Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine
On the Church Against Certain Errors of the Present Day
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
June 24, 1973
The mystery of the Church, upon which the Second Vatican Council shed fresh light, has been repeatedly dealt with in numerous writings of theologians. While not a few of these studies have served to make this mystery more understandable, others, through the use of ambiguous or even erroneous language, have obscured Catholic doctrine, and at times have gone so far as to be opposed to Catholic faith even in fundamental matters.
To meet this situation, the bishops of several nations, conscious both of their duty of "keeping pure and intact the deposit of faith" and of their task of "proclaiming the Gospel unceasingly," have, through concurring declarations, sought to protect the faithful entrusted to their care from the danger of error. In addition, the second General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, in dealing with the ministerial priesthood, expounded a number of important points of doctrine regarding the constitution of the Church.
Likewise, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose task it is to "preserve the doctrine of faith and morals in the whole Catholic world," intends to gather together and explain a number of truths concerning the mystery of the Church which at the present time are being either denied or endangered. In this it will follow above all the lines laid down by the two Vatican Councils.
One is the Church, which after His Resurrection our Savior handed over to Peter as Shepherd (cf. Jn. 21:17), commissioning him and the other apostles to propagate and govern her (cf. Mt. 18:18ff.) [and which] He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth" (cf. 1 Tm. 3:15). And this Church of Christ, "constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and the bishops in union with that Successor." This declaration of the Second Vatican Council is illustrated by the same Council's statement that "it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the general means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained," and that same Catholic Church "has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all the means of grace" with which Christ wished to enhance His messianic community.
This is no obstacle to the fact that during her early pilgrimage the Church, "embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified," nor to the fact that "outside her visible structure," namely in Churches and ecclesial communities which are joined to the Catholic Church by an imperfect communion, there are to be found "many elements of sanctification and truth [which], as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism towards Catholic unity."
For these reasons, "Catholics must joyfully acknowledge and esteem truly Christian endowments derived from our common heritage, which are to be found among our separated brethren," and they must strive for the re-establishment of unity among all Christians, by making a common effort of purification and renewal, so that the will of Christ may be fulfilled and the division of Christians may cease to be an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world. But at the same time Catholics are bound to profess that through the gift of God's mercy they belong to that Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter and the other Apostles, who are the depositories of the original Apostolic tradition, living and intact, which is the permanent heritage of doctrine and holiness of that same Church.
The followers of Christ are therefore not permitted to imagine that Christ's Church is nothing more than a collection (divided, but still possessing a certain unity) of Churches and ecclesial communities. Nor are they free to hold that Christ's Church nowhere really exists today and that it is to be considered only as an end which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach.
In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity. For this reason He entrusted to the Church the treasury of God's Word, so that the pastors and the holy people might strive together to preserve it, study it and apply it to life.
God, who is absolutely infallible, thus deigned to bestow upon His new people, which is the Church, a certain shared infallibility, which is restricted to matters of faith and morals, which is present when the whole People of God unhesitatingly holds a point of doctrine pertaining to these matters, and finally which always depends upon the wise providence and anointing of the grace of the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church into all truth until the glorious coming of her Lord. Concerning this infallibility of the People of God the Second Vatican Council speaks as follows: "The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 Jn. 2:20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural instinct of faith which characterizes the people as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when, 'from the bishops down to the last member of the laity' (St. Augustine, De Praed. Sanct., 14, 27), it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals."
The Holy Spirit enlightens and assists the People of God inasmuch as it is the Body of Christ united in a hierarchical communion. The Second Vatican Council indicates this fact by adding to the words quoted above: "For, by this instinct of faith which is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, God's People accepts not the word of men but the very Word of God (cf. 1 Thes. 2:13). It clings without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3), penetrates it more deeply by accurate insights, and applies it more thoroughly to life. ALl this it does under the lead of a sacred teaching authority to which it loyally defers."
Without doubt the faithful, who in their own manner share in Christ's prophetic office, in many ways contribute towards increasing the understanding of faith in the Church. "For," as the Second Vatican Council says, "there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19, 51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure charism of truth." And the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI observes that the witness the pastors of the Church offers is "rooted in Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture and nourished by the ecclesial life of the whole People of God."
But by divine institution it is the exclusive task of these pastors alone, the successors of Peter and the other Apostles, to teach the faithful authentically, that is with the authority of Christ shared in different ways; so that the faithful, who may not simply listen to them as experts in Catholic doctrine, must accept their teaching given in Christ's name, with an assent that is proportionate to the authority that they possess and that they mean to exercise.
