Catholic experience to show up at mass every Easter and Christmas.  And when in the public square they are always sure to qualify their stance on issues like same-sex-marriage by saying something like, “I’m a Catholic, but…”.  It’s reminiscent of Flannery O’Conner’s quote, “if it’s [the Eucharist] a symbol, to hell with it”.  With that introduction, I’m going to do my best to get out of the way and let the experts do the talking.  I’ll also do my best to keep this short, but this topic is highly nuanced, so I can’t do it justice if I summarize it too much.  Much of what I’ve quoted below (except for contraception) is covered by the Jimmy Akin podcast which I’ve linked to earlier on this blog.  If you haven’t listened to it, I would highly recommend doing so.

First I’d like to answer vtom’s question:

Ignorance seems to be blissful for Ben.

I’d like to know the source of your seemingly infallible posts. Where did you study Theology? Degrees?

The answer is – it doesn’t matter. I claim no scholarship and no authority. I will simply regurgitate what the Catholic Church teaches. I’m glad vtom posed this question because it is exactly the type of question that some priests, lay administrators, and local “scholars” have been using on the faithful of the Diocese of Rochester for decades now. It’s a bullying technique used to pull the wool over parishioners eyes and make them feel like simpletons (see brother-of-penance’s comment). What they didn’t anticipate was something called the Internet which enables the Magisterium to promulgate official Church teaching directly to lay Catholics.  That’s not to say you couldn’t learn it through books prior to the Internet, but it’s just so stinkin’ easy now that even someone like myself can figure it out. The ability of the priest/deacon/scholar/lay-leader/bishop to intercept the message and twist it as they see fit has been completely vanquished.  But to answer vtom’s question directly – I study theology on the bus during my commute to work.  My diploma is a collection of expired bus passes.

I’ll admit that I’m not sure what the best way is to organize this research. What I’d really like to do is just post the contents of the late Avery Cardinal Dulles’s book “Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith”. (fun fact: Dulles was born in Auburn, NY, which is within the Diocese of Rochester).  That tactic is probably not an option, though, since it would violate copyright and since this is a blog and readers probably aren’t interested in spending hours in front of their computer screens. If there are priests, deacons, or seminarians from the Diocese of Rochester out there who would like a copy, I’d be happy to send you one – just email me.  You can get by without a copy, though, and just refer to my snippets and, more importantly, the linked Magisterial documents.  Understanding these concepts is so extremely important in today’s Church and it’s all too often misunderstood.  I think it would be a good idea for every Catholic to take some time to understand these teachings.  Dulles’ book is mostly devoid of his opinions and instead rests on Magisterial documents.  Obviously, though, he does offer commentary, some of which I’ll be quoting, so it might be worth providing a little bit of information on him.  Here’s a short list of links that I found.  One of the more interesting snippets you’ll find there is from Father McBrien (yes, that Fr. McBrien).

In spite of his shift to the right in the 1990s and during the first decade of the 21st century, Avery Dulles remained for many theologians a beacon of theological light and a sure guide for theological reflection. [one thing to note about the progressivist claim that the Church has become more conservative since V2 is that when you compare the Church now to the Church of the last 2000 years, you find the same teachings.  Read the Roman Catechism.  It’s not the case that the Church has shifted to the right in the last couple of decades – it’s that there was a brief few decades in the 20th century (a blip on the radar) when modernists (many of them bishops and highly acclaimed scholars) deluded themselves into thinking they could make the Church into something she is not.]

With his death last month, the Catholic Church lost one of its most prolific and prestigious figures… he continued to think and write clearly and forcefully on behalf of issues that he felt were of central theological and pastoral importance.

We can all be grateful for his extraordinary legacy.

I will be quoting this book, Magisterial documents, and sections from a very significant argument from John C. Ford, S.J. and Germain Grisez. Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., criticized their argument [that the Church’s teaching on contraception is infallible] in a 1983 book: “Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church”. Sullivan’s book is widely cited and probably has much good content in it (note: I haven’t read it). It is quoted often in Dulles’ work. It does, however, have serious problems that the Magisterium (as well as Dulles) has pointed out over the last few decades.

OK, so here we go with a Q&A format (all non-indented text are my words) specifically designed to show the infallibility of the male-only priesthood and the intrinsically evil nature of contraception.

What is the Magisterium?

