How do we know what to believe with divine and catholic faith? Dom Charles Augustine OSB

“What is the “material object of faith,” and where can we find it proposed?”

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Editor’s Comments

Many essays on The WM Review refer to “professing the faith” as a condition for membership of the Church – and to heresy, the corresponding failure to profess the faith, which entails loss of membership.

Previously, we published an extract from Dom Charles Augustine OSB on what it means to profess the faith. But this extract dealt with behaviour – words and actions – rather than the actual content (the “material object”) which must be believed and professed with divine and catholic faith.

Another previous part addressed the question of “implicit faith” and the idea of “bare minimums” which must be believed in order to be saved, or which must be understood and professed in order to be received into the Church.

As we discussed in the essay on Mr Michael Lofton, the questions of salvation and implicit faith are distinct from questions of membership of the Church and the profession of the faith.

But bare minimums are of interest for a number of common but exceptional cases, such as elderly persons whose state prevents them from being able to receive a normal or even very simple course of instruction prior to becoming Catholics. In all such cases, the idea of “implicit faith” presumes the person’s attitude of accepting, on the authority of God revealing, all of those other things which are a part of the deposit of divine revelation.

This extract deals more directly with those other things. In other words, it deals with those dogmas, the contradiction of which constitutes heresy – and the places where such dogmas may be found.

St Thomas considers faith in its formal and material object. He writes:

“[I]f we consider, in faith, the formal aspect of the object, it is nothing else than the First Truth. For the faith of which we are speaking, does not assent to anything, except because it is revealed by God.”

Summa Theologica II-II Q1 A1.

What about the material object of faith? Regular readers will be aware of our interest in the Church’s visible unity of faith. According to Cardinal Billot, the Church’s unity of faith is primarily manifested in the submission of all the faithful to the Church’s magisterium, and secondarily in their profession of this so-called “material object” of faith – namely, all those truths which have been revealed by God and proposed as such by the Church.

But how do we know what those truths are?

This extract from Dom Charles Augustine provides an answer to that question.

Please note that while this extract is a commentary on Canon 1323, this is primarily a theological issue rather than a canonical one. This aspect of Canon Law pertains to and “manages” aspects of reality and divine law, rather than determine it by positive provisions of law.[0]


A Commentary On The New Code Of Canon Law
Volume 6
Dom Charles Augustine OSB 

Herder Book Co.
St Louis MO
pp 323-7
Available also for UK readers and at Internet Archive.

Canon 1323

§ 1. All those truths which are contained in the writ­ten word of God, or in tradition, and proposed to our be­lief as divinely revealed either by a solemn proclamation or by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church must be believed by Divine and Catholic faith.

§ 2. To pronounce a solemn judgment of this kind ap­pertains either to a general Council or to the Roman Pon­tiff speaking ex cathedra.

§ 3. Nothing is to be taken as dogmatically declared or defined, unless it is manifestly known to be such.

The material object of faith (objectum materiale fidei), or that which is to be believed, is contained either in Holy Writ, as accepted by the Church, or in tradition, as preserved by the Church. However, as Holy Writ itself, without the acceptance of the Church, would be merely a material or indifferent book — though perhaps sacred on account of its venerable age and contents — so tradition would lack sacred character and obligation but for the infallible judgment of the Church. This infallible judgment is embodied in the teaching office of the Church, and constitutes a special prerogative granted to the Church by Christ, in virtue of which she cannot deceive nor be deceived in matters of faith and morals.[1]

Our text distinguishes a solemn ex cathedra judgment and the ordinary magisterium of the Church. But there is no intrinsic difference between the two, as they derive from the same source, viz., the divine promise and providence, and have the same object and purpose. The object is faith and morals; the purpose, to protect the faithful from error.

The ordinary and universal teaching body of the Church consists of the pastors together with their head, the Roman Pontiff, no matter where the former are found, whether scattered over the globe, or sitting united in St. Peter’s Dome. This is called the active subject of the infallible magisterium (subiectum activae infallibilitatis). To this teaching body corresponds the believing body of the faithful, which latter, however, being the subiectum passivae infallibilitatis, cannot be separated from the teaching body or be opposed to it. For the teaching office or authority is the cause of the infallibility of the Church, and both bodies are one in the same faith.

