Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church,
by Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D.,

[Please forgive the appalling Scriptural translations, a typical product of the late 'fifties.]

The Properties of the Church

The Church's properties are those qualities which flow from its very essence and are a necessary part of it. Authors differ somewhat in enumerating these properties; and some distinguish between properties and endowments. But the difference seems to concern method and terminology rather than the matter itself. Seven properties, then, can be listed: visibility, indestructibility, infallibility, unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Since visibility and indestructibility have already been considered, there remain for discussion only the last five.

Article I


1. Meaning of the Term

The word infallibility itself indicates a necessary immunity from error. When one speaks of the Church's infallibility, one means that the Church can neither deceive nor be deceived in matters of faith and morals, It is a prerogative of the whole Church; but it belongs in one way to those who fulfill the office of teaching and in another way to those who are taught. Hence the distinction between active infallibility, by which the Church's rulers are rendered immune from error when they teach; and passive infallibility, by which all of Christ's faithful are preserved from error in their beliefs.
Passive infallibility depends on and is caused by active infallibility: for the faithful are kept free from error in religious matters only by loyally following their rulers. Consequently, it is limited by the same restrictions as is active infallibility, and it will therefore suffice to treat only the latter. Active infallibility may be defined as follows: the privilege by which the teaching office of the Church, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, is preserved immune from error when it defines a doctrine of faith or morals.

The words through the assistance of the Holy Spirit indicate that this freedom from error is something derived; the words when it defines a doctrine of faith or morals limit this inerrancy to definite subject matter.

II. Errors

1. Protestants in general ascribe infallibility to no church, at least to no visible church. The Puseyists were willing to grant it to some sort of ideal Church made up of the Roman Catholic, Greek, and Anglican communions. The Pistoians asserted that infallibility, like all sacred power, had been given principally and directly to the whole body of the faithful, but to rulers only as agents of that body. The Jansenists of Holland seem to follow the same opinion, since they demand for an infallible decree: (a) that delegates or representatives of the whole “Church” be gathered together for a ecumenical council; (b) that these delegates agree that the doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith and that it has always been accepted by the whole Church; (c) that their judgment be ratified universally by the Church throughout the world.

2. Modernists, since they acknowledge not even a divinely established teaching office, naturally do not admit that the privilege of infallibility was granted this office. The doctrinal or dogmatic authority which they themselves grant the Church's rulers means only this: that these rulers are to be watchfully alert for what may, at any given period, be going on in the Christian consciousness, so that they may give it apt formulation. Of course the formulae must be modified as soon as they no longer correspond with the new mentality and the evolution of religious consciousness. In fact, in the Modernist system, the duty of doctrinal authority is not to see to it that there is never any change in the believing or in the understanding of the absolute and immutable truth preached from the beginning by the apostles. This authority is rather to take care that that be maintained which may seem best adapted to the cultural level of each generation. (1)

The first step in the treatment to follow will be a demonstration of the fact of infallibility. Next in order will be a study of its object or extent, and finally an investigation into its nature. The special discussion of the subject of infallibility fits more conveniently into the second section of this treatise. Suffice it to mention here, in anticipation of the fuller discussion, that that subject is both the body of the Church's rulers together with its head, in other words, the Roman Catholic college of bishops, and the supreme ruler of the whole Church, the Roman pontiff.

Ill. The Fact of Infallibility (2)

PROPOSITION: When the teaching office of the Church hands down decisions on matters of faith and morals in such a way as to require of everyone full and absolute assent, it is infallible.

This is a dogma of faith.

The teaching office of the Church or, as they say, “the teaching Church,” is made up of those to whom God entrusted the right and the duty to teach the Christian religion authoritatively. The words “in matters of faith and morals in such a way as to require of everyone full and absolute assent” are included in the proposition because, according to Catholic teaching, the Church's rulers are infallible not in any and every exercise of their teaching power; but only when, using all the fulness of their authority, they clearly intend to bind everyone to absolute assent or, as common parlance puts it, when they “define” something in matters pertaining to the Christian religion. That is why all theologians distinguish in the dogmatic decrees of the councils or of the popes between those things set forth therein by way of definition and those used simply by way of illustration or argumentation. For the intention of binding all affects only the definition, and not the historical observations, reasons for the definition, and so forth. And if in some particular instances the intention of giving a definitive decision were not made sufficiently clear, then no one would be held by virtue of such definitions, to give the assent of faith: a doubtful law is no law at all.

Although this proposition has never been defined in the precise form in which it is here stated, it is a dogma of faith by reason of the universal teaching of the Church. Moreover, the Vatican Council did define that the Roman pontiff “enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished His Church to be equipped in defining a doctrine of faith or morals.” (3)


1. From the promises of Christ. (a) Christ said to the apostles in the Last Supper discourse, “And I will ask the Father, and he will grant you another Advocate to be with you for all time to come, the Spirit of Truth … he will make his permanent stay with you and in you … but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and refresh your memory of everything I have told you” (John 14:16-17, 26). “But when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will conduct you through the whole range of truth” (John 16:13). Then, after His Resurrection, He added, “…you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence … you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth” (Acts 1:5, 8).

