The five criteria for a teaching to fall under papal infallibility were first taught explicitly by the First Vatican Council in the document Pastor Aeternus
, chap. 4. These can be enumerated as follows.
1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all
Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church”
The Second Vatican Council also affirmed this same set of criteria, using somewhat different language, in the document Lumen Gentium
, n. 25. These can be enumerated as follows.
1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms
his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals,
extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity
These two sets of criteria are really one and the same. The wording differs slightly, but the teaching is identical. (See my book, New Insights into the Deposit of Faith
, chapter 5, for more on infallibility.)
Does Providentissimus Deus Contain an Infallible Papal Statement?
The following is the passage in question:
But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it-this system cannot be tolerated. For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican. (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, n. 20).
Of the five criteria for an infallible papal statement, the first criterion is met by the above passage because it is part of a Papal Encyclical formally issued by Pope Leo XIII. It is not a document issued by a Congregation or an individual Bishop or Cardinal. This document was issued directly by the office and person of the Pope.
The second criterion is that the Pope be speaking ex cathedra
, that is, in his official role as “supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful.” (PA, chap. 4). Providentissimus Deus
is a Papal Encyclical addressed: “To Our Venerable Brethren, All Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, and Bishops of the Catholic World, in Grace and Communion with the Apostolic See.” (PD, n. 20). Therefore, in it the Pope exercises “his office ... as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful.” (LG, n. 25).
The third criterion is that the Pope define, or proclaim by a definitive act, this teaching. The above quoted passage from Providentissimus Deus
, n. 20, is definitive in its proclamation of this truth. The wording of the passage condemns the opposing opinion with the wording: “it is absolutely wrong and forbidden,” and “this system cannot be tolerated.” (Note that past Ecumenical Councils have often issued infallible statements by means of a condemnation of error.)
Furthermore, the passage also makes a definitive positive assertion, by comparing the infallibility of Scripture to the infallibility of God: “...excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.” It is difficult to even imagine a statement that is a more definitive proclamation than this one, comparing the truth of Scripture to the truthfulness of God Himself. Yet the document continues with a further definitive statement of this teaching, saying: “This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined....” The statement then goes on to cite the authority of several Ecumenical Councils.
Therefore, the third criterion for an infallible papal statement is met by these several definitive proclamations affirming the infallibility of Scripture in its entirety, and condemning any opinion that would limit infallibility to faith and morals.
The fourth criterion generally seems to require that what is taught be on the subject of faith and morals (and this is generally the case). However, the Second Vatican Council adds that the subject area of infallible papal teachings “extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends.” (LG, n. 25). (See below: “The Extent of Papal Infallibility.”) Any teaching on the infallibility of Sacred Scripture, as well as on the extent of that infallibility, is certainly a matter of faith, since Scripture is one of the three pillars of the Teachings of the Church (Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium). So then, the fourth criterion is met.
The fifth criterion is that the teaching must be a required belief, i.e. that it “must be held by the whole Church” (PA, chap. 4). This same criterion can also be phrased differently; it must be a teaching “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with.” (LG, n. 25). In other words, the papal statement, in order to be infallible, must be presented by the Pope as something that the Pope requires the whole Church to believe because it is a teaching of Divine Revelation (which all are required by God to believe).
The fifth criterion is met because this statement by Pope Leo XIII, quoted above, clearly requires all the faithful to believe this teaching on the infallibility of Scripture. The document says that “it is absolutely wrong and forbidden” to believe the opposing opinion, and that the opposing opinion “cannot be tolerated.” The same passage goes on to say that the opposing opinion must be excluded and rejected “as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.”
Then the passage goes on to make a positive statement on the necessity of believing this teaching: “This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican.” (PD, n. 20). The Second Vatican Council pointed out that all are required by God to believe each and every teaching of Divine Revelation: “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity
with” (LG, n. 25). Pope Leo XIII, in this passage from Providentissimus Deus
, states that this teaching is “the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined....” Therefore, he necessarily implies that this teaching is a required belief of all the Church. And, therefore, the fifth criterion is met and the teaching falls under papal infallibility.
It is the infallible teaching of the Catholic Faith that the Bible is without error in everything that is asserted by the sacred writers, or by God through the sacred writers, even in matters beyond faith and morals, or beyond what pertains to salvation. Furthermore, the opposing opinion, that the infallibility of the Bible is limited to faith and morals, or limited to what pertains to salvation, is infallibly condemned as false by this very same infallible teaching proclaimed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 in the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus
The Extent of Papal Infallibility
Does the ability and authority of papal infallibility also extend beyond faith and morals? The Popes and the Ecumenical Councils have clearly taught that the infallibility of Sacred Scripture extends even beyond faith and morals, even beyond truths pertaining to our salvation, so as to include everything asserted by the sacred writers, or by God through the sacred writers.
The Holy Spirit causes the procession of Sacred Scripture to occur solely from Sacred Tradition. Therefore, the infallibility of Sacred Tradition must also extend to everything that is asserted by God through “the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation.” (Dei Verbum, n. 2), and that is transmitted by “the Church, in her teaching, life and worship.” (Dei Verbum, n. 8).
The Deposit of Faith is One Truth, shared by Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, just as the One Divine Nature of God is shared by the Father, Son, Spirit. The truths of the Faith, infallibly taught by Tradition and Scripture include all that is asserted as true by Tradition or Scripture, including truths beyond faith and morals, beyond what pertains to salvation.
