Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Infallible Teaching?

An Examination of the Apostolic Letter of May 22, 1994,
In Light of Classic Understanding of Papal Infallibility

E. L. Core


Recently, the topic of Pope John Paul’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (OS) came up on an e-mail list to which I subscribe. The Apostolic Letter, dated May 22, 1994, is “On Reserving Priestly Ordination To Men Alone”. (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are the opening words of the Latin text: it has been custom for centuries to refer to such documents by their initial words).

The claim was made that the teaching in OS — that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood — is almost, but not really quite, infallible; thus:

... This is not an infallible teaching, using the criteria set forth at Vatican I. It is very clear that it’s not infallible, and that is the truth. Now, having said this, it [OS] is a definitive teaching.... The Pope, or a council working with a Pope, can declare a teaching as definitive, and when they do it means that it should be held by all the faithful as the clear understanding of the Church, and should be accepted as such. However... it is one step short of infallible. Usually this is the case with something which does not fulfill all the requirements of infallibility. This is what we are dealing with on women’s ordination. It is important to note that since this is not declared infallible, it is at least possible, though unlikely, that at some point in the future, it can change....

The belief that a definition has to be “declared infallible” must not be uncommon. For instance, I found during research the following assertion, from someone who apparently accepts the teaching of OS without reservation:

.... Papal infallibility applies to matters of doctrine regarding faith and morals only. It applies only when the Pope defines doctrine and explicitly invokes infallibility speaking ex cathedra (e.g. the Immaculate Conception).... The Pope never invoked infallibility in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis....

Must a papal definition be “declared” infallible to be infallible? Must infallibility be “invoked”? Or does Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in some other way, not “fulfill all the requirements of infallibility”? Let us see.

The Teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
Concerning the Ordination of Men Only to the Priesthood

The teaching in the Apostolic Letter comes at its conclusion, in Number 4; to provide context, I provide the whole passage in Appendix I, giving only the key part here:

.... Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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.... (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4)

I will show that the teaching is, in fact, infallible. Why is it so?

The teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is a definitive declaration from the the pope, acting as supreme pastor and teacher, on a matter of doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by all the faithful: that is all that is required for a papal teaching to be infallible.

The Teaching in Pastor Aeternus (1870)
Concerning the Infallibility of the Pope

The Text of the Vatican I Document

The teaching of papal infallibility by Pope Pius IX and the First Vatican Ecumenical Council comes in Chapter 4 of the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus; to provide context, I provide the whole passage in Appendix II, giving only the key parts here:

.... To satisfy this pastoral office, our predecessors strove unwearyingly that the saving teaching of Christ should be spread among all the peoples of the world; and with equal care they made sure that it should be kept pure and uncontaminated wherever it was received. It was for this reason that the bishops of the whole world, sometimes individually, sometimes gathered in synods, according to the long established custom of the churches and the pattern of ancient usage, referred to this Apostolic See those dangers especially which arose in matters concerning the faith. This was to ensure that any damage suffered by the faith should be repaired in that place above all where the faith can know no failings. The Roman Pontiffs, too, as the circumstances of the time or the state of affairs suggested, sometimes by summoning ecumenical councils or consulting the opinion of the churches scattered throughout the world, sometimes by special synods, sometimes by taking advantage of other useful means afforded by divine providence, defined as doctrines to be held those things which, by God’s help, they knew to be in keeping with sacred scripture and the apostolic traditions. For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Saviour to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren [Luke 22:32]....
But since in this very age when the salutary effectiveness of the apostolic office is most especially needed, not a few are to be found who disparage its authority, we judge it absolutely necessary to affirm solemnly the prerogative which the only-begotten Son of God was pleased to attach to the supreme pastoral office. Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our Saviour, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema. (Pastor Aeternus, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Chapter 4; emphasis added)

Application of Vatican I Teaching to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

How does OS stand up when compared to the definition by Vatican I for a teaching of the pope to be infallible? He must make a definitive pronouncement ex cathedra on doctrine concerning faith or morals. Period.

What does ex cathedra mean? Literally, it means “from the chair”, figuratively referring to his office as pastor and teacher of the whole Church. (It does not mean that he must speak while sitting in a certain chair: such a notion is plumb silly.) The dogmatic decree itself gives us the characteristics by which we may know an ex cathedra papal definition:

To sum up, a papal teaching is infallible when the pope teaches definitively, with his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine to be held by the whole Church — that is, by all the faithful.