Two things are promised in these texts: the Holy Spirit, as the Teacher of truth (a) will come upon the apostles to imbue them with an exceedingly rich knowledge of the Christian religion; (b) He will remain with them forever. The purpose and the result of both these aids is that the apostles will preach Christ's religion pure and unabridged “even to the very ends of the earth.”

The former promise has in view especially the first communication of the Christian religion and, furthermore, at least in the strict and full sense, refers to the apostles alone. The latter promise, which is concerned more directly with the practice and preservation of this religion, cannot, in view of the words themselves(4) and of the purpose intended, be limited to the apostles personally; but embraces the apostolic college as it is to continue forever. But if the Holy Spirit is to remain with the successors of the apostles forever, and is to be in them that they may be witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth, He will doubtless keep them from error when they define Christian doctrine. For would they really be witnesses of Christ if they corrupted His doctrine in even one point and unjustifiably demanded the assent of all to a falsehood?

(b) “Absolute authority in heaven and on earth has been conferred upon me. Go, therefore, and initiate all nations in discipleship … and teach them to observe all the commandments I have given you. And mark: I am with you at all times as long as the world will last” (Matt. 28:20). These words contain a promise to the apostolic college, as to a perpetual institution, of continuous and effective aid in teaching all nations the religion of Christ (see no. 20). But this aid certainly includes infallibility, for if they could err at times in defining Christian doctrine, the purpose of the aid would not be realized.

Furthermore, the force of Christ's promise is highlighted in an extraordinary manner by the obligation enjoined on all men to accept the doctrine preached by the apostles and by their successors throughout all ages: “He that believes … will be saved, but he that does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Could our Lord have imposed this obligation without any limitation or restriction, and under the threat of eternal damnation, if He had left to posterity a teaching authority which was liable to error?

2. From the testimony of the Apostle. St. Paul: I write these instructions to you, so that … you may know what your conduct should be in the house of God which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth (I Tim. 3:14-15). Truth purely and simply is the whole body of truth leading to eternal salvation: Christian doctrine in its entirety. The Church considered absolutely, i.e., the universal Church, is called a thoroughly solid pillar of this truth,(5) because it bears and supports the truth as an unshakably solid pillar supports a building. But it would not be the pillar and bulwark of the truth if it could shift from the truth in even one matter. Therefore we have here a direct statement of the infallibility of the Church as a whole; but one can immediately deduce from this the infallibility of the teaching office, since the whole Church depends on this office for its knowledge and profession of the truth.

3. From the testimony of the early fathers. They have left, in unmistakably clear or at least equivalent terms, testimony to their belief in the infallibility of the teaching office or, what actually comes down to the same thing, of the Church itself.

St. Ignatius:

Live in harmony with the mind of God. Surely, Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, for His part in the mind of the Father, just as the bishops, though appointed throughout the vast, wide earth, represent for their part the mind of Jesus Christ.—Epistula ad Ephesios 3. 2; ACW translation.

Now, if those who do this to gratify the flesh are liable to death, how much more a man who by evil doctrine ruins the faith in God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified! Such a filthy creature will go into the unquenchable fire, as will anyone who listens to him. The Lord permitted myrrh to be poured on His head that He might breathe incorruption upon the Church. Do not let yourselves be anointed with the malodorous doctrine of the Prince of this world.—Ibid. 16. 2-17. 1; ACW translation.

St. Irenaeus:

One should obey the presbyters [bishops] of the Church, for they are the successors of the apostles and along with episcopal succession have received the sure charism of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father.(6)

Tertullian makes sport of the thesis that

the Holy Ghost sent by Christ and asked of the Father for this very purpose, viz., to teach the truth, neglected His duty by allowing the Church to understand and to believe otherwise than what He Himself taught the apostles. — De praescriptione 28.

St. Athanasius: “The only words you need for answering those [paradoxes of the heretics] are the following: 'This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church'” (Epistula ad Epictetum 3).

St. Jerome: “I was able to dry up all the rivulets of false assertions with the one sun of the Church” (Altercatio luciferiani et orthodoxi 28).

St. Augustine:

Many tongues and various heresies speak in opposition … hasten to the tabernacle of God, hold fast to the Catholic Church, depart not from the rule of truth, and you will find in this tabernacle asylum from the tongues which wag in opposition. — Enarrationes in Psalmos 30. 3. 8.

The Catholic Church wages war against all heresies. It can give battle, but it can never be vanquished. All heresies have gone forth from it [the Church] like useless branches pruned from a vine; but it remains itself firmly fixed in its roots, in its vine, in its love. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. (7)

4. Theological argument. The Church, according to Christ's promises, is indestructible (no. 19); but it would fail through corruption if it strayed from the true teaching of Christ; and it would so stray, indeed inevitably, if its teaching authority were to err at any time in defining points of doctrine.


