by Brian W. Harrison

In Living Tradition No. 12 (July 1987),1 the present writer favourably reviewed a recent book by Fr. Ermenegildo Lio, O.F.M., Humanae Vitae e Infallibilit? (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1986), in which the thesis is sustained that the teaching against contraception in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (25 July 1968) is infallible, not merely by virtue of being an instance of the constant, ordinary and universal magisterium of the Popes and Catholic Bishops against this practice, but because the encyclical itself contains (in article 14) an ex cathedra definition. Lio claims, in other words, that Humanae Vitae contains an intrinsically infallible pronouncement: an instance of papal infallibility as defined by Vatican Council I.

To my knowledge, Lio’s book has been virtually ignored by the theological community, in spite of his eminent qualifications as a professor of long standing in Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, as a peritus at Vatican Council II, and an adviser to Pope Paul VI over the birth control issue – not to mention a personal autographed letter from Pope John Paul II thanking Fr. Lio for the presentation of his book, which was published by the Vatican Press.

Certainly, Lio’s thesis goes against the common view of theologians (both those who assent to Humanae Vitae and those who dissent from it), who have usually described the encyclical as being, in itself, a “non-infallible” document. Very often this conclusion seems to be drawn merely from the fact that there is no definition of a dogma – a point of revealed truth to be held as “of faith” (de fide) – in Pope Paul’s encyclical. But Lio’s point is that such definitions, while they represent the most solemn form of papal teaching, are not the only form which satisfied the conditions for an ex cathedra definition as laid down by the constitution Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I. In this paper I propose to develop this theme, in support of Lio’s thesis, i.e., the ex cathedra status of Humanae Vitae.


Even very soon after Vatican Council I and early in this century – that is, long before the present period of theological confusion and dissent which has followed Vatican Council II – noted Catholic theologians were expressing contrasting views in regard to one point raised by the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility in the Constitution Pastor Aeternus. There was no dispute about the most basic affirmation of the newly-defined dogma: that when the Pope solemnly defines something as a matter of revealed truth, to be accepted by faith (i.e., as de fide), as he had manifestly done, for instance, in defining Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception in 1854, he speaks infallibly, being protected from error by the Holy Spirit. But what about papal decisions on doctrinal matters that do not strictly qualify as revealed truth, but are nonetheless closely linked to it? What is the status of such decisions, according to the dogma defined in 1870? The distinction is a classical one in Catholic theology, as Fr. James T. O’Connor points out in a recent work on Pastor Aeternus.2 He cites St. Thomas Aquinas on the subject of the corruption of faith which occurs “when someone has a false opinion concerning those things which pertain to the faith”. The Angelic Doctor continues:

Now, something pertains to the faith in two ways: in one way, directly and principally, as, for example, the articles of faith; the other, indirectly and secondarily, such as those things from which the corruption of some article of faith follows (ea ex quibus sequitur corruptio alicuius articuli).3

Some noted theologians, immediately after Vatican I, claimed that the newly-defined dogma guaranteed infallibility for the Pope only in regard to what St. Thomas called those things “directly and principally pertaining to the faith” – that is revealed truth itself. Bishop Fessler of Sankt Polten, Austria, for instance, who had been the General Secretary of the Council and was regarded as one of the best scholars and canon lawyers amongst the German-speaking bishops of that time, wrote a tract which was translated into English in 1875 as The True and False Infallibility of the Popes. In this work, Fessler replied to an Old Catholic (schismatic) tract purporting to refute the conciliar definition by a reductio ad absurdum argument: the anti-Catholic author, Schulte, interpreted the Vatican I dogma so broadly as to make it ascribe infallibility to practically any papal pronouncement having to do with doctrine – an obviously indefensible position in view of the acknowledged errors of some Popes on certain occasions in the course of history.4 Fessler, then, was writing in an apologetic, polemical context in which he needed to emphasize not the full extent, but rather, the limitations, of papal infallibility; and his reply was commended by Pope Pius IX, on the recommendation of Roman theologians who translated it into Italian for him, in a warm letter of thanks and approval”.5 In his tract, Fessler asserts – not only as his own view but also as the view of Catholic theologians” – that for a papal utterance to be ex cathedra, it must expressly “declare this particular doctrine on faith and morals to be an integral part of the truth necessary to salvation revealed by God”.6

In line with Bishop Fessler’s interpretation of the definition, the Swiss bishops in June 1871 issued a joint Pastoral Instruction on papal infallibility which seemed to be very restrictive. They affirmed:

The Pope is infallible solely and exclusively when, as supreme doctor of the Church, he pronounces in a matter of faith or morals a definition which has to be accepted and held as obligatory by all the faithful. Again: It is the revelation given by God, the deposit of faith, which is the domain perfectly traced out and exactly circumscribed, within which the infallible decisions of the Pope are able to extend themselves and in regard to which the faith of Catholics can be bound to fresh obligations.7

Dom Cuthbert Butler notes that Pius IX “wrote to the Swiss bishops that nothing could be more opportune or more worthy of praise, or cause the truth to stand out more clearly, than their pastoral.”8 Nevertheless, it must be remembered that this papal accolade for the Swiss prelates, and that for Bishop Fessler, were given in a private capacity by Pio Nono, and with respect to entire documents, which included many points in addition to the one singled out by us here. They cannot therefore be taken as in any sense a definitive or authentic (in the sense of ‘official’) interpretation of the dogma, in regard to the precise point under discussion in this paper. It should be kept in mind also that Pius IX had, prior to the Council, given his approval to the first draft on papal infallibility, which clearly did not restrict papal infallibility to the “integral parts of revelation” and which was subsequently criticized by the more liberal Council Fathers precisely because it contained no such restriction.9 In contrast to these restrictive interpretations of the Vatican I definition, other eminent theologians took a broader view of the object of papal infallibility. Butler refers to an authoritative study by Lucien Choupin, S.J., “a recognized authority on the subject”, entitled Valeur des D?cisions doctrinales et disciplinaires du Saint-Si?ge, first published in 1907.10 Choupin, according to Butler, was the chief authority for the highly respected Dictionnaire de Th?ologie Catholique in its article “Infaillibilit? du Pape”, written by Fr. E. Dublanchy in 1923. In this article, Dublanchy says:

An ex cathedra definition is an explicit and final doctrinal judgment given by the Pope, relating to faith or morals, in such sort that the faithful may be certain that the doctrine is judged by the Pope to belong to revelation, or to have with revelation a connection that is certain; and expressed in such a way that the obligation is made clear to all of giving full interior assent to the doctrine defined, or to the rejection of propositions condemned as directly or indirectly counter to Catholic faith.11

Another outstanding theologian and a leading figure promoting the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I was Cardinal Henry Edward Manning of Westminster. Immediately after the Council, in October 1870, Manning issued a 200-page pastoral letter, entitled The Vatican Council and its Definitions, in which he also interpreted the definition much more broadly, so as to include within the guarantee of infallibility not only revealed truth, but also “dogmatic facts, censures less than heresy, canonizations of saints, approbations of religious orders”.12 Butler, in referring to Manning’s position, takes him to task for thus extending the scope of infallibility:

all this is roundly asserted; even though Bishop Gasser, an official spokesman of the deputation de fide, had laid down positively that the theological questions at issue were not touched by the definition, but were left in the state of theological opinion in which they were before the Council – and still are.13

Butler, then, is taking the side of Fessler and the Swiss bishops. But he also quotes Dublanchy with approval, even though, as we have seen, this theologian explicitly extends the scope of the 1870 definition to include those doctrinal truths necessary for guarding revealed truth, as well as revealed truth itself. This gives us some indication of the confusion and the contradictions which have embroiled the issue of papal infallibility right from 1870 onwards, in regard to the object of this privilege given to the Successor of Peter. How can the confusion be resolved?


Since the object of papal infallibility is an issue about which approved theologians have differed, this dispute can scarcely be resolved simply by quoting more theologians, or by counting heads on both sides of the argument. If this dogma gave rise to confusion already in the years following 1870, the confusion is much compounded today, in an era when a prominent theologian (Hans K?ng) can remain a priest with the exercise of his faculties, in good standing with his bishop, when for more than twenty years he has openly and publicly dissented from the whole dogma of papal infallibility – an offence which, according to the dogmatic definition itself, carries the penalty of excommunication.14 Even the most publicized “assenting” work on infallibility to appear in English in recent years, Peter L. Chirico’s Infallibility: The Crossroads of Doctrine (Kansas City, Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, 1977) effectively denatures the whole dogma, rendering it of little or no practical use. Chirico claims that “Papal Infallibility Cannot Resolve Questions Disputed in the Church”,15 and reduces its role to something like that of a mere foreman of the jury, who enunciates a consensus already existing. Although Chirico denies that his position contradicts the dogma’s explicit assertion that the Pope’s definitions do not require the consent of the faithful in order to be binding,16 his denial seems to me mere sophistry. He tells us, for instance, that the very fact of Humanae Vitae’s having been greeted by widespread dissent shows that it was not infallible.17 On Chirico’s terms, no theologians or members of the faithful need ever feel bound to accept any papal declaration, no matter how solemnly worded and promulgated, unless it has “the ring of truth in their minds and hearts”.18 That is, unless their own private judgment agrees with it anyway! For the very fact of significant dissent from such a declaration on the part of professing Catholics, according to Chirico, shows that it is not infallible! The very fact that infallible definitions have so often appended an anathema against dissenters shows how flagrantly Chirico’s interpretation of this dogma clashes with that of the Popes and Councils which have promulgated such definitions. Nevertheless, his book bears the imprimatur of the Archbishop of San Francisco, and is promoted by Chirico himself in a supplementary volume of the highly respected New Catholic Encyclopedia under the entry “Infallibility”.19

Clearly, then, we will need to base a solution to our present problem on something more solid than the opinions of theologians. To establish with certainty whether the 1870 dogma guarantees infallibility only to definitions of revealed truth, or also to those of the secondary truths necessary for guarding revelation, we will need to devote our attention to the Church’s official documents: in the first place, the Vatican I Constitution itself; secondly, the teaching of Vatican II and the post-conciliar magisterium; and finally, the official and highly authoritative relatio of Bishop Vincent Gasser, who explained to the Vatican I Fathers the authentic meaning of the schema which was being presented for their vote, and which finally was promulgated as the dogma.

(a) The Testimony of Pastor Aeternus

The Vatican I Constitution Pastor Aeternus itself is clearly the most basic source of all. Chapter IV of the document, which is entitled “On the Infallible Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff” and ends with the solemn definition itself, sheds considerable light on the question before us. It refers to the past vigilance of the Popes in guarding the “saving doctrine of Christ” (salutaris Christi doctrina);20 and in referring to past exercises of papal infallibility, affirms that “the Roman Pontiffs … defined as requiring to be held those things which by the help of God, they knew to be in conformity with the Sacred Scriptures and the Apostolic traditions” (ea tenenda definiverunt, quae sacris Scripturis et apostolicis traditionibus consentanea, Deo adiutore, cognoverant).21 It adds that the Holy Spirit is given to the successors of Peter in order that they might “piously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith handed on through the Apostles” (ut traditam per Apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent).22 The clear implication is that infallible definitions of the Popes can include, and have included in the past, points of doctrine necessary for guarding and expounding revealed truth, not only revealed truth itself. The unqualified use of the word tenendas (“to be held”) demonstrates this more comprehensive meaning, since the standard theological vocabulary uses credere (“to believe”) or at least tenere tamquan de fide (“to hold as of faith”) when the intention is to specify only revealed truth and the divine virtue of faith by which we accept it.

If we look at the solemn definition itself, along with its textual history, it becomes evident that the Council did not restrict papal infallibility to revealed truth as such. There were three drafts of the definition. The first one said that the object of papal infallibility is what in matters of faith and morals is to be held by the universal Church; and this prerogative of inerrancy or infallibility of the Roman Pontiff reaches to the same object as the infallibility of the Church extends to.”23 That is indisputably a broad, rather than restrictive, expression, since tenere, as we have just indicated, includes the idea of firm acceptance of something as true, whether it is revealed truth or not. This draft had actually been approved for discussion at the Council by Pope Pius IX.24

The second draft was more restrictive, saying that the Pope was infallible in defining what is to be “held … as of faith”, or rejected “as contrary to faith” (tamquam de fide and tamquam fidei contrarium respectively).25 In other words, this second draft now covered only matters of revealed truth, and its contrary, heresy, as falling within the scope of papal infallibility. In explaining this change to the deputation de fide, the president of the Council’s theological commission, Cardinal Bilio, who had himself composed the first and more comprehensive draft, made the following comments, according to one of those present, Bishop Senestr?y of Ratisbon (Regensburg). Senestr?y, who along with Cardinal Manning was a leading champion of a strong and extensive definition of papal infallibility, recorded in his diary the substance of Bilio’s argument (with which he himself disagreed sharply):

No more can be defined [according to Bilio] concerning the infallibility of the Pope than has been defined concerning the infallibility of the Church; but of the Church this only is of faith, that she is infallible in dogmatic definitions strictly taken; therefore the question arises whether in the proposed formula [i.e., the first draft] the infallibility of the Pope be not too widely extended. The Cardinal did not deny, nay he maintained as certain, that the Pope is infallible also in dogmatic facts, in the canonization of saints, and in other things of like moment, just as the Church is infallible as such. He added that he greatly desired that at this Vatican Council it should be defined that the Church is infallible not only in dogmatic definitions, but also in dogmatic facts, in the canonization of saints, and the approbation of religious Orders. But as now there was question of defining the infallibility of the Pope before the infallibility of the Church had been dealt with, the formula said more than ought to be said.26

In other words, the intention of the second draft was neither to affirm nor deny the Pope’s infallibility in the secondary matters. But the objection of Senestr?y and Manning was that such a formula would create a misleading impression: if the Council limited itself to defining only the Pope’s infallibility in matters of revealed truth, to be held as de fide, then “it would be commonly taken that only such definitions de Fide are infallible”.27 In the light of subsequent experience, this objection can be seen as prophetic. Even though, as we shall see, this second and more ‘liberal’ draft was subsequently rejected precisely because of these conservative Fathers’ misgivings, noted theologians after the Council continued to say that the definition of 1870 guarantees infallibility only for de fide definitions. We can imagine how much more confusion would have ensued if the more restrictive formula had been made dogma!

