“It is to give proof of a submission which is far from sincere to set up some kind of opposition between one Pontiff and another. Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future council, or to a Pope who is better informed. On this point what must be remembered is that in the government of the Church, except for the essential duties imposed on all Pontiffs by their apostolic office, each of them can adopt the attitude which he judges best according to times and circumstances. Of this he alone is the judge.” (Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Epistola Tua, 1885)[1]

When we study papal teachings throughout history, we occasionally encounter teachings that appear to contradict those in other magisterial documents. Since the papal Magisterium requires our unconditional assent whenever it teaches on matters of faith and morals (CIC 752), contradictions between different magisterial teachings present an obvious hermeneutical challenge, because it is impossible to grant assent to two mutually contradictory propositions. This is why it is important that Catholics know how to respond to potential contradictions in a logically tenable way.

When we speak about “papal Magisterium,” we are not discussing the magisterial authority of individual diocesan bishops teaching at a local level, nor are we referring to  local or particular councils. The decisions of dicasteries of the Roman Curia do not participate in the papal Magisterium unless they have explicit approval by the pope. None of these teachings and documents are exercises of the Church’s supreme ecclesial power and are therefore not protected by the charism of “never-failing faith” that Christ promised only to Peter (Lk 22:32)—not to officials of his curia or to anybody else. Likewise, the things the pope says in personal or private conversations, such as private audiences or telephone calls, cannot be considered to participate in the authentic magisterium because it is extremely unlikely that the pope is speaking in an official capacity when making them. Furthermore, in doubtful cases such as off-the-cuff remarks during homilies or comments made to reporters in which the pope does not make clear that he is promulgating magisterial teaching, it is reasonable to follow a probable opinion (based on the theological principle of probabilism) that such statements are not authoritative (cf. CIC 14).[2]

The papal Magisterium (also referred to as the authentic Magisterium or Living Magisterium), therefore, consists of all official papal documents (such as bulls, apostolic constitutions, encyclicals, exhortations, rescripts, motu proprio decrees, and apostolic letters), official papal speeches (including general audience addresses, Urbi et Orbi speeches, published homilies delivered at official public events) and documents ratified and personally promulgated by the pope (such as those produced by dicasteries of the Roman Curia or synodal assemblies) or by the pope in communion with the college of bishops (such as an ecumenical council).

Origin of magisterial contradictions

Jesus Christ established his Church to carry out his mission of proclaiming the Gospel and communicating the message of Salvation. He entrusted Peter, the first pope, with the leadership of the Church (cf. Mt 16:18), and Peter and his successors have served as the Church’s visible source and foundation of unity for all the faithful. To help them carry out this mission, Christ gives each pope two important gifts: never-failing faith (cf. Lk 22:32) and apostolic primacy. The charism of never-failing faith is guided by “the Holy Spirit’s special assistance,”[3] protecting him from promulgating official teachings to the Church that are contrary to Divine Revelation or contradict moral doctrines that are necessary for salvation. As Pope Benedict XV taught in his encyclical Principi Apostolorum Petro, “To Peter the Prince of the Apostles, the divine Founder of the Church allotted the gifts of inerrancy in matters of faith and of union with God” (no. 1). The second gift given to Peter and his successors, apostolic primacy, is the pope’s fullness of power and supremacy in governance over the entire Church.[4] This authority binds Catholics to grant their assent to the pope in matters related to faith and salvation. It also means that there is no one in the Church who is exempt from this submission to the pope, regardless of rank or status. The apostolic primacy of the Bishop of Rome guarantees the unity of the Church in both doctrinal and disciplinary matters.

Popes are therefore entitled to interpret Scripture and Tradition authentically and with certainty, and they may apply it authoritatively to concrete situations because divine Revelation inspires and guides all human behavior (cf. CIC 747 §2).[5] If the pope has a divinely instituted obligation to lead Christians toward their salvation, he cannot limit himself to judging only questions of faith or general moral principles. He also has the responsibility to apply doctrinal principles to practical questions by teaching on concrete human situations—such as whether certain actions conform to the demands of faith and which human behaviors are immoral and lead people away from their salvation.

