Can the ordinary magisterium create new dogmas or obligations of belief? Fr Vacant explains

“Is a solemn definition by a Pope or a Council necessary to make a doctrine heretical?”

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

Image: The Immaculate Conception, Wiki Commons

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.

This is the second 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.

The previous chapter concluded with Vacant asking whether the ordinary magisterium has the capacity to create new obligations for the faithful, with respect to dogmatic truths. We all know that revelation ended at the death of the last Apostle. So what is the answer here?

Read on to see.




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

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

Definition of new dogmas

One thing strikes me first: it is that on several solemn occasions, the Church has acted as if it were incapable of creating any new Catholic dogma other than by a solemn definition.

I will only cite two examples.

The Fathers of the Council of Trent had prepared a decree that condemned, as heretics, those who asserted that consummated marriages are dissolved by adultery. Then the ambassadors of Venice pointed out that this decree would strike at a belief held by the Greeks and make it heretical. The Council yielded to these representations and thus formulated its definition:

“If anyone says that the Church errs in teaching, according to the doctrine of the Gospel and the Apostles, that the bond of marriage cannot be dissolved because of the adultery of one of the spouses… let him be anathema.”[1]

This decree condemned the Lutherans, defining as Catholic faith that the Church does not err in its teaching, but it did not directly affect the Greeks, as it did not define that the Church’s teaching was of Catholic faith.[2]

Notice that this concerns a point of doctrine that seems immediately revealed, since the Council affirms its conformity with the Gospel and the teaching of the apostles. Given this, are we not faced with the ordinary and universal magisterium, which teaches a doctrine as revealed, and does not necessarily make it Catholic faith? Does the conduct of the Fathers of Trent not imply that a solemn definition by a Pope or a Council is necessary to make a doctrine heretical?

Indeed, the direct definition of the indissolubility of marriage, which the Fathers abandoned out of fear of classifying the Greeks as heretics, expressed only what the same Fathers regarded and represented as the ordinary and universal teaching of the Church. So, if, on the one hand, they affirm the teachings of the ordinary magisterium of the Church without fearing to make the Greeks heretics, and if, on the other hand, they do not want to formulate the same teachings in a conciliar decree to make it a dogma of Catholic faith, is it not because (at least, in their thought) the proposition of a truth by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church is not sufficient for it to become Catholic faith, and a solemn definition is required for that?

I take my second example from contemporary history. Did not the universal Church unanimously admit the Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Virgin at the beginning of our century, and yet was it not believed that a solemn definition was necessary to make this truth a dogma of Catholic faith?

In 1848, the most authoritative theologian of the time, Father Perrone, noted this unanimity of belief among Catholics and, in the same work, examined whether there was a need to define the dogma.[3]

In 1849, consulting all the bishops of the world on this belief, Pope Pius IX reminded them that many of them had requested the Holy See to make it a dogma of faith.[4]

Finally, in 1854, in the very constitution in which he promulgated his definition, the Sovereign Pontiff declared that the bishops of the entire world, not content with affirming their attachment to this doctrine, had almost unanimously implored him to declare it solemnly and that, as a result, he believed the time had come to issue this definition.[5]

In the face of this morally unanimous teaching, how could one consider a solemn definition necessary to make the Immaculate Conception a dogma of Catholic faith? Was this not, in a way, questioning the authority of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church? If the Pope and the bishops believed that this magisterium was capable of placing Mary’s privilege among these dogmas, while desiring, for the glory of the Blessed Virgin, a solemn definition that would attest to the faith of the Church, and without sharing the sentiment of some theologians[6] who “considered it superfluous to define a doctrine that no one contested, that everyone professed,” would they not have thought, at least, that the definition of Pope Pius IX was not necessary?

I could have provided more examples; most of the time, before promulgating definitions on points that had not previously been of Catholic faith, the Sovereign Pontiffs and the Fathers of the councils acknowledged that their solemn judgment would be in accordance with the universal magisterium of the Church. But the facts that have been reported are sufficient to illustrate the difficulty we are about to try to resolve.

The resolution

First of all, it should be noted that the examples cited above are definitions of the Catholic faith, and not decrees that would condemn a doctrine and give it a lower grade than heretical.

I also ask the reader to observe that no doctrine can be declared of Catholic faith unless it is revealed and found in tradition. It is understandable, therefore, that in order to know this tradition, which is guarded in its entirety by the ordinary magisterium, the Supreme Pontiffs consult the dispersed Church before promulgating their solemn judgments.[7]

Now, can the ordinary magisterium of this dispersed Church, without the intervention of any solemn judgment, transform into a dogma of faith a revealed truth that was previously regarded as free, or make certain a point that was doubtful? This is what we must examine.

