Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith

“How many examples are there in theology of problems that seem unsolvable, simply because they start from badly-posed questions.”

Dom Paul Nau OSB[1]

This essay continues my response to Professor Roberto de Mattei’s call for Catholics to rally around the Church’s tradition and to form a “new more compact front for orthodoxy.”[2] To this end, I have been analysing his treatment of traditional theology in his article on Pope Honorius, whom he calls a “heretic pope.”[3] We must be clear on what tradition is – particularly in terms of theology, the Church, and the hierarchy – if it is to be the basis of unity.

In this piece we will discuss:

  • The purpose and background of this study
  • The claim that the ordinary magisterium can teach errors and heresy
  • How infallibility is misunderstood today
  • What it means to trust the Church
  • The authority of the ordinary magisterium
  • “Catholic doctrine” as a theological note
  • The magisterium as a teaching authority
  • What the Church says about our duty to assent to the magisterium
  • The Rule of Faith and the life of the Christian
  • The Pope as the proximate rule of faith

This is an ongoing study.

Introduction considers general principles and the problems of “historical theology.”
Theology & History I addresses the relationship between the liturgy and history.
Theology & History II addresses the relationship between theology and history.

Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei is an in-depth analysis of an example of “historical theology” in practice.
Part I: The History addresses de Mattei’s historical narrative.
Part II: Undoubtedly Magisterial Acts? considers the nature and status of Honorius’s letters.
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church
Part IV considers the implications of a so-called “heretical pope.”
Part V will assess this “historical theology” in light of Pascendi Dominici Gregis.


Image: de Panicale, Source

Having previously shown (i) that it is very uncertain that Honorius’s letters contained doctrinal errors, (ii) that he was not condemned as a heretic (or, at least not in the sense that we understand this word today), and (iii) that his letters cannot be called “undoubtedly magisterial acts,” we must now examine de Mattei’s key theological claim. He writes:

“[Honorius’s letters] are undoubtedly magisterial acts, but in the non-infallible ordinary Magisterium there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations.[4]

While this is a general statement, I understand it to include the specific claim that the Roman Pontiff’s ordinary magisterium can contain, not only inconsequential errors (e.g., certain errors of fact) but also those that are dangerous to faith and morals, and thus to our salvation; and that as such (to invert the words of Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton) those who follow the teaching of the papal ordinary magisterium in such circumstances can thereby be put “into the position of ruining themselves spiritually through this obedience.”[5] As it is not specifically excluded, this proposition is necessarily included in the more general assertion.

The claim we have quoted from de Mattei is asserted with no reference – and claims made without evidence are refuted with a simple denial. Understanding this crisis is fraught enough, without making doctrinal points without authorities. We must stay close to the magisterium and approved theologians, especially those providing the context for the faith of the Church in the decades before Vatican II.

Any attempt to make sense of the crisis must keep in view the Church’s understanding of herself, namely her ecclesiology. We should be using this theology to understand the crisis, rather than ignoring or reinterpreting this theology. We must seek to understand its theses, rather than making simplistic inferences. As an example, not all errors are equal, and equating “non-infallible” with being able to teach heresy is not justified by theology, or even by logic. De Mattei’s essay does not acknowledge the onus of proving the thesis quoted above.

This claim is the heart of his article and it appears intended to put the reader in mind of Francis. We have previously shown that his history of Honorius is unsound: but what of this conclusion seemingly drawn from it? Is it true that the magisterium can contain errors dangerous to faith and morals? Does de Mattei provide a parallel for the events of the last sixty years, and resolve the enormous theological difficulties they present?

Infallibility of the magisterium

Let us begin by considering infallibility.

Infallibility is often discussed as if it were a tool whose owner can choose when to use it, provided he fulfils certain ritualised conditions. This idea can be pushed too far by a lack of understanding of final causes, or purposefulness. This can reduce infallibility to a sort of magical power.

According to this view, the conscious will of the “owner” and fulfilment of these ritualised conditions are the factors that determine whether a teaching is infallibly true, or whether it can lead to spiritual shipwreck and damnation. It is incumbent on the individual Catholic to work out whether the infallibility tool has been used, and give or withhold his assent accordingly. This view is presently common in popular commentary as a way of explaining the crisis.

But while it may be how some speak, we must note it this is not how anyone acts, at least at first. In reality, Catholics have been presented with teachings, liturgy, and practices which they come to realise contradict or are incompatible with things to which they were already bound; and in response they flee these harmful things and adhere to “tradition.” We cannot fault this: it is obligatory under the circumstances.

But rather than accurately describing their actions or just remaining open to explanations, some seek to justify themselves by devising complete theories of the crisis. It is normal to want an explanation – but such theories often contradict received theology. For example, a common attempt tries to resolve difficulties by recourse to technicalities and by positing non-infallible acts; and it presumes that if something is not infallible, then it may contain any level of doctrinal aberration. This imposes novel duties upon the faithful, e.g. to work out whether certain documents have been properly promulgated or have the nature of a true law, or to have sufficient theological knowledge to be able to check magisterial documents thoroughly, so as to decide whether they should assent to the teachings proposed – or even whether they are magisterial or not.

Out of this theory comes the idea, intended to explain traditional Catholics’ conduct for the last sixty years, that we can recognise an authorities’ legitimacy, whilst searching through their official acts for things that must be resisted.

There is no place in such a theory for the simple or uneducated person, unless we were to say that they are charismatically inspired by what Pope St Pius X called a “vital immanence” or a “blind sentiment of religion welling up” within them, telling them what is true and false. But these phrases are condemned by St Pius X in Pascendi and the Anti-Modernist Oath.[6] The concept of the “sense of the faithful” is sometimes treated in this way, but means something else entirely.

