Response to Ad Tuendum Fidem Charges

Monday, November 17, 2003



A reader left some comments in my article Is Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Infallible? implying that by questioning a "definitive" teaching, I was thereby automatically excommunicating myself according to an Apostolic Letter Motu Propio called Ad Tuendam Fidem. The reader later withdrew his comment after examining some canon law on his own.

Yet, many conservative lay people quote this letter at me and other progressive Catholics claiming that we have set ourselves against the Church when we question a teaching of the Church, even if the teaching was not defined infallible through a definitive act.

What is especially confusing is the way the Holy Father uses the word "definitive" in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

Below, I will put Church documents in blockquote to separate it from my own commentary. I will use different blue font for the Ad Tuendam Fidem and other colors to quote other official Church documents. The text of the letter begins as follows:
To protect the faith of the Catholic Church against errors arising from certain members of the Christian faithful, especially from among those dedicated to the various disciplines of sacred theology, we, whose principal duty is to confirm the brethren in the faith (Lk 22: 32), consider it absolutely necessary to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church, and which also establish related canonical sanctions.
1. From the first centuries to the present day, the Church has professed the truths of her faith in Christ and the mystery of his redemption. These truths were subsequently gathered into the Symbols of the faith, today known and proclaimed in common by the faithful in the solemn and festive celebration of Mass as the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This same Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is contained in the Profession of Faith developed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which must be made by specific members of the faithful when they receive an office that is directly or indirectly related to deeper investigation into the truths of faith and morals, or is united to a particular power in the governance of the Church.
The first important note I wish to make is that the text is dealing with matters held infallibly by the magisterium, and the examples provided are the creeds. I have never denied an article of the creed, nor even questioned a creedal proposition in any way that a conservative could make such an accusation.

The second point of extreme importance is that the Ad Tuendam Fidem is clearly directed to "specific members of the faithful when they receive an office that is directly or indirectly related to deeper investigation into the truths of faith and morals". I hold no office in the Church, and the Ad Tuendam Fidem would seldom refer to a layperson!
2. The Profession of Faith, which appropriately begins with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, contains three propositions or paragraphs intended to describe the truths of the Catholic faith, which the Church, in the course of time and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit "who will teach the whole truth" (Jn 16: 13), has ever more deeply explored and will continue to explore. The first paragraph states: "With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed".
Here is the part that catches the attention of conservatives who wish to use the Ad Tuendam Fidem against those who do not give full assent to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The letter on women's ordination clearly states:
I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
In a Responsum ad Dubium on October 28, 1995, the CDF claimed that the teaching contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2).
It would seem abundantly clear that the ordinary and universal magisterium therefore holds sets forth this doctrine as divinely revealed.

The reference that the Responsum Ad Dubium makes to Lumen Gentium 25,2 is an important reference. This paragraph reads as follows:
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.
What this means is that the bishops are infallible when they act as teachers and judges and hold collegially ("are in agreement on one position") that a doctrine regarding faith and morals is to be held definitively.

This is more than merely saying that the bishops happen to all being the same thing at the same time. Many, if not all bishops believed the earth was the center of the universe at the time of Galileo. However, this was not a carefully considered position acting as teachers and judges. Rather, it was a common presumption with little reflection and consideration.

There are those who will argue that geocentricism does not involve faith and morals, though some bishops who opposed Galileo did think geocentrism was intrinsically connected to the doctrine of the incarnation. Other examples of bishops coming to agreement without careful and deliberate collegial intent to hold a position definitively involve issues such as slavery, usury, the inquisitions and the crusades. All of these matters certainly involved faith and morals.

To act as teachers and judges involves a deliberate and conscious effort to reach a definitive judgment, such as when gathered together in ecumenical council. There is no law stating that the bishops must be gathered in an ecumenical council. They could reach a collegial agreement by emailing one another in theory. However, the point is that the body of bishops must be acting together with conscious awareness that they are making a definitive judgment before a judgment can be considered "definitive" in the canonical sense.

Canon 749.3 of canon law states the following:
Can. 749. 3 No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.
The issue here is that if the ordinary and universal magisterium was exercised by the bishops acting in a "bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter" to reach an "agreement on one position as definitively to be held", as typically demonstrated when gathered together in an ecumenical council", when exactly did this happen?

There are those who state that the Pope, acting in his role to "strengthen the brethren" has the authority to make the judgment on his own that the ordinary and universal magisterium has been exercised, and he did so in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. This is not technically correct. Even the Holy Father is bound to laws of the Church.

It is true that a Pope can exercise extraordinary papal magisterium to define doctrines infallibly by his sole authority, and we typically refer to such doctrines as ex cathedra statements, meaning that the Holy Father has spoken from the chair of Saint Peter with the authority that Christ gave to Peter to bind and loose. Yet, we all know that not every pronouncement of the popes are considered to carry this authority. Non-infallible statements by popes may still be true, but they are not exercises of this ex cathedra authority.