Since even in the Old Testament period the revealed religion was to be piously safeguarded, theologians usually bring up at this juncture the question of the infallibility of the Synagogue. Opinions vary, but, here, in sum, is that of Cardinal Franzelin.(8) (a) The Aaronic priests undoubtedly exercised authoritative teaching power in sacred matters; but there is no sufficient proof that the charism of infallibility was granted this ordinary teaching body. However, (b) even at that time God was watching over the preservation of sacred doctrine, and He did so in a manner suited to the special character of that stage of religious development, when revelation was not only to be safeguarded but also to be steadily increased. He effected this increase through new revelations made to the prophets, whose mission, however, was directed no less to the safeguarding of already promulgated revelation than to its further unfolding. Consequently the teaching office of the Old Testament comprised two elements, the ordinary teaching office of the priests and the extraordinary teaching office of the prophets; and so, considered in its entirety, it guarded the deposit of faith with infallible sureness, inasmuch as the prophets corrected any mistakes which the ordinary teachers might possibly have made.

IV. The Object of Infallibility

In the definition given above the object of infallibility was expressed in these words borrowed from the Vatican Council: “when it defines a doctrine of faith or morals.” It remains now to fix more accurately the meaning and the scope of this formula. This will be done on the basis of the words of Christ and of the apostles cited in the course of the proof; and on the basis, too, of the purpose for which the privilege of infallibility was granted.

It is important to pay attention above all to the word doctrine; for infallibility concerns the teaching office and so has as its special object doctrines, or at least doctrinal decisions by which some truth is presented to be believed or maintained by everyone.

The formula, “a doctrine of faith or morals,” comprises all doctrines the knowledge of which is of vital concern to people if they are to believe aright and to live uprightly in accordance with the religion of Christ. Now doctrines of this sort have either been revealed themselves or are so closely allied with revelation that they cannot be neglected without doing harm to the latter. Consequently the object of infallibility is twofold: there is a primary and a secondary object.

PROPOSITION 1: The primary object of infallibility is each and every religious truth contained formally in the sources of revelation.

By a religious truth is meant anything (doctrine or fact) which pertains to religion, i.e., to faith and morals, and insofar as it does pertain to it. The various ways in which a truth can be formally contained in the sources of revelation will be explained in the treatise on Faith. According to all Catholics, the present proposition is a dogma of faith.

That religious truths contained formally in the sources of revelation are the object of infallibility calls for no explicit demonstration.

That infallibility extends to each and every one of these truths, whether they be matters of intellectual concern or of practical action, is clear: (1) from the words of Christ, who promised His assistance to the apostles and sent them forth to teach the nations “to observe all the commandments I have given you,” and who promised them the Spirit of truth who “will teach you everything.” (2) from the express purpose of infallibility. If the latter did not embrace all these truths, one could be doubtful about almost any single truth; for where could one find a criterion for distinguishing fundamental from not-so-fundamental truths?


To the primary object of infallibility belong specifically:
1. Decisions on the canon, or the material extent, of Sacred Scripture, or on its true meaning in passages dealing with faith or morals.
2. Decisions acknowledging and explaining the records of divine tradition.
3. Decisions on the selection of terms in which revealed truth is to be presented for belief (dogmatic terminology, creeds, dogmatic decrees).
4. Decisions on doctrines directly opposed to revealed truth (condemnation of heresies). For he who knows with infallible certainty the truth of a proposition knows with the same infallibility the falseness of a contradictory or contrary proposition.

PROPOSITION 2: The secondary object of infallibility comprises all those matters which are so closely connected with the revealed deposit that revelation itself would be imperilled unless an absolutely certain decision could he made about them.

The charism of infallibility was bestowed upon the Church so that the latter could piously safeguard and confidently explain the deposit of Christian revelation, and thus could be in all ages the teacher of Christian truth and of the Christian way of life. But if the Church is to fulfill this purpose, it must be infallible in its judgment of doctrines and facts which, even though not revealed, are so intimately connected with revelation that any error or doubt about them would constitute a peril to the faith. Furthermore, the Church must be infallible not only when it issues a formal decree, but also when it performs some action which, for all practical purposes, is the equivalent of a doctrinal definition.

One can easily see why matters connected with revelation are called the secondary object of infallibility. Doctrinal authority and infallibility were given to the Church's rulers that they might safeguard and confidently explain the deposit of Christian revelation. That is why the chief object of infallibility, that, namely, which by its very nature falls within the scope of infallibility, includes only the truths contained in the actual deposit of revelation. Allied matters, on the other hand, which are not in the actual deposit, but contribute to its safeguarding and security, come within the purview of infallibility not by their very nature, but rather by reason of the revealed truth to which they are annexed. As a result, infallibility embraces them only secondarily. It follows that when the Church passes judgment on matters of this sort, it is infallible only insofar as they are connected with revelation.

When theologians go on to break up the general statement of this thesis into its component parts, they teach that the following individual matters belong to the secondary object of infallibility: 1. theological conclusions; 2. dogmatic facts; 3. the general discipline of the Church; 4. approval of religious orders; 5. canonization of saints.

Assertion 1: The Church's infallibility extends to theological conclusions.
This proposition is theologically certain.

A theological conclusion is a proposition which by genuinely discursive reasoning is deduced with certainty from two premises, one of which is formally revealed, the other known with natural certitude. It can be strictly a matter of intellectual knowledge, like the fact that the Son proceeds from the Father by a process of intellectual generation; or it can be a matter of practical knowledge, like the fact that one may not directly abort a foetus to save the life of the mother. To assert that the Church is infallible in decreeing these conclusions is to affirm implicitly that it is infallible in rejecting errors opposed thereto; the principle is the same for both.


