Many Catholics today don't understand when the Church solemnly defines a doctrine, and for what purpose It does so. Understanding this is crucial, otherwise it leads to confusion, as we see with the threefold baptism today.
The Catholic Church teaches in two ways; through the ordinary magisterium (i.e. ordinary everyday teaching), and through the extraordinary (solemn) magisterium (i.e. rare teaching through General Councils, and certain encyclicals). As a reference, below we provide a brief summary of the General Councils of the Church, which were only approved by true popes 20 times in over 2000 years. General Councils are referred to as the "extraordinary magisterium”, since this kind of teaching is only used in extraordinary cases and is not necessary for the Church to use on a regular basis.
Many Catholics today often mistakenly insist that a doctrine be formally defined by the Church before they must believe it. "It was never defined", they will say. The First Vatican Council clearly declared otherwise. With only 20 General Councils in over 2000 years, we can clearly see the Church rarely resorts to solemn teaching via Council, and only does so in very specific situations. As we can see by the summary below, the Church usually calls General Councils in response to problems in the Church, which is typically when a doctrine of the Church has come under attack by heretics.
In addition, many Catholic beliefs to this day have not been defined by the Church, yet we would still be considered heretics for not believing them. Some examples would be that Guardian Angels exist, that homosexual acts are wrong, that Adam and Eve are the first and sole parents of the human race, and that the soul is created immediately by God. These were never solemnly defined by the Church, yet Catholics would be considered heretics if they did not believe them. These teachings and so many others are taught by the ordinary magisterium rather than the solemn magisterium, and must be believed according to the First Vatican Council.
Before we summarize the General Councils, we
will present a few quotes from past popes on the subject. Pope Pius IX clarifies this subject for us
in his Letter to Archbishop Scherr of Munich in 1863:
"We desire to reassure ourselves that they did not mean to limit the obligation, which strictly binds Catholic teachers and writers, to those things only which are proposed by the infallible judgment of the Church as dogmas of faith to be believed by everybody. In a like manner, We are convinced that it was not their intention to state that the perfect adherence to revealed truths (which they regard as absolutely necessary for true progress in science and for refuting errors) can be maintained, if the submission of faith is given only to those dogmas expressly defined by the Church. The reason for this is the following: even supposing that we are treating of that subjection which is to be made by an explicit act of divine faith, this must not be limited to those things which have been defined in the express decrees of the ecumenical councils or of the Roman Pontiffs of this See; but it must also be extended to those things which, through the ordinary teaching of the whole Church throughout the world, are proposed as divinely revealed and, as a result, by universal and constant consent of Catholic theologians are held to be matters of faith. "
Pope Pius XII also states the following in his encyclical, Humani Generis, in 1950 (Denz. 2313):
"It is not to be thought that what is set down in Encyclical Letters does not demand assent in itself, because in this the popes do not exercise the supreme power of their magisterium. For these matters are taught by the ordinary magisterium, regarding which the following is pertinent: "He who heareth you, heareth me." [Luke 10:16]; and usually what is set forth and inculcated in the Encyclical Letters, already pertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their acts, after due consideration, express an opinion on a hitherto controversial matter, it is clear to all that this matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a question of free discussion among the theologians."
Finally, in looking at the summary of the General Councils below, we note the following observations:
· If solemnly defining Catholic doctrines were mandatory, then the Catholic Church would have certainly called a General Council in the earliest days of the Church, solemnly defining all that future Catholics were to believe. Not only did this not happen, but the Catholic Church waited over 3 centuries to hold its first General Council (in the year 325). Even at this first General Council, very little was solemnly defined.
· We also note that Arius, Macedonius, and Nestorius (each condemned at the first three General Councils), were each considered heretics before these General Councils were held. Why? It was made very clear that these men were teaching contrary to the continuous teaching of the Church (the ordinary magisterium) up to that point in time.
· Also note how very little was solemnly defined in the early centuries of the Church. For instance, if you were a Catholic in the year 1000, only 8 General Councils had been held by that time, each solemnly defining very little. Baptism itself was not solemnly defined in detail until the Council of Vienne in the 14th century. These are all perfect examples showing that doctrines need not be solemnly defined for Catholics to believe them. Rather, the First Vatican Council clearly defined that Catholics must believe both ordinary and solemn Church teaching.
