Chapter 2 – Doctrinal Value and Interpretation of Papal Teaching

Contemporary Moral Theology Volume 1 – Questions in Fundamental Moral Theology – By John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly

Chapter 2 – Doctrinal Value and Interpretation of Papal Teaching

At the Annual Meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1949, a paper read by Eugene M. Burke C.S.P,1 devoted considerable space to the methods of teaching used by the magisterium, especially the Roman pontiff, and to the doctrinal value of these methods. At the meeting of the same society on 1951, the entire paper read by Edmond D. Benard considered the doctrinal value of the ordinary teaching of the Holy Father.2 The discussion evoked by both papers showed that the topics were of speculative and practical moment. This response was not surprising. Problems relative to the doctrinal value of ecclesiastical pronouncements have always been of special interest to theologians; [Emphasis added] and it is safe to say that this interest has never been more intense, nor of more immediate practicality, than during the reign of Pope Pius XII.


An earnest student of papal pronouncements, Vincent A. Yzermans, estimated that during the first fifteen years of his pontificate Pius XII gave almost one thousand public addresses and radio messages.3 If we add to these the apostolic constitutions, the encyclicals, and so forth, during that same period of fifteen years, and add furthermore all the papal statements during the subsequent years, we have well over a thousand papal documents. It is true, of course, that many of these were not concerned with faith or morals; yet certainly a very large percentage, if not the vast majority, were concerned with either faith or morality. The moralist in particular has only to think of the stream of pronouncements on international peace, on labor relations, on family morality, on medicine and so forth, to realize that his own work is profoundly affected.

Merely from the point of view of volume, therefore, one can readily appreciate that it was not mere facetiousness that led a theologian to remark that, even if the Holy See were now to remain silent for ten years, the theologians would have plenty to do in classifying and evaluating the theological significance of Pius XII’s public statements. And it may be added that the theologians’ problem is created not merely by the number and variety of the papal statements, but also by the fact that many of them are in modern languages rather than in the traditional Latin, and that they were given in a more or less oratorical setting. We mention these as added problems because, whatever be the disadvantages of Latin, it has the theological advantage of an “established terminology”; and oratory, though perhaps more pleasing than the cut-and-dried theological statement, forces the theologian to dig for the theological core of a statement.

Among these numerous pronouncements of Pope Pius XII, one (Munificentissimus Deus4) is certainly an ex cathedra definition, and another (Sacramentum Ordinis5) seems to be such. Of these, only the second pertains to moral theology, and that more or less indirectly. In general, the teaching of the Holy Father on moral matters has been given in encyclicals, radio messages, and allocutions – which are normally the media of his authentic, but not infallible, teaching. This is not to say that such media could not contain ex cathedra pronouncements; but usually they do not, [Emphasis added] and there seems to be no reason for saying that during the reign of Pius XII these media have contained any infallible definitions concerning morality. By this we do not mean, however, that none of the moral teaching of Pius XII could be characterised as infallible. It is hardly conceivable that the papal teaching on such things as divorce, contraception, the direct killing of the innocent, and the possibility of observing continence with the grace of God is anything short of infallible. [Emphasis added] However, aside from such cases, we may safety assume that the moral teaching of Pius XII need not be characterized as infallible but rather belongs to the authentic, though not infallible, magisterium of the Church. Regarding this noninfallible teaching, questions of special interest concern (1) its doctrinal value, and (2) the function of theologians in their use of such teaching. [Emphasis added]


 Since the noninfallible moral teaching of Pius XII has been given through the medium of encyclicals, radio messages, and allocutions (as well as through papally approved decrees and instructions of the Roman congregations), something should be said about the doctrinal value of these various media. Obviously, lest we turn this chapter into a book, we must be carefully selective in this matter. On the basis of such selectivity, the principle place must be given to the pope’s own statement in Humani generis, which is concerned primarily, but not exclusively with encyclicals. After criticizing the exponents of “the new theology” for their lack of appreciation of the ordinary magisterium (perhaps this expression is an understatement), the pope adds this following now celebrated paragraph:

Nor must it be thought that what is contained in encyclical letters does not of itself demand assent, on the pretext that the popes do not exercise in them the supreme power of their teaching authority. Rather, such teachings belong to the ordinary Magisterium, of which it is true to say: “He who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16); for the most part, too what is expounded and inculcated in encyclical letters already appertains to Catholic doctrine for other reasons. But if the supreme pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the matter according to the mind and will of the same pontiffs, cannot be considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians.6