The fact is that if an authority fails to reassert a certain law or teaching in a context in which such reassertion might arguably be expected, those who are unhappy with that law or teaching will always seize upon the omission in order to spread it abroad that the law or teaching has now been officially abandoned, discarded or rejected. And all the official ‘fine print’ in the world ( footnotes, explanatory remarks, etc.) will not deter them nor suffice to arrest the success of their propaganda. We have seen this process repeatedly after Vatican Council II. The traditional order of the ends of marriage, for instance, was not spelt out in the main text of Gaudium et Spes; and ‘progressive’ theologians have turned this into an ‘official’ abandonment of that doctrine, official comments and footnotes to the contrary notwithstanding. And the fact that the Declaration on Religious Liberty did not spell out the duty of the political community as such to recognize Catholicism as the one true religion has been taken almost universally to mean that the Church no longer believes or teaches that such a duty exists. Once again, official commentary from the relator to the contrary has simply vanished down the ‘memory hole’.28

Bishop Senestr?y also recorded in his diary the fact that all the leading theologians regarded it as at least theologically certain that the Pope is infallible in defining the secondary matters such as dogmatic facts, censures short of heresy, and so on.29 So he wanted the dogmatic definition to take account of that fact.

As matters turned out, Cardinal Bilio found that the new and more liberal draft was not only unacceptable to Senestr?y and Manning, but was displeasing to a great number of Fathers”,30 and it was decided on May 22, 1870, to allow the Council Fathers to submit alternative formulae, so that the best of these could then be adopted and put to a vote. In fact, more than a hundred proposed definitions were put forward, and the one finally selected and promulgated as dogma deliberately leaves out the restrictive (and therefore controversial) references to “de fide” and “the full obedience of faith”. In effect, it reverts substantially to the original and more comprehensive formula which Pius IX had approved for discussion before the Council. The historic definition promulgated as dogma on July 18, 1870, reads as follows:

The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, he defines with his supreme apostolic authority a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church (doctrinam de fide vel moribus ab universa Ecclesia tenendam definit), through the divine assistance promised him in St. Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith and morals: and therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves and not from the consent of the Church.31

The text itself, illuminated further by the history of its earlier drafts, thus leaves it established beyond dispute that this dogma does not specify only points of revealed truth, to be accepted by divine faith on pain of heresy, as the object of papal infallibility.

(b) The Testimony of Vatican II and the Post-Conciliar Magisterium

As is well known, Vatican Council I originally intended to promulgate a further constitution on the Church, and the schema which had already been prepared as a basis for discussion proposed to teach that the Church is indeed infallible in teaching the secondary truths, not only revealed truth itself.32 The Council was cut short because of the outbreak of war between France and Prussia, but Vatican II, almost a century later, finished off the work of Vatican I in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. This new document of the magisterium affirms explicitly what is implied by the affirmations in Ch. IV of Pastor Aeternus which introduce the solemn definition: namely, that the Church’s infallibility (including that of the Pope acting alone) extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation, to guard it religiously and faithfully expound it”.33 This translation by Fr. James O’Connor accurately conveys the sense of the Latin construction using two gerundives: “infallibilitas [Ecclesiae] … tantum patet quantum divinae Revelationis patet depositum, sancte custodiendum et fideliter exponendum.” These words follow closely those we have cited above from Pastor Aeternus, Ch. IV, where it is said that the successors of Peter are given the assistance of the Holy Spirit, “ut … fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent”.

Unfortunately, the two most common English translations of the Vatican II documents, that of Flannery’s editions34 and that of Abbott’s edition,35 render the above words from Lumen Gentium 25 by a relative clause: “… the deposit of revelation, which must be religiously guarded and loyally and courageously expounded.36 This obscures the close link between the last part of the sentence (sancte custodiendum et fideliter exponendum) and the reference to infallibility, turning the former into a mere incidental description of revelation.” Such an English expression is open to the interpretation that, while infallibility extends to revelation itself, the guarding and expounding thereof might perhaps have to be accomplished by some lesser charism which enjoyed no guarantee of infallibility.

If that is what the Council had wanted to say, it could also have used a relative clause: “…depositum, quod sancte custodiendum est atque fideliter exponendum.” In fact, an accurate translation of the Latin – even clearer, though less literal, than that of O’Connor – would be: “[The Church’s infallibility] … extends as far as is necessary for religiously guarding and faithfully expounding the deposit of divine Revelation.” In any case, even if the Latin text were ambiguous (which I do not concede), this inclusion of the secondary truths under the guarantee of infallibility (both ecclesial and papal) has now been spelt out explicitly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as an authentic interpretation of the conciliar text. This is found in the Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae (June 24, 1973). Here is the relevant passage, which ends with a footnote referring to Lumen Gentium 25:

According to Catholic doctrine, the infallibility of the Church’s magisterium extends not only to the deposit of faith but also to those matters without which that deposit cannot be rightly preserved and expounded.37

The Council did not define this point of doctrine (or any other point, for that matter) as a new dogma of faith. Nevertheless, since the teaching had already long been proposed as at least theologically certain (and possibly even revealed) throughout the universal Church, its inclusion in a Dogmatic Constitution of an Ecumenical Council simply underlines the fact that it is infallible by virtue of the Ordinary Magisterium. In short, Vatican II did in a real sense complete the work of Vatican I: it clarified that the infallibility of the Church in regard to the secondary truths is itself one of the secondary truths necessary for guarding and expounding the deposit of faith. As such, Catholics are bound to accept it with “ecclesiastical faith” (not “divine faith”) as certainly and irreformably true. That is, we accept it not as having been revealed by God himself, but by virtue of our faith in the Church’s power to guard and expound revelation accurately and reliably, because of the divine assistance He has promised her.

(c) The Testimony of the Official Relator for Pastor Aeternus

Having considered the official magisterial texts of both Vatican Councils in regard to the secondary object of infallibility, we should take into account another official document which sheds further light on the interpretation of the 1870 dogma. On July 11, 1870, just a week before the solemn proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility by Vatican I, Bishop Vincent Gasser, spokesman for the deputation de fide (the committee of Conciliar Fathers charged with drafting the solemn definition), delivered a four-hour speech explaining and defending the third (and, as it turned out, final) draft which was submitted to the assembled Fathers for their vote. The importance of this learned, historic dissertation lies in the fact that (apart from the subsequent Vatican II and post-Vatican II magisterial statements discussed in (b) above) it is the only official commentary on the 1870 definition. This speech informed the conciliar Fathers beforehand what they were to understand by the formula which was being presented for their vote. Therefore, if it should turn out that the dogmatic definition, taken in isolation, is open to more than one interpretation, that of Gasser must be seen as far more authoritative than that of any subsequent theologians, since it has to be presumed that the Council Fathers who were the formal authors of the definition intended it to mean what Gasser told them it meant. Vatican II itself recognizes the vital importance of Gasser’s relatio by actually making the substance of some of his comments part of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium itself: he is quoted no less than four times in the official footnotes to Lumen Gentium 25, which treats of infallibility.38

How, then, does Bishop Gasser’s relatio bring further clarification to the question we are considering? In explaining the decision to delete the references to “of faith” (de fide) and “the full obedience of faith”, he alluded to the complication ensuing from the fact that the Pope’s infallibility was being defined before the more fundamental (and amongst Catholics, quite undisputed) infallibility of the Church as a whole had been defined. Referring to “truths necessary for guarding the faith” even though not themselves formally revealed, Gasser said:

All Catholic theologians completely agree that the Church, in her authentic proposal and definition of truths of this sort, is infallible, such that to deny this infallibility would be a very grave error. A diversity of opinion turns only on the degree of certitude, i.e., on whether the infallibility in proposing these truths – and therefore in proscribing errors through censures inferior to the note of heresy – should be considered a dogma of faith, so that to deny this infallibility to the Church would be heretical, or whether it is a truth not revealed in itself but one deduced from revealed dogma and as such is only theologically certain.

Now, since what must be said about the infallibility of the Pope in defining truths is completely the same as what must be said about the infallibility of the Church defining, there arises the same question about the extension of pontifical infallibility to those truths not revealed in themselves but which pertain to the guarding of the deposit of faith. The question arises, I say, as to whether papal infallibility in defining these truths is not only theologically certain but is a dogma of the faith, exactly the same question as has arisen about the infallibility of the Church. Now, since it has seemed to members of the Deputation, by unanimous agreement, that this question should not be defined, at least not now, but should be left in the state in which it presently is, it necessarily follows, according to the opinion of the same Deputation, that the decree of faith about the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff should be seen in such a way that there is defined, as far as the object of infallibility in definitions of the Roman Pontiff is concerned, that there must be believed exactly the same thing as is believed in respect to the object of infallibility in definitions of the Church.39

We must note carefully what Gasser is not saying here. He is not saying that the proposed dogmatic formula intends to leave undecided the question of whether or not the Pope is infallible in defining the secondary truths as well as formally revealed truths. The question which is “to be left in the state in which it presently is” is only whether or not this secondary infallibility is de fide or “merely” theologically certain. In either case there is certainty and the obligation on all Catholics to hold firmly that the Pope is infallible in defining the secondary doctrines necessary for guarding and expounding the deposit of faith.

This is a somewhat subtle point, and has been missed, or misunderstood, even by solidly orthodox theologians such as Butler. He refers to the thesis of the Church’s infallibility with regard to the secondary truths as “the ordinary opinion of theologians”, and then, a few lines later, as the common teaching of theologians”. He says, “This is the common teaching of theologians, but it has never been defined, and discussions are still current over the whole question. … (T)he Vatican Council deliberately left this question untouched, and defined the papal infallibility in such a way as to leave these theological questions undecided”.40 What Butler says was left “undecided” was precisely the thesis “that the infallibility of the Church does extend beyond the limits of what is of divine faith as revealed by God”.41 But as we have seen, this is not what Bishop Gasser’s relatio said was left “undecided”; rather, there was agreement on all sides that the Church is certainly infallible in defining the secondary truths.

Moreover, Butler errs in describing this thesis as merely the “common teaching of theologians”. Gasser affirms that the thesis is either “theologically certain” or else revealed truth. As any standard theological work makes clear,42 “theologically certain” is a more emphatic theological note than “common teaching of theologians”: the latter still belongs in the area of opinions which may be freely discussed; the former does not.

Another point taken from Vatican I itself illustrates the fact that this Council could not possibly have considered it open to free discussion as to whether the Church is infallible or not in defining the truths necessary in order to guard revealed truth. The fact is that at the time when the infallibility of the Church and Pope were being discussed by the Council Fathers, they had already promulgated, on 24 April, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, which itself defined infallibly one of these truths – namely, the knowability of God’s existence by natural human reason.43 This is a classic example, given in most theology texts,44 of a truth falling within the competence of the secondary object of infallibility: naturally knowable truths which cannot be denied without undermining revealed truth. Vatican I pronounces an anathema against those who say that God’s existence cannot be known certainly by the light of natural human reason, thereby employing a form of words which, when used for a doctrinal (not disciplinary) definition by an Ecumenical Council, were and are universally understood to mark an infallible definition. It would be absurd to maintain that the Council could have promulgated this doctrine under pain of excommunication, whilst simultaneously leaving theologians and the faithful free to discuss whether or not it was certainly and irreformably true (i.e., infallible).

Bishop Gasser went on to make even clearer the sense of the proposed definition. He pointed out that, in dealing with the object of papal infallibility, it gives a general description (“doctrine regarding faith and morals”) and then a more specific qualification, namely,

that the very same thing must be confessed about the object of infallibility when the Pope is defining as must be confessed about the object of infallibility when the Church is defining. These two parts always have to be taken together if the true meaning of our definition is to be grasped.45

The whole purpose of this change from the more liberal second draft – that is, the deletion of references to de fide beliefs, and the definition of papal infallibility directly and exclusively in terms of the Church’s infallibility – was to make the defined dogma scrupulously impartial and ‘open-ended’ regarding the point which Gasser said was for the time being to remain undecided. That is, his meaning is that, if it should subsequently be defined to be a part of revealed truth (to be held de fide) that the Church is infallible in defining the secondary truths, then it will come to follow from the (already promulgated) dogma of papal infallibility that the Pope’s power of defining the secondary truths is also de fide. If, on the other hand, the Church’s infallibility in these matters is not in future made a dogma of faith, then it will still remain theologically certain; and in that case it will follow from the dogma of papal infallibility that the Pope’s infallibility in defining the secondary truths is also known with theological certitude. Here are Gasser’s own words (with emphasis added):

(I)n respect to those things about which it is theologically certain – but not as yet certain de fide – that the Church is infallible, these things are also not defined by this decree of the sacred Council as having to be believed de fide in respect to papal infallibility. With the theological certitude which is had that these other objects, apart from dogmas of the faith, fall within the extension of the infallibility which the Church enjoys in her definitions, so, with that same theological certitude, must it be held, now and in future, [i.e. from the moment this schema on papal infallibility becomes dogma] that the infallibility of definitions issued by the Roman Pontiff extends to these same objects.46

Two other passages from Gasser’s relatio make it still more indisputable that the formula was officially understood to include the secondary truths under the guarantee of papal infallibility, and not only de fide definitions of revealed truth.