This causes an exegetical complication regarding papal teachings, however. This is because papal decisions that apply doctrinal principles to concrete realities have three different constituent parts: the truths of faith and general moral principles, the particular facts to which those truths are applied, and the practical application of the teaching. Sometimes when considering various moral aspects of a situation, there is no clear hierarchy between them, leading to a diversity of options that can be justified. In such cases, the practical application of the principle is ultimately a prudential decision.

Magisterial decisions on the application of faith and morals to concrete situations are, at the very least, guaranteed to be “safe.” This is implied by the indefectibility of the Church (Matthew 28:20). It is also necessary, because – as Pope Leo XIII wrote – “For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live” (Sapientiae Christianae 24).

This means that obeying those decisions never poses a threat to one’s salvation. Magisterial teachings on faith and general moral principles are guaranteed to be correct. This is why they require the assent of the intellect, not only the assent of the will. Considerations of fact in Magisterial teaching, however, can be incorrect. Additionally, prudential decisions can be suboptimal. A teaching may give priority to a less important factor than a more important one. Christ doesn’t guarantee that his Church will always correctly explain the world, he only guarantees that she will always correctly interpret the Revelation and thereby lead people toward their salvation.

This is much different than magisterial teachings on faith and moral principles in a general sense, outside of their practical application. Such teachings are guaranteed to be not only safe and binding, but also always correct and therefore irreformable.

In the determination of particular facts, popes often rely on human testimonies, which are generally unreliable. Prudential decisions are often dependent on the current scientific or philosophical knowledge of the questions under consideration. For example, the improved philosophical understanding of human dignity in the last century has had a tremendous influence on many prudential decisions in the recent papal Magisterium and the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, developments in society, culture, and technology can lead to changes in the decisive aspects of past Magisterial teachings, rendering the applicability or practicality of those teachings obsolete.

Divinely revealed doctrine cannot change in time. Our understanding of factual particularities, however, as well as our approach to prudential matters can change. Most of the Church’s teachings are reformable because even though the truths of our faith remain the same, the way doctrine is applied can differ. And this is the explanation for contradictions between different magisterial teachings.

Identification of magisterial contradictions

Some alleged contradictions in the Magisterium are only apparent. If we tried to interpret the Bible in an unduly literal, textual, and context-free manner, we might very well conclude that Jesus Christ denied his own divinity (Jn 14:28), that he was a fan of self-mutilation (Mt 5:29, Mt 18:9, Mk 9:47), and that he opposed calling fathers “Father” and teachers “Teacher” (Mt 23:9-10). We might also be led to believe that Jesus was also a false prophet (Mt 24:34, Mk 13:30, Lk 21:32), denied his omniscience (Mt 24:36) and opposed burying of the dead (Mt 8:22, Lk 9:60). One might even think that the Bible promotes Arianism (Prov 8:22).

But the Church still teaches that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit,” and “that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (Dei Verbum 11). How can we claim the Bible is free from error when these passages seem to directly contradict established Catholic doctrine?

Likewise, interpreting older magisterial documents is a similarly difficult task. In many ways, it is comparable to the interpretation of the Bible. The difficulty tends to correlate with the age of the magisterial text. Interpreting such teachings correctly requires knowing what the pope was reacting to, the context of his teaching, and the intended scope of his decision. It also requires understanding what questions the pope actually intended to decide and what he didn’t intend to decide. Very often, it is impossible to determine these factors directly from the text of the magisterial document, yet they are crucial for understanding it correctly. And when we don’t understand a magisterial teaching correctly, it is easy to mistakenly claim that one teaching contradicts another – in much the same way we might incorrectly assert the existence of contradictions in the Bible. We cannot decide whether apparent contradictions between two magisterial teachings are real or whether their teachings can be reconciled unless we understand the correct interpretations of both of them. If they can be reconciled, Catholics are bound to obey both if they are both applicable to contemporary reality (CIC 21).

