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The Ordinary Universal Magisterium

"I would want to be a priest"

The Ordinary Universal Magisterium

Conditions affecting its infallible teaching

The Second Vatican Council described the universal ordinary magisterium more precisely and expressed the conditions under which it teaches infallibly:

“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.
This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” Lumen Gentium § 25d-e.

From this Council text and other texts on which it depends, five conditions can clearly be recognised:

  1. Collegial action.
    It is clear that the bishops must be involved in a collegial exercise of teaching authority.
  2. As ‘judges’.
    The bishops must be free to express their own considered opinion.
  3. In service of the faith of the whole Church.
    The bishops must listen to the Word of God and the ‘sensus fidelium’.
  4. Regarding faith and morals.
    The teaching must concern matters relating to the object of faith.
  5. In a teaching consciously imposed as ‘definitive’.
    The bishops must want to impose the doctrine as definitely to be held.

We will now study each of these conditions in detail.

Condition 1. Collegial action

‘Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. ‘This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world .‘

Since the first clause denies to individual bishops the prerogative of infallibility, the ‘they’ who can speak infallibly are evidently the bishops taken collectively: in other words, it is the episcopal college as such which enjoys the prerogative of infallibility. Now if the individual bishops are not infallible, the mere sum of them would not be infallible either. So in some real way, any infallible teaching by the bishops must involve a collegial exercise of their teaching authority. This of course requires the participation of the Pope as head of the college.

The episcopal college can teach infallibly not only when it is gathered in an ecumenical council, but also when dispersed around the world. But the problem is: how can the dispersed college teach in a collegial way? Francis Sullivan discusses some of the options.

“The pronouncing of a solemn dogmatic definition is an extraordinary exercise of magisterium, in which the episcopal college deliberates upon and judges a question of faith in a strictly collegial way. Until now, this has been possible only when the bishops have been actually gathered in ecumenical councils. So, historically, the condition required for the episcopal college to be the subject of an infallible dogmatic definition has been that it be assembled in an ecumenical council. ”

“The question can be raised whether, in the future, it might be possible for the episcopal college to exercise such deliberation and judgment in a strictly collegial way, without being physically gathered in one place. Given the recent advances in methods of global communication, it does not seem out of the question that the kind of common deliberation required for a strictly collegial decision might be possible without an actual assembly of the bishops in a conciliar aula. ”

“ Another question is whether a group of bishops elected and authorised by their fellow bishops to represent the whole episcopate could, together with the pope, be the subject of supreme teaching authority, capable of defining a dogma of faith. In view of the fact that in the ecumenical councils of the first millennium the whole western episcopate was represented by only two or three bishops, legates of the bishop of Rome, it would not seem impossible for the authority of the whole episcopal college to be exercised by a body of its elected representatives. Such a body would have to be authorised to make decisions together with the pope with fully deliberative voice. In this respect it would have to be different from the ‘Synod of Bishops’ established by Pope Paul VI in 1965, which, as constituted, is a purely advisory organ for the pope, with merely consultative voice. ”

From: Francis A. Sullivan, Magisterium. Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Gill & MacMillan, Dublin 1983, pp. 100-101.

It should be noted that true ‘collegial action’ requires not only discussion of the Pope with individual bishops or bishops' conferences, but also free discussion of the bishops among each other.

Assessment: With regard to the ordination of women no such collegial involvement of the world episcopate has taken place.

Condition 2. The bishops act as ‘judges of faith’.

‘They are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church . . .’

It is a general principle of moral theology and Church law that human actions are not valid, unless they are done with full human deliberation and freedom of choice.

  • If all the Christian faithful have the freedom to study questions of faith and frankly express their opinion about it (Canon 212, §3); if theologians enjoy a just academic freedom (Canon 218), bishops too should enjoy that freedom and be obliged to make a responsible use of it.
  • If bishops are to safeguard ‘a rightful freedom in the further investigation of the truths of faith’ (Canon 386 §2), they themselves must enjoy a similar freedom.
  • If lack of informed knowledge or moral coercion invalidates human acts such as casting a vote (Canon 172 §1), entering a religious congregation (Canon 643) or concluding a marriage (Canon 1103), any teaching activity engaged in by bishops without adequate knowledge or exercised under moral coercion is invalid too.
  • Canon 126 clearly states: ‘A juridical act placed because of ignorance or error concerning an element which constitutes its substance or which amounts to a conditio sine qua non is invalid’. Since the arguments from Scripture and Tradition regarding the ordination of women belong to the substance of any judgment as to whether women can be ordained, bishops who are ignorant about these arguments, or hold erroneous views on them, cannot pronounce a valid judgment on the question.