We must not forget that the Vatican Council places the ordinary magisterium on the same level as solemn judgments, without making any distinction between the truths they address. The theologians do the same.[8] Therefore, the ordinary magisterium possesses sufficient authority to make a truth certain and of Catholic faith if it has been of divine faith since the time of the apostles or has become such by a solemn judgment.

We have seen, moreover, how it develops Christian dogmas, elucidates what was once obscure, and draws previously unnoticed conclusions. We could cite many points of doctrine, formerly freely debated, that have become certain and have gained the assent of the entire Church, all without the intervention of any solemn judgment. So, the ordinary magisterium can, by its own means, make certain and obligatory a sentiment that was once considered among free opinions.

(Article continues below)

Sorry to interrupt! We would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content, then please do consider supporting us financially.

A monthly donation helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Dogma, and solemn definitions

However, when it comes to expanding the catalogue of Catholic dogmas of faith, the Church proceeds with extreme caution. These dogmas, in fact, bind the belief of all Christians, under the penalty of heresy. Therefore, for a truth to be regarded as a dogma of Catholic faith, the proposition must be made with clarity, certainty, and a manifest intention to oblige, and only propositions that formally and directly contradict the dogmas thus proposed should be qualified as heretical.

Now, since a solemn definition provides the Church with the most suitable means to energetically express its intentions and clearly formulate its doctrine, it is solemn definitions, and not the ordinary magisterium, that have always been used to condemn propositions as heretical to which this qualification had previously been given. Therefore, it is generally admitted that the common sentiment of the Fathers or theologians can make a doctrine certain, but it does not make it of Catholic faith if it is not already so.

“It is evident” says Cardinal Franzelin (De Divina Traditione, 2nd ed., p. 159), explaining when an assertion should be treated as heretical, “that it belongs to the Sovereign Pontiff and the ecumenical Council to define revealed truths that have not previously been the subject of a sufficient proposition.”

And further (ibid., p. 161): “Theologians generally believe that a truth (given the note of certainty) cannot be considered of Catholic faith until there is a definition by the Church.”

Cardinal Mazzella, after stating that the censure of proximate to heresy, proxima hæresi, applies to propositions that contradict a doctrine that imposes itself indubitably, but not as Catholic faith, by virtue of almost unanimous consent and teaching, continues (De Virtut. infusis, n. 533):

“Other theologians understand this censure differently. They say that if a doctrine was given as certainly belonging to the faith by all the Fathers and theologians, that would be enough to make it part of the divine faith; but that, in the absence of a definition by the Church, it would not yet belong to the Catholic faith. This doctrine could receive the note of proximate to the faith, for it would be close to the Catholic faith. The opposing proposition could reciprocally be called proximate to heresy. It would, in fact, be as close as possible to falling under a solemn definition; for it would fulfil all the conditions required to be declared heretical.”

Cardinal Mazzella also notes that theologians who would not classify this proposition among those close to heresy would consider it erroneous. This implies that all theologians agree that it would not be heretical. This suggests that unanimous teaching, even if it exists, cannot make a proposition heretical if it was not before.

This also seems to be the opinion of de Lugo (De Fide, disp. XX, n. 67), although I do not find a well-established doctrine on this point, either in this author (whose treatise on Faith is so remarkable, nevertheless), or in theologians who preceded him.

Finally, in his letter to the Archbishop of Munich, when speaking of truths that are of divine faith, Pope Pius IX seems to reserve to solemn judgments the role of making them Catholic faith, while attributing to the ordinary magisterium the task of transmitting (traduntur) and preserving (retinentur) them.

Therefore, the ordinary magisterium is infallible in all its affirmations, but until now, it has hardly been able to propose other dogmas of Catholic faith than those that have been such since the time of the apostles or have become so by a solemn judgment. Certainly, it clarifies revealed truths, develops them, draws previously unnoticed conclusions, and shows that propositions whose falsehood was not previously evident should be considered erroneous. However, it does not seem to have ever made assertions heretical that were not so before. With that in mind, it is easy to understand the conduct of the Church in the circumstances mentioned earlier.

Returning to previous examples

The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage in cases of adultery has never been a dogma of Catholic faith, and that is why the Council of Trent avoided issuing a definition that would classify it as a dogma of faith and condemn the belief of the Greeks as heretical. Nevertheless, it defined the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, which presents this truth as in accordance with revelation. Thus, it did not decide whether this truth is a revealed doctrine or a theological conclusion, and it condemned as heretical only the Protestants who accused the teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church of error.

