Infallible teaching

Infallible teaching

Fr Brian Harrison OS

Very few theologians would agree with John Young's contention (July AD2000) that Vatican II's doctrine on religious liberty is "an instance of an infallible teaching" - whether of the Church's ordinary or extraordinary magisterium.

The mainstream position is that this teaching of the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae ( DH) belongs to the third and least authoritative category of Catholic doctrines set out in the Church's official Profession of Faith. These are called doctrines of the "authentic magisterium", and can be proposed either by the whole "College of Bishops" or by the Roman Pontiff acting alone.

Doctrines in the first category are de fide beliefs (dogmas). These are truths proposed as divinely revealed - spoken by God himself - and so require the assent of theological faith. The second category consists of doctrines that the Church has not (or at least, not yet) declared to be part of divine revelation, but which are nonetheless "proposed definitively", or "to be held definitively" (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25).

"Definitively", in the theological vocabulary, means absolutely, irrevocably, without the slightest reservation.

Only doctrines in these first two categories are infallible. And since Dignitatis Humanae ( DH) does not affirm either that the right to civil liberty in religious matters is itself divinely revealed, or that it is a truth which all Catholics must hold "definitively" (as are, for instance, the truths that contraception is intrinsically immoral and that women can never be ordained priests), the newly developed doctrine of DH belongs in neither of those categories.

As a third-category doctrine it requires what the Profession of Faith calls "a religious assent of mind and will", but not our conviction that it enjoys an absolute, 100% guarantee of being true.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) itself has placed the teaching of DH in the category of authentic, but not infallible, doctrine. Its missive to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of 28 January 1978 said that the required response of Catholics to the doctrine of DH is simply "docility and assent (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25)".

The Congregation was clearly appealing here to the first paragraph of LG 25, which treats of the authentic, non-infallible teaching of popes and bishops. For if it had had in mind the second paragraph, which speaks of the infallible ordinary magisterium, the CDF would certainly have used the stronger language found in that paragraph, telling Lefebvre he must hold the doctrine of DH "definitively".

St Louis, Missouri, USA

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