1. From the purpose of infallibility. The Church is infallible in matters so closely connected with revelation that any error in these matters would constitute a peril to the faith. But theological conclusions are matters of this type. The conclusion is obvious.

It is evident from Christ's promises that the teaching office of the Church was endowed with infallibility so that it might be able to carry out its mission properly: to safeguard reverently, explain confidently, and defend effectively the deposit of faith. But the realization of this purpose demands the extension of infallibility to related matters, in the sense explained above. Here is the reason. The security of the deposit requires the effective warding off or elimination of all error which may be opposed to it, even though only indirectly. This would be simply impossible without infallibility in related matters. If the Church were infallible only in the field of revealed truth and not in that of matters annexed thereto, it would be like a general who was assigned to defend a city but was given no authority to build up defenses or to destroy the material which the enemy had assembled. It would be like a caretaker to whom the master of the house had said, “Take care that my house doesn't burn down; but don't put out any flames as long as they remain merely nearby”!

Minor. Every conclusion is so connected with its premises that a denial of the conclusion involves necessarily the denial of at least one of those premises. Now one of the premises upon which every theological conclusion rests is a truth evident from reason, and since no one can very well deny such a premise, there is danger that an error in the conclusion may give rise to an error about the revealed premise.

2. From the mind of the Church. The Church surely makes no mistake when it determines the force and extent of its infallibility, for the greatest of harm would result if the Church, by stretching infallibility beyond its limits, could force everyone to give unqualified assent to a matter about which it is liable to be mistaken. But the fact is that the Church has often and openly expressed its conviction of being infallible in the matter of theological conclusions. It has expressed this conviction at least in an active, practical way, by irrevocably repudiating doctrines which, while not directly opposed to revealed truths, are opposed to theological conclusions. See, e.g., DB 602, 679, 1542, 1748.

Assertion 2: The Church's infallibility extends to dogmatic facts.

This proposition is theologically certain.

A dogmatic fact is a fact not contained in the sources of revelation, on the admission of which depends the knowledge or certainty of a dogma or of a revealed truth. The following questions are concerned with dogmatic facts: “Was the Vatican Council a legitimate ecumenical council? Is the Latin Vulgate a substantially faithful translation of the original books of the Bible? Was Pius XII legitimately elected bishop of Rome?” One can readily see that on these facts hang the questions of whether the decrees of the Vatican Council are infallible, whether the Vulgate is truly Sacred Scripture, whether Piux XII is to be recognized as supreme ruler of the universal Church.

From the time of the Jansenist controversies, theologians have understood by the term “dogmatic fact” especially the following question: “Is such and such a doctrine (orthodox or heretical) really contained in such and such a book?” The Jansenists in fact admitted the Church's infallibility in a question of right or of dogma, i.e., the Church could decide whether this or that doctrine (considered in itself and prescinding from the book in which it was said to be expressed) was heretical. But at the same time they denied its infallibility in a question of fact, e.g., whether this (heretical) doctrine was really stated in such and such a book, as, e.g., Jansen's Augustinus.(9) One can readily see that a determination of this fact would determine whether one could or could not maintain and defend the doctrine of this book.


1. From the purpose of infallibility. The Church is infallible in those related matters in which an error would constitute a danger to the faith. But dogmatic facts are matters of this kind. The reason should be obvious from the examples alleged above. What good would it do to proclaim in theory the infallible authority of ecumenical councils if one could licitly doubt the legitimacy of a specific council? What good would it do to acknowledge the inspiration of the Sacred Books in their original forms — forms long ago extinct — if one could not definitively establish the substantial fidelity of copies of the original, and of the translations which the Church has to use? Could Christians be effectively protected against errors in their faith if the Church could not warn them against poisonous fare, such as are books which contain heresy or errors in religious matters?

2. From the practice of the Church, which (a) often resolutely and officially repudiated heretical writings as e.g., the Thalia of Arius in the Council of Nicaea and the works of Nestorius in the Council of Ephesus; (b) declared the Vulgate to be authentic at the Council of Trent,(10) and the Canon of the Mass to be free of any error; (11) (c) asserted specifically in the case of Jansen that “reverent silence” about a dogmatic fact is not at all adequate, “but that all faithful Christians must condemn as heretical in their hearts as well as with their lips the opinions [which the Church has] condemned in the five aforementioned propositions of Jansen's book, opinions which the very words of those propositions quite clearly state.” (12)

A famous objection is that concerned with the Three Chapters (Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia and his works; some of the works of Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, and the letter of Ibas, a priest of Edessa, to Mans of Persia, all of which works favored Nestorianism). The Council of Chalcedon is said to have approved these works and the Second Council of Constantinople and Pope Vigilius subsequently to have condemned them. Consequently, they say, at least one of them was in error about a dogmatic fact. But this conclusion is not justified, for although the fathers of Chalcedon, after having expressly condemned Nestorianism, accepted Theodore and Ibas as members of the Council, they passed no explicit decision regarding the Three Chapters.(13)


