There are plenty of questions in this site about infallibility (e.g. here, here, and here). All of them take for granted a certain definition of "faith and morals", which is the area upon which doctrines are to be potentially considered infallible. But, what precisely is meant by faith and morals? In other words, which is the precise and demarcated scope of infallibility?

The Catholic Encyclopedia on this same topic is far from clear. Faith and morals are words that can be colloquially stretched significantly, so it is essential to me that there is theological clarity on what exactly the Church means.

Having a precise demarcation we can then analyse the full range of potential areas of infallibility. For example, regarding "moral" issues like paying taxes, polluting the environment, being in the army, gambling, etc; or "faith" issues like the number of wings of angels (if any), the day Moses died (for a potential "Feast of Moses"), whether the rich go to heaven or not, etc.

2 Answers 2


The First Vatican Council's Pastor Æternus said, under Pope Pius IX's authority, regarding papal infallibility:

…we teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals [de fide vel moribus] to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.

De fide

There are three levels of de fide ("of the faith") truths:

  1. Theological note: Dogma.
    Equivalent terms: Dogma of faith; de fide, de fide Catholica; de fide divina et Catholica.
    Explanation: A truth proposed by the Church as revealed by God.
    Examples: The Immaculate Conception; all the contents of the Athanasian Creed.
    Censure attached to contradictory proposition: Heresy
    Effects of denial: Mortal sin committed directly against the virtue of faith, and, if the heresy is outwardly professed, excommunication is automatically incurred and membership of the Church forfeited.
    Remarks: A dogma can be proposed either by a solemn definition of pope or council, or by the Ordinary Magisterium, as in the case of the Athanasian Creed, to which the church has manifested her solemn commitment by its long-standing liturgical and practical use and commendation.

  2. Theological Note: Doctrine of ecclesiastical faith
    Equivalent term: De fide ecclesiastica definita
    Explanation: A truth not directly revealed by God but closely connected with Divine revelation and infallibly proposed by the Magisterium.
    Example: The lawfulness of communion under one kind.
    Censure attached to contradictory proposition: Heresy against ecclesiastical faith.
    Effects of denial: Mortal sin directly against faith, and, if publicly professed, automatic excommunication and forfeiture of membership of Church.
    Remarks: It is a dogma that the Church's infallibility extends to truths in this sphere, so one who denies them denies implicitly a dogma or Divine faith.

  3. Theological Note: Truth of Divine faith.
    Equivalent term: De fide divina.
    Explanation: A truth revealed by God but not certainly proposed as such by the Church.
    Example: Christ claimed from the beginning of His public life to be the Messias.
    Censure attached to contradictory proposition: Error (in faith).
    Effects of denial: Mortal sin directly against faith, but no loss of Church membership. May incur a canonical penalty.

source: Sixtus Cartechini, S.J.'s 1951 work De Valore Notarum Theologicarum (On the Value of the Theological Notes), which confessors have used when dealing with erudite penitents. (It's also available in Italian translation.) The theological notes are a way of classifying the proximity of a theological proposition to revelation. (For a good history of the development of these notes, see The development of the theological censures after the Council of Trent: (1563-1709) by John Cahill, O.P.)

De moribus

Morals ("Etym. Latin moralis, relating to conduct, mos, a manner, custom") are voluntary acts (i.e., acts pertaining to the will). Since the will follows the intellect by necessarily desiring the good that the intellect presents it (cf. Thomistic thesis #21), morals always have a doctrinal basis.

Pope Pius XI's condemnation of onanism (contraception) in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii (spec. §59: "…so long as the intrinsic nature of the [marriage] act is preserved.") is a case study of Fr. Cartechini's De Valore Notarum Theologicarum p. 20 regarding ex cathedra pronouncements of morals:

De qualificatione theologica sententiæ condemnatoriæ abusus matrimonii in encyclica "Casti Connubii": utrum sit solemnis definitio ex cathedra quod onanismus sit semper peccatum mortale. Quidam affirmabant esse dogma quia Pontifex adhibet verba satis solemnia. Certe ad solemnem definitionem requiruntur hæc elementa: quod loquatur ut supremus pastor et doctor, et quod velit adhibere supremam suam auctoritatem in pleno gradu. Quod hic loquatur ut supremus pastor et doctor patet; inquirendum restat utrum voluerit uti sua suprema auctoritate, ferendo sententiam definitivam. Sed, admisso quod non sit dogma fidei, tamen doctrina ab ea promulgata certe est infallibiliter vera ex hoc capite: quod Papa verbis solemnibus authentice significet doctrinam ex antiquis temporibus ab ordinario et universali magisterio constanter propositam ut tenendam et observandam.