The first is an incidental, but very telling, remark. In replying to some Fathers who urged that the procedures or form to be used by the Pope in arriving at an infallible decision (i.e., his grave moral duty to pray for guidance, diligently consult the existing teaching of the Church, etc.) be included in the definition, Gasser replied:

But, most eminent and reverend fathers, this proposal simply cannot be accepted because we are not dealing with something new here. Already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See; where is the law which prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments?47

(The context makes it clear that, by the expression “dogmatic judgment”, Gasser here means any infallible definition having to do with dogma, not only with dogmas in the strict sense, because he notes in the same paragraph that the Council is proposing to define that “the dogmatic judgments of the Roman Pontiff are infallible”; and as we have seen, a central point of the whole relatio is that the new formula being presented to the Fathers does not limit papal infallibility to dogmas in the strict sense, i.e., points of revealed truth.) In other words, Gasser was able to assert in passing – that is, as something which did not need arguing and would be taken for granted by his audience – that there had already been “thousands and thousands” of infallible definitions issued by former Popes! Even allowing for the fact that he doubtless did not intend to be taken quite literally here, and meant only to make the point that “a great many” such definitions were ex cathedra, it is obvious that he cannot have had in mind only solemn definitions of revealed truth, such as Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception a few years previously. There have in fact been only a few such definitions. So Gasser obviously meant to include the many papal definitions of secondary truths, including censures less than heresy, as genuine ex cathedra, infallible definitions. In line with this, the noted dogmatic theologian J.M. Herv?, in his standard work, specifies all eighty of Pope St. Pius V’s censures against the errors of Du Bay (DS 1901-1980) as infallible definitions, as well as all the errors condemned by Pius IX in the 1864 encyclical Quanta Cura.48 The conventional modern view that ex cathedra definitions are “extremely rare”49 is thus at variance with the Vatican I relator’s view of the matter, and is evidently based on the falsely restrictive presupposition which Gasser and the entire deputation de fide went to such pains to exclude.

The second, and more weighty, passage of Gasser’s relatio which reinforces in the most explicit terms the point we have been arguing was actually delivered on July 16, several days after his long discourse. It was a clarification as to what was meant precisely by the term “defines” (definit) in the dogmatic formula. Some of the more conservative bishops – those who wanted to extend rather than limit the Pope’s infallible authority – had complained that the word “defines” was “too restrictive and too juridical”.50 Apparently the word had been used by some theologians to mean only the kind of definition which becomes necessary in order to combat heresy in the strict sense – denials of revealed truth – for the purposes of legally excluding such heretics from the Church: many of the Tridentine definitions provoked by Protestant dissent, for instance, would fall into that category. So, once again, Bishop Gasser took the podium to reassure these Fathers by giving the following explanation, which is of crucial importance, since it is the only official explanation of what ‘define’ means in the 1870 dogma:

It is obvious from the many exceptions that this word is an obstacle for many of the reverend fathers; hence, in their exceptions, they have completely eliminated this word or have substituted another word, viz., ‘decree’, or something similar, in its place, or have said, simultaneously, ‘defines and decrees,’ etc. Now I shall explain in a very few words how this word ‘defines’ is to be understood according to the Deputation de fide. Indeed, the Deputation de fide is not of the mind that this word should be understood in a juridical sense (Lat. in sensu forensi) so that it only signifies putting an end to controversy which has arisen in respect to heresy and doctrine which is properly speaking de fide. Rather, the word ‘defines’ signifies that the Pope directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way, indeed, that he or she knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff. Such, therefore, is the meaning of the word defines.51

Gasser’s words are so clear here that further comment on my part would be superfluous.

One more point regarding the object of infallibility should be clarified. The Vatican I definition has to do only with “doctrine concerning faith and morals”, whether this doctrine be promulgated by the Pope alone or by the Church as a whole. In other words, the traditional teaching that the Pope also speaks infallibly in canonizing saints, approving religious orders, and in defining dogmatic facts, is simply left untouched by the 1870 decree. (“Dogmatic facts” are contingent, historical facts which it is necessary to insist on in order to guard revealed truth – for instance, the fact that such-and-such a Council which proclaimed certain revealed truths was in fact a lawful and valid Ecumenical Council, or that such-and-such a condemned book or document does in fact teach a certain false doctrine.) Before Vatican I the great majority of Catholic bishops and theologians who already believed that the Pope is infallible in defining doctrine seem to have believed that he is infallible in these other areas as well. However, those few who did not believe he is infallible in those other areas were not obliged to start believing that he is by the 1870 dogma. All Catholics, however, were obliged by it to believe that the Pope is infallible in defining not only dogmas of faith, but also the secondary truths, denial of which would be” proximate to heresy” or “erroneous, etc.”, as Bishop Gasser explained.

We are now in a position to summarize what we have established about the true meaning of Vatican I’s dogma from our examination of the primary and official documents:

1. The dogma obliges all Catholics to believe by divine faith a rather broadly expressed point of revealed truth: that whatever is true about the Church’s infallibility in defining doctrine of faith or morals must also be said of the Pope in regard to his personal definitions in that area.

2. A doctrinal statement counts as a “definition” (and therefore as ex cathedra and infallible) provided that the Roman Pontiff in promulgating it makes it clear that it must be held by the universal Church, and provided also that the statement directly and conclusively pronounces sentence. That is, it must be made clear that the statement intends to put an end to any controversy there may be about the doctrine in question. (There does not have to be any significant controversy about it: by the time Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma in 1854 there was already a nearly unanimous and a peaceful acceptance of the teaching throughout the Church.)52

3. The Pope’s ex cathedra definitions may be either of revealed dogma, to be believed with divine faith, or of other truths necessary for guarding an expounding revealed truth. (In the latter case denial of them would be “proximate to heresy”, “erroneous, etc.”, as Bishop Gasser stated.)

4. Vatican Council II and the post-conciliar magisterium have explicitly affirmed #3 above, which was already taught implicitly in Chapter IV of Pastor Aeternus and in the dogmatic definition of 1870 itself (and made explicit by Bishop Gasser in his authentic explanation of the text). That is, the contemporary magisterium explicitly affirms as Catholic doctrine the truth that both ecclesial and papal infallibility extend to the secondary doctrinal truths necessary for guarding and expounding revelation. It has still not resolved, however, the point left undecided by Vatican I, namely, whether this doctrine is de fide or only theologically certain.

5. In the light of this continuing uncertainty over the precise theological note to be attached to this doctrine, nobody can be obliged to give the assent of divine faith to it. However, in the light of the centuries-long unanimity amongst bishops and theologians (Gallicans and Ultramontanes alike before Vatican I) that the Church as a whole can certainly and definitely teach these secondary doctrines infallibly, the Vatican I definition makes it just as certain and definite that the Pope can also teach them infallibly when acting alone.

This can conveniently be set out in syllogistic form:

Major: Whatever is true regarding the object of the Church’s infallibility in doctrinal definitions is also true regarding the object of papal infallibility: (de fide, as a result of the 1870 dogma of papal infallibility).

Minor: The Church is infallible in defining the secondary doctrinal truths: (theologically certain, by virtue of its constant teaching by Popes and Bishops throughout the world as definitely to be held, and by virtue of the fact that they have sometimes defined such truths under pain of anathema when gathered in Ecumenical Councils. – Cf. Lumen Gentium 25).

Concl: Therefore, the Pope is infallible in defining the secondary doctrinal truths: (theologically certain, as the logical conclusion of the two preceding premises, and now also taught explicitly by the magisterium since Vatican Council II).

Obviously the conclusion can only be as strong as its weakest premise, so the conclusion cannot be de fide. It follows that the precise censure to be attached to denial of the conclusion – that is, denial that the Pope is infallible when defining doctrinal truths necessary for religiously guarding and faithfully expounding the deposit of faith – is not heresy but error. (This is the qualification given by theologians to opinions which contradict truth which is certain, though not revealed.)


If our argument so far has been valid, we have resolved in section II the confused question which we set out in section I: that is, we have shown that all Catholics must accept as certainly and irreformably true that the Pope is infallible in defining the secondary truths under discussion. Since our principal theme in this study is the status of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, it is now necessary to consider whether points of the natural moral law in fact belong to these secondary truths necessary for guarding and expounding the revealed deposit. Textbooks of dogmatic theology naturally do not usually deal with this issue, but the Church’s infallibility in the area of natural law can be found asserted in approved works of moral theology. Noldin and Schmitt, for instance, assert that “the Church can infallibly declare and interpret the natural law”.53 More importantly, this is again implied in the very definition of papal infallibility itself. The dogma states that infallibility extends to the definition of doctrine to be held (tenendam), not “believed”, in matters of morals as well as of faith. In other words, it no more restricts infallibility to revealed truth in the practical order (“morals”) than it does in the speculative order (“faith”). Thus, naturally knowable truths in the moral order, as much as naturally knowable truths in the speculative order, fall within the scope of infallibility if they are necessary for guarding and expounding correctly the revealed deposit.

This point too is clarified by a response of Bishop Gasser to a suggestion from one of the conciliar Fathers at Vatican I. Bishop Colet of Lu?on, France, asked that the expression “matters of faith and morals” in the definition be replaced by what must be believed by the Universal Church as of faith in matters of faith and the principles of morals”.54 Gasser replied that the Deputation de fide could not accept this proposal, because this expression would be completely new, whereas the expression ‘matter of faith and morals’, i.e., doctrine of faith and morals, is very well known and every theologian knows what is to be understood by these words.”55 In other words, to know whether specific questions of natural law morality (such as contraception) are understood by Vatican I to be necessary for guarding and expounding the revealed deposit, and are therefore included within its definition of the object of papal infallibility, it is necessary only to know whether specific questions of that sort were understood by approved theologians of the nineteenth century to fall within the category of “matters of morals”. And it is easy to establish that they (like all approved theologians in this century as well) included specific questions of natural law under this category. As a matter of fact, two of the most trusted theologians advisers to the Deputation de Fide – were most explicit on this point, namely J.B. Franzelin and J. Kleutgen. O’Connor’s commentary at this point is illuminating:

Now what was understood by “matters of morals”? It was a very wide understanding indeed. “Matters of morals” included not only what was directly revealed by God, but also the natural law, and the specific, concrete decisions which the Church had to make on moral matters for which an answer was not found in revelation. That the matters of morals were interpreted thus broadly can be seen by looking at two of the major theologians present at the Council itself. The Jesuit John Baptist Franzelin (1816-1886) he1d that the natural law was included under “matters of morals” (cf. his Tractatus De Divina Traditione et Scriptura, 4th ed., Rome, 1896, p. 112, “tum leges practicae (et in his etiam lex naturalis scripta in cordibus hominum ratione utentium ….”)… Another Jesuit, Joseph Kleutgen (1811-1883), a philosopher and theologian, went to Vatican I as the theologian for Konrad Martin of Paderborn, and was the official presenter to the Deputation de fide of the draft chapter of the proposed dogmatic constitution on the Church. In his remarks at the time, Kleutgen set forth the position that holds that “matters of morals” include particular and specific moral decisions for which “an answer cannot be found in revelation itself” (cf. Mansi, 53, 327, #4 …)56

O’Connor also gives a more detailed quotation of Kleutgen’s address to the deputation de fide. The reader should keep in mind that, although this was not an official or authoritative intervention in itself, it is supremely relevant by virtue of the fact that Gasser obviously had theologians like Kleutgen in mind when he told the assembled Fathers that “matters of faith and morals” in the definition is to be understood in the normal (“very well known”) sense which is familiar to “every theologian”.

As far as the extension of infallibility and the “matters of morals” was concerned, Kleutgen said: “What we have said generally about the doctrine of faith, must be especially considered in the discipline of morals. The condition of human life is so various and multiform that innumerable questions arise about morals for which we find no answer in revelation itself. And nevertheless, the Church in her judgment has defined many of these questions, affixing to these evil opinions the censures about which we have spoken….For, if the Church in proscribing opinions is able to err, what follows except that it would be able to happen that all the faithful would be compelled by the Church, under severe edict and the proposed penalty of excommunication, to embrace errors which corrupt faith and morals?” (Mansi, 53, 327).57

Kleutgen’s argument reaches the heart of the whole question of infallibility. The reason it was possible to define ecclesia1 and papal infallibility as revealed truth nearly nineteen centuries after revelation itself ceased is, of course, that this was not really a new doctrine. Centuries before the word “infallible” appeared in the Catholic theological vocabulary in the Middle Ages, the reality expressed by that word had been implicitly taught and claimed every time the Church condemned certain doctrines absolutely and obliged the faithful absolutely to accept others. Anyone who (rightly or wrongly) insists that someone else accept his view of something absolutely and irrevocably, on his authority, is implicitly claiming that there is no possibility of his being in error, i.e., that he is infallible in regard to that matter. The unspoken major premise of Kleutgen’s argument above is that Christ promised the Church his unfailing presence and assistance by the Holy Spirit until the end of time, that the gates of hell would never prevail against her, so that she would be able to lead humanity to salvation by teaching all nations “all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20 etc.). However these promises would fail if the Church could ever came to bind all her children to embrace errors which corrupt them, leading them away from sanctity and salvation. But since the Church has in fact bound her children definitively in many non-revealed moral matters, and since Christ’s promises cannot fail, it follows logically that she must be infallible in such matters. In a word, the extent of the Church’s infallibility can be determined by seeing what she has in practice bound her children to accept as certainly and irrevocably true.

