The doctrinal authority of the episcopal magisterium – what is it? JMA Vacant answers

“The body of the episcopate can never perish or err, but each bishop can fall into error and even separate from his brothers through schism or heresy.”

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: Bishops at Vatican II, 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 fifth chapter, which considers the nature of the episcopal magisterium, as exercised by the bishops dispersed throughout the world.

Vacant addresses several questions which are very pertinent to our time, including:

  • Who are “the bishops”, and can they all be called successors of the apostles, properly speaking?
  • Are they always in the majority of the bishops in the world?
  • What is their relationship to the Roman Pontiff?
  • When are they unable to err?
  • What is the key requirement for a council to be counted as ecumenical, and for its doctrine to be protected by infallibility?
  • What could happen at a council of bishops without the Roman Pontiff?
  • What happens when individual bishops (or groups of them) begin teaching beyond that which is taught by the Roman Pontiff?

This text contains challenges for various ways of viewing our current situation why. 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 V – The doctrinal authority of the majority of the bishops dispersed throughout the world

It is time for our attention to focus on the principal element of ordinary magisterium – on that which makes it an infallible and obligatory rule of our faith and sentiments.

I mean the authority which presides over it.

This authority belongs to the Pope and to the episcopal college united with him. It is to this head, to this body, that all promises of infallibility are made, and all powers over the Church are given.

Everything is under the dependence and supervision of this sovereign authority; all the elements we have discussed enter into the ordinary and universal magisterium only through its action. These elements are its organs, or rather instruments, and they derive all their power from it, just as a branch derives its life and nourishment from the trunk of a tree so long as it remains attached to it.

Let us first consider the dispersed episcopal college, to whom theologians usually attribute the infallibility of daily magisterium. We will later discuss the Sovereign Pontiff, who is the head of the bishops.

The role of the bishops

We have already stated that Jesus Christ promised to the successors of the apostles that they would always be faithful guardians and preachers of his doctrine. This is why all bishops are the organs of the ordinary magisterium, by virtue of the Saviour’s institution; and the faith of each particular Church is ruled by the doctrine of its bishop.[1]

This is why also, throughout all the centuries, there will be bishops, subject to the Pope and united among themselves, to teach the truths of revelation in a common accord. Nevertheless, although the body of the episcopate can never perish or err, each bishop, considered individually, can fall into error and even separate from his brothers through schism or heresy.

Therefore, it is crucial – amid the struggles and divisions that have sometimes divided the Church – to recognise the true body of the episcopate, the infallible custodian of truth.

The primary sign by which we can recognise this body – the only sign which is always certain – is its communion with the Sovereign Pontiff. Saint Peter was constituted by Jesus Christ as the perpetual head of the apostolic college; it is to the successors of the apostles, subject to the successor of Saint Peter, that infallibility belongs. This infallibility will prevent them from separating from the successor of Peter, just as it will prevent them from abandoning the truth.

But will the bishops who remain united with the Pope and are infallible in teaching the truth always constitute the majority of the episcopate? Can we safely discern their identity by their being of the greater number?

On this point, the most authoritative theologians are in disagreement.

Several – such as Brugère,[2] Bonal,[3] Palmieri,[4] Muzzarelli,[5] and Ballerini[6] – believe that the majority of bishops cannot err. According to this opinion, when the majority of bishops, acting as judges of the faith, agree in teaching a point of doctrine, it would be impossible for that point not to be in accordance with the teaching of the Pope and the truth.

Melchior Cano,[7] on the contrary, maintains that the majority of the episcopate can pronounce on a doctrine which they want to impose on the Church, without the Pope also teaching that doctrine. This is also the opinion of Benedict XIV.[8] According to this opinion, the teaching of the majority of bishops could be erroneous.

Moreover, outside of the Gallicans, all theologians – even those who do not admit that the majority of the episcopate can err – believe that the Pope retains full independence of judgment, even if the majority of bishops have spoken.

Rephrasing the question – majority of what?

Before settling the question, let me rephrase it in other terms.

When we speak of the majority of the episcopate, we certainly have in view the Catholic episcopate; however, there is no Catholic episcopate except that which is united with the Pope.

Therefore, it can be argued, with some proponents of the first opinion, that the catholicity of the Church requires it to have the majority of bishops by order – that is, those who have received episcopal consecration – just as it must gather the majority of baptised Christians.

But there is a point that should not be forgotten. The catholicity of the Church (in addition to its worldwide extension) undoubtedly assures it a significantly larger number of faithful than the adherents of any separate sect.

However, this catholicity would still belong to us, even if the number of Catholics were smaller than the number of all heretics and all schismatics combined.

Now, should it not be the same for those who have received episcopal consecration?

