The answer may surprise you…

Do Catholics have to Assent to Non-Infallible Church Teaching?

On Dec. 31, 1930, Pope Pius XI issued his landmark encyclical Casti Connubii on Christian marriage. In it, the Holy Father reminded Catholics that it is not permissible to prefer one’s own judgment over that of the Church on matters of Faith and morals. A Catholic is not allowed to accept from the Church only what seems correct to him, nor can he decide to withhold his assent from teaching that is not presented infallibly:

Wherefore, let the faithful also be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and that false autonomy of human reason. For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of a Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as to agree only with those things which he can examine from their inner nature, and to imagine that the Church, sent by God to teach and guide all nations, is not conversant with present affairs and circumstances; or even that they must obey only in those matters which she has decreed by solemn definition as though her other decisions might be presumed to be false or putting forward insufficient motive for truth and honesty. Quite to the contrary, a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord.

(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, n. 104)

In our recent post refuting Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, we pointed out that

the papal office was instituted as the sure norm of orthodoxy at every point in time in Church history, guaranteed by Christ Himself. This does not mean that every papal magisterial act is infallible, but it does mean that every papal magisterial act is authoritative, thus binding on consciences and, by the providence of Almighty God, always safe to follow. This means that souls cannot be led astray by any pernicious error if they follow the teaching of the Pope. That safety is guaranteed and caused by Christ Himself.

(“Would God permit a Non-Catholic Pope? Response to Peter Kwasniewski”, Novus Ordo Watch, Feb. 28, 2019; italics given.)

This thesis has raised some eyebrows and triggered confusion among people not familiar with it. To prove that this is indeed the position of the Catholic Church that was believed and taught before Vatican II, we produced a quote from Cardinal John Franzelin‘s manual Tractatus de Divina Traditione et Scriptura (available in English as On Divine Tradition).

In this post, in addition to the brief excerpt from Casti Connubii presented above, we will offer another, much more elaborate piece of evidence: a pre-Vatican II essay that explains at length what kind of assent a Catholic must render to the Church’s teachings, even to those that are not infallible.

The essay in question comes from Canon George Duncan Smith of St. Edmund’s College in Ware, England, and was published in the theological periodical Clergy Review in 1935. It is a refreshingly clear, readable, and thorough exposition of how the Church teaches and what a Catholic’s obligation is with regard to that teaching.

“Must I Believe It?”

by Canon George Smith Ph.D., D.D.

The doctrinal power of the Catholic Church is apt to provoke two contrary reactions in those who are outside the fold. Some it attracts, others it repels. The earnest seeker after truth, the man who seriously wants an answer to the riddle of his life and purpose, and is either mentally dazed by the contradictory solutions offered or else baffled by the bland scepticism which so often greets his anxious questionings, may perhaps turn with relief to a Church which teaches with authority, there to find rest from his intellectual wanderings. On the other hand, there is the seeker whose enjoyment, one is inclined to suspect, lies chiefly in the pursuit of truth and who cares little whether he ever tracks it down. To think things out for himself or, like the Athenians, to be telling or hearing some new thing is the very breath of his intellectual life, and to him any infallible pronouncement is anathema. A definitive statement of truth is not for him a happy end to a weary search; it is a barrier which closes an avenue to his adventurous quest. An infallible teacher is not a welcome guide who leads him home; he is a monster who would deprive him of the freedom which is his right.

To these two opposite attitudes on the part of the seeker there correspond two different methods on the part of the apologist. For the apologist is in some respects like a salesman: he likes to give the inquirer what he wants, and he puts in the forefront the wares which are most likely to attract. To the non-Catholic who is weary of doubt and uncertainty he holds out the alluring prospect of a Teacher who will lead him to the goal which he is restlessly seeking, who with infallible authority will give him the final answer to any problem that may perplex him. To the non-Catholic who is jealous of his intellectual freedom he says: Do not imagine that by submitting to the Church you will be forfeiting your freedom of thought. The matters upon which the Church teaches with infallible authority are relatively few; with regard to the rest you are free to believe as you like.