For this reason the Second Vatican Council, in harmony with the first Vatican Council, teaches that Christ made Peter "a perpetual and visible principle and foundation of the unity of the faith and of communion"; and the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI has declared: "The teaching office of the bishops is for the believer the sign and channel which enable him to receive and recognize the Word of God." Thus, however much the Sacred Magisterium avails itself of the contemplation, life and study of the faithful, its office is not reduced merely to ratifying the assent already expressed by the latter; indeed, in the interpretation and explanation of the written or transmitted Word of God, the Magisterium can anticipate or demand their assent.
The People of God has particular need of the intervention and assistance of the Magisterium when internal disagreements arise and spread concerning a doctrine that must be believed or held, lest it lose the communion of the one faith in the one Body of the Lord (cf. Eph. 4:4, 5).
Jesus Christ, from whom derives the task proper to the pastors of teaching the Gospel to His people and to the entire human family, wished to endow the pastors' Magisterium with a fitting charism of infallibility in matters regarding faith and morals. Since this charism does not come from new revelations enjoyed by the Successor of Peter and the College of Bishops, it does not dispense them from studying with appropriate means the treasure of divine Revelation contained both in Sacred Scripture which teaches us intact the truth that God willed to be written down for our salvation and in the living Tradition that comes from the Apostles. In carrying out their task, the pastors of the Church enjoy the assistance of the Holy Spirit; this assistance reaches its highest point when they teach the People of God in such a manner that, through the promises of Christ made to Peter and the other Apostles, the doctrine they propose is necessarily immune from error.
This occurs when the bishops scattered throughout the world but teaching in communion with the Successor of Peter present a doctrine to be held irrevocably. It occurs even more clearly both when the bishops by a collegial act (as in Ecumenical Councils), together with their visible Head, define a doctrine to be held, and when the Roman Pontiff "speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, exercising the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, through his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church."
According to Catholic doctrine, the infallibility of the Church's Magisterium extends not only to the deposit of faith but also to those matters without which that deposit cannot be rightly preserved and expounded.  The extension however of this infalliblity to the deposit of faith itself is a truth that the Church has from the beginning held as having been certainly revealed in Christ's promises.
The First Vatican Council, basing itself upon this truth, defined as follows the matter of Catholic faith: "All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written or transmitted Word of God and which are proposed by the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, to be believed as having been divinely revealed." Therefore the objects of Catholic faith - which are called dogmas - necessarily are and always have been the unalterable norm both for faith and theological science.
From what has been said about the extent of and conditions governing the infallibility of the People of God and of the Church's Magisterium, it follows that the faithful are in no way permitted to see in the Church merely a fundamental permanence in truth which, as some assert, could be reconciled with errors contained here and there in the propositions that the Church's Magisterium teaches to be held irrevocably, as also in the unhesitating assent of the People of God concerning matters of faith and morals.
It is of course true that through the faith that leads to salvation men are converted to God, who reveals Himself in His Son Jesus Christ; but it would be wrong to deduce from this that the Church's dogmas can be belittled or even denied. Indeed the conversion to God which we should realize through faith is a form of obedience (cf. Rom. 16:26), which should correspond to the nature of divine Revelation and its demands.
Now this Revelation, in the whole plan of salvation, reveals the mystery of God who sent His Son into the world (cf. 1 Jn.4:14) and teaches its application to Christian conduct. Moreover it demands that, in full obedience of the intellect and will to God who reveals, we accept the proclamation of the good news of salvation as it is infallibly taught by the pastors of the Church. The faithful, therefore, through faith are converted as they should to God, who reveals Himself in Christ, when they adhere to Him in the integral doctrine of the Catholic faith.
It is true that there exists an order as it were a hierarchy of the Church's dogmas, as a result of their varying relationship to the foundation of the faith. This hierarchy means that some dogmas are founded on other dogmas which are the principal ones, and are illuminated by these latter. But all dogmas, since they are revealed, must be believed with the same divine faith.
The transmission of divine Revelation by the Church encounters difficulties of various kinds. These arise from the fact that the hidden mysteries of God "by their nature so far transcend the human intellect that even if they are revealed to us and accepted by faith, they remain concealed by the veil of faith itself and are as it were wrapped in darkness." Difficulties arise also from the historical condition that affects the expression of Revelation.
With regard to this historical condition, it must first be observed that the meaning of the pronouncements of faith depends partly upon the expressive power of the language used at a certain point in time and in particular circumstances. Moreover, it sometimes happens that some dogmatic truth is first expressed incompletely (but not falsely), and at a later date, when considered in a broader context of faith or human knowledge, it receives a fuller and more perfect expression. In addition, when the Church makes new pronouncements she intends to confirm or clarify what is in some way contained in Sacred Scripture or in previous expressions of Tradition; but at the same time she usually has the intention of solving certain questions or removing certain errors.