It needs to be remembered that the reason the Church has the power of infallibly guarding and expounding the deposit of revealed truth is precisely because revelation itself is oriented towards salvation – a supremely practical goal! God does not reveal Himself in a merely abstract and speculative way – knowledge for its own sake. But all of the divine law – both natural and revealed – is supremely relevant for our salvation; and this shows us immediately why a certain and sure exposition of the natural law is vitally necessary for “religiously guarding” the revealed deposit itself. If the Church were incapable of discerning with certainty what is right and wrong at the level of natural law, her binding decisions on such matters might well corrupt, instead of sanctify, her followers – in which case the revealed deposit would be radically betrayed by being rendered ineffective. To what avail would the Church infallibly teach us the revealed truths of faith if she were at the same time leading us away from salvation in the area of morals? What she gave with her right hand would in effect be taken away with her left!

In the case which especially interests us at present – the issue of contraception – the link with revealed truth is particularly obvious because it concerns a vitally important aspect of marriage, which is a sacrament of the Church and the subject of a considerable body of revealed doctrine in Scripture and Tradition. In fact, it would be very rash to assert that revealed truth itself has nothing to say on the subject of contraception. Quite apart from the Biblical condemnation of Onan’s “abominable contraceptive act (Gen. 38:9-10, which cannot plausibly be explained away as merely a rebuke to Onan’s unwillingness to comply with the Levirate marriage custom, in the light of the relatively mild penalty prescribed for the latter offence in Deut. 25: 7-10), Pope John Paul II has stated (though not in an ex cathedra way) that although the norm against contraception is not explicitly formulated in Scripture, it has been so frequently asserted in Tradition that “it becomes evident” that this norm “belongs not only to the natural moral law, but also to the moral order revealed by God (Pope John Paul II, Reflections on Humanae Vitae, St. Paul Editions, Boston, 1984, pp. 9-10).58

Pope Paul in Humanae Vitae itself repeatedly uses the word “doctrine” in regard to the moral question he is deciding in the encyclical, and in article 6 he speaks of the Church’s “moral doctrine” (doctrina moralis) on marriage, thereby using the very words of the 1870 definition (doctrinam de fide vel moribus) which designate that area (or general subject matter) within which infallible definitions are possible. He asserts in article 4 the close link between this “moral doctrine” regarding contraception and revealed truth: it is “a doctrine founded on the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine revelation”. He then asserts in the same article that the Church’s interpretation of the natural law falls under the divine mandate to teach all of Christ’s commandments to the nations and to do so with “His divine authority” (Matt. 28:18-19). This, of course, is one of the loci classici in Scripture implying the Church’s infallibility, since, if the Church could err while binding her children absolutely to hold a certain doctrine in the name of Christ, she would in fact be speaking as Antichrist: the gates of hell would have prevailed against her.

There can be no doubt, then, that specific, practical questions of natural law fall within the scope of the Church’s infallible teaching authority. One final observation is in order. We are insisting on this point in order to counteract the possible objection that, even if Humanae Vitae exhibits the other features typical of an ex cathedra definition, it is not in fact ex cathedra because its subject-matter falls outside the area in which infallible definitions are possible. But this objection has presuppositions which undermine the whole doctrine of papal infallibility: it envisages as possible a situation wherein theologians or other members of the faithful may sit in judgment on the Church’s supreme judge on earth, in regard to a given exercise of his supreme judgment – which is absurd. It envisages as possible a situation in which all the formal requirements for an infallible judgment are present: the Pope addresses the universal Church, invokes his supreme apostolic authority, manifests his intention to give a final, definitive judgment which is to be held by all Catholics with interior assent, and then specifies the particular teaching which is to be thus held by them; but, as it happens, this particular matter falls outside the range of matters within which infallible definitions are possible. Therefore other Catholics have the right to regard it as non-infallible, and therefore possibly mistaken. However, if this were to happen, and the Vicar of Christ were in fact to err under such circumstances, Christ’s promise to Peter and the Church would have failed: the Pope would be attempting to impose falsehood on the whole Church, in the name of Christ’s own authority. It would be impossible to defend the dogma of papal infallibility under those circumstances, since it would turn out that the Pope is capable of error even when pronouncing judgment in the most solemn possible way!

In the light of these considerations, we can conclude that, provided the formal conditions of an ex cathedra pronouncement are evident in a papal utterance, the rest of the faithful can know ipso facto that the material conditions are fulfilled as well, i.e., that the Holy Father has been protected by God from transgressing the proper limits of subject-matter. When the Pope, as it were, hands us a package marked “INFALLIBLE”, the rest of us can know immediately with complete certainty that it contains the truth, and we are bound to accept it even before opening the package to see what it contains.

This is precisely the point which Fr. Chirico and other liberal theologians are unwilling to accept. Referring to the “Ecumenical Appeal” of the tame, toothless tiger which he presents as papal infallibility (i.e., the view that infallibility can never settle disputes and can merely give formal expression to what all Catholics are already agreed upon), Chirico expresses the hope that it will make the dogma somewhat more acceptable to Protestants, certain of whose “fears” he admits sharing himself. He says:

Many Protestants have been fearful of papal arbitrariness, of an imposition of a temporally-conditioned belief upon all, of a limiting of the open-endedness of God’s truth, and of an attribution to the pope (or to the Church) of an infallibility which belongs to God alone. Each of these fears, it seems to me, has had some basis in the popular manner of presenting infallibility. I acknowledge that the existence of such fears was one of the key factors that led me to rethink the whole question from a Roman Catholic viewpoint.59

But this “popular manner of presenting” the dogma, which Chirico has felt led to “rethink”, is simply the universally-accepted, natural and self-evident meaning of the dogma itself – unquestioned by all Catholic theologians for a century before Chirico did his “rethinking”. The whole idea of a binding and definitive judgment – a definition which is “to be held” (tenendam) by the whole Church – obviously involves the possibility that some such definitions will “impose” on some Catholics a belief which hitherto went against their own private judgment. The Protestant “fears” referred to by Chirico are nothing other than that old fundamental Protestant principle of private judgment, by which the last word in deciding the true meaning of Christ’s revelation always stays with the individual believer, never with any higher Church authority. This principle is utterly destructive of all Catholicism. If someone asks, “But what if some Pope in future gets up and declares in a solemn, formal, binding way some wild idea that has nothing to do with revealed truth?”, then the correct response is definitely not to say that in that case the rest of us could know that it was not truly an ex cathedra statement, and so would not be obliged by the Vatican I dogma to accept it. The correct response is to assure the “fearful” questioner that such a thing could never possibly happen, and indeed, that to understand and accept the Vatican I dogma aright means to believe with divine faith that “by the divine assistance promised to the Pope in blessed Peter, no successor of Peter will ever be permitted by God to plunge the Church into such a calamity. Let the last word in this section be given to a far better theologian than Chirico, J.M. Herv?:

It is also up to the Church to decide how far her infallibility extends: otherwise there could never be any certainty as to whether, in defining something, she had transgressed the limits of her magisterium. In that case infallibilty would be placed in grave peril, and the whole of religion would turn out to be placed in doubt. From this it follows that, if the Church declares that something pertains to her magisterium, or proposes it as requiring the assent of faith (credendum), such a decree is to be held as infallible.60


From what has been said so far, all that remains to be shown in order to demonstrate the ex cathedra status of Paul VI’s prohibition of contraception in Humanae Vitae is that it exhibits the formal characteristics of an ex cathedra definition.

Before doing that, however, it will be worthwhile disposing of a commonly raised “red herring”. The mere possibility of Humanae Vitae’s being an ex cathedra statement is often scornfully dismissed by referring to the fact that Monsignor Ferdinando Lambruschini, the Vatican spokesman who announced the encyclical to the press and the world, said that it was not infallible. As a matter of fact Lambruschini was not authorized to say any such thing, as is evidenced by the fact that this remark was conspicuously omitted from the Osservatore Romano report of his statement the following day. However, the main point is not whether or not there is historical evidence that the Pope was pleased or displeased with Lambruschini’s remark. The main point is that, from a serious theological point of view, his remark is irrelevant. In an age when our consciousness is largely dominated by the mass media, comments by people such as press spokesmen receive an exaggerated importance at times. A moment’s reflection ought to make it clear that such a grave issue as the infallibility or non-infallibility of a pontifical document could never be decided simply by reference to the mere ipse dixit of a decidedly non-infallible press spokesman! Indeed – strange as this may seem at first sight – it could never be decided even by seeking out independent historical evidence as to whether or not Pope Paul himself considered Humanae Vitae to be infallible.

Popes were making ex cathedra pronouncements for many centuries before the dogma was defined, and before even the notion of infallibility was explicitly worked out in theology. We cannot possibly know now just how explicit or accurate their individual understanding was of their own defining powers, at least as regards the more subtle points and implications which were debated at such length at Vatican I – and in any case it does not matter. When Moses descended from the mountain bearing the infallible commandments of the Law, he did not know that his face was radiant from his intimate converse with God; yet this was evident to the People of God. (Cf. Ex. 34:29-35).

What does matter, of course, is the public document itself and its objectively expressed meaning. If the wording and content of Humanae Vitae do not fulfil the conditions laid down by the 1870 dogma, then a press-spokesman’s comment to the media could not somehow “make” it infallible, even if that spokesman happened to be the Pope himself! And conversely,if the document does manifestly fulfil those conditions, then Catholics can know with certainty that God protected the Pope from error in making that pronouncement, even if the Holy Father himself was not fully certain of that fact at the time. (As a matter of fact, Paul VI revealed his state of mind regarding Humanae Vitae to the College of Cardinals in his end-of-the-year address on the year’s events on December 23, 1968. He said that as a result of his long and scrupulous examination of the arguments against the traditional teaching on birth control, “this teaching showed itself to Us anew in all its severe and yet serene certainty”).61

The 1983 Code of Canon Law (c. 749:3) states that “No doctrine is to be understood as infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such (nisi id manifeste constiterit)”. And the way to establish this clearly is not to depend on criteria as uncertain or transient as the private or unofficial opinions of Popes (much less of Vatican press spokesmen), nor on the latest head-count of theologians – especially at this time of almost unprecedented confusion, decadence and dissent in the world of Catholic theology. The correct way, I trust, is that followed in this paper: to go back to the most primary, official and authoritative sources in order to gain the most exact possible understanding of the 1870 dogma of papal 1nfallibility; and then to methodically apply the resulting criteria to the document under consideration – in this case Humanae Vitae – in order to show how it clearly meets the required conditions for an ex cathedra pronouncement. This we shall now proceed to do.

The dogmatic definition specifies four elements which constitute an ex cathedra definition:

1. The Pope must speak as “the pastor and teacher of all Christians” (cum omnium Christianorun pastoris et doctoris munere fungens). As Bishop Gasser explained, this means “not … when he decrees something as a private teacher, nor only as the bishop and ordinary of a particular province”.62 Nobody can possibly doubt that this condition is fulfilled in the case of Humanae Vitae. A papal encyclical, by its very nature, is a document in which the Pope speaks in this universal capacity. In this case, Paul VI goes even further and addresses the non-Catholic world – perhaps because the doctrine he is teaching is in this case a matter of natural law, accessible and objectively binding on all human beings as such. The encyclical is explicitly addressed: “To the venerable Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops and other local ordinaries in peace and communion with the Apostolic See, to priests, the faithful and to all men of good will”.63 The definition adds after fungens the words pro suprema sua Apostolica auctoritate – “by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority. Some commentators make this a separate or independent condition, but Bishop Gasser did not mention it as such. In fact, it is only by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority that the Pope can speak “as the pastor and teacher of all Christians”, so there could be no question of his ever speaking in that capacity without making use of, or depending on, his supreme apostolic authority. In any case, this aspect of an ex cathedra decision is also spelled out in Humanae Vitae. In article 6 the Pope declares that the decision he is about to announce is being promulgated “by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ”(vi mandati Nobis a Christo commissi).64 He has just asserted in article 4, in regard to that “mandate”, “Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the Apostles His divine authority and sending them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law”. This, he says, “is indisputable, as our predecessors have many times declared”. It is thus evident that in this document the Pope is speaking precisely as the Successor of Peter the Apostle, by divine mandate and authority as the Church’s supreme teacher on earth. He thereby indisputably fulfils the first condition for an ex cathedra statement.

2. The next element specified in the dogmatic definition of 1870 is that regarding the subject-matter of an ex cathedra definition: it must be “doctrinam de fide vel moribus” – doctrine of faith or morals. We have already shown in sections II and III of our study that this condition is fulfilled in the case of Humanae Vitae.

3. The dogma of 1870 then adds that in an ex cathedra pronouncement, this doctrine must be proposed as ab universa Ecclesia tenendam, literally, “requiring to be held by the universal Church”. This obligation of all Catholics to accept the doctrinal decisions is repeatedly expressed in the encyclical. In the definition itself, the three practices proscribed (direct abortion, direct sterilization, and contraception) are all declared to be “absolutely excluded as licit means for regulating birth (omnino respuendam … ut legitimum modum numeri liberorum temperandi).65

The word omnino means “absolutely”, “entirely”, “wholly”, “utterly”, as any Latin dictionary will show. And respuere means “reject”, “refuse”, “disapprove”, “not accept”. The Pope thereby unambiguously proclaims that there is an absolute, unqualified obligation on all married couples to abstain from such practices, which of course means requiring them to hold (tenere) at the intellectual level that they are under that obligation. Since decisions of the will must first be understood and assented to in the intellect, every command to do or not to do something carries with it necessarily a command to assent mentally to the obligation of doing or not doing it. Since the Encyclical is addressed to the universal Church, this obligation of mental assent extends to all Catholics, not only to the married couples most directly affected. This is evident, because doctrine – as distinct from discipline – is by its nature the same for everyone in the Church. Not all doctrines have the same binding force, of course, but to the extent that a given doctrine binds any Catholic, it binds all Catholics.