· Again, the list of General Councils below clearly shows they were called by the Church for the specific reason of condemning heresies and other problems at the time. When the Church called these Councils, it was very specific in condemning both the erroneous teachings and specifically naming those who continued to teach the errors, such as Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Theoclorus, Monothelites, Photius, Anacletus, Arnold of Brescia, Peter of Bruys, Albigenses, Joachim of Floria, Almaric of Bena, Olivi, Fraticelli, Dulcanists, Beghards, Beguines, Wycliff, Hus, Luther etc. The question that is continually asked of Feeneyites is why in these 20 General Councils has the Church never once condemned baptism of desire, baptism of blood, or even one source who has taught these doctrines as listed on the home page of this website? The answer is very clear; just as the doctrine on Guardian Angels has been taught by the ordinary magisterium throughout the entire history of the Church without condemnation, the same can be said of baptism of desire and baptism of blood. The threefold baptism would certainly have been condemned in one of the 20 General Councils had it been considered heresy, but the Church has allowed it because it approves of it. For the Feeneyites to step forward and state that these 20 General Councils somehow missed this “heresy” for 2000 years, and that they are now here to tell us of the error, it is just as absurd as Martin Luther stepping forward in the 16th century, claiming the Church had failed and that he was going to rescue it.
· Conclusion: The ordinary magisterium of the Church is in continuous function, and the solemn magisterium typically only makes declarations and defines doctrines when problems arise within the ordinary magisterium. The Church need not solemnly define anything unless it feels a need to do so in response to specific problems, as we can see from the summary below. The ordinary magisterium and solemn magisterium both teach the threefold baptism as shown on the home page of this website, and both forms of teaching are declared infallible by the First Vatican Council.
Brief Summary of the 20 General Councils of the Church
1. Nicaea I, 325, condemned heresy of Arius, defined the divinity of Christ, formulated Nicene Creed
2. Constantinople I , 381, condemned heresy of Macedonius, defined divinity of Holy Ghost, confirmed and extended Nicene Creed
3. Ephesus, 431, condemned heresy of Nestorius, Defined one person in Christ, defended divine maternity of BVM
4. Chalcedon, 451, condemned heresy of Eutyches, declared Christ had two natures.
5. Constantinople II, 553, condemned books of Theoclorus favoring Nestorian heresy
6. Constantinople III, 680, condemned heresy of Monothelites, defined two wills in Christ
7. Nicaea II, 787, condemned heresy of Iconoclasts
8. Constantinople IV, 870, condemned and deposed Photius, suppressed Greek Schism
9. Lateran I, 1123, regulated rights of Church and Emperors in election of Bishops and Abbots.
10. Lateran II, 1139, suppressed last remnants of schism of Anacletus II, reaffirmed principles of Gregorian reform, banished Arnold of Brescia from Italy, condemned the heresy of Peter of Bruys.
11. Lateran III, 1179, reformed ecclesiastical discipline, decreed papal elections by two thirds majority of Cardinals, confirmed Peace of Venice.
12. Lateran IV, 1215, condemned Albigenses, Joachim of Floria, and Almaric of Bena; prescribed annual confession and communion, promoted ecclesiastical discipline, ordered crusade for recovery of the Holy Land.
13. Lyons I, 1245, called in behalf of the Holy Land, and on account of the hostility of Emperor Frederick II toward Holy See.
14. Lyons II, 1274, promoted ecclesiastical discipline, to affect the union of the Greeks with the Latin church, to aid the Holy Land.
15. Vienne, 1311, condemned the views of Olivi and heresies of Fraticelli, Dulcanists, Beghards, Beguines. Suppressed the Knights Templar, sought aid for the Holy Land.
16. Constance, 1414, suppressed Western schism, ecclesiastical reform in "head and members", Wycliff and Hus condemned.
17. Florence, 1438, called to affect union of Greeks and other oriental sects with the Latin Church; reestablish peace among Christian princes.
18. Lateran V, 1512, defined relations of Pope to general councils, condemned certain errors regarding nature of the human soul, called for crusade against the Turks.
19. Trent, 1545, call to combat the Protestant reformers, issued cannons on the Sacraments and decrees of purgatory, indulgences, justification, invocation and veneration of saints, veneration of images and relics. Published decree on the Index of forbidden books.
20. Vatican I, 1869, promulgated cannons relating to faith and the Constitution of the Church, defined the infallibility of the Pope.