The implicit and tacit expressions of the ordinary magisterium – Chapter IIIb of Fr J.M.A. Vacant’s nineteenth-century work on the magisterium

“The youth of the Church is eternal and her doctrine infallible – death and corruption shall never destroy the branches and tissues once formed.”

What is a Father of the Church? What authority do Doctors and theologians have in the Church? And what of the role of the liturgy?

This is the second half of Vacant’s long Chapter III. The first half considered how the ordinary magisterium teaches directly and explicitly, and how it makes use of secular learning.

This part addresses the relationship between the Church Fathers and the ordinary magisterium, before going on to describe how this magisterium teaches both implicitly through approval of the Fathers and other authorities, and through things like the liturgy. It concludes by describing tacit teaching, and how acts of the magisterium tacitly impose all that came previously.

His discussion of the criteria for theologians and doctors is particularly interesting.

As we already noted, the author J.M.A. Vacant was the initial director of the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique and was a seminary professor. This short work was awarded the prize for the theological competition in La Controverese, judged by members of the theological faculty of Lyon. Several theologians of the twentieth century engage with his ideas.

Image: Pacher’s altarpiece of the four Latin Fathers, Ss Jerome, Augustine, Gregory and Ambrose. (Source)




Master of Theology, Professor at the Major Seminary of Nancy

Printed with the permission of the Bishop of Nancy and the Archbishop of Paris.



Translated by the WM Review

Source – Les Amis du Christ Roi du France

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 IVa: The obligations imposed by the ordinary magisterium – how it does so
Chapter IVb: Can the ordinary magisterium create new obligations?
Chapter V: The doctrinal authority of episcopal magisterium
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium

Chapter III Continued (“IIIb”): How the ordinary magisterium of the Church expresses itself

Click here for Chapter IIIa

The implicit authority of Fathers, Doctors and Theologians

Thus the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church have become the immortal witnesses and organs of these teachings. But what, according to theologians, is necessary to merit the title of Father of the Church and to enjoy the doctrinal authority attached to it?

There are four conditions: great sanctity, high antiquity, eminent doctrine and the sanction of the Church.

These are the conditions which make the writings of the Fathers immortal and authoritative, especially in the struggle of which we just spoke. Indeed, what is required to survive (unlike the many works which fall into oblivion) is a pure doctrine, expounded in a superior manner and which receives the assent of the Church. The holy Fathers had an eminent theological knowledge – that is to say, the means of recognizing the faith of the Church and of presenting it in its true light and all its purity; they had holiness, and consequently an inviolable attachment to the revealed truths and a profound horror for everything that would have tarnished its purity. Several suffered martyrdom rather than deny the faith, and all would have preferred death to altering its integrity. To this, they add their antiquity: they lived when dogma was beginning to develop, and they applied themselves to expounding it accurately and defending it against heresies. This is in diction to what theologians have done since, namely unravelling dogma’s implications. This is why the whole Church rallied herself behind Athanasius, Hilary and Augustine as the representatives of orthodoxy in her struggle against the great heresies; this is why she has never ceased to make use of their writings and to profess full confidence in their orthodoxy through the mouths of her Pontiffs, her bishops and her theologians.

The Doctors of the Church who lived since the twelfth century, above all those whose doctrine has been especially recommended by the Roman Pontiffs, and enjoy great authority in the Catholic schools (such as St. Thomas Aquinas): these Doctors may be likened to the Holy Fathers. Although they do not enjoy this title, this is only because of the time in which they were born. They came after the holy Fathers: they lived at a time when human philosophy had been studied more and more, and offered its framework to the exposition of revealed truth. They were careful not to teach anything not conforming to tradition. By seeking out means of expounding Catholic doctrine with more systematisation and precision, they safeguarded the purity of this doctrine and distinguished the dogmas of faith and other certain truths from opinions disputed by men.

Finally, our great theologians share in the authority of the holy Fathers and Doctors to the extent that they share their attachment to tradition, and through their doctrine and the confidence they inspire in the pastors and the faithful.

The care these venerable writers took in expounding the faith of the Church, and the approval which they have received from her, means that their writings must be regarded as expressing the teachings of her ordinary magisterium. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this authority is not accorded to each of their statements taken in isolation, but rather to their teaching as a whole.

It follows that an isolated proposition taken from one of the Fathers, unless found in the great number of other Fathers or theologians, cannot simply be considered as the certain teaching of the ordinary magisterium.

But when a point of doctrine is admitted unanimously, or by more or less all of the Fathers or authorised theologians, it is an unmistakable sign that it forms part of the revealed truth, taught by the ordinary magisterium. Indeed, if it were otherwise, how could it have obtained the assent of all these authorised witnesses of the magisterium for so many centuries – and in preference to so many opinions which have disappeared, or which have only obtained the adhesion of a few authors? How could it have been presented by all of them, not as a more or less well proven assertion, but as a point of doctrine, that is, as a point taught by the Church? Therefore, any dogmatic formula which has this constant and unanimous agreement must be regarded as a certain doctrine and accepted as correct.