In this case, there is still more to be said. The final article of the central doctrinal section (art. 18) affirms, with respect to the laws just proclaimed, “Of such laws the Church was not the author, nor consequently can she be their arbiter”, even though, as the Pope says, “It can be foreseen that this teaching will perhaps not be easily received by all”. He thereby makes it clear that this is divine law, which by its very nature must be accepted with full interior assent by the whole Church, even though he foresees that not everyone will easily give that assent. Again, at the beginning of Section III (mainly pastoral directives), which concludes the encyclical, the Pontiff refers back to his doctrinal declaration in these words: “having recalled men to the observance and respect of the divine law regarding matrimony, …”66 (homines, antea ad Dei legem de coniugio servandam colendamque incitatos…). Again in article 20 he asserts, “The teaching of the Church on the regulation of birth, which promulgates the divine law, (quae legem divinam ipsam promulgat), will easily appear to many to be difficult or even impossible of actuation”.67 He then, of course, goes on to insist that it is not impossible, and that couples who fall into sin should not be discouraged, but rather, “have recourse with humble perseverance to the mercy of God, which is poured forth in the sacrament of Penance”.68 This again expresses without ambiguity the obligation on the whole Church to accept the teaching. Finally, this obligation is asserted again in article 28, where the Pope tells priests: “Be the first to give an example of the sincere internal and external obedience which must be accorded to the Church’s Magisterium” (vos primi … exemplum sinceri obsequii edite, quod interius exteriusque ecclesiastico Magisterio tribuendum est).69

That obedience, he continues, “obliges … because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth.”70 In other words, the Pope repeatedly asserts that the teaching he has reaffirmed in this encyclical is divine law, which by its very nature is binding on “the universal Church” (and, in this case, on all men and women, since it concerns the natural law). Priests, of course, should be the first to give the example to the laity in manifesting that internal assent which is required of all.

From all this it is evident and undeniable that Paul VI proposes his doctrine as “requiring to be held by the universal Church”, thereby fulfilling the third requirement laid down by Vatican I for an ex cathedra definition. Naturally, he does not assert that the teaching be held de fide, since he is not defining it as a point of revealed truth. As we have shown in section II, ex cathedra definitions are envisaged by Vatican I as including doctrines which are to be held with theological certainty, and this is a case in point.

4. The final condition for an ex cathedra pronouncement is that the Roman Pontiff define (definit in Latin) the doctrine he is proposing for acceptance by the whole Church. Probably in view of the uncertainty manifested by some Vatican I Fathers about this word – an uncertainty which Bishop Gasser had to clear up by carefully explaining that it was not as restrictive as they thought it might be – Vatican II replaces this single word by three words which are evidently held to express the same meaning, but more clearly: definitive actu proclamat – “proclaims by a definitive act”.71

As we saw, Gasser explained that what this means is that the teaching be pronounced “directly and conclusively”.72 The key notion here is that of finality – of terminating whatever doubt or controversy there may be about the doctrine in question. As Gasser made clear, there does not have to be a significant controversy in order for an ex cathedra decision to be made. But it goes without saying that when there is a serious controversy that threatens the unity of the Church in truth, then an ex cathedra decision is certainly appropriate, in which case there is a “forensic” or “juridical” quality to the Pope’s decision. He is acting not only as supreme teacher but as supreme judge, settling a controversy which needs definitive, final, resolution. The Latin word definire has its root in finis, meaning end, termination, conclusion, limit. Of course, the Pope, not being omnipotent, does not have it within his power to end a doctrinal controversy de facto, since each member of the faithful always retains his or her free will and can continue rejecting and disputing even solemnly defined doctrines. This, of course, has happened throughout history, giving rise to various schisms, and it has notoriously happened in the case of Humanae Vitae. But what does indeed lie within the Pope’s power is to settle the doctrinal controversy de jure, by making clear the duty of every Catholic to accept the Pope’s decision as final, binding, and certainly true. “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.”

Now, the fact that Pope Paul in Humanae Vitae meant to end the controversy over birth control (in the sense just explained) is evident both from the text of the document itself and from the historical circumstances in which it was prepared and issued. As is well-known by all those who have followed recent Church history, the 1968 encyclical came at a time of deep and widespread discontent, anguish, dissension and uncertainty over the question of birth control within the Catholic fold itself. That is precisely the kind of situation where an ex cathedra decision – a final, doubt-dispelling, certain resolution of a very specific doctrinal question – is an urgent pastoral necessity, in order to restore peace to millions of troubled Catholic consciences. The question had been formally reserved for the judgment of the Supreme Pontiff during the recent Ecumenical Council, which stated that, after the papal commission had completed its study of this and related problems, the Supreme Pontiff would be able to “pass judgment” (iudicium ferat).73 Now in that kind of situation, the “judgment” which is awaited from the supreme ecclesial tribunal on earth – not the Roman Rota nor the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but the Successor of Peter in person, from whose judgment no appeal is possible – is by its very nature a definitive judgment. The last word. The end of the argument.

Pope Paul VI was well aware that this kind of definitive, certain judgment was being expected of him, and made clear in his encyclical that he intended to give it there and then. In the introductory section, he states that he enlarged the papal commission so as to gather “opportune elements of information”. This would better enable him to give “an adequate reply to the expectation not only of the faithful, but also of world opinion”.74 Then, in article 6, the Pope makes it clear that this encyclical will give the reply which the world has been anxiously awaiting:

The conclusions at which the Commission arrived could not be considered by Us as manifesting the force of a certain and definitive judgment (vim iudicii certi ac definiti prae se ferrent), dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally such a grave and momentous question (quaeque Nos officio liberarent, tam gravis momenti quaestionem per Nosmetipsos consideratione expendendi).75

Already the implication is completely clear: the Commission could not produce a statement with “the force of a certain and definitive judgment”, but the Pope can and will give such a judgment after having “personally examined” the matter. The Holy Father then formally announces his intention (still in article 6) to hand down the long-awaited judgment in this present document. His solemn words are usually diluted or weakened in vernacular translations. The following is an accurate rendition of this key passage:

Wherefore, having carefully pondered the documentation placed before Us, having most diligently examined the matter in mind and spirit, and after having raised ceaseless prayers to God, We now resolve, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these grave questions.76

Article 6 thus makes manifest the Pontiff’s intention to give, in this document, a “definitive” teaching on birth control – one handed down with no less than divine authority. It is worth remembering that the “mandate” from Christ referred to here is specifically his teaching authority, not merely the governing authority by which the Pope can make disciplinary decisions. Pope Paul has just asserted in article 4, “It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when communicating to Peter and to the apostles His divine authority, constituted them as guardians and authentic interpreters of all the moral law.”77

It is not only article 6 in isolation that makes manifest the Pontiff’s intention to teach by “a definitive act” in this document. The whole structure of Humanae Vitae, from a semiotic viewpoint, shows that this is no ordinary papal encyclical. Most encyclicals, like the documents of Vatican Council II, are pastoral documents covering a quite wide range of teaching: the Church, work, social problems, Christian marriage, divine revelation, Christian education, Scripture studies, the sacred Liturgy, “errors of the present day”, and so on. In such documents a number of contemporary issues are raised, guidelines, commentary and pastoral directives are often given, and various points of doctrine are often asserted or reasserted. But it is seldom that any one of them is singled out over all the others, or introduced, as it were, by a trumpet fanfare or solemn drum-roll such as the words we have just cited from article 6 of Humanae Vitae. To use another analogy, we could call them “hill-and-valley” documents: they cover a fairly large area of countryside consisting of rolling hills. There are a number of “peaks” – key points of the document – interspersed among the “valleys” of background explanation, commentary, and pastoral exhortation. Such documents constitute the “authentic” teaching of the magisterium, not claiming to be definitive, final decisions in themselves (although much of their content may well be infallible by virtue of constant and emphatic teaching by the Popes and Bishops in their Ordinary Magisterium).

Other magisterial statements, however, could be described as “mountain” documents. A mountain is centred on one specific point, which is very small in relation to the whole, but of supreme importance, standing out clearly visible from a distance of many miles: the summit. That is like the brief, direct, solemn definition of a specific doctrinal point (or perhaps two or three closely linked ones), which is the whole purpose of a “mountain” document. Just as the mountaineer is only really interested in getting to that little, sharply-defined peak of supreme importance to him, so a “mountain” document finds all its real importance in that one terse little definition, which has been eagerly awaited by a wide public. All the earlier part of the document is simply a gradual ascent of the mountain, preparing the way and anticipating the summit, perhaps, in a less formal manner. Then comes the summit itself, the formal assertion of the point which is being decided, probably introduced by one or more verbs reinforcing the gravity and finality of the decision: “We declare”, “We define”, “We proclaim”, etc. That gravity is evident not only from the words themselves, but also from their surrounding literary terrain, just as the beauty or rarity of a precious diamond is set off, enhanced and emphasised by the costly and elaborate ring or pendant in which it is set. Now, once we look at the case before us from this semiotic perspective, the character of Humanae Vitae as a definitive act, a “mountain” document, becomes quite obvious to anyone who reads it impartially. The only other papal documents in recent history that I know of which are structured in this way are the two which are universally recognized as containing ex cathedra definitions: the Apostolic Constitutions Ineffabilis Deus of Pius IX (1854) and Munificentissimus Deus of Pius XII (1950). In each of these, as is well known, the Pontiff issued a lengthy document culminating in a short, solemn definition of a precise, specific point of doctrine: Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception and her Assumption respectively. While, of course, Humanae Vitae does not define any revealed dogma, as those two documents do, it follows a structure which is similar in many ways.

The official title of the encyclical is not, as many suppose, “Human Life”78 – a very broad topic which is more what we would expect in a typical “hill-and-valley” encyclical. It is entitled, “On rightly ordering the propagation of human offspring”79 – a very precise, restricted area of doctrine. Then begins the ascent of the “mountain”: the background to the controversy is set out: the Pope’s intention to give a definitive settlement of it is formally announced in article 6; and the doctrinal principles underlying the decision are then explained. The coming judgment is already hinted at in the “foothills” (rhetorical questions in article 3),80 and, as the summit is approached, it is affirmed in a non-definitive way at the end of article 11: “Nonetheless, the Church … teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” Finally, in article 14, the summit itself is reached, and the solemn definition is proclaimed. It can be distinguished as the “punch-line” from all that precedes and follows it with the same ease that the words of consecration can be distinguished from all others in the Eucharistic Prayers, or the ease with which the kernel of a nut can be plucked from its shell. The Pontiff asserts:

In conformity with these landmarks in the human and Christian vision of marriage, we must once again declare (iterum debemus edicere) that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun is to be absolutely rejected (omnino respuendam) as a legitimate means of limiting the number of offspring – especially direct abortion, even for therapeutic purposes.

Equally to be condemned (Pariter … damnandum est), as the Church’s Magisterium has repeatedly taught, is direct sterilization, whether of men or of women, either permanent or temporary.

Similarly to be rejected (Item … respuendum est) is any act which, in the anticipation or accomplishment of conjugal intercourse, or in the development of its natural results, intends – whether as an end to be attained or as a means to be used – to impede procreation.81

It is worth noting that the language used here is very strong. The key verb, edicere, is used only for important and binding official decisions. The most authoritative Latin-English dictionary (Lewis and Short) shows that practically all usages of the word in classical Latin were for judgments and ordinances of the Senate and other public authorities. The entry says: “of magistrates: declare, publish, make known a decree or ordinance, etc., hence to establish, decree, ordain by proclamation. Respuere is also a very forceful word for “reject”, its literal and original meaning bearing overtones of contempt: “to spit out” or “spit back”. The Pope clearly meant to use the word as a synonym for damnare (“condemn”), since after the first use of respuere for abortion, he says that sterilization (which would here include contraceptive pills to the extent that they produce “temporary” sterilization) is “equally to be condemned”. Damnare is about the strongest verb of disapproval which exists in Latin. Finally, the word omnino (“absolutely”, “totally”, “entirely”), which is used in the first paragraph of the definition, is certainly intended to apply equally to the verbs of condemnation in the second and third paragraphs, as is shown by their respective first words, Pariter and item. Pariter means “likewise”, “equally”, “in the same manner” and in this context – a list of several related affirmations – so does item. Lewis and Short give as the first meaning of item: “implying comparison – just so, in like manner, after the same manner, likewise, also (cf. ita, pariter, eodem modo)”.