Admittedly these are bald statements which no apologist of repute would permit himself to make without considerable qualifications. Nevertheless they will serve by their very baldness to illustrate two very different standpoints from which even Catholics themselves may be inclined to view the teaching authority of the Church. It may be regarded as guidance or it may be regarded as thraldom; and according as guidance is desired or thraldom feared the sphere of obligation in the matter of belief will be extended or restricted. There are those who would have the Pope pronounce authoritatively on the rights or wrongs of every war, on vivisection and performing animals, on evolution and psycho-analysis, and are somewhat aggrieved because he defines a dogma so rarely. But there are also those who seem almost to dread the pronouncements of authority, who “hope that the Church will not commit herself” on this subject or that, who before accepting any doctrine ask whether the Pope has defined it or, if he has defined it, whether it was by an infallible and irrevocable utterance. Either attitude has its dangers, either attitude mistakes the function of the divinely-appointed Teacher. It may even be debated which excess is more greatly to be deplored. However that may be, the title of this article should be taken as indicating that the writer has in view the over-cautious believer, whose unfounded fears he hopes to allay, reserving for another occasion – or leaving to another hand – the task of restraining his over-ardent brother. In considering, therefore, the general principles which should guide Catholics in their attitude towards doctrinal authority we shall have in mind especially the Catholic who approaches every doctrine with the wary question: “Must I believe it?”

Let us be clear about our terms, for the ground is littered with ambiguities. When the Catholic inquires concerning his obligation to believe he understands by belief, not a mere opinion, but an act of the mind whereby he adheres definitely to a religious doctrine without any doubt, without any suspension of assent. When he says that he believes a thing he means that he holds it as certain, the motive or ground of his certainty being the authority of the Church which teaches him that this is so. And this rough-and-ready conception of belief, or “faith,” may be considered for practical purposes and in the majority of cases to suffice. But in the delicate matter of defining the Catholic obligation a greater degree of accuracy is reasonably demanded. It is not exact to say that the ground of belief is always the authority of the Church. Ultimately in a divinely revealed religion that ground is the authority of God Himself, on whose veracity and omniscience the believer relies whenever he makes an act of faith. Absolutely speaking an act of divine faith is possible without the intervention of the Church. It is sufficient to have discovered, from whatever source, that a truth has been revealed by God for the acceptance of mankind, in order to incur the obligation of believing it by an act of divine faith, technically so called because its motive is the authority of God Himself.

However, “that we may be able to satisfy the obligation of embracing the true faith and of constantly persevering therein, God has instituted the Church through His only-begotten Son, and has bestowed on it manifest marks of that institution, that it may be recognised by all men as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word.”1 Accordingly the main truths of divine revelation are proposed explicitly by the divinely instituted Church for the belief of the faithful, and in accepting such truths the believer adds to his faith in God’s word an act of homage to the Church as the authentic and infallible exponent of revelation. The doctrines of faith thus proposed by the Church are called dogmas, the act by which the faithful accept them is called Catholic faith, or divine-Catholic faith, and the act by which they reject them – should they unhappily do so – is called heresy.

But there are other truths in the Catholic religion which are not formally revealed by God but which nevertheless are so connected with revealed truth that their denial would lead to the rejection of God’s word, and concerning these the Church, the guardian as well as the teacher of the revealed word, exercises an infallible teaching authority. “Dogmatic facts,”2 theological conclusions, doctrines – whether of faith or morals – involved in the legislation of the Church, in the condemnation of books or persons, in the canonisation of saints, in the approbation of religious orders – all these are matters coming within the infallible competence of the Church, all these are things which every Catholic is bound to believe when the Church pronounces upon them in the exercise of her supreme and infallible teaching office. He accepts them not by divine-Catholic faith, for God has not revealed them, but by ecclesiastical faith, by an assent which is based upon the infallible authority of the divinely appointed Church. Theologians, however, point out that even ecclesiastical faith is at least mediately divine, since it is God who has revealed that His Church is to be believed: “He that heareth you heareth me.”

Already it is apparent that the question: “Must I believe it?” is equivocal. It may mean: “Is this a dogma of faith which I must believe under pain of heresy?” or it may mean: “Is it a doctrine which I must believe by ecclesiastical faith, under pain of being branded as temerarious or proximate to heresy?” But in either case the answer is: “You must believe it.” The only difference lies between the precise motive of assent in either case, or the precise censure which may attach to disbelief. The question thus resolves itself into an investigation whether the doctrine under discussion belongs to either of these categories. And here again there is the possibility of undue restriction.

The Vatican Council has defined that “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgement or by her ordinary and universal teaching, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed.”3 What is liable to be overlooked is the ordinary and universal teaching of the Church. It is by no means uncommon to find the option, if not expressed at least entertained, that no doctrine is to be regarded as a dogma of faith unless it has been solemnly defined by an oecumenical Council or by the Sovereign Pontiff himself. This is by no means necessary. It is sufficient that the Church teaches it by her ordinary magisterium, exercised through the Pastors of the faithful, the Bishops whose unanimous teaching throughout the Catholic world, whether conveyed expressly through pastoral letters, catechisms issued by episcopal authority, provincial synods, or implicitly through prayers and religious practices allowed or encouraged, or through the teaching of approved theologians, is no less infallible than a solemn definition issued by a Pope or a general Council. If, then, a doctrine appears in these organs of divine Tradition as belonging directly or indirectly to the depositum fidei committed by Christ to His Church, it is to be believed by Catholics with divine-Catholic or ecclesiastical faith, even though it may never have formed the subject of a solemn definition in an oecumenical Council or of an ex cathedra pronouncement by the Sovereign Pontiff.4

But, satisfied that the doctrine has been authoritatively and infallibly proposed for belief by the Church, our questioner still waits to be informed whether it is a doctrine which has been formally revealed by God and is therefore to be believed under pain of heresy, or whether it is one of those matters which belong only indirectly to the depositum fidei and therefore to be believed by ecclesiastical faith. In the majority of cases this is not difficult to decide: dogmatic facts, canonizations, legislation – these evidently are not revealed by God and belong to the secondary object of the infallible magisterium. But the line of demarcation between dogmas and theological conclusions is not always so clear. There are some doctrines concerning which it may be doubted whether they are formally revealed by God or whether they are merely conclusions which are deduced from revealed truth, and it is part of the theologian’s congenial task to endeavour to determine this. The doctrine of the Assumption is a case in point. But so far as Catholics generally are concerned it is not a matter of great importance, for if the Church – as we are supposing – teaches such doctrines in the exercise of her infallible office the faithful are bound sub gravi to believe them; in practice it is a question of determining whether he who denies them is very near to heresy or whether he has actually fallen into it. In either case he has committed a grave sin against faith.

It is time now to turn our attention more particularly to the first word in our question, and to bring our inquiry to bear precisely upon the moral obligation of the Catholic in the matter of belief. For the Catholic not only believes, he mustbelieve. To the question: “Why do you believe?” I may answer by indicating the motive or ground of my assent. But to the question: “Why must you believe?” I can only answer by pointing to the authority which imposes the obligation.

It is important, I think, to distinguish two aspects of teaching authority. It may be regarded as an authority in dicendo or an authority in jubendo, that is, as an authority which commands intellectual assent or as a power which demands obedience; and the two aspects are by no means inseparable. I can imagine an authority which constitutes a sufficient motive to command assent, without however being able to impose belief as a moral obligation. A professor learned in some subject upon which I am ignorant (let me confess – astronomy) – may tell me wonderful things about the stars. He may be to my knowledge the leading authority – virtually infallible – on his own subject; but I am not bound to believe him. I may be foolish, I may be sceptical; but the professor does not possess that authority over me which makes it my bounden duty to accept his word. On the other hand the school-boy who dissents, even internally, from what his teacher tells him, is insufferably conceited, and if he disagrees openly he is insubordinate and deserves to be punished. By virtue of his position as authoritative teacher the schoolmaster has a right to demand the obedient assent of his pupils; not merely because he is likely to know more about the subject than those over whom he is set – he may be incompetent – but because he is deputed by a legitimate authority to teach them.

However, let us not exaggerate. Ad impossibile nemo tenetur. The human mind cannot accept statements which are absurd, nor can it be obliged to do so. A statement can be accepted by the mind only on condition that it is credible: that it involves no evident contradiction, and that the person who vouches for its truth is known to possess the knowledge and veracity which make it worthy of credence; and in the absence of such conditions the obligation of acceptance ceases. On the other hand, where a legitimately constituted teaching authority exists their absence will not lightly be presumed. On the contrary, obedience to authority (considered as authority in jubendo) will predispose to the assumption that they are present.

Turning now to the Church, and with this distinction still in mind, we are confronted by an institution to which Christ, the Word Incarnate, has entrusted the office of teaching all men: “Going therefore teach ye all nations…teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Herein lies the source of the obligation to believe what the Church teaches. The Church possesses the divine commission to teach, and hence there arises in the faithful a moral obligation to believe, which is founded ultimately, not upon the infallibility of the Church, but upon God’s sovereign right to the submission and intellectual allegiance (rationabile obsequium) of His creatures: “He that believeth…shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be condemned.” It is the God-given right of the Church to teach, and therefore it is the bounden duty of the faithful to believe.

But belief, however obligatory, is possible only on condition that the teaching proposed is guaranteed as credible. And therefore Christ added to His commission to teach the promise of the divine assistance: “Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.” This divine assistance implies that, at any rate within a certain sphere, the Church teaches infallibly; and consequently, at least within those limits, the credibility of her teaching is beyond question. When the Church teaches infallibly the faithful know that what she teaches belongs, either directly or indirectly, to the depositum fidei committed to her by Christ; and their faith thus becomes grounded, immediately or mediately, upon the divine authority. But the infallibility of the Church does not, precisely as such, render belief obligatory. It renders her teaching divinely credible. What makes belief obligatory is her divine commission to teach.

The importance of this distinction becomes apparent when we consider that the Church does not always teach infallibly, even on those matters which are within the sphere of her infallible competence. That the charisma is limited in its exercise as well as in its sphere may be gathered from the words of the Vatican Council, which defines that the Roman Pontiff5 enjoys infallibility “when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when, exercising his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, according to his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” Hence infallibility is exercised only when the supreme teaching authority, in the use of its full prerogatives, determines in an irrevocable manner6 a doctrine on faith or morals to be held, either by divine Catholic faith or by ecclesiastical faith,7 by all the faithful. If, therefore, at any time a pronouncement is issued by the Ecclesia docens which is shown not to be an exercise of the supreme authority in all its fullness, or is not addressed to the whole Church as binding on all the faithful, or is not intended to determine a doctrine in an irrevocable manner, then such pronouncement is not infallible.

To formulate and to discuss the criteria by which an infallible utterance may be diagnosed as such is another task for the theologian, and in any case is beyond the scope of this paper. For our purpose it is sufficient to register the fact that much of the authoritative teaching of the Church, whether in the form of Papal encyclicals, decisions, condemnations, replies from Roman Congregations – such as the Holy office – or from the Biblical Commission, is not an exercise of the infallible magisterium. And here once again our cautious believer raises his voice: “Must I believe it?”

The answer is implicit in the principles already established. We have seen that the source of the obligation to believe is not the infallibility of the Church but her divine commission to teach. Therefore, whether her teaching is guaranteed by infallibility or not, the Church is always the divinely appointed teacher and guardian of revealed truth, and consequently the supreme authority of the Church, even when it does not intervene to make an infallible and definitive decision on matters of faith or morals, has the right, in virtue of the divine commission, to command the obedient assent of the faithful. In the absence of infallibility the assent thus demanded cannot be that of faith, whether Catholic or ecclesiastical; it will be an assent of a lower order proportioned to its ground or motive. But whatever name be given to it – for the present we may call it belief – it is obligatory; obligatory not because the teaching is infallible – it is not – but because it is the teaching of the divinely appointed Church. It is the duty of the Church, as Franzelin has pointed out,8 not only to teach revealed doctrine but also to protect it, and therefore the Holy See “may prescribe as to be followed or proscribe as to be avoided theological opinions or opinions connected with theology, not only with the intention of infallibly deciding the truth by a definitive pronouncement, but also – without any such intention – merely for the purpose of safeguarding the security of Catholic doctrine.” If it is the duty of the Church, even though non-infallibly, to “prescribe or proscribe” doctrines to this end, then it is evidently also the duty of the faithful to accept them or reject them accordingly.

Nor is this obligation of submission to the non-infallible utterances of authority satisfied by the so-called silentium obsequiosum. The security of Catholic doctrine, which is the purpose of these decisions, would not be safeguarded if the faithful were free to withhold their assent. It is not enough that they should listen in respectful silence, refraining from open opposition. They are bound in conscience to submit to them,9 and conscientious submission to a doctrinal decree does not mean only to abstain from publicly rejecting it; it means the submission of one’s own judgment to the more competent judgment of authority.

But, as we have already remarked, ad impossibile nemo tenetur, and without an intellectual motive of some sort no intellectual assent, however obligatory, is possible. On what intellectual ground, therefore, do the faithful base the assent which they are obliged to render to these non-infallible decisions of authority? On what Cardinal Franzelin10 somewhat cumbrously but accurately describes as auctoritas universalis providentiae ecclesiasticae. The faithful rightly consider that, even where there is no exercise of the infallible magisterium, divine Providence has a special care for the Church of Christ; that therefore the Sovereign Pontiff in view of his sacred office is endowed by God with the graces necessary for the proper fulfilment of it; that therefore his doctrinal utterances, even when not guaranteed by infallibility, enjoy the highest competence; that in a proportionate degree this is true also of the Roman Congregations and of the Biblical Commission, composed of men of great learning and experience, who are fully alive to the needs and doctrinal tendencies of the day, and who, in view of the care and the (proverbial) caution with which they carry out the duties committed to them by the Sovereign Pontiff, inspire full confidence in the wisdom and prudence of their decisions. Based as it is upon these considerations of a religious order, the assent in question is called a “religious assent.”

But these decisions are not infallible, and therefore religious assent lacks that perfect certainty which belongs to divine Catholic faith and ecclesiastical faith. On the other hand belief in the Providence which governs the Church in all its activities, and especially in all the manifestations of the supreme ecclesiastical authority, forbids us to doubt or to suspend assent. The Catholic will not allow his thought to wander into channels where he is assured by authority that danger threatens his faith; he will – indeed he must – suffer it to be guided by what he is bound to regard as the competent custodian of revealed truth. In the cases which we are now contemplating, he is not told how to adhere with the fullness of certainty to a doctrine which is divinely guaranteed by infallibility; but he is told that this particular proposition may be maintained with perfect safety, while its contradictory is fraught with danger to the faith; that in the circumstances and in the present state of our knowledge this or that interpretation of Scripture may not safely be forsaken; that a particular philosophical tenet may lead to serious errors in a matter of faith. And the Catholic must shun the danger of which he is authoritatively warned by bowing to the judgment of authority. He must not doubt, he must assent.

Logically implied in these precautionary decisions is a truth of the speculative order, whether ethical or dogmatic. But upon that speculative truth as such the decree does not pronounce; it envisages merely the question of security.11 Thus, for example, the answer of the Holy Office to the question about craniotomy12 is based upon a moral principle which is a part of Catholic ethical doctrine. But the Congregation did not define that principle as a truth, although it is a truth. It merely stated that it is unsafe to teach that such an operation is licit; that Catholic ethical doctrine would be endangered by such teaching. Therefore the Catholic is bound to reject the suggestion that the operation may be permissible; he must believe that it is not allowed. Otherwise he would put himself in the danger of denying an ethical doctrine of the Catholic Church. On June 5th, 1918, the Holy Office in reply to a question decreed: “non posse tuto doceri…certam non posse dici sententiam quae statuit animam Christi nihil ignoravisse.”13 Implied in this decision is the (speculative) truth that in Christ there was no ignorance. But the Holy Office did not define that truth. It merely stated that it is unsafe to cast any doubt upon the opinion that the soul of Christ was free from ignorance. Therefore the Catholic must hold it as certain that Christ was ignorant of nothing; otherwise he would endanger the integrity of Catholic doctrine.