One could cite a great number of declarations in which the Supreme Pontiff and the Councils recognise this unquestionable (and consequently infallible) authority of the Fathers[1] or theologians.[2] It suffices to recall the prescriptions of the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council, which require Sacred Scripture to be interpreted “according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers” in “matters of faith and morals which belong to the edification of Christian doctrine.” These prescriptions do not attribute any less authority to this unanimous consent than to the judgment of the Church itself,[3] as well as Pius IX’s letter of 21 Dec. 1863, where he says that one is obliged to believe what Catholic theologians unanimously and constantly teach as belonging to the faith.[4]

The implicit authority of the liturgy and discipline

In addition to the causes of divergence and variation, we see that the ordinary magisterium has the means of maintaining the unity and purity of its express teachings. It is therefore understandable that, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the Church is no less infallible in her daily magisterium than in her solemn judgments.

But this magisterium, which is exercised by the express teaching of revealed truths and the doctrines connected with them, is also expressed in an infallible, although implicit, manner, by the discipline and worship of the Church, and by the conduct of the pastors and the faithful. This is a truth admitted by all theologians and it is unnecessary to demonstrate it at this point.

In order to understand this, we must remember that the doctrine, worship and discipline of the Church are like the various organs of one body, and that they lend each other mutual aid under the action of the Supreme Pontiff and the College of Bishops. The human body’s blood, muscles, bones and nerves fulfil functions which rely upon and complete each other: the blood could not be produced or circulate without the help of the muscles, nerves and bones; and the muscles, nerves and bones would quickly wither if the blood ceased to nourish them. Thus, in the mystical body of Jesus Christ, doctrine and faith are preserved through morality, discipline and worship – without which the revealed teachings would soon cease to be preached, believed and respected. And vice versa: morality, discipline and worship have the revealed doctrine as their first rule. Therefore, none of these “organisms” can suffer without all the others being affected; and in order to safeguard the infallibility of the Apostolic Magisterium, it is necessary that the assistance of the Holy Ghost be extended to ecclesiastical legislation. Consequently, Christian doctrine is manifested in discipline and liturgy, as well as in the express teachings of the Church.

It is undoubtedly the close connection of all these “organisms” which gives rise to the various assignments of ecclesiastical authority. Jesus Christ did not divide these assignments among the leaders of His Church in the same way that divide civil powers among several persons today. Today, some have legislative power, others judicial or executive power. But Christ has given all of the functions of ecclesiastical authority to all the members of the episcopal body. The Supreme Pontiff and the bishops are at once priests, teachers, legislators and judges. It may be less explicit than when they fulfil their ministry as teachers, but even their acts as priests, legislators and judges, truly manifest the teaching which we must believe.

“Echoes” of the magisterium

There is more. All who receive a ministry from the pope or the bishops become the instruments of their magisterium. We have already seen how the authority of the episcopate is communicated and shared among the lower ministers of ecclesiastical institution. Some of these ministers participate, as we have said, in all the assignments of pontifical power; but the others receive only a part of it; the pope, surrounded by his various congregations of cardinals, resembles the modern head of state surrounded by his minister of justice, of his minister of war, and so on.

Now, the auxiliaries of the pope or of the bishops are not charged with teaching – since they act in dependence on the Supreme Pontiff or on the bishops who are at the same time teaching doctors and legislators. Everything they do falls, in its own way, within the exercise of the implicit magisterium. In a certain way, the daily magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff thus acts not only through the doctrinal decisions of the Congregation of the Holy Office, but also through the disciplinary decisions of the Congregation of Rites or the Dateria,[5] and the same is true of the ordinary magisterium of the Bishops. In fact, the direction given to the faithful should regulate their conduct in accordance with the doctrine of Jesus Christ. This is why, moreover, we find an echo of the episcopal magisterium in the conduct of the faithful, as well as in their faith.

All the functions of the supernatural life that are exercised in the mystical body of Jesus Christ, under the action of the government of the legitimate pastors, thus become permanent manifestations of the Saviour’s doctrine.

Thus the Church is holy: in spite of her children’s personal faults (and even those of her pastors), her conduct throughout the ages is itself a “teaching”, similar to the example of Jesus Christ; for the Saviour always lives in the mystical body of which He is the head.

This teaching is before our eyes in all of the Church’s works, in her discipline, her liturgy, her institutions, her religious orders, her temples and monuments, in the devotions and practices of charity, zeal and piety of her children, in her history, in the lives of the saints she raises to her altars, in the lives of the humblest Christians who are docile to her voice, and in the civilisation, morals, language, and the arts of the peoples she has educated.

We see that each generation adds something to the unbroken chain of express or implicit acts of teaching, which manifest the doctrine of the Church. Thus there are always new  documents, of various origins, which express her doctrine. This doctrine is a sort of “capital invested in the Church, which she increases unceasingly by the express teachings of her solemn judgments and of her ordinary magisterium, as well as by the laws she passes and by the conduct she maintains. This capital is chiefly made up of the canon of Holy Scripture, doctrinal definitions, disciplinary laws, and the rules of the liturgy, as well as the works of the Fathers, theologians, and other ecclesiastical writers: but it is in the custody of the ordinary magisterium of the Church that this family treasure is placed.