By itself, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was not an exercise of extraordinary papal magisterium. We know this because the Holy Father addressed the bishops alone, rather than the whole church. He used an Apostolic Letter rather than the most authoritive Apostolic Constitution. Further, he used the first person singular, indicating a private opinion, rather than the first person plural, indicating the papal office. Lest anyone doubt, the Prefect for The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, issued the following commentary on the Responsum Ad Dubium on the same day that he signed it:
In this case, an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.
So, here is what we have:

1) A doctrine cannot be known as infallible until manifestly demonstrated.

2) The CDF, which is not infallible itself, says this doctrine is infallible as known through the ordinary and universal magisterium, but the bishops have not met collegially or been consulted to make such a determination.

3) The Holy Father agrees with the CDF that the ordinary and universal magisterium holds this teaching definitively, but has not used ex cathedra authority to define the doctrine. In other words, it is the Pope's non-infallible opinion that the bishops hold this teaching infallibly as a collective body acting as judges and teachers. Yet, the Pope has not presented any evidence that the bishops do, in fact, hold this definitively while acting collegially as teachers and judges.

Even the Holy Father, when not exercising extradordinary papal magisterium, would be required by canon law to manifestly demonstrate that a doctrine is held definitively by the ordinary and universal magisterium before we can consider it infallible.

Let us continue with the analysis of the Ad Tuendam Fidem:
This paragraph appropriately confirms and is provided for in the Church's legislation in canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law and canon 598 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. The third paragraph states: "Moreover I adhere with submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act". This paragraph has its corresponding legislative expression in canon 752 of the Code of Canon Law and canon 599 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.
Conservatives will use this paragraph to assert that even if an infallible definition has not been made, we cannot withhold assent or dissent from a teaching made by the Pope or the college of bishops and remain Catholic. There are three points that can be made about this paragraph.

First, the language used and the placement in canon law make it clear that this is intended for those who are teaching the Catholic faith as representatives of the Church. I am a layperson making no claim to represent the Vatican, receiving no pay for my blogging, and publicly confessing the truth that I hold no formal degree in theology. It would be hard to apply such law to me.

Second, even for a paid theologian who acts as a teacher at a Catholic University, rather than a lay blogger, this law is not absolutely clear. Is the intent of the canon to say that no professional theologian can ever prophetically challenge Church authority, such as those Catholics who questioned the teachings on slavery, usury and so forth? When Aquinas introduced the notion of transubstantiation into theological discourse, there were bishops who challenged the notion. How does doctrine develop and become more clear if theologians cannot probe, question, challenge, critique and add to our understanding of the faith? How does one distinguish between those non-infallible truths open to critique, and those non-infallible truths open to development and change?

Third, is the adherence of intellect and will to a doctrine itself, or to the authority of the pope and bishops? Furthermore, what is the difference between adherence of intellect and will, and the assent of faith? I accept the authority of the bishops and pope when they define a doctrine infallibility, and I even argue that we progressives should seriously consider anything they issue.

We should listen to the authority of the Church and allow it to shape and form our conscience. However, our primary obedience is ultimately due to conscience itself. If after listening carefully, we find that cannot give full assent, and the doctrine in question is not defined infallibly, and the doctine requires only adherence of intellect and will, rather than the assent of faith, are we simply supposed to leave the Church? Or, is the more appropriate position to say, "I accept the authority of the Church, but I have questions regarding this doctrine not yet infallibly defined."

Continuing in the Ad Tuendam Fidem, the third paragraph states:
3. The second paragraph, however, which states: "I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals", has no corresponding canon in the Codes of the Catholic Church. This second paragraph of the Profession of Faith is of utmost importance since it refers to truths that are necessarily connected to divine revelation. These truths, in the investigation of Catholic doctrine, illustrate the Divine Spirit's particular inspiration for the Church's deeper understanding of a truth concerning faith and morals, with which they are connected either for historical reasons or by a logical relationship.
I believe that both conservatives and liberals can agree that there is an interconnectedness to doctrine. Herein lies a methodology for determining what is infallible and what is not, and what is legitimately questionable and what is not. We must examine how doctrine is interconnected.

However, the methodology cannot be used if discussion is closed. What needs to occur is a debate whereby those who hold that a particular non-infallible doctrine is true are forced to demonstrate how the doctrine in question is interconnected with other doctrines known to be infallible. In order for the Church to reach a definitive conclusion, it is not is not enough for conservatives to simply say that The Catechism of the Catholic implies it, nor even that the current pope has written a letter on the subject, nor even that the practice is widespread and long-standing.

Rather, an argument should be made from conservatives showing all of the following:

1) The doctrine is held by those in authority.

Conservatives are usually good at arguing from authority, and this principle usually causes them little problem. Where they do sometimes make mistakes is to ignore the fine nuances and distinctions in the level of authority being used, and the level of assent required.

There are some notable exceptions, however, to the notion that conservatives always obey authority. Many conservative American Roman Catholics have long questioned the U.S. bishops on liturgy, and they now question the Pope on issues such as war and the death penalty. Nevertheless, conservatives are generally good at combing through official documents to find someone of high authority that holds their point of view.

2) The doctrine is implicitly or explicitly consistent with Scripture.

