What obligations are imposed by the “ordinary magisterium”? – Chapter IVa of Fr J.M.A. Vacant’s nineteenth-century work

“What are the signs that identify a doctrine taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium?”

This is the first half of Vacant’s long Chapter IV, which considers again the different ways in which the Church’s ordinary magisterium teaches us, and the obligations corresponding to these ways.

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. While some of his ideas have been refined or abandoned, several theologians of the twentieth and even twenty-first century engage with his ideas in fruitful ways.

Image: Pius IX, Wiki Commons




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 IV – Obligations imposed by the Ordinary Magisterium in matters of doctrine

We have seen that the ordinary magisterium guards and develops Christian doctrine. It follows that the question we are dealing with can be understood in two ways.

In effect, one may ask:

  1. Whether the proposal of the ordinary magisterium is sufficient for a doctrine to be imposed upon us;
  2. Whether this proposal has the force to render obligatory even a point that was freely disputed until then.

These two issues need to be considered separately.

The first is, moreover, very clearly resolved by the texts we have studied above, in particular by the Vatican Council and by [Tuas Libenter], the letter of Pius IX to the Archbishop of Munich. These documents show, in fact, that the ordinary and universal magisterium enjoys the same infallibility and authority as the solemn definitions.

However, just as definitions are infallible only when they have been promulgated by the Pope or an ecumenical council, sovereignly proposing a point of doctrine to the entire Church that it must accept, so infallibility is assured to the ordinary magisterium only when it teaches a truth, as proposed to the belief of the Church by the Pope or the dispersed episcopal body, acting in virtue of their full authority.

How doe we know when we are being taught infallibly?

The signs that identify a doctrine taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium must therefore demonstrate that this doctrine is proposed to the belief of the Church by the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff or the episcopal body. One can also draw this conclusion from the fact that a doctrine is believed and regarded as obligatory by all the faithful, since their faith is always an echo of the teaching of the pastors.

Although the ordinary magisterium extends to the entire doctrine of the Church, it may happen, however, that a mandatory truth is not expressly taught by the majority of bishops, nor is it expressly believed by the majority of the faithful. There are indeed certain points of doctrine imposed as such, even by solemn judgments, which are beyond the understanding of the majority of the laity. Thus, it would be wrong to try to determine the faith of the Church on these points through the faith of the people. It would be just as futile, as Melchior Cano said, to ask a blind person to see colours.[1] Nor can it be determined by the express teaching that the episcopal body formulates every day, since this teaching is primarily directed at the people and therefore often concerns only the truths within their reach.

Does this mean that matters which require special studies are not the subject of daily teaching? It would be a grave error to think so, because the magisterium extends to the entire doctrine of the Church, as we have noted several times. The episcopal body infallibly teaches, and the faithful accept all the obligatory points of Christian doctrine, but the principal truths of the faith – those that are easily understood by all – are expressly taught by the bishops; while truths that are not well understood outside the schools of theology are mainly the subject of their tacit teaching.

Indeed, if these truths studied in the schools have been the subject of solemn definitions, then the authority of this theological teaching is derived from the Pope or the bishops who formerly promulgated these definitions, and from their successors who continue to affirm them tacitly. If, on the other hand, they concern truths on which the Pope or the bishops have never pronounced, and which, nevertheless, are certain by unanimous agreement of the holy Fathers or theologians, then this unanimous agreement derives its authority from the repeated declarations of the Pope, councils, and the dispersed episcopate. Furthermore, the Christian people, by accepting everything the Church teaches, implicitly believe everything the college of bishops teaches tacitly.

It follows from these observations that, if we have included the Holy Fathers and theologians among the instruments of explicit magisterium when studying how this magisterium is expressed, it is more appropriate to place them among the agents of tacit magisterium when studying their authority. This is what we will do here.

We have outlined the main manifestations of explicit teaching, implicit teaching, and tacit teaching of the ordinary magisterium. It will suffice to show briefly the signs by which one can recognize that they express a doctrine imposed on the Church by the Sovereign Pontiff or the episcopal body. When these signs are present, one is faced with infallible teaching to which adherence is an obligation. This obligation may, however, be imposed under pain of heresy, error, temerity, or impiety, depending on the various cases.

Explicit teaching

The explicit teachings of the daily magisterium are to be found especially in the symbols, in the professions of faith and in the catechisms.

We have established that the creeds and professions of faith used by the universal Church are the infallible expression of her daily teaching; it suffices to add that all the points affirmed in them are binding as of the Catholic faith, and consequently, under pain of heresy. This is indeed the sentiment of the pastors and the faithful.

The catechism of the Council of Trent and the diocesan catechisms, considered as a whole, express the doctrine of the Supreme Pontiffs and the bishops who had them drawn up; at the same time, they manifest the belief of the faithful, since they are the immediate rule.

As these catechisms are intended to set forth not what is opinion, but what is the faith of all, most of the points which they agree to teach without reservation must be regarded as proposed to our faith. Nevertheless, there is the affirmation of some opinions which, while being the most probable, are discussed by theologians. The editors have stopped at these affirmations because they had to choose a view, because they could not bring ordinary believers into a controversy beyond their comprehension, and because they wanted to be concise and avoid lengthy explanations.

