What does it mean when the church gives an infallible teaching?

The truth is not every pronouncement at an ecumenical council is infallible. Some pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils deal with matters of faith and morals while others may be of a disciplinary or prudential nature and are not infallible statements. The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium #25 carefully points out exactly when and where the voice of the Magisterium speaks with the great voice of infallibility.

Let's first consider the places, according to Lumen Gentium 25, where the Magisterium speaks infallibly. To begin with many moral norms are taught infallibly but it is necessary to distinguish between the extraordinary Magisterium and the ordinary Magisterium. "Extraordinary" and "ordinary" refer to the manner in which a truth is stated by the Church whether that truth is infallible or whether it is not. Using the parent-child relationship as a model--when you correct or remind your children about good manners, say for example, that they should remember to say "thank you" when a waiter in a restaurant brings them their meal, that is an "ordinary" exercise of your authority as a parent. But, if you were to write up a set of rules for proper behavior when going out to eat and you were to announce these rules officially at a special family meeting that would be an "extraordinary" exercise of your parental authority. It is in this way that the Magisterium, which consists of both a papal and an episcopal dimension, can exercise authority over the Church. When the Pope speaks in authority in his role as Vicar of Christ, what is known as "ex cathedra", or "from the chair," a papal statement or an ecumenical council at which many bishops-the successors of the Apostles-are gathered issue an official statement, this would be an example of the Magisterium (mother Church) teaching in an "extraordinary" manner.

It might be a little clearer to break down the two components into the Extraordinary Papal Magisterium and the Extraordinary Episcopal Magisterium... notice the difference between the technical terms "define" and "teach".

    1. The Extraordinary Papal Magisterium:
      In the Extraordinary Papal Magisterium the Pope acts alone and speaks ex-cathedra in defending a dogma (truth) of the Church. This has only happened twice in the 2,000 year history of the Church: #1 The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary was defined in 1854 by Pius IX and #2. The Assumption of the truth but a truth that had been taught since the earliest years of the Church but infallibly it is required that the faithful in an "assent of faith" accept the truth of the Church's teaching.
    2. TheExtraordinary Episcopal Magisterium:
      In the Extraordinary Episcopal Magisterium the bishops gather in ecumenical councils and in their role as the successors of the Apostles can:
      1. Define dogmas: There have been 21 ecumenical councils held throughout the history of the Church at which certain truths have been defined. Probably the most familiar to us the Nicene-Constantinople Creed we recite at Mass which is an infallible definition which came from the Great Councils of Nicaea in 325AD and Constantinople in 381AD. Other examples would be the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which defined the two natures of Christ or the Council of Trent (a really long one) ending in 1561 which defined the seven sacraments. These councils can also define dogmas by renouncing heresy like the Council of Ephesus in 431 which proclaimed against a heresy called Nestorianism and declared the Virgin Mary not just the mother of a man named Jesus but the Mother of God!
      2. Proclaim the Gospel and give pastoral directions: While some pronouncements deal with matters of faith and morals, others are of disciplinary or prudential topics which are not themselves infallible. It is under this heading that Councils teach non-infallible matters. As a matter of fact, the majority of documents from Vatican II are of this non- infallible nature. An example would be the document Dignitatis Humanea, (the Decree on Religious Freedom). While this document does rest on th Dogma that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Jesus Christ, it goes on to address political matters which is an area which is beyond the Church's infallible authority.
  2. Now for the other side of the coin:
    1. The Ordinary Papal Magisterium:
      The Ordinary Papal Magisterium consists in Peter's successors teaching "authentically."  This teaching is expressed most often in documents like the encyclicals or Apostolic exhortations. This is the tricky part because these documents, like the documents of the Church Councils may contain dogmas (truths) that are taught infallibly, but the document as a whole may not be infallible. These may require what is called "the assent of mind and will" of the faithful. This "assent" is distinct in nature from the "assent of faith" required of items infallibly taught. Humanae Vitae, is for example, not an infallible document. In article 12, however, the Pope does address a matter that can be regarded as infallibly taught. This is the section dealing with the evil of contraception as an attack upon the procreative dimensions of the conjugal act. The point is that non-infallible documents can contain items that are infallibly taught or infallibly defined.
    2. The Ordinary Episcopal Magisterium: The successors of the Apostles, the Bishops, teaching non-universally and universally:
      1. Non-universally is Episcopal teaching occurring when the Bishops teach on subjects specific to their geographical locations. A non-universal teaching may refer to subjects that are infallibly taught or defined but their teaching on a specific matter is not infallible....like whether or not to employ the death penalty. It is not an infallible teaching that the death penalty is never to be applied by a state in order to protect citizens but the US bishops have issued statements that considering the wealth of this country there are other solutions available and preferable.
      2. Universally teaching by the Bishops; the official name is the Ordinary Universal Episcopal Magisterium or the OUEM. When the Apostle's successors called together by the Church from throughout the world in a Great Council agree on a matter of divine revelation dealing with faith or morals, such agreement constitutes infallible teaching and is irreversible. This is a part of Council and the OUEM does not define infallibly, as it would as an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium but rather it teaches infallibly; "teaches" and "defined" used as technical terms. However, whether taught or defined, the matter is just as infallible.

So, if you got lost in all that, let's sum up infallible teaching:
The Magisterium speaks infallibly in matters of faith and morals:

  1. Through the Extraordinary Papal Magisterium where the Pope acts alone speaking ex-cathedra in defining a dogma.
  2. Through the Extraordinary Episcopal Magisterium when the Bishops gather in ecumenical councils and define dogmas.
  3. When Bishops meet in Councils Universally and concur on some matter of faith and morals and teach it definitively.

Then that matter is considered to be infallibly taught and we as Catholics must accept the teaching. As you can see there are a variety of levels on which the Magisterium "speaks" to the universal Church, but three of these constitute infallible teaching.

The College of Bishops, united in faith with the Pope, teaches infallibly: "The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme teaching office" (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25). The office of the Magisterium offers infallible teaching either in the solemn declarations of ecumenical councils or in and through their ordinary Magisterium outside of councils.

Let me give a final example: In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae the Pope could have, within the context of the document, defined infallibly the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life concerning abortion and euthanasia but instead he used the encyclical to point out that these matters are already taught infallibly by the Ordinary Universal Episcopal Magisterium. This encyclical referred to these 3 infallible teachings of the Magisterium in articles 57, 62 and 65 and confirmed the infallible teaching by the Ordinary Universal Episcopal Magisterium. It is a clear statement that these moral matters are "taught" (not "defined") infallibly. In the same way other moral matters have infallible status, which are taught, not defined, infallibly by the OUEM.

It is in these ways that the successors of Peter and the Apostles continue to lead the Church of Jesus Christ until the Bridegroom comes again in glory to claim His faithful and obedient Bride.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2004 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.


  1. CCC 889-91, 2035
  2. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 12, 22-25
  3. C. Burke, Authority and Freedom in the Church
  4. Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, edited by Russell Shaw, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1994, "Infallibility," pages 332-34.