Author Topic: Fenton, J. (1941). "Concept of Sacred Theology" - Infallibility of OUM  (Read 42 times)

Joe Cupertino

This chapter (pp.101-115) of The Concept of Sacred Theology , explains the ways in which the Church teaches infallibly, particularly in the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium (aka Universal Ordinary Magisterium).

<Fenton, Joseph Clifford, S.T.D.  The Concept of Sacred Theology.  Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1941.>

Chapter 6
The Equipment of Sacred Theology

III. The Catholic Church

Only the first two among the theological places are spoken of as sources of divine public revelation.  All of those truths which Christians accept on the word of God who has revealed them are either set down on the inspired pages of Holy Scripture or contained in the deposit of doctrine which constitutes the teaching the Apostles gave orally to the Church as having been communicated by God to man.  The Scriptures and the divine apostolic tradition are the agencies through which the divine revelation has actually come to the human race.  The message which God gave to the world through Jesus Christ is to be found only in these as in its proper sources.

A. The Function of the Church As Compared With That of Scripture and Tradition. The next among the theological places, according to the listing of Melchior Cano, fulfills a different function in the process of sacred theology.  Scripture and tradition contain divine revelation.  The Catholic Church teaches and defends it.  Scripture and tradition together constitute a definite rule of faith, but one which is mediate and remote.  The living magisterium of the Catholic Church, on the other hand, constitutes an immediate or proximate rule of faith.  It is an agency through which men may have presented to them the actual content of divine revelation, in such a way that they may be preserved from error and accept all and only that which God has actually revealed in His public message to men.  The Church is the one divinely appointed force by which the truths contained in Scripture and tradition are to be proposed correctly to the minds of men.

Because the Church has a different function with regard to revelation than that exercised by Scripture and tradition, there follow certain consequences of importance for understanding; the role of the magisterium of the Church in the process of sacred theology. The canon of Sacred Scripture is closed once and for all.  There never will be another book included in the holy Bible.  Furthermore, the content of the divine apostolic tradition was, of course, closed with the death of the last Apostle.  Since that time there has not been, nor will there ever be, another truth communicated by God to man as something which all men must accept with the assent of divine faith.

However, the Catholic Church, the infallible defender and proponent of the divine revelation, will go on until the end of time in the successful accomplishment of her task of bringing this divine teaching to the children of men. She will take that body of truth which is expressed in Scripture and in divine apostolic tradition, resolve correctly the problems which arise about its interpretation, and unerringly condemn the teaching which denies or misjudges revealed truth.  Hers is a magisterium, a teaching office, unique in the history of mankind.

B. The Constitution of the Church.  Naturally the teaching function of the Catholic Church is exercised in accordance with the constitution which this divinely instituted society received from its Founder.  The Church is a real and definitely visible society which Jesus Christ our Lord founded while He lived upon this earth. He founded this society by first of all gathering the first members and then organizing them properly for the attainment of an end which He pointed out to them. The men chosen by Jesus Christ as the first members of the Church and and the bearers of the organization to their fellow men were the Apostles.

Our Lord established the Catholic Church as an hierarchical and monarchical society.  Its visible head in this world is the Bishop of Rome who, as the successor of St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles, is the Vicar of Christ. Under his direction the bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles, govern and instruct the churches confided to their care.  These bishops,with the priests and ministers subject to them, take the active part in the great work of sanctification which is proper to the Church and constitute as such the hierarchy of orders.

The members of this Church are those possessors of the baptismal character who have not broken the bond of ecclesiastical unity by heresy, apostasy, or schism and who have not been expelled from the society through the incurring of the fullness of excommunication.  Only these are actually members of the Catholic Church.  Occasionally in our own times there have been misunderstandings about the nature of membership within this organization, misunderstandings engendered by a faulty use and explanation of the term “soul of the Church.”  The soul of the Church is not a kind of organization, in some way distinct from the “body of the Church,” which is the visible organization of the Catholic society.  Actually the Soul of the Church is God the Holy Ghost.  Those said to belong to the soul of the Church are those who are in the state of habitual grace, who enjoy that friendship of God which they could not possess without at least intending to pertain as members to the organization which our Lord instituted for the salvation of men.

