Among those who claim to be traditional or conservative Catholics there is quite a bit of misinformation about what constitutes the teaching of the Catholic Church. This is true on the matter of the authority of the Holy Office and Roman Congregations. Many people have misconceptions on this issue.
For instance, one false traditionalist expressed a common error when he stated.
“Statements issued by congregations of the Church, with the approval of a true pope, are to be accepted with the authority of the Magisterium itself.”
That’s wrong, as we will show in this video. Knowing the truth about this issue is relevant to recognizing the true teaching of the Catholic Church on salvation and rejecting modernist heresies.
BRIEF HISTORY AND STRUCTURE
The Holy Office is a Roman Congregation whose official establishment is frequently dated to 1542 under Pope Paul III, but its history as the Roman Inquisition goes back to the time of Innocent III. The Holy Office was set up as the supreme court, located at Rome, for trials concerning the faith.
Established in 1542 by Pope Paul III under the name of the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition or Holy Office, it originally consisted of six cardinals. It was reorganized and expanded by subsequent popes. In addition to the Holy Office, other Roman Congregations were established to carry out the governance of the pope.
Under the arrangement established by Pope Pius X, there were actually 11 Roman Congregations (although some would put the number at 13). The Holy Office was one Roman Congregation. Other Roman Congregations were the Congregation of the Sacraments, the Congregation of the Index, etc.
WHAT AUTHORITY DO DECISIONS OF THE HOLY OFFICE HOLD?
Statements issued by the Holy Office or another Roman Congregation can be approved by a pope either in common form or in specific form. When an act of a Roman Congregation (e.g. the Holy Office) is approved by a pope in common form, it does not take from the act of the congregation its nature and quality as the act of an inferior. Such an act of a Roman Congregation is not infallible, even when approved by a pope in common form.
As pre-Vatican II theologian Ludwig Ott stated:
Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 1954, Introduction, p. 10: “… the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible.”
As Patrick Toner, writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1910, also stated:
“It should be observed in conclusion that papal infallibility is a personal and incommunicable charisma, which is not shared by any pontifical tribunal. It was promised directly to Peter, and to each of Peter’s successors in the primacy, but not as a prerogative the exercise of which could be delegated to others. Hence doctrinal decisions or instructions issued by the Roman congregations, even when approved by the pope in the ordinary way, have no claim to be considered infallible. To be infallible they must be issued by the pope himself in his own name according to the conditions already mentioned as requisite for ex cathedra teaching.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia “Infallibility”, 1910)
But what about a statement of a Roman Congregation, such as the Holy Office, that is approved by a pope in specific form? Some would say that even then the act does not necessarily become infallible, but does so only when the pope, in approving it in specific form, makes it a solemn proclamation binding the whole Church. For instance, Fr. Benedetto Ojetti, writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1912, states:
Fr. Benedetto Ojetti, The Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Roman Congregations”, 1912: “Even when specifically approved by the pope, decrees of the Holy Office are not infallible.”
So, statements of Roman Congregations, when approved by a pope in the ordinary way, are not infallible.
Amleto Cicognani was a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Institute Of Canon Law in Rome. He also stated, in a work given an imprimatur in 1934:
Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Canon Law, 1934, p. 80: “Pontifical approbation or confirmation (in the Acts of the Sacred Congregations it is usually expressed in these words… the Holy Father has approved or confirmed and ratified) is ordinarily given in common form (in forma communi), and not in specific form (in forma specifica). Specific approbation makes an act pontifical, namely, it becomes an act of the Roman Pontiff; common approbation, on the contrary, does not change the act, and hence it derives its essential force from the Dicastery, receiving only added force from the Roman Pontiff. Consequently, even when given with previous consultation of the Pontiff (Nobis Consultis), the Acts of the Sacred Congregations are not infallible, nor are they vested with that absolutely supreme authority, which belongs exclusively to the Roman Pontiff.”
We could cite others to the same effect. Note how different these statements are from the nonsense we heard from the false traditionalist: “Statements issued by congregations of the Church, with the approval of a true pope, are to be accepted with the authority of the Magisterium itself.”
MISUSING THE SYLLABUS OF ERRORS
Before we proceed, we should refute a certain objection that some raise on this issue. Some refer to the proposition condemned by Pope Pius IX, which states:
Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, 1864, #22: “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.” — Letter to the Archbishop of Munich, “Tuas libenter,” Dec. 21, 1863.
