Degrees of Church Authority: Should We Believe Everything the Catholic Church Says?

It can often be confusing as to which teachings of the Church are infallible, and if we may question certain statements, especially with regard to the statements of the Pope. I have often struggled with this question myself, and while I still don’t have a perfect comprehension of how to discern the degree of authority of individual statements of the church, I think the following that I’ve learned from my Theology class has helped me tremendously in coming to a better understanding.

(Also: By all means, if you are knowledgeable in theology and see anything that needs correction or further explanation, please leave a comment!)

When it comes to Magisterial teaching (the teaching of the Church, e.i. the body of bishops with the Pope as its head), we can identify three main levels of authority: divinely revealed dogma, definitive doctrine on matters closely connected with divinely revealed dogma, and the ordinary (not per se infallible) teaching of the Church.[1] (Though the “ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters”[2] is sometimes considered a fourth category). Furthermore, in any of these instances, a teaching may only be infallible when speaking on matters of faith and morals (not on matters of say, economics or science, except perhaps as they relate to faith and morals). We as Catholics must assent to all three of these instances of teaching, though to different degrees according to the level of authority.

Infallible, Divinely Revealed Dogma

The infallible dogma of the Church, also called definitive dogma, are those “truths taught as divinely revealed,” and we owe them “the assent … of theological faith.”[3] This type of assent is also called the “‘obedience of faith,’”[4] as following Romans 16:26: “according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith.” This means that such dogmas require a definitive assent; if we dissent from these teachings we commit a very grave sin and are no longer in communion with the Church and Christ’s teaching through her.[5]

The instances of infallible dogma include:

  1. The teachings of the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra, “that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”[6] These instances are extremely rare, but essentially the Pope speaks ex cathedra when he announces that he is teaching from the authority of the seat of Peter, and that this is a truth divinely revealed and to be definitively held by the whole Catholic Church.
  2. The teachings of the bishops “in agreement on one position as definitively to be held” as divinely revealed.[7]
  3. And especially the decrees of an Ecumenical or General (universal) Council of the Bishops approved by the Pope. Through such councils, the teachings of the bishops are “even more clearly verified.”[8] Such “definitions” of “an ecumenical council … must be adhered to with the submission of faith.”[9]

Definitive Statements Closely Related to Revealed Dogma

Regarding the “definitively proposed statements on matters closely connected with revealed truth,”[10] the Church states that “these must be firmly accepted and held,”[11] and that “every believer … is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters.” (DC, 6).[12] Thus, the Church clearly states that the Church speaks infallibly on such matters.

The church exercises this level of authority “when the Magisterium proposes ‘in a definitive way’ truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation.”

Ordinary Teaching on Faith and Morals

When it comes to the “Ordinary teaching on faith and morals,” however, the Church states that we do not owe a definitive assent of faith, but rather a religious assent, which I will explain more below. The instances of this ordinary teaching of the Church include:

 “When the Magisterium, not intending to act ‘definitively,’ teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths.”[13]

Religious Assent versus Assent of Faith

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith describes religious assent as “the religious submission of will and intellect.”[14] This document also explains that “this kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.”[15] In other words, we should have an attitude of submission to the Church because we respect her authority from God and wish to obey the faith.

To further explain this: the term “religious assent” comes from the latin obsequium religiosum, which can also mean “religious respect.”[16] This phrase means that we should be ready to give assent to all the Magisterium’s teachings on faith and morals out of respect for the sacred authority given her by Christ.[17] This respect is especially due to the Pope because of his office as the successor of Peter, to whom Christ gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven, as stated in Vatican II, Lumen Gentium:

“this religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”[18]

While not everything the Pope says is infallible (and as mentioned above, it is in fact very rare for him to speak ex cathedra), we should still have an attitude of humble respect for his statements on matters of faith and morals, according to the degree in which he speaks in his office as Pope.

This religious assent to the Pope and the Magisterium is similar to how a child should respect and obey their parents, since the parents have a rightful authority over them and are generally wise in their advice, even though they of course are not perfect. Similarly, (and even more so), we assent to the Magisterium because her authority is given to her by Christ and she is guided by the Holy Spirit (though the members of the Magisterium may cooperate with the Holy Spirit and appeal to this authority to a greater or lesser degree).

In essence: Though the Pope and the other members of the Magisterium, as human beings, are imperfect, we ought to assent to them to the degree in which they exercise their office. This is similar to how “a child should obey his father out of piety, and the father can invoke his God-given role as father to a greater or a lesser degree.” To further the analogy:

“Sometimes the father only interposes his paternal office slightly, and the child knows that a slight reason would be enough to justify transgressing his father’s request. At other times the father interposes his paternal office more significantly, so the child knows that it is unlikely any reason would justify disobedience. And sometimes, in rare cases, the father can lay his entire paternal office between the child and a given deed, as though to say: If you do this, you utterly disrespect my paternity. The child who goes ahead with the deed at that point estranges himself from his father.”[19]

In short, though one does not commit a grave sin by disagreeing with the church on matters that are only due religious assent, we ought to do so out of respect. We ought not to dissent from these teachings without due cause, and if we do have cause to question it, we should closely examine whether it is consistent with the rest of the Catholic Faith.

 On the other hand, the assent of faith due to infallible teachings is really quite simple: to dissent from those infallible teachings would be to commit a very grave sin and to estrange oneself from the Church, just as in the example above the child would estrange himself from his father.

God bless you and keep you,

~Beloved Dreamer~

[1] Brother Andre Marie. “The Three Levels of Magisterial Teaching.” 2007.

[2] Marie.

[3] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Donum Veritatis.

[4] Marie.

[5] Marie.

[6] Vatican I. Pastor Aeternus.

[7] Vatican II. Lumen Gentium.

[8] Lumen Gentium.

[9] Lumen Gentium.

[10] Marie.

[11] Donum Veritatis.

[12] As quoted by Marie.

[13] Donum Veritatis.

[14] Donum Veritatis.

[15] Donum Veritatis.

[16] Dr. Jeremy Holmes. “On non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium and the meaning of ‘obsequium religiosum.’” The Catholic World Report. 2017.

[17] Holmes.

[18] Lumen Gentium.

[19] Holmes.

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