C. The Two Ways in Which the Church Teaches Infallibly.  Now, this visible Catholic Church teaches the content of divine revelation infallibly in two distinct ways.  First there is the solemn magisterium, the solemn definition or declaration which the Church may propose.  Such a solemn declaration or definition takes place when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, utilizing the fullness of his power in teaching the universal Church on matters of faith or morals, or when an ecumenical council together with and subject to the same Roman Pontiff speaks definitively to the entire Church on the matter of public revelation.

The second way in which the Church can teach infallibly that doctrine which was revealed to the world through Jesus Christ our Lord is through the processes of her ordinary magisterium.  This ordinary magisterium or teaching office is exercised in the continuous daily instruction given in the Church throughout the world, by the competent authorities of the Church.  These competent authorities are the bishops, each in his own territory and united under the supreme leadership of the Roman Pontiff.  The bishops carry on this instruction personally as well as through the priests and the other qualified teachers subject to them [1].

D. The Teaching Church.  Thus the Holy Father and the other bishops of the Catholic Church, in communion with and subject to him, constitute the ecclesia docens, the teaching Church.  The priests who preach and instruct in the various parishes, and in the schools, seminaries, and the universities of the Church exercise their ministry precisely as helpers to the bishops and as carrying on in a work which is entrusted to the bishops in their capacity as pastors of souls.  All of the other members of the Church, that is those below the grade of bishop, constitute the ecclesia discens, that is the Church which learns or is instructed.

The individual bishop, of course, is not endowed with the prerogative of personal infallibility.  It is possible for him to teach erroneously on matters of faith and morals.  He can assert that some doctrine has been revealed by God through Jesus Christ when, as a matter of fact, the teaching was not a part of the divine message at all.  On the other hand, it is possible for him to deny the divine origin or the truth of a statement which actually forms a part of the deposit of divine public revelation.  Furthermore, he can misconstrue or misstate dogmatic formulas which are indicative of the content of that revelation.

However, the episcopal college considered corporately and in union with the Vicar of Christ on earth actually is endowed with infallibility.  When the ecclesia docens as a whole proposes a statement as something which has been communicated by God to man as a part of public revelation, then there is no possibility of a mistake.  In this ordinary universal teaching the infallibility which belongs to the Catholic Church as such is actually exercised.

E. The Ordinary Magisterium.  As a matter of fact this ordinary and universal magisterium has been the means by which many of the heresies which have attacked the faith of Jesus Christ during the course of the centuries have been recognized and destroyed.  It was this teaching which quelled the threats of Sabellianism, Montanism, and Pelagianism, to mentiion only a few.  Even in the numerous cases where the Church has spoken in solemn judgment and definition, the heresy or evil which she had set out to eradicate had long since been recognized as such in the competent teaching of the universal episcopate.

In the listing of Melchior Cano’s De Locis Theologicis, each of the two organs of the Church’s solemn magisterium is recognized and treated as a distinct theological place.  The explanation of the infallible teaching activity of the Church as such, together with the manifestations of that activity which are peculiar to the ordinary magisterium, falls under the heading of the third among the theological places,

We must understand clearly that the expressions of the ordinary magisterium of the Church which the theologian has at his disposal fall under many different headings.  This teaching is to be found in the liturgical prayers of the Catholic Church, in the great symbols or formularies which state the essentials her belief, in her canonical decisions, in the doctrine of the approved catechisms and texts of sacred theology, in the pastoral instructions of the bishops, and, of course, in those pontifical documents in which the Holy Father does not choose to use the fullness of his apostolic power in teaching revealed truth to the children of men.  In all of these fashions the teaching of the universal episcopate comes to the ecclesia discens.  All are resources which can and should be exploited by the theologian for the accomplishment of his task.  These must enter into the scheme of studies of the theologian in order that he may possess the erudition and training so requisite for the attainment of his purpose.

