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A Climb Up the Rungs of Doctrinal Authority

A guide to help you navigate the sometimes complicated issue of distinguishing the level of authority of particular church teachings

Jimmy Akin

We live in an age of doctrinal confusion. The question constantly arises whether a particular idea is or isn’t Church teaching and, if it is, what level of authority it has. The matter is complicated because Church documents don’t come with specific propositions flagged as doctrinal or non-doctrinal, much less with their level of authority identified.

Church documents must be read carefully, with attention to the details—the type of document, the nature of a statement, the verbs it uses, and what the document avoids saying. This requires expertise, and in the age of the internet many commentators are not experts.

Fortunately, much of the confusion can be removed by thinking through certain basic distinctions. In my book Teaching with Authority, I go into this in detail, but here we will look at some of the basic concepts one needs to navigate these waters.

A bottom-up approach

Most are aware that the highest form of Church teaching is a dogma, and these are often discussed first when ranking the different types of Church teaching.

This top-down approach is legitimate, but it has certain drawbacks. For one, it tends to focus attention on the question of whether a particular idea is a dogma.

Some are quick to identify statements as dogmas and attribute to them the maximum level of authority. Others are quick to deny that a statement is a dogma and seek to deny it any authority whatsoever.

Both these approaches are mistaken. The Church uses the term dogma in a specific way, and few statements in Church documents qualify as dogmas. However, just because a statement isn’t a dogma doesn’t mean it lacks authority.

To explain this, we will take a bottom-up approach, starting at the lower end of the spectrum and climbing our way up to dogmas.

Opinion versus doctrine

The first distinction we need to make is between opinion and doctrine. Opinion comes from the Latin word opinio, which means “what one thinks or believes to be the case.” What you believe is your opinion, but others are under no obligation to believe the same thing.

By contrast, doctrine comes from the Latin word doctrina, which means a teaching. One difference between a doctrine and an opinion is that teachings do carry an obligation for others to believe them. If you’re a student in a class, you have at least something of an obligation to believe what your teacher says because of his expertise in the field you are studying.

Believers have an obligation to believe what the Church teaches because of the teaching authority that Christ gave it (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15). The Church’s teaching authority is exercised through its Magisterium (Latin, magister, “teacher”), which comprises the bishops teaching in union with the pope.

This means that the first question you need to ask is whether a claim is backed up by the Magisterium. Statements made by priests, catechists, apologists, and theologians do not exercise the Church’s teaching authority. They can give you their opinion about something, but you are not obliged to believe what they say unless it is backed up by the pope and the bishops.

Scripture and Tradition

We also have to be careful when quoting Scripture and Tradition. To say that something is a matter of Church doctrine, it must come from a statement of the Magisterium. We cannot simply take a Bible verse and say that the Church teaches a particular idea. The Church teaches that what Scripture says is true, but this does not mean it mandates particular interpretations of Scripture.

For example, St. Paul says that “the righteousness of God” is revealed in the gospel (Rom. 1:17), and scholars debate what he means. Is this righteousness that comes from God and that he gives to us, making us righteous? Is it the righteousness of God’s own personal character? If so, is it a terrifying righteousness by which he judges sinners? A gracious righteousness by which he saves the repentant? Both?

Suppose you become convinced that one of these views of what St. Paul meant is correct. You could not say, “The Church teaches what Scripture teaches, so the Church teaches my view of Romans 1:17.”

You could say, “It’s my opinion that Scripture teaches this.” But if you want to say that the Church teaches it, you’d need to find a passage in a magisterial document that mandates that view.

The same goes when quoting the Church Fathers. They are important witnesses to Tradition, but you can’t take a passage from the writings of the Fathers and simply declare it to be Church teaching.

Some Fathers weren’t even members of the Magisterium. St. Jerome was only a priest—not a bishop—and couldn’t exercise the Church’s teaching authority.

Fathers who were bishops could, but their authority was limited. A bishop could authoritatively teach only the members of his flock. St. Ambrose of Milan could authoritatively teach the Milanese Christians of his day, but no bishop except the pope can engage the Magisterium for the whole Church.

Church Fathers also are subject to the same interpretive challenges that Scripture is, and—unlike the authors of Scripture—individual Fathers aren’t protected from making mistakes.

The realm of opinion

Many are surprised by how broad the realm of opinion is. Callers to the Catholic Answers Live radio show frequently ask for “the Church’s interpretation” of Bible passages, but the Church hasn’t mandated how most biblical passages are to be understood.

There also are many theological ideas in circulation that the Church hasn’t mandated. For example, the idea that the souls of animals don’t survive death is the standard theological opinion, but one searches in vain trying to find magisterial statements mandating this view.

Recently, I was researching a question for Catholic Answers Live about whether it was possible for the Virgin Mary to have sinned. It’s infallible Church teach that she didn’t sin, but the question was whether this happened because God gave her a special grace making her “impeccable,” or unable to sin.