There have been many excellent commentaries on the Humani generis in general and on this paragraph in particular. Typical among these and especially notable, we think, for its simplicity and clarity, is the explanation given by Father Cotter under the heading, “Authentic Teaching of the Magisterium.” We quote this in full:

The Pope has no doubt that those Catholic theologians whom his has in mind throughout the encyclical are willing to abide by the definitive definitions of the magisterium, those handed down, “solemni iudicio.” They are neither heretics nor schismatics. [Emphasis added] But he complains that they ignore papal pronouncements that come to them with less authority, such as encyclicals. If reputable theologians have disagreed in the past, they assume nothing less than a solemn definition can settle the matter, [Emphasis added] and as long as none such is forthcoming, everyone is presumed free to construe papal documents according to his own interpretation of Tradition (27).

In reply, the Pope reminds them that encyclicals, besides often containing matters of dogma, may intend to settle points hitherto disputed, and that such decisions demand of themselves a positive assent on the part of the faithful, theologians included. In issuing them the popes exercise what is technically know as the ordinary or authentic magisterium, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me.” [Emphasis added] The reason for all this is that to the living magisterium alone has God entrusted the official interpretation of the deposit of the faith (21, 23).

According to theologians, the doctrinal degrees of the Holy Office and the responses of the Biblical Commission belong in the same category because of the close connection of these two Roman congregations with the Pope. Also their decisions demand per se the positive assent of the faithful (Denzinger 2113).

This is technically known as “religious assent.” [Emphasis added] It is a true internal assent, not a mere silentium obsequiosum such as the Jansenists were willing to give the papal decrees issued against them. Yet it is not the assent of either divine or ecclesiastical faith; its motive is not the authority of God speaking nor the infallibility of the magisterium, but the official position of the living magisterium in the Church assigned to it by Christ. [Emphasis added]

Complaints have been raised against this doctrine as if it were putting shackles on the Catholic theologian (18). Yes and no. First of all, there are any number of problems in Catholic theology on which the magisterium has said nothing so far either definitively or authentically; witness the numerous probable theses or assertions in our manuals and the questions freely disputed in our reviews. Secondly, the authentic decisions of the magisterium, when examined closely, are generally seem to leave the door open for further study of the problem; [Emphasis added] witness especially the responses of the Biblical Commission. And if a reputable scholar should arrive at a different solution, theologians advise him to communicate his findings to the respective Roman congregation, but not to broadcast them, in defiance, as it were, of the magisterium. Thirdly, even when a decision is definitive, progress is still possible and desirable (21), [Emphasis added] and that means, partly at least, further research on the same matter by theologians.7

As Father Cotter notes, though the papal statement refers primarily to encyclicals, it is not restricted to these. Rather, it covers the whole range of what is called the “ordinary magisterium” of the Holy Father. Everything that has been said, therefore, could apply to the papal radio messages and allocutions; yet, since these have played such a prominent part in the moral teaching of Pope Pius XII, they merit some special attention.

On at least one occasion, the pope himself made it strikingly clear that his discourses, even when given to small groups, can contain authoritative teaching for the whole Church. [Emphasis added] Thus, in his radio message on the education of the Christian conscience, he said:

Mindful, however, of the right and duty of the Apostolic See to intervene authoritatively, when need arises, in moral questions, in the address of 29th October last we set out to enlighten men’s consciences on the problems of married life. With the self-same authority we declare today to educators and to young people also that the divine commandment of purity of soul and body still holds without any lesser obligation for the youth of today.8

At the conclusion of a commentary on this radio message and the subsequent allocution on the “new morality” (situation ethics),9 F.X. Hurth, S.J., made a brief analysis of the doctrinal value of such pronouncements.10 His conclusion was that, in general, they have about the same doctrinal value as encyclicals: they are an integral part of the ordinary teaching of the pope; and, as such, though not infallible, they require both internal and external acceptance. [Emphasis added] An analysis of their content, said Father Hurth, shows that they consist largely of matters of faith or morals or of natural truths in their relation to faith and morals. The audience varies from the whole world (as in some of the radio messages) to a small professional group (as in an allocution to doctors); but even in the latter case the message assumes a universal character when, by command of the supreme pontiff, it is published in the Acta apostolicae sedis. [Emphasis added] As for the speaker, though the pope may, if he wishes, speak as a private person, Father Hurth thinks it obvious that such is not his intention when he professedly speaks on matters pertaining to faith and morals in these various public messages. [Emphasis added]