Let us return to our semiotic observations on Humanae Vitae. The main structural difference between the encyclical and the documents of Pius IX and Pius XII mentioned above is that Humanae Vitae has a long “descent from the summit as well as an ascent up to it, whereas the other two have the solemn definitions (of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption respectively) placed almost at the end. Paul VI decided to add a third section containing pastoral directives (articles 19-31), as was appropriate in a document with such sweeping practical implications for the everyday lives of millions of Catholics. But the summit itself is certainly no less obvious for its central, rather than terminal, location. By what the Pope declares in his definition against abortion, sterilization and contraception, and by the literary and historical context of that definition, especially article 6 of the encyclical, it is evident that this pronouncement fits the official explanation given by Bishop Gasser to the Vatican I Fathers as to what the word “defines” means in the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility: “the Pope directly and conclusively pronounces sentence” about the doctrine in question; and he does so “in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain… of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way that he or she knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff.”82 In the present case, in which there is no mention of heresy, revealed truth, or something to be held de fide, the appropriate qualification is simply “certain”. Any reasonably intelligent member of the faithful who reads Humanae Vitae with an open mind, taking note of the fact that the Pope here claims to be teaching with a mandate from Christ, and that he prohibits “absolutely” the three specified methods of birth control as being contrary to the “unchangeable” natural law given by God,83 can be left in no doubt whatever that in the mind of the Roman Pontiff, this doctrine is completely certain. This was also the conclusion of the noted theologian Cardinal Charles Journet, whose authoritative commentary in L’Osservatore Romano shortly after Humanae Vitae was published affirms: “The Pope manifestly has the intention of settling a controversy” (ha evidentemente l’intenzione di dirimere una controversia); his response has been given “with precision and certainty” (con precisione e certezza); and “brings with it certitude” (? apportatore di certezza).84

We have now carefully examined, word for word, the four characteristics of an ex cathedra definition specified in the dogmatic definition of 1870, in the light of Bishop Gasser’s authoritative explanation of the text and the subsequent teaching of Vatican Council II. We have also examined Humanae Vitae, presenting evidence that the definition in article 14 of the encyclical clearly manifests all four characteristics. We conclude, therefore, that this definition is indeed an ex cathedra proclamation – infallible and irreformable in itself.

It remains to consider two possible objections to this conclusion. First, some readers may feel that I seem to have made out a good case – but that there must be something wrong with it, because after all, only a small handful of theologians have made such a claim for Humanae Vitae. How could the great majority of the Church’s scholars – even orthodox ones who completely accept the teaching against contraception – be wrong about such an important matter? In reply, I would naturally ask above all that the argument be taken on its merits, and that it not be judged merely by “peer group pressure” – the simple weight of numbers against it up till now. Also, one can point to a number of different factors which have worked together to obscure the full authority of this landmark encyclical: the longstanding confusion (even amongst orthodox theologians) regarding the precise point which the 1870 definition left undecided, and the resulting widespread (though clearly false) impression that it guarantees infallibility only for de fide definitions of revealed truth, or of heresies which directly oppose it; the failure of many theologians to go back to the sources and study Bishop Gasser’s relatio carefully;85 the massive power of the media in our time, which ensured that the false “image” of “fallibility” was attached to Humanae Vitae from the very day of its promulgation, in the minds of millions of Catholics and others, by virtue of the unauthorized comment of the Vatican press spokesman; and finally, the widespread unpopularity of the encyclical’s content, which ensured that it would often be read (or left unread!) with strong prejudices by Catholics who would clutch at any straw in order to diminish its authority. And when thousands of people clutch at the same straw, the mutual illusion is quickly created that it is really a life-belt.86

This brings us to the second objection – one which has probably been the most common straw clutched at by those who do not accept the ex cathedra status of Humanae Vitae. It is said, “Well, if Paul VI wanted to make this teaching ex cathedra, why didn’t he make it really obvious? Why didn’t he add a few more big words (“declare, pronounce and define”), a few more flourishes (“for the glory of God and the salvation of souls”), or pile up a few more expressions of authority (“by the authority of Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostle Peter, and Our own authority?”)

One is reminded here of the story of how the atheist ?mile Zola was shown an array of discarded crutches at Lourdes. He is said to have replied stonily that he would be more impressed by artificial limbs. Just as one can always resist the evidence for a miracle by demanding something still more miraculous, one can always evade the force of clear language by demanding still greater clarity. Furthermore, the objection is based on a comparison with the two best-known ex cathedra definitions of recent centuries: the Marian dogmas to which we have already alluded. But there is no reason why the solemn reprobation of certain shameful sins should be proposed with the kind of joyous, festiv pomp which was appropriate for the proclamation of two glorious privileges of Our Blessed Lady. That would be just as grotesque as insisting that, in order to make Ash Wednesday and All Souls Day stand out better from ordinary celebrations of Mass, they should be celebrated like great Feasts, with gold fringed white vestments, repeated “Alleluias”, and a massed choir singing the Gloria, accompanied by the pealing of bells! When the emphasis is on human sin, the Church’s extraordinary acts are carried out with the appropriate reserve.

Furthermore, we must remember Bishop Gasser’s warning to the Vatican I Fathers, some of whom were falling into the appealing but perilous trap of wanting some single, definite, uniform form of words which should mark an ex cathedra statement: a “standard formula” so obvious as to do away with all possible doubt or confusion as to whether any given papal utterance was infallible or not. Gasser pointed out that the Council had no power to legislate for the past: previous Pontiffs had used a variety of verbal formulae over the centuries to express their definitive doctrinal decisions. Nor, he continued, had the Council any power to legislate for the present or future Popes as to what exact form they should use: that would be the heresy of conciliarism – putting Councils above the Pope.87 In particular, there is no “magic” in the verb “define”, as if the presence or absence of an ex cathedra definition can be established by the simple criterion of seeing whether the Pontiff uses that word or not. Theologians, for instance, recognize as ex cathedra Pope Innocent X’s condemnations of certain Jansenist heresies,88 although the word “define” never appears: after the heretical propositions, the Pope appended (with no pomp and less ceremony) a simple five-word thunderbolt: Declarata et damnata uti haeretica ( Declared and condemned as heretical”).

Finally, there is a particular reason why Paul VI probably did not use the word “define”, or other expressions which would have made the definition in Humanae Vitae look even more like those used for proclaiming the recent Marian dogmas. There has been a strong tendency for Popes to use the word “define”, in practice, in those ex cathedra statements which do in fact proclaim dogmas – truths revealed by God. As we saw, some conservative Fathers at Vatican I were worried precisely for that reason by the use of “definit” in the text of the dogma: they thought it might be taken to restrict the Pope’s infallibility to matters of revealed truth and its opposite, heresy. Gasser had to explain to them most carefully that, in this document, the word “definit” does not have that restricted meaning, and must be understood to include decisions regarding matters less grave than heresies and revealed, de fide dogmas.89 However, since in practice definimus has usually been the word Popes have used for proclaiming strictly revealed truths, we can readily understand why Paul VI would not have wanted to use it here, nor other expressions which might resemble too closely those which modern Catholics associate with the dogmas of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception. Such wording might have led to confusion over whether the Pontiff was making the immorality of contraception a dogma of faith, to be accepted as such under pain of excommunication. Pope Paul had no intention of doing that, and so he carefully chose words which could not be taken in such a way. However, he manifestly did intend to affirm with “certainty” (as he later told the College of Cardinals) an immutable norm of the natural law written by God in the human heart. And his manner of doing so in Humanae Vitae enables all Catholics who understand the 1870 definition correctly to see on the face of this document the radiance of the Pope’s intimate converse with God as he made this decision: the radiance of infallibility.


1. This review article is reproduced as Appendix III to the present writer’s book, Religious Liberty and Contraception (Melbourne, John XXIII Fellowship Cooperative, 1988), pp. 168-181. (Available for $14.00, including postage, from Catholics United for the Faith, 827 North 4th Street, Steubenville, Ohio 43952.)

2. James T. O’Connor, The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I, Boston, St. Paul Editions, 1986, pp. 117-120.

3. Ibid., p. 117 (O’Connor’s citation of Summa Theologiae, II-IIae, q. 11, art. 2 corp.

4. Cuthbert Butler, O.S.B., The Vatican Council, 1869-1870, Collins, Fontana Library, 1962 (first ed. 1930), p. 459.

5. Cited, ibid.

6. Cited, ibid., pp. 463-464.

7. Cited, ibid., p. 464 (emphasis added).

8. Ibid., p. 465.

9. Ibid., p. 376.

10. Ibid., p. 467.

11. Cited and translated by Butler, ibid., pp. 467-468 (emphasis added in the last three emphasised passages, i.e., all those except for the first line, where the emphasis is in the original).

12. Cited, ibid., p. 461.

13. Ibid.

14. Cf. Denzinger-Sch?nmetzer (DS) 3075. “If anyone should presume to contradict this our definition – which God forbid – let him be anathema.” Also cf. 1983 Codex Iuris Canonici, c. 1364, no. 1.

15. Chirico, op. cit., p. 234. (The words cited here form the subheading of a section of the chapter on papal infallibility.)

16. Ibid., p. 241.

17. Ibid., p. 235.

18. Ibid., p. 242.

19. Chirico, the author of this article, describes his own thesis as “the new approach” to infallibility. New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 17, Washington, D.C., McGraw-Hall, 1979, pp. 291-292.

20. DS 3069.

21. Ibid.

22. DS 3070.

23. Butler, op. cit., p. 385 (column A of schema), emphasis added.

24. Cf. ibid., p. 376.

25. Ibid., pp. 379, 385 (column B of schema).

26. Cited, ibid., pp. 376-377.

27. Ibid.

28. Cf. Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception, op. cit., pp. 63-82 and 136-137.

29. Cf. Butler, op. cit., p. 377.

30. Ibid., p. 381.

31. DS 3073-3074.

32. Cf. O’Connor, op. cit., pp. 82-83, 118.

33. Lumen Gentium, no. 25, cited and translated here by O’Connor, op. cit., p. 83 (emphasis added).

34. Austin Flannery, O.P. (ed.), Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, Boston, St. Paul Editions, 1988 (revised ed.).

35. Walter M. Abbott (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II, New York, America Press, 1966. Cf. p. 48, last paragraph.

36. Flannery, op. cit., p. 380 (emphasis added).

37. Cited in O’Connor, op. cit., p. 83. The Latin text reads: “Secundum autem catholicam doctrinam, infallibilitas Magisterii Ecclesiae non solum ad fidei depositum se extendit, sed etiam ad ea, sine quibus hoc depositum rite nequit custodiri et exponi.” AAS 65 (1973), p. 401.

38. Cf. footnotes 43, 44, 45 and 46 in Lumen Gentium, no. 25 (Flannery, op. cit., pp. 380-381.)

39. Cited in O’Connor, op. cit., pp. 76-77 (emphasis added).

40. Butler, op. cit., p. 380.

41. Ibid. (emphasis added).

42. E.g., L. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford, Illinois, TAN Books, 1974, pp. 9-10; M. Schmaus, Dogmatica Cattolica, vol. I, Casale, Marietti, 1959, p. 111.

43. DS 3026. Another example of a secondary truth necessary for guarding revealed truth would be the same Council’s definition of the permanence in meaning of the Church’s dogmatic formulae: DS 3043. Revelation itself does not teach the philosophical principle that nominalism is to be rejected; nevertheless this principle is obviously necessary to undergird the whole corpus of revealed truth. Retaining the mere words of traditional belief while altering substantially their meaning would clearly undermine the whole of the Catholic faith as an intelligible body of belief.

44. E.g., Ott, op. cit., p. 9, no. 6.3.

45. Cited, O’Connor, op. cit., p. 77.

46. Ibid., pp. 78-79.

47. Ibid., p. 47 (emphasis added).

48. Cf. DS 2896. Cf. J.M. Herv?, Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae, Paris, Berche & Pagis, 1935, vol. I, pp. 488, 490.

49. Cf. Canon Law Society of America, The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, New York, Paulist Press, 1985, p. 547.

50. O’Connor, op. cit., p. 73 (citing Mansi, 52, cc. 1276-1302).

51. Cited, O’Connor, op. cit., pp. 73-74 (emphasis added).

52. The word definire (“define”) has in fact been commonly used in defining dogmas of faith, but its use is by no means necessary. Its occurrence or absence cannot be seen as a kind of ‘litmus test’ or ‘rule of thumb’ for deciding whether a given papal statement is ex cathedra or not. Perhaps to emphasise this point, Vatican II avoided the verb definire when treating of papal infallibility in Lumen Gentium, no. 25. Instead, it affirms that the Pope is infallible when he “proclaims” a doctrine of faith or morals “by definitive act” (definitivo actu proclamat).

53. “Ecclesia potest legem naturae infallibiliter declarare et interpretari.” H. Noldin & A. Schmitt, Summa Theologiae Moralis, Barcelona, Herder, 1951 (ed. XXVIII), vol. I, p. 124.

54. Cited, O’Connor, op. cit., p. 68.

55. Cited, ibid., pp. 68-69.

56. Ibid., p. 69.

57. Ibid., pp. 82-83.

58. Cited, ibid., p. 120 (emphasis in original).

59. Chirico, op. cit., p. 242.

60. Herv?, op. cit., p. 507 (present writer’s translation, emphasis in original).

61. The Pope Speaks: the Church Documents Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4, 1969, p. 309. (…il costante e comune insegnamento della Chiesa, il quale ci ? apparso cos? nuovamente nella sua severa e insieme serena certezza). AAS 61 (1969), p. 38 (emphasis added).

62. Cited, O’Connor, op. cit., p. 73.

63. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, AAS 60 (1968), p. 481.

64. Ibid., p. 484, no. 6.

65. Ibid., p. 490, no. 14.

66. Ibid., p. 495, no. 19.

67. Ibid., p. 495, no. 20.

68. Ibid., p. 499, no. 25.

69. Ibid., p. 501.

70. Ibid.

71. Lumen Gentium, no. 25 (cf. note 52 above).

72. “directe et terminative.” Cf. citation over note 51 above.

73. Gaudium et Spes, note 14 in Part II, Chapter I (in no. 51 of the Pastoral Constitution). Sacrosanctum Oecumenicum Concilium Vaticanum II, Constitutiones, Decreta, Declarationes, Vatican City, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1974, p. 763.

74. AAS 60 (1968), p. 484, no. 5.

75. Ibid., p. 484, no. 6

76. Ibid., p. 485. The Latin text is: Quare, actis ad Nos missis accurate expensis, re diligentissime mente animoque excussa, assiduisque Deo admotis precibus, vi mandati Nobis a Christo commissi, nunc gravibus huius generis quaestionibus responsum dare consemus.

