The Doctrinal Authority of Papal Allocutions
from the
American Ecclesiastical Review
(Volume unknown, but circa 1956, pp. 109-117)

     The papal allocution is a comparative newcomer among the important vehicles of the Holy Father's ordinary magisterium.  The first Sovereign Pontiff to employ the allocution extensively for doctrinal purposes was Pope Pius IX.  The first allocution cited in Denzinger's Enchiridion symbolorum is the Acerbissimum vobiscum, delivered by Pope Pius IX in a Secret Consistory on Sept. 27, 1852.[1]

     Some indication of the frequency with which Pope Pius IX used allocutions to bring out important doctrinal truths may be gleaned from the fact that there are seventeen of these allocutions among the thirty-two sources from which the teachings of the famous Syllabus errorum were derived.  The Acerbissimum vobiscum was one of these sources.  Like the "Acerbissimum," all of the other allocutions used in drawing up the "Syllabus" were delivered by the Holy Father in Secret Consistories.[2]

     Like Pope Pius IX, the present Holy Father [Pope Pius XII] has used the consistorial allocution as an important instrument of his ordinary magisterium.  To point to only two examples, during the course of the Marian Year of 1954 he issued doctrinal decisions of outstanding moment in the consistorial allocutions Si diligis and Magnificate Dominum.[3]  Pope Pius XII, however, has also made doctrinal statements of great importance in allocutions delivered to private groups, that is, to groups other than those which include the hierarchy.  Thus, for example, he has set forth some basic points of Catholic teaching about what should be the relation between the Church and the state in two allocutions, the Ci riesce[4] delivered to the National Convention of the "Unione dei Giuristi Italiani" on Dec. 6, 1953, and the Vous avez voulu,[5] spoken on Sept. 7, 1955, to the tenth annual Convention of the Historical Sciences.

     Despite the fact that there is nothing like an adequate treatment of the papal allocutions in existing theological literature, every priest, and particularly every professor of sacred theology, should know whether and under what circumstances these allocutions addressed by the Sovereign Pontiffs to private groups are to be regarded as authoritative, as actual expressions of the Roman Pontiff's ordinary magisterium.  And, especially because of the tendency towards an unhealthy minimism current in this country and elsewhere in the world today, they should also know how doctrine is to be set forth in the allocutions and the other vehicles of the Holy Father's ordinary magisterium if it is to be accepted as authoritative.  The present brief paper will attempt to consider and to answer these questions.

     The first question to be considered is this: Can a speech addressed by the Roman Pontiff to a private group, a group which cannot in any sense be taken as representing either the Roman Church or the universal Church, contain doctrinal teaching authoritative for the universal Church?

     The clear and unequivocal answer to this question is contained in the Holy Father's encyclical letter Humani generis, issued Aug. 12, 1950.  According to this document: "if, in their 'Acta' the Supreme Pontiffs take care to render a decision on a point that has hitherto been controverted, it is obvious to all that this point, according to the mind and will of these same Pontiffs, can no longer be regarded as a question theologians may freely debate among themselves."[6]

     Thus, in the teaching of the Humani generis, any doctrinal decision made by the Pope and included in his "Acta" are authoritative.  Now many of the allocutions made by the Sovereign Pontiff to private groups are included in the "Acta" of the Sovereign Pontiff himself, as a section of the Acta apostolicae sedis.  Hence, any doctrinal decision made in one of these allocutions that is published in the Holy Father's "Acta" is authoritative and binding on all the members of the universal Church.

     There is, according to the words of the Humani generis, an authoritative doctrinal decision whenever the Roman Pontiffs, in their "Acta," "de re hactenus controversa data opera sententiam ferunt."  When this condition is fulfilled, even in an allocution originally delivered to a private group, but subsequently published as part of the Holy Father's "Acta," an authoritative doctrinal judgment has been proposed to the universal Church.  All of those within the Church are obliged, under penalty of serious sin, to accept this decision.

