On August 4, Catholic World Report published an article by the moral theologian Dr. E. Christian Brugger, entitled, “Pope Francis, contraception, and the problem of ecclesial authority.” In it, Dr. Brugger suggests that recent papal statements imply that Pope Francis may be planning to reverse or modify Catholic doctrine prohibiting the use of contraception, which he argues is an infallible teaching. In anticipation of such a possibility, Dr. Brugger then gives what he describes as “a short course in understanding ecclesial authority, especially as it bears upon Catholic moral teaching.” Much of what Dr. Brugger says in his article about magisterial authority is correct. There are, though, some points that need clarification.

I agree with Dr. Brugger that the teaching of the Church against contraception qualifies as an infallible judgment of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The definitive nature of this teaching, however, was not clear to many members of the so-called “birth control commission” under John XXIII and Paul VI. In fact, the majority on the commission (including some cardinals) believed a change in teaching was possible. The Holy Spirit, though, guided St. Paul VI to affirm the authentic and definitive teaching of the Church against contraception. I think we need to trust the Holy Spirit to guide Pope Francis and future popes to uphold the truth of the Church’s condemnation of contraception. After all, Pope Francis affirms the teaching of Humanae Vitae in Amoris Laetitia, nos. 80, 82, and 222.

As mentioned earlier, I agree with much of what Dr. Brugger says in his article about magisterial authority. Like Mike Lewis, who also responded to the article earlier this week, I believe some statements need to be clarified. At one point, Dr. Brugger says that “the pope and bishops’ authority of Christ to teach ‘extends as far as is necessary for the preservation and faithful exposition of revelation’ (Lumen Gentium, 25), and no farther.” In this context, however, Lumen Gentium, 25, is referring to the “infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals.” The authority of the pope and the bishops also extends to areas of discipline and governance as well as to pastoral judgments on contingent matters. This is clearly taught by Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus, which states:

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).

The Church teaches that the Holy Spirit gives to Peter and his successors “the charism of truth and never-failing faith” (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, Denz.-H, 3071). This is why Vatican I teaches that “all the Fathers” and “the holy orthodox Doctors” realized “that this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error” (Denz.-H, 3070). Therefore, to say that the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops extends no farther than what “is necessary for the preservation and faithful exposition of revelation” seems to conflict with the infallible teaching of Vatican I. Some might argue that disciplinary and pastoral judgments are not “teachings” of the Magisterium. Such a position, though, can undermine the need to comply with disciplinary and pastoral judgments of the Magisterium.

Dr. Brugger also needs to distinguish more clearly the primary and secondary objects of infallibility. This distinction is present in the concluding paragraphs of the 1989 Profession of Faith and further elaborated in the 1998 Doctrinal Commentary of Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Bertone. This distinction can be understood as the first two levels of assent articulated in the 1989 Profession of Faith:

Level One refers to infallible teachings requiring the assent of faith “based directly on faith in the authority of the word of God” (de fide credenda—being believed as of the faith). These are truths of primary objects of infallibility, which the Church, either by a solemn declaration or by the ordinary universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed. Examples include the divinity of Christ, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mass as a true sacrifice, Purgatory, and papal infallibility.

Level Two refers to infallible judgments or decisions requiring firm acceptance and maintenance. These magisterial judgments relate to secondary objects of infallibility and are HELD as belonging to the faith (de fide tenenda) because they are “based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium.” In other words, the Holy Spirit will not allow the magisterium to make a definitive judgment on a matter pertaining to faith and morals unless the judgment were true. Examples are the solemn canonization of saints; Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 judgment on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations; and John Paul II’s 1994 definitive judgment on the inability of the Church to ordain women as priests.

Magisterial judgments that are “definitively to be held” are not the same as those that have been set forth as divinely revealed. Dr. Brugger seems to suggest that all definitive and infallible teachings of the Magisterium are to be held with “divine and Catholic faith,” and he cites canon 750 §1 of the 1983 CIC in this regard. This, though, is misleading. Definitive judgments that pertain to secondary objects of infallibility require irrevocable assent based on the infallibility of the Magisterium. They don’t require the assent of faith that pertains to doctrines set forth as revealed by God (primary objects of infallibility). Instead, they require the type of assent described in canon 750 §2 of the CIC which reads: “Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the Magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.”