While the common theory mentioned above may seem to have some level of plausibility, it is inaccurate even as a description of what Catholics do. As I said, traditional Catholics do not really search through official documents in this way. Instead, they tend to adhere to the pre-conciliar magisterium and largely ignore what has come since. While this situation persists, the false theory may have some capacity to avoid harm. But problems arise when people start to believe that it does accurately describe their actions – and even that it describes the proper conduct of Catholics, who had previously been misled by what is now called “papolatry.” Under this view, Catholics should rather always be on their guard against the Church, at least in the face of the ordinary magisterium.

This distorts a previously diffident and pragmatic course, and relativises the crisis by making it an extreme case of something that was always latent in the Church. The idea of searching through authoritative documents in this way distorts both the concept of learning, and the proper relationship between a subject and a teacher, because learning is based around a receptive and docile attitude of mind towards the teacher and what is being taught.

These distortions lead to stranger and stranger theories, and the abandonment of more and more of the received theology. These theories also rarely contain any objective criteria by which we may know that the crisis is over, or even that our actions are a time-bound reaction to a crisis. This requires either that we use subjective criteria to decide when we can allow the Church to teach us again, or redefines the constitution of the Church and the relationship between Catholics and the teaching authority.

The most disastrous result is the destruction of trust in the Church.

Trust

The Church is the ark of salvation, within which we are kept safe from “the poisonous food of error,” and “nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.”[7] This trustworthiness is logically prior to the concept of infallibility, which flows from it as a consequence. It is true the charism of infallibility can be consciously exercised – but there is a way of looking at this which loses sight of the logical relationship.

Focusing on what is and is not infallible in the magisterium is profoundly the wrong way of understanding the crisis. It may seem plausible, but it misses the point and lands in a worse place than before. The true question is whether magisterial acts addressed to the whole Church can be dangerous to faith and morals. The idea that the magisterium can teach dangerous doctrines, and that the individual must be educated and alert enough to react, is no solution at all. It exacerbates the problems, not least by conceding that the Church is not a trustworthy teacher and guardian leading us to God. It concedes that we cannot trust the Church.

This conclusion is inescapable, because trusting her once or twice a century, or when we have checked that her teaching is true, is not trust.

But this trustworthiness of the Church is the primary fact which must be explained. Loopholes and mechanistic understandings of infallibility cannot be the foundation of our actions or our view of the crisis.

The Ordinary Magisterium

“The magisterium” is a permanent power to teach Christ’s doctrine, instituted by our Lord, which is exercised by the act of teaching, by those who have received this power.[8] Those who have received it – its subjects – are the Apostles and their successors alone (i.e., the Roman Pontiff and those bishops of particular churches, i.e. those who are the ordinaries of dioceses).[9]

What is the ordinary magisterium? Definitions vary, but Salaverri defines it thus:

The ordinary way is that in which the Bishops, continuing in community with the Roman Pontiff, exercise the Magisterium while dispersed throughout the world in their own dioceses.[10]

Sisto Cartechini describes its express exercise as follows:

[It] is exercised first of all by means of the doctrine expressly proposed and communicated, apart from formal definitions, by the supreme pontiff or by the bishops for the whole Church.[11]

This exercise is universal when something is proposed to the universal Church, whether through the morally unanimity amongst the bishops and the Roman Pontiff[12] or by the Roman Pontiff alone.[13]

According to Vatican I, points taught in this way as divinely revealed are to be believed with divine and catholic faith.[14] Even if not taught as divinely revealed, such points can still be as binding and infallible as solemn judgments.[15] This is a consequence of the universality of the Church’s teaching on a given point: something that is certainly taught and authoritatively imposed on the whole Church cannot be false (or at least cannot be dangerous),[16] and if it is taught as revealed it must necessarily be so.[17]

There are, however, some “universal” doctrines regarding which theologians “cannot determine” whether they “are taught merely authentically [“authoritatively”][18] or also infallibly.”[19] What are we to make of “authentic” doctrines, or those whose status is not clear?

Catholic Doctrine

According to Cartechini, truths taught universally “are all to be held at least as Catholic doctrine.”[20]

This theological note refers to “a proposition which is taught throughout the Catholic Church, by the Magisterium and in all Catholic schools.”[21] Cartechini gives the example of doctrines expressly and authentically taught in encyclicals.[22]

The Sacrae Theologiae Summa[23] defines Catholic doctrine as:

“[A] truth that is taught in the whole Church, but not always proposed infallibly (for example, what the Roman Pontiffs wish to teach explicitly in encyclical letters)”[24]

Salaverri develops this further. “Catholic doctrine” generally refers to what is “taught by the universal Magisterium, either infallibly or merely authentically.”[25] He quotes Bañez, defining Catholic doctrine as “things which are taught universally in the Catholic Church”[26] In the same place, he also quotes Suarez’s definition: “Catholic doctrine is the same thing as universal doctrine”.

Nicolau describes “Catholic doctrine” as “those things that the supreme magisterium of the Church wishes to teach,” even though they are not “proposed for belief’ (in the sense of being of faith) but rather assent.”[27] He says that a doctrine “taught and accepted in the Catholic Church,” if it has no “higher qualification, like being de fide, rightly […] can be said to be Catholic doctrine.”[28]

Cartechini observes:

If in encyclicals the pontiff does not exercise his infallibility [shown by context[29]], the propositions proposed must [still] be accepted, and also by grave obligation in grave matters: and with even an internal assent – not as for truths defined as infallible, but rather as doctrines to be held and taught.[30]

Regardless of infallibility, “when the pope teaches something in an encyclical, even if he does not define it, there is always a serious reason to say that what he teaches is at least sound doctrine.”[31] If doctrines in magisterial documents cannot be shown to be truths of divine faith, they “can always be said to be Catholic doctrine,” taught by “an act of true doctrinal authority, [albeit] not excluding the possibility of error.”[32]

Nonetheless, Dom Paul Nau notes that “the simple fact of being directly affirmed in an Encyclical can make certain a doctrine hitherto considered [merely] probable among theologians.”[33] To illustrate this, both he and Fenton cite the conduct and words of Cardinal Ottaviani in relation to a previously disputed thesis relating to the episcopacy. Following the promulgation of Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, the true thesis “must now be held as entirely certain by reason of what Pope Pius XII has said.”[34]

Such truths may not call for the assent of faith. But it is obvious from reading the encyclicals and other such texts that, even without the full exercise of papal authority, the popes do not consider their teaching to be anything less than the truth.