     Occasionally we encounter some utterly misleading comment on the meaning of the expression "data opera" in this section of the text of the Humani generis.  In the excellent "Harper's Latin Dictionary" the expression "operam dare" is explained as meaning "to bestow care or pains on, to give attention to" something.  It should be quite clear that this does not add any new note to a pontifical doctrinal judgment or decision.  According to the terms of the tremendous responsibility he has received from Our Lord Himself, the Sovereign Pontiff is definitely expected to give special and outstanding attention to any doctrinal decision he gives at any time and in any way, when he speaks as Pope and uses either his solemn or his ordinary magisterium.  Hence, there is and there can be no such thing as a decision in the field of Catholic doctrine, given by the Pope acting in his public capacity, precisely as the pastor and the teacher of all Christians, which is not set down "data opera."

     There is an authoritative papal statement, according to the text of the Humani generis, whenever the Sovereign Pontiff takes the trouble to issue a decision on a point which has hitherto been controverted, and inserts that decision in his own "Acta."  Basically, such a decision is made in one of two ways.  When there is a real controversy, two contradictory and hence mutually exclusive resolutions of an individual question are being urged, one by one group, another by that group's opponents.  The Roman Pontiff issues an authoritative decision in that controversy in a positive way when he accepts and presents one of these opposing solutions as "doctrina catholica," or, in some cases, as "de fide" or as "doctrina certa."  There is a negative pontifical judgment when the Sovereign Pontiff repudiates one of the two opposing theses as teaching which it is sinful or rash to hold, or, in the case of an infallible definition, as heretical or erroneous.

     Now the questions may arise: is there any particular form which the Roman Pontiff is obliged to follow in setting forth a doctrinal decision in either the positive or the negative manner? Does the Pope have to state specifically and explicitly that he intends to issue a doctrinal decision on this particular point?  Is it at all necessary that he should refer explicitly to the fact that there has hitherto been a debate among theologians on the question he is going to decide?

     There is certainly nothing in the divinely established constitutional law of the Catholic Church which would in any way justify an affirmative response to any of these inquiries.  The Holy Father's doctrinal authority stems from the tremendous responsibility Our Lord laid upon him in St. Peter, whose successor he is.  Our Lord charged the Prince of the Apostles, and through him, all of his successors until the end of time, with the commission of feeding, of acting as a shepherd for, of taking care of, His lambs and His sheep.[7]  Included in that responsibility was the obligation, and, of course, the power, to confirm the faith of his fellow Christians.

     And the Lord said: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren."[8]

     St. Peter had, and has in his successor, the duty and the power to confirm his brethren in their faith, to take care of their doctrinal needs.  Included in his responsibility is an obvious obligation to select and to employ the means he judges most effective and apt for the accomplishment of the end God has commissioned him to attain.  And in this era, when the printed word possesses a manifest primacy in the field of the dissemination of ideas, the Sovereign Pontiffs have chosen to bring their authoritative teaching, the doctrine in which they accomplish the work of instruction God has commanded them to do, to the people of Christ through the medium of the printed word in the published "Acta."

     The Humani generis reminds us that the doctrinal decisions set forth in the Holy Father's "Acta" manifestly are authoritative "according to the mind and will" of the Pontiffs who have issued these decisions.  Thus, wherever there is a doctrinal judgment expressed in the "Acta" of a Sovereign Pontiff, it is clear that the Pontiff understands that decision to be authoritative and wills that it be so.

     Now when the Pope, in his "Acta," sets forth as a part of Catholic doctrine or as a genuine teaching of the Catholic Church some thesis which has hitherto been opposed, even legitimately, in the schools of sacred theology, he is manifestly making a doctrinal decision.  This certainly holds true even when, in making his statement, the Pope does not explicitly assert that he is issuing a doctrinal judgment and, of course, even when he does not refer to the existence of a controversy or debate on the subject among theologians up until the time of his own pronouncement.  All that is necessary is that this teaching, hitherto opposed in the theological schools, be now set forth as the teaching of the Sovereign Pontiff, or as "doctrina catholica."

     Private theologians have no right whatsoever to establish what they believe to be the conditions under which the teaching presented in the "Acta" of the Roman Pontiff may be accepted as authoritative.  This is, on the contrary, the duty and the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff himself.  The present Holy Father has exercised that right and has done his duty in stating clearly that any doctrinal decision which the Bishop of Rome has taken the trouble to make and insert into his "Acta" is to be received as genuinely authoritative.

