Reflections on Lumen Gentium, Part 25

25. Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place.(39*) For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old,(164) making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock.(165) Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

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.(40*) 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.(41*)

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. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith,(166) by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.(42*) And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith.(43*) The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.(44*)

But when either the Roman Pontiff or the Body of Bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with Revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the Revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially in care of the Roman Pontiff himself, and which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church.(45*) 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;(46*) but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith.(47*)

164 Cf. Mt. 13:52.

165 Cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-4.

166 Cf. Lk. 22:32.

(38) Cfr. Cod. luris pro Eccl. I Orient., c. 216-314: de Patriarchis; c. 324-399: de Archiepiscopis I maioribus; c. 362-391: de aliis dignitariis; in specie, c. 238 3; 216; 240; 251; 255: de Episcopis a Patriarch nominandis.

(39) Cfr. Conc. Trid., Decr. de I reform., Sess. V, c. 2, n. 9; et Sess. I XXlV, can. 4; Conc. Oec. Decr. pp. 645 et 739.

(40) Cfr. Conc. Vat. I, Const. dogm. Dei Filius, 3: Denz. 1712l (3011). Cfr. nota adiecta ad Schema I de Eccl. (desumpta ex.S. Rob. Bellarmino): Mansi 51, I 579 C, necnon Schema reformatum I Const. II de Ecclesia Christi, cum I commentario Kleutgen: Mansi 53, 313 AB. Pius IX, Epist. Tuas libener: Denz. 1683 (2879).

(41) Cfr. Cod. Iur. Can., c. 1322-1323.

(42) Cfr. Conc. Vat. I, Const. dogm. Pastor Aecrnus: Denz. 1839 (3074).

(43) Cfr. ecplicatio Gasscr in Conc. Vat. I: Mansi 52, 1213 AC.

(44) Gasser, ib.: Mansi 1214 A.

(45) Gasser, ib.: Mansi 1215 CD, 1216-1217 A.

(46) Gasser, ib.: Mansi 1213.

(47) Conc. Vat. I, Const. dogm. Pastor Aesernus, 4: Denz. 1836 (3070) no. 26


“Among the principle duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place.”

Well, that put’s it very straightforwardly. Bishops are to preach the Gospel! They are to preach the true faith and put that faith into practice, to “illustrate that faith.” Bishops are true teachers. As successors of the Apostles, they have authority to teach from the “treasury of Revelation,” to reflect on it and assist the faithful in understanding what God has communicated to us for the sake of our salvation, so that the faithful may live faithfully, avoid error, and bring forth the fruit of grace. United to the pope, they are witnesses to Catholic truth, and merit the respect of the faithful for their position and authority as true teachers.

Among our contemporaries there is little interest or respect for religious assent, even among Catholics. Our culture preaches a gospel of individualism, of relying on one’s self for ascertaining the truth of everything, even God. The notion that there are eternal, objective, absolute truths is rejected absolutely, to the point of being embraced as a self-evident truth itself. Hence, the popularity of the term “my truth” to describe any particular individual’s personal take on reality.

In the midst of this confusion, the Catholic Church continues to proclaim unhesitatingly that there is truth, and that we can know it, including the truth about God. The Church is the instrument of God’s revelation, the instrument of His truth about Jesus Christ. The bishops are those whose office it is to proclaim this truth to all and to do so in the face of not a little opposition and pressure to surrender that truth to the culture.

There are those who would regard the teaching authority of the Church, embodied in the pope and bishops, as a challenge to their personal truth. They would be right. The teaching authority of the magisterium of the Church, the pope and those bishops in union with him teaching together on matters of faith and morals, is a direct challenge to those who regard the truth, and even the revelation of God in Christ, as their personal possession.

This is a good place to talk about the charism of infallibility. There is a great deal of confusion among Catholics and non-Catholics alike about what infallibility means. The doctrine is often misrepresented or misunderstood, and these misrepresentations and misunderstandings used as the basis for criticizing or ridiculing the doctrine. Critics of the Church, and Catholic critics of the papacy, as well as the uneducated or misled, often claim or assume that the doctrine of infallibility means that the pope has something akin to carte blanche in determining what Catholics must believe, and/or that the doctrine applies to literally every aspect of Catholic life. This, of course, is absurd, but it’s a useful meme for critics who want to discredit the Church and the papacy by setting up the straw man of a too powerful pontiff. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ (Pastor aeternus), the First Vatican Council document that formally defined papal infallibility, itself affirmed that there can be no new doctrine and that whatever the pope defines infallibly must itself be conformed to Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.

The Church teaches that, in order for a teaching of the pope, or of the pope and bishops together, to be considered infallible, that doctrine must be clearly defined as a teaching that is ex cathedra, that is, a teaching of the pope’s apostolic authority as chief shepherd and teacher, on matters of faith and morals to be held by the entire Church.

From this, it ought to be clear that when the pope offers his personal opinion on some matter of politics, economic policy, social issues, individual spirituality or lifestyle, or any other such topic, even those related to the life of the Church or of pressing Church or international concern, it is not infallible. Pope Venerable Pius XII stated that even papal encyclicals were not infallible unless clearly declared so. That the opinions and reflections of the Holy Father ought to be considered with respect and seriousness goes without saying. That is far from saying that every time the pope sneezes another new doctrine of the Church is set forth onto the masses!

 As an example, many years ago, the Catholic priest and theologian Hans Kung attempted one of the more ridiculous challenges to papal infallibility by pointing out the case of Galileo. Since Galileo was correct about how the universe works and not the pope, Kung argued, the pope cannot be infallible. First of all, the pope did not directly speak to whether or not Galileo was right or wrong about how the universe works. Second, the question is not a matter of faith or morals, but of scientific inquiry. Third, no attempt was made by the pope to declare an earth-centered universe an infallible doctrine of the Church to be held by all. The case has absolutely nothing to do with papal infallibility. That fact, however, failed to inspire Kung or others to abandon their claim.

An example of a recent teaching that is truly infallible, however, is that of Pope St. John Paul the Great’s 1994 letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, or Priestly Ordination, in which the saintly pontiff re-affirmed, partly for the purpose of putting the matter to rest, that the Catholic priesthood is reserved to men. The next year, in an opinion approved by St. John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave its opinion that the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was “set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” and was “to be held definitively, as belonging to the deposit of faith.” In other words the teaching is infallible, not so much because St. John Paul II formally declared it so in his letter, for he didn’t, but because the pope was defining and clarifying a doctrine that had been held by the Church from the very beginning. The teaching is infallible on the basis of the charism of infallibility possessed by the Church herself. The fact that St. John Paul II explicitly affirmed the opinion of the Congregation means that it is an infallible teaching of the chief shepherd of the Church.

The teaching authority of the Church is a gift. It protects us from heresy, from falling away from the right road, the narrow path. It spares us the burden of rummaging through or even manipulating the Scriptures and the centuries of teachings and reflections of the Fathers and the saints, searching for or claiming this snatch of truth and that snatch, never having complete confidence that our own personal take on any given matter is consistent with God’s truth and His divine will. With the Church we have confidence, because the Church was given to us by Christ Himself for the purpose of teaching and guiding us in all truth. Why would anyone reject such a gift?

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s