How Many Infallible Doctrines?

Dear Fr. Bloom,

I found you linked to Catholicity and have a question to ask you. I asked in another forum and did not word it right, unfortunately. How many doctrines or dogmas has the Church infallibly taught over the centuries? I have a friend who claims that only the dogma of the Assumption has been infallibly proclaimed and all the rest of its teachings are subject to our discernment. Is this true? I can't believe it is. I remember being taught that there is an ordinary magisterium and an extraordinary magisterium (the Church's teaching office exercised in a solemn way.) This friend is a good, holy woman, and would not deliberately mislead anyone, but says a friend who is a theologian told her about the Assumption. If you have time to reply or post an answer, please let me know.

Thank you and God bless you for what you do for Him and for us, the Faithful.

Ann Erwin


Dear Ann,

Thanks for the important question. Others (like James Akin at Catholic Answers) could respond to it better than I. Each Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed. It is authoritative for all Catholics - indeed for all those who call themselves Christians. Also you are correct about ordinary magisterium - there are many teachings which are part of our faith which have not been infallibly defined, which is why we have the Catechism "a sure norm for teaching the faith." (Fidei Depositum #3)

People who raise the question are usually thinking about Catholic teaching regarding contraception. An author who wrote about this is G. E. M. ANSCOMBE. Below is part of her 1977 article entitled Contraception and Chastity.

God bless,

Fr. Phil Bloom

The substantive, hard teaching of the Church which all Catholics were given up to 1964 was clear enough: all artificial methods of birth control were taught to be gravely wrong if, before, after, or during intercourse you do something intended to turn that intercourse into an infertile act if it would otherwise have been fertile.

At that time there had already been set up by Pope John in his lifetime a commission to enquire into these things. The commission consisted of economists, doctors and other lay people as well as theologians. Pope John, by the way, spoke of contraception just as damningly as his predecessor: it's a mere lie to suggest he favoured it. Pope Paul removed the matter from the competency of the Council and reserved to the Pope that new judgment on it which the modern situation and the new discoveries - above all, of oral contraceptives - made necessary.

From '64 onwards there was an immense amount of propaganda for the reversal of previous teaching. You will remember it. Then, with the whole world baying at him to change, the Pope acted as Peter. "Simon, Simon," Our Lord said to Peter, "Satan has wanted to have you all to sift like wheat, but I have prayed for thee that thy faith should not fail: thou, being converted, strengthen thy brethren." Thus Paul confirmed the only doctrine which had ever appeared as the teaching of the Church on these things; and in so doing incurred the execration of the world.

But Athenagoras, the Ecumenical Patriarch, who has the primacy of the Orthodox Church, immediately spoke up and confirmed that this was Christian teaching, the only possible Christian teaching.

Among those who hoped for a change, there was an instant reaction that the Pope's teaching was false, and was not authoritative because it lacked the formal character of an infallible document. Now as to that, the Pope was pretty solemnly confirming the only and constant teaching of the Church. The fact that an encyclical is not an infallible kind of document only shows that one argument for the truth of its teaching is lacking. It does not show that the substantive hard message of this encyclical may perhaps be wrong - any more than the fact that memory of telephone numbers isn't the sort of thing that you can't be wrong about shows that you don't actually know your own telephone number.

At this point one may hear the enquiry: "But isn't there room for development? Hasn't the situation changed?" And the answer to that is "Yes - there had to be development and there was." That, no doubt, was why Pope John thought a commission necessary and why it took the Pope four years to formulate the teaching. We have to remember that, as Newman says, developments "which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt." No other development would have been a true one. But certainly the final condemnation of oral contraceptives is development - and so are some other points in the encyclical.

Development was necessary, partly because of the new physiological knowledge and the oral contraceptives and partly because of social changes, especially concerning women. The new knowledge, indeed, does give the best argument I know of that can be devised for allowing that contraceptives are after all permissible according to traditional Christian morals. The argument would run like this: There is not much ancient tradition condemning contraception as a distinct sin. The condemnations which you can find from earliest times were almost all of early abortion (called homicide) or of unnatural vice. But contraception, if it is an evil thing to do, is distinct from these, and so the question is really open. The authority of the teaching against it, so it is argued, is really only the authority of some recent papal encyclicals and of the pastoral practice in modern times.

Well, this argument has force only to prove the need for development, a need which was really there. It doesn't prove that it was open to the Pope to teach the permissibility of contraceptive intercourse. For how could he depart from the tradition forbidding unnatural vice on the one hand, and deliberate abortion, however early, on the other? On the other hand to say: "It's an evil practice if you do these things; but you may, without evil, practise such forms of contraception as are neither of them" - wouldn't that have been ridiculous? For example, "You shouldn't use withdrawal or a condom, or again an interuterine device. For the former involve you in acts of unnatural vice, and the latter is abortifacient in its manner of working. But you may after all use a douche or a cap or a sterilizing pill." This would have been absurd teaching; nor have the innovators ever proposed it.


Dear Fr. Bloom.

Thank you SO MUCH for answering my question so thoroughly. I will print it out and also access the reference you supplied. I had contacted Catholic Answers for their phone number and had planned to call their apologetics hotline this week.

I recognized my friend's "remark" as one I had heard or read in a Catholic periodical (and that answer was picked apart by the writer) but I could not remember the explanation of the error. So your reply has filled in the gap, so to speak. Now I feel an obligation to relay this information to my friend, so that she will not make this mistake again, so I'll have to pray for the right moment to do this.

God bless you in your work to further the Kingdom of God.

Ann Erwin

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