“We may call this the authority of doctrinal providence.”
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In the aftermath of and period since Vatican II, it has been common to try and explain the situation with reference to these ideas. When faced scandalous sermons or interviews given by popes and included in the Acta – or to heresies or significant errors included in encyclicals and other such documents – many have pointed out that such things do not constitute ex cathedra definitions; and thus that they are not infallible. From this, they infer that they can include all manner of heresies and errors.
Against this, some have presented the following points.
While not every doctrinal instruction given authoritatively and universally by the Church is infallibly true, it is however infallibly safe, in the sense that we all can (and must) assent to it, and will not be able to lose our souls in so doing. In other words, such teaching may contain errors; but it will not contain dangerous errors which will take us off of the way of salvation.
This is because the Church’s life is governed and protected by the Holy Ghost, and this protection has in turn been dubbed “doctrinal providence” by writers.
The great nineteenth century Jesuit theologian John-Baptist Franzelin is often cited for this idea, and the phrases “infallible safety” and “doctrinal providence” seem to have been popularised through circulation of extracts of his work.
However, a closer look at the extract in question shows that this idea of “infallible safety” is more complex than it may seem.
To give some more context to this topic, we are publishing a longer extract of Franzelin’s text than is usually given, translated by a friend of The WM Review.
Further comments and explanation will follow in due course.
Tractatus de Divina Traditione er Scriptura
Ioannis Bapt. Franzelin
1882, Sectio I., Caput II., Th. XII., Princ. VII.
Translated by a friend of The WM Review
Also available in English from Mediatrix Press
The Holy Apostolic See, to which God has entrusted the preservation of the deposit of faith and has imposed the task and duty to shepherd the Universal Church for the salvation of souls, can not only prescribe theological statements or those related to theological statements as acceptable or condemn them as unacceptable to definitively clarify the truth with an infallible judgment.
It can also do this out of the necessity and intention to assure, either in general or under certain circumstances, the safety of Catholic doctrine.
Even if in such declarations the truth of the doctrine is not infallible because no decision is intended, there is still infallible safety. This pertains to both the objective safety of the doctrine presented (in general or under the appropriate circumstances) and the subjective safety, insofar as it is safe for all to follow it, while it is not safe and cannot be done without violating due subordination to the divinely established teaching office to not comply with it.
Anyone who would deny this distinction between the final definitive pronouncement of the Pope speaking ex cathedra and other doctrinal regulations and prohibitions would be forced to categorize all provisions of the Holy See relating to doctrine in the same category as ex cathedra definitions, which is clearly erroneous, as demonstrated by Church history, the practice of the Holy See, and particularly the extremely carefully drafted explanation of ex cathedra definitions published by the First Vatican Council. Therefore, one must carefully distinguish between infallible truth and the safety of doctrine, for according to their premise as a principle, one must also understand what is said in the derived corollaries.
Two types of authority
Corollary I: The authority of the teaching office established by Christ in the Church can be considered in two ways regarding the subject at hand:
- Insofar as it is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in individual acts to provide an infallible definition of the truth, or in other words, insofar as it holds the authority of infallibility;
- Within its scope, as far as the same teaching office acts with the authority entrusted to it by God to shepherd but not with its full binding force (if one may say so) and not through the final definitive definition of the truth but insofar as it deems it necessary or appropriate and sufficient for the safety of doctrine; we may call this the authority of doctrinal providence.
Corollary II: The Pope cannot transfer the authority of infallibility to others who act in his name as his officials. So when it is occasionally said that some Sacred Roman Congregation has published an infallible definition, this is inaccurate; in such a case, the Congregation only has an advisory role, while only the Pope can define. There must be signs that indicate, as mentioned earlier, that the Pope intends to define ex cathedra.
The subordinate authority of doctrinal providence, as we have called it, is not independent of the Pope but depends on him. However, he can delegate it to some Cardinal Congregations to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, the decisions of the Sacred Congregations can rightly be called decrees of the Holy See, as is the ecclesiastical practice.
From what has been said, it is evident that every ex cathedra definition is a definition of the Holy See in the sense that it “decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church.” However, not every decree of the Holy See, even if it pertains to doctrine, is an ex cathedra definition.
Finally, an ex cathedra definition, which belongs exclusively to the Pope, because divine assistance was promised to him in Saint Peter, can never truly and properly be a decision of a Pontifical Congregation.
The type of assent required
Corollary III: It is incorrect to claim that the authority that requires the assent of the intellect represents solely the authority of God or the Church or the Pope when they make an infallible decision; various degrees of religious assent exist.
In the case at hand, we must distinguish the following:
- The assent of divine faith, which is properly and immediately based on the authority of God revealing
- Mediate divine assent, as mentioned above, based on the authority of one who defines a doctrine infallibly as true, though not as revealed
- Religious assent based on the authority of general doctrinal providence, as we have previously explained.
Of course, the religious assent we have referred to does not pertain to a doctrine that must be held as infallibly true or infallibly rejected by decree or marked by another censure with infallible authority; this would contradict the premise we are starting with.
Nevertheless, by virtue of the supreme and universal teaching office, it is such a sacred authority that obedience is owed to it, even if it does not define a doctrine as obligatory for the entire Church ex cathedra but prescribes or prohibits the observance of a doctrine without such a definition.
Opponents do not deny that obedience is due in this case; they only restrict it to the mere omission of external acts and thus to a respectful silence, “so that no one teaches a doctrine or even expresses his opinion on a subject in writing or verbally.”  But in their view, only an ex cathedra definition can demand obedience of the intellect “so that one abandons his own opinion and accepts the opposite with such firm certainty that he professes to adhere to it.”  Therefore, if a Sacred Congregation ever demanded such obedience of the intellect where there was no ex cathedra definition, as in the case of Galileo, then “the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition exceeded the limits of its authority.” 
