The authority of the Church is divided into the Temporal Authority and the Spiritual Authority.
The Temporal Authority is the ability and authority of the Church to make decisions and judgments about practical matters. The Temporal Authority of the Church does not teach, it decides. The Temporal Authority of the Church is always fallible, never infallible.
The Spiritual Authority of the Church is also called the Magisterium; it is the ability and authority of the Church to teach the truths found within Divine Revelation. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one Sacred Deposit of Faith, also called the Deposit of Divine Revelation. The Magisterium is divided into the infallible Sacred Magisterium and the non-fallible Ordinary Magisterium.
The three pillars of the teaching of the Church are Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Magisterium. Each is entirely infallible in all that it asserts as true. Furthermore, both the Sacred Magisterium and the Ordinary Magisterium can only teach truths already contained, at least implicitly, within Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture. The teachings of the Sacred Magisterium have the charism of certain truth.
The Ordinary Magisterium is exercised when the Magisterium teaches without the guarantee of certain truth found in its infallible Sacred Magisterium. The Ordinary Magisterium is non-infallible, but its teachings have the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the extent that the ordinary non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium can only err to a limited extent. They cannot err to such an extent that the errors would lead someone away from the path of salvation. The teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium have the charism of salvific truth.
The Magisterium only teaches infallibly under certain conditions. Whenever those conditions are lacking, then its teaching falls under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium. Some teachings are first taught under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, then eventually they are taught under the infallible Sacred Magisterium. Some development of doctrine may occur along the path from being taught non-infallible to being taught infallibly.
There are two types of teachings of the Magisterium, categorized by the function under which they are taught: the teachings of the infallible Sacred Magisterium and the teachings of the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium. Now in principle these are distinct, but in practice it can be difficult to determine, in every case, whether a teaching is infallible or non-infallible. Whenever it is truly not clear if a teaching has been taught infallibly or not, it should be considered a reliable but non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium.
Canon Law 749 §3.
No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.
All of the infallible teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Magisterium require belief by the all the faithful, including laypersons, religious, and ordained persons. The teachings of these three pillars of the Faith are infallibly true: God himself guarantees that these teachings, properly understood, are without error, omission, or imperfection. In other words, each and every one of these teachings are true, none are false or erroneous, and nothing essential to the truth that is being expressed has been omitted, and no significant flaw or imperfection, of any relevance to that truth, is found within the truth being expressed.
Since God himself guarantees the truth of these teachings, all the faithful are obligated, in the strictest sense, to believe what is taught. The obligation to believe each and all of the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture and Sacred Magisterium is aptly called 'sacred assent.' It has also been termed 'the assent of faith' or 'theological assent.'
The Sacred Magisterium can teach infallibly in any of three ways:
Infallible Teachings of the Sacred Magisterium - all require sacred assent
A. Papal Infallibility
B. solemn definitions of Ecumenical Councils (or of any similar gathering of the body of Bishops with the Pope)
C. the ordinary universal Magisterium (also called simply the universal Magisterium)
Each teaching of the Sacred Magisterium requires sacred assent. This assent is an exercise of the theological virtue of faith, and is closely related to the theological virtues of love and hope. The faithful believe what the Church teaches out of love for God, and out of faith that the teaching of the Church is God's teaching, and out of hope for an eternal life with God. When sacred assent is lacking, faith is lacking. When sacred assent is lacking with personal culpability, the sin of heresy is present. Obstinate doubt or obstinate refusal to believe any of the teachings taught infallibly by Tradition, Scripture, or Magisterium is the sin of heresy.
The faithful are not only required to believe what the Magisterium teaches infallibly, they are also required to believe all that Tradition and Scripture teaches, even when those teachings have not been taught explicitly by the Magisterium. For the teaching of the Church includes everything taught by Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. And the Magisterium itself teaches us to learn from Tradition and Scripture. The refusal to believe the teachings of Tradition and Scripture, unless such teachings have been taught by the Magisterium, is a serious heresy against the true Catholic Faith. The assent of faith must be given to all of the teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Magisterium. For all of these teachings are infallible.