For example, past popes have taught that the death penalty is not intrinsically evil (cf. Eius Exemplo, 1208, Innocent III).[6] A later pope, St. John Paul II, taught that the death penalty is only permissible “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society” in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (no. 56). Finally, our current pope, has taught that “the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice,” and therefore the death penalty is “inadmissible” (Fratelli Tutti, no. 263). There is no true contradiction between these three propositions, and therefore there is no obstacle to granting assent to all of them.

Some of the hermeneutical rules specific for interpreting the Magisterium have been authoritatively taught directly by the Magisterium itself. For example, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1973 Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae – promulgated by Saint Paul VI – put forth guidelines for interpreting dogmatic definitions. The Congregation taught, “it sometimes happens that some dogmatic truth is first expressed incompletely (but not falsely), and at a later date, when considered in a broader context of faith or human knowledge, it receives a fuller and more perfect expression.” The congregation also taught that “it often happens that ancient dogmatic formulas and others closely connected with them remain living and fruitful in the habitual usage of the Church, but with suitable expository and explanatory additions that maintain and clarify their original meaning.”

This hermeneutical effort can have two possible outcomes. Either related magisterial teachings don’t really contradict each other, or they contradict each other only in contingent aspects.

Impossibility of doctrinal magisterial contradictions

Magisterial teachings cannot, however, contradict each other directly in matters of faith or morals that are necessary for salvation. Sometimes it is difficult to discern whether a magisterial teaching is irreformable (a revealed truth or a doctrine that has been definitively proposed by the Church) or whether it includes prudential determinations based on particular facts or situations (and is therefore reformable). This is why the Church provides us with a clear hermeneutical rule. According to the Code of Canon Law, “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident” (CIC 749 §3). This exegetical presumption of non-infallibility of all magisterial teachings is traditional as it explicitly appeared already in the Pio-Benedictine code from 1917 (CIC 1323 §3).[7]

It makes little sense to be Catholics if we accepted the possibility that magisterial documents could contradict one another in matters essential to faith or salvation, at least if we take this theory to its logical consequences. This is why the Church teaches that each pope has the same authority, which is conferred directly by Christ. Some Catholics insist that the magisterial teachings of Pope Francis contain heresies. If this is true, however, we must also accept that every other magisterial document might also contain heresies, and that none of them are truly reliable or safe. Catholics who oppose newer magisterial teachings based on what they perceive to be fundamental contradictions with older teachings hold a logically incoherent view. If recent magisterial teachings can contradict irreformable teachings, there is no reason to suggest that older teachings do not contradict them either. Older teachings would be just as potentially heretical as newer ones.

Followers of contemporary schismatic and radical traditionalist movements within the Church try to evade this obvious and inevitable conclusion by claiming that they accept the dogma of papal infallibility as defined by the first Vatican Council. Yet according to their logic, they cannot say with certainty that papal infallibility isn’t a contradiction of what came before. Certainly many learned Christians rejected it on this basis. Furthermore, this dogma only addresses one rarely-invoked aspect of the Church’s understanding of its doctrinal authority.

Even still, the Church has never taught that Catholics are free to dissent from non-infallible magisterial teachings they may judge false or morally unsafe. Church law says “religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act” (CIC 752). The teaching that reformable Magisterium is binding has been taught authoritatively by the two Vatican Councils and by every subsequent pope.[8] There is simply no denying of the great importance the Church assigns to this obligation.

Dealing with magisterial contradictions

The binding character of magisterial documents is derived from the authority of the pope. The supreme, universal, immediate, and unhindered power held by the pope implies that he can not only promulgate precepts for the Church, but that he can also revoke them or change them whenever and however he wants, regardless of who promulgated it. Any pope is free to change any reformable magisterial teaching, no matter how long it has been in place, whenever he considers it opportune. No pope is bound by any decision of any previous pope, let alone of a non-pope. The popes are bound only by the Holy Spirit, who guarantees the orthodoxy of all papal teachings—independently of the pope’s will. All the members of the Church are bound by papal decisions because they are subordinated to popes. But because all popes have the same full and supreme authority over the whole Church directly from Jesus Christ, they are mutually coequal.