Cartechini writes of our grave duty to assent to this Catholic doctrine:

Whoever denies in a grave matter a doctrine taught by the pope (Catholic doctrine) in an encyclical is at least gravely temerarious.[35]

If simply denying it is so grave, what would these theologians say of those claiming that “Catholic doctrine” can be heretical?

What would it mean, to say that obligatory Catholic doctrine, in the sense defined above, is dangerously erroneous or heretical? Can any Catholic authority be marshalled for such a claim?

In summary, what is taught by the ordinary magisterium is Catholic doctrine, and we are obliged to believe it.

But how can this be, if it is not taught infallibly?

Essay continues below.

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Two types of magisterium

Salaverri divides the concept of a magisterium into i) an authority that “produces knowledge in its hearers,” either by arguments or proofs; and ii) an authority that “obtains assent,” because of the teacher’s authority, knowledge or truthfulness.[36] The Church has both types of authority. She is both “expert” and authority. She is supremely credible. Like Christ, she knows her teaching, she teaches it with authority, and imposes it upon us with a strict duty to assent to it.

Fenton writes:

Actually there is no such thing as a teaching issued by the Holy Father in his capacity as the spiritual ruler and teacher of all the followers of Jesus Christ which is other than authoritative. Our Lord did not teach in any other way than authoritatively, nor does His Vicar on earth when he teaches in the name and by the authority of his Master. Every doctrine proposed by the Holy Father to the entire Church militant is, by that very fact, imposed upon all the faithful for their firm and sincere acceptance.[37]

From this, he concludes:

[I]f we find in an encyclical letter, or, for that matter, in any document of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium which has been registered in his official Acta, a doctrinal declaration proposed precisely as morally certain, all the faithful owe to that declaration a full and morally certain assent or adherence. If, on the other hand, we find in these same documents some teaching set forth absolutely without qualification, either directly, or through unqualified condemnation of its contradictory as heretical or as erroneous, it would seem to follow that all Christians are bound to give that proposition an absolutely certain and irrevocable assent.[38]

Thus, we see that the Church’s act of teaching can also be a sort of disciplinary act, at least when it is promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.[39] At this point, such doctrinal statements – whether found in a bull, an encyclical, an exhortation or even a simple allocution – require the assent of the faithful.

Given all this, what is and is not infallible is not the question at hand. We start to see the problems of de Mattei’s claim in another recent book:

It could be objected that fifteen years is not sufficient time to attribute infallibility to the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church as expressed in these documents.[40]

This focus on time, repetition and infallibility misses the point, and would mean – if the statement above were true – that the Church does not have the right to impose doctrine authoritatively unless with a solemn judgment.1 But our duty to assent to Catholic doctrine is not just based on the truth of a proposition, but also because it is authoritative, and taught by the institution established to teach all men.

Of course, it is impossible for the human mind to accept contradictions, on any authority, and it cannot be obliged to do so. If such a situation appeared to arise, the legitimate teaching authority would enjoy the benefit of the doubt – unless and until it became clear that one is faced with a true contradiction. At this point, various questions would indeed need to be asked – some of which much graver than many wish to acknowledge.

But while the infallibility of various statements is an interesting topic for theologians, for most people it is a moot point: in all cases, we are to assent truly and interiorly to the exercise of the magisterium, particularly that of the Pope when addressing the whole Church.

This duty of assent is denied by many today, or reduced to a meaningless and conditional formula. This is likely because such a duty is nonsensical if acts of the magisterium are liable to be heretical, and thus to lead us away from God – as it appears to be doing today.

He who hears you, hears me

Some talk of infallibility as if Vatican I’s definition was tightly restrictive and the final word on the subject – rather than descriptive of the pope’s infallibility in solemn judgments. Nau states that this is a mistake, as the Council “was silent on the ordinary Magisterium,” a topic which the conciliar texts are not intended to address.[41] As such the definition cannot be taken as a definitively restrictive statement.[42]

However, the topic was widely discussed after Pius XII issued his encyclical Humani Generis. One paragraph, which sparked intense interest:

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.[43]

The fascinating exchanges about this paragraph all started from the fact that Catholics were bound to give true interior assent to all acts of the papal magisterium and that of the Roman congregations. They accepted, as Pius XII said, that the ordinary teaching of the Roman Pontiff was obligatory and came with the authority of Christ, who said “he who hears you, hears me.” Their discussion was about how and why this was so – but the duty itself was certain.

We can see this even in catechisms, which simply say things like “We are obliged to believe all the truths the Church teaches us.”[44] This idea is also found in Canon Law.[45] We are instructed and commanded to receive the entirety of the Church’s teaching, not to search through it for what is infallible or obligatory – let alone for what is contradictory or false. If the Church teaches her simplest pupils to receive all her teachings, then these teachings must be at least safe for us to embrace.

In our day, the presence of recent contradictions imposes itself on our minds, and obliges us to act according to our clear duties, and then to analyse if we are able. This is quite different from us having a regular duty to check authoritative documents for such things.