“It is certain that in order for the episcopal college to be the subject of a dogmatic definition, the bishops have to be exercising their function as ‘judges of the faith’ (Lumen Gentium § 25) in a truly deliberative way. This necessarily includes the condition that the bishops be free to express their own judgment: in other words that they not be under such pressure or coercion as would deprive them of genuine freedom in expressing their views. It is well known that critics of Vatican I, both in the last century and more recently, have charged that the pressure put on the bishops by Pope Pius IX was such that the deliberations of that council were not truly free. As far as I know, no defender of Vatican I has questioned the major premise of their argument: namely, that the episcopate has to be free from coercion in order to be a subject of the deliberative decision-making required for a conciliar definition of faith. The same applies to the episcopal college now.”

From: Francis A. Sullivan, Magisterium. Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Gill & MacMillan, Dublin 1983, p. 101.

Assessment: There are legitimate questions both about the adequate knowledge possessed by bishops and their freedom in the present climate of the Church.

(1) Because of the vigorous suppression of contrary theological opinions, it is doubtful if the bishops have been able to acquaint themselves sufficiently with adequate background information on Scripture and Tradition in this matter. Certainly most bishops are not sufficiently aware of the fact that the majority of theologians does not see fundamental objections to the ordination of women.

(2) There is evidence that Rome has been putting considerable pressure on bishops to fall in line with its own thinking. Bishop are being told, both in public and through private correspondence, to rigorously oppose those who present arguments for the ordination of women.“The bishop should prove his pastoral ability and leadership qualities by resolutely refusing any support to those people - whether individuals or groups - who defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, of human rights, compassion or for whatever reason it may be” (Letter from the Congregation for Christian Doctrine, Osservatore Romano13 September 1983). Such action on the part of Rome amounts to a moral coercion that may well invalidate the capacity of many bishops to act as independent ‘judges of the faith’.

The same condition obviously applies to the Pope too. “The Pope must make his decision to define while of sound mind and free of coercion. Otherwise he cannot be said to be exercising his supreme teaching authority” (F.Sullivan, ib.).

Condition 3. Listening to the faith of the whole Church.

In response to the articles of the Gallican clergy in 1682 AD, which stipulated that an infallible statement of a Pope needs the subsequent consent of the Church, the First Vatican Council taught that ‘the definitions of the same Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves and not from the consent of the Church’ (Pastor Aeternus, §11). Subsequent consent as a condition for infallibility would indeed nullify the teaching power of the Popes and the bishops.

However, this does not mean that either the Pope or the college of bishops can just make up teachings by themselves. They can only present as teaching what they find in the ‘deposit of faith’, a deposit that is handed on in the explicit and implicit faith awareness of the whole Church, including the faithful. This is how Vatican II speaks about it.

Lumen Gentium §25(k). “The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents; but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith.”

Comment: ‘The fitting means to inquire properly’ obviously include a fair and thorough investigation of the arguments from Scripture and Tradition, and consulting reliable and independent theologians who have proved their competence in this matter.

Lumen Gentium § 12(a). “The holy people of God shares also in Christ's prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to his name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.”

Lumen Gentium §35(b) “Christ does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in his name and with his authority, but also through the laity whom he made his witnesses and to whom he gave understanding of the faith (sensus fidei) and the grace of the word so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life.”

Comment: The Pope and the bishops have to pay attention to the sensus fidei, i.e. the awareness of faith felt and experienced by the ordinary faithful who share in the overall prophetic office of the Church and in the Church's inerrancy.

