Non-Infallible Catholic Teachings (Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church Episode 8)

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“The second big debate surrounding infallibly taught doctrine is about moral issues that Jesus didn’t directly teach about and instead rely more on ethical systems derived from reason alone. Take contraception, for example. Where does Jesus say that contraception cannot be used by couples? Remember how I mentioned natural law earlier in this episode? Well, given how sparse or arguably even non-existent Christ’s teachings are about contraception, a vast majority of arguments against their use comes from the idea that sex is intrinsically ordered towards procreation.”

By Will Deatherage


We have finally arrived at the last episode in our series. Today, we will talk about non-infallible teachings of the Catholic Church before giving a recap of everything we’ve learned so far!

So, we’ve talked a lot about the people who can teach infallibly and the conditions by which they do so. Basically, bishops can teach infallibly when they are all in agreement across the world (the universal ordinary magisterium) or at ecumenical councils, and the pope can teach infallibly when he solemnly speaks from the chair of St. Peter (ex cathedra). And remember that there are limits to what they can teach about. The topic must pertain to serious matters of faith and morals to be held by the whole Church and have a clear connection to revelation, since all the Church does when she teaches infallibly is restate or clarify something Jesus already clearly taught. The thing is, that a vast majority of the time, bishops and popes don’t teach this way. In fact, arguably the most relevant teachings to our daily lives are non-infallibly taught.

Most Church teaching you hear about comes from local bishops, regional councils of bishops, such as the United States Conference Council of Catholic Bishops, or popes when they write pastoral documents called encyclicals. And since these are groups of bishops teaching by themselves, and not necessarily in unison with the bishops across the world, they are not teaching via the universal ordinary magisterium. Same with popes when they aren’t teaching ex cathedra. That is, unless they are teaching things the Church has already defined or professed. Even in councils, not everything the bishops teach is with the authority of infallibility. Remember. Only what is specifically intended to be the object of a definition, can be infallibly defined. But councils can still bind the faithful to adhere to certain practices and beliefs, even if they aren’t being infallibly taught.

Think of the belief that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the bible. This was a commonly accepted theological position that has never been solemnly defined at a council. Arguably, it doesn’t even pertain to faith and morals. Today, most theologians and bishops would dispute the idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but at some point, most bishops thought this was the case. Since this teaching was never formally defined, nor does it really pertain to faith and morals, it could be said that this was a non-infallibly taught doctrine. Remember. Doctrine not infallibly defined does not mean it is invalid; it simply means it is not held to the same level of doctrinal certainty as infallibly defined doctrines are.

Even though they are not infallibly defined, these non-infallibly defined doctrines are very important, though. The Church has the obligation to instruct Her members how to best live out the Christian life in a constantly changing world. Bishops do not have the time, nor resources, to call a council over every theological question unless it threatens to upend the Christian paradigm. Secondly, Jesus did not comment on every moral question we may have, such as nuclear weapons and contraceptives.

Take the death penalty, for example. Jesus never directly commented on whether or not someone should get the electric chair, so it would be very difficult if not impossible to make the connection between revelation and the death penalty. And since the death penalty is more of a practice than it is an article of faith gained from revelation, the bishops have the authority to permit it in some circumstances and forbid it in others. This is why for centuries, the death penalty was a perfectly acceptable practice, or discipline, but given advancements in technology that allow us to safely lock criminals behind bars, pope Francis deemed it no longer necessary for the common good, and thus no longer licit. It’s a great example of pope Francis having exercised his ability to bind and loose people to certain disciplines.

For a secular comparison, think about how many nations passed provisional laws during covid-19 that were not supposed to be permanently instituted. Or think of a nation in time of war that often must make security measures and economic decisions that are intended on being lifted afterwards. The fact of the matter is the Church does not have the time or the capacity to make permanent judgments on matters for every ethical issue.

Even conciliar documents that sound like they are making infallible judgments on an issue might be dealing with more regulatory or administrative affairs that are incapable of being infallibly defined. For example, Canon 22 of Constantinople IV anathematizes secular rulers who interfere with the election of bishops, but the fact is that secular rulers continued to do so and even helped save the Church when the bishops and cardinals couldn’t sort out who was validly pope. Even though the canon uses the language of anathema, which is commonly used in solemn definitions, its object does not pertain to revealed truths, nor a matter of faith and morals, so it cannot be an infallibly declared dogma. I’ve heard some people refer to these more administrative practices or customs that can change as “disciplines,” though Sullivan does not make such a distinction in his book.

What about teachings that concern faith and morals but are not directly connected to revealed truths such as contraception or nuclear disarmament? The Catholic Church believes in the compatibility between faith and reason, meaning it is possible for the bishops to draw upon what ethicists call natural law. I’ll talk a bit more about this in a sec.

Let’s simplify things. An infallibly taught doctrine is simply restating or clarifying what Jesus taught his disciples or some logical consequence of what Jesus taught them. Only the bishops in unison or the pope speaking ex cathedra can teach infallibly and they must pertain to faith and morals. Of course, it must be the intention of the bishops that the entire Church hold this belief.

A non-infallibly taught doctrine is either 1) a theological teaching that some but not all bishops agree on, 2) is not directly connected to revelation, or 3) does not concern faith and morals.

