How can we find the teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium? Tradivox Catechism Review – Part I

“The body of catechisms witnesses to the universal ordinary magisterium.”

Tradivox Catechism Review
Part I: How can we find the teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium?
Part II: What do the catechisms tell us about heretics and the Church?
Part III: How is the Church “visibly united in faith,” according to Cardinal Billot?
Part IV: Why is it essential that the Church is visibly united in faith?
Part V: What sort of heresy results in being outside the Church?
Part VI: What is the difference between an excommunicate and an open heretic?

Obj. I: Are we obliged to believe every person who calls himself a Catholic?
Obj. II: Should mistaken Catholics be called “material heretics”?
Obj. III: What is the state of a Catholic who submits to a false magisterium?

The Tradivox Catholic Catechism Index, a project of Sophia Institute Press, is now in its second year and going strong. So far it has published eight volumes containing many old diocesan catechisms and the Catechism of the Council of Trent. The proposed series will run to 20 volumes including around 30-50 catechisms in total. Some texts will not be printed, but will be kept on a searchable digital platform with all of the others.

This is a truly astounding project and of great importance to anyone interested in understanding the Church’s doctrine.

What is this project?

In brief, the project is focused on republishing the official catechetical works issued by diocesan bishops over the past several centuries. Each text is being re-typeset and published in imitation calfskin hardback. Here is the collection so far:

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The books are really very useful in establishing points of doctrine. They also look great on the shelf, and personally I really enjoy the expectation of the quarterly publication.

The goal has obviously been to make things look classy, whilst keeping them affordable. This is laudable – but it is a shame that they are glued rather than smyth-sewn. However, given the scale of the project, we can hardly complain.

Regrettably, the volumes so far have not had proper headers – instead of telling us the topic or chapter at hand, the header tells us which catechism we are reading. I recently raised this on Twitter with Sophia Institute Press, who said that the volumes only note the author and the title of the work in the running headers for consistency, as some volumes contain several different catechisms.

This is somewhat useful when there are three catechisms in one book, but it is far from ideal even then. This is made especially problematic in an edition like the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent. This large volume contains one catechism, and there is no reason for a header to indicate just that. It would have been far more useful for it to indicate the specific chapters, or even just the four parts. Ease of use is of greater value than consistency.

But in spite of this, this series really is wonderful.

Here are the volumes currently published, or to be announced:

Tradivox Catechism Series – Titles Available (click to expand)

Tradivox I – Three shorter catechisms. (UK readers)

  • Bishop Edmund Bonner – An Honest Godley Instruction. A foundational text written by a bishop who repented under Queen Mary, returned to the Catholic Church and died a confessor under Elizabeth I (1556)
  • Fr Laurence Vaux – A Catechisme of Christian Doctrine (1567)
  • Fr Diego de Ledesma – The Christian Doctrine (1573)

Tradivox II – Three seventeenth-century catechisms. (UK readers)

  • St Robert Bellarmine SJ – A Shorte Catechisme. This consists mostly of restored woodcuts. (1614)
  • Fr Henry Turberville – The Douay Catechism, or An Abridgement of the Christian Doctrine. Very polemically ordered towards catechising Catholics against Protestantism, with many Scripture references and details on the Mass. (1649)
  • Fr Thomas Vincent Sadler – The Childes Catechism. Written for parents. (1678)

Tradivox III – three texts by Bishop Richard Challoner, reviser of the Douay-Rheims Bible and Vicar Apostolic of London during a period of oppressive penal laws. (UK readers)

  • An Abridgement of Christian Doctrine. A synopsis of the Douay Catechism. (1759)
  • The Catholic Christian Instructed. A longer, very annotated work with a lot of focus on worship and the sacraments. (1737)
  • The Grounds of Catholick Doctrine. A simple Q&A catechism based on the Tridentine Profession of Faith (1752)

Tradivox IV: Three significant Irish catechisms, comparable to the Penny or Baltimore Catechisms (UK readers)

  • The Most Rev. Dr James Butler’s Catechism. Approved for national use by all of the Irish bishops, serving Irish Catholics for 150 years at home and in Canada and the USA. (1775)
  • The Catechism Ordered by the National Synod of Maynooth. (1884)
  • The Shorter Catechism Extracted [from the above]. (1891)

Tradivox V: Two by Irish priests in the 1700s. (UK readers)

  • Fr Andrew Donlevy – The Catechism, or Christian Doctrine, By Way of Question and Answer. The oldest major Irish catechetical manuscript. (1742)
  • Fr Thomas Burke OP – A Catechism Moral and Controversial. Written for more advanced audiences, with practical and apologetic notes. (1752)

Tradivox VI: Aquinas, Pecham, and Pagula (UK readers).