Once again, we see the fact that the Church considers herself to the trustworthy teacher and guardian of faith and morals, leading souls to heaven. In this role, the teaching of the magisterium is the proximate rule of faith for every Christian.

Rule of Faith

The Church imposes her teaching as “a public and social law”[46] as the Rule of Faith, which is the “the standard or norm according to which each individual Christian must determine what [he must believe].”[47]

Nicolau puts it thus:

The proximate, immediate and supreme norm or rule of faith for a Catholic is the teaching of the living Magisterium of the Church, which is authentic and traditional. For, this magisterium gives the whole revealed teaching, its genuine meaning and true interpretation, and it takes care that at all times and everywhere it proposes the infallible, authentic and revealed doctrine.[48]

The rule of faith is subdivided into the remote rule – “the Word of God (handed down in writing or orally)” – and the proximate rule – the “preaching of the ecclesiastical Magisterium.”[49]

Pius XII places his own seal upon this truth in the Encyclical Humani Generis, referring to the magisterium as the “teaching authority”:

This sacred Office of Teacher in matters of faith and morals must be the proximate and universal criterion of truth for all theologians, since to it has been entrusted by Christ Our Lord the whole deposit of faith – Sacred Scripture and divine Tradition – to be preserved, guarded and interpreted […] This deposit of faith our Divine Redeemer has given for authentic interpretation not to each of the faithful, not even to theologians, but only to the Teaching Authority of the Church.[50]

Can we claim to follow a proximate rule of faith if it only teaches once or twice a century with solemn judgments? Does a proximate rule of faith require constant checking to make sure its teachings are true? W.G. Ward addresses these questions:

He who holds that the Church is infallible only in her definitions of faith, studies divine truth by a method which we must maintain to be characteristically Protestant. He takes for his principles these definitions (as contained e.g. in Denzinger’s small volume) and manipulates them according to his own private views of history and logic, with no further deference or submission to the living Church. Now such an extravagance as this is by absolute necessity confined to highly educated intellects: the ordinary believer has no more power of proceeding by such a method, than by the more openly Protestant maxim of private judgment on Scripture. […] The Church, as they have been taught, in her full practical exhibition, is their one infallible guide. They well know that, if they would learn their religion, they must open their heart unreservedly to the Church’s full influence; study for their guidance those manuals and spiritual books which she places in their hand; listen with docility to the instruction of her ministers; practise those duties which she prescribes in the very form in which she prescribes them […] Is there anyone who would openly say that there is a “royal road” to religious truth [and] that the highly cultivated intellect is to seek it by a method, essentially different from that accessible to the ordinary believer? that far less deference is due to the Church’s practical guidance from the former than from the latter? An affirmative answer to this question is involved in the opinion which we are combating; but such an answer is so obviously and monstrously anti-Catholic, that no one will venture expressly to give it.[51]

Ward’s condemnation applies to those who adopt the distorted focus on infallibility.

To an extent however, we are all now obliged to do some of the things that Ward discusses. Faced with the current crisis, it is normal that we turn to things like Denzinger and “the manuals and spiritual books” that he mentions. But this crisis has imposed itself upon us, and rather than turning to an arbitrary date (such as the first seven ecumenical councils, as do certain groups), we are forced to turn to the period of peace – even if problems existed – immediately before these events. This period is still in living memory for many.

Further, we are not holding – as some theories do – that the “Church is infallible only in her definitions,” and subjecting the rest of her teaching to our “private views of history and logic.” On the contrary, our acceptance of the wider set of truths is a key piece of evidence about the nature of the crisis.

We acknowledge and insist that this is a crisis, and that the approach described by Ward is not how Catholics are to learn the faith: but certain other explanatory theories ignore this and make a virtue of that to which we have been driven by necessity. But if these theories do not recognise the problems of this approach, they are unable also to consider its implications.

Our historically-unusual approach does indeed favour the “highly educated intellects” that Ward mentions, but this is a consequence of the contradictions, and the breakdown of authority – not a feature of a new rule of faith. Indeed, this is the very essence of the crisis in which we find ourselves. De Mattei and others theorise this practical activity almost into a denial of the Catholic rule of faith – and there is no place in the new rule of faith for the “ordinary believers” mentioned above.

In this new rule, the preaching of the magisterium is liable to lead us into doctrinal danger unless we check it against some other rule, and it can only be followed if meets various conditions (such as having repeated itself to our satisfaction). This is neither proximate, nor really a rule.

Elsewhere, de Mattei presents this new rule, claiming that “tradition” is our proximate rule of faith:

Cardinal Billot defines Tradition as “the rule of faith anterior to all the others,” a rule of faith not only remote but also close and immediate, depending on the point of view being proposed to us.2

As de Mattei concedes, tradition is only our proximate rule of faith in a certain sense: but if we turn to the work cited, we see that Billot denies the sense in which de Mattei means it. Billot teaches that “tradition” can refer to the objective body of teaching received from the apostles and transmitted throughout all of history – and also to the act of handing on that teaching today.3 But unlike receptivity to the teaching of the magisterium, the former sense requires study and research: thus Billot draws his conclusion:

[I]f Tradition is unknown except by means of the research and progress proper to theological science up to the content of the precepts, it does not and cannot possess the nature of a proximate rule.4

In the text cited, Billot makes clear that tradition can only be considered as a proximate rule of faith insofar as it is authoritatively taught to us today by the “infallible and ever-living magisterium.”5 Treating the monuments of tradition as if we must routinely check magisterial teaching against them before giving assent, or as if we can search for truth without regard for the magisterium, is to invent a new and false rule of faith, and is denied even by the sources de Mattei cites.

St Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, addresses this same topic.

The Pope is the Teacher and Shepherd of the whole Church; thus, the whole Church is so bound to hear and follow him that if he would err, the whole Church would err.

Now our adversaries respond that the Church ought to hear him so long as he teaches correctly, for God must be heard more than men.