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Implicit teaching

The implicit and infallible teachings of the ordinary magisterium are provided to us by the universal practices of the Church, by the liturgies in their common aspects, and by the general laws of the Church. All acts in line with these practices, liturgies, or laws are sanctioned by the custodians of infallibility; therefore, they cannot be wrong or lead us away from salvation. So, every time these acts manifestly suppose the truth of a doctrine, there is an implicit proposition of this doctrine by the Church. The adoration of the Eucharist would be an act of idolatry if Jesus Christ were not truly present in the host; yet everywhere, the faithful adore the Eucharist offered for their adoration by priests and bishops. Thus, through this conduct, the Church implicitly teaches the dogma of the real presence, and this teaching is infallible.

If the connection between a dogma and a universal practice is real but not manifest, one might conclude that the dogma is true and contained in tradition, but not that it is currently proposed to the explicit faith of the faithful. For instance, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin presupposes the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, as can be seen in the writings of contemporary theologians. However, this connection has not always been as clearly known, so this feast could be celebrated throughout the Church without the obligation to admit the Immaculate Conception as one of the dogmas of faith.

Finally, if there is no necessary connection between the legitimacy of a practice and a given doctrine, it is clear that one cannot invoke this practice as an indubitable sign that the doctrine is imposed by the Church. An example of this is the worship of the Sacred Heart of Our Lord, which can be justified and explained without needing to accept that the heart is actually the organ of passions in humans. Therefore, by worshiping the Sacred Heart, the Church does not impose any opinion on this latter question.

The universal usages of the Church that serve a specific purpose, such as the rites of the sacraments and the Holy Sacrifice, manifest the infallible faith of the Church in a different way. The Church employs these usages only because she believes in their efficacy. For example, one must admit that the Church regards the matter and form used in the administration of various sacraments as capable of producing their effects, and that she is not mistaken on this point.

Tacit Teaching

The tacit magisterium is expressed, as we have said, through all the documents that the Church safeguards and which she never ceases to present to us with the authority she has recognised or conferred upon them in the course of the centuries. It is this continuous and silent proposition that perpetually imposes on us the acceptance of solemn definitions and various manifestations of tradition. However, the writings of the Holy Fathers and theologians derive their value more specifically from this tacit magisterium.

We have seen, in fact, that the Church regards as certain all those points of doctrine that the Holy Fathers or theologians are unanimous in proclaiming. These points are therefore proposed, at least implicitly, to the faith of the faithful by the custodians of the ordinary magisterium; they are, consequently, infallibly true.

This unanimous agreement of the Holy Fathers or theologians presupposes two conditions.

  • The first is that they adhere to the truth in question specifically because they regard it as taught by the Church, that is to say, as revealed or connected to revelation. This is usually expressed by saying that the Holy Fathers or theologians must speak not as private teachers but as witnesses of tradition.
  • The second condition is that this truth be taught by the moral unanimity of the Holy Fathers or theologians, that is, by most of those who have had to deal with it. Moreover, if it concerns a question that was only elucidated from a certain point in time, only the Holy Fathers or theologians who lived after that time would be considered.

We can see that these two conditions are of such a nature that they must be assessed morally. Therefore, it is not always easy to decide whether they are fulfilled. When they are certainly met, one is faced with teaching that belongs to the faith and to which one is bound to adhere. When it is evident that they are not met, opinions remain free. Nevertheless, there is an obligation to respect or even admit, under the penalty of temerity, a teaching of the Holy Fathers or theologians that closely approaches unanimous agreement.

It would be a long and difficult task to set the limits at which these various obligations begin. I will content myself with presenting here a few observations which may help to recognise whether the two conditions just indicated are fulfilled.

Taught as revealed

Needless to say that the Holy Fathers and theologians have no special authority in matters unrelated to revelation, or in anything they mix purely profane assertions with the exposition of Christian doctrine. It is not necessary to adopt the theory of the four elements, even though all the Fathers and theologians admitted it. Nor is there any reason to include among the dogmas proposed to our faith the religious doctrines that the Holy Fathers and theologians do not consider as indisputable, even in the unlikely case that they all shared the same opinion on these doctrines. Such agreement would be the result of their reasoning and personal ways of seeing things, rather than the effect of the Church’s teaching.

Furthermore, since the thought of the Holy Fathers is not always clearly indicated, one can sometimes wonder if a sentiment they agree to embrace is a free opinion in which they meet, or an obligatory doctrine. Here is what Melchior Cano says on this subject:

“In matters that do not belong at all to the faith (whether they touch on religion or not), the authority of all the Holy Fathers is a probable argument, not a certain proof.”[2]

But Franzelin criticizes this assertion.[3] In his opinion, this principle should not apply to matters that touch on religion.