Christian doctrine is transmitted by a great variety of witnesses, who have different kinds and degrees of authority.  Theologians who work in communion with the Church may be said to exercise a magisterium distinct from, but related to, that of the hierarchy.  They may on occasion be called to participate in the official teaching of the hierarchy.  The official Magisterium, however, belongs by right to the pope and his fellow bishops.  They alone have the divinely given responsibility to teach with the authority of Christ and to formulate doctrine for the Church as such.  They exercise what is called, in a special sense, the Magisterium.  M – p46

What is the purpose of the Magisterium in regard to these issues?

The  second function of the Magisterium is the negative one whereby the hierarchical authorities, as judges, defend the faith against opposed errors.  Until relatively recent times, the doctrinal decrees of the Magisterium were predominantly concerned with warding off heresy, sometimes under pain of a solemn excommunication, called an “anathema”.  M – p62

What are the various degrees in which the Magisterium engages its authority on various doctrines:

1) Doctrine of faith

  a. defined (by pope or council)

  b.  taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium

2) Doctrine infallibly taught as inseparably connected with revelation

3) Doctrine authoritatively but non-infallibly taught by Magisterium

4) Theological conclusion logically deduced from a proposition of faith

5) Probable opinion

M – p83

In the decade following the council these theological notes [attributing the above degrees to particular teachings] disappeared from textbooks.  There was a period of confusion as to what doctrines were binding, on what grounds, and in what measure.  Some theologians acted as though it were acceptable for a Catholic to contest every doctrine of the Church that had not been solemnly defined.  A few authors contended that since revelation was not originally given as a set of propositions, no Christian should be required to subscribe to any propositions as matters of faith.

M – p84

The numbers 1-3 above correspond to a John Paul II’s “Profession of Faith” which was expounded on by the CDF (Ratzinger/Bertone) in a document called “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei“.  Both of these documents are well worth the read and in these modern times, a Catholic would do well to learn and become familiar with this framework.  The below quotes are from the commentary.

These doctrines [#1 above – first paragraph] require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the Codes of Canon Law.

Such doctrines [#2 above – second paragraph] can be defined solemnly by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ‘ex cathedra’ or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a “sententia definitive tenenda”. Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths [#2 above – second paragraph], based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.

With regard to the nature of the assent owed to the truths set forth by the Church as divinely revealed (those of the first paragraph) or to be held definitively (those of the second paragraph), it is important to emphasize that there is no difference with respect to the full and irrevocable character of the assent which is owed to these teachings.

To this [3rd] paragraph belong all those teachings ­ on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect.


In Ad tuendam fidem Pope John Paul II states that anyone who rejects propositions falling within the second added paragraph of the Profession of Faith “is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.”  If such a person fails to make a retraction after having been admonished by the Apostolic See or by the ordinary, he shall be “punished with a just penalty.”
M – p91

What is the ordinary and universal Magisterium?

The ordinary universal Magisterium is engaged when the whole body of bishops, in hierarchical communion with the successor of Peter, is morally unanimous in teaching a certain doctrine as a matter of divine and Catholic faith, to be accepted by all as pertaining to the faith of the Church.  The unanimity of the episcopal body is sometimes difficult to verify, but in many cases it is apparent from what the bishops regularly do or knowingly permit in preaching, liturgical prayer, catechesis, confessional practice, and the like.  M – p67

So is it always wrong to dissent on any Church teaching?

Well, that depends.

To dissent means to think or assert what is contrary to the approved teaching.  It occurs when one denies the truth of what is taught, or consciously affirms something that contradicts it.  Dissent is sometimes confused with other responses, such as wishing that the Magisterium could have taught otherwise, or failing to understand why the Magisterium taught as it did.  Dissent, however, is not the same as disappointment or incomprehension, which are entirely compatible with assent.  Nor is it the same as doubt, though doubt is likewise a failure to give full assent.  Depending on the circumstances, dissent or doubt may be voluntary or involuntary, culpable or inculpable.  The loyal Catholic, out of respect for the Magisterium, will try to avoid dissenting from or doubting its authoritative teaching.  On each of the three levels of magisterial teaching, dissent and doubt have different consequences.

