The Ordinary Universal Magisterium
Rome maintains that the ban on women priests has been infallibly decided by the ‘ordinary universal magisterium’. However, Rome is mistaken about this presumed infallible teaching by the ordinary universal magisterium on women priests, because the five conditions required by Council documents have not been fulfilled.
What is the ‘ordinary universal magisterium’?
Jesus Christ entrusted teaching authority to the Pope and the bishops, who are the successors to Peter and the apostles. The question naturally arises: do they only teach infallibly when they are assembled in an general council? The answer is: no. The collective episcopate, united to the Holy Father, can teach with its highest authority also when the bishops are dispersed throughout the world.
The term ‘universal ordinary magisterium’ refers to the concordant teaching of all Catholic bishops together with the Pope, outside the rather rare occasions when the bishops are gathered in an ecumenical council.
The First Vatican Council presupposed this universal ordinary magisterium when it declared in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith: ‘All those things are to be believed with Catholic and divine faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed on, and are proposed by the Church either by a solemn judgment or by its ordinary and universal magisterium as divinely revealed and to be believed as such’ (Denzinger-Schönmetz, no 3011).
Note. It is clear from the Acta of Vatican I (Mansi 51,322) that the term ‘universal magisterium’ refers to the teaching of the whole episcopate with the Pope, and not to the teaching of the Pope alone, even when this is directed to the universal Church.
When does the universal ordinary magisterium teach infallibly?
The Second Vatican Council described the universal ordinary magisterium more precisely and expressed the conditions under which it operates:
“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.” Lumen Gentium § 25d.
From this Council text and other texts on which it depends, five conditions can clearly be recognised:
- Collegial action.
It is clear that the bishops must be involved in a collegial exercise of teaching authority.
- As ‘judges’.
The bishops must be free to express their own considered opinion.
- In the service of the faith of the whole Church.
The bishops must listen to the Word of God and the ‘sensus fidelium’.
- Regarding faith and morals.
The teaching must concern matters relating to the object of faith.
- In a teaching consciously imposed as ‘definitive’.
The bishops must want to impose the doctrine as definitely to be held.
Now it is abundantly clear that these conditions have not been met in the case of the ban on the ordination of women.
The theological principle should here be applied that “no doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such.” Canon 749, § 3.
Conclusion: Therefore, the question has not been decided infallibly by the universal ordinary magisterium.
Read further about this:
- a detailed discussion of the five conditions and why they have not been met.
- A summary of the assessment by key theologians from around the world.
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