“If, on the other hand,” he says, “one was certain that a doctrine does not belong to the faith, it would indeed be necessary to admit that the Fathers who unanimously accepted it were expressing a mere opinion; but, since the question at issue is whether this doctrine belongs to the faith, it must be judged by the manner in which the Fathers present it, rather than by the opinion that one would have formed in advance on the question.”

This remark by Franzelin seems right and should serve as a rule.

Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary to add an observation. If the Fathers seemed to unanimously affirm a religious doctrine that the Church has allowed to be freely discussed in the following centuries, it would have to be assumed that the statements of the holy Fathers were mere opinions, and that they did not fulfil the first condition required for moral unanimity in teaching; for a dogma which has been proposed to the faith of the faithful can never afterwards be transformed into a free opinion.

Moral unanimity

As for the number of Holy Fathers or theologians necessary to form a moral unanimity, it is impossible to determine, but it must be greater when some otherwise ordinarily orthodox theologians have expressly opposed the doctrine taught by their contemporaries and by those who lived before them. If the theologians who fight such a doctrine are numerous enough or of considerable authority, this would even be a sufficient reason to deny that this doctrine is common and obligatory. Indeed, for a truth to be proposed to our faith by the Church, it is not enough that it is actually in tradition – it must also be seen clearly. Now, as long as grave and orthodox theologians do not see this, it is a sign that the duty of accepting this truth is not manifest, and that it is not affirmed by the moral unanimity of the authors.

However, this conclusion should not be drawn from negations that stem from prejudices or ignorance.

In 1863, Pius IX reminded certain German theologians that one must give one’s faith and adhesion, not only to truths imposed as of faith by solemn judgments of the Church, but also to all the points that she declares certain and obligatory by her ordinary and universal magisterium. Now, would it not have been wrong to invoke the sentiment of these theologians, who regarded as certain and obligatory only the truths of the Catholic faith, to support the claim that no other truth could claim the common teaching of theologians in its favour?

It is known, moreover, that the writers of Germany were not alone in this feeling; for many books published, even in our day, on religious questions, admit or suggest that it is enough to reject everything that is heretical, in order to have nothing to reproach on the side of faith.

Some theologians may, moreover, be inclined to reduce the number of obligatory truths by a tendency in which the desire to open the doors of the Church more widely to the blind people who keep away from it has the greatest share. Faced with heretics, rationalists and unbelievers, the defenders of the truth have in fact always, but today more than ever, allowed themselves to be dominated by different concerns which have made them walk in two opposite directions.

Some seek above all to protect the faithful from the seductions of error and to safeguard the integrity of the faith; they would gladly multiply the number of points condemned by the Church.

Dogmatic minimalism

Others are deeply concerned with the desire to have the Catholic doctrine accepted by those who reject it; so, by a contrary tendency, they would like to eliminate from it all the points that unbelievers have difficulty accepting, and reduce dogmas to a kind of minimum. The apparent and momentary needs of apologetics also lead writers who are very devoted to religion to cut out several truths from the catalogue of those that have been proposed to our faith by the infallible magisterium of the Church. They are soldiers who, to defend us, burn our weapons and treasures, fearing that the enemy may use them against us. One must have followed the vicissitudes of contemporary apologetics, constantly called upon to explain a thousand unexpected and poorly known questions, to understand this tendency that has manifested itself in our century.

The conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that today, above all, there is a need to examine the reasons that lead some authors to deny that a doctrine is obligatory, when we must apply the general rule that I laid down: namely, that the negation of grave and orthodox theologians is sufficient to show that a doctrine has not been proposed to our faith by the Church. This rule is true, but when it comes to true theologians who know the rules of the faith well and want to follow them. When a doctrine has no grave and authorized opponents, the affirmations of a notable part of the Holy Fathers or theologians sufficiently demonstrate that it has the unanimous consent of the Church.

It will even be right to assume this unanimous consent if some authors who have specially studied the matter, or if doctors of the Church of exceptional merit, such as Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas, insist on the obligation to admit a truth and give it as manifestly taught by the Church. For it must be thought, indeed, that doctors of such great authority do not err on clear and important points, and that their sentiment is shared by all orthodox authors. Moreover, whenever the ordinary magisterium is exercised under the conditions we have indicated, its teachings, whether express, implicit, or tacit, possess by themselves an authority equal to that of solemn definitions.

We must now examine another question. Among the truths that impose themselves on our adhesion, there are those which, from the very origins of Christianity, have been explicitly proposed to the faith of the faithful; there are others which are obligatory, because since then they have been the subject of a solemn judgment of the Church. The ordinary magisterium must impose all these truths on our adhesion, for in doing so it only affirms an existing obligation.

But can this magisterium, by its own force, create new obligations for us in matters of doctrine, make certain a point that was previously doubtful, or make a truth that was only certain into a Catholic faith? This is the question we face [and which will be answered in the next part.]

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


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[1] Cano, De locis theologicis, I. IV, c. VI, ad 14

[2] Cano, De locis theologicis, lib. VII, c. 2, n. 2, 3 ; c. 3, n. 1, 9.

[3] Franzelin, De traditione, p. 181.

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