Manualist Monday: Louis Cardinal Billot on subjection to non-infallible decrees of the Magisterium

by Gerardus Maiella

We take our text today from Louis Cardinal Billot, SJ, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi vol. I (3rd ed., 1909), q. 10, th. XIX, pp. 434-439. It is certainly a relevant topic today, given the prevalence of that sophism advanced again and again by many modern dissenters from either the left or the right, that the obligation by which Catholic teachers and writers are altogether bound is confined to those things only which are proposed by the infallible judgment of the Church as dogmas of faith to be believed by all (cf. Syllabus errorum, condemned prop. 22; cf. also the epistle Tuas libenter, from which prop. 22 is drawn). Relevant also is the 1998 CDF commentary on the Professio fidei, nn. 10-11, and Lumen gentium §25.


Finally, it pertains to the power of the Magisterium to censure doctrines with censures of the practical order, as doctrines which are safely able to be held and taught, or not safely. And although decisions of this sort may not be, from the nature of the thing, irreformable, nor from the supreme doctrinal authority, but proceed for the most part from the Pontifical Congregations, yet Catholics are placed under obligation from conscience, such that they must subject themselves to them.

All those things which have been considered to this point regard the definitions declared by the supreme and infallible magisterium of the Church, and that from the whole plenitude of its power. Now the matter is concerning the other decrees equally pertaining to doctrine, which yet are not from the supreme power proffering a definitive judgment from the plenitude of its power, and hence do not contain in the speculative order an infallible proposition of truth. Things of this sort are, in the first place, the doctrinal decrees of the Sacred Congregations, concerning which Pius IX declared in his apostolic letter Tuas libenter to the archbishop of Munich, that if it is a question of that subjection by which all those Catholics are obliged in conscience, who devote themselves to the contemplation of the sciences, that they might produce for the Church new things of use, it is necessary that they subject themselves also to the decisions pertaining to doctrine which are given by the Pontifical Congregations.[1] Concerning this genus of decrees, Cardinal Franzelin splendidly treats of it in his De divina Traditione et Scriptura, Thes. XII, schol. 1.

«The Holy Apostolic See, to which has been committed custody of the deposit of faith, and upon which has been enjoined the duty and office of feeding the entire Church unto the salvation of souls, is able either to prescribe as to be followed, or to proscribe as not to be followed, theological opinions insofar as they are connected with theological matters—not solely from the intention of deciding truth infallibly by a definitive sentence, but even without that, from the necessity and intention, either simply or for determinate circumstances, of providing for the security of Catholic doctrine. In declarations of this sort, although there be not an infallible truth of doctrine—because ex hypothesi there is no intention of deciding this—yet is there an infallible security, insofar as it is safe for all to embrace it, and it is not safe, nor can it happen without violation of the due submission toward the divinely constituted Magisterium, that the faithful should refuse to embrace it. — The authority of the Magisterium instituted by Christ in the Church, therefore, with respect to the matter about which we now speak, ought to be considered in a twofold manner. Firstly, as in individual acts it is under the assistance of the Holy Ghost for the infallible definition of truth, or as it the authority of infallibility. Secondly, it is considered as it were extensively, as the same Magisterium acts with the authority divinely committed to it, of feeding the sheep, yet not in its full intension—if it is permissible to speak in this way—nor ultimately defining truth, but so much as seems necessary or opportune and sufficient for the security of doctrine; which authority we might perhaps call the authority of doctrinal providence. — The authority of infallibility is not able to be communicated by the Pontiff to others, as if to his ministers as acting in his name. But the inferior authority of doctrinal providence, as we have called it, is not indeed independent of the Pontiff, but is communicable by the Pontiff with dependence, and is communicated by the Pontiff himself in greater or lesser extension to certain Sacred Congregations of Cardinals…But we opine that judgments of this sort, even without regard to definition ex cathedra, are so able to be disposed, that they require obedience which includes a submission of the mind: not indeed so that there be believed a teaching infallibly true or false, but so that it might be judged that the teaching contained in such a judgment is secure, and to be embraced by us with submission of the mind from the motive of sacred authority—the indubitable office of which it is to provide for the security of doctrine—and the contrary is to be rejected.»