Dei Verbum § 10 (d). “This teaching office [=magisterium] is not above the word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. It listens to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit. It draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

Comment: The Pope and the bishops depend in their teaching office on the faith of the Church. To quote F. Sullivan: “It is most important, however, to observe that while Vatican I rules out the juridical dependence of papal definitions on episcopal consent, it does not, and indeed cannot rule out a real dependence of papal definitions on the faith of the Church. For the Pope [and the bishops] can define as a dogma of faith only what is contained in the deposit of revelation. Now Dei Verbum tells us that ‘the sacred deposit of the Word of God has been entrusted to the Church’ (Dei Verbum 10), and it is the Church which ‘in her teaching, life and worship perpetuates and hands on this deposit to all generations’ (Dei Verbum 8). If, then, before he can define anything as divinely revealed, the Pope must ‘listen to the Word of God’ (Dei Verbum 10), and if this Word of God has been entrusted to the Church’ (Dei Verbum 10), and is handed on ‘in her teaching, life and worship’ (Dei Verbum 8), it follows that before the Pope can define a dogma he must listen to the Church, and that he can define as dogma only what he finds in the faith of the Church. The Pope has no source of revelation that is independent of the faith-life of the Church. As Vatican I had already said, the Holy Spirit is promised to him not so that by the Spirit’s revelation he might proclaim new doctrine but rather that with the Spirit’s assistance he might guard and explain the revelation handed down from the Apostles. From this it follows that the Pope [and the bishops] simply cannot define a dogma of faith without having in some real way consulted the faith of the Church, for they can define as a dogma only something that has been and is being handed on in the teaching, life and worship of the Church.” (Magisterium, ib. pp. 103-104).

“The Second Vatican Council incorporated into its formulation of the doctrine of papal infallibility several clarifications that at Vatican I were left to Bishop Gasser to introduce in his explanatory relatio: (1) the council explicitly distinguished between the pope as universal pastor and as private person; (2) it mentioned the need for the pope to employ the appropriate means of investigation, and more importantly, (3) it claimed that in the proper exercise of the extraordinary magisterium the consent of the whole Church can never be lacking.” Richard R. Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority, A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church, Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1997, p. 219.

Assessment: It does not seem that either the Pope or the bishops have adequately consulted the faith of the Church.

(1) A sizeable proportion of the faithful is deeply convinced that there can be no valid reason in our Christian Tradition to exclude women from Holy Orders. This conviction is steadily growing in spite of Rome's opposition, and especially so in countries where the ordinary faithful have access to a better theological education.

(2) The vast majority of independent theologians is convinced that neither the study of Scripture and Tradition, nor theological reflections can justify the present ban on women priests. This conviction is being clearly expressed in spite of Rome's attempts to silence the opposition of theologians.

Condition 4. Regarding faith and morals.

It is clear that the ‘ordinary universal magisterium’ can only teach infallibly on matters that fall within the deposit of faith or that are necessarily related to them.

The object of infallible teaching has been described in various Councils:

  • “This truth and discipline are contained in the written books and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, under dictation by the Holy Spirit, have come down unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand, . . . the said traditions as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession”; in Trent (1546 AD), Decree regarding Scripture and Tradition, §3.

  • ‘a doctrine of faith or morals which must be held by the universal Church’; in Vatican I (1870 AD), Pastor Aeternus §11.
    Bishop Gasser, spokesman for the Theological Commission, explained that the secondary object of infallibility was ‘truths which are necessarily required in order that the deposit of revelation may be preserved intact’; ‘truths without which the deposit of faith could not be protected and explained’ (Schema Primum de Ecclesia, Canon ix, Mansi 51, 552; see also Mansi 52, 1226).
  • “And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded”; in Vatican II (1964 AD), Lumen Gentium §25(f).


    The Theological Commission at Vatican II explained the text as follows: ‘The object of the infallibility of the Church thus explained, has the same extension as the revealed deposit; hence it extends to all those things, and only to those, which either directly pertain to the revealed deposit itself, or are required in order that the same deposit may be religiously safeguarded and faithfully expounded . . . ’ (Acta Synodalia Concilii Vaticani II, III/I, p. 251.)

Assessment: A case can be made for considering the ordination or non-ordination of women an issue that would not fall within the legitimate object of the infallible teaching authority.