The Church does not usually pass judgment directly on the dogmatic fact itself; but on the proposition which, through the medium of a dogmatic fact, is deduced from a revealed premise (either through a true reasoning process or through a merely explanatory syllogism). Of course, whatever the Church declares directly must be maintained by everyone, e.g., that the Vulgate contains the word of God; that Pius XII is head of the Church; that the doctrine of this or that book is heretical. It arrived at these decisions in the following manner: every faithful translation of the inspired books contains the words of God; but the Vulgate is a faithful translation; therefore, … Anyone legitimately elected bishop of Rome is head of the Church; but Pius XII was legitimately elected; therefore, … Any book containing this doctrine is heretical; but such and such a book contains this doctrine; therefore, … Since then, the Church's decision is concerned more directly with the conclusion deduced from revelation with the help of a dogmatic fact, rather than with the dogmatic fact itself (which is assumed in the decision rather than directly affirmed), dogmatic facts can rightly be called not only secondary but also indirect objects of infallibility.

It may help to mention that several theologians treat this question a bit differently. For they understand by the term “dogmatic fact” not a premise drawn from history, on which the conclusion would depend, as in the examples above, but the conclusion itself, e.g., that the Vulgate contains the word of God or that such and such a book is heretical. If one prefers this view of the matter, he will then define a dogmatic fact, in the words of the illustrious de Groot, as “a fact in which a doctrine is expressed.” (14)

One may wonder what name is to be given the conclusion, following the view proposed above. To answer that, a distinction is necessary. If the conclusion is the result of a real reasoning process, it is to be called a theological conclusion. But if the syllogism is merely explanatory, then it expresses a truth formally but implicitly revealed. The precise meaning of this distinction will be explained in the treatise on Faith (no. 200).

Assertion 3: The Church's infallibility extends to the general discipline of the Church. This proposition is theologically certain.

By the term “general discipline of the Church” are meant those ecclesiastical laws passed for the universal Church for the direction of Christian worship and Christian living. Note the italicized words: ecclesiastical laws, passed for the universal Church.

The imposing of commands belongs not directly to the teaching office but to the ruling office; disciplinary laws are only indirectly an object of infallibility, i.e., only by reason of the doctrinal decision implicit in them. When the Church's rulers sanction a law, they implicitly make a twofold judgment: 1. “This law squares with the Church's doctrine of faith and morals”; that is, it imposes nothing that is at odds with sound belief and good morals. (15) This amounts to a doctrinal decree. 2. “This law, considering all the circumstances, is most opportune.” This is a decree of practical judgment.

Although it would he rash to cast aspersions on the timeliness of a law, especially at the very moment when the Church imposes or expressly reaffirms it, still the Church does not claim to he infallible in issuing a decree of practical judgment. For the Church's rulers were never promised the highest degree of prudence for the conduct of affairs. But the Church is infallible in issuing a doctrinal decree as intimated above — and to such an extent that it can never sanction a universal law which would be at odds with faith or morality or would be by its very nature conducive to the injury of souls.

The Church's infallibility in disciplinary matters, when understood in this way, harmonizes beautifully with the mutability of even universal laws. For a law, even though it be thoroughly consonant with revealed truth, can, given a change in circumstances, become less timely or even useless, so that prudence may dictate its abrogation or modification.


1. From the purpose of infallibility. The Church was endowed with infallibility that it might safeguard the whole of Christ's doctrine and be for all men a trustworthy teacher of the Christian way of life. But if the Church could make a mistake in the manner alleged when it legislated for the general discipline, it would no longer be either a loyal guardian of revealed doctrine or a trustworthy teacher of the Christian way of life. It would not be a guardian of revealed doctrine, for the imposition of a vicious law would be, for all practical purposes, tantamount to an erroneous definition of doctrine; everyone would naturally conclude that what the Church had commanded squared with sound doctrine. It would not be a teacher of the Christian way of life, for by its laws it would induce corruption into the practice of religious life.

2. From the official statement of the Church, which stigmatized as “at least erroneous” the hypothesis “that the Church could establish discipline which would be dangerous, harmful, and conducive to superstition and materialism. (16)


The well-known axiom, Lex orandi est lex credendi (The law of prayer is the law of belief), is a special application of the doctrine of the Church's infallibility in disciplinary matters. This axiom says in effect that formulae of prayer approved for public use in the universal Church cannot contain errors against faith or morals. But it would be quite wrong to conclude from this that all the historical facts which are recorded here and there in the lessons of the Roman Breviary, or all the explanations of scriptural passages which are used in the homilies of the Breviary must be taken as infallibly true.(17) As far as the former are concerned, those particular facts are not an object of infallibility since they have no necessary connection with revelation. As for the latter, the Church orders their recitation not because they are certainly true, but because they are edifying.

Assertion 4: The Church's infallibility extends to the approval of religious orders. This proposition is theologically certain.

