What worries Catholics most in the current crisis in the Church is precisely the “problem of the pope.” We need very clear ideas on this question. We must avoid shipwreck to the right and to the left, either by the spirit of rebellion or, on the other hand, by an inappropriate and servile obedience. The serious error which is behind many current disasters is the belief that the “Authentic Magisterium” is nothing other than the “Ordinary Magisterium.”
The “Authentic Magisterium” cannot be so simply identified with the Ordinary Magisterium. In fact, the Ordinary Magisterium can be infallible and non-infallible, and it is only in this second case that it is called the “Authentic Magisterium.” The Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique [hereafter referred to as DTC – Ed.] under the heading of “papal infallibility” (vol. VII, col. 1699ff) makes the following distinctions:
there is the “infallible or ex cathedra papal definition in the sense defined by Vatican I” (col.1699);
there is the “infallible papal teaching which flows from the pope’s Ordinary Magisterium” (col.1705);
there is “non-infallible papal teaching” (col.1709).
Similarly, Salaverri, in his Sacrae Theologiae Summa (vol. I, 5th ed., Madrid, B.A.C.) distinguishes the following:
Extraordinary Infallible Papal Magisterium (no. 592 ff);
Ordinary Infallible Papal Magisterium (no. 645 ff);
Papal Magisterium that is mere authenticum, that is, only “authentic” or “authorized” as regards the person himself, not as regards his infallibility (no. 659 ff).
While he always has full and supreme doctrinal authority, the pope does not always exercise it at its highest level that is at the level of infallibility. As the theologians say, he is like a giant who does not always use his full strength. What follows is this:
“It would be incorrect to say that the pope is infallible simply by possessing papal authority,” as we read in the Acts of Vatican I (Coll. L ac. 399b). This would be equivalent to saying that the pope’s authority and his infallibility are the same thing.
It is necessary to know “what degree of assent is due to the decrees of the sovereign pontiff when he is teaching at a level which is not that of infallibility, i.e., when he is not exercising the supreme degree of his doctrinal authority” (Salaverri, op.cit., no. 659).
Error by Excess and/or By Defect
Unfortunately this three-fold distinction between the Extraordinary Magisterium, the Ordinary Infallible Magisterium, and the authentic non-infallible Magisterium, has fallen into oblivion. This has resulted in two opposite errors in the crisis situation of the Church at the present time: the error by excess of those who extend papal infallibility to all acts of the pope, without distinction; and the error by defect of those who restrict infallibility to definitions that have been uttered ex cathedra.
The error by excess actually eliminates the Ordinary Non-Infallible or “Authentic” Magisterium and inevitably leads either to Sedevacantism or to servile obedience. The attitude of the people of this second category is, “The pope is always infallible and so we always owe him blind obedience.”
The error by defect eliminates the Ordinary Infallible Magisterium. This is precisely the error of the neo-Modernists, who devalue the ordinary papal Magisterium and the “Roman tradition” which they find so inconvenient. They say, “The pope is infallible only in his Extraordinary Magisterium, so we can sweep away 2000 years of ordinary papal Magisterium.”
Both of these errors obscure the precise notion of the Ordinary Magisterium, which includes the Ordinary Infallible Magisterium and the ordinary, “authentic,” non-infallible Magisterium.
Confusion and Controversy
These two opposing errors are not new. They were denounced even before Vatican II. In 1954, Fr. Labourdette, O.P., wrote:
Many persons have retained very naive ideas about what they learned concerning the personal infallibility of the sovereign pontiff in the solemn and abnormal exercise of his power of teaching. For some, every word of the supreme pontiff will in some way partake of the value of an infallible teaching, requiring the absolute assent of theological faith; for others, acts which are not presented with the manifest conditions of a definition ex cathedra will seem to have no greater authority than that of any private teacher. (Revue Thomiste LIV, 1954, p.196)!
Dom Paul Nau has also written about the confusion that has arisen between the pope’s authority and his infallibility:
By a strange reversal, while the personal infallibility of the pope in a solemn judgment, so long disputed, was definitely placed beyond all controversy, it is the Ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Church, which seems to have been lost sight of.
It all happened – as is not unheard of elsewhere in the history of doctrine – as if the very brilliance of the Vatican I definition had cast into shadow the truth hitherto universally recognized; we might almost say, as if the definition of the infallibility of the solemn judgments made these henceforth the unique method by which the sovereign pontiff would put forward the rule of faith [Pope or Church?, Angelus Press, 1998, p.13].
On the temporary fading of a doctrine from Catholic consciousness, see the entry “dogme” in DTC (vol. IV).
Dom Nau also mentioned the disastrous consequences which flow from this identification of the pope’s authority and his infallibility:
No place would be left, intermediate between such private acts and the solemn papal judgments, for a teaching which, while authentic, is not equally guaranteed throughout all its various expressions. If things are looked at from this angle, the very notion of the Ordinary Magisterium becomes, properly speaking, unthinkable. [Pope or Church?, p.4]
Dom Nau considered from where this phenomenon had developed:
Since 1870 [the year of Vatican I – Ed.], manuals of theology have taken the formulae in which their statements of doctrine have been framed from the actual wording of the Council text. None of these treated in its own right of the ordinary teaching of the pope, which has accordingly, little by little, slipped out of sight and all pontifical teaching has seemed to be reduced solely to solemn definitions ex cathedra. Once attention was entirely directed to these, it became customary to consider the doctrinal interventions of the Holy See solely from the standpoint of the solemn judgment, that of a judgment which ought in itself to bring to the doctrine all the necessary guarantees of certainty. (ibid., p.13)
This is partly true, but we should not forget that liberal theology had already been advertising its reductive agenda. That is why Pius IX, even before Vatican I (1870) felt obliged to warn German theologians that divine faith’s submission “must not be restricted only to those points which have been defined” (Letter to Archbishop of Munich, Dec. 21, 1863).