F. The Prayer of the Church.  The authentic liturgical prayers and practices of the Catholic Church are, of course, infallibly expressive of the content of divine public revelation.  Prayer is essentially the petition of fitting things from God.  The fitting things which are asked of God in prayer constitute our own ultimate and supernatural end and those benefits which can and should be of service to us in the attainment of that end.  Because they pertain to the supernatural order, that is to the category of those things which are intrinsically and essentially beyond the competence of any created nature as such, the only authentic information about these fitting things is contained in the doctrine which God has revealed to the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.  God has told us about the nature, the possibility, and the efficacy of our prayers as well as about their direction and object.  Finally, the standard upon which all the petitions of the Catholic Church are based is the formula which our Lord Himself taught to His Apostles, the Lord’s Prayer.

As a result the content of those petitions which the Church, the mystical body of Christ, makes to God is an expression of the revealed doctrine itself [2].  The petition asks for those things which we hope to possess through the merciful omnipotence of God.  The things for which we hope are precisely those about which we are informed in that doctrine which we accept with the assent of divine faith.  Since it is the infallible Church of Jesus Christ which offers the prayers and which therefore teaches the content of the faith in the formulas of those petitions, the official or liturgical prayers of the Catholic Church unerringly express the content of divine public revelation.  For, after all, the act of prayer is expressed, not for the benefit of God, but precisely for the benefit of those human beings in whose favor the act of prayer has been instituted and integrated into the religion of Jesus Christ.  It is expressed for the benefit of man in so far as man, through an appreciation of the formulae in which the petitions of prayer are manifested, may come to realize the object of his own hope.

As a result, the theologian can accept as the product of the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church the liturgical formulae and directions.  He can accept those prayers as infallible indications of the meaning conveyed by Jesus Christ in the message which He gave to mankind as divinely revealed truth.  Such prayers belong to the Church as a whole, and definitely proceed from the universal magisterium.

G. The Symbols.  The symbols or creeds in which, from the earliest years of her existence, the Catholic Church has expressed the elements of her divine message must be received as infallible utterances of the universal Church.  There are many of these authentic acts of the Catholic faith in existence.  Some of them, as a matter of fact, are in common use in the devotional and liturgical life of the Church.  One of these symbols is that ancient profession of faith which we know as the Apostles’ Creed.  Another is the Creed of the First Council of Nicea, and still another the closely related Creed of the First Council of Constantinople, which is sung and recited at the Mass.

In the breviary and in the rite for the process of exorcism, the Catholic Church makes use of that magnificent formula which is known as the Athanasian Creed.  There are available, furthermore, the Anti-Prisdllianist symbol, sometimes called the “Fides Damasi”, the creed of Toledo, the profession of faith of the Council of Trent and in more recent times the anti-modernist oath.  All of these are at the disposal of the theologian as infallible statements of the universal Church on the content of divine revelation.

H. Catechisms and Authoritative Theological Manuals.  Catechisms and other approved books of Christian doctrine, in so far as they are adopted by the ordinaries of the various dioceses for teaching the content of the faith to the people of these dioceses may be said to express the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church.  Naturally, of course, not all of these catechisms have equal value in declaring the content of God’s message.  Some of them have had a very restricted use.  Others, like the old standard Baltimore Catechism in our own country, have really been important factors in teaching the faith to the Catholics of an entire nation.  Others again, like the Roman catechism or the catechism of the Council of Trent have had world wide popularity and use.  The unanimous teaching of these catechisms can rightly be considered by the theologians as an indication of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church.  The doctrine that is universally or unanimously proposed in these doctrinal books, in such a way that it is presented to practically all of the Catholics of the world as revealed truth, is certainly a verity taught and exposed infallibly in the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Another class of books closely associated with the catechisms in expressing the content of the Church’s ordinary magisterium is the theological manual or monograph.  Those which are adopted and utilized officially in the training of candidates for the priesthood within the Catholic Church have naturally more authority along this line than others.  In so far as they are adopted and utilized by the episcopate, they may be said to express the teaching of the bishops about the matters they treat.  To this extent, the manuals and the monographs of sacred theology may be said to express in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Church.  The authority of the Scholastic theologians actually constitutes a separate and distinct theological place.  However, the theological works to which we made allusion must also be considered in their place as manifestations of the teaching of the bishops throughout the world.  In this light they appear as manifesting in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church.  In this way the testimony of the entire body of theological works utilized by the bishops of a country or, a fortiori of the world, to the effect that this certain statement is contained in the deposit of faith is good evidence that such is the doctrine of the universal episcopate, or at least of those bishops who authorize the use of these textbooks.