Therefore, even though it has never happened, there would be no cause for scandal if Catholic bishops were to be fewer in number than the consecrated bishops scattered throughout all the heterodox sects, since these sects are separated from one another and do not form a unified body among themselves.

Furthermore, it is clear, in my opinion, that it is not to schismatic or heretical bishops that the Saviour promised infallibility, just as it is not to false sects that he promised the privileges that should distinguish the true Church.[9]

Therefore, it is not, I believe, bishops who possess the episcopal character; it is the Catholic bishops who possess episcopal jurisdiction and the power to teach that must be considered in determining the majority of the episcopate under discussion. It is, in fact, because of the teaching authority received with jurisdiction that bishops become members of the teaching Church.

Let us therefore study our question with regard to bishops who have jurisdiction in the Catholic Church. I will not address the problem of the origin of bishops’ jurisdiction, nor examine whether it is granted immediately by Jesus Christ Himself or by the Pope; that would take us too far.

The role of Rome

Besides, whatever the answer to this question may be, it is a point accepted by all theologians today that the Sovereign Pontiff can restrict the jurisdiction of bishops and set limits within which they must operate for their acts to be valid. This is how the Holy See reserved the absolution of certain sins; this is how it reserved many other cases in which bishops are consequently without jurisdiction. When it comes to disciplinary matters, this doctrine is accepted by all authors.

It seems to me that if it is true regarding these matters, it is no less true concerning the magisterium and the power to teach, since the magisterium derives from jurisdiction. Therefore, the Sovereign Pontiff can set limits on the teaching power that bishops receive. He can, even more, establish the limits that exist by divine right.

The acts of a bishop who, in the exercise of his doctrinal authority, exceeds the limits established by Jesus Christ or the Sovereign Pontiff would be invalid – just as the acts of a bishop who, without delegation, grants absolution for sins reserved to the Pope, or dispenses impediments to marriage for which recourse to Rome is required would be invalid.

It is also known that matters concerning the faith are reserved to the Holy See, and no bishop has the power to impose or condemn a doctrine except to the extent that it is imposed or condemned by the Church.[10] This reservation confirms what the Saviour Himself established.

Moreover, even if it were a restriction imposed by the Pope on the doctrinal authority of the bishops, our demonstration would retain its validity as long as this restriction is upheld. However, since this reservation is of divine right, it will always exist, and the Pope can only lift it to a certain extent by sharing a portion of his own authority with those for whom he does so.

Ecumenical councils

Thus, even when he convenes an ecumenical council, the prohibition of imposing anything in matters of doctrine that is not imposed by the Church remains in force and applies not only to each bishop individually but also to all bishops when gathered together. For, even in a council, they cannot define anything without the Pope. As a result, the council’s judgment on matters of faith is not definitively rendered until it receives the confirmation of the Roman Pontiff, and he can always grant or deny this confirmation.

However, it would digress from our current topic to address this issue in the case of a general council, since we are discussing the ordinary magisterium of the dispersed Church, and it is clear that dispersed bishops acting individually have never had the authority to impose any doctrine except to the extent that it was imposed by the universal Church or by the Pope.

So, if it were to happen that a bishop were to propose to the faithful as obligatory a point that is not such, he would not be acting in accordance with the jurisdiction and the power to teach that he has received; he would not be acting as a successor to the apostles, for he would exceed his authority. Furthermore, what would be true for one bishop would be true for all, since we assume them to be dispersed.

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Can the bishops act ultra vires?

Moreover, as the assistance of the Holy Spirit is only assured to the successors of the apostles for the exercise of the authority they have received, if they were to exceed their rights, could they rely on this assistance? How would the infallibility promised to the episcopal body extend to teaching that is beyond the authority of the one giving it?

If one wanted such teaching to be infallible, would it not be necessary to admit that the power that Jesus Christ granted to priests to forgive sins guarantees the validity of all absolutions they might choose to give, even those granted for cases reserved to the Pope, over which their jurisdiction does not extend.

But one might ask: Do not the promises of Jesus Christ to the episcopal body guarantee us that the bishops will not exceed their teaching authority, just as they guarantee us that the Sovereign Pontiff will not make definitions on matters outside his jurisdiction? Indeed, it appears that this has been promised to the faithful episcopal body, and that is why it seems impossible that the majority of Catholic bishops not only teach error, but also take precedence over the Sovereign Pontiff in imposing doctrines that he would not impose.

Can they go beyond the Roman Pontiff?

So, if it concerns a point that has not hitherto been obligatory, that has not been imposed either by the Sovereign Pontiff or by an ecumenical council, the majority of the episcopate can only teach this point as obligatory for all the faithful to the extent that this teaching becomes that of the Pope as well.

