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The Successor of Peter Teaches Infallibly

General Audience — March 17, 1993

The Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, which we explained in the preceding catechesis, belongs to and marks the high point of the mission to preach the Gospel that Jesus entrusted to the apostles and their successors. We read in Vatican II's Constitution Lumen Gentium:

"Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice.... Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent" (LG 25).

The magisterial function of bishops, then, is strictly tied to that of the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, the conciliar text goes on aptly to say:

"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).

This supreme authority of the papal Magisterium, to which the term apostolic has been traditionally reserved, even in its ordinary exercise derives from the institutional fact that the Roman Pontiff is the Successor of Peter in the mission of teaching, strengthening his brothers, and guaranteeing that the Church's preaching conforms to the "deposit of faith" of the apostles and of Christ's teaching. However, it also stems from the conviction, developed in Christian tradition, that the Bishop of Rome is also the heir to Peter in the charism of special assistance that Jesus promised him when he said: "I have prayed for you" (Lk 22:32). This signifies the Holy Spirit's continual help in the whole exercise of the teaching mission, meant to explain revealed truth and its consequences in human life.

For this reason the Second Vatican Council states that all the Pope's teaching should be listened to and accepted, even when it is not given ex cathedra but is proposed in the ordinary exercise of his Magisterium with the manifest intention of declaring, recalling and confirming the doctrine of faith. It is a consequence of the institutional fact and spiritual inheritance that completes the dimensions of the succession to Peter.

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 reason for ex cathedra definitions is almost always to give this certification to the truths that are to be believed as belonging to the "deposit of faith" and to exclude all doubt, or even to condemn an error about their authenticity and meaning. This is the greatest and also the formal concentration of the doctrinal mission conferred by Jesus on the apostles and, in their person, on their successors.

Given the extraordinary greatness and importance that this Magisterium has for the faith, Christian tradition has recognized in the Successor of Peter, who exercises it personally or in communion with the bishops gathered in council, a charism of assistance from the Holy Spirit that is customarily called "infallibility."

Here is what Vatican I said on the matter:

"When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in exercising his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians he defines with his supreme apostolic authority that a doctrine on faith and morals is to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised him in the person of St. Peter, he enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished to endow his Church in defining a doctrine on faith and morals. Therefore, these definitions of the Roman Pontiff are unreformable per se, and not because of the Church's consent" (DS 3074).

This doctrine was taken up again, confirmed and further explained by Vatican II, which states:

"And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32), by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but, as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith" (LG 25).

It should be noted that the Second Vatican Council also calls attention to the Magisterium of the bishops in union with the Roman Pontiff, stressing that they too enjoy the Holy Spirit's assistance when they define a point of faith in conjunction with the Successor of Peter:

"The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme Magisterium with the Successor of Peter.... But when either the Roman Pontiff or the body of bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops...which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church" (LG 25).

The Council also says:

"Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the Successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith. And this infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends" (LG 25).

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). This awareness confirmed Jesus' promise to send the Spirit of truth to the apostles and the Church once he had returned to the Father after offering the sacrifice of the cross: "He will teach you everything and remind you of all I told you" (Jn 14:26). That promise was fulfilled at Pentecost and the apostles continued to feel its life. The Church inherited that awareness and memory from them.