FAQs on Moral Authority of the Pope

What is the authority of the Pope?

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, reminds us that Jesus formed the apostles into a college with authority over the whole Church and placed Peter at its head (nos. 19-22). Additionally, the Church asserts that, as Peter’s successor, the pope has a distinct vocation as “supreme teacher of the universal Church” (Lumen Gentium 25). The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, repeatedly emphasizes that part of the Church’s fundamental vocation is to share its teachings with the world in order to help shape public discourse and policy in ways that protect the common good and promote the flourishing of all persons, with special consideration given to those who are poor and vulnerable (see especially Chapter IV: “The Role of the Church in the Modern World”).

As head of the college of bishops, the pope is able to exercise all four levels of ecclesial teaching authority. To this end, popes typically use encyclical letters to reiterate dogma, address doctrine, and offer judgments.  The solemnity of an encyclical is surpassed only by apostolic constitutions (papal bulls), which popes typically use to define dogma.

Saint John Paul II repeatedly addressed climate change as a moral issue, but never did so in a papal encyclical (1990 and 1999 World Day of Peace Messages). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke about climate change in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (no. 50)

Are there levels of papal teaching?

Yes.  Theologian Richard R. Gaillardetz has examined and summarized the four categories of teaching authority and corresponding levels of assent in Catholic ecclesiology, especially as outlined in Lumen Gentium, Ad Tuendam Fidem, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and commentary by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  Descriptions and examples of each of these, compiled by Dan DiLeo:

  • Dogma: Infallible expressions of divine revelation, owed the most serious response and consideration, what we refer to as “obedience of faith.” When it comes to ethics, dogma includes the most fundamental aspects of Christian morality, including those that Church has never had occasion to explicitly define as such. An example is the basic responsibility of Christians to act as stewards towards God’s gift of Creation.
  • Definitive Doctrine: Teachings that are not divinely revealed but are still essential to the protection of divine revelation. These teachings are also exercised with the charism of infallibility, and the faithful properly owe them “firm acceptance.” One example is the canon of Sacred Scripture.
  • Authoritative Doctrine: Teachings that are connected to divine revelation, but which are neither recognized as divinely revealed nor considered to be infallible. To these, Catholics owe “religious assent,” i.e., “religious submission of mind and will” (Lumen Gentium, no. 25). An example in theological ethics is the “universal destination of goods” which insists that “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 69; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 171-5)
  • Prudential Judgments: Instructions through which the pope and/or bishops employ dogma, doctrine, and authoritative secular information to provide guidance on particular issues or circumstances. These instructions do not have the charism of infallibility, but the faithful are called to openly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully consider these teachings as they form their consciences. An example would be a papal judgment about whether a specific structure, institution, or practice upholds or damages the dignity of Creation—especially of human persons and particularly of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Adapted from “Papal authority and climate change: Preparing for Pope Francis’ encyclical” by Daniel R. DiLeo, at:  www.uscatholic.org/articles/201505/papal-authority-and-climate-change-preparing-pope-francis-encyclical-30117

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