There is, however, a distinction, though not quite adequate, between the teaching office of the Sovereign Pontiff alone, and the body of teachers or the teaching Church united to its head, i.e., the Pontiff. Without the latter, or, worse still, in opposition to the latter, there can be no teaching body, whilst the authority of infallible teacher is embodied in the Roman Pontiff alone. Both the Pontiff sole and the body of teachers united with him, enjoy the power of teaching infallibly.

The “universal[2] and ordinary magisterium” consists of the entire episcopate, according to the constitution and order defined by Christ, i.e., all the bishops of the universal Church — dependently on the Roman Pontiff.[3] Priests and deacons do not, iure divino, belong to the hierarchy of jurisdiction, and therefore, are not, properly speaking, judges in matters of faith and morals, nor can they be, iure ordinario, bearers of infallible teaching. However, they exercise a certain teaching authority by divine right, inasmuch, namely, as they are helpers and co-workers of the bishops, from whom they receive delegated mission, and preach and testify to the faith preached and expounded by the episcopate. They, too, in a wider sense partake of the assistance of the Holy Ghost.

This teaching authority, then, proposes what must be believed by divine and Catholic faith. It is indeed true that what God has revealed may and must be believed with divine faith,[4] and that what the Church proposes as part of divine Revelation, may and must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or, shortly, with Catholic faith. But the material object of divine faith comprises more than the object of Catholic faith, and besides there is something in Catholic faith which is not so clearly expressed or conspicuous in divine faith. For the former is offered by the living word of the Church with a precision and determination that leaves no doubt as to the supernatural origin and medium through which it is conveyed. This Catholic faith then commands our assent and obedience to the full extent of a childlike belief, but from the motive of divine veracity and truth.[5]

The term proposed means not merely an official or authentic formulation of a given object or article, but an authoritative promulgation of a law or rule contained in revelation, commanding our full interior and exterior assent.[6]

§2 defines, according to Vatican Council,[7] the solemn judgment of the Church in contradistinction to her ordinary and universal magisterium, not as if the office of the Supreme Pontiff were extraordinary, in the strict sense, but because this means of proposing an infallible truth is uncommon. Such a solemn pronunciamento or proclamation may be made either by a general council or by the Pope. That a council cannot be ecumenical without the head, is evident, as explained in our Vol. II, where the other requisites are also discussed.[8]

The Pope alone, after having been duly elected and having accepted the election, is the lawful head of the Church, and, in virtue of his primacy of jurisdiction, is the supreme pastor and teacher of the whole Church, as the Vatican Council has defined.[9] As such he may define, or issue decrees on, points of faith and morals, binding the whole Church. His decisions do not receive their obligatory force from the consent of the Church, as the Gallicans asserted,[10] but embrace the whole extent of the object of the infallibility inherent in the teaching Church. The term ex cathedra means:

(a) that the Pope proclaims a dogma as the supreme teacher and pastor of the Church;

(b) that it be a matter of faith and morals, not of history or politics disconnected with the former;

(c) that he pronounce an authoritative and final sentence with the manifest intention of obliging –  

(d) the entire Church, i.e all individuals as well as the whole body of the faithful.[11]

However, as §3 intimates, there may be doubt as to what is declared or defined either by the universal teaching Church or by means of papal ex cathedra definitions. Therefore the theologians have laid down certain rules, which we will briefly restate.

a) What has been solemnly defined, either by a general council or by the Supreme Pontiff, is certainly de fide; but not all the historical or theological assertions which accompany a papal decision (for instance, the Bull “Ineffabilis”) are de fide.

b) What is clearly and undoubtedly contained in Holy Scripture and Tradition as a matter of faith or morals, must be believed, although individual errors are not entirely excluded;[*]

c) What the universal and approved practice and discipline proposes as connected with faith and morals must also be believed (“Lex orandi, lex credendi”).

d) What the Holy Fathers and the theologians hold unanimously as a matter of faith and morals,[12] is also de fide.

There may be some doubt as to the form of infallible decisions. A test for genuine ex cathedra definitions has been found in the following formulas:

(1) if those who assert the contrary are declared heretics;

(2) if the terms “si quis” is used with “anathema” following;

(3) if it is declared that the doctrine in question must be firmly believed by all the faithful as a dogma.[13]

If after the application of these rules a solid doubt remains, the utterance is not infallibly binding, as is evident from our text.