People misapply this quote. They pretend like it condemns the position that a Roman Congregation could make a mistake, or that it means that something a Roman Congregation decrees can never be rejected; but that’s false. That’s not what it is condemning. Rather, it condemns the position that Catholic teachers and authors are only bound to things pronounced by the Church as dogmas. That’s an error because, besides things formally proposed as dogmas, Catholic teachers and authors are bound to the canonizations of saints; dogmatic facts and conclusions flowing from dogmas; the universal and constant teaching of Catholic theologians (since that reflects the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium, to which one is also bound); disciplinary laws promulgated as binding upon all the members of the Church; the unanimous consent of Church fathers on a particular point of Scripture; etc. Thus, the obligation of obedience is not confined or limited to solemn dogmatic definitions.
Further, although statements of Roman Congregations approved in common form by a pope are not infallible, that doesn’t mean that Catholics are just permitted to dismiss them off the bat.
Hence, Pope Pius X in his Nov. 18, 1907, Motu Proprio Praestani Scripturae emphasized that there’s a duty to submit in conscience to the decisions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Pope St. Pius X, Motu Proprio Praestani Scripturae, Nov. 18, 1907: “Wherefore we find it necessary to declare and to expressly prescribe, and by this our act we do declare and decree that all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission relating to doctrine, which have been given in the past and which shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the decrees of the Roman congregations approved by the Pontiff; nor can all those escape the note of disobedience or temerity, and consequently of grave sin, who in speech or writing contradict such decisions, and this besides the scandal they give and the other reasons for which they may be responsible before God for other temerities and errors which generally go with such contradictions.”
People are bound to submit to the decision of a Roman Congregation approved by a pope, unless something of greater weight or a valid reason calls for a rejection of it. But a decree of a Roman Congregation pertaining to the faith that has been solemnly approved by a pope, and thus made absolutely binding on the whole Church, must not be rejected for any reason.
Here is pre-Vatican II theologian Fr. Joseph Pohle, writing with an imprimatur in 1911, explaining how respect and obedience is given to a decree of the Holy Office approved in common form unless it’s clear or highly probable that the congregation has made a mistake.
Fr. Joseph Pohle, The Divine Trinity, Imprimatur, 1911: “Those who took this view forgot that a decree of the Holy Office, even when approved by the Pope ‘in forma communi,’ does not partake of the nature of an infallible decision... The religious assent with which Catholics are bound to receive the decisions of the Holy Office, is a duty growing out of Catholic respect for authority, and imposed by obedience. But it would be wrong to interpret it as forbidding deeper research into the soundness or unsoundness of a decision which does not per se claim to be infallible. The respect and obedience we owe to the Church will prompt us not to refuse our assent until it is positively certain, or at least highly probable, that the Sacred Congregation has made a mistake. The pope in his capacity as supreme teacher cannot delegate his infallibility to any man or body of men; hence his approval of a congregational decree does not invest that decree with infallibility, unless indeed the Sovereign Pontiff sees fit, by an approbation ‘in forma solemni’, to raise it to the rank of an ex cathedra decision solemnly binding all the faithful.”
THE HOLY OFFICE CHANGES ITS POSITION ON THE STATUS OF GEOCENTRISM
One of the clearest examples of how the Holy Office and Roman Congregations are not in themselves infallible is the geocentrism case. In the 17th century St. Robert Bellarmine (doctor of the Church), many theologians of the Holy Office and various popes considered the denial of geocentrism to be heresy. This was reflected in acts of the Holy Office and Roman Congregations approved in common form.
Then in the 18th and 19th centuries, the position was reversed. With the approval of popes, Roman Congregations suspended the condemnation of heliocentric works and allowed their publication. In 1822 the Holy Office, with Pope Pius VII’s approval, threatened condemnations against those who would not allow the publication of heliocentric works.
This is from the Holy Office in 1822.
HOLY OFFICE - “There must be no denial, by the present or by future Masters of the Sacred Apostolic Palace, of permission to print and to publish works which treat of the mobility of the earth and of the immobility of the sun, according to the common opinion of modern astronomers… those who would show themselves to be reluctant or would disobey, should be forced under punishments at the choice of [this] Sacred Congregation, with derogation of [their] claimed privileges, where necessary.” (1822)
So here we have the Holy Office in 1822 threatening penalties against those who don’t give permission to publish works which teach that the sun is immobile. But the position of the Roman Congregations in the 17th century was the opposite.