I know this all sounds very technical, but it’s important to understand these distinctions correctly. To obstinately deny or call into doubt primary objects of infallibility is heresy. To deny or call into doubt secondary objects of infallibility is not heresy but “opposition to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.”

The final area of Dr. Brugger’s article that needs clarification is his understanding of Amoris Laetitia. In his article, he claims that Pope Francis teaches that: “Catholics are morally free to return to the sacraments and so full communion with the Church while choosing to remain in sexually active relationships with their new partners while their valid spouses still live. Since this implies that adultery is sometimes legitimate to engage in, Catholics should not only withhold assent from the teaching, they should reject it.”

Dr. Brugger’s reading of what Pope Francis teaches in Amoris Laetitia is his own judgment, which is quite fallible and open to challenge. If Dr. Brugger admits that teachings of the ordinary Magisterium can contain errors, then, a fortiori, his judgments can also be erroneous. Nowhere in Amoris Laetitia does Pope Francis ever say that adultery is sometimes legitimate to engage in. The Holy Father is merely recognizing that sometimes those in irregular marital situations are not guilty of mortal sin because of mitigating circumstances. Discerning whether mortal sin is present is something that needs to be handled at a local level with a confessor. Mortal sin, according to Church teaching, requires not only grave matter but also full knowledge and deliberate (or complete) consent” (cf. CCC, 1858–1859). There are also cases—which have been mentioned by Cardinals Ratzinger and Müller—when there is moral certitude that the first alleged marital bond was invalid, but there is no way of proving its invalidity.

Footnote 351 of Amoris Laetitia and the pastoral approach of Pope Francis is not a justification of the legitimacy of adultery. To claim that the Holy Father believes adultery is sometimes legitimate strikes me as rash judgment which is forbidden by the eighth commandment (cf. CCC, 2477–2478). Brugger also claims that Pope Francis did not have “any authority to teach that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may go to Holy Communion without going to confession and resolving to live chastely.” Pope Francis, however, never gives permission for those in mortal sin to receive Holy Communion. He simply recognizes that some of the divorced and civilly remarried are not in mortal sin because of mitigating circumstances. Discernment is needed on the local pastoral level to determine whether and when there can be access to the sacraments “while avoiding any occasion of scandal” (AL 299). There is no change in Catholic faith and morals but only a change in the pastoral approach to sacramental discipline (see Pope Francis, Let us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2020, pp. 87–88). Dr. Brugger apparently disagrees with this pastoral approach. To suggest, though, that Pope Francis did not have any authority to change the pastoral approach to sacramental discipline seems to deny “the full and supreme power of jurisdiction” of the Roman Pontiff “not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world” (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3; Denz.-H, 3064). As such Dr. Brugger’s denial of the authority of Pope Francis over a matter of sacramental discipline risks falling under the anathema of Vatican I.

Dr. Brugger has written some very good books on capital punishment and the indissolubility of marriage at the Council of Trent. Unfortunately, his reading of Amoris Laetitia is, I believe, misguided and mistaken. Those who wish to understand Pope Francis’s exhortation in a proper and orthodox sense should read Dr. Pedro Gabriel’s book, The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia, which bears the imprimatur of Mons. António Coelho de Oliveira, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Porto, Portugal.

Popes can sin and make prudential mistakes, but Vatican I teaches that the “See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error” according to the divine promise of Our Lord made to St. Peter in Luke 22:32 (Denz.-H, 3070). This means that the Holy Spirit will protect the pope from ever teaching grave error on matters of faith and morals (and Vatican I does not limit this charism simply to ex cathedra papal definitions).

We need to be very careful when telling Catholics that they should reject teachings of the Holy Father. It is far more likely that those who call for such rejection are in error than the Roman Pontiff.

Image: Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church (Sandusky, Ohio) – stained glass, Keys of Peter. By Nheyob – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D. is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. He is a former president (2014–2016) of the Mariological Society of America; a member of the theological commission of the International Marian Association; and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Marian Academy International.

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