On the other hand, who will judge whether the Pope has taught rightly or not? For it is not for the sheep to judge whether the shepherd wanders off, not even and especially in those matters which are truly doubtful. Nor do Christian sheep have any greater judge or teacher to whom they might have recourse. As we showed above, from the whole Church one can appeal to the Pope, yet from him no one is able to appeal; therefore necessarily the whole Church will err if the Pontiff would err.[52]

This text may appear to condemn all traditionalists. But we are not contending that Vatican II simply taught something that is wrong in our opinion, but rather that we are unable to assent to things which contradict other truths to which we are already bound. The human mind cannot accept contradictions, and so we are forced to act accordingly, and draw what conclusions we must. But this requires careful examination of the situation – not a new conception of the rule of faith in which the Church cannot be trusted, but must rather be judged in ways condemned above.

On the contrary: the magisterium was instituted by Christ as an easy rule, because even the uneducated can thus know what to believe: as Van Noort says: “[w]hat could be easier than to give ear to a magisterium that is always at hand and always preaching?”[53] It is safe, because it “is infallible in safeguarding and presenting Christ’s doctrine,” and it is living, by which it is always possible “to explain the meaning of doctrines and to put an end to controversies.”[54]

Van Noort summarises elsewhere:

The Church’s preaching is the proximate rule of faith because all the faithful as such, be they uneducated or learned, can safely and directly determine the material object of their belief on the basis of that preaching and indeed they must. For precisely as believers, i.e., as far as regulating their belief is concerned, they can never be obliged to do research in Scripture and Tradition. For by granting the Church the gift of infallibility, God has seen to it that its preaching will never waver from the data of Scripture and Tradition in even the slightest detail.[55] (my emphasis)

Pope Pius XI expresses the same idea in Mortalium Animos:

These two commands of Christ, which must be fulfilled, the one, namely, to teach, and the other to believe, cannot even be understood, unless the Church proposes a complete and easily-understood teaching, and is immune when it thus teaches from all danger of erring.[56]

We must accept these truths and use them to judge our situation. The redefinition of the rule of faith entailed by de Mattei’s claim simply ignores or denies them. But we must ask whether it makes sense to suggest that this proximate rule of faith can teach both saving truth and error and heresy, as de Mattei does.

The Rule of Faith and the Roman Pontiff

Dom Paul Nau describes the relationship between the pope and the bishops in the teaching apostolate:

“The sovereign pontiff is in his own right, the universal teacher of the whole Church: contrariwise to the other bishops, each of whom is the teacher of his own diocese only, and who are teachers of the universal Church only when solidly united around the pope.”[57]

Wilhelm and Scannell conclude from this idea that “the Catholic Rule of Faith may be legitimately reduced to the sovereign teaching authority of the Holy See.”[58]

The classic sixth-century text from Pope Hormisdas, quoted by Vatican I and many theologians, illustrates this:

The first condition of salvation is to maintain the rule of the true faith. And since that saying of our lord Jesus Christ, You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, cannot fail of its effect, the words spoken are confirmed by their consequences. For in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine been held in honor. Since it is our earnest desire to be in no way separated from this faith and doctrine, we hope that we may deserve to remain in that one communion which the Apostolic See preaches, for in it is the whole and true strength of the Christian religion.[59]

Cardinal Louis Billot teaches the same: “The Pope is the living rule which the Church must follow in belief and always follows in fact.”[60] He has the authority to impose his ordinary teaching upon the universal Church, and the body of bishops have universal authority only when united with him.

This role, as universal teacher, is what leads St Robert Bellarmine to teach that, while a pope may fall into heresy and even teach it as a private man, it is impossible that he could teach heresy (or dangerous error) as pope:

“The Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,” that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne.”[61]

Nau applies all of this to acts of the pope’s ordinary magisterium such as encyclicals, which he says have “the character of a rule of faith and an authentic source of doctrine, universally recognised in the letters of the first Popes, and still affirmed for their encyclicals by contemporary Pontiffs.”[62]

These principles evidently apply whether we are discussing solemn judgments or things like encyclicals or apostolic exhortations. The Pope teaches the whole Church, whether infallibly or not, and whether with solemn judgements or not. The whole Church must and does in fact follow him. And of this, Nau asks:

Is this not the intimate persuasion of all the faithful? “I believe in the Catholic Church,” they profess in their Creed. But from whose lips do they hear the words of the Church? Those of a few educators, those of their catechists, of their parish priest. How could they be sure of encountering the authentic thought of God who speaks through his Church, if it were not enough for them to know that these priests are in union with their Bishop, who himself remains united to the centre of Unity, the See of the Roman Pontiff?

Centre and Cause of infallible unity, how could this See be subject to error?[63]

Preliminary Conclusions

Any extra content in the Pope’s “non-infallible ordinary magisterium” may serve to protect and guard the faith,[64] but there is no sense in any of these authorities that it can contain heresy or dangerous error. We have already shown that the case of Honorius does not prove this, and indeed an historical account could not prove this without a theological authority. It is incumbent on de Mattei to provide such authorities, and he does not do so.

The idea that the pope’s ordinary magisterium can contain dangers errors and heretical formulations is contrary to (or at least “not in keeping” with) the tradition of the Church and her theology, and entails a radical redefinition of the Catholic rule of faith. As such, this divides Catholics, rather than forming de Mattei’s desired basis for unity. We must unite around the tradition and received theology of the Church, and not divide ourselves and exclude each other on the basis of historical theology and flawed theories of the crisis.

But how does all this apply to Pope Honorius, and what more have Catholic theologians said about this “non-infallible magisterium”? What is the real nature and malice of heresy, and what would it mean for the Church to be offering it to us, even if it were not imposed?