  • St Thomas Aquinas – The Catechetical Instructions. An arrangement of other Opuscula in catechetical form. (ca. 1260)
  • Archbishop John Pecham (of Canterbury) – Ignorantia Sacerdotum. Product of the Council of Lambeth. (1281)
  • Quinque Verba – pocket manual to “remedy the ignorance of simple priests.” (1300)
  • William of Pagula – Oculus Sacerdotis – a chapter, frequently excerpted and circulated at the time, from Pagula’s large guide for priests. (1320)

Tradivox VII: The Catechism of the Council of Trent (UK readers)

Tradivox VIII: Pope St Pius X and Frassinetti (UK readers)

Tradivox IX: St Peter Canisius (UK readers)

Tradivox X: Gaume (UK readers) – Jan 2023

Other texts have not been confirmed, but the following are mentioned on the website. They may be intended for publication, or just for the online database.

  • Doulye – A Brief Instruction. (1604)
  • Perry – A Full Course of Instructions for the Use of Catechists.(1847)
  • Fr F.X. Weninger SJ – Manual of the Catholic Doctrine (1867)
  • Baltimore Catechism (1891)
  • Thomas J. O’Brien – An Advanced Catechism of Catholic Faith and Practice (1902)
  • Deharbe’s Large Catechism (1921)
  • Bishop Hay – Abridgement of Christian Doctrine (1800)

Criteria for Inclusion

While Tradivox say on their site that they hope to publish every catechism issued with episcopal endorsement in the last millennium, they also give other selection criteria:

  1. Historical significance
  2. Ecclesiastical approbation
  3. Doctrinal continuity
  4. Public domain

The project is limited to texts in the public domain – in other words, all catechisms published will be prior to 1963. This would exclude the 1992 “Catechism of the Catholic Church” – and they have also confirmed that it will not be included.

It is an impressive curation project, as some of the texts apparently were only available in microfilm or foreign collections. They have been well-restored with original illustrations and sensible reformatting for modern readers. In terms of the texts themselves, they claim that the editing has been light, at least so far. For example, I’m glad to confirm that the additions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law to the Catechism of the Council of Trent were indeed additions rather than replacements. The modern additions consist largely of contextual prefaces and historical commentaries, rather than intrusive references to modern texts.

This is because the editors – whatever anyone thinks of their positions on the current crisis, or inclusion of prefaces by this or that cleric – voice this very admirable hope:

“[T]hat by offering an accessible, indexed collection of traditional catechisms, the beautiful continuity of doctrine found in such works will stand as a remedy for the confusion and error of our time, and as an enduring testimony to the divine mission of the Catholic Church, forever entrusted to her by Christ.”

Their focus is showing the continuity of doctrine in the Catholic Church over the centuries, as manifested in these catechisms. They intend to make this even more manifest through their “Catechism Search Engine” – which will be a searchable database of all of their texts. Take a look, for example, at how they propose this would work for searching for “prayer to saints”:

This is a screengrab from the official Tradivox website. It is a sample of how the Catechism search engine may look. The search produces very many more titles and texts than I could fit into this picture.

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Now, this idea of a search engine highlights the main strength and value of this project – witnessing to the teaching of the Church in her universal ordinary magisterium. The body of diocesan catechisms – whether we take that to mean all those authorised at a given moment of time, or across a long and consistent period, as we see here – can be a standing witness to the content of the teaching of that ordinary and universal magisterium, as well as traditional points of doctrine.

The body of catechisms as witnesses to the universal ordinary magisterium

The magisterium is a permanent power to teach: this power is exercised by the act of teaching, by those who have received this power.[1] Those who have received this power are the Apostles and their successors (bishops with ordinary jurisdiction) – and not auxiliary bishops, priests or laymen.[2] It is perhaps comparable to the Roman concept of imperium – the supreme power of command, conferred upon certain magistrates.

A bishop’s ordinary magisterium may be exercised in a number of ways – primarily preaching, but also in the act of issuing pastoral letters and local catechisms, or the adoption of theological manuals for the training of seminarians.

Clearly each individual exercise of this ordinary magisterium by an individual bishop is not infallible. However, the body of bishops cannot all fall into error when they teach unanimously teach a point of doctrine, at least when they teach it as divinely revealed. Vatican I taught:

“All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and are proposed by the Church either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal magisterium to be believed as divinely revealed.”[3]

The theologian Salaverri writes of this text:

“[T]he ordinary way [mentioned at Vatican I] 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.”[4]

And this falls in the discussion of the following thesis:

“[T]he way in which [residential] Bishops [collectively and subject to the Roman Pontiff] exercise their own infallibility can be either ordinary, that is, outside of a Council and dispersed throughout the world, or extraordinary, that is, united together in an Ecumenical Council.”[5]

This is a standard doctrine, and not at all unique to Salaverri.

Catechisms and the universal ordinary magisterium

The theologian J.M.A. Vacant teaches that the teachings of the magisterium can be found in the various monuments of tradition, including “the words of the martyrs recounted in their deeds, the inscriptions placed on their tombs,” as well as the creeds and professions of faith. But he adds that the faith of the universal Church may also be found:

“[I]n the Catechism of the Council of Trent and in the whole body of diocesan catechisms, drawn up for the guidance of the clergy of the parishes in the day-to-day instruction of the believers. These are in fact documents in which the Apostles and their successors formulated rules of faith for the faithful, and rules of teaching for pastors, by means of which the unity of doctrine is maintained.”[6]

Diocesan or episcopally-approved catechisms such as those included in this series are a key mode of ordinary teaching. Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton explains further:

“Catechisms and other approved books of Christian doctrine, in so far as they are adopted by the ordinaries of the various dioceses for teaching the content of the faith to the people of these dioceses may be said to express the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. […]

“The unanimous teaching of these catechisms can rightly be considered by the theologians as an indication of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church.