I. Hierarchical Instructions and Allocutions.  Naturally the doctrine taught commonly in the pastoral instructions of the bishops, in the diocesan synods, and in the plenary and the provincial councils falls under the heading of the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. So, too, do the letters and the allocutions of the Roman Pontiff in which he does not choose to exercise the fullness of his apostolic power.  Likewise the rescripts and the decisions of the various Roman congregations, both in matters of doctrine and of discipline.  This same ordinary magisterium is expressed in the ordinary preaching from the Catholic pulpit and even in the nontechnical Catholic writings on religion and spirituality.  Obviously these non-technical writings have considerably less influence in expressing the ordinary magisterium of the Church than have those works which are actually utilized in the course of Christian instruction.  A lesser degree of competence is expected, and, unfortunately, far too frequently found in the writers of such non-technical works.

J. Ecclesia Discens. The effects of this ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church are to be found in the ecclesia discens itself.  For this reason many of the theologians of the Church have appealed to the faithful themselves several times in the course of Christian history in favor of the correct interpretation of Catholic doctrine.  For example, St. Augustine was able to point out triumphantly that the teaching of the Pelagian heretics ran counter to the Christian convictions of the faithful themselves [3].  Naturally no one would claim that the ecclesia discens has an authority distinct or separate from that of the Church teaching.  Its authority, its competence to recognize the true interpretation of the Christian message and to repudiate a denial or misconception of this teaching is simply an effect produced within the membership of the Church by the doctrinal work of the hierarchy itself.  The ecclesia discens is very definitely not something to which the theologian might appeal against any pronouncement of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  As a matter of fact, it has no active or positive authority in the doctrinal line whatsoever.  It is cited by the theologians of the Church as it was long ago by St. Augustine, simply to show that some doctrine, proposed by an innovator, is in obvious contradiction to the tenets of that faith which the Christian people have ever received from their competent authorities.

K. The Field Upon Which the Church Can Teach Infallibly.  It is essential for the theologian to realize that this living and continuous teaching of the Catholic Church which he is able to utilize for the correct interpretation of the message of Jesus Christ is exercised primarily and essentially on the content of that message.  In whatever field the pronouncements of the Catholic Church may fall, the primary intent of her teaching is always to propound the content of the divine public revelation.  It is her divinely given commission to guard the content of God’s revelation faithfully and well, and to teach it infallibly to the children of men until the end of time.

The process of guarding and teaching the doctrine which Jesus Christ proposed to the world as divinely revealed involves not only decisions about the meaning of this message, but also resolutions which have to do with the fields of sciences other than sacred theology, declarations about what are known as dogmatic facts, and the decisions which are incidental to the canonization of a saint or the approval of a religious order.  In all of these fields the Church is able to speak infallibly in line with her essential and central task of declaring the content of divine public revelation.  This extensive competence of the Catholic Church guarantees the theologian a living and perfectly available standard by which to judge the proper meaning which is contained in the message of Jesus Christ.

The domain in which the Church is competent to speak infallibly, then, is exactly coextensive with the field of sacred theology itself.  The Church proposes and explains the content of the divine message as a whole.  She explains the significance of the dogmatic formulae in which that message is expressed in two ways.  First of all she acts positively and sets forth the true meaning, the doctrine which has actually been contained in the authentic sources of divine revelation.  Again she may act in a negative manner, in condemning or reproving a statement as a misinterpretation or a denial of Christ’s teaching.

