The Four Kinds of Magisterial Statement and the Various Responses Catholics Owe to Each

A much more in depth treatment of this subject is found in our “The Three Levels of Magisterial Teaching.” The discrepancy in numbering the levels (three vs. four) is explained by the fact that some theologians, apparently following Cardinal Avery Dulles (The Craft of Theology: from Symbol to System), have created a fourth category that is not in the magisterial documents which outline these different categories. Toward the end of this paper, I explain where I think they get this.

The four kinds of magisterial statement are (1) infallible dogma, (2) definitive statements on matters closely connected with revealed truth, (3) ordinary teaching on faith and morals, and (4) ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters.

I. To “infallible dogma,” we owe the “obedience of faith”[1] or “divine and Catholic faith.” According to Vatican I, which gave us this second formula, both the Extraordinary Magisterium and the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium are instruments of transmitting infallible dogma:

“Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”[2]

The wording of this dogmatic constitution, taken together with what we know of the response due to the second category of teaching, would lead us to assume that the response of “divine and Catholic faith” is exclusive to “infallible dogma.” However, the truths of the next category may also be proposed via these two infallible modes of teaching. I have not seen this problem addressed.

The Code of Canon Law makes an important addition to this in Canon 750: “All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines.” Thus, not only are we bound as Catholics to adhere to infallible dogma, we are equally bound to reject what is opposed to it. While this should be self-evident from the wording of Dei Filius, these are times of deep epistemological confusion, when respect for the principle of non-contradiction cannot be taken for granted. The Code prudently emphasizes both the positive and negative parts of this teaching.

What St. Paul called “the obedience of Faith” and Vatican I called “divine and Catholic faith,” was labeled “theological faith” by Donum Veritatis. The tight wording of this Instruction On The Ecclesial Vocation Of The Theologian prevents any false distinction between the theological virtue of faith and the “divine and Catholic faith” of Dei Filius: “When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.”[3]

In this category of infallible dogma, one could find the definition of the Fourth Lateran Council on the necessity of the Church for salvation: “Indeed, there is but one universal Church of the faithful outside of which no one at all is saved.”[4]

Other examples would include the infallible teaching of Nicea on the Logos’ consubstantiality with the Father and that of Ephesus on Our Lady’s Divine Maternity. To reject these teachings is to reject divine revelation and to forfeit salvation. The same Vatican I which outlines this first category’s binding nature also goes on to give an infallible definition,[5] which warns of the eschatological ramifications for failing to respond properly: “So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”[6]

II. The contents of the second category, “a definitive statement on a matter closely connected with revealed truth,” are not immediately contained in the sacred deposit. Rooted in the primary points of the depositum fidei, these “secondary truths” are infallible, for they “must be firmly accepted and held” in the words of the already referenced Donum Veritatis No. 23. The passage gives the technical note “in a definitive way” to the modus of this category’s pronouncement by the Magisterium: “When the Magisterium proposes ‘in a definitive way’ truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.”[7]

That this category of magisterial pronouncement is infallible is not evident from the lectures of Dr. D’Ambrosio. However, the authoritative sources refer to it as such. The New Formula for the Profession of Faith states: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.”[8] John Paul’s motu proprio, Ad Tuendam Fidem, published the very same day, explained this text:

“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.”[9]

The words “necessarily connected to divine revelation” connote infallibility, since to be necessarily joined to something infallible is to be infallible. The words the “Divine Spirit’s particular inspiration” have even stronger implications. But rather than rely on logical inferences drawn from these documents, a more certain proof of the infallibility of this category comes from the “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei” published by the CDF coincidentally with Ad Tuendam Fidem:

“Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”[10]

The document goes on to explain that magisterial pronouncements of the first and second categories may be transmitted to the faithful via the “defining acts” of the Solemn Magisterium or the “non-defining acts” of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium. Since both of these must be believed with “divine and Catholic faith” according to Dei Filius, there is no question that infallible truth is meant here.

