Cardinal Josef Ratzinger’s reflection on Pope John Paul’s II 1998 Motu Proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem, Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, is intended to provide examples of the various levels of authority of the teaching of the Magisterium and explain the proper response owed to them.
Note: Adoremus’s version is slightly abridged)
1. From her very beginning, the Church has professed faith in the Lord, crucified and risen and has gathered the fundamental contents of her belief into certain formulas. The central event of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, expressed first in simple formulas and subsequently in formulas that were more developed, made it possible to give life to that uninterrupted proclamation of faith in which the Church has handed on both what had been received from the lips of Christ and from His works, as well as what had been learned “at the prompting of the Holy Spirit”. [Cf. Dei Verbum, 7]\
The same New Testament is the singular witness of the first profession proclaimed by the disciples immediately after the events of Easter: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that He was buried; that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve”. [I Cor. 15:3-5]
2. In the course of the centuries, from this unchangeable nucleus testifying to Jesus as Son of God and as Lord, symbols witnessing to the unity of the faith and to the communion of the churches came to be developed. In these the fundamental truths which every believer is required to know and to profess were gathered together. Thus, before receiving baptism, the catechumen must make his profession of faith.
The fathers too, coming together in councils to respond to historical challenges that required a more complete presentation of the truths of the faith or a defense of the orthodoxy of those truths, formulated new creeds which occupy “a special place in the church’s life” up to the present day. The diversity of these symbols expresses the richness of the one faith; none of them is superseded or nullified by subsequent professions of faith formulated in response to later historical circumstances.
3. Christ’s promise to bestow the Holy Spirit, who “will guide you into all truth”, constantly sustains the Church on her way. Thus in the course of her history certain truths have been defined as having been acquired though the Holy Spirit’s assistance and are therefore perceptible stages in the realization of the original promise. Other truths, however, have to be understood still more deeply before full possession can be attained of what God, in His mystery of love, wished to reveal to men for their salvation.
In recent times, too, in her pastoral care for souls, the Church has thought it opportune to express in a more explicit way the faith of all time. In addition, the obligation has been established for some members of the Christian faithful, called to assume particular offices in the community in the name of the Church, to publicly make a profession of faith according to the formula approved by the Apostolic See.
4. This new formula of the Professio fidei restates the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and concludes with the addition of three propositions or paragraphs intended to better distinguish the order of the truths to which the believer adheres. The correct explanation of these paragraphs deserves a clear presentation, so that their authentic meaning, as given by the Church’s Magisterium, will be well understood, received and integrally preserved.
In contemporary usage, the term “Church” has come to include a variety of meanings, which, while true and consistent, require greater precision when one refers to the specific and proper functions of persons who act within the Church. In this area, it is clear that, on questions of faith and morals, the only subject qualified to fulfill the office of teaching with binding authority for the faithful is the Supreme Pontiff and the College of Bishops in communion with him. The Bishops are the “authentic teachers” of the faith, “endowed with the authority of Christ”, because by divine institution they are the successors of the Apostles “in teaching and in pastoral governance”: together with the Roman Pontiff they exercise supreme and full power over all the Church, although this power cannot be exercised without the consent of the Roman Pontiff.
5. The first paragraph states: “With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in tradition, which the Church, either by solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed”. The object taught in this paragraph is constituted by all those doctrines of divine and catholic faith which the Church proposes as divinely and formally revealed and, as such, as irreformable.
These doctrines are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman pontiff when he speaks “ex cathedra” or by the college of bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
These doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the codes of canon law.
6. The second proposition of the professio fidei states: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals”. The object taught by this formula includes all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expoinding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed.
Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the Roman pontiff when he speaks “ex cathedra” or by the college of bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a “sententia definitive tenenda”. Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in the position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.
7. The truths belonging to this second paragraph can be of various natures, thus giving different qualities to their relationship with revelation. There are truths which are necessarily connected with revelation by virtue of an historic relationship; while other truths evince a logical connection that expresses a stage in the maturation of understanding of revelation which the Church is called to undertake. The fact that these doctrines may not be proposed as formally revealed, insofar as they add to the data of faith elements that are not revealed or which are not yet expressly recognized as such, in no way diminishes their definitive character, which is required at least by their intrinsic connection with revealed truth. Moreover, it cannot be excluded that at a certain point in dogmatic development, the understanding of the realities and the words of the deposit of faith can progress in the life of the Church, and the Magisterium may proclaim some of these doctrines as also dogmas of divine and catholic faith.