Joseph Creusen, S.J., who, like Father Hurth, was a consultor of the Holy Office, offers the following observations to help determine when, and to what extent, papal discourses should be considered authoritative teaching: [Emphasis added]

What is important to us here is the character of the allocution: has the pope the intention of teaching, and in what measure does he invoke his authority? Apart from an express declaration, his intention can be manifested by the quality and number of the persons to whom he speaks, and by the subject matter of the discourse. [Emphasis added]

If the Holy Father, in an audience granted to a sports association, praises the physical and moral effects of a sport, everyone remains quite at liberty not to share this or that opinion of the Holy Father in the matter. His praise will often be the delicate expression of an invitation to seek in the use of sports, or of any other human activity, progress in moral values, in nobility of soul, in the duties of one’s state well done. But the more the number of members of a congress increases, the greater the importance of their profession, of their responsibilities, and of their influence, the more we see the Holy Father select the subject-matter of his discourse and inculcate the duty of conforming oneself to his teaching and directives.11

Furthermore, Father Creusen tells us in another place, it would not make sense to restrict the obligation of assent and obedience merely to those who are present at the papal discourse:

In our case [the allocution on conjugal morality] there is no doubt that the obligation of internal submission cannot be restricted to those whom the pope addressed. An obligation of this kind cannot be defined by the distance one happens to be from the pope during his discourse. But perhaps someone will say: we are not obliged to read the allocutions of the pope! Certainly, but we are all obliged to know our duties, especially those of our profession.

The “how” is not relevant, whether we come to know them by means of sermons, reading good books, lectures, or conversations with learned and reputable men.12


The foregoing seems to be sufficient discussion of our first point; the doctrinal value of the various media of the ordinary teaching of the Holy Father. As for the second point – the function of theologians in their use of this teaching – we must first observe that the theologians have the same duty as the faithful in general to give the religious assent required by the papal teaching as was stated by Pope Pius XII and explained by Father Cotter.

But the distinctive function of the theologian goes much beyond this acceptance of the papal teaching; as a theologian he must study the papal pronouncements and incorporate them into his teaching and his writing. One writer has deplored the tendency of theologians to “interpret” the papal statements; according to him the theologians’ function is to explain the papal teaching, not to interpret it. In practice, this is a distinction without a difference. To fulfil his acknowledged duty of explaining the papal teaching, a theologian must in some measure interpret it; and all that can reasonably be demanded of him is that he follow sound theological norms of interpretation. Unfortunately, we do not have an official set of norms for interpreting pronouncements on the moral law such as we have, for example, regarding canon law; nevertheless, there seems to be at least three basic norms of interpretation that are in conformity with the mind and practice of the Holy See.

One such norm concerns the verbal formulas used in the moral pronouncements. These formulas are very important and should be carefully studied by theologians. Nevertheless, the words themselves are not the ultimate criterion of the true sense of the papal pronouncement; they can be obscure and admit of reformulation. This can be illustrated by the acta of both Pius XI and Pius XII relative to punitive sterilization, as well as by the tenor of canon law and by the reactions of eminent theologians to certain aspects of significant moral pronouncements. [Emphasis added]

In the originally published text of Casti connubii, the words of Pius XI at least strongly implied that he was condemning punitive sterilization; but a notandum in the next fascicle of the Acta apostolicae sedis contained a rewording of the passage which showed that the pope did not intend to commit himself on the controversy among theologians about the licitness of punitive sterilization.13 Ten years later the Holy Office, with the approval of Pius XII, condemned direct sterilization, without qualification, as being contrary to the natural law.14 That was in 1940. But in 1951, and again in 1953, Pope Pius XI, when referring to this condemnation, restricted it to the direct sterilization of the innocent.15 In both these instances, the popes apparently realised that, though perfectly apt for condemning the errors at which they were aimed, the formulas were broader than their own intention.