     In line with the teaching of the Humani generis, then, it seems unquestionably clear that any doctrinal decision expressed by the Sovereign Pontiff in the course of an allocution delivered to a private group is to be accepted as authoritative when and if that allocution is published by the Sovereign Pontiff as a part of his own "Acta."  Now we must consider this final question: What obligation is incumbent upon a Catholic by reason of an authoritative doctrinal decision made by the Sovereign Pontiff and communicated to the universal Church in this manner?

     The text of the Humani generis itself supplies us with a minimum answer.  This is found in the sentence we have already quoted: "And if, in their 'Acta,' the Supreme Pontiffs take care to render a decision on a point that has hitherto been controverted, it is obvious to all that this point, according to the mind and will of these same Pontiffs, can no longer be regarded as a question theologians may freely debate among themselves."

     Theologians legitimately discuss and dispute among themselves doctrinal questions which the authoritative magisterium of the Catholic Church has not as yet resolved.  Once that magisterium has expressed a decision and communicated that decision to the Church universal, the first and the most obvious result of its declaration must be the cessation of debate on the point it has decided.  A man definitely is not acting and could not act as a theologian, as a teacher of Catholic truth, by disputing against a decision made by the competent doctrinal authority of the Mystical Body of Christ on earth.

     Thus, according to the clear teaching of the Humani generis, it is morally wrong for any individual subject to the Roman Pontiff to defend a thesis contradicting a teaching which the Pope, in his "Acta," has set forth as a part of Catholic doctrine.  It is, in other words, wrong to attack a teaching which, in a genuine doctrinal decision, the Sovereign Pontiff has taught officially as the visible head of the universal Church.  This holds true always an everywhere, even in those cases in which the Pope, in making his decision, did not exercise the plenitude of his apostolic teaching power by making an infallible doctrinal definition.

     The Humani generis must not be taken to imply that a Catholic theologian has completed his obligation with respect to an authoritative doctrinal decision made by the Holy Father and presented in his published "Acta" when he has merely refrained from arguing or debating against it.  The Humani generis reminded its readers that "this sacred magisterium ought to be the immediate and universal norm of truth for any theologian in matters of faith and morals."[9]  Furthermore, it insisted that the faithful are obligated to shun errors which more or less approach heresy, and "to follow the constitutions and decrees by which evil opinions of this sort have been proscribed and forbidden by the Holy See."[10]  In other words, the Humani generis claimed the same internal assent for declarations of the magisterium on matters of faith and morals which previous documents of the Holy See had stressed.

     We may well ask why the Humani generis went to the trouble of mentioning something as fundamental and rudimentary as the duty of abstaining from further debate on a point where the Roman Pontiff has already issued a doctrinal decision, and has communicated that decision to the Church universal by publishing it in his "Acta."  The reason is to be found in the context of the encyclical itself.  The Holy Father has told us something of the existing situation which called for the issuance of the "Humani generis."  This information is contained in the text of that document.  The following two sentences show us the sort of condition the Humani generis was written to meet and to remedy:

     "And although this sacred magisterium ought to be the immediate and universal norm of truth on matters of faith and morals for any theologian, as the agency to which Christ the Lord has entrusted the entire deposit of faith - that is, the Sacred Scriptures and divine Tradition - to be guarded and defended and explained, still, the duty by which the faithful are obligated also to shun those errors which approach more or less to heresy, and therefore 'to follow the constitutions and decrees by which evil opinions of this sort have been proscribed and forbidden by the Holy See,' is sometimes ignored as if it did not exist.  What is said in encyclical letters of the Roman Pontiffs about the nature and constitution of the Church is habitually and deliberately neglected by some with the idea of giving force to a certain vague notion which they claim to have found in the ancient Fathers, especially the Greeks."[11]

     Six years ago, then, Pope Pius XII was faced with a situation in which some of the men who were privileged and obligated to teach the truths of sacred theology had perverted their position and their influence and had deliberately flouted the teachings of the Holy See about the nature and the constitution of the Catholic Church.  And, when he declared that it is wrong to debate a point already decided by the Holy Father after that decision has been published in his "Acta," he was taking cognizance of and condemning an existent practice.  There actually were individuals who were contradicting papal teachings.  They were so numerous and influential that they rendered the composition of the Humani generis necessary to counteract their activities.  These individuals were continuing to propose teachings repudiated by the Sovereign Pontiff in previous pronouncements.  The Holy Father, then, was compelled by these circumstances to call for the cessation of debate among theologians on subjects which had already been decided by pontifical decisions published in the "Acta."