8. With regard to the nature of the assent owed to the truths set forth by the Church as divinely revealed (those of the first paragraph) or to be held definitively (those of the second paragraph), it is important to emphasize that there is no difference with respect to the full and irrevocable character of the assent which is owed to these teachings. The difference concerns the supernatural virtue of faith: in the case of truths of the first paragraph, the assent is based directly on faith in the authority of the Word of God (doctrines de fide credenda); in the case of the truths of the second paragraph, the assent is based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium (doctrines de fide tenenda).
9. The Magisterium of the Church, however, teaches a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed … or to be held definitively … with an act which is either defining or nondefining. In the case of a defining act, a truth is solemnly defined by an ex cathedra pronouncement by the Roman pontiff or by the action of an ecumenical council. In the case of a nondefining act, a doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the successor of Peter. Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition, by declaring explicitly that it belongs to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, as a truth that is divinely revealed … or as a truth of Catholic doctrine…. Consequently, when there has not been a judgment on a doctrine in the solemn form of a definition, but this doctrine, belonging to the inheritance of the depositum fidei, is taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium,which necessarily includes the pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. The declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation by the Roman pontiff in this case is not a new dogmatic definition, but a formal attestation of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church.
10. The third proposition of the professio fidei states: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the college of bishops enunciates when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act”.
To this paragraph belong all those teachings on faith and morals presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings …require religious submission of will and intellect….
A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore “tuto doceri non potest.” [Cf. Canons 752, 1371; Eastern Churches Canons 599, 436 §2]
11. Examples. Without any intention of completeness…, some examples of doctrines relative to the three paragraphs described above can be recalled.
To the truths of the first paragraph belong the articles of faith of the creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.
With respect to the truths of the second paragraph, with reference to those connected with revelation by logical necessity, one can consider … the development in understanding of the doctrine connected with the definition of papal infallibility prior to the dogmatic definition of Vatican Council I…. [A]lthough its character as a divinely revealed truth was defined in Vatican Council I, the doctrine on the infallibility and primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff was already recognized as definitive in the period before the council. History clearly shows, therefore, that what was accepted into the consciousness of the Church was considered a true doctrine from the beginnning and was subsequently held to be definitive…
A similar process can be observed in the more recent teaching regarding the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men. The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. As the prior example illustrates, this does not foreclose the possibility that, in the future, the consciousness of the Church might progress to the point where this teaching could be defined as a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed.
The doctrine on the illicitness of euthanasia, taught in the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, can also be recalled. Confirming that euthanasia is “a grave violation of the law of God”, the pope declares that “this doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium”. It could seem that there is only a logical element in the doctrine on euthanasia, since Scripture does not seem to be aware of the concept. In this case, however, the interrelationship between the orders of faith and reason becomes apparent: Scripture, in fact, clearly excludes every form of the kind of self-determination of human existence that is presupposed in the theory and practice of euthanasia.
Other examples of moral doctrines which are taught as definitive by the universal and ordinary Magisterium of the Church are: the teaching on the illicitness of prostitution and of fornication.
With regard to those truths connected to revelation by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed, the following examples can be given: the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff or of the celebration of an ecumenical council, the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts), the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the apostolic letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations….
As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.
12. With the different symbols of faith, the believer recognizes and attests that he professes the faith of the entire Church. It is for this reason that, above all in the earliest symbols of faith, this consciousness is expressed in the formula “We believe”. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “I believe” (Apostles’ Creed) is the faith of the Church professed personally by each believer, principally during baptism. “We believe” (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) is the faith of the Church confessed by the Bishops assembled in council or more generally by the liturgical assembly of believers. “I believe” is also the Church, our mother, responding to God by faith as she teaches us to say both “I believe” and “we believe”.
In every profession of faith, the Church verifies different stages she has reached on her path toward the definitive meeting with the Lord. No content is abrogated with the passage of time; instead, all of it becomes an irreplaceable inheritance through which the faith of all time, of all believers, and lived out in every place, contemplates the constant action of the Spirit of the risen Christ, the Spirit who accompanies and gives life to His Church and leads her into the fullness of the truth.
Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 1998, the Solemnity of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.
+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger, Prefect
+ Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B. Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli, Secretary