This question appears not to be addressed in magisterial documents, and I discovered an admission—by Msgr. Joseph Pohle in his 1919 textbook Mariology: A Dogmatic Treatise—that, although “we are justified in assuming that her purity was due to a kind of intrinsic impeccability,” nevertheless, “we are now dealing with a merely probable theological opinion” (80).

Theological opinions are found even in documents of the Magisterium. Though the pope and the bishops can exercise teaching authority, they don’t always do so. Sometimes, they simply present ideas for our consideration without imposing them as matters of belief.

In his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Benedict XVI writes, “Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire [of purgatory] which both burns and saves is Christ himself ” (n. 47). He doesn’t mandate or condemn this idea. He simply presents it as an opinion for us to consider.

Magisterial documents also can contain statements that are neither theological nor doctrinal. Msgr. Fernanco Ocáriz Braña, a consultant for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), writes:

Documents of the Magisterium may contain elements that are not exactly doctrinal—as is the case in the documents of the Second Vatican Council—elements whose nature is more or less circumstantial (descriptions of the state of a society, suggestions, exhortations, etc.). Such matters are received with respect and gratitude but do not require an intellectual assent in the strictest sense (L’Osservatore Romano, “On Adhesion to the Second Vatican Council,” Dec. 2, 2011).

If you sit down with magisterial documents and start classifying statements by whether they are matters of doctrine, a surprising number turn out not to be (see Teaching with Authority, ch. 13).

For example, the Church does not teach scientific ideas as doctrines, but as science has impacted society, the Church has felt the need to address ideas science proposes. Thus, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You!)deals extensively with claims about climate change. These are not matters of Church doctrine, but the moral principles the encyclical contains are.

We thus have to pay attention to the details of a text and think carefully about whether a statement teaches a doctrine.

Dangerous opinions

Sometimes the Magisterium issues a statement warning the faithful about an opinion. These warnings can be prudential in nature. That is, they warn against spreading or advocating an idea but without saying it is simply false.

In 1944, the Holy Office considered the question, “What must be thought of the system of mitigated millenarianism that plainly teaches that Christ the Lord before the final judgment, whether or not preceded by the resurrection of the many just, will come visibly to rule over this world?” It concluded that “the system of mitigated millenarianism cannot be taught safely” (DH 3839).

This does not say mitigated millenarianism (i.e., premillennialism) is false. However, it is problematic enough that it can’t be safely taught (e.g., in Catholic schools or parishes).

Prudential judgments can later solidify and become doctrinal rejections, but they also can be modified or withdrawn. In 1990, the CDF stated:

In order to serve the people of God as well as possible, in particular, by warning them of dangerous opinions which could lead to error, the Magisterium can intervene in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements. It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent (Donum Veritatis 24).

For example, in 1908 the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC), which was then an organ of the Magisterium, responded negatively to the question, “Do there exist arguments which, even when taken together, avail to demonstrate that the book of Isaiah must be attributed not to Isaiah himself alone but to two or even several authors?”

Its negative judgment was prudential. It did not say that the Faith or Church doctrine requires us to hold that there was a single author of Isaiah. It said that there were not sufficient arguments to demonstrate that the book had multiple authors.

But this prudential judgment lapsed, and in the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both popes regularly referred to Isaiah as having multiple authors (e.g., “Deutero-Isaiah” and “Trito-Isaiah”). Commenting on the early stage of this discussion, Benedict XVI stated:

When the exegetes discovered that from chapter 40 on the author was someone else—Deutero-Isaiah, as he was then called—there was a moment of great panic for Catholic theologians. Some thought that in this way Isaiah would be destroyed and that at the end, in chapter 53, the vision of the Servant of God was no longer that of Isaiah, who lived almost 800 years before Christ (Lenten Meeting with the Clergy of Rome, Feb. 22, 2007).

This illustrates how solid principles can be bound up with ideas that later prove to be unnecessary. In 1908, theologians feared that the multiple-author-ship view of Isaiah would undermine important principles. However, theologians eventually realized that the inspiration of Isaiah could be upheld even if the book had multiple authors, and so the 1908 warning lapsed.

Desuetude

What’s interesting is the way it lapsed. Neither the PBC nor any other organ of the Magisterium issued a decree stating, “The 1908 reply on the authorship of Isaiah is hereby withdrawn.”

John Paul II and Benedict XVI simply started issuing documents referring to Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah, signaling by example that the warning was no longer in effect. They thus allowed it to fall into what legal scholars call desuetude, whereby a rule loses its force through disuse.

After the warning had lapsed, we eventually got confirmations by Vatican officials. In 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger gave a speech discussing the PBC’s early warnings issued and stating that “with the above-mentioned decisions, the Magisterium overly enlarged the area of certainties that the Faith can guarantee” (On the 100th Anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission).

Two years later, Cardinal William Levada, then head of the CDF and the PBC, confirmed that the early PBC decrees are “now viewed as transitory judgments” that have lapsed (Address at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm, “Dei Verbum—Forty Years Later,” Oct. 10, 2005).