Therefore there occurs a distinction between decrees in which a speculative truth is infallibly defined, and decrees in which the security of doctrine is provided for, lest we arrive at formal definitions which are not always expedient, or certainly are not always necessary. Further, so that this distinction might be better understood, the following consideration may be of help. Indeed, in moral matters all distinguish the speculative truth of some proposition from its practical security or insecurity. I signify one thing when I say that a moral opinion is true or false, but another when I say that it is practically safe or not safe. And a similar distinction has a place concerning doctrines in the order to the law of believing. For a doctrine, for which there is a solid probability that it is not opposed to the rule of faith, speculatively speaking will perhaps be theologically false—that is, if it is taken according to the relation to the rule of faith objectively considered. But in the order to liceity of opining, the aforesaid doctrine is more certainly safe, and one may safely embrace it, because it does not have, at the least, attendible opposition with that norm against which it is not licit for anyone to opine. And conversely, the doctrine which is most probably opposed to the rule of faith, such that either in no way is it probable that it is not deviant from the rule, or not except tenuously, will speculatively speaking be perhaps indifferent; but speaking in the order to the liceity of opining, it is not safe, nor free, because for the gravest reasons it appears to be infected with perversity, so that there are none from the opposite side but trifling reasonings, which are not able to move a prudent man. And thus already one does not have something from which he may form his conscience, that he might freely be able to embrace it.

I therefore say that we are thence able to be led toward understanding what it is to deliver a decree in which a speculative truth is not defined, but the security of doctrine is provided for. For this is nothing other than to discern authentically that a teaching is safe, that is harmonious with the rule of faith, at least with that probability which suffices so that one might be able to embrace it; or on the contrary, that a teaching is not safe, or discordant with the rule of faith, and that again with such probability at least which does not have adjoined a sufficient probability concerning the opposite. And because in things of this sort, the decision of the legitimate authority always gives the prevailing weight, a doctrine which is declared not safe, by that very fact becomes truly such, and loses its innocuousness, even if that innocuousness were not rendered void from other quarters. And hence finally it happens that from the nature of the thing, there is not required the authority of infallibility for this, that the interior obedience of the mind might rightly and deservedly be required.[2] Therefore, just as when the infallible magisterium of the Church defines some proposition to be erroneous, we are held to believe that to be truly erroneous in itself, as it is defined: so also when the Sacred Congregations declare some doctrine not to be able to be given safely, we are held to judge this doctrine to be, I do not say erroneous or false in itself, or something of this sort, but simply not safe, and not to adhere to it as not safe. And if they should declare that another doctrine is not able safely to be denied, we are held to judge this doctrine to be, not only safe, but also, as it is safe (and I do not say as it is in itself certain precisely by the force of the decision), to be followed and embraced.

But in speaking rigorously, that which now is not safe, particularly in the composite sense of the decision, is able afterward to become safe, if perchance the competent authority should promulgate another decision, the matter having been discussed again and new reasons having been weighed carefully. For, that this is able to happen absolutely, that another decision might be given striking down a prior one, is per se manifest. Indeed it is of the nature of the decisions which now come to consideration, that they are not definitive or irreformable sentences. Or rather, which chiefly ought to be considered, such is their object or matter, that properly and formally a posterior decision is not able to be said to reform a preceding one, because there is no place for reformation, unless that same thing which had been decided previously is opposed to that which is decided afterward. But that which now is not safe, the present state of arguments being attended to, is able afterward to become safe, new arguments having come forward: and thus the decision declaring as safe that which previously was said not to be able to be held safely, would not strictly speaking be a reformation of the sentence, but a new declaration not contrary to the prior one.

These things are able to be confirmed from the things which happened in the case of Galileo, with respect to the decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Index (26 May 1616), in which the opinion of Copernicus concerning the diurnal and annual motion of the earth was declared contrary to Sacred Scripture.[3] For the theologians residing at Rome, and Bellarmine himself who without doubt was eminent among the Cardinals of the Sacred Office, did not hesitate to assert that the aforementioned opinion of Copernicus was not censured as contrary to Scripture, except because there was offered no demonstrative or certainly grave reason making legitimate the metaphorical interpretation of those places of Sacred Scripture, which in the proper sense had up to that point been universally accepted; otherwise, the Cardinal Inquisitors in this disposition would declare it to be as a free and licit opinion, so soon as the demonstration were brought forward.[4] In this matter, therefore, I say that there is an example of an opinion which then was not safe, and now is, because now there are those weighty reasons for the motion of the earth which were then not present. But neither ought it to seem strange, if in that time especially, in which everywhere there was the itch to twist Scripture into any sense whatsoever, and the Protestants were upsetting the whole of Christianity with their arbitrary interpretations:  no wonder, I say, if the Sacred Congregation of the Index should have proscribed, with such a censure of the practical order,[5] that opinion for which there was no grave reason up to that point, and which hence without sufficient foundation was opposed to the literal sense in which the Scripture had been understood by the common consensus of the philosophers and theologians both. — Therefore that which touches on a matter per se astronomical, and not except indirectly pertinent to matters of faith, would even be able to touch on a matter per se and directly theological, although this is by far more difficult.