The religious state is essentially the observance, under obligation of a vow, of the evangelical counsels recommended by our Lord Himself. But every congregation or order follows its own constitution, its own laws for living the evangelical counsels and for attaining its own special purposes. The present discussion, therefore, has to do with the approval of this constitution, and furthermore, with that solemn and definitive approval which is reserved for the sovereign pontiff and by which a congregation is established as a religious order in the strict sense of the word.(18)

Practically the same thing is to be said about the approval of orders as was said about the general discipline of the Church: it is an indirect object of infallibility by reason of the doctrinal judgment which it implies. No one claims that the Church is infallible in the decree of practical judgment — as, for instance, whether, in view of the circumstances, it would be expedient to allow the foundation of the new order — but only in the doctrinal judgment — as, for instance, whether such and such a constitution is an apt instrument for the acquiring of Christian perfection.


1. From the purpose of infallibility. The Church was endowed with infallibility that it might be forever a trustworthy teacher of Christian truth and perfection. But it would certainly not be, if it could approve, by a definitive decision, a constitution opposed to the gospel or to the natural law. It is useless to object that an error in this sort of affair would harm not the universal Church, but only the members of this particular order. Of course it would harm the latter immediately and most of all, but indirectly it would affect the whole Church; for when an order is solemnly approved, it is recommended to the whole Church as a fit means for acquiring perfection, so that no one may licitly impugn it from this point of view.

2. From the solid conviction of the Church, which, when approving orders, expresses itself in such a way as to make it sufficiently clear that it considers decisions of this type to be infallible. For an example of such a decision, see Pesch, Praelectiones dogmaticae, I, 545.

Assertion 5: The Church's infallibility extends to the canonization of saints. This is the common opinion today. (19)

Canonization (formal) is the final and definitive decree by which the sovereign pontiff declares that someone has been admitted to heaven and is to be venerated by everyone, at least in the sense that all the faithful are held to consider the person a saint worthy of public veneration. It differs from beatification, which is a provisional rather than a definitive decree, by which veneration is only permitted, or at least is not universally prescribed. Infallibility is claimed for canonization only; (20) a decree of beatification, which in the eyes of the Church is not definitive but may still be rescinded, is to be considered morally certain indeed, but not infallible. Still, there are some theologians who take a different view of the matter.


1. From the solid conviction of the Church. When the popes canonize, they use terminology which makes it quite evident that they consider decrees of canonization infallible. Here is, in sum, the formula they use: “By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the apostles Peter and Paul and by our own authority, we declare that N. has been admitted to heaven, and we decree and define that he is to be venerated in public and in private as a saint.”

2. From the purpose of infallibility. The Church is infallible so that it may be a trustworthy teacher of the Christian religion and of the Christian way of life. But it would not be such if it could err in the canonization of saints. Would not religion be sullied if a person in hell were, by a definitive decree, offered to everyone as an object of religious veneration? Would not the moral law be at least weakened to some extent, if a protégé of the devil could be irrevocably set up as a model of virtue for all to imitate and for all to invoke? But it cannot be inferred: therefore the Church must also be infallible in authenticating the relics of the saints; for (a) the Church never issues so solemn a decree about relics; and (b) the cases are not parallel, for in the case of relics, it is a question of relative cult, while in that of the saints it is one of absolute cult.(21)


Several considerations urge the conclusion that the Church's infallibility extends also to equivalent canonization, formerly quite common. By this means, without any formal decree of canonization, a deceased person gradually came to be venerated by the universal Church. However, formal and equivalent canonizations arc not at all on the same plane; in the latter the consent of the supreme pontiff can be taken as purely permissive, in much the same way as the veneration of a beatified person is sometimes permitted the universal Church. Some scholars are led by this observation to think that it is not absolutely impossible that someone who is not a saint might appear among those who, without being formally canonized, have a commemoration or even a full office in the Breviary. The papal approval of the Breviary, they say, as far as they who have not been formally canonized are concerned, amounts to nothing more than an order that no change be made therein. This is not a definitive decree, but rather permission to continue the traditional cult.(22)

Scholion: Is the fact of the Church's infallibility in matters related to revealed truth itself a revealed truth?

In each instance we have proved the infallibility of the Church's teaching office in matters related to the deposit of revelation from the express purpose of infallibility and from the mind of the Church. It is, consequently, clear that this infallibility is at least a conclusion from revelation; indeed a conclusion whose validity the Church itself has sanctioned at least by its practical attitude and mode of action. But serious reasons incline us to state that this extension of infallibility — not of course to each of the items considered individually above, but to related matters in general — is a formally revealed truth. There is no doubt that our Lord promised His Church the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), who would teach “the whole range of truth” (John 16:13); the apostle calls the Church the pillar and bulwark of truth (I Tim. 3:15).(23) What, then, does the word “truth” or the phrase “the whole range of truth” mean in these texts: just revealed truth, or all the truth which the Church, in view of its special purpose, must know with certainty? The answer seems to be that since the terms are general, and the purpose of the Church militates against their being restricted to revealed truths, they must doubtless be understood as referring to all doctrines which concern Christian faith and morality either directly or indirectly. In other words, they must include also matters connected with revealed truth.

This is why Cardinal Franzelin could in the following way describe the general proposition of infallibility in related matters: this assertion, “as all theologians agree, is so certain that its denial would be an error, or even, in the opinion of many, a heresy, even though it has not as yet been explicitly condemned as heretical.”(24)

V. The Nature of Infallibility

1. The privilege of infallibility is not merely actual absence of error, but the impossibility of erring. It is of course a supernatural gift, and since it works not to the advantage of the recipients themselves but to that of the whole Church, it is a gratia gratis data or charism. It is often called “the charism of truth.”