It may happen that in their personal opinion, the majority or even the unanimity of bishops regard this point as true and certainly revealed, without the Holy See yet imposing it on our assent. However, in the exercise of their episcopal authority, they will always teach this point as the Holy See teaches it, and they will never condemn the opposing doctrine except to the extent that the Holy See condemns it.

This was evident during the definition of the Immaculate Conception. All the bishops of the Catholic world considered this privilege of the Blessed Virgin as true; most believed it was formally revealed, and they wanted to see it defined. But as long as Pius IX had not issued his definition, they did not propose it as a dogma of the Catholic faith.

If, therefore, it ever happened that a doctrine were imposed on the belief of the faithful by the majority of the members of the episcopal body, while the Roman Pontiff remained silent, this silence could be considered as an approval. The doctrine in question would then become the subject of the ordinary teaching of the Roman Pontiff, which we will call tacit (see Chapter VI). It would also be necessary to think that the bishops saw an approval in the silence of Rome, and that it was for this reason that they believed themselves entitled to impose this doctrine on the faithful.

The relationship between the bishops and the teaching of the Holy See

Let us now consider the case in which the Holy See imposes a truth, debated up to that point, on the faith or assent of the Church.

Immediately, the majority of the episcopate will teach this truth as obligatory. This is the consequence of the promises of Jesus Christ to the episcopal body, and tradition has thus interpreted these promises, as it has always regarded the teaching of the Catholic bishops as a certain rule of faith.

Nevertheless, let us not forget that the doctrinal decisions of the Church do not require all the faithful to adhere explicitly to the particular point in question. Therefore, we will not find the explicit teaching of all obligatory truths in the mouths of the majority of bishops.

It may even happen that, out of fear of more serious inconveniences or out of negligence, bishops tolerate the teaching of false doctrines around them, especially if they do not touch the core of the faith.

Finally, it is not impossible that the bishops themselves may err in their personal views.

In all of this, there would be no episcopal act that contradicts the teachings of the Sovereign Pontiff. But what will never happen is that, in acts where they speak as successors of the apostles, the majority of bishops teach a doctrine that is not in accordance with all the sentiments that have been imposed by the Holy See, either as a matter of faith or as obligatory in another sense.

This result will be achieved through the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus Christ to His Church. Since this assistance does not exempt the use of human means that can maintain the bishops in the unity of faith and communion with the Sovereign Pontiff, the main means that has always been used in the Church to achieve this goal is the selection, by the Holy See or those who represent it, of bishops who profess a completely pure faith and a great love for unity.


It is therefore impossible for the majority of bishops with jurisdiction in the Church – namely, the Catholic bishops – to teach a doctrine that the Sovereign Pontiff would not teach either explicitly or at least implicitly. Consequently, it is impossible for this majority to fall into error and separate themselves from the Holy See.

If, moreover, God were to allow some bishops to go astray in a certain doctrine, it would usually be because they had not sought, above all, to follow the teachings and prescriptions of the Church and the Roman Pontiff – thus approaching the schismatic or heretical bishops who have received episcopal consecration, but are devoid of any jurisdiction, any teaching authority, and consequently, any participation in the assistance promised to the college of bishops.

Any doctrine taught as obligatory by the majority, especially by the unanimity of Catholic bishops, is therefore obligatory for the entire Church, to the extent that they affirm it. For we can be assured that they propose it for the belief of the faithful in union with the Sovereign Pontiff, and that therefore this doctrine is taught infallibly by the entire body of bishops – that is, by the Pope and the bishops united with the Pope.

Hence, one can recognise the episcopal body not only, which is beyond doubt, by its union with the Sovereign Pontiff – but also, it seems, by the number of Catholic bishops who agree in the exercise of their magisterium. And these two signs, indeed, seem always to be united.

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] Consult the canonical works to see what are the rights and obligations of the bishop as a teacher and guardian of the faith in his diocese.

[2] De Ecclesia, n. 55

[3] De Ecclesia, n. 193

[4] De Romano Pontifice, n. 583 and 584

[5] Religion et philosophie, n. 95

[6] De potestate Summorum Pontificum, cap. II, § 2

[7] De locis theologicis, lib. V, cap. V

[8] De Synodo, lib. XIII, cap. II, n. 3

[9] Cf. Vincent, De Ecclesia, n. 205, III. We could be content with this observation if the teaching of the episcopate concerned only the truths of the Catholic faith, and if they could not be altered without falling into heresy. However, it is also a matter of knowing whether the Catholic episcopate can teach false, rash, or dangerous propositions, or even if it can profess, in good faith and out of ignorance, doctrines that are heretical in themselves, which would not make it formally heretical or schismatic.

[10] See Benedict XIV, De Synodo, lib. VI, c. IlI, n. 7 et lib. VII, c. XI ; – Bouix, De Episcopo, lib. V, c. VI ; Craisson, Manuale, n. 954 ; et tous les canonistes.

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