“The doctrine that is universally or unanimously proposed in these doctrinal books, in such a way that it is presented to practically all of the Catholics of the world as revealed truth, is certainly a verity taught and exposed infallibly in the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church.”[7] (Our emphasis and line breaks for clarity)

First, individual local catechisms (or even large selections of them) are not infallible in themselves, and some have in fact contained errors. However, if we can show that all of the catechisms at a given point of history (implying also continuity with past catechisms) unanimously teach a point of doctrine, then we have strong grounds for think that it is a doctrine which we too must (at least) hold (as opposed to “believe).[8]

Second, It’s important not to extend and overstate things. We should note the qualification – often missed – that the doctrines under discussion are those presented as being a part of revealed truth (and not just any point of doctrine related to faith and morals). If a point of doctrine is taught in a morally unanimous way and specifically “as divinely revealed”, then it can also be said to be “de fide” and thus believed in a proper sense.

What about points of doctrine which are not presented as divinely revealed? Salaverri writes the following:

898. 10. Of Catholic faith in general is a doctrine which is certainly and necessarily connected with revealed truths and it is proposed infallibly by the Church as something to be believed.

“For, from thesis 17 we know that the indirect object of the infallible act of the Magisterium is truths certainly and necessarily connected with revealed truths. Truths of this kind are really proposed by the infallible Magisterium not as things to be believed, because, since they do not pertain directly and formally to the deposit of faith, it is not fully certain that they can be believed with divine faith “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them [D 3008]; however, they are proposed as something to be held, because, on account of their certain and necessary connection with revealed truths, the believer must embrace them with the absolutely certain assent of the mind, in order properly to guard the deposit of the Faith.”[9]

But what if such universally-taught points of doctrine are not clearly presented as being infallibly true, or what if there is some debate over whether they are sufficiently connected with revealed truths? Elsewhere, Salaverri also writes:

“893. Catholic doctrine in general is that which is taught by the universal Magisterium, either infallibly or merely authentically. […]

“[T]he propositions, which thus are proposed generically by the universal Magisterium of the Church, when Theologians do not desire or cannot determine further whether they are taught merely authentically or also infallibly, are wont to say that they are Catholic doctrine in general.[10]

As such, it would seem fair to say that points which are taught by a moral universality of approved catechisms are at least “Catholic doctrine” in general, if not of a higher value depending on the manner of in which they are proposed.

The Tradivox project certainly allows us to have an indication of what has been taught in a morally universal way over the centuries. The searchable database makes this clear, but even if the database were to go offline, or fail to be realised, the physical books published are already exceptional tools for establishing such points of doctrine.

Case Study

To illustrate the value of the Tradivox project, I would like to show what the catechisms published so far – along with some similar texts – say on the criteria for membership of the Church. This will be the focus of the next part.

It will be of great interest and value to see what these basic catechisms say on this topic, which has regrettably become controversial today.

Tradivox Catechism Review
Part I: How can we find the teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium?
Part II: What do the catechisms tell us about heretics and the Church?
Part III: How is the Church “visibly united in faith,” according to Cardinal Billot?
Part IV: Why is it essential that the Church is visibly united in faith?
Part V: What sort of heresy results in being outside the Church?
Part VI: What is the difference between an excommunicate and an open heretic?

Obj. I: Are we obliged to believe every person who calls himself a Catholic?
Obj. II: Should mistaken Catholics be called “material heretics”?
Obj. III: What is the state of a Catholic who submits to a false magisterium?


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[1] Parente writes: “The power conferred by Christ upon His Church and strengthened with the charism of infallibility, by which the teaching Church (Ecclesia docens) is constituted as the unique depository and authentic interpreter of divine revelation to be proposed authoritatively to men as the object of faith for their eternal salvation. […]” Pietro Parente, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee 1951. 170.

[2] Berry 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.

[3] Vatican I, Dei Filius, Ch. 3, “Concerning Faith”, Dz 1792. Translated by Mr John Daly.

[4] Joachim Salaverri, On the Church of Christ, in Sacrae Theologia Summa IB translated by Kenneth Baker SJ 2015. n. 544

[5] Salaverri n. 547

[6] J.M.A. Vacant, The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs, Delhomme et Briguet, Booksellers-Publishers, 1887, Paris 13 Rue De L’abbaye, Lyon 3 Rue De l’Archevêché. Translated by The WM Review, available at

[7] Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, published as What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. (UK readers) p 118

[8] For more on this interesting topic, see the contributions made by Mr James Larrabee here.

[9] Salaverri n. 898.

[10] Salaverri n. 893.

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