John Young has advanced the curious argument that whilst most Ecumenical (General) Councils lacked sufficient bishops to represent the teaching of the body of bishops, thus throwing doubt on the authority of those Councils to teach infallibly, this does not matter because the bishops taught infallibility the same doctrines in exercising their ordinary universal Magisterium ('When is it infallible?' AD2000, May, 2008).
He quotes Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, n. 25, which distinguishes between the extraordinary Magisterium (either the bishops in a Council or the Pope alone) and the ordinary universal Magisterium. Regarding the latter the Council says that though bishops can not teach infallibly as individuals, they can 'whenever, dispersed throughout the world, .... they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held' (my emphasis).
At once we see that the exercise of this sort of infallibility can not possibly take place in an Ecumenical Council. Here they are congregated, not 'dispersed throughout the world'. That being so, Mr Young is incoherent when he goes on to write, 'Vatican II issued no solemn definitions; that is, it did not exercise the extraordinary Magisterium [of the bishops in a Council]. But it did exercise the ordinary universal Magisterium.'
He goes on to argue that whilst there may have been too few bishops at a Council for its definitions to constitute teachings of the episcopate, endorsement by a majority of the bishops of the definitions after a Council remedies any deficiencies in their infallible quality.
But, on this view, Councils, such as Nicea and Vatican I, were not infallible at all and their decisions had to await endorsement by the majority of bishops before anyone could know the teachings were infallible. This is a view well supported by a number of theologians for whom the consensus fidelium (consensus of the faithful) is a necessary condition for knowing a teaching is infallible.
But this raises a problem because it contradicts the teachings of Vatican II which says the bishops are infallible 'when, assembled in an ecumenical council, they are for the universal Church teachers and judges in matters of faith and morals' (LG, n. 25).
History is unkind to the ordinary universal Magisterium. Most bishops have never taught andnever will teach definitively. Besides, who knows what the bishops of Iceland, Romania, Persia, Egypt, Ethiopia and India were teaching?
FRANK MOBBS (DR)