No specific wording is required, so long as the intention is manifest to use the supreme apostolic authority to definitively settle a matter of doctrine to be held by all the faithful. He does not have to say explicitly, “This teaching is infallible”. Nor does he have to publish the teaching with a minimum of solemnity or celebration. (Most certainly, he does not have to sit in a certain piece of furniture.)

Does Ordinatio Sacerdotalis meet the definition? Yes, it does.

Nothing is lacking in OS to make the teaching of male-only priesthood infallible according to the definition of Vatican I.

The Catholic Encyclopedia
Explanation of Papal Infallibility

I think it is appropriate at this juncture to quote at length from the “old” Catholic Encyclopedia, to demonstrate that my explanation is classical; that is, it is neither my own understanding nor a new understanding. Here is the relevant passage (explaining the definition of Vatican I) from the Encyclopedia, work on which was begun in 1905 and finished in 1914; I have emphasized key parts:

For the correct understanding of this definition it is to be noted that:
It should be observed in conclusion that papal infallibility is a personal and incommunicable charisma, which is not shared by any pontifical tribunal. It was promised directly to Peter, and to each of Peter’s successors in the primacy, but not as a prerogative the exercise of which could be delegated to others. Hence doctrinal decisions or instructions issued by the Roman congregations, even when approved by the pope in the ordinary way, have no claim to be considered infallible. To be infallible they must be issued by the pope himself in his own name according to the conditions already mentioned as requisite for ex cathedra teaching. (Infallibility, “Explanation of Papal Infallibility”)

There is nothing in this explanation to alter the previous conclusion: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis meets all the points defined by Vatican I for a papal teaching to be infallible.

Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma
Explanation of Papal Infallibility

It may be helpful, also, to quote Dr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma: published originally in German, 1952, it was published in English, 1954, and quickly became a standard, widely-used, highly-regarded compendium of dogmatic theology. Here is the relevant passage; I have emphasized the key parts:

For the proper understanding of the dogma the following points must be noted:
a) The bearer of the Infallibility is every lawful Pope as successor of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. But the Pope alone is infallible not others to whom he transfers a part of his teaching authority, for example, the Roman Congregations.
b) The object of his Infallibility is his teaching concerning Faith and Morals, above all revealed teaching, but also non-revealed teachings, which are closely associated with the teachings of Revelation.
c) The condition of the Infallibility is that the Pope speaks ex cathedra. For this is required: (α) That he speak as pastor and teacher of all the faithful with the full weight of his supreme apostolic authority; If he speaks as a private theologian or as the bishop of his Diocese, he is not infallible; (β) That he have the intention of deciding finally a teaching of Faith or Morals, so that it is to be held by all the faithful. Without this intention, which must be made clear in the formulation, or by the circumstances, a decision ex cathedra is not complete. Most of the doctrinal expressions made by the Popes in their Encyclicals are not decisions ex cathedra.... (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Book 4, Part 2, Chapter 2, Section 8)

There is nothing in this explanation, either, to alter the previous conclusion: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis meets all the points defined by Vatican I for a papal teaching to be infallible.

The Teaching in Lumen Gentium (1964)
Concerning the Infallibility of the Pope

Did Vatican II further develop the doctrine concerning the circumstances of papal infallibility? Not at all. Indeed, Vatican II repeated the definition of Vatican I in nearly the same words.

The reaffirmation of the teaching of papal infallibility by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council comes in Number 25 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium; to provide context, I provide the whole passage in Appendix III, giving only the key parts here:

.... 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 [Luke 22:32], by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. 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. 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.
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. The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents; but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith. (Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Number 25; emphasis added)

There is no substantive modification to the definition of Vatican I — note especially the citation again of Luke 22:32 — so nothing is lacking in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to make the teaching of male-only priesthood infallible according to the definition as repeated by Vatican II.

The Code of Canon Law (1983)
Concerning the Infallibility of the Pope

The Code of Canon Law (1983) provides a succint description, based on the teaching of both Vatican I and Vatican II, on the circumstances of papal infallibility; to provide context, I provide the whole canon in Appendix IV (including the corresponding canon in the 1917 code), giving only the key part here:

Canon 749 §1 In virtue of his office the Supreme Pontiff is infallible in his teaching when, as chief Shepherd and Teacher of all Christ’s faithful, with the duty of strengthening his brethren in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals.... (Book III: The Teaching Office of the Church)

Again, an allusion to Luke 22:32 — “strengthening his brethren in the faith”. This is the same verse cited in both dogmatic constitutions, and in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, indicating the pope is acting in his capacity as supreme shepherd of the whole Church.


The teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis — that the Church has no authority whatever to ordain women to the priesthood — fulfills the definition of Vatican I, and its reaffirmation by Vatican II, concerning the requirements for a papal teaching to be infallible:

Consideration of Certain Objections

Despite have implicitly refuted all objections by demonstrating positively that OS is infallible teaching, it may be helpful to address certain specific objections explicitly in some detail.

The Pope Didn’t Use the Magic Words

“But”, some might object, “he didn’t say his decision is infallible! And he didn’t say it’s ex cathedra!” (Indeed, this is the very objection with which we began this essay.) No matter. He didn’t have to say so.

“Infallible” is not a magic word; “ex cathedra”, not a magical phrase: the purpose of the decision at Vatican I (reaffirmed by Vatican II) was to define in what circumstances the pope is infallible, and to describe the characteristics of an ex cathedra decision. Neither council said he must use the word “infallible” nor the phrase “ex cathedra”.

Think about why they didn’t do that. The history of the Catholic Church is the history of changing times, changing situations, changing needs, even changing moods and attitudes. Sometimes, the pope issues a declaration because of the desire of the clergy and faithful, as in the definitions of the Immaculate Conception (Pope Pius IX, 1854) and the Assumption (Pope Pius XII, 1950) of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and, sometimes the pope issues a declaration because of a theological dispute, as in the definition of the immediacy of the Beatific Vision (Pope Benedict XII, 1336) and, the case at hand, the definition of the Church’s incapacity to ordain women to the priesthood.

Because of the known varying circumstances in which popes have had to make decisions in the past, and because of the unknown varying circumstances in which they will have to make decisions in the future, it was necessary to refrain from specifying any certain formula: doing so may have erroneously excluded an existing papal decision from the definition of papal infallibility, and might have foolishly tied the hands of future popes who would have to address situations yet unimagined in ways yet unimagined.

The councils told us how and when the pope’s decision is infallible and ex cathedra. They delineated what he must do, and in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis he has done so.

The Language is Quite Different from Ex Cathedra Pronouncements

“Compare the language”, some might say, “of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis with that of ‘real’ ex cathedra pronouncements: the difference is tremendous, and shows that the pope did not intend his teaching to be infallible.”

Nobody could deny that the muted tone and simple language of OS is dramatically different from that of some prior ex cathedra teachings. Here, for example, is the definition of the Assumption, by Pope Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus (MD):

For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.

(That language is very similar — deliberately so, I surmise — to that used by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.)

The style of the language, the choice of diction, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis pales in comparison — as a TV screen or computer monitor pales in the sunlight — cannot be denied. But it need not be denied. And it should not surprise. Indeed, it ought to be expected.

Why? Because of the completely different circumstances in which the pronouncements were issued. Not coincidentally, each falls into the different categories I mentioned above: MD was a joyful proclamation called for by the clergy and faithful around the world; OS, a decision settling a theological dispute.

The decision by Pope Benedict XII in 1336, already mentioned, was also infallible and ex cathedra. (Because it, too, fulfills the requirements specified by the Vatican Councils; Ott calls it “dogmatic”.) Let us look at the language in which it was issued:

By this Constitution, which is to remain in force forever, we, with apostolic authority, define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ... immediately (mox) after death... already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels.... (Benedictus Deus; emphasis added, for reasons which I hope are obvious.)

Pope John Paul used language — deliberately so, I surmise — much more like that of Pope Benedict than that of Pope Pius: no ringing, repeated proclamations of authority, but merely the assertion of supreme authority in settling definitively a dispute about doctrine.

Just as we ought to have expected. Everybody in the Catholic world awaited the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption: in each case, the pope could hardly help but add a lot of pomp and circumstance to his proclamation. But the teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis — though welcomed by innumerable Catholics everywhere — was also bound to inflict some mental anguish on those who had convinced themselves that the Catholic Church could, and would, some day ordain women priests: such a decision hardly called for pomp and circumstance; rather, for sober restraint.