Non-infallible Teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium - generally require ordinary assent
The Magisterium itself teaches that its own teachings are not always infallible. There are certain criteria which must be met for a teaching to fall under the infallible Sacred Magisterium. Whenever these criteria are lacking, a teaching of the Magisterium falls under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium.
Infallible teachings of the Sacred Magisterium fittingly require sacred assent. Likewise, the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium fittingly require ordinary assent (also called the religious submission of will and intellect). The type of assent must accord with the type of teaching. The faithful are not asked to give sacred assent to teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium, because such teachings may contain error and are subject to revision and, occasionally, to revocation.
This ordinary assent must be substantially different from sacred assent, because what is infallible is substantially different from what is not infallible. Sacred assent is an exercise of the theological virtue of faith, and is closely related to the theological virtues of love and hope. Without love, faith, and hope no one can be saved. By contrast, the exercise of ordinary assent includes the possibility of faithful dissent because ordinary teachings admit the possibility of errors. But these errors are limited in extent, such that no error can occur which would lead the faithful away from the path of salvation. Therefore, faithful dissent must be similarly limited, never claiming that the ordinary teachings of the Magisterium are such that any one such teaching or error would lead someone away from salvation.
Now, anyone who would dissent from most or all non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium, or even from any single ordinary teaching that is essential to the path of salvation, is in grave danger of losing his own faith and salvation. For one and the same Magisterium teaches at times non-infallibly and at other times infallibly. Anyone completely lacking in ordinary assent could not possibly have given the full assent of faith (sacred assent) to all of the infallible teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. So such a person would not be on the path to salvation.
It is not always clear which teachings have been taught infallibly and which have been taught non-infallibly, so anyone who dissents from every teaching that seems to fall under the Ordinary Magisterium will most probably be dissenting from some infallible teachings. Thus, extensive dissent from ordinary teachings shows a lack of true faith in God and endangers one's own salvation as well as the salvation of others.
We are generally required to give our religious submission of will and intellect to the non-infallible teachings because these can never err to such an extent as to lead us away from the path of salvation, and because infallible teachings alone are not sufficient to guide us to salvation. Therefore, the Church has the right and duty to require adherence to non-infallible teachings, for the sake of our salvation.
Because non-infallible teachings may contain error, to a limited extent, the faithful have the right to dissent on points not essential to salvation, if the dissent is based on a higher teaching of Tradition, Scripture, or Magisterium.
Nevertheless, since ordinary assent pertains to only ordinary teachings, which may contain errors, ordinary assent by its very nature must include the possibility of faithful dissent from particular ordinary teachings. The claim that ordinary assent precludes all faithful dissent, and that all ordinary teachings must be adhered to without exception, is a heresy against the Catholic Faith. Such an approach treats what is non-infallible as if it were infallible, and abandons the sincere search for truth in favor of blind obedience to authority. Sacred assent is required of infallible teachings because those teachings are certainly true, not merely because the teachings are authoritative. Ordinary assent permits particular occasions of dissent from particular teachings because such teachings are not infallible and may contain errors, to a limited extent.
Some errors are found in the majority opinion of Catholic theologians on various ideas within the Catholic faith. For example, it is the majority opinion among Catholic theologians that canonizations fall under papal infallibility. However, this opinion is in error. See my article: Papal Infallibility and the Canonization of Saints
. Now the opinion of a theologian is not, in and of itself, a teaching of the Magisterium, but when it is the majority view it is generally also held and taught by a number of Bishops.
Even local Bishops' Conferences sometimes teach in contradiction to prior and more weighty teachings of the Magisterium, or in contradiction to Tradition or Scripture. The faithful are not only able, but are required, to dissent from any teachings, by theologians, individual Bishops, or groups of local Bishops, which contradict, or are irreconcilable with, more authoritative teachings by Popes, Ecumenical Councils, or the Holy See, or which contradict, or are irreconcilable with, the teachings of Tradition and Scripture.