In our view, when such judgments were issued without an ex cathedra definition, obedience that includes obedience of the intellect should be demanded and given. This does not mean adhering to the judgment that a doctrine is infallibly true or false, as our opponents seem to understand our view, but that the doctrine contained in this judgment is safe and should be accepted with obedience of the intellect and the rejection of its opposite not on the grounds of divine faith (based on the authority of God revealing or the infallible teaching Church) but on the grounds of the sacred authority whose unquestionable duty is to care for the purity and safety of the doctrine.
We are speaking here not of decrees that sometimes simply require silence (as was the case, for example, when Pope Paul V. spoke about the means of divine grace), but of answers and decrees that prescribe or prohibit the observance of a doctrine. These are not presented to the individuals merely to remain silent on the matter but also to teach and defend it in the manner and to the extent prescribed, including the obedience of the intellect.
Furthermore, in theology based on the Word of God or related to it, the specific source and, consequently, the specific and primary reason for assent is not the internal evidence of truth but the authority that presents the truth. Hence, the sacred authority of doctrinal providence, by virtue of its role, is the most sufficient reason for the pious will to command religious or theological assent of the intellect, provided that the form of the decree requires it. In my opinion, the view presented so far is based on valid arguments.
Is the assent of the Church necessary?
d) However, if that is the case, does the theological argument that theologians usually put forward for the proof of the infallibility of the ex cathedra-speaking Pope not collapse? Could this not “re-establish the sinister system of Gallicanism”? The Dutch dissertation explicitly warns of this danger.  That is, we make a distinction between infallible ex cathedra definitions and other documents of the Holy See that require religious obedience of the mind, even though they cannot be considered ex cathedra definitions:
“Such distinctions (as our opponent says), ‘are suited to nullify the infallible authority of the Pope in concrete cases and to provide a pretext for denying the infallibility of a particular decree…
“What indications would provide the assurance that the Pope has proclaimed a teaching opinion as an infallible teacher of the Church and not just as a fallible leader of the Church, if not the reception and understanding of the Church?” 
Making everything infallible
This borders on a tirade that is unworthy of a theologian. No Catholic has ever actually denied, or could do so, that it is necessary to distinguish between ex cathedra definitions and other statements, even of a doctrinal nature, made by both the Popes themselves and the Pontifical Congregations.
The enemies of the Holy See and the opponents of infallibility alone have always tried to eliminate this necessary distinction contained in the decree of the definition of the Vatican Council; and now the Neo-Protestants (Old Catholics) are doing this in a special way. It would be logical, then, if infallibility were not brought about and guided by divine assistance, as the Council has declared, but by a kind of habitual inspiration.
Mauro Cappellari, the later Pope Gregory XVI, deals with this artifice of the enemies in his work “Trionfo della Santa Sede” although he refers to the Pope in relation to all documents that do not count as ex cathedra definitions as a private teacher, but not in the sense in which, for example, Innocent IV or Benedict XIV are private teachers in their scholarly treatises, but only in contrast to the highest binding authority of the authority with which he establishes a teaching as binding for the entire Church or speaks ex cathedra; and therefore, in those documents, he is private in the manner of a non-ex cathedra-defining teacher, “that it would be an unacceptable levity to contradict him,” while, on the other hand, it is completely permissible to contradict the private opinions of the Popes in their books no differently than with other teachers without any levity, a freedom that Benedict XIV has fully granted to everyone.
Since it is not a question of a difference between private studies in which the sacred authority of the Pope plays no role, but between documents that, although coming from the highest teaching office, do not present a doctrine with a final definitive judgment as binding for the entire Church, and such definitions that directly or indirectly obligate the Church to divine faith, the learned author of “Trionfo” therefore insists so emphatically on the need for certain criteria by which ex cathedra definitions can be recognized, so that “confusion and disorder in the Church do not arise through the mixing of the former documents with the latter.” 
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 “Like the theologians Juan de Cárdenas and Claude Lacroix quoted by [Francesco] Zaccaria in the historical context (Storia polemica delle proibizioni de’ libri II, Appendix §2, n.6).”
 Vermeulen, Johannes Gerardus Willibrordus, De Romani Pontificis in ferenda infra haeresim censura infallibili judicio (dissertatio inauguralis Wirceburgensis), Trajecti ad Rhenum (Utrecht) 1874, p. 134.
 Vermeulen, p. 138.
 Franzelin is referring to Vermeulen here who, in his dissertation, had criticised his position on religious assent.
 Vermeulen, p. 155f.
 Just as everything decided at a council, even if it pertains to faith, does not constitute a dogmatic decision if the explicit intention to define something is lacking, so, without the express intention of the Fathers, it cannot be said that they represent the defining Church in those decisions. Anyone with even a little understanding can easily apply this principle to the Pope.
But when the Pope is consulted and responds and judges as a result, he will undoubtedly have the intention to make a judgment. Certainly, but a judgment as a theologian and a private teacher (i.e., without an ex cathedra definition) when he does not invoke the binding authority of his office… We have proven that the Pope can speak both as the head of the Church (by defining) and as a private teacher. Since the primacy does not exclude this distinction, it is necessary to establish certain unmistakable and clear criteria in order to avoid confusion and disorder in the Church, by which one can recognize when the Pope is defining solemnly, i.e., ex cathedra, and when he is not.
The existence of these criteria is as certain as the distinction shown, and as certain as the disorder that would occur without these criteria to the detriment of the Church, a disorder fundamentally opposed to the purpose for which the primacy was established” (Cappellari, Trionfo della Santa Sede e della Chiesa, c.24, nn.4.5).