New times require new attitudes. And new attitudes inaugurate new times. Notice that the definition of papal infallibility by Vatican I has an anathema attached; notice, too, that the definition of papal infallibility by Vatican II does not have an anathema attached. (Anathema is an especially strict kind of excommunication.) One of the purposes for which Vatican II was called was to establish a more conciliatory, pastoral tone in the teachings of the Church, and Pope John Paul II has demonstrated over and over again that he is indeed a pope inspired by the Second Vatican Council.

Besides, had Pope John Paul used purple prose, and issued denunciations of dissenters, that language, too, would have its detractors. One can almost hear them: Why did he have to do it that way? Didn’t he learn anything from Vatican II? He should have been more sober and restrained. He is unsuccessfully trying to hide some uncertainty or insecurity. Heads, I win; tails, the pope loses.

Moreover, from a logical standpoint, what would have been added to the meaning of the pope’s words in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis had he used language more like that of Pope Pius? What difference would it have made if Pope John Paul had written as follows?

Wherefore, in order that all doubt, dispute, and controversy may be removed regarding a matter of great importance and true significance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) and as supreme pastor and teacher, with the authority of Jesus Christ and the Apostles Peter and Paul and my own authority, I declare, define, and pronounce that the Church has no authority or capacity or capability whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment, decision, and pronouncement is to be definitively, absolutely, and unquestionably held by all the Church’s faithful forever and ever and ever....

Words would have been added, but not any meaning. (The assertion of supreme apostolic authority is the assertion of the authority of Jesus Christ and the Apostles Peter and Paul.)

The language of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is just what we should expect — from historical precedent — in an infallible ex cathedra pronouncement settling a theological dispute in the Catholic Church of the post-Vatican II era.

One Highly Technical Argument

The Argument Concerning the Apostolic Letter’s “Subject-Matter”

I must admit, I was stumped as to why anybody, anywhere could dispute the infallibility of the teaching in OS: it clearly complies with the requirements of the Vatican Councils.

Maybe I am failing to consider some arcane theological principle? I wondered. Perhaps I am unaware of some understanding underlying the texts of the Vatican Councils?

I have now found one arcane theological principle cited in discussion of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis; thus:

Following the teaching of Vatican I and II, theologians are accustomed to distinguishing between final or definitive and nondefinitive judgments of the papal and episcopal magisterium. Definitive judgments are regarded as irreformable, and in these cases the magisterium claims infallibility or freedom from error. Since such cases occur rarely, we speak of them as an exercise of the extraordinary magisterium. Such definitive judgments can be made either by the college of bishops gathered in council with the pope at their head or by the pope in a solemn ex cathedra decree. Since they are part of the pastoral duty to serve the faithful preservation of divine revelation, such definitive judgments must deal with teaching that belongs to the revealed Word of God (the primary subject-matter of the infallible magisterium) or is so closely connected with the Word of God that it is required for the faithful preservation of revelation, even though it has not itself been revealed (the secondary subject-matter of the infallible magisterium).
In order not to return repeatedly to this problematic point, it should be noted here that Vatican I declared papal infallibility to be a dogma only in the primary area; infallibility in the secondary area, either of the pope or of the magisterium on the whole, was not declared a dogma. Both Vatican I and Vatican II left the latter an open question. The infallibility of the magisterium in the secondary area is indeed regarded as “theological certain” in principle; but the possible scope of the secondary area has remained a matter of dispute until today.
An infallible judgment, then, is given only when the infallible magisterium decides in a definitive act, or once for all, that a doctrine of faith or morals has been formally revealed or is necessarily true in order faithfully to preserve and interpret the Word of God. If such a revealed doctrine is at issue, the magisterium orders that it be believed (credenda); if the question is of a doctrine inherently connected with revelation but not itself revealed, it orders that it be held (tenenda). (Fallibly Infallible?)

That argument can be summed up this way:

The First Vatican Council left as an open question whether the definition of papal infallibility applies to “secondary subject-matter”. The teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis concerns secondary subject-matter; this is indicated even by the pope’s choice of words: Catholics must “hold” (tenendam) that the Church may not ordain women to the priesthood, not that they must “believe” (credendam) such. Therefore, it is debatable whether the teaching in OS is infallible.
Refutation of the “Secondary Subject-Matter” Argument

Before proceeding, it must be admitted that the teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is about secondary subject-matter: there is no dispute about that. The distinction between “revealed” doctrine (primary subject-matter) and “necessary” doctrine (secondary subject-matter) is a commonplace of Catholic theology, and goes back at least to the time of St. Thomas Aquinas.