Conservatives are usually good at presenting verses of Scripture that seem to make their case. They sometimes are selective in which Biblical scholars they will use, and judge almost all Scripture scholars on conclusions rather than methodology. This tendency leaves the Church open to the charge of isogesis, which is the mental habit of reading into Scripture meanings that the author never intended.

When we judge a scholar by methodology, rather than conclusions, we are trying to let the intended meaning of the text lead to whatever truth the author intended, whether it proves our point or not. Sometimes, conservatives argue that an interpretation of Scripture is only correct if it agrees with the magisterium, but DV 10 of Vatican II clearly states that the magisterium serves Scripture, and is not its lord.

3) the doctrine is ancient, in at least seminal form.

Conservatives sometimes take texts out of context on this one, but they understand the importance of the principle and make attempts to build their case. At least we can dialogue here and have a meaningful discussion. Where we need to be careful is ensuring that the conservatives are taking things in context.

By historical context, I am refering to such things as the fact that canon 19 of Nicea says that certain deaconesses were not ordained, because they did not receive the laying of hands. The deaconesses in question belonged to a heretical sect called the Paulinist, and the canon clearly says this. We know from canon 15 of Chalcedon and several other sources that orthodox deaconesses did receive the laying on of hands. To quote canon 19 in the debate about deaconesses today is to ignore its historical context.

4) The doctrine is interrelated to other doctrines such that it flows naturally from reflection on the creeds and sacraments within the Tradition.

Conservatives seem to seldom move to this point in a debate, and this is what frustrates progressives the most.

For example, if it is true that we cannot ordain women because it concerns the very constitution of the Church, how is this doctrine related to any article in the creed, or any doctrine of sacraments? How did the doctrine evelove apart form authoritative statements, and what does the doctrine mean to us today? How is it relevant?

How is it good news?

Conservatives seem to try to interconnect everything to the Pope's authority, and progressives are constantly saying that doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception are not known as true simply because the Pope said so. Indeed, many theologians argued the case for the Immaculate conception long before any Pope ever taught it!

5) The doctrine is not irrational.

While faith can go beyond reason, it can never contradict reason, as taught at Vatican I. Before a doctrine should be defined as infallible, logical contradictions in the case should be worked out. The doctrine should be tested. Insights from various disciplines and sciences should be brought to bear on the question.

6) The doctrine should be accepted by the laity

Historically, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has always defined as infallible those truths that were popular among the majority of its active and pious members. Long before the bishops of Nicea worked out all the niceties of Trinitarian formula to answer Arius, the regular Catholic knew that in some mysterious way Jesus was true God and true man.

Let's continue to explore the Ad Tuendam Fidem again:
4. Moved therefore by this need, and after careful deliberation, we have decided to overcome this lacuna in the universal law in the following way:
A) Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law will now consist of two paragraphs; the first will present the text of the existing canon; the second will contain a new text. Thus, canon 750, in its complete form, will read:
Canon 750. 1. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ's faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.
So there are some teachings held by the ordinary and universal magisterium that are "manifested by the common adherence of Christ's faithful" that we are to accept and assent to as divinely revealed, even though they are not yet defined infallibly. The problem is that the nothing so far has helped us understand which teachings these are. I honestly believe the Church is correct on abortion, and I believe it is right to call Mary the co-redemptorix, though neither of these teachings is defined infallibly. Yet, where I think conservatives who quote the Ad Tuendam Fidem at me go wrong is that they assume that everything is infallible, or worse, those who dissent with out current Pope on the death penalty pick and chose, but claim I am excommunicating myself while they are not!
2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Without further clarification, canon 750.1 and 2 is no more clear than the law was prior to the Ad Tuendam Fidem. Fortunately, there was more to the letter:
Canon 1371, n. 1 of the Code of Canon Law, consequently, will receive an appropriate reference to canon 750, 2, so that it will now read:
Canon 1371: The following are to be punished with a just penalty:
1) a person who, apart from the case mentioned in canon 1364, 1, teaches a doctrine condemned by the Roman Pontiff, or by an Ecumenical Council, or obstinately rejects the teachings mentioned in canon 750, 2 or in canon 752 and, when warned by the Apostolic See or by the Ordinary, does not retract;
2) a person who in any other way does not obey the lawful command or prohibition of the Apostolic See or the Ordinary or Superior and, after being warned, persists in disobedience.
These conditions clarify perfectly when the Ad Tuendam Fidem is invoked. It is not the healthy discussion and debate of non-infallible teachings among theologians or laypeople that Rome is concerned about. It is those who teach with authority (have an office), and have been warned to stop teaching an error by a bishop, and refuse to do so who risk excommunication.

This is the big mistake that so many lay conservatives make in reading and quoting the Ad Tuendam Fidem. Only a bishop can excommunicate someone and the only time a Catholic ever excommunicates him or herself automatically is in the direct procurement of an abortion! There is absolutely no other way to be "automatically excommunicated" without a decree from a bishop or pope. Lay people cannot excommunicate one another!

Here is a link to some other leading canon lawyers and theologians on the Ad Tuendam Fidem:CTA Article on Topic of Ad Tuendam Fidem

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:01 PM

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