It is easy to conclude, therefore, with Caramuel, a theologian of the Benedictine Order and a contemporary of Galileo: «I distinguish,» says he in his Theologia moralis fundamentalis, «practical authority from speculative, and although I concede to the Pontiff alone speaking ex cathedra the power of putting forth articles of faith, I grant the authority…of putting forth practical articles to the most Eminent Lords whom Our Most Holy Lord selected for the practical rule of the Church». And elsewhere: «When some opinion is condemned by the Most Eminent Lords, it is condemned in a practical manner. The proposition thus condemned loses all extrinsic authority, and is rendered practically improbable». And all things are clear: namely, that the decrees of the Congregations may not be infallible decrees in the speculative order, that nevertheless there is owed to them an interior obedience of the mind. Obviously, as Cardinal Franzelin says in the place cited above, the sacred authority of doctrinal providence, by force of its office, is a most sufficient motive from which, if the form of the decree should require it, a pious will ought to command consent.

And concerning the power of the magisterium, this hitherto suffices.

[1] Denzinger 1537.

[2] Nor does it avail if you should say that a fallible authority so much is able to err in declaring doctrine as safe or not safe, as in declaring it true or not true. This, I say, is not valid, and the disparity is clear. For the defining authority is never able to make a true or false doctrine according to itself, but per se would make it secure or not secure, in a case in which, independently from the decision, such would not exist. Obviously, in the concurrence of the decision of a legitimate authority, all the reasons for the opposing side lose probability with respect to liceity of opining.

[3] Note well, that in the case of Galileo, only the decree of the Index of the year 1616 can be relevant to the matter which now concerns us, but not at all whatever was done in the Congregation of the Holy Office in the year 1633, because then there was not published a decree pertaining to doctrine, but only a criminal process instituted against a particular person. For then that act, insofar as it was treated in all the other lower tribunals of the Inquisition, in whose rulings no one ever will see doctrinal decisions having the force of law, but mere judiciary decisions through which there is not made a law, but is applied to particular persons. But in the ruling given against Galileo, the Cardinal Inquisitors are only based upon the decree of the Index mentioned, which I have thus said is exclusively attendible in the present matter. — See the documents in de l’Epinois; likewise Revue des questions scientifiques, tom. 9, p. 259; tom. 14, p. 265 seq.

[4] «From your leaders not once has it been asked whether they would have some demonstration for the motion of the earth. Never have they dared to assert that. Nothing therefore prohibits that the Church understand those verses in the literal sense, and declare them to be understood in such wise, so long as the contrary is evinced by no demonstration; which if perchance it should be devised by you, which I would hardly believe, in this case the Church will hesitate in no way to declare, that those places ought to be understood in the figurative and improper sense, as with those words of the poet: Both the earth and the cities receded (Aeneid III.72)» From the letter of Honoratus Fabri in the Vatican Basilica of the Penitentiary, to a patron of the Copernican system, as found in Franzelin, De traditione, thesis XII, schol. 1, coroll. 5. — See also other documents, directed to the same sense, in the same place, from the sentence of Cardinal Bellarmine.

[5] Obviously, by the very fact that it was not promulgated by the supreme magisterium of the Church, it ought to have been understood and thus in fact was understood by all: Contrary to Sacred Scripture, namely, such that it would not be probable with a probability sufficient for liceity of opining that the opinion of Copernicus was not contrary to Scripture. This is the same as to declare that a doctrine is not able safely to be held, in that manner of speaking which then was in use among the Sacred Congregations. — But the obedience due to decisions of this sort, as is clear, does not exclude someone from inquiring and proposing to the legitimate authority arguments which perhaps would be able to bring about a new decision; but in all things subjection to the Holy See ought to be preserved.