Now, just because a teaching might be have been taught in a non-infallible manner doesn’t mean you can disagree with it. My next series will actually explore the levels of doctrinal certainty and how much dissent each of them can tolerate, but for now I’ll say this. To disagree with a teaching, it cannot have been infallibly taught, and you have to have some really, REALLY good reasoning for why. Disagreeing with a Church doctrine without doing much research would be tantamount to a non-physicist disputing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Sure, if you’ve put some serious time and effort into disagreeing with the Church, it isn’t a mortal sin. But I have to say, that a vast majority of Catholics who do this haven’t really thought things through, and I don’t blame them! We’re all busy people, but the whole point to putting our trust in the bishops and their theologians as teachers is to trust that they are doing all the academic work for us.

Now, I did mention that bishops and popes may teach infallibly if they are teaching something that a council has already taught or has been taught by the universal ordinary magisterium. And this is where the floodgates of theological debate burst open.

First of all, what teachings are considered infallible universal ordinary magisterium? As I’ve mentioned before, some ideas like God raised Jesus from the dead, are accepted by all Christians. What about something like a male priesthood, though? In 1994, Pope John Paul II’s wrote an Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which states “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

At first glance, it appears that the Holy Father is making a solemn definition. However, this is an document that does not use the language of an ex cathedra statement. Some do, however, claim that the pope was just stating an already settled matter that was taught by the universal ordinary magisterium. Remember, though, that this would have to meet the criteria we outlined earlier in this series; a proper subject, or teacher, object, or teaching, and context in which it was taught. The subject would be the bishops throughout the world, who indeed teach that only men may be ordained priests. So, that passes the test. The context is less relevant for universal ordinary magisterium, since there is no event in which this teaching is taught. But for the object to be valid for an infallible teaching, it would have to concern faith and morals, and it would have to be connected to a teaching Christ gave to His Apostles. And this is precisely where the debates surrounding this teaching lie. Does this really pertain to faith and morals? And can we be certain that Jesus really intended on teaching about a male priesthood? If the answer to either of these questions is negative, then a male priesthood cannot be infallibly taught.

The second big debate surrounding infallibly taught doctrine is about moral issues that Jesus didn’t directly teach about and instead rely more on ethical systems derived from reason alone. Take contraception, for example. Where does Jesus say that contraception cannot be used by couples? Remember how I mentioned natural law earlier in this episode? Well, given how sparse or arguably even non-existent Christ’s teachings are about contraception, a vast majority of arguments against their use comes from the idea that sex is intrinsically ordered towards procreation.

This is a teleological argument derived from Aristotelian metaphysics, which aren’t explicitly taught in the bible. If it could be demonstrated that the Church’s position on contraception relies entirely on secular Aristotelian metaphysics and ethics, and is not rooted in scripture, then it would be impossible to say that the Church teaches this infallibly.

In fact, given how Thomas Aquinas meshed a lot of natural law from Aristotelian metaphysics into his ethics, a lot of systematic theologians like Sullivan would argue that most of moral theology falls beyond the realm of infallibly defined teachings, the reason being that if the Church is allowed to infallibly teach based on Aristotelian metaphysics alone, it would also be allowed to infallibly teach based on other non-theology related sciences, such as astronomy or evolution. And that’s a rabbit hole we might not want to go down.

Okay, time to wrap things up. Here’s the sparknotes version of this entire series. We know via scripture that Jesus Christ promised He would be with His Church forever. We also know via scripture that He promised teaching authority to His Apostles, who passed down their authority to pastors and teachers who were called bishops, who also received the Apostolic ability of binding and loosing the Faithful to teachings. In this respect, Christ established a Church that is indefectible as a community, indefectible in Apostolicity, and indefectible in normative teachings. For a teaching to be infallibly taught, its teacher must have the authority to teach infallibly, the teaching must concern a topic that is capable of being infallibly defined, and the context must be appropriate. Concerning the teacher, it would have to be someone in Apostolic succession, which would be the bishops. But it cannot be just one bishop, but it would have to be all of them. The bishops either teach in unison while they are dispersed throughout the world or when they come together in ecumenical councils. They can also teach together when the bishop of Rome, who is the successor of Peter, leader of the Apostles, solemnly teaches from the seat of Peter, or ex cathedra.

Concerning what is taught, it must pertain to a matter of faith and morals, since Christ bound His followers to beliefs about God and behaviors for proper living, and it must be connected to something Jesus taught, since the Church does not create new doctrines but simply restates and clarifies His teachings. Finally, when councils and popes teach infallibly, it must be obvious that said authorities intend on doing so. Now, even though only a handful of doctrines meet this criteria, Catholics still ought to obey non-infallible teachings, given the vast wisdom and proper teaching authority of the bishops.

Speaking of non-infallible doctrines, there’s actually a great dissertation written by a Catholic U graduate, Lawrence King, that is all about non-definitive, or non-infallibly taught, Church teachings. It’s called “The Authoritative Weight of Non-Definitive Magisterial Teaching,” and it’s available online if you’d like to learn more.

Now, remember how I mentioned earlier that Thomas Aquinas included theologians as teachers in his definition of the word “magisterium”? The rest of Sullivan’s book is concerned with what role theologians play in the Church’s teaching authority. I will not be covering this in my series, but I highly recommend reading about it in his book.

So, there we have it. A justification of the Church’s teaching authority and an explanation of how it works. From this, we can derive a methodology for evaluating the authoritativeness of any given doctrine. And that’s precisely what I intend on proposing in my next series.

But what would be a good doctrine to expand and test out this methodology on? I have an idea. What about one of the most controversial teachings of the church? A teaching which impacts what the Church teaches about the fate billions of souls? A teaching whose recent articulation has led many to claim that the Church we believe in has been in a state of discontinuity and error for over fifty years now? I’ll see you next time when we start talking about the doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, or No Salvation Outside the Church. Until then, God bless!

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