These shall be subjects of the next part. In the meantime, let us thank God for what Pius XI called the “perfect and perpetual immunity of the Church from error and heresy,” and for making us members of this Holy Roman Church, especially at the hour of her Passion.[65]

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This is an ongoing study.

Introduction considers general principles and the problems of “historical theology.”
Theology & History I addresses the relationship between the liturgy and history.
Theology & History II addresses the relationship between theology and history.

Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei is an in-depth analysis of an example of “historical theology” in practice.
Part I: The History addresses de Mattei’s historical narrative.
Part II: Undoubtedly Magisterial Acts? considers the nature and status of Honorius’s letters.
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church
Part IV considers the implications of a so-called “heretical pope.”
Part V will assess this “historical theology” in light of Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

This ongoing exclusive translation also deals with various relevant topics.

The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs – J.M.A. Vacant, 1887.

Introduction & Chapter I: The ordinary and universal magisterium in general
Chapter II
: The ministers or organs of the ordinary magisterium
Chapter IIIa: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (explicitly)
Chapter IIIb: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (implicitly and tacitly)
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium


[1] Dom Paul Nau OSB, Une Source Doctrinale: Les encycliques – Essai sur l’autorité de leur enseignement, Les Editions du Cèdre, Paris, 1952, p 62. Our translation. Available at: http://liberius.net/livre.php?id_livre=587

[2] Roberto de Mattei, ‘What do the unanswered criticisms of Amoris Laetitia teach us today?’ Voice of the Family Digest, 28 April 2021. Available at: https://voiceofthefamily.com/what-do-the-unanswered-criticisms-of-amoris-laetitia-teach-us-today/

[3] Roberto de Mattei, Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church (henceforth LPFR), Angelico Press, Brooklyn NY, 2019. 23-29.

[4] Ibid 28.

[5] This phrase is from Fenton, who gives this as an impossibility in ‘The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals Part I,’ American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. CXXI, August 1949, pp. 136-150. Available at: http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=779&start=0

[6] St Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 1907, no. 7. Available at: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10pasce.htm And The Oath Against Modernism, 1910, no. 1. Available at: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10moath.htm

[7] Vatican I Pastor Aeternus 4.4.7 Available at: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm

[8] Cf. the definition given by Cardinal Pietro Parente, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee 1951. 170.

[9] The power of magisterium is linked to the power of jurisdiction in various ways, and the exact nature of the relationship is somewhat debated – but the subjects (“holders”) of the power of the magisterium the successors of the apostles, which are those residential bishops who enjoy ordinary jurisdiction. As such, auxiliary bishops and other clergy are not considered to be subjects of the magisterium, although they may enjoy a delegated participation in this. Consider Chapter II of Vacant, here: https://wmreview.co.uk/2021/08/27/vacant-oum-introduction-chapter-ii/ Further texts from Salaverri expressing this: “The Episcopate at least implicitlyis taught to be of divine right. It is defined further that Bishops are successors of the Apostles by divine institution in their ordinary power of jurisdiction.” No. 344. “Residential Bishops are the heads of the particular Churches, who have the ordinary office of ruling a certain flock of the faithful, with the full power of its own nature of teaching, sanctifying and governing. Residential Bishops are said to be the successors of the Apostles.” no. 542. Joachim Salaverri, ‘On the Church of Christ’, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB translated by Kenneth Baker SJ 2015. Berry also notes: “Priests, catechists, parents, and other are simply witnesses to the teachings of the Church.” (258) Cf. also the discussion on “successors of the apostles,” page 232. E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ, Wipf Stock and Publishers, Oregon, dated 1955.

[10] Salaverri 544

[11] Sisto Cartechini SJ, Dall’opinione al Domma Valore delle Note Teologiche, Edizioni «La Civiltà Cattolica», Roma 1953, p 20. Translated with help of DeepL. Cartechini also discusses its “implicit” and “tacit” teaching, as does J.M.A. Vacant in his study. Cf. also Fenton: The acts of the ordinary magisterium include the daily teaching of the pope and bishops as found “in the liturgical prayers of the Catholic Church, in the great symbols or formularies which state the essentials of 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 truth to the children of men” Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, 1941, republished as What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018, p 116.

[12] Salaverri no. 547.

[13] J.M.A. Vacant, The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs, Paris 1887, Chapter VI – published in English by the WM Review at: https://wmreview.co.uk/2021/07/26/is-the-roman-pontiff-infallible-in-his-ordinary-magisterium-translation-from-theologian-j-m-a-vacant/

See also Salaverri no. 645-648, and assumed throughout Fenton, ‘The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Encyclicals Part II’, American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. CXXI, September 1949, 210-220. Available at http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=781.  Some deny that the Pope can exercise in himself a universal ordinary magisterium but differences here are largely in terminology and based around what makes a judgment “solemn.” They argue that if the Roman Pontiff imposes a point of doctrine on the universal Church, this would be an act of the extraordinary magisterium. This is discussed elsewhere in this essay.           

[14] “Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.” Vatican I, Dei Filius Chapter 3 https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm

[15] “Thesis 13. Bishops, successors of the Apostles, are infallible when in agreement with the Roman Pontiff they impose on the faithful a doctrine to be held definitively, whether in a Council or outside of a Council.” Salaverri p 198.