77. Ibid., p. 483 (Christum Iesum, cum Petrum ceterosque Apostolos divinae potestatis suae participavisset).

78. Using the first two words of the encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” the St. Paul Books and Media (Boston) version of the encyclical is entitled Of Human Life. While papal and conciliar documents are commonly referred to by the first two or three words in Latin, these do not constitute the official title.

79. De propagatione humanae prolis recte ordinanda, AAS 60 (1968), p. 481.

80. Ibid., pp. 482-483.

81. Ibid., p. 490. The Latin text of the definition is: … iterum debemus edicere, omnino respuendam esse, ut legitimum modum numeri liberorum temperandi, directam generationis iam coeptae interruptionem, ac praesertim abortum directum, quamvis curationis causa factum.
Pariter, sicut Ecclesiae Magisterium pluries docuit, damnandum est seu viros seu mulieres directo sterilitate, vel perpetuo vel ad tempus, afficere.
Item quivis respuendus est actus, qui, cum coniugale commercium vel praevidetur vel efficitur vel ad suos naturales exitus ducit, id tamquam finem obtinendum aut viam adhibendam intendat, ut procreatio impediatur.

82. Cited, O’Connor, op. cit., p. 74. (Cf. text over note 51 above).

83. Humanae Vitae, no. 18, states that the Church can never “declare to be licit that which is not so by reason of its unchangeable opposition to the true good of man” (numquam fas erit licitum declarare quod revera illicitum est, cum id suapte natura germano hominis bono semper repugnet). AAS 60 (1968), p. 494.

84. L’Osservatore Romano (daily Italian edition), 3 October 1968, pp. 1-2 (present writer’s translation).

85. Gasser’s relatio was unavailable in English in its entirety until O’Connor’s translation was published in 1986, well over a century after Vatican I itself. It has been widely ignored: in a book of some three hundred pages on infallibility, for instance, Chirico (op. cit.) fails even to mention Gasser or his relatio.

86. Also contributing to the common error is the fact that the 1917 Code of Canon Law (c.1323.3) said, “Nothing is to be understood as dogmatically (dogmatice) declared or defined unless it is manifestly the case.” The Code did not state or imply that dogmatic definitions – which seemed to mean definitions of strictly revealed truth – are the only kind of infallible definitions there are. But simply by omitting all mention of any other type, it tended to leave that impression. And Humanae Vitae is not in fact a definition of dogma. The 1983 Code of Canon Law has corrected the apparent ambiguity by substituting infallibiliter (“infallibly”) for dogmatice (cf. c. 749.3).

87. Cf. O’Connor, op. cit., p. 47.

88. Denzinger 1092-1096 (DS 2001-2006).

89. Cf. O’Connor, op. cit., p. 74 (citation over note 51 above).


BOOK REVIEW: Humanae Vitae e Infallibilit?: il Concilio, Paolo VI e Giovanni Paolo II,
by Ermenegildo Lio, O.F.M. Published in Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, l986.

Reviewed by Brian W. Harrison

This is undoubtedly one of the most important theological works to be published in Italy during the last year; yet so far it has received very little attention. Apart from a sympathetic review in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, by Cardinal Luigi Ciappi, the personal theologian to the Supreme Pontiff, this book – the title of which means “Humanae Vitae and Infallibility: the Council, Paul VI and John Paul II” – has been greeted with silence by the theological journals and Church news media.

Why should a volume of almost a thousand closely-printed pages – written by a highly-respected theologian (a Vatican II peritus, in fact) and dealing with one of the really “burning issues” of our time – be treated in this way? Perhaps because this particular burning issue is considered by many to be rather too hot to handle.

What might be called the conventional wisdom of theologians over the last two decades is that the decision against contraception handed down in Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae belongs to the “authentic” ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church. That is, it is presented as “non-infallible” teaching, in which the Magisterium does not give us any absolute guarantee that the teaching is immutably true and therefore forever irreformable. This seems to be the view most commonly taught in seminaries and theological faculties, here in Rome as much as anywhere else.

A decade after the Encyclical appeared, the American theologians John Ford and Germain Grisez published a lengthy article arguing that this view is inadequate, and at best a half-truth (“Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,” Theological Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2, June 1978, pp. 258-312). Ford and Grisez reminded Catholics that according to the teaching of Vatican II (cf. Lumen Gentium: 25) there are three modes in which infallible doctrinal teaching can be presented by the Magisterium: by the Pope alone, by the Pope and Bishops assembled together in an Ecumenical Council, or by the College of Bishops (including the Pope as its head) even when they are dispersed throughout the world. According to Ford and Grisez, the Church’s teaching against contraception is a classic example of this third mode of infallibility transmitting the doctrine of Christ. That is, while they do not claim that Humanae Vitae is in itself an ex cathedra, infallible definition, Ford and Grisez maintain that the teaching which it contains is infallible and irreformable, by virtue of having been taught constantly and definitively, over a period of many centuries, by a consensus of Popes and Bishops around the world – a consensus which was virtually unanimous until the early 1960s. Any single instance of affirming this doctrine might not in itself be authoritative enough to give us an absolute assurance of its truth; but the cumulative or combined weight of so many affirmations over an extensive period of time does give us that kind of assurance. An analogy might be drawn with a single strand of wire, which might be snapped without great difficulty in isolation, in comparison with several hundred such strands bound together into a thick cable. Their combined strength is now powerful enough to resist the strongest pressures. This sort of collective exercise of the Church’s infallibility is commonly referred to as her universal ordinary Magisterium. Those who dissent from Humanae Vitae, or who at least have doubts about its permanently binding validity, have tended to ignore Ford’s and Grisez’ carefully argued and well-documented article. (Fr. Francis Sullivan, S.J., however, has criticised their thesis in Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 1983, pp. 143ff. The present writer has replied to Sullivan in Living Tradition, No. 2, December 1985, pp. 3-6. Grisez himself has done so at much greater length in The Thomist, Vol. 49, No. 2, April 1985, pp. 248-287 – “Infallibility and Specific Norms: a Review Discussion”).

In his recent work, Fr. Lio goes a step further than Ford and Grisez. He argues that Humanae Vitae does not need the supportive corroborative testimony of other papal and episcopal statements in order to assure Catholics that its doctrinal position regarding contraception is immutable and irreformable. In what may well be the most formidable challenge to dissent that has so far appeared since the Encyclical was promulgated nearly twenty years ago, Fr. Lio has amassed argument after argument, and document after document, to maintain that Humanae Vitae, art. 14, contains an ex cathedra definition of the intrinsic immorality of contraception: that is, an exercise of papal infallibility as solemnly defined by Vatican Council I, in the Constitution Pastor Aeternus.

Fr. Lio is scarcely a newcomer to these questions. Born in the same month as the present Holy Father (May 1920), he has been teaching moral theology since 1951, and played an important role in the drafting of the passages in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes which deal with conjugal morality. He has published many books and articles, including Humanae Vitae e Coscienza (Humanae Vitae and Conscience), which appeared in 1980 as part of the same series which includes his new book on Paul VI’s Encyclical. Fr. Lio, a close adviser of recent Popes, is a Professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

Why two sizable volumes on the authority of Humanae Vitae? According to Fr. Lio, the problem has been that many in the Church have been maintaining that the Encyclical, although an authentic exercise of the Magisterium, should not be seen as binding on Catholic consciences, and much less as an infallible and irreformable pronouncement. The first of his two books in this series from the Vatican publishing house was written with the intention of responding to the first of these two positions, while the new – (and larger) – work sets out to answer the second – that which sees Humanae Vitae as non-infallible and subject to change by some future Pope.

The central argument of Humanae Vitae e Infallibilit? could be summed up as follows. A prevalent error amongst even well-intentioned and orthodox Catholics, says Fr. Lio, is the idea that in order for a papal pronouncement to be infallible, in terms of Vatican I’s conditions, it has to be a dogmatic definition: that is, the highest possible exercise of papal authority. Examples of this from the last century or so would be the dogmatic definitions of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption by Popes Pius IX and Pius XII respectively. In a dogmatic definition we find a particularly solemn form of words (called the modus definitorius in Latin) employed in order to affirm that such-and-such a doctrine concerning faith or morals is revealed by God, and is a part of the Church’s deposit of faith. As such, it must be believed with the assent of divine and Catholic faith, and wilful doubt or denial of such defined dogma is formal heresy, carrying with it the juridical consequence of excommunication – placing oneself outside the Church.

However, Fr. Lio points out, it simply is not the teaching of either Vatican I or Vatican II that the Church’s infallibility (which is enjoyed and exercised by the Pope alone under certain conditions) is limited to the field of dogma, that is, to the determination and promulgation of truths revealed by God in either Scripture or Tradition. Rather, infallibility also covers other truths which are closely linked to divine revelation, and which cannot be denied without endangering this deposit of revealed truth in some way. Examples of these closely related truths would be principles of the natural moral law – many of which are in any case revealed in Scripture as well. The natural law – to which even pagans have access in principle, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 1-2 – is the foundation on which the higher, supernatural law of Christ is based. Hence, the Church has always claimed a divine mandate to guard and interpret the natural law, as Paul VI affirms emphatically in Humanae Vitae: 4. These truths concerning faith or morals which are necessary to safeguard the deposit of faith are not Catholic dogmas, but they are Catholic doctrines. And the Church can teach them infallibly. The Vatican I definition of papal infallibility expressly said that it extends to “doctrine” (doctrina) – a general term which covers both dogmas and the secondary, related truths. Also, Pastor Aeternus speaks of the Pope’s power to define infallibly what must be “held” (tenendam) by all the faithful, not only what must be “believed” (credendam). If the latter word had been used, this might have suggested that only what is an object of faith in the strict sense (i.e., revealed truth) can be infallibly taught. Furthermore, Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium: 25, concurs with Vatican I that infallibility is not limited strictly to what is divinely revealed. Rather, it affirms that this deposit of divine revelation has to be “devoutly guarded and faithfully expounded” (sancte custodiendum et fideliter exponendum), so that infallibility extends as far as may be necessary for doing precisely that.

Fr. Lio goes on to argue that a correct understanding of the Vatican I definition will not seek the solemn modus definitorius – or even the word “define” or “definition” – as the essential, necessary signal or sine qua non of an infallible papal definition. Instead, it is quite sufficient that we have a modus definitivus, that is, clear evidence in the relevant documentation that the Pope is intending to hand down a certain, decisive judgment that such-and-such a point of doctrine, concerning faith or morals, is true and its contrary false. He does not have to affirm it as dogma (revealed truth) or anathematize dissidents.

Having established these basic methodological criteria, Fr. Lio goes on to argue, by a minute examination of the relevant documents – Gaudium et Spes, various papal allocutions, and Humanae Vitae itself – that the 1968 Encyclical clearly manifests all the necessary conditions for an infallible (though not a dogmatic) definition of the absolute and intrinsic unlawfulness of every contraceptive act. The whole history of the controversy, Fr. Lio maintains, proves that Paul VI’s intention was to hand down a decisive, final judgment on this issue – to settle the controversy once and for all. Or at least, since he foresaw that dissent and protest would in fact continue, his intention was to put an end to any objective grounds for uncertainty or wavering on this issue, on the part of faithful Catholics.

Such is the basic outline of Fr. Lio’s case. It will be worthwhile, however, to mention some of the specific key points in the argument, and some of the answers to objections.

First, it is of interest that Fr. Lio has made use of certain hitherto unpublished manuscript documents from the Vatican’s secret archives. In particular, a page of handwritten notes by the theologian G.B. Franzelin shows the original draft of the formula subsequently adopted – with certain modifications – for the definition of papal infallibility in 1870. A study of Franzelin’s thinking corroborates the view that the key expression in the definition is not the term ex cathedra, but the word definit – “defines.” The relator (official commentator at Vatican I), Bishop Gasser, explained to the assembled Fathers what the drafting Commission understood by this word. As Fr. Lio quotes Gasser, he affirmed to the conciliar Bishops that the word should not be taken as signifying exclusively a “forensic” act by the Pope – one which settles a controversy as to what is heresy and what is a matter of faith. Rather, the meaning is broader: the Pope “defines” a doctrine whenever he “passes judgment in a direct and final way” (suam sententiam directe et terminative proferat) on a point of faith or morals, “in such a way that each and every Catholic can be certain as to the mind of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Pontiff; and, indeed, certain that the Roman Pontiff holds this or that doctrine to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certainly true, erroneous, etc. (ita quidem ut certe sciat a Romano Pontifice hanc vel illam doctrinam haberi haereticam, haeresi proximam, certam vel erroneam etc.)” (in Collectio Lacensis, V, col. 474f.). Since Gasser’s explanation of the Vatican I definition was the one which the Fathers had in mind when they voted, it is of the highest authority, and clearly supports Fr. Lio’s thesis that papal infallibility is not limited to dogmatic definitions – i.e. judgments as to what is revealed (de fide) and what (in direct contrast) is heretical. Pope Pius IX and the Fathers of Vatican I promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility on the understanding that this prerogative of the Roman Pontiff also included the power to judge questions which are not in themselves matters of revealed truth, but closely related to revealed truth.

Whence, then, comes the prevalent idea that dogmatic definitions, such as those of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, are the only possible exercise of papal infallibility? Fr. Lio maintains that, to a large extent, this has come about because of the wording of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Canon 1323: 3 of the old Code affirmed that “Nothing is to be understood as dogmatically (dogmatice) declared or defined unless this is manifestly the case.” This has tended to create the impression – although it certainly does not teach or necessarily imply – that dogmatic definitions are the only kind of infallible definitions there are: there is no mention of any other kind. In the new Code of 1983, however, the words “dogmatically declared or defined” have been replaced by “infallibly defined” (canon 749:3). Fr. Lio maintains that this revision clarifies the situation: it brings the Church’s law more unambiguously into line with her doctrine by removing any occasion for equating “infallible” with “dogmatic” – an equation which unduly limits the occasions on which Popes teach (or are understood to teach) infallibly.