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[0] As Cardinal Ottaviani said:

“Jesus Christ, the divine founder of the Church, could indeed have left many things to the decision of men in regard to the social organisation of the Church: nevertheless, in fact He did not so leave them, but He Himself willed to establish all things which regard the fundamental constitution and organisation of the Church in so far as it is a perfect society. Consequently the principal part of the public law is divine, containing the immutable and permanent laws concerning the nature of the church, her authority and teaching office… 

“Examples of divine public law are: the statutes by which the Church is granted full and independent legislative, judicial, and coercive power in affairs which in any manner pertain to her end; also, the statutes which pertain to the primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff over the whole Church, and the constitution of the sacred hierarchy; similarly, those by which the Church is granted the faculty, free and independent from any power, of acquiring, keeping and administering temporal goods in order to achieve ends proper to herself.”

Cardinal Ottaviani, Institutiones Iuris Publici Ecclesiastici, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, Rome, 1958, p. 10-11. Translated by Mr. James Larrabee. Quoting St Cyprian, Ep. lii, quoted vii, qu. 1, can. Novatianus

[1] Mazzella, I. c., n. 782, p. 599.

[2] The word “universal” was added in order to distinguish it from the official attribute of infallibility inherent in the Pontiff. See Coll, Lac., t. VII, 176.

[3] Cfr. Pius IX, “Tuas libenter,” Dec. 21, 1863.

[4] The Blessed Virgin Mary certainly believed the Angel with divine faith, but of Catholic faith there can be no question.

[5] Cfr. Scheeben, Dogmatik, 1873, I, p. 324; Coll, Lac., t. VII, 72 ff., 159

[6] Scheeben, I. c., p. 179 f.

[7] Conc. Vat., Sess. VII, c. II. De Revelatione; c. III, De Fide; c. IV, De Fide et Ratione; De Revelatione, can. 4; De Fide, can. 6; De Fide et Ratione, can. 3; Sess. IV, c. IV, De Romani Pontificis Infallibili Magisterio.

[8] See Can. 222 ff.; p. 217 f.

[9] Sess. IV, De Eccl., c. 4 (Denz., n. 1682).

[10] Art. 2, Decl. Cleri Gall. dam. ab Innoc. XI, April 11, 1682; ab Alex. VIII, “Inter multiplices” Aug. 4, 1690 (Denz., 1189).

[11] Mazzella, I. c., n. 1051, p. 822.

[*] The WM Review: What exactly does Augustine mean here about not entirely excluding individual errors, and how does it fit in with the thesis “All the sentences of Scripture are infallibly true”? This thesis is defended by Nicolau as being “of divine and Catholic faith” in his volume On Holy Scripture in the Sacrae Theologiae Summa series, and he gives the following explanation.

170. Definition of terms. Infallibility says not only an absence of error, but the impossibility of error in an intelligent subject, or in his words or writings. Therefore the infallibility of all the sentences of Holy Scripture says not only the fact of their truth (inerrancy), but the impossibility of any error. Therefore the question is not only about the fact, but also about the right: there cannot be any errors.

State of the question. The original sentences of Holy Scripture, that is, the autographs, are under consideration. The inerrancy of the apographa and translations is affirmed inasmuch as they are in agreement with the original text. Therefore the possibility of some error is not denied, if the original text has not been transmitted to us; this of course is not to be denied in some matters of less importance. Therefore sometimes there are different readings or the introduction of possible glosses.


172. Doctrine of the Church. It was solemnly defined at Vatican Council I that the inspiration of Scripture, and implicitly its inerrancy and infallibility, extends to matters of faith and morals and to the parts that are at least of greater importance. See n. 111.

Clement VI taught that there is absolutely no error in Scripture, writing (in 1351) about the errors of the Armenians: We ask “Whether you have believed and do believe that the New and Old Testaments in all then- books, which the authority of the Roman Church has given to us, contain undoubted truth in all things.”

And for certain the same thing is proposed by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church as a dogma of faith. Thus Leo XIII (“Providentissimus”): “… and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church…”

Likewise Benedict XV (“Spiritus Paraclitus”) and Pius XII (“Divino afflante Spiritu”; and “Humani generis”). See also the condemnations of the Modernists in the Decree “Lamentabili” and in the Encyclical “Pascendi”; and the Response of the Biblical Commission (in 1915), on the mind of the Apostles con­cerning the Parousia.

Michele Nicolau, On Holy Scripture, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa, Volume IB, Keep the Faith Publications, 2015, n. 170, 172.

[12] Cfr. Simar, Dogmatik, 1893, p. 41 ff., §11.

[13] For instance, Christ is true man; hence he must have a human body and a soul.

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