The examples that Dr. D’Ambrosio gives for this category are the male-only priesthood and the canon of Holy Scripture. In the former case, our current Holy Father is in agreement: “A similar process can be observed in the more recent teaching regarding the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men. The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”[11]

Regarding the Canon of Holy Scripture, the Council of Trent’s decree Sacrosancta, declared “If anyone, however, should not accept the said books as sacred and canonical, entire with all their parts as they were wont to be read in the Catholic Church… anathema sit.”[12] This decree was confirmed by Vatican I.[13] I make my own this summary of the conciliar data by Father William G. Height: “Through the functioning of the infallible magisterium of the Church, faith in the divine authorship of a precisely determined body of literature has become a very specific and formal tenet of the corpus of revelation.”[14]

III. Citing Lumen Gentium 25, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 892) spells out the nature of a Catholic’s reception of “ordinary teaching on faith and morals”: “To this ordinary teaching the faithful ‘are to adhere to it [sic] with religious assent’ which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.” The passage in Lumen Gentium speaks of a “religious assent [assensus religiosus] of mind and will.” Theologians distinguish this from the assensus fidei of the first category on our list.

To this category, I would assign the Church’s moral teachings in such rapidly changing areas as bioethics. Dr. D’Ambrosio assigned the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control to this category.

IV. The final category, “ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters,” calls for “external conformity.” Erstwhile Cardinal Ratzinger gave as two examples of such doctrines the nineteenth-century teaching on religious liberty (outlined in Blessed Pio Nono’s Syllabus), and the declarations of the Pontifical Biblical Commission around 1900. This category would include any of the routine publications of the various organs of the Holy See or the bishops in their dioceses.

Although none of the documents I studied[15] include this fourth category among the different levels of magisterial statements, it appears to be Avery Dulles’ summary of the contents of Donum Veritatis 24-31. Ad Rem to the subject of contrasts among the various official sources for these categories is the fact that only Donum Veritatis, the “Doctrinal Commentary,” and the two professiones fidei distinguish between the first and second categories. The 1983 Code of Canon Law was modified to include this distinction.

These contrasts make the two professions of faith and, especially Ad Tuendam Fidem and Donum Veritatis, more detailed developments of positive theology.


Flannery, Austin, O.P, editor, Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1980.

Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Translated by United States Catholic Conference, Inc. Bloomingdale, Ohio: Apostolate for Family Consecration, 1994.

J. Neuner, S.J and J. Dupuis, S.J., The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, Seventh Revised and Enlarged Edition. New York: Alba House, 2001.

William G. Heidt, O.S.B., Inspiration, Canonicity, Texts, Versions, Hermeneutics: A General Introduction to Sacred Scripture. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970.

[1] Rom. 16:26, cited by Lumen Gentium25, No. 2.

[2] Dei Filius, Chapter 3. Online, available at: [accessed 19 April 2006]. Cf. also Can. 750 §1, which says the same thing almost verbatim.

[3] Instruction On The Ecclesial Vocation Of The Theologian, No. 23. Online, available at: [accessed 19 April 2006].

[4] Denz. 430.

[5] On papal infallibility.

[6] Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4. Online, available at: [accessed 19 April 2006].

[7] Instruction On The Ecclesial Vocation Of The Theologian, No. 23.

[8] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity on Assuming an Office to Be Exercised in the Name of the Church. Online, available at: [accessed 24 April 2006]. This is the same wording of the earlier Professio Fidei published by the CDF in 1989 (CF No. 41).

[9] Pope John Paul II, Ad Tuendam Fidem, No. 3. Online, available at: [accessed 24 April 2006] (Emphasis mine). This motu proprio was the organ the Holy Father used to insert the following paragraph into Canon Law, clearly establishing in the Code the nature of this second level of teaching: “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.” A disciplinary canon (1371, 2) was added to establish penalties. Similar additions were made the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

[10] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith , “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei,” No. 6. Online, available at: [accessed 19 April 2006] (Emphasis mine).

[11] Ibid., No. 11. Online, available at: [accessed 19 April 2006] (Emphasis mine). Incidentally, this passage shows that the present Roman Pontiff considers the universality of the “ordinary and universal magisterium” to be what he calls in footnote 17 of that document, a “diachronic” (as opposed to “synchronic”) universality, i.e., its universality is of time and space and not of space only. This would indicate that Benedict XVI agrees with those theologians who explain the ordinary and universal magisterium in terms of St. Vincent of Lerins’ famous dictum in the Commonitorium: “quod semper, quod ubique, et quod ab omnibus… et in eodem sensu.”

[12] Cited in William G. Heidt, O.S.B., Inspiration, Canonicity, Texts, Versions, Hermeneutics: A General Introduction to Sacred Scripture (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970) p. 25.

[13] Denz. 1809.

[14] Ibid. (emphasis mine).

[15] These include Lumen Gentium, the 1989 “Profession of Faith,” its 1998 replacement, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Lumen Gentium, the “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei.