The Syllabus of Errors published by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1864, listed the following statement as one which must be rejected by all Catholics: “The obligation by which Catholic teachers and authors are strictly bound is confined to those things only which are proposed to universal belief as dogmas of faith by the infallible judgment of the Church” (error #22 in that famed document).
That Catholics only have to follow what is infallibly defined is a dogmatic minimalism advanced by the German modernist theological school of thought. And in times past, good and holy shepherds like Pope Pius IX, with the help of Father Joseph Kleutgen, vigorously fought against such errors.
Catholics Must Believe in All Dogmas (Infallibly Defined and More)
Dogmas defined ex cathedra in virtue of papal infallibility are only one source of dogmatic truth for the faithful. Two of the most recent dogmas which were proclaimed ex cathedra concern our Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception and Her Assumption into Heaven.
Yet, there are more teachings that we believe as part of the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium rather than by virtue of ex cathedra statements. One such example is that Holy Orders may only be validly received by a baptized male. In 1994, Pope John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
This document, while not ex cathedra, met the four criteria for papal infallibility:
“The Pope must be (1) intending to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority (3) a matter of Faith or morals (4) to be held by the universal Church.”
The bishops of the world teaching in union with the Pope – in an ecumenical council, for instance – can also infallibly define matters, but these are not called “ex cathedra” since that term refers specifically to the exercise of the Pope’s authority as the successor of St. Peter. As such, all infallibly defined teachings are things we are obliged to believe, even if they are not defined “ex cathedra” (i.e., by the Pope acting on his own authority from God).
Readers may choose to familiarize themselves with a collected list of 255 infallible dogmas, some of which were defined ex cathedra and others which were not defined in this manner. Examples of dogmas defined at Councils include the definition of Christ’s two natures from the Council of Chalcedon in 451:
“So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards His divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards His humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards His divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the Virgin God-bearer as regards His humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single Person and a single subsistent Being; He is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself instructed us, and as the Creed of the fathers handed it down to us.”
Other Certain Truths of the Faith
In 1998, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI, issued “Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei” where he laid out various teachings that were “irreformable” or “definitive” and, while not binding as an infallible proclamation, would nevertheless oblige all the faithful to believe them.
This distinction is a theological nuance which modernists take advantage of by trying to imply that there are two grades of teachings and the lower grade can be changed to suit the times. Yet this disregards the meaning of “definitive” and “irreformable.” If a teaching is indeed “irreformable” then it can’t be changed. If it is “definitive” it can’t be discarded as outmoded when some perceive it to be ‘too difficult’ or ‘inconvenient.’ So, to the ordinary Catholic in the pew such teachings are also “infallible” by the common understanding of the term.
Examples of “irreformable” teachings center around divinely revealed mysteries which are not dogmatically defined, whereas “definitive” teachings include, among others, the immorality of abortion and euthanasia. The nuanced theological distinction stems from the content of the teaching and the level of authority by which it was defined, not by its ability to be changed, reformed or discarded. And we should note that a future Pope or ecumenical council could readily choose, without any difficulty, to define as infallible any one of these “definitive and irreformable” teachings.
Consequently, in addition to the 255 infallible dogmas of the Faith, the common list of Church teachings often includes 100+ other certain truths that must nevertheless be believed by the faithful. The listing in question enumerates 102 certain truths. Examples include:
- The primary task of the good angels is the glorification and the service of God.
- Every one of the faithful has his own special guardian angel from baptism.
- The Hypostatic Union was never interrupted.
- The Blood in the Living Body of Jesus Christ is an integral constituent part of human nature, immediately, not merely mediately, united with the Person of the Divine Logos.
- Just as latria is due to the whole human nature of Christ, so is it due to the individual parts of His nature.
Just because something is not mentioned in the Creed or in an ex-cathedra statement does not mean we are permitted to believe in a contrary view.
Debate May Precede Dogmatic Definitions
This is not the same as debating matters which are open for interpretation. One such famous example was the Dominican versus Franciscan opinion on whether the souls of the just see God in the Beatific Vision immediately after death or if they must wait until the Last Judgment. Such debate was permissible until January 29, 1336, when Pope Benedict XII definitively settled the matter in the constitution Benedictus Deus, wherein he stated that the souls of the saints:
“…do behold the divine Essence with intuitive and face-to-face vision, with no creature mediating in the manner of object seen, but the divine Essence immediately showing Itself to them without covering, clearly and openly; and that when they see in this way they have full enjoyment of that same divine Essence. From this vision and enjoyment the souls of those who have already departed are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest; and the souls of those who will depart hereafter will also see that same divine Essence and will have full enjoyment of it before the general judgment…”
While that settled the matter, it was open for honest debate beforehand. And in the end, the truth was proclaimed. The Catholic Church cannot teach any error in light of the Church’s own infallibility given her by Christ:
“By the infallibility of the Church it is meant that the Church cannot err when she teaches a doctrine of faith or morals. The Church teaches infallibly when she speaks through the Pope and the bishops, united in general council. Or through the Pope alone when he proclaims to all the faithful a doctrine of faith or morals. By the indefectibility of the Church, it is meant that the Church, as Christ founded her, will last till the end of time” (Baltimore Catechism, QQ.124-126)
Not Even the Pope Can Change Dogma
Finally, it is imperative to note that no one – not even a Pope – can change the truths of Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, or any doctrines definitively put forth by the Magisterium. Juan Cardinal de Torquemada (1388-1468) accordingly wrote:
“Were the pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands is to be passed over.”
Therefore, Catholics can never be obligated by any authority on earth – not even by a Pope – to believe, accept, or obey anything which is contrary to Sacred Tradition, to Scripture, to the Natural Law, or to any of the Church’s infallible doctrines or irreformable teachings. All these teachings are based on the authority of God Himself and His Divine Revelation, and no earthly authority may ever supersede God’s authority. In fact, Catholics must resist – according to their circumstances and state of life – any teachings which are opposed to God’s truth.
Dr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma has a list of all the dogmas (defined up to that time) of the Faith, their explanations, history, and connections. For those wishing to learn and study more, it is a great aid. The same is true for the Adult Faith Formation Program on CatechismClass.com, which is devoted to teaching the fundamentals of Catholic dogma to the faithful today.
 Editor’s Note: Today there are many who mistakenly think that the Syllabus Errorum may be discarded as no longer relevant. However, it is clear that Bl. Pius IX intended for it to be an infallible teaching and hence, irreformable. Like all documents, it must be read in context. The Syllabus of Errors actually had a ‘cover letter’ which is Pius IX’s encyclical Quanta Cura, or you could say the Syllabus was an ‘appendix’ to Quanta Cura. Both were published together as one teaching on December 8, 1964. We encourage you to read Quanta Cura for yourself. It is a short but powerful document. Once you read it, you will undoubtedly agree that the Vicar of Christ intended this to be held as an infallible teaching. The most relevant passage, by which Pius IX explicitly meets the criteria for infallibility prescribed in the First Vatican Council, is paragraph six. The false opinions and doctrines referenced in this passage include the 80 propositions listed in the Syllabus of Errors. This paragraph reads in part:
“Therefore, by our Apostolic authority, we reprobate, proscribe, and condemn all the singular and evil opinions and doctrines severally mentioned in this letter, and will and command that they be thoroughly held by all children of the Catholic Church as reprobated, proscribed and condemned.”
 The First Vatican Council made clear that infallibility relates to the “office” of the Pope, not the man himself. When the Pope speaks “ex cathedra” or from the very seat of Peter, in order to define matters of faith and morals, these teachings are to be believed by all the faithful. He speaks as the successor of Peter, who was given this authority by Jesus. The Pope speaks from a basis in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
Vatican I stated: “. . . the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of St. Peter, the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore irreformable because of their nature, but not because of the agreement of the Church.” [First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ]
 Editor’s Note: I have often been asked (even asked myself) if there is any place where the Church lists ALL of its infallible teachings. The best answer I received came from Father Michael Rodriguez. He explained that there was no such document and the Church, in her wisdom, will never issue such a document. He said this is because men, in their hubris and spurred on by the father of all lies, will never stop ‘inventing’ new errors. Father further explained that the Church is obligated to condemn these errors, and at times may need to use its infallible authority. Hence, the Church should never limit herself by creating a ‘complete listing.’ For example, all of the following could be defined with explicit infallible authority: marriage is between a man and a woman; a man cannot “change” himself into a woman; contraception, abortion and homosexual acts are intrinsically evil. All of these are true and cannot change. They are all part of God’s created order (Natural Law) and can be known by all men. Nevertheless, the Church has – as yet – not used its authority to explicitly declare them ‘infallibly defined.’