Occasionally, a non-infallible teaching of a Pope, of the Holy See more generally, of an Ecumenical Council or other gathering of Bishops with the Pope may contain errors. The faithful can dissent from such an erroneous teachings only if the basis for dissent is a more authoritative teaching of Tradition, Scripture, or Magisterium. Such dissent must acknowledge that the faithful dissenter is also fallible and subject to possible errors. If the teaching is later defined infallibly, the faithful dissenter will then no longer dissent, because the teaching is no longer non-infallible, but infallible.
Criteria for Faithful Dissent
The requirements for any dissent to be faithful are as follows:
1. the teaching from which one dissents must be a non-infallible teaching, which is not essential to the path of salvation (ordinary non-infallible teachings are protected by the Holy Spirit from errors that would lead one away from the path of salvation)
2. the dissenter must be faithful to the infallible teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Magisterium, and also generally faithful to the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium.
3. the basis for dissent must be a teaching of greater authority within the teachings of the Magisterium, or within Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture.
Most dissent from Church teaching today does not meet the above criteria. First, many Catholics in the world today dissent from infallible teachings of the Sacred Magisterium.
For example: far too many Catholics dissent from the infallible teaching of the encyclical Evangelium Vitae that abortion is always gravely immoral. This infallible teaching against abortion must be adhered to with sacred assent. To dissent from the Church's teaching against abortion is the sin of heresy.
Another example: The Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
contains the infallible teaching that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Yet many Catholics continue to dissent from this infallible teaching.
Another example: The Church has numerous moral teachings on sexuality which are being ignored and violated by many Catholics in the world today. Now in some cases perhaps an individual believes Church teaching, but acts sinfully despite that belief. However, it is clear from public discourse on this subject that many Catholics have rejected Church teaching on sexual moral values almost entirely. These teachings have been consistently taught by the Bishops of the world under the leadership of the Pope throughout the history of the Church. Therefore, such teachings generally fall under the universal Magisterium and are infallible. Sacred assent is therefore required, and private or public dissent is heretical and sinful.
Second, even when the dissent is from non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium, much of the dissent today is not faithful dissent, because the dissenters reject any and all teachings of the Magisterium that conflict with the teachings of modern secular society. This type of dissent cannot be faithful dissent because it puts sinful secular society and its teachings above the Church and her teachings. They do not adhere to every infallible teaching, they narrow the number of teachings considered infallible, and they do not generally give even ordinary assent to ordinary teachings of the Church.
Third, unfaithful dissent in the world today is not based on faith in a higher teaching of Tradition, Scripture, or the Magisterium. The basis for dissent is the ideas and manner of thinking taught by modern society, or the feelings and baseless opinions of the dissenter. These unfaithful dissenters often claim that they are following some higher principle of the Gospel message, but it can easily be seen that all of their conclusions agree with secular society and disagree with the Church. In order to be faithful dissent, the basis for the dissent must be Tradition, Scripture, or Magisterium.
For example: Many Catholics dissent from Church teaching against contraception. Theologians debate the level of authority of this teaching. It has been taught by the Magisterium consistently for many years and is firmly supported by the teachings of Tradition and Scripture. It may fall under the universal Magisterium. But, even if it does not rise to the level of an infallible teaching, there is no teaching in Tradition or Scripture or other Magisterial teachings on which to base a faithful dissent. So here is an example of a teaching that has not been defined infallibly, yet dissent from this teaching is not faithful dissent.
Primacy of Conscience?
Some Catholics claim to base their dissent on the idea of primacy of conscience. They claim that one should follow one's conscience above the teachings of the Church, and that, as long as you have prayed and considered Church teaching carefully, you can dissent based on conscience. This approach to dissent is not faithful. This claim is heretical.