Nobody can impose laws on himself, on his coequals, or on his superiors. Only superiors can bind their subordinates because the authority of any precept is derived only from the authority of its legislator and cannot surpass it. In theory, the pope is not bound even by dogmatic definitions of his predecessors when he exercises his teaching office. He is only bound by them in the sense that those definitions express revealed and unchanging truths, and the pope is essentially unable to teach anything that contradicts those truths. But the pope does have the authority to change any reformable magisterial teaching. The implication here is that whenever any two magisterial teachings contradict, the more recent teaching always supersedes the older one. All must therefore assent to the newest teaching in its entirety regardless of anything else.[9]

All of this means that whenever a Catholic is presented with an apparent contradiction between two magisterial teachings, the first step is always to grant assent to the more recent teaching in its entirety (according to the manifest mind and will of the pope who promulgated it). This rule is straightforward and admits of virtually no exceptions. The next step is somewhat dependent on the theological expertise of the individual Catholic because it requires hermeneutical work with the older teaching to ascertain whether and to what extent it can be reconciled with the newer teaching. But this, unlike the first step, does not apply to everyone. Those who are, however, willing and able to study older magisterial documents and interpret them, should assent to them to the extent that they can be soundly reconciled with newer magisterial teachings.


[1] Papal Teachings: The Church: Translated by Mother E. O’Gorman. United States: Daughters of St. Paul, 1962. 264.

[2] ”Laws, even invalidating and disqualifying ones, do not oblige when there is a doubt about the law. When there is a doubt about a fact, however, ordinaries can dispense from laws provided that, if it concerns a reserved dispensation, the authority to whom it is reserved usually grants it.”

Source: https://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib1-cann7-22_en.html#:~:text=14%20Laws%2C%20even%20invalidating%20and,is%20reserved%20usually%20grants%20it.

[3] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church.” 1998. No. 9. Source: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19981031_primato-successore-pietro_en.html.

[4] Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, I. Vatican Council and Blessed Pius IX., 1870:

“And so, if anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspection and direction, but not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world; or if anyone says that he has only a more important part and not the complete fullness of the supreme power; or if anyone says that this power is not ordinary and immediate either over each and every Church or over each and every one of the shepherds and faithful; let him be anathema” (Denz.-H, 3064).

[5] CIC 747 §2: “The Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgements about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls.” Source.

[6] Source: Heinrich Joseph Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (St. Louis: Herder, 1957), DS 425. Note: Denzinger adds that the sentence in the letter from Innocent III regarding the death penalty was added in 1210. It says, “[In the year 1210, the following sentence was added:] Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.”

[7] 1323 § 3. “A thing is not understood as dogmatically defined or declared unless this is manifestly established.” Source: Peters, Edward, editor. 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law: In English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus. Ignatius Press, 2001.

[8] E.g. Blessed Pius IX: Encyclical Quanta Cura (1864); Pope Leo XIII: Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae (1890); Saint Pius X: Allocution Vi Ringrazio (1912); Pope Benedict XV: Encyclical Principi Apostolorum Petro (1920); Pope Pius XI: Encyclical Casti Connubii (1930); Pope Pius XII: Encyclical Humani Generis (1950); Saint John XXIII: Encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961); Saint Paul VI: Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium (1964); Blessed John Paul I: Inauguration of Petrine Ministry (1978); Saint John Paul II: Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges (1983); Pope Benedict XVI: Letter to Catholic bishops, March 10, 2009; Pope Francis: Address to a meeting of the National Catechetical office, January 30, 2021.

[9] CIC 20: “A later law abrogates, or derogates from, an earlier law if it states so expressly, is directly contrary to it, or completely reorders the entire matter of the earlier law. A universal law, however, in no way derogates from a particular or special law unless the law expressly provides otherwise.”

Image: Elena Odareeva – stock.adobe.com

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Anthony Steinhauser was born in Czech Republic. He has PhD in Computer security and Masters at Law. Currently he lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a software engineer. Among his interests are dogmatic theology, epistemology, moral theology, and philosophy of God.

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