All these things have to be taken into account in order that these pronouncements may be properly interpreted. Finally, even though the truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch and can be expressed without them, nevertheless it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated by the Sacred Magisterium in terms that bear traces of such conceptions.
In view of the above, it must be stated that the dogmatic formulas of the Church's Magisterium were from the beginning suitable for communicating revealed truth, and that as they are they remain forever suitable for communicating this truth to those who interpret them correctly. It does not however follow that every one of these formulas has always been or will always be so to the same extent. For this reason theologians seek to define exactly the intention of teaching proper to the various formulas, and in carrying out this work they are of considerable assistance to the living Magisterium of the Church, to which they remain subordinated.
For this reason also it often happens that ancient dogmatic formulas and others closely connected with them remain living and fruitful in the habitual usage of the Church, but with suitable expository and explanatory additions that maintain and clarify their original meaning. In addition, it has sometimes happened that in this habitual usage of the Church certain of these formulas gave way to new expressions which, proposed and approved by the Sacred Magisterium, presented more clearly or more completely the same meaning.
As for the meaning of dogmatic formulas, this remains ever true and constant in the Church, even when it is expressed with greater clarity or more developed. The faithful therefore must shun the opinion, first, that dogmatic formulas (or some category of them) cannot signify truth in a determinate way, but can only offer changeable approximations to it, which to a certain extent distort of alter it; secondly, that these formulas signify the truth only in an indeterminate way, this truth being like a goal that is constantly being sought by means of such approximations. Those who hold such an opinion do not avoid dogmatic relativism and they corrupt the concept of the Church's infallibility relative to the truth to be taught or held in a determinate way.
Such an opinion clearly is in disagreement with the declarations of the First Vatican Council, which, while fully aware of the progress of the Church in her knowledge of revealed truth, nevertheless taught as follows: "That meaning of sacred dogmas...must always be maintained which Holy Mother Church declared once and for all, nor should one ever depart from that meaning under the guise of or in the name of a more advanced understanding." The Council moreover condemned the opinion that "dogmas once proposed by the Church must, with the progress of science be given a meaning other than that which was understood by the Church, or which she understands." There is no doubt that, according to these texts of the Council, the meaning of dogmas which is declared by the Church is determinate and unalterable.
Such an opinion is likewise in contrast with Pope John's assertion regarding Christian doctrine at the opening of the Second Vatican Council: "This certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which faithful obedience is due, has to be explored and presented in a way that is demanded by our times. One thing is the deposit of faith, which consists of the truths contained in sacred doctrine, another thing is the manner of presentation, always however with the same meaning and signification."
Since the Successor of Peter is here speaking about certain and unchangeable Christian doctrine, about the deposit of faith which is the same as the truths contained in that doctrine and about the truths which have to be preserved with the same meaning, it is clear that he admits that we can know the true and unchanging meaning of dogmas. What is new and what he recommends in view of the needs of the times pertains only to the modes of studying, expounding and presenting that doctrine while keeping its permanent meaning.
In a similar way the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI exhorted the pastors of the Church in the following words: "Nowadays a serious effort is required of us to ensure that the teaching of the faith should keep the fullness of its meaning and force, while expressing itself in a form which allows it to reach the spirit adn heart of the people to whom it is addressed."
Christ the Lord, the High Priest of the new and everlasting covenant, wished to associate with His perfect priesthood and to form in its likeness the people He had bought with His own blood (cf. Heb. 7:20-22, 26-28; 10:14, 21). He therefore granted His Church a share in His priesthood, which consists of the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood. These differ from each other not only in degree but also in essence; yet they are mutually complementary within the communion of the Church.
The common priesthood of the laity, which is also rightly called a royal priesthood (cf. 1 Pt. 2:9; Rev. 1:6; 5:9ff.) since through it the faithful are united as members of the messianic people with their heavenly King, is conferred by the sacrament of Baptism. By this sacrament "the faithful are incorporated into the Church and are empowered to take part in the worship of the Christian religion" in virtue of a permanent sign known as a character; "reborn as children of God they are obliged to profess before men the faith which they have received from God through the Church." Thus those who are reborn in Baptism "join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood. They likewise exercise that priesthood by receiving the sacraments, by prayer and thanksgiving, by the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity."