1) Persons who inculpably reject what the Church definitively teaches as her faith cease to be in communion with the Church.  One may have difficulties in believing certain dogmas of the faith, but difficulties do not prevent one from assenting, nor do they exclude one from communion.  Those who experience serious difficulties have an obligation to try to recognize that the Church is a divinely commissioned teacher.  They should remind themselves that the Church is not limited to teaching what they would believe without her intervention.  We most need the Church when we would fall into error unless she corrected us.

2)  To dissent from definitive non-revealed teaching, or to doubt it, is not heresy,  But those who dissent from such doctrines are opposed to the Church’s definitive teaching and are objectively in error.  In the absence of aggravating factors, such as contempt for the Magisterium or scandal, such dissenters are not excommunicated or excluded from the sacraments, but their communion is in some ways impaired.  Theologians who dissent from doctrines in this second category frequently claim that the doctrines are not definitively taught, but properly belong in the added paragraph 3.  But this evasion is not acceptable in cases in which the Magisterium clearly teaches that the doctrines must be definitively held.

3) The problem of dissent arises most frequently in connection with added paragraph 3, which deals with teachings that might in principle be erroneous.  The Church recognizes that personal difficulties with such teachings can occur, even among faithful theologians.  But as the CDF states in Donum veritatis, the presumption should always be in favor of the Magisterium, because God has given it to the Church as a guide and assists it with special graces.  Even when theologians do not see the reasons for a particular teaching, they will assume that the pope and the bishops have good reasons as yet unknown to them.  They will study, consult, and pray before allowing themselves to disagree.  DV 24-31, 122-23

M pp95-96

Dissent has always been a problem in the Church, but it seems to have become more widespread in recent years.  People who live in a free democratic society have difficulty in understanding why they ought to submit their minds to a Magisterium.  They often fail to understand the distinctiveness of the Church as a community of faith.  Membership in the Church, unlike membership in secular societies, depends upon sharing the believes of the community.  Christ equipped the Church with a hierarchical Magisterium that has the competence to articulate what the members should believe to keep them united among themselves and, most importantly, united to their divine Teacher.  The Magisterium should be seen not as a burden but as a gift and a blessing.

M – p99

So, how does one know what doctrines are taught infallibly according to the ordinary and universal Magisterium?  Because of the non-definitive nature of these teachings (neither taught by a pope ex cathedra or by an ecumenical council), is a Catholic left free to decide for themselves if a doctrine falls into the 2nd or 3rd paragraph?  Not exactly.  Ultimately the lay Catholic can #1 look at the historical evidence and #2 listen to what the ordinary magisterium has to say about that historical evidence.  While the ordinary (non-universal) magisterium is not itself protected by the charism of infalliblity, it nevertheless contains the highest teaching authority and thus is probably the best evidence a lay Catholic has to determine where doctrines fall in this framework.

He [the pope] exercises his ordinary Magisterium in his day-to-day preaching and in written statements that do not claim to enjoy the guarantee of infallibility.  Encyclical letters are normally addressed by the pope to the entire episcopate or the entire world.  Encyclicals have rarely if ever been used to define new dogmas, though they frequently reaffirm doctrines that are already matters of faith. M – p70

Another point to mention is that in my opinion, the average lay Catholic in 21st century America thinks themselves much more knowledgeable than they actually are in religious matters and are in no position to consider themselves validated in their dissent.  Perhaps such a person has been to seminars, read periodicals, and done a little research before deciding to dissent.  Perhaps even their priest or spiritual director has encouraged them in their dissent.  Perhaps they’ve prayed about their dissent.  I still don’t believe this would qualify as having done enough research to dissent.  Notice that Donum veritatis is addressed to theologians, not your average lay Catholic.

Now that we have basic understanding of the framework of Catholic doctrine, let’s get into the particular doctrines we’re discussing – the male-only priesthood and the intrinsically evil nature of contraception.  We’ll see below that both of these doctrines currently fall within the second paragraph having been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.  It is possible that one or both of these doctrines could be promoted to the first paragraph in the future.

