How Many Ex Cathedra Pronouncements Are There?

Benedict XVI on TwitterOne of the principal reasons that some Protestants have given for converting to Rome is the desire for certainty, to escape the alleged uncertainty attached to the confessional Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. The unstated implication is that, in Rome, one is relieved of the uncertainty surrounding the meaning of Scripture since there the church has magisterial (ruling) authority and not merely ministerial (serving) authority as in the Protestant churches.

That magisterial authority is said by Rome to reside in a few places one of which is the declaration ex cathedra (from the throne) by the Bishop of Rome of certain doctrines intended to be placed beyond doubt in the deposit of the faith.

It is an interesting question, however, as to what is the number of those things that have been declared to have been determined ex cathedra and thus infallibly by the Bishop of Rome. The General Audience of 17 March 1993, cites Lumen Gentium (The Light of the Nations) to the effect that there is a distinction to be made between that infallible teaching which comes from the “Roman Pontiff” and that which is promulgated ex cathedra.

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (LG 25).

The teaching authority of the “papal magisterium” rests upon the alleged Petrine succession (a truly shaky foundation). The authority to teach ex cathedra is said to rely further upon the special charism allegedly given to him when Christ said, “I have prayed for you” (Luke 22:32; further proof that whatever difficulties may attach to the Protestant doctrine of authority, our institutional exegesis, as codified in the Reformed confessions, is far better than Rome’s).

An online search suggests that even devout adherents to Rome have no idea of the number of ex cathedra declarations. The Vatican says:

As you know there are cases in which the papal Magisterium is exercised solemnly regarding particular points of doctrine belonging to the deposit of revelation or closely connected with it. This is the case with ex cathedra definitions, such as those of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, made by Pius IX in 1854, and of her Assumption into heaven, made by Pius XII in 1950. As we know, these definitions have provided all Catholics with certainty in affirming these truths and in excluding all doubt in the matter.

The use of the expression “such as” in English ordinarily signals that a list is to follow (as distinct from “like” which signals that a class of things is to follow). If that interpretation is correct, then this document seems to affirm two doctrines that have been delivered under the authority of the special charism given to the Bishop of Rome, neither of which could have possibly been derived from Sacred Scripture itself—aren’t we glad to have been delivered from all that Protestant mischief with the Bible!—and both of which have to do with the most debated and most dubious of all the Romanist inventions, Mariology. The early Fathers, whom the Romanist apologists tout, know nothing of such doctrines but in 1854 and 1950 they were recognized to be so vital to the depositum fidei that they needed to be promulgated ex cathedra. That’s one way to win a debate and silence dissent but it carries along a fair bit of uncertainty that calls for a considerable degree of fides implicita (implicit faith). Just at the end of the document, after quoting Vatican I (19th century) and Vatican II (1960s) the Vatican says,

These conciliar texts codify as it were the awareness which the apostles already had when they assembled in Jerusalem: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours too…” (Acts 15:28)

So, nineteen and twenty centuries after the Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost, doctrines that had been debated and denied by those whom Rome recognizes as doctors of church, were they codified by the church as essential doctrine. In system where there is ongoing revelation (like neo-Pentecostalism and like Mormonism) and where fundamental doctrines codified thus the only resting place can be implicit faith.

This is remarkable since the ex cathedra status of these doctrines is not mentioned in the Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church. Indeed, the expression ex cathedra does not occur in the catechism. Though the Vatican website contains several references to the authority of the “Supreme Pontiff” to teach ex cathedra when the charism moves him there is no definitive, explicit list. The General Audience cited above is about as clear as anything else. Does it strike anyone else as odd that it’s not easy to find an explicit list of all the doctrines that are supposed to be received as resulting from Petrine succession and the special charism of the Holy Spirit as a part of the deposit of faith?

Well, we may all hope that our Romanists sleep a little better tonight knowing that there are apparently only two doctrines, so promulgated, for now.

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  1. Scott,

    I have a few friends who are Roman Catholic theologians. They don’t agree with each other about which teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have been defined as infallible nor to what some of those teachings intend to teach. Here are three thoughts for anyone who thinks that the Roman Catholic Church provides a greater degree of (justified) doctrinal certainty:

    (1) Those interested in converting to Roman Catholicism usually latch onto a few teachers or one particular school of thought, such as that of Scott Hahn at the University of Steubenville. It is useful to realize that Father Richard McBrien, the distinguished professor of theology at Notre Dame, takes a dramatically different approach to papal authority (see for example his book “The Church”). In fact, if you start looking at the theological faculties of Catholic University, Fordham, Georgetown, Notre Dame, the University of Dallas, and the University of Steubenville, etc … you will discover a bewildering degree of diversity over the basic question: “What constitutes being a faithful Roman Catholic?” And these schools are all in the United States.

    One of the quirks I have noticed about Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism is that they tend to identify with one small segment of the Roman Catholic Church and then attempt to resolve this theological diversity by simply asserting that all the other Roman Catholics are being unfaithful. But isn’t this sort of private sectarian judgment the very thing they imagine the Roman Catholic Church is liberating them from? The alternative is to acknowledge the extraordinary doctrinal diversity within Roman Catholicism (including a great deal of confusion over what even constitutes defined dogma). This, in turn, destroys the certainty that such converts seem to be seeking.

    (2) The Council of Constance required Popes to frequently call Church Councils (“Frequens”): “Therefore, by a perpetual edict, we sanction, decree, establish and ordain that general councils shall be celebrated in the following manner, so that the next one shall follow the close of this present council at the end of five years. The second shall follow the close of that, at the end of seven years, and councils shall thereafter be celebrated every ten years in such places as the Pope shall be required to designate and assign, with the consent and approbation of the council, one month before the close of the council in question, or which, in his absence, the council itself shall designate.” Since this is clearly the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, where is the outcry against the Popes who have steadfastly refused to follow the Church’s official teaching? Please note that the Council didn’t issue temporary advice but “a perpetual edict.”

    (3) “Unam Sanctum” clearly meets the requirements for Papal infallibility set forth in Vatican I. Yet, I can’t for the life of me find any Roman Catholics today teaching in accordance with what it plainly says: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Part of the reason why this teaching is ignored by Roman Catholics is that it would be easier to square a circle than to harmonize these words with “Lumen Gentium” from Vatican II. Yet, if Roman Catholics are going to ignore “Unam Sanctum” today why can’t individual Roman Catholics argue that the Church is going to ignore “Humanae Vitae” 700 years from now and therefore that it never was really binding upon the conscience of individual Roman Catholics? Of course, many Roman Catholics are (for whatever reason) choosing to ignore Humanae Vitae today in the West. Apparently Rome not only doesn’t provide doctrinal certainty it doesn’t provide ethical certainty either.

    Best wishes,


  2. Apart from scholar theologians such as Richard McBrien, the Protestant should never forget churchmen who were less known for their scholarship and more for their expose of “inner” developments of the Roman Church such as the blessed Jesuit priest, Malachi Martin.

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