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Dear Father Angelo,

I have always believed in the infallibility of the pope, distinguishing this from impeccability, when he teaches as a teacher of all Christians, in a solemn way, that is, ex cathedra, as a universal teacher, regarding matters that affect faith and morals.

I come to the question, should we consider universal teaching when he speaks at the Angelus (about faith and morals)? When he give interviews (and he talks about faith and morals)? When he publishes  books (and talks about faith and morals)? When he writes encyclicals (and he talks about faith and morals)?

I thank you, and I ask you for light and prayers.


Most dear,

1. the Magisterium itself reminds us which kind of respect we must pay to the various declarations by our teachers and pastors.

I am omitting the teaching of the bishops because it is not the subject of your email.

And I will also omit the magisterium of the pope together with the other bishops, because this too is not part of your question.

Instead, you are asking in which consideration should we take the various pronouncements of the Pope in his magisterium since he expresses them in different ways.

2. Well, the most solemn form in which it is expressed is ex cathedra.

In this case he speaks as a supreme teacher within the Church.

When he assumes this modality, he must say it so that all the faithful know that his pronouncement is a rule of our faith.

This form is used in very rare cases.

The last was the one used by Pius XII when he proclaimed on 1950, November 1st, that Our Lady at the end of her days was taken up into heaven in body and soul.

The penultimate dates back about a hundred years earlier, in 1854, December 8th, when Pius IX defined that Our Lady from the very first moment of her conception was immune from all sin. Using other words, he proclaimed her Immaculate.

3. These forms of extraordinary Magisterium are called definitory Magisterium, whereby whoever does not accept them puts himself or herself out of the communion of the Church. In other words, he or she is excommunicated.

4. There are other expression modes of the Pope which are called authentic Magisterium.

Not all of these various modes bind us in the same way.

In fact, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium of the Vatican Council II says: “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (LG, 25).

5. Therefore, the Magisterium itself says that individual statements must be evaluated taking into account both what it says (according to his manifest mind) and will by which it is presented to the attention of the faithful.

And that is deduced from three criteria as Lumen gentium says:

– from the character of the documents,

– from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine,

– from his manner of speaking.

6. First of all by the character of the documents.

To give an example: an interview is not a document.

An encyclical, on the other hand, is a magisterial document of great importance.

Besides, if the frequent repetition of the Magisterium is added, we can get its factual irreformability, such as for some problems relating to conjugal intimacy.

In this case we are not faced with a definitory Magisterium, but with a definitive Magisterium.

The difference between the two lies not in the degree of adhesion, because the adhesion is always the same, but in the fact that the truths of the definitory Magisterium are rooted in Divine Revelation, while the definitive Magisterium is not directly rooted in it.

Furthermore, the non-acceptance of the first one leads to excommunication, the second one does not.

7. Furthermore, the Council speaks about the frequent repetition of the same doctrine.

Now doctrine is one thing, pastoral indications are another thing, such as some solutions regarding the migratory phenomenon.

In this case, the indications of the Magisterium are to be respectfully recognized, distinguishing the principle of fraternal charity, which is evidently indisputable, from practical solutions to complex problems for which the saying of Scripture can be applied: “Incertae sunt providentiae nostrae” (Sap 9.14), which can be translated like: “unsure are our plans”.

But even relative to these indications, although they have neither the chrism of the definitory magisterium nor that of the definitive magisterium, they have to be received with respect.

So, it can be said: “the Pope’s indications on this point do not convince me nor does the Pope intend to present them as infallible, but I respect them”.

And respecting them certainly means at least that they don’t contradict each other.

8. Finally, it is necessary to take into account in which manner the Pope expresses himself.

One thing is for the Pope to say: “by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops …  declare that …” as John Paul II repeatedly did in Evangelium vitae 62 and another one is to say like Pope Francis in Amoris laetitia: “If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL, 300).

It is not difficult to see also from the way of writing whether a document has a doctrinal nature or is a pastoral indication.

9. Writing books is not – at least for now – a way to publish the Pope’s documents.

When Benedict XVI published some books during his pontificate, he put the name Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI in them to say that it was the Pope’s thought as a private theologian.

He did not intend to bind anyone’s faith.

10. So, here you have the criteria provided by the Magisterium itself which help to avoid giving the same importance to the various documents.

This is even more relevant if we are not dealing with documents, but with words spoken confidentially here or there outside any teaching context.

I thank you for the question, I remind you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo

Translated by Guido Teodoro De Leo