…in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), Pope John Paul II taught that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgment is to be held definitively by all the faithful.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declaled, in a “response” of October 28, 1995, that Pope John Paul II’s determination on this point confirmed a teaching that pertained to the deposit of faith and one that had already been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.  Although the response of the CDF is not itself protected by the charism of infallibility, it embodies the considered judgment of the highest doctrinal organ of the Church, confirmed by the pope.  In view of the strong evidence from Scripture and Tradition for the reservation of ordination to men, the papal decision is solidly grounded in the deposit of faith. M – pp 72-73

At the Vallombrosa meeting the representatives of the CDF stated with reference to Ordinatio sacerdotalis: “It would be contrary to the teaching of the Church to maintain that this doctrine belongs to the third paragraph, and as such requires only religious submission of intellect and will, and not a firm and irrevocable assent” (Vallombrosa Papers, 65).  In an ad limina speech to German bishops of November 20, 199, Pope John Paul II himself declared that “the doctrine that the priesthood is reserved to men possesses, by virtue of the Church’s ordinary and universal Magisterium, that character of infallibility which Lumen gentium speaks of and to which I gave juridical form in the Motu Proprio Ad tuendam fidem”.

As for the teaching of Humanae vitae, it is not mentioned in the Ratzinger-Bertone Commentary on the Profession of Faith.  But the Pontifical Council on the Family, in its Vademecum for Confessors concerning some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, dated February 12, 1997, declared: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act rendered unfruitful.  This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.”  If so, the sinfulness of contraception probably falls within the second added paragraph of the Profession of Faith.

M – p96 – footnote 18

Regarding the male-only priesthood, I believe that ought to provide sufficient evidence.   That last note by Dulles regarding contraception is about all that he mentions of it.  So I will now turn to the Ford-Grisez paper I mentioned earlier.

In the present article we argue that the received Catholic teaching on contraception has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium. … Vatican Council II has articulated the conditions which must be met for the ordinary magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world to proclaim the teaching of Christ infallibly. We shall try to show that in the course of the tradition these conditions have been met. If these conditions have been met, then the reason why the tradition is binding is clear: a divinely guaranteed teaching is involved. Such teachings, once given, cannot later be contradicted by the Church as a whole. Of course, such teachings and even defined doctrines are open to development by the Church and can be contradicted by the erroneous opinions of members of the Church, including members of the magisterium.

The argument we shall advance here has implications beyond the particular matter—the teaching on contraception—with which we are going to deal. Many received teachings in matters of faith and of morals are being questioned or denied today, and the possibility often is ignored that these teachings might have been proposed infallibly even if they have not been defined. We hope that our present essay will draw attention to this possibility, which ought to be taken into account whenever the status of any received teaching is discussed.

The possibility that the received Catholic teaching on the morality of contraception has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium was generally ignored in the debate which took place after the publication of Humanae vitae. Everyone agreed that Paul VI proposed no ex cathedra definition, and the supposition that Pius XI might have proposed such a definition in Casti connubii was hardly mentioned in the debate.  Thus those who dissented from the teaching reaffirmed in Humanae vitae and those who defended the legitimacy of such dissent proceeded directly from the nondefinitive character of Paul VI’s pronouncement to the possibility of licit dissent from noninfallible teachings, ignoring the possibility that the nondefinitive pronouncement contained a reaffirmation of a teaching which, even if never defined, was already infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium. Those who supported the teaching reaffirmed in Humanae vitae and who questioned the legitimacy of dissent from it similarly argued that the teaching should be accepted as authoritative and binding, even if noninfallible. As evidence of the obligatory character of the teaching, they frequently cited Vatican II, Lumen gentium 25, regarding the religious allegiance of will and of intellect due authentic teaching of the bishops and especially of the pope even when the infallible exercise of the magisterium is not in question.
CIOM – pp259-260

To a great extent, the debate which took place after the publication of Humanae vitae was conducted within a framework established by the statements of Msgr. Ferdinando Lambruschini at the press conference at which Humanae vitae was released. Lambruschini’s formal statement made clear that the encyclical contained no ex cathedra pronouncement and also seemed to rule out the possibility that it was a reaffirmation of a teaching already infallibly proposed; his reported answers to questions raised by reporters at the conference indicated that Lambruschini thought that contraception might eventually be accepted by the Church. [wow!  Did you know that?]
CIOM -p261

We realize that some who reject the received Catholic teaching on the morality of contraception also reject what we assume with respect to the Church’s infallibility. However, we also are convinced that most Catholics who accept what we assume in respect to infallibility and who, nevertheless, question or deny the received teaching on the morality of contraception have overlooked the possibility that this moral norm has been infallibly taught. Our argument is addressed to such Catholics, and we hope to show them that even if this teaching has not been defined, it has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium.

