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The Holy Spirit Assists the Roman Pontiff

General Audience — March 24, 1993

The infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is a very important topic for the Church's life. For this reason a further reflection on the conciliar texts seems appropriate in order to state in greater detail the meaning and extent of this prerogative.

First of all the councils assert that the infallibility attributed to the Roman Pontiff is personal, in the sense that it falls to him by virtue of his personal succession to Peter in the Roman Church. This means, in other words, that the Roman Pontiff does not enjoy merely an infallibility that really belongs to the Roman See. He exercises the Magisterium and, in general, the pastoral ministry as vicarious Petri: thus he was often called in the first Christian millennium. He personifies, as it were, Peter's mission and authority, exercised in the name of him on whom Jesus himself conferred them.

It is clear, however, that infallibility was not given to the Roman Pontiff as a private person, but inasmuch as he carries out the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians. Furthermore, he does not exercise this office as one having authority in himself and from himself, but "with his supreme apostolic authority" and "through the divine assistance promised him in the person of blessed Peter." Lastly, he does not possess it as if it were available or he could count on it in every circumstance, but only "when he speaks ex cathedra," and only in a doctrinal matter limited to truths of faith and morals and to those closely connected to them.

According to the conciliar texts, the infallible Magisterium is exercised in "doctrine concerning faith and morals." This refers to the matter of explicitly or implicitly revealed truths that require an assent of faith, which the Church guards in the deposit entrusted to her by Christ and handed on by the apostles. She would not guard them properly if she did not defend their purity and integrity. These are truths about God in himself and in his creative and redeeming work; the human person and the world in their creaturely status and destiny according to the design of Providence; eternal life and earthly life itself in its basic demands regarding truth and goodness.

It is a question, therefore, of "truths for life" and of applying them in human conduct. In the mandate to evangelize, the divine Master ordered the apostles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:20). The area of truths that the Magisterium can definitively teach includes those principles of reason that are not contained in the truths of faith but are closely related to them. In actual fact, both in the past and today, the Church's Magisterium, especially the Roman Pontiff's, preserves these principles and continually rescues them from the obfuscation and distortion they suffer under pressure from partisan viewpoints and bad habits well established in cultural models and currents of thought.

In this regard the First Vatican Council said that the object of the infallible Magisterium is the "doctrine on faith and morals to be held by the whole Church" (DS 3074). In the new formula of the profession of faith recently approved (cf. AAS 81 [1989]: 105, 1169), a distinction was made between divinely revealed truths and truths definitively taught but not as divinely revealed, which therefore require a definitive assent that nevertheless is not an assent of faith.

The conciliar texts also indicate the conditions for the Roman Pontiff's exercise of the infallible Magisterium. They can be summarized in this way: the Pope must act as "the shepherd and teacher of all Christians," pronouncing on truths regarding "faith and morals," in terms clearly showing his intention to define a certain truth and to require definitive assent of all Christians. That occurred, for example, in the definition of Mary's Immaculate Conception, about which Pius IX stated: "It is a doctrine revealed by God and for this reason it must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful" (DS 2803), or in the definition of the Assumption of Mary most holy, when Pius XII said: "By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we declare and define as divinely revealed dogma...etc." (DS 3903).

With these conditions one can speak of the extraordinary papal Magisterium, whose definitions are unreformable per se, and not “from the consent of the Church" (ex sese, non autem ex consensu ecclesiae). This means that these definitions do not need the consent of the bishops in order to be valid, neither an antecedent consent, nor a consequent consent, "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" (LG 25).

The Supreme Pontiffs can exercise this form of Magisterium, and in fact they have done so. Many Popes, however, have not exercised it. But it must be noted that in the conciliar texts we are explaining, a distinction is made between the "ordinary" and "extraordinary" Magisterium, emphasizing the importance of the first, which is permanent and ongoing, while the second, which is expressed in definitions, could be called exceptional.

Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of the Holy Spirit's assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals, but rather shed great light on the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases, but embraces in varying degrees the whole exercise of the Magisterium.

The conciliar texts also point out how serious is the Roman Pontiff's responsibility in exercising both his extraordinary and ordinary Magisterium. He thus feels the need, one could say even the duty, to explore the sensus ecclesiae before defining a truth of faith, in the clear awareness that his definition "expounds or defends the teaching of the Catholic faith" (LG 25).

This occurred prior to the definitions of Mary's Immaculate Conception and Assumption through a broad and precise consultation of the whole Church. In the Bull Munificentissimus on the Assumption (1950), Pius XII mentioned among the arguments in favor of the definition that of the faith of the Christian community: "The universal consent of the Church's ordinary Magisterium provides a certain, solid argument to prove that the Blessed Virgin Mary's bodily assumption into heaven...is a truth revealed by God" [1] .

Furthermore, in speaking of the truth to be taught, the Second Vatican Council states: "The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents" (LG 25). It is a sign of wisdom that finds confirmation in the experience of the procedures followed by the Popes and the offices of the Holy See assisting them in carrying out the duties of the Magisterium and governance of Peter's successors.

We will close by noting that the exercise of the Magisterium is a concrete expression of the Roman Pontiff's contribution to the development of the Church's teaching. The Pope (who not only plays a role as head of the college of bishops in the definitions on faith and morals that the latter make, or as the notary of their thoughts, but also a more personal role both in the ordinary Magisterium and in his definitions) carries out his task by applying himself personally and encouraging study on the part of pastors, theologians, experts in different areas of doctrine, experts in pastoral care, spirituality, social life, etc.

In this way he fosters a cultural and moral enrichment at all levels of the Church. In organizing this work of consultation and study too, he appears as the Successor of the "rock" on which Christ built his Church.

[1]   AAS 42 (1950):757