As for the Immaculate Conception, it was accepted throughout the Church before Pope Pius IX’s definition. However, no theologian at the time regarded this truth as a dogma of Catholic faith; it was considered the unanimous belief of Catholics. This belief became more pronounced, and the dogma gradually evolved through the combined action of the ordinary magisterium of the Church and the decrees in which the Sovereign Pontiffs repeatedly silenced the opponents of the Immaculate Conception and confirmed the defenders of this truth in their belief.

We could not present a more remarkable example of how solemn judgments and the ordinary magisterium mutually cooperate to increase the clarity and certainty of a doctrine initially shrouded in some obscurity. A question captures the attention of Christians; two opposing solutions are at hand, and the struggle is intense. Under the influence of the ordinary magisterium, the evidence for the true belief appears increasingly convincing and gains adherents. Devotion to the Holy Virgin perhaps gains more ground than theological reasons.

In 1325, the case is referred to Pope John XXII, who pronounces in favour of the Immaculate Conception and celebrates the feast with new solemnity in Avignon. The controversy continues. By the end of the 15th century, almost the entire world seems won over. In 1476, Sixtus IV approves an office of the Immaculate Conception. In 1546, the Council of Trent declares that it does not intend to include the blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary in its decree on original sin.

In 1567, Pope Pius V condemns the 74th proposition of Baius, which opposes the privilege of the Mother of God, and in 1570, he forbids censuring either the favorable sentiment towards this privilege, which continues to gain ground, or the contrary sentiment that still has its supporters. In 1617, Paul V maintains these prohibitions for opponents of the Immaculate Conception and lifts them for its supporters. In 1622, Gregory XV forbids denying the Immaculate Conception not only in public but also in private conversations. In 1661, Alexander VII gives the common sentiment the qualification of pious belief and subjects to severe penalties those who dare to attack it in any way, while prohibiting accusing them of mortal sin or formal heresy as long as the Church has not pronounced on it.

From then on, all controversy on the questioned truth is over, but it is still not a dogma of Catholic faith. It is accepted by the ordinary magisterium as a pious belief until the day Pope Pius IX issues his solemn definition.

Let us stop here and conclude that the ordinary magisterium can elucidate a sentiment initially obscure, doubtful, and free, and make it certain and obligatory to the point that the contrary proposition will merit all the censures below heresy. However, until now, it does not seem to have transformed any doctrine, even one that is certain, into a dogma of faith, and it would be difficult for it to do so.

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


As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Monthly Gifts

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!

[1] Si quis dixerit Ecclesiam errare, cum docuit et docet, juxta evangelicam et apostolicam doctrinam, propter adulterium alterius conjugum matrimonii vinculum non posse dissolvi,… anathema sit.” (Conc. Trident. sess. 24, con. 7. – Cf. Pallavicini, History of the Council of Trent, Book XXII, Chapter IV, n. 27-30).

[2] Perrone. De Immaculata B. V. Conc., part II, chap. 7; – De Matrimonio n. 134 et 148.

[3] “We have come to an age in which it would seem a sin even to doubt or affirm with hesitation the original stain we have mentioned attaching to the most holy Mother of God, that same immaculate Virgin, even for the smallest moment in time. In this matter, there is such a consensus among Catholics that hardly anyone does not gladly confer this exceptional honor upon the Virgin, proclaim it with all his might, and demonstrate it with every form of respect. Therefore, you would rightly say that he abounds in it, who proposes to assert and vindicate this honor of the Virgin for himself. For what would this be if not to perform an action and, as the saying goes, to carry wood to the forest? However, this discussion of mine pertains to another matter entirely. To what end, then? Indeed, to present and examine the arguments that seem to either hinder or support the carrying of a dogmatic definition regarding the immaculate conception.” (Perrone, On the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a theological inquiry, 1848. Preface.)

[4] Encyclical Ubi primurn du 2 février 1849.

[5] “They not only renewed their individual and particular clergy’s and faithful people’s piety and devotion towards the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin, but also, as if by a common agreement, they had entreated us to define by our supreme judgment and authority the Immaculate Conception of the same Virgin.” (Bull Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854).

[6] See Mgr Matou, (L’immaculée conception de la Bienheureuse Vierge Marie, considérée comme dogme de foi, p. 232) who disapproves of their sentiments without refuting them.

[7] “The Roman Pontiffs, as circumstances and the condition of the times suggested, either in general councils assembled with the Church scattered throughout the world or in particular synods, or acting through other aids which divine Providence supplied, have defined that which must be held, in accordance with sacred Scriptures and Apostolic traditions, with the assistance of God. For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles, the deposit of the faith, and might faithfully set it forth.” (Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Chapter IV)

[8] Hurter, Theologiæ compend. n. 667 ; – Mazzella, De Virtutibus infusis, n. 528.

Leave a Reply