In other words, the Church is perfectly competent to deal, not only with truths already defined as having been revealed by God, but also with those verities which are set forward merely as true theological conclusions.  She can, if she wishes, take the very terminology of the theological conclusion as it stands in the writings of an individual author, and then utilize this terminology in order to define clearly and unequivocally a truth which has been revealed by God.  She has actually followed that procedure in the case of St. Thomas Aquinas [4] and Peter the Lombard [5].  On the other hand, she can condemn as heretical or erroneous certain theses which other men have put forward as theological conclusions or even as theological opinions, as she did with the theses of Jansenius [6] and Fenelon [7].  The important point for the theologian to remember is this.  The Catholic Church enjoys a competence and an infallibility with reference to the theological conclusion as such.  She can accept or reject a statement precisely as a theological conclusion rather than as a definition, or a definitive resolution on matters of faith She can state that a proposition is acceptable precisely as a theological conclusion, and she can act in this way utilizing the infallibility with which she has been endowed by her divine Founder.

Because she is empowered and commissioned to expound infallibly the content of Holy Scripture, the Church is competent to teach unerringly about these which pertain primarily to sciences other than sacred theology.  Thus she can condemn a theory or an hypothesis advanced, let us say, by an anthropologist or an astronomer if this theory contradicts the doctrine in Holy Scripture.  She can reprove a statement put forward in the name of economics or sociology when such a statement involves a denial or a misinterpretation of revealed truth.

The Church is aware that in the Bible there are statements which, while the contribute to the integrity of the revealed message found in Holy Scripture, yet have implications in the direction of other fields of learning.  This eruditional, historical, or scientific matter is, of course, not her primary concern.  Her primary and essential purpose is to guard and expound the revelation which God has given to the world through Jesus Christ.  Part of that revelation, however, is to the effect that the books of Sacred Scripture are inspired by God and that as a result it is absolutely immune from error.  Consequently it is in the line of the Church’s power and duty to warn her children against against untruths which contradict the teachings of Holy Scripture, even if these untruths are put forward in the name of some secular science.  The fact of the matter is that, since one truth cannot contradict another, any statement which contradicts the content of Holy Scripture, as this is authentically and infallibly set forth in the magisterium of the Church, is false.

In denouncing the error, the Church does a favor to the profane science which is dedicated to the cause of truth.  The Church can recognize and denounce a statement which contradicts the evidence of Sacred Scripture even when such a statement has not an immediate religious connotation.

L. Dogmatic Facts.  The theologian has also at his disposal the authority of the Church on the matter of what are called dogmatic facts.  These are actions, circumstances, or conditions attendant upon or connected with the teaching of divine revelation in such a way that the revelation itself could not be taught properly apart from the knowledge of the facts.  Thus, for example, when the posthumous book Augustinus, by Cornelius Jansenius, made its appearance in 1640, and met with ecclesiastical censure and condemnation, the partisans of Jansenius taught that, while the condemned propositions listed as having been taken from the book in question actually were false, still they had never been written by the author or contained in the book, at least with the meaning which the Church attached to them in condemning them. In 1656 and again in 1664 the Church, through the constitutions of Pope Alexander VII, declared infallibly that the five propositions had been condemned in that sense in which they had been intended by Jansenius himself, and furthermore that the propositions had been expressed in the Augustinus in the same sense as that for which they had been reproved by the Church [8].

These dogmatic facts lie within the competence of the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church precisely because the Church could not exercise the primary and essential function which God has assigned to her without the power of judging infallibly about circumstances connected with the actual proposition of revealed truth.  The very fact that she possesses and actually exercises infallible authority in teaching about these dogmatic facts is an excellent indication of the nature of that magisterium which the Church enjoys in the exposition of revealed doctrine.  She is not sent merely to superintend the teaching of a dead and remote message.  Her authority is over instruction in a living doctrine, a body of truth which is addressed to the minds of all men.  She can judge that truth, not merely in so far as it appears on the consecrated texts of her own inspired books.  She can recognize, guard, and propound tnis teaching as it appears on the pages of any document at anytime.