God is greater than your conscience. You must obey God above your own conscience. Consider Abraham and his son. Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his son on an altar. Did Abraham's conscience tell him to kill his own son? No, it was God who told Abraham, despite the objections of his own conscience, to sacrifice his son. And Abraham, acting on faith and not on reason, obeyed God, until God, being satisfied with his faith and obedience, sent an Angel to stop him from carrying out the sacrifice.
Divine Revelation is greater than conscience. For truths are revealed in Divine Revelation that no human mind or conscience could ever attain to on its own. Thus, conscience cannot reject or detract from the truths of Divine Revelation. God and His Divine Revelation are primary, and conscience is not primary. A conscience absent of truth is an empty container; one cannot base dissent on emptiness.
Our consciences must be taught and guided by the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium. People who live in a sinful secular society have undoubtedly been influenced in their development of conscience by that disordered society. Even Catholics who are fairly devout and knowledgeable about the Faith generally live in secular society and are influenced by it. Your conscience can err by being influenced by original sin, by your own past personal sins, by the people around you, and by society in general. Your conscience can easily err.
We must each form our consciences according to the teachings of the Church in Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium. We also form our consciences through prayer, self-denial, and works of mercy. To the extent that our consciences have been properly formed, we can rely on conscience even to the contradiction of the behavior and decisions of a majority of persons around us. A properly-formed conscience has a certain primacy over the ideas of secular society, over unjust laws, rules, and regulations, over the opinions and actions of our peers. But our conscience does not have primacy over God or the infallible teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Magisterium, nor over the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium in general.
If a dissent from an ordinary teaching is said to be based on conscience, then on what is that decision of conscience based? A conscience must be informed by Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium. So any dissent supposedly based on conscience, to be a faithful dissent, must ultimately be based on Tradition, Scripture, or Magisterium. A conscience cannot stand alone in dissent of Church teaching, because the human conscience is like an empty container, waiting to be filled with truth from Divine Revelation.
Now it is true that God has written a certain natural law on our hearts and minds, by means of the good human nature created by God. But that natural law is easily misunderstood in the face of original sin, personal sins, and the influence of secular society. So, the well-formed conscience will dissent only when an ordinary teaching is over-ruled by a higher principle within Tradition, Scripture, or Magisterium
Examples of Faithful Dissent
1. The Bishops Conferences of England and Wales, and of Scotland released a 'teaching document' called 'the Gift of Scripture.' The teachings in this document are the teachings of the ordinary Magisterium. A local Bishops Conference cannot teaching infallibly, in and of itself. These teachings claim that the Bible is only infallible when teaching truths that pertain to salvation. However, this erroneous teaching contradicts the prior teachings of several different Popes, including a teaching in Providentissimus Deus which may be infallible. Therefore, I must dissent from this clearly erroneous teaching of those Bishops Conferences.
See my articles: 'Papal Infallibility in Providentissimus Deus' and 'A Critical Review of the Document The Gift of Scripture'.
2. Some Bishops and many theologians teach that canonizations fall under papal infallibility. However, the teaching of Vatican I and Vatican II on papal infallibility limits the truths that are taught to those of Divine Revelation, i.e. Tradition and Scripture. On the basis of the teachings of Vatican I and Vatican II, and my understanding of the Magisterial teaching of the difference between the spiritual and temporal authorities of the Church, I dissent from the teaching that canonizations are infallible. See my article: 'Papal Infallibility and the Canonization of Saints'.
3. At the heart of the practice of permitting women to be lectors at Mass is a fundamental teaching as to the correct interpretation of the Scripture passages forbidding women to speak in Church and to take roles of authority, leadership, and teaching over men. My understanding is that these passages cannot be interpreted in such a way as to permit women lectors, nor to permit women to have various other roles of authority, leadership, or teaching over men. However, it is apparent from the widespread acceptance of this practice among Bishops that their teaching on the subject is otherwise. This permission to allow women lectors does not constitute a teaching of the universal Magisterium, because for most of the Church's history, women were not permitted such roles, and because Scripture clearly teaches otherwise.