Regarding the theological qualification of the condemnations against the abuses of matrimony in the encyclical Casti Connubii: whether contraception is always a mortal sin is a solemn ex cathedra definition. Some affirm it to be dogma because the Pontiff uses very solemn words. For a solemn definition, these elements are required: that he speak as supreme pastor and teacher, and that he wants to use his supreme authority in its full degree. It is clear that he speaks as supreme teacher and pastor in this encyclical; it remains to inquire whether he wanted to use his supreme authority, giving a definitive pronouncement. But, even if it is not a dogma of the faith, the doctrine he promulgated certainly is infallibly true because the Pope authoritatively and with solemn words expresses a moral doctrine that from ancient times the ordinary and universal magisterium has constantly proposed must be be held and observed.
[my translation with comparison to p. 18 of the Italian]

This answer incorporates this answer to the question "Do the Catholic Church ex cathedra pronouncements about necessity of Catholicism to be saved still apply?"

  • 1
    Thanks, but the "Explanation" in the Faith aspect is hardly an explanation. E.g. "A truth not directly revealed by God but closely connected with Divine revelation". What precisely is closely connected? Seems to leave plenty of room for discretion. Regarding morals, if these refer to "voluntary acts", then the scope for potential infallible doctrine is pretty much all human actions. But if this is the case, why is Catholic Social Doctrine ("Teaching") not included as part of the infallible teachings of the Church?
    – luchonacho
    Sep 20, 2018 at 8:55
  • @luchonacho Regarding ecclesiastical faith (de fide ecclesiastica), read "The Question of Ecclesiastical Faith" by Msgr. Fenton, American Ecclesiastical Review, April, 1953 (spec. its 2nd ¶). And why do you think all "Catholic Social Doctrine ('Teaching')" is "not included as part of the infallible teachings of the Church"?
    – Geremia
    Sep 20, 2018 at 15:02
  • If the same document defining infallibility do not define the concepts used, or do not refer to their definitions somewhere, isn't in practice the definition itself incomplete? To put it differently, where have the concepts of faith and morals been precisely defined infallibly? The article you refer to is not infallible. To close the loophole, the concepts themselves need to have been defined infallibly somewhere. Regarding the CST issue, well, for a start, they are not part of the Enchiridion.
    – luchonacho
    Sep 20, 2018 at 15:13
  • 1
    @luchonacho "If the same document defining infallibility do not define the concepts used, or do not refer to their definitions somewhere, isn't in practice the definition itself incomplete?" There can be a deepening of our understanding of dogma, and perhaps in the future the Church will define new dogmas that resolve questions about the meaning of "faith and morals" and what is definable as dogma. But just because we have questions about dogmas, that doesn't mean there is something faulty about the dogmas themselves.
    – Geremia
    Sep 20, 2018 at 18:28
  • 2
    @MattGutting Baptism alone isn't sufficient for membership; the true faith is also necessary. Mystici Corporis Christi §22: "Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed."
    – Geremia
    Sep 26, 2018 at 19:42

Faith and Morals

"Faith and morals" is not a technical formula. It basically just means "beliefs and actions." The phrase itself is not meant to limit the scope of teaching, it is just meant to say that the Church has the authority to determine what Christians ought to believe and how Christians ought to act. Some think the Church can only speak authoritatively with respect to abstract truths, and some think She can only speak authoritatively with respect to behavior and morals, but in fact She can speak authoritatively on both topics. The phrase itself came into use after Luther claimed that the Church cannot determine the articles of faith or the laws of morality. (source)

The scope of teaching is limited by the deposit of faith (scripture and tradition), but there are no hard lines. For example, the divinity of Jesus is obviously within the scope of legitimate Christian teaching, whereas the question of whether an electron is a particle or a wave is obviously not within the scope of Church teaching. Yet if scripture or tradition asserted that electrons are particles, then it would be part of faith and morals.

Those arguments can come up within Catholicism. Maybe a pope claims that Socialism is the proper governmental system. Theologians could then object and argue that this question does not belong within the realm of faith and morals, because neither scripture nor tradition have anything to say about it. That argument would continue over time and eventually be settled.

These trickier questions largely fall within what is called "Secondary objects of infallibility" (or second-level authoritative teaching). For instance, suppose the pope infallibly declares that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve. This would trigger a secondary object which says that monogenesis is true, and the pope could explicitly include that secondary object within his definition. In general the truth or falsity of monogenesis belongs to the realm of (evolutionary) science rather than faith or religion, but in the case of the Christian religion it could belong to both realms.

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