2. Infallibility must not be thought of as a habit permanently residing in the minds of the Church's officio! teachers, a habit which would express itself in the making of a dogmatic definition, as e.g., the habit of faith expresses itself in an act of supernatural faith. It is rather a privilege which depends for its exercise on some objective external help. This privilege can be called habitual in the sense that it was promised by a definite divine decree. But it is in actual existence only when something is being defined.

3. The efficient cause of infallibility is the assistance of God or of the Holy Spirit. This assistance:

a. is a help inferior in nature to revelation and inspiration; furthermore,
b. it can involve any kind of influence which God may choose to use in order to turn away the teacher's mind from what is false and to lead him to a sure knowledge of the truth.

As for a: this assistance differs from revelation, through which some new doctrine is received from God. “For,” says the Vatican Council,(25) “the Holy Spirit was promised to Peter's successors [and the same holds good for the Roman Catholic episcopate] not that they might, as a result of His revelation, make known a new doctrine, but that with His assistance they might reverently safeguard and faithfully explain the revelation handed down by the apostles, i.e., the deposit of faith.”

It is different from inspiration, through which a document is written in such fashion as to be the Word of God and comes from the mouth of God in such a way that God is its principal author and man the instrumental author only. A decree issued under divine assistance, however, is the word of the Church, and its principal author is the pope or a council. It is a question here of inspiration in the strict sense, such as that which the sacred authors enjoyed; any divine assistance could be loosely referred to as inspiration.

As for b: God assists at least negatively by preventing an arrival at an erroneous definition. But it seems that we must go further and say that whenever, and to the extent that it is necessary, God also positively guides the Church's teachers to a correct knowledge and presentation of the truth He has entrusted to the Church. The means, natural or supernatural, which divine Providence selects for this purpose, can be quite varied, and can operate internally or externally.(26)

4. The divine assistance does not render at all superfluous the hard work and study of men, the investigation of the sources of revelation, etc.; it rather supposes and includes these elements. In actual practice, the usual preamble to doctrinal definitions includes not only the request for divine light, but also the most careful theological research. Consequently, those who object that the promise of divine assistance fosters indolence do so without justification. However, infallibility (or the inability to err) does not depend formally on human industry, but on divine assistance. And so no one can spurn a definition of the Church on the pretext that it is not backed up by adequate research; when a definition has once been issued, one can be sure that the Church's official teacher did not act precipitously, but did all the necessary preliminary research; or else, if he did act rashly, that his rashness did not adversely affect at least the truth of the definition. All this is, of course, only a supposition, for it seems much more reasonable to hold that the Holy Spirit would never allow the Church's rulers to act rashly in issuing doctrinal definitions.

5. The assistance promised the Church's rulers extends to the threefold function which they must fulfill with regard to religious truth. (a) They are infallible witnesses of revelation, in that they always reverently safeguard the deposit entrusted to the Church; (b) they are infallible teachers of religious truth, in that they always faithfully interpret and explain revealed doctrine; (c) they are infallible arbiters of controversies, in that they always decide without error questions which have arisen on matters of religion.


The rule of faith. It seems timely to add here a few remarks on the rule of faith. This term signifies the standard or norm according to which each individual Christian must determine what is the material object of his faith.
Protestants claim that the written Word of God, Holy Scripture, and that alone, is the one rule of faith. Catholics, on the other hand, even though they, too, admit that our faith must be regulated in the final analysis by the Word of God — including tradition as well as Scripture — hold that the proximate and immediate rule of faith — that rule to which each of the faithful and each generation of the faithful must look directly — is the preaching of the Church. And so, according to Catholics, there exists a twofold rule of faith: one remote and one proximate. The remote rule of faith is the Word of God (handed down in writing or orally), which was directly entrusted to the Church's rulers that from it they might teach and guide the faithful. The proximate rule of faith, from which the faithful, one and all, are bound to accept their faith and in accordance with which they are to regulate it, is the preaching of the ecclesiastical magisterium.(27) The following assertions concern the proximate rule of faith.
1. The Church's preaching was established by Christ Himself as the rule of faith. This can be proved from Matthew 28:19—20 and Mark 16:15—16; the command to teach all nations certainly implies a corresponding duty on the part of the nations to believe whatever the apostles and their successors teach, On the other hand, there is no notice anywhere of Christ's having commanded the apostles to give the people the doctrine of salvation in writing, and never did He command the faithful as a whole to seek their faith in the Bible.(28)
2. The Church's preaching is a rule of faith which is nicely accommodated to people's needs. For (a) it is an easy rule, one that can be observed by all alike, even the uneducated and unlettered. What could be easier than to give ear to a magisterium that is always at hand and always preaching? (b) It is a safe rule, for the Church's teaching office is infallible in safeguarding and presenting Christ's doctrine. (c) It is a living rule, in accordance with which it is possible in any age to explain the meaning of doctrines and to put an end to controversies.