Although the historical study of contraception by John T. Noonan, Jr., is defective in certain respects, it does offer substantial evidence for the universality of the Cathoic Church’s teaching on contraception up to 1962. This evidence is summed up by Noonan himself:

The propositions constituting a condemnation of contraception are, it will be seen, recurrent. Since the first clear mention of contraception by a Christian theologian, when a harsh third-century moralist accused a pope of encouraging it, the articulated judgment has been the same. In the world of the late Empire known to St. Jerome and St. Augustine, in the Ostrogothic Aries of Bishop Caesarius and the Suevian Braga of Bishop Martin, in the Paris of St. Albert and St. Thomas, in the Renaissance Rome of Sixtus V and the Renaissance Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Naples of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the Liege of Charles Billuart, in the Philadelphia of Bishop Kenrick, and in the Bombay of Cardinal Gracias, the teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian has ever taught, “Contraception is a good act.” The teaching on contraception is clear and apparently fixed forever.

Noonan’s book was published in 1965. Since that time a great number of theologians and other scholars, including many who think that contraception could be accepted as moral by the Church, have interested themselves in the subject. Collectively these scholars certainly have a very thorough acquaintance with the data; they surely would have published any evidence that the universallity of the Church’s teaching was interrupted by the contrary teaching of any bishop or of any other competent spokesman of Catholic thought. But no such evidence has come to light, and so there is a compelling reason to think that no such evidence exists.

We conclude that the historical evidence shows that Catholic bishops dispersed throughout the world agreed in one judgment on the morality of contraception, a judgment which remained substantially the same and which was universally proposed at least until 1962. The weight of this uniform teaching can be gauged more accurately if one considers certain facts, most of which are recorded by Noonan in his work.

First, not only Jerome and Augustine but also certain Eastern Fathers such as Epiphanius and Chrysostom condemned contraception. Second, many of those who taught that acts intended to prevent procreation are gravely evil were bishops; many who were not bishops are canonized saints, including several who were Doctors of the Church. Third, the canon law of the universal Church from the thirteenth century until 1917 included the canon Si aliquis: “If anyone for the sake of fulfilling sexual desire or with premeditated hatred does something to a man or to a woman, or gives something to drink, so that he cannot generate, or she cannot conceive, or offspring be born, let it be held as homicide.” Of course, the old canon law included many disciplinary rules which were subject to change and were recognized to be such. But this canon was placed in a book on crimes, and nothing was classed as a crime unless it was considered to be a grave sin. It might be objected that this canon was null, since there is little if any historical evidence that persons who practiced contraception were treated as murderers. But this objection overlooks the teaching function of canon law, which functioned in moral formation analogously to the way in which creeds function in the handing on of the essentials of doctrine: as creeds summarize saving truth, canon law from the Middle Ages until 1917 codified moral formation. The Roman Catechism of 1566, authorized by the Council of Trent and prepared under St. Pius V, incorporated the teaching of Si aliquis as to the use of medicines to impede procreation.

Fourth, there is a constant consensus of Catholic theologians in modern times. This consensus is important because any indefiniteness in the tradition regarding methods of contraception, its sinfulness in every single act, and other matters was eliminated either by the explicit statements of the modern theologians or by the general principles which they shared in common. This is especially true of the works in moral theology generally in use in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

We are not saying that all of the principles shared by moral theologians during this period deserve the same respect as the Church’s substantive moral teaching. We are only saying that their shared principles preclude suggestions that they did not all mean the same thing when they agreed, for example, that acts intended to impede procreation are intrinsically and gravely evil.

The consensus of modern theologians supports the thesis that the received teaching was universally proposed by Catholic bishops, because the works of the theologians were authorized by the bishops for use in seminaries, and thus for the training of confessors who communicated Catholic moral teaching to the faithful in the confessional, in premarital instructions, in the preaching of missions, and so on. As authorized agents of the bishops—during centuries in which the bishops were careful not to share their teaching authority with theologians whose views they did not accept—these approved authors teaching in their manuals exercised in a real though mediate way the teaching authority of each and every bishop who sent his seminarians to seminaries in which these manuals were required textbooks.