4. Scripture plainly teaches that Christ returns at the end of the reign of the lawless one, i.e. the Antichrist (2 Thess 2:8). It also teaches that Christ will return at the time of the general Resurrection, for the universal Judgment. However, the Magisterium has at times suggested that these two events are one: that Christ returns only once, at the end of the tribulation and the Antichrist's reign for the general Resurrection.
Parousia: The glorious return and appearance of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as judge of the living and the dead, at the end of time; the second coming of Christ, when history and all creation will achieve their fulfillment [1001; cf. 668, 673.] (Glossary of the CCC).
And so the time for missionary activity extends between the first coming of the Lord and the second, in which latter the Church will be gathered from the four winds like a harvest into the kingdom of God. (Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes, n. 9).
Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation. (Introduction to the Roman Calendar, n. 39).
None of the above teachings meets the criteria for an infallible definition. Notice that the Catechism only presents this idea in the Glossary, not in the main body of the text. Vatican II, in Ad Gentes, mentions this teaching in the context of explaining other things; it does not assert this particular teaching definitively. The introduction to the Roman Calendar is not an authoritative document, but represents the fact that this idea (Christ returning once, not twice) is present in Church documents.
To the contrary, my understanding of Scripture is that Christ will return twice, once at the end of the Antichrist's reign, to establish fully His kingdom on earth, and again many centuries later, for the Resurrection and Judgment. This interpretation of Revelation 20 is not without precedent in the history of the Church. Some Church fathers believed in the more literal interpretation of Revelation 20, which interpretation separates the end of the Antichrist's reign from the general Resurrection by over a thousand years. During that time, Christ has His Intermediate Reign, which is a spiritual reign, not a bodily worldly reign. He reigns then as now, through the Church and the Sacraments, but much more thoroughly.
I believe and teach that Christ returns twice, in contradiction to the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium that He only returns once. My basis for dissent on this point is Sacred Scripture as well as the Tradition represented in some of the Church Fathers writings (e.g. Justin Martyr).
Is Faithful Dissent Required?
No one can be considered a faithful Catholic unless they give their sacred assent to the infallible teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Magisterium. Moreover, no one can be considered a faithful Catholic if they generally dissent from the ordinary teachings of the Magisterium. But is faithful dissent required of faithful Catholics?
Some Catholics are still learning the basic teachings of the Catholic faith. These persons cannot be expected to detect theological errors in the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium. On occasion, they may think that a particular ordinary teaching is in error, but they do not yet understand the faith well enough to reach such a conclusion with surety. Therefore, all that is required of these growing Catholics is to understand and accept the idea that the ordinary teachings of the Church are subject to possible error, and to later revision or revocation by the Magisterium.
Other Catholics are well versed in the basic teachings of the faith. They continue to seek a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God. This process of learning the faith in an ever more profound way necessarily results, sooner or later, in an understanding that certain ordinary teachings of the Magisterium are in error. To turn aside from such an understanding of truth is to turn aside from Christ who is Truth. Therefore, it is a requirement of the Catholic faith that each and every Catholic, as they continually increase in their understanding of the faith, be willing to acknowledge that some ordinary teachings are in error, and be willing to point out such errors, if they should happen to find one on their own.
Summaries of Related Heresies
It is a heresy against the Catholic faith to claim any of the following:
a) that all teachings of the Magisterium are without error, even the ordinary teachings of the Magisterium
b) that the ordinary teachings must be adhered to in the same manner as the infallible teachings
c) that there is no practical difference in the assent required of ordinary teachings versus infallible teachings
d) that faithful dissent is never possible, as if all dissent were sinful or to be prohibited
e) that obedience to the teachings of the Church is based solely on authority, and not on truth.
f) that conscience has a primacy above the infallible teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
April 12, 2006
updated on September 24, 2006