The question still remains, of course, as to whether – even if Fr. Lio’s general criteria for infallible teaching are correct – those criteria are “manifestly” verified in the case of Humanae Vitae. For if they are not, then, according to the new Code, that Encyclical is not to be understood as “infallibly defining” the immorality of contraception.

The present writer has heard more than one theologian express the view that by being “manifestly the case” (manifesto constiterit) the Code effectively means “being agreed upon by a consensus of theologians.” In other words, unless there is a consensus of theologians that such-and-such a doctrine is infallibly defined, nobody has the right to say that it is! This, however, seems quite inadequate. Such an interpretation of the Code would in effect give the theological “establishment” at any given period a kind of veto power over the Roman Pontiff himself.

Fr. Lio, on the contrary, adopts a more objective criterion: it is “manifestly the case” that a certain doctrine is infallibly defined whenever it emerges plainly and clearly from the words of the relevant documents that there was an intention of giving a certain, final, decisive judgment on a point of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church. The number of theologians who accept it as an irreformable judgment is in that case simply irrelevant. And Fr. Lio maintains that the relevant documents do indeed manifest very plainly Paul VI’s intention of giving a decisive judgment in Humanae Vitae, even though he nowhere uses the word “define.” As Bishop Gasser’s authoritative explanation at Vatican I made clear, the word “define,” in a papal pronouncement, should not be seen as a kind of magic formula or simplistic “rule of thumb”: “If the Pope says, ‘We define such-and-such,’ it’s infallible, and if he doesn’t, it’s not.”

A frequently-raised objection is that Msgr. F. Lambruschini, who presented Humanae Vitae to the public at the Vatican Press Conference, said on that occasion that the Encyclical was not an infallible statement. Since he went uncorrected by the Vatican, it is argued, he cannot have been speaking contrary to the Pope’s own intention.

Fr. Lio replies that there was considerable dismay behind the scenes about Msgr. Lambruschini’s remarks, which were purely his own personal initiative, with no official backing whatever. (He had in fact been one of the theologians favouring a relaxation of the traditional doctrine prior to the Encyclical’s publication.) Lambruschini was in effect corrected, though not in such a way as to be humiliated publicly. Fr. Lio points out how, in the report of Lambruschini’s press conference given in the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano (daily Italian edition, 29/30 July 1968, p. 4), his statements to the journalists about the “non-infallibile” nature of Humanae Vitae are conspicuous by their absence.

Conspicuously present in the Vatican daily a few weeks later, however, was the report of Fr. Lio’s own speech at the opening of the 1968-69 academic year of the Pontifical Lateran University. Giving a summary of Fr. Lio’s address, L’Osservatore Romano highlighted the fact that he had twice used the word “immutable” – which logically implies infallibility – in regard to the decision handed down in Humanae Vitae. Indeed, the essential thesis of Fr. Lio’s new book can be found summed up nearly two decades earlier, on page 4 of L’Osservatore Romano, 26 October 1968. He is reported there as saying that the Encyclical

reconfirms … the immutable and perennial nature of the doctrine regarding the intrinsic evil of contraception. … Catholic moral truth in its immutability and perennial validity, lives, not only through dogmatic definitions, or other pronouncements given in the modus definitorius, but also through other affirmations of truth – and these indeed are the majority – which, even when they are not clearly formulated in that mode, cannot be regarded as changeable. [present writer’s translation from the Italian.]

Indeed, at a higher level of magisterial authority, Cardinal Charles Journet had already written in L’Osservatore Romano that even though Humanae Vitae did not solemnly define the immorality of contraception “as contained in the revealed deposit,” it nevertheless gives a decision about contraception which can be known with certainty to be true:

The Pope manifestly has the intention of settling a controversy (ha evidentemente l’intenzione di dirimere una controversia) which places in doubt the traditional teaching of centuries approved by the Magisterium. … The theologian who reflects on the gravity of this case, on the level of light which has been brought to bear on it, and on the precision and certainty (precisione e certezza) with which the response has been given, can even draw the conclusion – in our personal opinion – that we are confronted here by a point of moral doctrine which is definable at a further level (ulteriormente definibile) – one which could in future be convalidated by the assent of divine faith. Whatever about this last point, the teaching of the Encyclical brings with it certitude (? apportatore di certezza). (L’Osservatore Romano, 3 October 1968, pp. 1-2, present writer’s translation.)
More fundamentally important than commentaries on the Encyclical, of course, are the Pope’s own words. Fr. Lio points out that Paul VI’s manifest intention of giving a certain, final judgment on this issue emerges, not merely from an examination of Humanae Vitae itself, but also from other statements and interventions which the Pope made during the crucial period of controversy.

It is often said that Paul VI was himself in doubt about the doctrinal point at issue for some time and took a long while to make up his mind. However, Fr. Lio told the present writer that the Pope assured him personally, at around the time Humanae Vitae was issued, that he had never at any stage been in doubt about the intrinsic evil of contraception. The long time lapse was due only to the need to ponder carefully the precise manner in which this truth – which had already been authoritatively settled by Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1930) – could best be reaffirmed.

In support of this private information given by Paul VI to Fr. Lio is the documented fact of his personal intervention at the conclusion of Vatican II, when Gaudium et Spes was in the process of being finalized. There was division and uncertainty amongst the Council Fathers, with the result that the drafting Commission wanted to leave the question open in this new magisterial statement. However, as Fr. Lio’s book documents, Paul VI responded to a request from Cardinal Ottaviani and Fr. Lio himself by intervening personally, against the previous wish of the majority of those drafting the document, to insist on the inclusion of a reference to the crucial passage of Casti Connubii in footnote 14 to Gaudium et Spes: 51. This is highly significant, because it shows that the Pope was insisting (and made the Council insist) that whatever future statements he might make about contraception, everyone could know in advance that there would be no going back on Pius XI’s firm decision against unnatural methods of birth control as intrinsically evil. So much for Paul VI’s “indecision.”

What, then, was meant by the Council’s decision (expressed in this same footnote 14) to reserve “certain questions” for further and more intensive study by the Commission which Pope John had established, after which his successor in the Chair of Peter would “pass judgment” (iudicium ferat) personally? What else was left to decide, if it was already decided that, come what may, Pius XI would not be contradicted? Indeed, the mass media, and many Catholics who were hoping for a change, often highlighted an address given by Paul VI to the College of Cardinals (in June 1964, a year and a half before Gaudium et Spes was promulgated) in which he seemed to hint at the possibility, at least, that he might eventually feel obliged to change “the norms given by Pius XII.”

Fr. Lio replies by pointing out, first, that in this 1964 address Pius XI was not even mentioned: it was taken for granted that there would be no reversal of his teaching handed down in Casti Connubii. Fr. Lio maintains that what Paul VI had in mind in referring to “the norms given by Pius XII” was the late Pontiff’s final allocution on the subject of contraception, given just a month before his death in 1958. On that occasion Pius XII had expressed disapproval of a particular form of birth regulation which had not existed in the time of Pius XI: the newly-discovered “chemical” means of extending the period of infertility in a woman’s cycle – i.e., the contraceptive “Pill.” Some theologians who accepted Pius XI’s strictures against unnatural methods of birth control were wondering whether perhaps this new intervention might not in fact fall under the ban of Pius XI, insofar as it did not entail – unlike condoms, “withdrawal” or diaphragms – any interference with the physical structure of the conjugal act.

Thus, according to Fr. Lio, this was the only question which might for a time have been seen by Paul VI as legitimately debatable: not the question of doctrine as to whether unnatural methods of birth control are ever acceptable, but the question of fact as to whether this new chemical invention should be classified as “unnatural” or not. In any case, the Pope was aware that some were drawing unwarranted conclusions from his 1964 address, and in a subsequent allocution in October 1966 – still nearly two years before the publication of Humanae Vitae – stated that his intention had been to affirm that the mind and norms of the Church had not been changed, were still in force, and that the Council did not open the way for any “substantial change” in the “Catholic doctrine” on birth control.

In short, according to Fr. Lio’s well-argued case, the only critical point which was left over by Vatican Council II (including, of course, the Pope) for further discussion, investigation and subsequent personal “judgment” by the Pontiff himself, was this new and very specific question about the status of one recently-invented method of birth regulation – “the Pill.” Nevertheless, there was very little chance that it could ever be permitted, since Pius XII had already disapproved it (although not in a highly authoritative way) in an allocution of 1958. Unfortunately the media, as well as innumerable Catholic dissidents, neglected the fact that the Pope had served notice as far back as December 1965 (the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes) that there would definitely be no turning back on the basic doctrinal principle against contraception, which had already been decided finally by Pius XI in 1930. Thus, ordinary Catholics were often led into a totally unreal expectation of change.

It will be clear by now that, if Fr. Lio’s criteria for infallible papal pronouncements are valid, contraception had already been infallibly condemned in this earlier encyclical of 1930, Casti Connubii. The objection might be raised, then, that Paul VI could not have intended to define infallibly what had already been defined infallibly. Not so, says Fr. Lio. The 1870 definition of papal infallibility lays down no such restrictions, as if ex cathedra definitions were intrinsically unrepeatable, like certain sacraments. Pius XI had indeed settled the immutable character of the teaching, and this was recognized by his successors Pius XII and Paul VI. However, because of the de facto situation of serious dissent which had arisen by the 1960’s, it was necessary for Paul VI to define the teaching once again. The words introducing the formal judgment given in Humanae Vitae: 14 were carefully chosen: “We must therefore declare once again (iterum debemus edicere).”

The fact that the word edicere, rather than definire (“define”) is used here does not militate against its being an infallible definition, argues Fr. Lio: the Vatican I Fathers were not told by Bishop Gasser that there was anything sacrosanct about the word “define.” All that is necessary is that the Pope clearly express his intention of speaking decisively and with finality on a point of doctrine, in such a way that good Catholics can be certain what the truth is. And, indeed, as Fr. Lio points out, Paul VI had already explicitly made public well beforehand his intention of speaking “decisively” on the subject of contraception. In his allocution of 29 October, 1966, the Pope said, “We know that Catholics are awaiting from us, yes, a decisive word (una parola decisiva) concerning the mind of the Church on this very question. But as is obvious, we cannot give this on the present occasion.”

Fr. Lio then goes through the entire text of Humanae Vitae itself in great detail, showing the many expressions which make manifest the Pope’s intention of giving a certain and decisive judgment about contraception. The Pope speaks of his “most grave” duty of speaking out on this question (art. 1); he affirms that the right to decide questions of natural law comes from a “participation in the divine power” given by Christ to Peter and the Apostles (art. 4); and he concludes the introductory section of the document by expressing his intention in the following solemn terms, invoking the authority of Our Lord Himself:

Wherefore, having carefully pondered all the documentation placed before Us, having most diligently examined the question with all Our mental and spiritual powers, and after having raised assiduous prayers to God, We now resolve to give Our reply – by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ – to these grave questions.

If this is not a manifest intention of speaking “decisively,” it might well be asked, then what sort of language would we require to be convinced of that intention?

Fr. Lio goes on to show how the subsequent paragraphs foreshadow the central decision, which is given formally in article 14, where abortion, sterilization and contraception are all declared “again” as “absolutely to be rejected” (omnino respuendam) insofar as they are “intrinsically evil” (intrinsice inhonestum). Anyone who thinks that contraceptive acts can ever be lawful, even for “very grave reasons” (ob gravissimas causas), is “absolutely wrong” (erret omnino), declares the Pope. Furthermore, he affirms repeatedly that this is the law of God (not a human or merely ecclesiastical law) and claims the guidance of the Holy Spirit (arts. 28, 29).

If, after all this, the Pope had been wrong in his decision about contraception, what credibility would be left to the Catholic Church’s claim that the Vicar of Christ enjoys a special and unique divine guidance to teach on these matters? For Fr. Lio such a contingency would amount to a justification for the old Protestant claim that the Pope is Antichrist, or the spokesman of Satan! After all, would it not be a Satanic delusion – even a form of blasphemy – for a mortal man to declare falsehood or error whilst solemnly invoking the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit for such declarations? Indeed, it seems hard to gainsay Fr. Lio, if we consider the question from that angle.

In short, then, Fr. Lio has produced a highly important contribution to a question which remains one of the crucial issues in the contemporary Church. Instead of the curtain of silence which has surrounded Humanae Vitae e Infallibilit? in the first twelve months since its publication, it deserves to be translated into English and other languages in order to facilitate wide study and discussion. In expressing this positive opinion, moreover, we are in distinguished company: in a very uncommon gesture of warm personal commendation given to an individual theologian for a particular work, the Holy Father John Paul II had a message drafted in fine calligraphy and sent to Fr. Lio with his own handwritten signature. Fr. Lio kindly gave me a photocopy of this document, which reads (in translation from the Italian original):

To the Rev. Fr. Ermenegildo Lio, O.F.M., with deep thanks for the presentation of your volume Humanae Vitae e Infallibilit?, and with warm appreciation for the sentiments of sincere adherence to the Magisterium of the Church which have always guided your activity of research and teaching: I impart to you from my heart a special Apostolic Blessing, a pledge of continuing heavenly assistance towards a fervent perseverance in the love of Truth and the service of souls.

From the Vatican, 31 July 1986.

(Signed) John Paul PP. II.

Those words from the Successor of Peter should certainly give a much firmer impetus to study Fr. Lio’s book than anything which might be said by this reviewer.