CIOM pp278-282

The great papal statements of Pius XI, Pius XII, and Paul VI are best understood in the light of the previous teaching of the magisterium.  These papal statements repeat, articulate, share in, and contribute to the handing on of the teaching by the ordinary magisterium. When the popes dealt with the question of contraception, it already was an old question, not a new one. They reaffirmed an established Christian moral norm.
CIOM – p285

Paul VI in Humanae vitae uses more cautious language. But his stance is the same as that of his two predecessors insofar as he also confirms the prior teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium. He states that the principles of the moral teaching on matrimony are “based on the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine revelation” (section 4); some of the conclusions of the papal Commission for the Study of Problems of Population, Family, and Birthrate could not be accepted as final mainly because they diverged from “the moral doctrine on matri mony, proposed by the magisterium of the Church with constant firmness” (section 6); married persons must conform to the creative plan of God which “the constant teaching of the Church declares” (10); the relevant norms of natural law are interpreted by the constant teaching of the Church (11); the Church did not make and cannot change these norms, of which she is only the guardian and interpreter (18); the Church’s teaching on contraception “promulgates the divine law” (20); the Church hands down these inviolable requirements of divine law (25); the received teaching on contraception is part of the “saving teaching of Christ” (29).

None of these popes says that the teaching he reaffirms has been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium. But their statements are not merely compatible with this position; they supply very important evidence in support of it; and, indeed, the substance and the manner of their statements is difficult to explain unless one supposes that these three popes implicitly supposed—though not necessarily explicitly thought—that the position they reaffirmed is infallibly taught, and hence is one to which the Catholic Church is unalterably committed.

We think the facts show as clearly as anyone could reasonably demand that the conditions articulated by Vatican II for infallibility in the exercise of the ordinary magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world have been met in the case of the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception. At least until 1962, Catholic bishops in communion with one another and with the pope agreed in and authoritatively proposed one judgment to be held definitively on the morality of contraception: acts of this kind are objectively, intrinsically and gravely evil. Since this teaching has been proposed infallibly, the controversy since 1963 takes nothing away from its objectively certain truth. It is not the received Catholic teaching on contraception which needs to be rethought. It is the assumption that this teaching could be abandoned as false which needs to be rethought.
CIOM – p286

“Relying on these principles, it is not allowed that children of the Church in regulating procreation should use methods which are disapproved of by the magisterium in its explaining of the divine law.”40
Gaudium et spes 51

I’m doing this work a major injustice by slicing it up as I am, but there’s just so much good info in it.  If you read it, you’ll find even more evidence.  But I think that’s enough material for this blog for now.  And oh yeah, Hans Kung even agrees.

We can see now the real reason why the progressive majority of the commission were not able to convince the Pope. To judge from their own progressive report and the progressive official reaction of the commission, they had plainly not grasped sufficiently the full weight of the argument of the conservative group: the moral inadmissibility of contraception has been taught as a matter of course and even emphatically by all bishops everywhere in the world, in moral unity, unanimously, for centuries and then—against opposition—in the present century up to the Council (and the confusion which arose in this connection), as Catholic moral teaching to be observed on pain of eternal damnation: it is therefore to be understood in the light of the ordinary magisterium of pope and bishops as a factually infallible truth of morals, even though it has not been defined as such.
Hans Kung, Infallible? An Inquiry (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971) 57-58.CIOM – p306

So what about the cases where the Church has changed her teaching?

In some cases it appears that a teaching infallibly proposed has subsequently been changed. But whatever change is authoritatively admitted by the Church does not go so far as to contradict what was formerly infallibly proposed, understood in the precise sense in which it was proposed. In other cases a teaching was proposed with some authority by the ordinary magisterium and was later contradicted; but the teaching contradicted was never proposed infallibly, since it was neither solemnly defined nor proposed by the ordinary magisterium in a manner which fulfilled the conditions articulated by Vatican Council II. For example, some members of the magisterium might have proposed something to be held definitively, but at no time did the bishops dispersed throughout the world agree in their judgment. Or again, all of the members of the magisterium might have agreed in one judgment and proposed it to the faithful, but not as a point to be held definitively, as happens at times in purely disciplinarymatters or in the commending of some devotion.