She preserves it with jealous care, preventing anyone from questioning the points decided or defined. She modifies her discipline according to the times and the needs, but does not allow the legitimacy of the general laws she has laid down to be questioned. She upholds all these venerable monuments and sees to it that no part of them is lost.

It is the Church who continually interprets them, through the mouths of the Supreme Pontiffs, the bishops and all those to whom they have given this ministry.

The “tacit” magisterium

To what we have said about the explicit and implicit teachings of the ordinary magisterium, we must add that it can renew and reiterate all these teachings at any moment, and also all those expressed in our holy books and in the definitions of popes or councils.

But here is an observation to which I call the reader’s attention. The ordinary magisterium of the Church fructifies these treasures and offers them to her children. It does this not only when it interprets the doctrine contained in these monuments of past ages, but also when it is silent about them, and thus exercises itself in a tacit fashion.

The Church, in fact, has repeatedly placed these monuments in the hands of the pastors and the faithful as authentic witnesses of her doctrine. Now, since the Church is infallible and cannot go back on her decisions, all these documents are unceasingly imposed on our faith: in the same way, a law once passed and promulgated by the legislator is imposed forever on the obedience of those who are subject to it.

It is admitted, moreover, that in virtue of the promises of Jesus Christ, the teaching of the Church is perpetually extended to all revealed truths. Now, how can this be done if not by this magisterium which tacitly imposes on us all the doctrines which she once taught, and which are found expressed in the various monuments which she constantly presents to us as the rules of our belief and conduct? The ordinary magisterium is exercised, therefore, also through this tacit teaching.

The explicit teachings of the Church will often not even be understood, unless they are offered to us framed by this tacit teaching. Indeed, let us beware. Let us consider the doctrinal judgements made over the last four centuries on the Immaculate Conception, on grace, on the various points denied by the Protestants: Would these judgements have been understood, in the form in which the Church has expressed them, if they had been promulgated in the tenth century before the works of the scholastics, or in the third century before those of the Fathers of the Church? No! The dogmas would not have been sufficiently developed for the meaning and scope of most of these definitions to be understood. If we understand this meaning and scope, it is because we consider these definitions in the context of Catholic doctrine as a whole.

The Church, therefore, proposes to us certain points of her doctrine in a tacit manner, by the very fact that she proposes to us others in an explicit manner. The formal teachings of the Church contain, if you like, a tacit and new promulgation of the previous definitions and affirmations which have brought these teachings into their present form.

From this point of view, we may consider these doctrinal documents which the Church holds in her custody and offers to our belief as other organs of her ordinary magisterium. These organs are formed by the vital life-force which is proper to her. Or rather, she brings them out like so many branches of the doctrine which she received from the apostles, and she extends them unceasingly in all directions. In fact, according to St Paul’s beautiful image, the Church is a living body which lives and grows; and she lives and grows not only by the multiplication of her members, but also by the development of the formulae and monuments which contain her doctrine.

The pastors and doctors came after the apostles to work on this development – dedit pastores et doctores in ædificationem corporis Christi – and they added new theological monuments to those which the apostles had left us. As in a living being, this growth takes place according to a continuous plan and according to the direction given from the beginning. Each generation adds something to the developments which theology had received from past generations, and the ancient monuments of tradition are like the trunk and the mother branches from which comes the sap which produces the new monuments.

Since, on the other hand, the youth of the Church is eternal and her doctrine infallible, death and corruption shall never destroy the branches and tissues once formed. In the same way every year, a vigorous sap forms new layers of wood in the age-old oak of the forest, which grows new branches and creates new channels for the future.

The ordinary magisterium, therefore, extends to the whole of Christian doctrine, expressing it by explicit teachings, among which the writings of the Holy Fathers and theologians play a very considerable part; it also manifests it by implicit teachings, which result principally from discipline and the liturgy; finally, it affirms it by a tacit proposition of all that has been believed since the time of the Apostles, and of all that is contained in Sacred Scripture and the monuments of tradition.

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 IVa: The obligations imposed by the ordinary magisterium – how it does so
Chapter IVb: Can the ordinary magisterium create new obligations?
Chapter V: The doctrinal authority of episcopal magisterium
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Help the WM Review by donating today – all donations go directly towards helping us produce real Catholic research and studies

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

DonateDonate monthly

[1] See Denzinger, Enchiridion definitionum, n. 218, 219, 220, 22l, 243, 245, 272, 283

[2] See Denzinger, ibid., n. 505, 1439, 1442, 1508, 1511, 1532.

[3] See Fr Corluy, “De l’interprétation de la Sainte Écriture”; in La Controverse, 15 July 1885, pp 421-435

[4] After saying that the act of divine faith must not be restricted to truths defined by solemn judgments, he adds: “but [this obedience] must extend also to truths which, by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church spread throughout the world, are transmitted as divinely revealed, and therefore by the common and universal consent of Catholic theologians are held to be matters of faith.” Denzinger, n. 1536.

[5] One of the ancient offices of the curia, which dealt with things such as marriage dispensations and papal indults.

Leave a Reply