Sometimes people will argue for their viewpoint by appealing to an older document and saying it “has never been revoked.” This is legitimate in the case of infallible doctrines, but it is often a bad sign when dealing with noninfallible doctrines or practices.

Explicit revocations are not necessary, as illustrated by examples of desuetude. Also, if the person could cite a contemporary document to support his position, he likely would do so. If he can’t, this may be a sign the Magisterium has let that doctrine or practice fall into desuetude.

Noninfallible teachings

When the Church issues a teaching, it usually is not infallible. Indeed, the Code of Canon Law provides that “no doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident” (can. 749 §3). The burden of proof is thus on the person who wishes to claim a teaching is infallible, and it is a high burden. It not only must be “evident” but also “manifestly” so. Noninfallible teachings have a variety of levels of authority ranging from the tentative to the firm. The CDF has noted:

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not [infallible] must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions. Here the theologian will need, first of all, to assess accurately the authoritativeness of the interventions, which becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed (Donum Veritatis 24).

In assessing documents (“magisterial interventions”), the theologian thus needs to consider three factors:

  • The nature of the documents(teachings found in highly authoritative documents such as encyclicals will have more weight than those found only in lesser documents)
  • The insistence with which the teaching is presented (teachings frequently repeated will have more weight than those only seldom mentioned)
  • The language used (doctrines expressed forcefully will have more weight than those expressed tentatively)

Noninfallible doctrines can gain or lose authority over time. They can lose authority if the Magisterium repeats them less frequently, in lesser documents, and with less forceful language. They can even fall out of the realm of doctrine and returned to the status of opinion.

For example, the idea that infants who die without baptism are deprived of the beatific vision was long “the common doctrine of the Church.” However, while this is still a permitted theological opinion, it is no longer the only one. Today, we may “hope that infants dying without baptism could enjoy eternal life in the beatific vision” (International Theological Commission, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, 40-41; cf. CCC 1261).

Noninfallible teachings gain authority if the Church teaches them more frequently and forcefully in higher level documents. The pinnacle of this is elevating them to the level of infallible teachings.

Infallible teachings

When the Church teaches a doctrine infallibly, it is guaranteed to be true. This is what infallible means: not capable of being wrong.

A pope, an ecumenical council, or the bishops of the world (even when they are not in council) may teach a doctrine infallibly. However it is done, the Magisterium must teach the doctrine definitively—that is, using language indicating that the subject is forever closed. Often, this language involves terms such as anathema or “we define.”

When this is done, the faithful must assent to this teaching as definitively true. This “assent is based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium” (CDF, Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei, 8). In other words, God is protecting the Church from making a mistake, so if we trust God, we must trust the Church on this matter.

Not all infallible teachings are dogmas. For example, at present the teaching that priestly ordination is reserved to men is infallible, but it has not yet been declared a dogma (ibid., 11).

Dogmas

As used today, the term dogma refers to a teaching that the Church has infallibly taught to be divinely revealed. That is, it isn’t just something that can be deduced with certainty by natural reason or even by reason based on supernatural revelation. It is something that is taught within the deposit of revelation Christ gave to the apostles, and so it’s contained in Scripture or Tradition.

When a dogma is defined, the faithful must accept it not simply as something that is true but as something God himself has revealed. This “assent is based directly on faith in the authority of the word of God” (ibid., 8).

To define a dogma, the Magisterium needs to indicate not just that the teaching is infallibly true but also that it is divinely revealed. Thus, in defining the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX stated that it “is revealed by God” (DH 2803), and when Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary, he stated it “to be a divinely revealed dogma” (DH 3903).

As this climb up the rungs of the Church’s doctrinal ladder has shown, we must make careful distinctions: we must distinguish between opinions and Church teachings, between prudential warnings and actual doctrines, between noninfallible and infallible doctrines, and between infallible doctrines and dogmas.

Sidebar: Loss of Force

Desuetude is not a new concept, and in prior ages the Magisterium allowed teachings to lose force through disuse. For example, the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught:

In [clerical] tonsure the hair of the head is cut in form of a crown, and should always be worn in that form, so as to enlarge the crown according as any one advances in orders. This form of the tonsure the Church teaches [Latin, docet] to be derived from apostolic Tradition. . . . Tonsure is said to have been first introduced by the prince of the apostles, in honor of the crown of thorns which was pressed upon the head of our Savior (2:7:14).

Saying “the Church teaches” made this a matter of doctrine. But by 1912, this doctrine had lapsed. In that year, Catholic Encyclopedia, which carried an imprimatur, stated:

Historically, the tonsure was not in use in the primitive Church during the age of persecution. Even later, St. Jerome (in Ezech. 44) disapproves of clerics shaving their heads. Indeed, among the Greeks and Romans such a custom was a badge of slavery. On this very account, the shaving of the head was adopted by the monks. Toward the end of the fifth, or beginning of the sixth, century, the custom passed over to the secular clergy (s.v. “Tonsure”).

Although a noninfallible teaching such as the apostolic origin of tonsure could fall into desuetude, this does not and cannot happen with doctrines the Church has infallibly taught.

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