Moreover, Christ, the Head of the Church, which is His Mystical Body, appointed as ministers of His priesthood His Apostles and through them their successors the bishops, that they might act in His person within the Church, and also in turn legitimately hand over to priests in a subordinate degree the sacred ministry which they had received. Thus there arose in the Church the apostolic succession of the ministerial priesthood for the glory of God and for the service of His people and of the entire human family, which must be converted to God.
By means of this priesthood bishops and priests are "indeed set apart in a certain sense in the midst of God's people. But this is so, not that they may be separated from this people or from any man, but that they may be totally dedicated to the work for which the Lord has raised them up" namely, the work of sanctifying, teaching and ruling, the actual execution of which is more precisely specified by the hierarchical communion. This many-sided work has as its basis and foundation the continuous preaching of the Gospel, and as a summit and source of the entire Christian life the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
Priests, acting in the person of Christ the Head, offer this Sacrifice in the Holy Spirit to God the Father in the name of Christ and in the name of the members of His Mystical Body. This sacrifice is completed in the holy supper by which the faithful, partaking of the one body of Christ, are all made into one body (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16ff.).
The Church has ever more closely examined the nature of the ministerial priesthood, which can be shown to have been invariably conferred from apostolic times by a sacred rite (cf. 1 Tm. 4:15; 2 Tm. 1:6). By the assistance of the Holy Spirit, she recognized more clearly as time went on that God wished her to understand that this rite conferred upon priests not only an increase of grace for carrying out ecclesiastical duties in a holy way, but also a permanent designation by Christ, or character, by virtue of which they are equipped for their work and endowed with the necessary power that is derived from the supreme power of Christ. The permanent existence of this character, the nature of which is explained in different ways by theologians, is taught by the Council of Florence and reaffirmed by two decrees of the Council of Trent.
In recent times the Second Vatican Council more than once mentioned it, and the second General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops rightly considered the enduring nature of the priestly character throughout life as pertaining to the teaching of the faith. This stable existence of a priestly character must be recognized by the faithful and has to be taken into account in order to judge properly about the nature of the priestly ministry and the appropriate ways of exercising it.
Faithful to Sacred Tradition and to many documents of the magisterium, the Second Vatican Council taught the following concerning the poewr belonging to the ministerial priesthood: "Though everyone can baptize the faithful, the priest alone can complete the building up of the Body in the Eucharistic Sacrifice." And again: "The same Lord, in order that the faithful might form one body in which 'all the members have not the same function' (Rom. 12:4), appointed some ministers within the society of believers who by the power of Orders would be capable of offering the Sacrifice and of forgiving sins."
In the same way the second General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops rightly affirmed that only the priest can act in the person of Christ and preside over and perform the sacrifical banquet in which the People of God are united with the oblation of Christ. Passing over at this point questions regarding the ministers of various sacraments, the evidence of Sacred Tradition and of the sacred magisterium make it clear that the faithful who have not received priestly ordination and who take upon themselves the office of performing the Eucharist attempt to do so not only in a completely illicit way but also invalidly. Such an abuse, wherever it may occur, must clearly be eliminated by the pastors of the Church.
It was not the intention of this Declaration, nor was it within its scope, to prove by way of a study of the foundations of our faith that divine revelation was entrusted to the Church so that she might thereafter preserve it unaltered in the world. But this dogma, from which the Catholic Faith takes its beginning, has been recalled, together with other truths related to the mystery of the Church, so that in the uncertainty of the present day the faith and doctrine the faithful must hold might clearly emerge.
The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejoices that theologians are by intense study exploring more and more the mystery of the Church. It recognizes also that in their work they touch on many questions which can only be clarified by complementary studies and by various efforts and conjectures. However, the due freedom of theologians must always be limited by the Word of God as it is faithfully preserved and expounded in the Church and taught and explained by the living magisterium of the pastors and especially of the Pastor of the entire People of God.
The Sacred Congregation entrusts this Declaration to the diligent attention of the bishops and of all those who in any way share the task of guarding the patrimony of truth which Christ and His Apostles committed to the Church. It also confidently addresses the Declaration to the faithful and particularly, in view of the important office which they hold in the Church, to priests and theologians, so that all may be of one mind in the faith and may be in sincere harmony with the Church.
Pope Paul VI, by divine providence Supreme Pontiff, in the audience granted to the undersigned Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on May 11, 1973, has ratified and confirmed this Declaration in defense of Catholic doctrine on the Church against certain errors of the present day and has ordered its publication.
Given in Rome, at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on June 24, 1973, the feast of St. John the Baptist.
Franjo Cardinal Seper
Archbishop Jerome Hamer