However, the “secondary subject-matter” argument fails on two grounds — which will be expanded upon immediately below — either of which is fatal to the argument:

1. The Fathers of Vatican I Deliberately Rejected
a Definition that Excluded Secondary Subject-Matter

Three drafts of the dogmatic decree were presented sucessively to the Fathers of Vatican I. The second was deliberately rejected by them, in part because it explicitly confined the definition of papal infallibility to primary subject-matter, thus implicitly excluding secondary subject-matter. But the Fathers did not want to do that: they wanted to include secondary subject-matter. So they rejected the second draft, later approving the third because it did not confine the definition to primary subject-matter. (It is beyond the scope of this essay to go into detail about the proceedings of the council: they are reviewed, however, in an essay at the Roman Theological Forum.)

2. The Official Explanation of the Definition’s Meaning
Explicitly Includes Items of Secondary Subject-Matter

Much debate preceded the definition of papal infallibility, both publicly when all the bishops gathered as a group, and privately in smaller groups of bishops and theologians commissioned to engage in detailed discussion. (This is the ordinary occurence at councils, at least since Trent.) The text was hammered and chiseled until it finally could convey the meaning that the commission wanted it to convey, as instructed by the pope and bishops as a whole.

The commission (called the “Deputation of Faith”) reported its discussions, conclusions, and explanations to the Council Fathers, so they would understand what was meant by the text they would be voting on; here is the relevant part of the explanation (the relatio) delivered to the council by Bishop Vincent Gasser (the relator) of what would be meant by approving the decree of an infallible papal definition, adding emphasis:

.... Now I shall explain in a very few words how this word “defines” is to be understood according to the Deputation “de Fide” [the Deputation of Faith]. Indeed, the Deputation de Fide is not of the mind that this word should be understood in a juridical sense so that it only signifies putting an end to a controversy which has arisen with respect to heresy and doctrine which is properly speaking “de fide.” [This is another way of saying “primary subject-matter”.] Rather, the word signifies that the Pope directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way, indeed, that he knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff. [The first example includes primary subject-matter; the other examples include secondary subject-matter.] Such therefore, is the meaning of the word “defines”.... (July 16, 1870; quoted in Is Ordinatio Sacerdotalis an Infallible Exercise of the Extraordinary Papal Magisterium?)

True, theologians have debated, for more than a century, whether the dogmatic decree of Vatican I included secondary subject-matter in its definition of papal infallibility: as has been demonstrated, however, the debate arose through ignorance of, or confusion about, the proceedings of the council. For secondary subject-matter was deliberately not excluded by the Council Fathers, as shown in their proceedings.

The subject-matter is, therefore, no objection to the infallibility of the teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.


Objections to the contrary notwithstanding, the teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is infallible because it fulfills the only requirements that must be fulfilled: those specified in Pastor Aeternus and repeated in Lumen Gentium.

Further Reading


  1. I. Relevant Text of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
  2. II. Relevant Text of Pastor Aeternus
  3. III. Relevant Text of Lumen Gentium
  4. IV. Relevant Canon in 1983 Code of Canon Law (with corresponding canon from 1917 code)

John Henry Newman (1853)
Cathedra Sempiterna

Deeply do I feel, ever will I protest, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that, in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christ’s flock. The voice of Peter is now, as it ever has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in its own province, adding certainty to what is probable, and persuasion to what is certain. Before it speaks, the most saintly may mistake; and after it has spoken, the most gifted must obey.
Peter is no recluse, no abstracted student, no dreamer about the past, no doter upon the dead and gone, no projector of the visionary. Peter for eighteen hundred years has lived in the world; he has seen all fortunes, he has encountered all adversaries, he has shaped himself for all emergencies. If there ever was a power on earth who had an eye for the times, who has confined himself to the practicable, and has been happy in his anticipations, whose words have been deeds, and whose commands prophecies, such is he in the history of ages, who sits from generation to generation in the Chair of the Apostles, as the Vicar of Christ and Doctor of His Church. (Cathedra Sempiterna)

© ELC 2001-2002

Webpage © 2001 ELC
Lane Core Jr. (lane@elcore.net)
Created December 5, 2001; revised January 3, 2002.