Since the Sacred Magisterium teaches, from one and the same Deposit of Faith, those same truths taught by Tradition and Scripture, the Sacred Magisterium can likewise infallibly teach all the truths taught by Tradition or Scripture, even those truths beyond faith and morals, beyond what pertains to salvation. The Sacred Magisterium includes papal infallibility, and the infallibility of teachings by the body of bishops led by the Pope. Therefore, the Pope can teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals as well as on all other questions whose answers are found in Tradition or Scripture. The Second Vatican Council hints at this same teaching when it says: “And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends.” (LG, n. 25). Teachings under papal infallibility generally pertain to faith and morals, that is, they generally pertain to what is necessary or useful for salvation. However, teachings under papal infallibility can extend as far as the Deposit of Faith extends.
Formerly, I thought that the Sacred Magisterium, (including papal infallibility and the infallibility of teachings by the body of bishops led by the Pope,) taught only on faith and morals. But now, through this understanding of the extent of the infallibility of Scripture, I realize that the infallibility of the Sacred Magisterium also extends even beyond faith and morals, to everything asserted as true by Divine Revelation, that is, by the Sacred Deposit of Faith.
Why Must Church Teaching Extend Beyond Faith and Morals?
Consider some examples of particular teachings of the Bible that extend beyond faith and morals. For example, Christ died on a Friday. This teaching is found in all four Gospels, with varied wording. It is not essential to salvation, nor is it a matter of faith or morals, to know on which day Christ died for our salvation. However, Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium all teach that Christ died on a Friday.
In another example, the Gospel of John, in the chapter on the Eucharist, asserts that Christ taught certain things about the Eucharist in the synagogue at Capernaum. “These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capernaum.” (John 6:60; Douay-Rheims). It is not necessary to salvation to know whether He taught each teaching indoors or outdoors, or in one town or another. It is not a matter of faith or morals to know the same. Yet Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium teach that Christ Himself taught this doctrine on the Eucharist, and that He taught it in a particular place: a synagogue in Capernaum. Some unfaithful scholars have tried to claim that Christ never taught this doctrine, but Scripture plainly asserts that He did.
One of the reasons that Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium must teach on matters beyond faith and morals, beyond what pertains to salvation, is that the events of salvation history, in both the Old and New Testaments, including the events of Christ's life, were particular events that took place at particular times and in particular places. Many have tried to claim that some of the events of Tradition and Scripture never occurred, or that they occurred otherwise than as described. Such errors are refuted to the benefit of the faithful by Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, when these teach on such matters, even beyond faith and morals.
Another reason that Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium must teach on matters beyond faith and morals, beyond what pertains to salvation, is that the teachings of faith and morals need to be surrounded by other related teachings that do not directly pertain to faith and morals, or to salvation. This need to 'build a fence around the Torah' has long been recognized, even in ancient times.
Conversely, trying to limit the teachings of the Church to faith and morals permits unfaithful persons to continually increase their claim as to which assertions of Tradition and Scripture are supposedly false or unreliable (because they supposedly do not pertain to salvation). They narrow the definition of faith and morals, and of what pertains to salvation, until there is precious little left to believe. It is unreasonable and unfaithful to narrow the definition of faith and morals, and of what pertains to salvation, in such a manner.
However, one might reasonably and faithfully take the position that faith and morals extends to everything asserted by Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium as true, using a very broad understanding of what pertains to salvation. Using such a very broad definition, there would then be no untrue assertions whatsoever on any topic in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Such a position is acceptable, but it uses an uncommonly broad definition of the extent of faith and morals, and of what pertains to salvation. This is clearly not the position of those who limit the infallibility of Scripture in order to claim that it contains errors.
Can the Pope Change the Criteria for Papal Infallibility?
The five criteria declared by both the First and Second Vatican Councils are essential to the doctrine of papal infallibility and are not able to be changed by the Magisterium. These criteria are analogous to the essentials pertaining to the validity of the Sacrament, which even the Pope and the Bishops united with him cannot change.
However, the Sacraments sometimes have additional criteria for validity, added to their essential criteria for validity, by the temporal authority of the Church. The Pope, and the body of Bishops led by the Pope, have the authority to establish additional criteria for the validity of the Sacraments, even beyond what is essential and is required by Tradition and Scripture. Therefore, the Pope, and the body of Bishops led by the Pope, also have the authority to establish additional criteria for a valid infallible papal statement.
If a Pope wanted to do so, he has the ability and authority to add to the criteria for a papal statement to be infallible. He might do so to clarify which statements are and are not infallible during times of turmoil and confusion in the Church. For example, he could add a criterion that requires the use of a specific formula to open and close an infallible statement. If he enacted such a requirement, subsequent papal statements would only be infallible if they adhered to the five essential criteria plus the additional criterion. Prior papal statements, even by the same Pope, would not be effected by additional criteria. Subsequent papal statements would be effected by additional criteria, even ones made by subsequent Popes, until one Pope or another decides to dispense with the additional criteria, reverting to the sole use of the five essential criteria, or until one Pope or another changes or adds to the additional criteria.
The teaching of Pope Leo XIII on the infallibility of Sacred Scripture is itself an infallible teaching under the doctrine of papal infallibility, which was taught explicitly by the First Vatican Council prior to the publication of Providentissimus Deus
. All three Pillars of the Teaching of the Church-Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Magisterium,-are infallible in matters of faith and morals, in matters of salvation, and certainly also in matters beyond faith, morals, and salvation. God wisely chose to teach us on matters beyond faith and morals and salvation, for these additional matters are helpful in supporting and protecting the Faith from errors which, once established, would eventually erode even the matters of faith, morals, and salvation.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 19, 2005