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On the Papacy and the Teaching Office of the Church


The different levels of authoritative teaching discussed here show that such teaching has to be interpreted carefully.


We will examine the three levels of authoritative teaching: dogmas, secondary objects of infallible teaching, Catholic doctrine.


A dogma is a statement which specifies a particular teaching as being contained in the deposit of faith, that foundational revelation concerning Jesus Christ. Such a statement is normative and is to be accepted by the whole church because it is based on the authority of God Himself. Such a statement is taught infallibly by the church because the Holy Spirit preserves the church, especially its teaching authority, from error when teaching matters that are essentially related to the deposit of faith. Such a statement carries a quality of irreversibility; we cannot go back on it but we can develop its understanding. This quality of irreversibility distinguishes a teaching that is infallibly taught from a teaching which is not taught under the charism of infallibility.

How is such a dogma taught? It can be taught through the extraordinary magisterium or the ordinary universal magisterium. The extraordinary includes two structures of teaching: an ecumenical council and the pope teaching in an ex cathedra manner. Vatican I specified certain conditions under which the pope can teach in an ex cathedra manner. (1) It is a matter of faith or morals contained in or necessarily related to the deposit of revelation. (2) It is an act of judgment that a proposition of faith is to be held by the whole church with irrevocable assent. This shows that infallibility pertains primarily to the judgment made by the authoritative teacher; it is the act of judgment which is preserved from error. (3) The pope must be acting, not as a private person, but as bishop of Rome and head of the universal church.

If one is looking for examples of such dogmas, one can look first to the doctrines about the Trinity or the affirmation about Christ being a divine person with a human and divine nature; these would be dogmas taught by an ecumenical council, and there are many others. Concerning formal ex cathedra dogmatic statements, there are two: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.


The ordinary universal magisterium involves the situation of all bishops dispersed throughout the world, who in their ordinary teaching and under certain circumstances can teach infallibly. Lumen Gentium (no. 25) specified these five conditions. In a sense these five conditions were seen to be operative within an ecumenical council and were extended to include the situation of bishops dispersed.

  1. Even though dispersed through the world, the bishops are maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter.

  2. The bishops, as members of the episcopal college, are authoritatively exercising their office of teachers and witnesses of the apostolic faith for the sake of the church; they are not simply offering their personal opinions.

  3. They are teaching matters of faith and morals contained in or necessarily related to the deposit of revelation.

  4. They are in agreement on one position. In one sense this shows the universal dimension of the teaching. Yet on a deeper level it conveys an active role of the episcopal college, that they are not just taking a stance of non-opposition or passively accepting the judgment of others but are truly making their own judgment in unity with the other members of the college.

  5. They are saying that such a teaching is to be definitively held by the whole church. They have made an act of judgment in saying that this teaching involves an element that is normative for the faith.

The common example of such a dogmatic teaching through the ordinary universal magisterium is the doctrine about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary before it was formulated in an ex cathedra manner.

Four comments are in order. First, in these situations of an ecumenical council, an ex cathedra pronouncement, or the bishops being dispersed, there is the presumption that the pope and bishops have exercised a discernment process to determine what the faith of the church is, since they are not expressing their personal opinion about what they think concerning the faith.

Second, when Vatican I said that dogmas are irreformable (or irreversible) this pertains not to the process of discernment but to the situation after a dogma has been promulgated; there is no higher court of appeal or further process of ratification needed for it to be considered normative. Third, there is the affirmation found in canon law that nothing should be understood as infallibly taught unless it is clearly established as such. Fourth, the formulation of the conditions for the ordinary universal magisterium to exercise its teaching role is rather recent, and there is need for greater clarification on determining how dispersed bishops can teach in a definitive manner together.


Secondary objects of infallible teaching are doctrines which are not contained in the deposit of faith but which are necessarily related to the deposit of faith because such doctrines are needed for the defence and/or the explanation of elements in the deposit. Generally speaking, it has been the work of theologians to determine what types of doctrines would fit into this category.

However, the recent doctrine of the prohibition of ordaining women to the presbyterate was put forth by the Pope as being taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium. The idea was that the doctrine is needed to preserve the integrity of presbyteral ordination. Although this type of teaching is not considered a dogma since it is not contained in the deposit, it is considered to be taught infallibly and thus would have the characteristic of irreversibility.


In this category we will find most of the authoritative church teaching; it is the normal way in which the magisteriurn teaches in matters of doctrine and up to now in all matters of morality. It results because there are situations where there is need to offer a response that is guided by the light of the Gospel and necessary for the time. This type of teaching is distinguished from the previous two categories by the fact that it is non-infallible teaching; this means that such teaching could possibly change. Even though it is non-infallible believers are expected to have an attitude of trust in the authoritative teachers who are exercising their gospel mandate, and the presumption is always that what they are teaching is true.

How is Catholic doctrine taught by the pope? The most common way now is through papal encyclicals, apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations. This way of teaching could be termed "ordinary papal magisterium." Yet it is also possible that such teaching could originate from one of the curial congregations, depending on whether the pope would specifically decide to direct such a teaching to the universal church, technically called in forma speciali. Concerning the teaching about ordination, we see an instance where the pope uses ordinary papal magisterium to make explicit how the dispersed bishops were teaching this matter through the ordinary universal magisterium. The question arises as to whether this might now become the normal manner for expressing what is being taught infallibly through the ordinary universal magisterium.

These levels of authoritative teaching show that such teaching has to be interpreted carefully. They set out certain parameters so that the faith and unity of the church will not be seriously compromised. This also means that infallibility pertains to a very important but narrow area of teaching; the claim that certain doctrines pertain to the deposit of faith can be made only after serious reflection.

Further, this also shows the importance of theology for the life of the church in its complementary yet distinctive role to the magisterium. Theological reflection is needed to deepen the understanding of official doctrines and to show how development is possible. Theologians also have the responsibility of raising issues and questions which the authoritative teachers should consider if there is need to make an official response to particular issues.



Cardinal Francis George. On the Papacy and the Teaching Office of the Church. The Catholic Faith 5, no. 6 (November/December 1999): 13-14.

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

The Author

GeorgeHis Eminence Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., is the Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus of Chicago, he has issued two pastoral letters: on evangelization, "Becoming an Evangelizing People," (November 21, 1997) and on racism, "Dwell in My Love" (April 4, 2001). His book, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, is a collection of essays exploring our relationship with God, the responsibility of communion and the transformation of culture.

Copyright © 1999 The Catholic Faith
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