     The kind of theological teaching and writing against which the encyclical Humani generis was directed was definitely not remarkable for its scientific excellence.  It was, as a matter of fact, exceptionally poor from the scientific point of view.  The men who were responsible for it showed very clearly that they did not understand the basic nature and purpose of sacred theology.  For the true theologian the magisterium of the Church remains, as the Humani generis says, the immediate and universal norm of truth.  And the teaching set forth by Pope Pius IX in his Tuas libenter is as true today as it always has been.

     But when we treat of that subjection by which all Catholic students of speculative sciences are obligated in conscience so that they bring new aids to the Church by their writings, the men of this assembly ought to realize that it is not enough for Catholic scholars to receive and venerate the above-mentioned dogmas of the Church, but [they ought also to realize] that they must submit to the doctrinal decisions issued by the Pontifical Congregations and also to those points of doctrine which are held by the common and constant agreement of Catholics as theological truths and conclusions which are so certain that, even though the opinions opposed to them cannot be called heretical, they still deserve some other theological censure.[12]

     It is definitely the business of the writer in the field of sacred theology to benefit the Church by what he writes.  It is likewise the duty of the teacher of this science to help the Church by his teaching.  The man who uses the shoddy tricks of minimism to oppose or to ignore the doctrinal decisions made by the Sovereign Pontiff and set down in his "Acta" is, in the last analysis, stultifying his position as a theologian.

     The man who is privileged to teach the science of sacred theology should never allow himself to lose sight of the fact that he is one of those called in by the apostolic college to aid in a teaching work to which that apostolic college alone has been divinely commissioned.  The doctrine which the theologian is expected to teach clearly, accurately, and unequivocally is not some teaching which has been discovered by men, but rather the supernatural revelation of the Triune God.  The teacher of or writer in sacred theology is carrying out his task by the orders and under the direction of the apostolic magisterium itself.  He accomplishes his work successfully only in the measure that be whole-heartedly accepts the doctrinal decisions addressed to the universal Church by the visible head of the Church.

Joseph Clifford Fenton
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D. C.


[1] Denz., 1640.
[2] The most important of these allocutions was the Singulari quadam, delivered on Dec. 9, 1854, the day after the solemn definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, to the Cardinals and Bishops gathered in Rome for the definition.
[3] The Latin text and the English translation of the Si diligis are printed in The American Ecclesiastical Review, CXXXI, 2 (Aug., 1954), 127-37.  The English translation of the Magnificate Dominum is carried in AER, CXXXII, 1 (Jan., 1955), 52-63.  For a brief commentary on the Si diligis, cf. Fenton, The Papal Allocution 'Si diligis,' AER, CXXXI, 3 (Sept., 1954), 186-98.
[4] The English translation of the Ci riesce was printed in AER, CXXX, 2 (Feb., 1954), 129-38.  The same issue of AER carries a brief commentary on this allocution.  Cf. Fenton, The Teachings of the 'Ci riesce,' ibid., 114-23.
[5] The English translation of the allocution Vous avez voulu is printed in AER, CXXXIII, 5 (Nov., 1955), 340-51.  A commentary on one section of this allocution is carried in the same issue.  Cf. Fenton, The Holy Father's Statement on Relations between the Church and the State, ibid., 323-31.
[6] Denz., 3013; AER, CXXIII, 5 (Nov., 1950), 389.
[7] Cf. John, 21: 15-19.
[8] Luke, 22:31 f.
[9] Denz., 3013; AER, CXXIII, 5 (Nov., 1950), 388.
[10] The words are quoted from the Vatican Council's [Vatican I] constitution Dei Filius, Denz., 1820.
[11] Denz., 3013; AER, CXXIII, 5 (Nov., 1950), 388 f.
[12] Denz., 1684.