Jesus Christ had the vision of establishing on earth ‘the Kingdom of his Father’. The consensus among theologians is that he did not directly intend to found the institutional Church as we know it now. He certainly did not design the institutional structures in detail. The sacrament of Holy Orders has taken its present shape in response to cultural pressures in a time-bound environment. Read Kerkelijke Ambt, by E. Schillebeeckx, Overveen 1980.

The Congregation for Doctrine has not produced convincing arguments to show that the gender of those who can or cannot be ordained is part of revealed doctrine, or necessarily related to it. Edward Schillebeeckx OP has said that the infallibility of the statement on women's ordination is dogmatically impossible because it is a matter of church order, not the core of our faith (National Catholic Reporter, 8 December 1995).

Condition 5. In a teaching consciously imposed as definitive.

For the bishops to exercise their infallible ordinary magisterium, they must concur in their single proposal of a particular teaching as definitively to be held’ (tamquam definitive tenendam) (Lumen Gentium 25d). The explanation of this expression at the time of the Council was as follows: ‘The bishops teach a doctrine as definitively to be held when, with the highest degree of their authority, they oblige the faithful to give irrevocable assent to it.’

In his commentary on this paragraph of Lumen Gentium, Karl Rahner points out the significance of this condition:

‘The text states explicitly that there can be question of the infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium . . . only when the unanimous teaching of the whole episcopate proposes a matter of faith or morals ‘to be held definitively’ (tamquam definitive tenendam). An absolutely strict and irreformable assent must be explicitly called for.... Hence not every doctrine taught unanimously by the whole episcopate is of itself infallible, even when it deals with faith or morals or intends to do so. The draft of 10 November 1962, no. 30, pp. 29-31, did not contain the clause tamquam definitive tenendam, which is very important in judging the intention of the final text. Only unanimity thus determined is a criterion which we can use of the infallibility of the doctrine proposed. The text does not, of course take up the difficult question, which can be of practical consequence at times, of how this specially qualified unanimity is to be ascertained by the faithful who are bound to believe.’ Karl Rahner, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, New York 1965, pp. 210-211.

Rahner further elucidates this question in his article on ‘The Magisterium’ in Sacramentum Mundi, where he says:

‘When a dogma is to be taught by the ordinary magisterium of the whole episcopate, without conciliar or papal definition—as is quite possible—it is not enough that a doctrine be propounded with moral unanimity by the whole episcopate. It is further required that the doctrine be explicitly propounded ‘tamquam definitive tenendam’ (Lumen Gentium 25). Hence mere de facto universality of Church doctrine related to the faith is not enough. It has often been assumed in the past, with practical effects, that a doctrine is irreformable in the Church simply because it has been generally taught without clearly notable contradiction over a considerable period of time. This view runs counter to the facts, because many doctrines which were once universally held have proved to be problematic or erroneous, and is fundamentally unsound.’ Cf. Magisterium, Sacramentum Mundi , Herder and Herder, New York - Dublin, vol. III, p. 356.

Assessment: The college of bishops have not proposed the ban on the ordination of women as a doctrine to be definitely held.

Objection? Can Rome not speak on behalf of all the bishops?Answer: No. That is: not until he has consulted them in a truly collegial manner, so that they, exercising their collegial responsibility, with full knowledge of the facts and without moral coercion, can freely ‘judge’ the matter and express their own opinions.

Overall Conclusion

The universal ordinary magisterium has not decided with infallible teaching authority that women should be banned from priestly ordination, because none of its essential conditions have with certainty been fulfilled:

  • the bishops have not acted in a collegial manner;
  • the bishops have not spoken out as ‘judges of faith’ in their own right;
  • the bishops have not adequately ‘listened’ to the Church;
  • the gender of candidates for the priesthood is a matter of church order, not of the core of our faith;
  • the bishops have not imposed the doctrine ‘as definitively to be held’.

Therefore, the theological principle applies here that “no doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such.” Canon 749, § 3.

Read also how key theologians all over the world have rejected the ‘infallibility’ claims of the Congregation for Doctrine.


John Wijngaards



Read: Theologians and the Magisterium, by Richard A. McCormick. From Corrective Vision, Explorations in Moral Theology, Sheed & Ward, 1994, Chapter 7.

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