[16] Consider Cartechini’s treatment of the imposition of laws and disciplines and their connection to doctrine: “As to the juridical life of the Church, it must be said that general councils and the pope cannot establish laws whose observance is sin. For Christ gave the Church the power of jurisdiction to lead men to eternal life; but if the Church included mortal sin in her laws, she would oblige men to lose eternal life. Nor, on the other hand, can God dispense from the natural law. Therefore the Church cannot define as vice what is honest, nor, on the contrary, honest what is vice; she cannot approve what is contrary to the Gospel or to reason. Hence there can be nothing in the Code of Canon Law that in any way opposes the rules of faith and the sanctity of the Gospel, since ecclesiastical legislation must necessarily have a connection of dependence on revealed moral principles, which the Church has the task of interpreting and applying for all the faithful […] Therefore, whenever the Code proposes some doctrine concerning faith and morals as the basis of its prescriptions, this doctrine is to be considered as taught infallibly by the ordinary Magisterium.” Cartechini 22. See also Zulueta: “Since the Church of Christ has the premise of infallibility for her moral guidance as well as for her doctrinal teaching, it forms part of a Catholic’s duty to recognise as good and righteous the laws which the Church makes for the conduct of all her subjects. For if they could be morally bad the Church would be capable of leading her entire flock morally astray, and so her infallibility in morals would cease.” F. M. De Zulueta, S.J. Letters on Christian Doctrine (First Series) Vol. 1, Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd. London, 1922. 324.

[17] Vatican I, and Cartechini 39 throughout. Doctrines taught universally, but which are not presented as divinely revealed, may still be infallible and require the assent of faith – but whether this is divine faith, or so-called “ecclesiastical faith” is well beyond the scope of this essay.

[18] In English, “authentic” suggests “authenticity,” but the word is derived from the Greek for “authority.” Salaverri no.504.

[19] Salaverri no. 893.

[20] Cartechini 39.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Doctrines that are not formally and categorically proposed as the word of God, but are nevertheless expressly and authentically taught, as is often the case in encyclicals, are called Catholic doctrines.” Ibid.

[23] This “famed” series contains Salaverri’s de Ecclesia, which Fenton called “one of the very best recent traditional manuals.” Fenton, ‘The Teaching of the Theological Manuals,’ American Ecclesiastical Review, April 1963, pp. 254-270. Available at http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/viewtopic.php?p=7489

[24] This appears in the front matter of each volume, for example at the start of that containing Salaverri, p 1.

[25] Salaverri no. 893.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Michaele Nicolau SJ, On Christian Revelation,’ in Sacrae Theologiae Summa IA (On Christian Revelation), Trans. By Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith, USA 2015. 37.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Cartechini states that “this must appear from the subject matter, the state of the matter and the words used.” 39.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Cartechini 42

[32] Salaverri 893.

[33] Nau, Encyclicals 75.

[34] Ibid, and Fenton, ‘Pope Pius XII and the Theological Treatise on the Church’, in American Ecclesiastical Review December 1958, pp 407-419. Available at: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=5086

[35] Cartechini 39.

[36] Salaverri 186.

[37] Fenton, ‘Infallibility in the Encyclicals,’ American Ecclesiastical Review, March 1953, pages 177-198. Available at www.strobertbellarmine.net/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=319

[38] Ibid.

[39] Canon 9 on 1917 Code of Canon Law: “Laws laid down by the Apostolic See are promulgated by publication in the official commentary Acta Apostolicae Sedis [Acts of the Apostolic See], unless in particular cases another mode of promulgation has been prescribed; and they take their force only upon the completion of three months from the day on which the number of the Acta [Acts] comes out, unless by the nature of the thing they bind immediately, or in the law itself a longer or shorter pre-enforcement period is specially and expressly established.”

[40] He continues: “[Fifteen years is not sufficient] for its being closed to reform, especially since over recent decades we have seen the ecclesiastical authorities adopt ambiguous and, at times, erroneous moral positions.” Roberto de Mattei, On the moral liceity of the vaccination, Schola Palatina, Rome, 2021, p 9. Although applied here to a specific issue, this concept of sufficient time and repetition is one of de Mattei’s general hermeneutics for understanding the crisis. However, as with the general focus on infallibility, it bypasses the issues. The crisis consists in the imposition of dangerous errors and harmful laws by what appears to be Catholic authority. The problem is that this is not possible according to Catholic theology. The solution cannot consist in simply contradicting Catholic theology, which raises even greater problems regarding the indefectibility of the Church before the Council. This false solution cannot be justified by the evidence of “recent decades” which it is proposed to explain, as this simply assumes what needs to be proved. All in all, this hermeneutic is not a solution, it is a denial of the problem.

[41] Nau Encyclicals 69.

[42] “If it was impossible, without soliciting the texts of the Council, to read into them an affirmative answer, it was no more legitimate to base a negation on them.” Ibid.

[43] Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis 1950, 19. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html 20.

[44] Catechism of St Pius X, 172/31.

[45] Canon 1324 (1917): “It is not enough to avoid heretical depravity, but also those errors should be diligently fled that more or less approach [heresy]; therefore, all must observe the constitutions and decrees by which these sorts of depraved opinions are proscribed and prohibited by the Holy See.”

[46] Joseph Wilhelm and Thomas B. Scannell, A Manual of Catholic Theology, based on Scheeben’s “Dogmatik”, Benziger Brothers, New York 1899. P 85

[47] Mgr G. Van Noort, ‘Christ’s Church’, Dogmatic Theology II, Newman Press, Maryland 1957. 121.

[48] Michaele Nicolau SJ, Introduction to Theology,’ in Sacrae Theologiae Summa IA (On Christian Revelation), Trans. By Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith, USA 2015. 37. 6. Wilhelm and Scannell put it in similar terms: “The Rule of Faith was given to the Church in the very act of Revelation and its promulgation by the Apostles. But for this Rule to have an actual and permanently efficient character, it must be continually promulgated and enforced by the living Apostolate, which must exact from all members of the Church a docile Faith in the truths of Revelation authoritatively proposed, and thus unite the whole body of the Church, teachers and taught, in perfect unity of Faith.” 85.

[49] Van Noort, 122.