In reviewing the history of Christian moral teaching, it is very important not to read the history backwards. It is possible for Christians today to see clearly that certain practices, attitudes, and institutions are incom patible with the law of Christ, although Christians in earlier centuries lacked insight into these matters. Looking back, it might appear that the magisterium taught that these practices, attitudes, and institutions were upright and holy; considering them within their historical context, one sees that the situation was not so clear. The magisterium presupposed and tacitly accepted in the past much which Christian sensitivity, stim ulated both by exterior conditions and by the inner teaching of the Spirit, now can recognize as unacceptable. This fact does not show that the teaching Church earlier provided false guidance, but only that the Church is now able to provide guidance on matters regarding which it was not prepared to make a judgment in earlier times.
CIOM – p299

What about usury?  The Church changed her mind on that one did she not?

After he published his book on contraception, Noonan went on to publish articles arguing as follows: the Church once condemned the taking of interest (usury) just as severely as it condemned contraception; but the Church now approves the taking of interest; hence the Church also can change its teaching on the morality of contraception.87 Many others have articulated a similar argument. Once more the question is whether the condemnation of the taking of interest, insofar as this teaching has been changed, ever met the conditions for the infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium articulated by Vatican II. The answer is clearly negative for the following reasons.  As has often been argued by Catholic students of the matter, the teaching of Scripture and of the Fathers forbids charging interest on loans to the poor and condemns the greed and avarice of usurers, but this teaching does not deal with the taking of interest as such and does not envisage a situation in which moderate rates of interest are established by money markets. The decrees of the councils and popes up to 1450 are aimed at the same evils attacked in Scripture and by the Fathers.88 In his study of scholastic theories of usury, published prior to the beginning of the debate among Catholics on contraception, Noonan himself rejected the view that the central Catholic teaching on the morality of the taking of interest had changed:

Moreover, as far as dogma in the technical Catholic sense is concerned, there is only one dogma at stake. Dogma is not to be loosely used as synonymous with every papal rule or theological verdict. Dogma is a defined, revealed doctrine taught by the Church at all times and places. Nothing here meets the test of dogma except this assertion, that usury, the act of taking profit on a loan without a just title, is sinful. Even this dogma is not specifically, formally defined by any pope or council. It is, however, taught by the tradition of the Church, as witnessed by papal bulls and briefs, conciliar acts, and theological opinion. This dogmatic teaching remains unchanged. What is a just title, what is technically to be treated as a loan, are matters of debate, positive law, and changing evaluation. The development on these points is great. But the pure and narrow dogma is the same today as in 1200.
John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ., 1957) 399-400.

Many such objections have been put forward over and over again by those who denied, questioned, or sought to restrict as much as possible the Church’s infallibility, and these objections have been answered over and over again by Catholic apologists. As we said above in section 1, we assume the infallibility of the Church here, both in general and in the particular case of the ordinary magisterium under the conditions articulated by Vatican II. Still, it might be worth while to recall in outline the strategy which the apologist will use in dealing with all such objections, whether they are intended to attack the infallibility of the teaching Church in defining doctrines or in universally proposing a matter of faith or morals as a point to be held definitively.

more links on usury here

Well, what about sensus fidelium?  Most Catholics don’t accept the Church’s teaching on contraception.  Doesn’t that prove that the Church is wrong?

The sense of the Catholic faithful, correctly understood, is a genuine witness to the faith of the Church. Sensus fidelium refers to a reality sometimes also called sensus fidei, sensus ecclesiae, and so on. This reality is the subjective and conscious side of living, Christian tradition, by which Christians discern as if by instinct the beliefs and practices proper to Christian life and distinguish them from those which are alien.  But this Christian sense is not independent of revelation, tradition, and the magisterium—the objective means God has chosen to communicate His truth and life to all nations until the end of time. The sense of faith provides no mystical and privileged access to divine things which would permit the opinions of the faithful at a given time insofar as these opinions conflict with received teaching to become a criterion by which to measure the truth of that teaching.92

Thus the opinions of Catholics who regard the use of contraceptives as morally permissible should not be considered an expression of the sensus fidelium. The sensus fidelium remains a strong and effective witness in the Church, but it is to be found in those many other Catholics, including married couples, who remain firmly convinced that their salvation de pends upon their doing their best to live up to Catholic moral teaching on this as on other matters. In this conviction they remain in solidarity with the faithful down through the ages who have accepted this norm for their conduct in marriage, struggled to live up to it, and accused them selves of grave sin when they failed to do so.