But in the absence of infallibility there is the possibility of error, and hence the stickler for philosophical accuracy may refuse to religious assent the attribute of certainty. Without quoting the homily on certainty which the judge reads to the jury at the beginning of his summing-up, we may none the less recall it to memory, and add to it the consideration that in the case before us the presumption in favour of truth, resting as it does upon the auctoritas universalis providentiae ecclesiasticae, renders the possibility of error so remote as to engender a high degree of what is known as “moral certainty.” The generality of the faithful are not troubled by difficulties in these matters, and no fear of error assails them. The learned, however, are not always so fortunate; their studies may tempt them sometimes to question the non-infallible decisions of authority. Obedience to that authority, while it does not forbid the private and respectful submission of such difficulties for official consideration, none the less demands that all Catholics, learned and unlearned alike, yield their judgment to the guidance of those whom Providence has set to guard the deposit of faith.14

To sum up, Catholics are bound to believe what the Church teaches. To refuse the assent of divine-Catholic faith to a dogma is to be a heretic; to refuse the assent of ecclesiastical faith to a doctrine which the Church teaches as belonging indirectly to the deposit of faith is to be more or less near to heresy; to refuse internal religious assent to the non-infallible doctrinal decisions of the Holy See is to fail in that submission which Catholics are strictly bound to render to the teaching authority of the Church.

Are there, then, no fields of thought in which the Catholic may wander fancy-free? There are indeed; and they are the happy hunting-ground of the theologian. But he speculates more freely when he is free from the danger of error. His investigations are more fruitful, pursued within the limits of God’s truth. There he is free, with the freedom with which Christ has made him free.


1. Vatican Council, De fide catholica, cap. iii. [Denzinger, 1793.]
2. E.g.: that a certain book contains errors in matters of faith; that a particular Council is oecumenical, etc.
3. Loc.cit.
4. Thus various events in the life of Christ (e.g., the raising of Lazarus from the dead) are certainly revealed by God and, though never defined solemnly, are taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. Many theological conclusions concerning Christ (with regard to His knowledge, His sanctifying grace) are universally taught by theologians as proximate to faith, though they may never have been defined either by the Pope or by a general Council. It may be remarked, however, that in common practice a person is not regarded as a heretic unless he has denied a revealed truth which has been solemnly defined. (Vacant: Etudes théologiques sur les Constitutiones du Concile [t.II, pp.117 sq.).
5. What is said of the Pope alone is true also of the corpus episcoporum, for the Council states that “the Roman Pontiff enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed.”
6. “Definit.”
7. The word “tenendam” was used instead of “credendam” in order not to restrict infallibility to the definition of dogmas (Acta Conc. Vat., Coll. Lac., t.VII, ed. 1704 seq.).
8. De Scriptura et Traditione (1870), p.116.
9. Letter of Pius IX to the Archbishop of Munich, 1861; cf. Denzinger, 1684.
10. Loc.cit.
11. Hence it may be understood why such decrees are not of themselves irreformable. It may happen, for example, that the rejection of the authenticity of a Scriptural passage is unsafe at a particular time, but becomes safe at another in consequence of progress in Biblical studies.
12. Denzinger, 1889.
13. Denzinger, 2184.
14. On the subject of religious assent see especially L. Choupin: Valeur des Décisions doctrinales et disciplinaires du Saint-Siège (Beauchesne, 1913), pp. 82 ff.

Source: Canon George Smith, “Must I Believe It?”, The Clergy Review, vol. 9 [April, 1935], pp. 296-309. The electronic version has been copied from All italics and bold print given.

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