The very fact that popes themselves have gone out of their way to clarify or restrict their moral pronouncements indicates that a theologian is not necessarily irreverent or disloyal in supposing that other such statements may need clarification or restriction or rephrasing. [Emphasis added] This is confirmed, it seems to us, by the rules for the interpretation of canon law, as well as by theologians’ reactions to some recent and very important papal pronouncements on the social order. In canon law, the Church explicitly admits that the meaning of some laws may be dubious or obscure. The reason for this is surely not that the legislator wanted to be obscure but rather that he failed to make his own intention clear when framing the law. It is true, of course, that this concerns canon law, not pronouncements regarding moral law. But we do not think this affects the point we are stressing: namely, that the words themselves may fail to express the mind of the Holy See. [Emphasis added] That this has actually been the case concerning some important moral pronouncements seems evident from the controversies among eminent and unquestionable orthodox moralists regarding the meaning of social justice, the title to a family wage and so forth. In these cases, as in the framing of ecclesiastical laws, the popes were certainly not intentionally obscure. They must have had something definite in mind, but this was not expressed with sufficient clarity – otherwise, how explain the controversies among learned commentators?

From the foregoing it follows that the words alone do not always give us the sense, the true meaning, of a papal pronouncement. To get the true sense, the theologian must study not only the words, but their context and the papal intention in making the pronouncement. By the context we mean not so much the verbal context as the historical setting, because it is there particularly that we are apt to find the true meaning of the statement. For example, if the pope is settling a controversy, his words should be taken in conjunction with the controversy; of he is condemning an error, the words should be interpreted with reference to the error and so forth.16 [Emphasis added]

In the Humani generis, Pope Pius XII made it clear that even a noninfallible pronouncement can close a controversy among theologians. We feel sure, however, that the pope himself would agree that this decisive character of the pronouncement must be evident. [Emphasis added] That is in accord with canon 1323, § 3, which states that nothing is to be understood as dogmatically declared or defined unless this is clearly manifested. The canon refers to infallible teachings; yet the same norm seems to apply with at least equal force to the binding character of noninfallible teaching, especially when there is question of pronouncements which would close a controversy.

To summarize briefly the main points of this section: A theologian must study and use and, to some extent, interpret papal pronouncements. In interpreting them, he should have regard not only for verbal formulas but also – and, it seems to us, especially – for the papal intention as manifested in the historical context of the pronouncement. When there is a question of official teaching that would end legitimate controversy, this decisive character should be evident.


1. [Omitted].

2. “The Doctrinal Value of the Ordinary Teaching of the Holy Father in View of Humani Generis,” Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Convention, CTSA, pp. 78-107. Father Benard (ibid, pp. 84-85) gives the following explanation of the terms ordinary and extraordinary magisterium.

“(1) The Pope employs his Extraordinary magisterium when he speaks ex cathedra. This Extraordinary Magisterium is de se, always, and necessarily infallible … (2) The Pope employs his Ordinary Magisterium when he speaks to the faithful, indeed as their supreme Pastor and Teacher, but in order to expound, explain, present Catholic Teaching, or to admonish, persuade, enlighten, warn, and encourage the faithful; without calling upon the supreme exercise of his Apostolic Authority, and without, in the strict sense, defining a doctrine. In this case he does not speak ex cathedra and the Ordinary Magisterium is not de se infallible. (3) However, the Pope may, if he chooses, employ a usual organ or vehicle of the Ordinary Magisterium as the medium for an ex cathedra pronouncement. In this case, an Encyclical Letter, for example – certainly a type of document usually associated with the Ordinary Magisterium – may be used as a vehicle of the Extraordinary Magisterium, and hence as the vehicle of an infallible pronouncement …”  [Emphasis added].   

3. [Omitted].

4. [Omitted].

5. [Omitted].

6. [Omitted].

7. [Omitted] … The question of the “assensus religious” that must be given to noninfallible teaching is an intriguing one. Closely connected with this, of course, is the problem of divine assistance for the magisterium in this kind of teaching. Dogmatic theologians give different explanations. [Emphasis added] For more about this, see the paper given by Farther Benard (supra, footnote 2) … [Omitted].

8. [Omitted].

9. [Omitted].

10. [Omitted].

11. [Omitted].

12. [Omitted].

13. Cf. AAS, 22 (1930), 565, 604.

14. Ibid., 32 (1940), 73.

15. Cf. Ibid., 43 (1951), 844; 45 (1953), 606.

16. [Omitted].

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