One final point is well worth noting in respect to the sense of the faithful. Ordinary Catholics have shown and continue to show a genuine Catholic sense by the manner in which they talk about the controversy over contraception. Whether inclined to one or to the other side of the controversy, ordinary Catholics spontaneously refer to the received teach ing as “the teaching of the Church” and they refer to any acceptance of methods of birth regulation forbidden up to now as “a change in the Church’s teaching.”93 Only those who are intellectually subtle and who are careful how they speak say that the received teaching is the “Roman principle” or the “papal teaching” or the “rule laid down in Casti connubii,” and suggest that the acceptance of contraceptive methods of birth control by the Church would be a “genuine development” of the Church’s teaching on marital morality and a “deepening” of the under standing of Christian faith.
CIOM – pp299-300

I believe this covers all of the questions identified several months ago.  The article may evolve as time goes on.  There’s been some more recent discussion as well about the morality of lying which I haven’t addressed here.  However, I believe this framework ought to provide enough of a starting point to work through it.  Another issue I might try to address more thoroughly here is the intrinsically evil nature of homosexual acts.  This seems to be another topic that many within this diocese consider open to debate.  Based on the scriptures, I would guess that it would fall within the first paragraph, but I’d like to do more research before making that assertion.

CIOM – Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium – Ford/Grisez

M – Magisterium: Teach and Guardian of Faith – Dulles

DC – Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei – Ratzinger/Bertone

PF – Profession Fidei – PJP2

ATF –Ad tuendam fidem – PJP2


5 Responses to “The infallibility of the Magisterium, the male-only priesthood, and the intrinsically evil nature of contraception”

  1. Raymond F. Rice says:

    I feel like a Hebrew, wandering in the desert, having just found out that Moses and his staff (not his walking staff but his personnel department) is lost and has no contact with the “heavenly” satellite that is supposed to be directing his spiritual GPS.

  2. annonymouse says:

    Thoughtful analysis, Ben. I presume that unless and until teachings are declared ex cathedra, however, some folks (BigE are you listening?) will continue to obstinately refuse to follow. And that brings me back to my point of a week or so ago – ex cathedra or not, infallible or not, we have a duty, an obligation, as faithful Catholics, to adhere with a religious assent to the teachings of the Church. For to do otherwise is to exhibit flagrant, sinful pride by placing our own judgment ahead of our God-given teachers.

    If I am to be the arbiter of all things moral, then why’d Christ bother giving us a Church and its leadership?

    Open you eyes, mind and heart, BigE. Embrace the Catholic Faith FULLY and COMPLETELY.

  3. sydwynd says:

    Ben, read this per your suggestion from the D and C comment thread from your recent guest essay. Thanks for the link but what I got out of this was that the Church has been teaching these same things for a very long time therefore it’s an infallible teaching. I didn’t find anything (or perhaps I missed it) on either why the teachings are infallible (again, other than because they’ve been taught for a long time) or why the Magisterium is infallible (again, other than because Rome says so).

    All that being said, you have given me some food for thougth and I think it’s time to dust of my catechism of the catholic church and read through it again. I’m not one to follow just because people say so. I need to understand in my heart as well as my head. Dusting off dry, difficult to read ancient texts and utilizing what feels like circular logic to me just won’t do it. Thanks for the motivation to dig deeper into my faith.

    Vince Franco

  4. Ben Anderson says:

    Thanks for popping over here. I’m glad you have some food for thought and I’m glad you’re dusting off your catechism – that is fantastic!

    You said:

    what I got out of this was that the Church has been teaching these same things for a very long time therefore it’s an infallible teaching.

    Yep – that’s pretty close. The argument for both of the above teachings comes from Lumen Gentium 25 (DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH):

    Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.

    you asked why the Magisterium is infallible… you’ll want to flip to 888 in your catechism. You might also want to check out James Cardinal Gibbons’ “Faith of our Fathers”… specifically, “The Infallibility of the Church”.

    I’m not one to follow just because people say so.

    I’d sort of agree. I think once a person/institution has proven themselves trustworthy and worthy of being following, then I start to realize that I better give them the benefit of the doubt and not disagree. In the case of the Magisterium, it turns out those occasions are rare nill. For sure, some teachings can be difficult, but we put our faith in Christ and his Church, who can’t neither deceive nor be deceived.

  5. Ben Anderson says:

    and Vince, in case you’re more into listening than reading, check out these radio shows:

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