M. The Approval of Religious Orders and the Canonization of Saints. Not only can she recognize and guard the divine teaching which has been entrusted to her care when that teaching appears on the pages of doctrinal works, but the Church is competent to judge about the truths which she is commissioned to teach in the matter of approving religious orders and canonizing saints.  The message entrusted to the care of the Cathohc Church is a doctrine of perfection.  It tells of the way in which a man may advance in perfection by loving God ever more and more efficaciously.  Consequently the Church is quite competent to decide that this particular rule or constitution is fitted to engender and increase Christian perfection in the souls of those who are to live under its direction.  Furthermore, she can judge competently that this particular man whom she raises to the honors of the altar as a saint has actually directed his life successfully in accordance with the precepts of that revealed message which she is commissioned to teach.  Sacred theology can make use both of the rules which are followed in the process of canonization and of the results obtained in each particular inquiry.

N. The Use of a Living and Infallible Magisterium. Thus the Cathoic Church offers to its theologians the inestimable advantage of a teaching which presents the doctrine of Jesus Christ our Lord infallibly and clearly to the men of all ages and of all lands.  Her unerring declarations contain no revealed message subsequent to that which came from God through Jesus Christ, and which was completed with the death of the last Apostle.  She takes this divine revelation and presents it to the men of the various lands and ages in such a way that these men may realize exactly what our Lord included in the content of his preaching and exactly what the men who heard our Lord Himself understood and knew Him to mean.

Obviously, then, since the purpose of the theologian is to state clearly and equivocally that same message which the Catholic Church is privileged and commissioned to teach infallibly, it follows that the theologian can resolve any of the problems which are presented to him in the light of the Church’s doctrine.  The Church has always understood and has always taught faithfully the entire content of the message which came to men through Jesus Christ.  As a result the theologian, who seeks the resolution of the problem with which he is confronted, a problem about the meaning inherent  in the teaching of Christ, can always find the resolution for which he is looking in the authentic literature of Catholic teaching.  Naturally he must reason carefully and accurately in order to show how the resolution of his own problem is expressed in the pronouncements of the Catholic Church.  But his reasoning is successful in the measure in which he succeeds in bringing out the infallible teachings of the Church in such a way that men can grasp their real import.


1. The ordinary magisterium is the continuous and, as it were, positive exposition of divine revelation which the Church has conducted from the moment it began its corporate activity.  The solemn judgment, on the other hand, is a decision by which the Church settles some problem which has arisen about the meaning inherent in this divine message, a decision made either by the Holy Father speaking ex cathedra or by an ecumenical council.  Cf. the Vatican Council, the Constitution Dei Filius (Denzinger, 1792), and the commentary in Vacant, op. Cit., Vol.2, pp.84-89.

2. Cf. Fenton, op. Cit., p.133

3. Cf. St. Augustine, Contra Julianum, Liber I, Caput 31; Opus Imperfectum Contra Juhanum Liber II, Caput 2. There is an excellent explanation of this point in Thomas Stapleton, Principiorum Fidei Doctrinalium Demonstratio Methodica Liber VII, Caput 17.

4. Compare the text of the Vatican Council, the Constitution Dei Filius, Chap. 2 (Denzinger, 1786), on the necessity of revelation with the terminology of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica Ia, q.I, art.I.

5. The Fourth Council of the Lateran employed the terminology of Peter the Lombard explicitly in its declaration of faith in the Blessed Trinity (Denzinger, 432).

6. The five errors contained in the book Augustinus, by Cornelius Jasenius, were condemned by Pope Innocent X in the Constitution Cum Occasione of May 31, 1653 (Denziner, 1092-1096).

7. Twenty-three errors taken from the book Explications des Maximes des Saints sur la Vie Interierure, by Fenelon, were condemned by Pope Innocent Xii in the brief Cum Alias of March 11, 1699 Denzinger, 1327-1349).

8. Denzinger, 1099.
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