[50] Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis 1950, no. 18, 21. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html

[51] William George Ward, The Authority of Doctrinal Decisions Which Are Not Definitions of Faith, London: Burns, Lambert, and Burns, 1866, pp. 82-84. Available at:  https://archive.org/details/TheAuthorityOfDoctrinalDecisions/

[52] St Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, trans. Ryan Grant 2nd Edition, Mediatrix Press, 2017, p 521.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D., Dogmatic Theology, Volume III, The Sources of Revelation, Divine Faith, Translated and Revised by John J. Castelot, S.S., S.T.D., S.S.L. & William R. Murphy, S.S., S.T.D., The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1961. p. 7.

[56] Pius XI, Mortalium Animos 1928, available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19280106_mortalium-animos.html

[57] Dom Paul Nau, ‘An Essay on the Authority of the Teaching of the Sovereign Pontiff,’ Revue Thomiste 1956, printed as ‘The Ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church’ in Pope or Church? Angelus Press, Kansas City Missouri, 1998, p 26. Wilhelm and Scannell also note that in “the action of the Teaching Apostolate, the members of which are in their turn subject to their Chief.” 85. Further: Vatican I’s dealings with infallibility are descriptive, not necessarily restrictive. Both reason and authorities suggest that the pope’s ordinary teaching, when addressed to the universal Church or included in the Acta Apostolic Sedis (the Holy See’s organ of promulgation, Can. 9) is itself a sort of ordinary and universal magisterium. Cf. Chapter VI of J.M.A. Vacant, The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs, Delhomme et Briguet, Booksellers-Publishers, Paris 1887. Published in English by the WM Review here: https://wmreview.co.uk/2021/07/26/is-the-roman-pontiff-infallible-in-his-ordinary-magisterium-translation-from-theologian-j-m-a-vacant/

[58] Wilhelm and Scannell 85-6.

[59] Note that this idea of “communion” does not refer to a purely legal membership or recognition: indeed, this communion is in what “the Apostolic See preaches,” and is ordered towards a remaining one in faith and doctrine. Indeed, following this “rule of the true faith” is “the first condition of salvation.” This text is quoted by Wilhelm and Scannell 86, also found in Session IV Chapter IV of Vatican I, available here: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm

[60] Cardinal Louis Billot SJ, L’Église II – Sa constitution intime, trans. L’Abbé Jean-Michel Gleize SSPX, Courrier de Rome, no year given. 950. This text was taken from a translation direct from the Latin by Novus Ordo Watch, available here: https://novusordowatch.org/billot-de-ecclesia-thesis29/

[61] Bellarmine 532.

[62] Nau, Encyclicals 59.

[63] Nau, Encyclicals, 76.

[64] Cf. Fenton: “[T]he commission given to and the responsibility incumbent upon the successor of St Peter must not be considered as limited to the bare presentation of the truths revealed by God and entrusted to His kingdom on earth. The Prince of the Apostles was empowered and commanded to act as a shepherd to Christ’s sheep, and to feed His lambs and His sheep. He and his successors are thus obligated to nourish and to protect the faith of their brethren within the Church. The task which God has entrusted to them makes it imperative that they authoritatively discountenance tenets or propositions injurious to faith or morals even on points upon which they have not as yet issued definitive and absolutely irrevocable decisions.

“Thus we lay ourselves open to very serious misunderstandings when we fail to appreciate the fact that the teaching of the Church must be taken as a unit. While it remains perfectly true that not every individual authoritative statement issued by the ecclesia docens is to be accepted with the assent of divine faith, we must remember that all of the doctrinal activity of the Catholic Church is essentially nothing more or less than the highly complex process of teaching the content of divine public revelation. All of the subsidiary or preparatory authoritative pronouncements of the Holy Father or of the entire ecclesia docens; all of the decisions given by the Church’s magisterium on matters connected with the deposit of revelation rather than with the formal content of that revealed message, must be considered as a contribution to and as a part of the process of teaching and guarding the divine teaching delivered to the Church by the apostles.” ‘The Religious Assent due to Teachings of the Papal Encyclicals’, American Ecclesiastical Review, July 1050 pp 59-67, pp 65-7. Available here: http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/fenton/The%20Religious%20Assent%20Due%20to%20the%20Teachings%20of%20Papal%20Encyclicals.pdf

[65] Pius XI, Quas Primas 1925 no. 22 Available at: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius11/p11prima.htm

  1. De Mattei writes elsewhere that the Church does have this right, through her authoritative but non-infallible magisterium. “In adherence to theological and moral truths, the ultimate court is one’s conscience; but an external objective principle or norm is required on which the conscience can be founded. This external law is stated by the Church through her Magisterium.” But it is not possible to reconcile this with the claim that we are discussing, for the reasons explained in this essay and the next. Source.
  2. LFPR 185, ebook edition. Originally published as an article entitled ‘Resistance and Fidelity to the Church in Times of Crisis’
  3. Cardinal Louis Billot, La Immutabilidad de la Tradición contra la Moderna Herejía Evolucionista, Spanish version published in the Argentine magazine “Moenia”, and prepared by Octavio Agustín Sequeiros and María Delia Buiset, revised by Elsa Solari de Falcionelli, translation of the fourth edition of the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome (1929), p 13.
  4. Billot continues: “Therefore it is necessary to come to the ecclesiastical preaching, considered not in the broadest sense as the coherent succession of preaching from the initial revelation, but absolutely in the practice of its time, as mentioned above. In this case, of course, it is still always tradition insofar as this preaching transmits what it has explicitly or implicitly received from the ancients: but then it is already tradition under the precise form of the authoritative magisterium which clearly sets out and explains what it is necessary to believe according to the revelation which descended from the apostles. And so it is also a proximate and immediate rule of faith, which coincides with the infallible and ever-living magisterium of the Catholic Church, in so far as it is formally magisterial.” Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

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