1. See the decree Lamentabili, propositions 6, 62-64; encyclical Pascendi (DB 2093); Oath against Modernism (DB 2147).
2. See J. C. Fenton, “The Church and Catholic Dogma,” AER, 120 (1949), 123 ff.
3. Constitution Dc ecclesia, chap. 4,
4. It is with utter improbability that some have tried to interpret the words of John 14:16, “for all time to come” and those of Matt. 28:20, “as long as the world shall last” — as “to the end of this age,” i.e., the apostolic age.
5. In vain some Protestants, basing themselves on no good reasons, but forced by the need to holster their position, have tried to refer the words “the pillar and bulwark of truth” either to Timothy or to the mystery of the Incarnation. They would read as follows: “... the Church of the living God. The pillar and bulwark of truth and something clearly great is the sacrament of piety which has been manifested in the flesh.”
6. Adversus haereses iv. 26. 2; see iii. 24. 1.
7. De symbolo ad catechumenos 1. 6.
8. De ecclesia, Thesis 3, 2.
9. It was, then, not a question of this fact, viz., whether the five condemned propositions (DB 1092 ff.) can be found verbatim in the book Augustinus; much less whether Jansen maintained in the secret of his soul and intended to teach the doctrine expressed in the five propositions. Obviously the “mind of the author” which is condemned is nothing other than the meaning which the words of the author objectively express according to the usual norms of interpretation.
10, Session 4.
11. Session 22, chap. 4; and canon 6.
12. Constitution Vineam Domini of Clement XI (DB 1350).
13. See Hefele, Conciliengeschichte (2nd ed.), II, 798 if.; Hergenrother-Kirsch, Kirchengeschichte, I, 602 if. See P. Hughes, op. cit., I, 342 ff.; H. M. Diepen, O.S.B., Les trois chapitres au Concile de Chalcédoine (Oosterhout, 1953).
14. De ecclesia (3rd ed.), p. 318.
15. An example may help to clarify the matter. If the whole Christ were not present under the appearances of bread alone, the law forbidding lay people to drink from the chalice would offend against the faith. Or if the words increase and multiply (Gen. 1:28) constituted an ordinance binding every individual man, then the law of celibacy would be opposed to right morals. The same conclusion would hold if virginal purity were morally impossible for men.
16. The bull Auctorem fidei (DB 1578).
17. See Benedict XIV, De servorum Dei beatificatione, lib. IV, pars II, chap. 13, nos. 7-8. Very many bishops asked the Vatican Council for an appropriate revision of the Breviary on some points “which seem not at all square with established historical fact and sound scriptural exegesis” (Coll. Lac., VII, 874; see VII, 844, 882). There should be nothing surprising about this. At the time the Roman Breviary was edited, the critical apparatus now our disposal was simply not available.
18. On a lower plane than this solemn approbation, there are also: (a) episcopal approbation; (b) permissive papal approbation; (c) commendatory papal approbation. These are all treated in works on canon law.
19. See N. Scheid, “Die Unfehlbarkeit des Papstes bei der Heiligsprechung,” ZkTh (1890), p. 599; F. Spedalieri, Dc Ecclesiae infallibilitate in canonizatione sanctorum quaestiones selectae (Rome, 1949); for a critique of latter work see TS, 12 (1951), 249.
20. The names of canonized saints are inserted in the Roman Martyrology, but this work contains other names besides. That is why scholars, following the lead of Benedict XIV, warn us that the presence of a person's name in the Martyrology is not conclusive proof that that person is enjoying the bliss of heaven. See N. Paulus, “Martyrologium und Brevier als historische Quellen,” Der Katholik, I (1900), 355.
21. Absolute cult or worship is directed to a person; relative cult is directed to some object or other, not because it possesses any intrinsic worth in itself, as a person would, but because it is connected in some way with a sainted person. See A. Aldama, S.J., Sacrae theologiae Summa, III (Madrid, 1953), 469.
22. See N. Paulus, art. cit., p. 359; A. Spaldak, “Zur geplanten Emendation des romischen Breviers,” Der Katholik, I (1905), 290; Bainvel, De magisterio, p. 111.
23. See J. C. Fenton, “New Testament Designations of the Church and of its Members,” CBQ, 9 (1947), 286.
24. De Traditione et Scriptura (3rd ed.), p. 123.
25. Constitution De ecclesia, chap. 4.
26. See Heinrich, Dogmat. Theol. II, par. 90.
27. The Symbols (Creeds, i.e., those formulae in which the Church's teaching authority sums up the chief points of its preaching in view of the needs of different ages), are also called rules of faith. But they are material rules of faith, while the formal rule of faith is the preaching itself.
28. An appeal to John 5:39 is in vain: (a) from the context, the verb ereunate seems to be the indicative rather than the imperative (Kleist-Lilly: You have the Scriptures at your finger ends; Confrat. NT: You search the Scriptures); (b) even granting that it is the imperative, the text still proves nothing. From the fact that Christ refers the unbelieving Jews, the Scribes and Pharisees, to the sacred books of the Old Testament that they may learn therein of his divine mission, it does not at all follow that He intends every individual Christian to draw his faith directly from the Scriptures.

(Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D., Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, Translated and Revised by John J. Castelot, S.S., S.T.D., S.S.L. & William R. Murphy, S.S., S.T.D., The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1957. pp 102-124.)