In 1616 eleven theologians of the Holy Office, with the common form approval of Pope Paul V, condemned as heretical the position that the sun is immobile.
• “The sun is the center of the universe (‘mundi’) and absolutely immobile in local motion.” - Condemned as heretical
That was approved in common form by Pope Paul V.
The same Holy Office, with the common form approval of Pope Paul V, condemned as false that:
• “The earth is not the center of the universe (‘mundi’); it is not immobile but turns on itself with a diurnal movement.”
Likewise, in 1633 the Holy Office under Pope Urban VIII condemned as heretical the position that “the Sun is the center of the universe and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the universe” (Sentence Against Galileo).
This condemnation of the denial of geocentrism was approved by Pope Urban VIII, although not in an ex cathedra form. It was also circulated widely.
“Pope Urban [VIII] had no intention of concealing Galileo's abjuration and sentence. Instead, he ordered copies of both to be sent to all inquisitors and papal nuncios that they might notify all their clergy and especially all the professors of mathematics and philosophy within their districts, particularly those at Florence, Padua and Pisa. This was done during the summer and fall of 1633.” (Dorothy Stimson, The Gradual Acceptance Of The Copernican Theory Of The Universe)
Then, in 1921, Pope Benedict XV, contradicting the 17th century position of the Holy Office, stated that the “earth on which we live may not be the center of the universe as at one time was thought.”
Pope Benedict XV, In Praeclara Summorum (#4), April 30, 1921: “... and though this Earth on which we live may not be the center of the universe as at one time was thought, it was the scene of the original happiness of our first ancestors, witness of their unhappy fall, as too of the Redemption of mankind through the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ.”
Pope Benedict XV promoted as possibly true the very position that the Holy Office a few centuries earlier condemned with the common form approval of popes. This article is not about whether geocentrism is true. We are, rather, pointing out that Roman Congregations and popes in their fallible capacity took two contrary positions on the theological status of geocentrism.
Thus, the Holy Office is not infallible in itself. This is important to know because modernism and heresy, especially on salvation, started to percolate in the teaching of theologians and members of the Roman Congregations before Vatican II. That’s one reason that Vatican II happened.
THE 1949 HOLY OFFICE ON PRAYING THE OUR FATHER WITH NON-CATHOLICS
We also find the trend toward modernism in the instruction of the Holy office on the ‘Ecumenical Movement’, issued on Dec. 20, 1949. That instruction declared it permissible for Catholics and non-Catholics to pray the Our Father together at meetings and conferences.
Instruction of the Holy Office on the Ecumenical Movement, Dec. 20, 1949, #5: “Although in all these meetings and conferences any communication whatsoever in worship must be avoided, yet the recitation in common of the Lord's Prayer or of some prayer approved by the Catholic Church, is not forbidden for opening or closing the said meetings.”
That’s another example of how the Holy Office is not the same thing as the Magisterium. The official teaching of the Magisterium is free from all error. Acts of the Holy Office and Roman Congregations are not. We bring these facts out because many so-called traditionalists have constructed a pseudo-magisterium that consists of selective statements from fallible theologians and other non-magisterial sources. They attempt to assign to them an authority or a protection or an infallibility that they don’t possess. In the process they deceive and corrupt the faith of various people.
THE CASE OF FR. LEONARD FEENEY & SUPREMA HAEC SACRA
These points are extremely relevant to the case of Fr. Leonard Feeney; for many people falsely claim that “the Church condemned Fr. Feeney’s teaching” in 1949. They are so wrong.
They are referring to the alleged Holy Office letter dated Aug. 8, 1949, called Suprema Haec Sacra. But what they don’t tell you or don’t emphasize is that this alleged Holy Office letter, which is filled with modernism and errors, was approved in common form by Pius XII, not in specific or solemn form. It was also not signed by Pius XII. As a common form Holy Office letter, it’s not infallible and it can be rejected if it contradicts something of greater weight, which it definitely does. This video is not about why Pius XII, who allowed modernism to grow in various ways, approved the letter in common form. It is about the Holy Office and Roman Congregations.
Even someone like Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton admitted that Suprema Haec Sacra was not infallible.
Furthermore, the alleged Holy Office letter Suprema Haec Sacra, dated Aug. 8, 1949, wasn’t even promulgated in the normal fashion. It was never published in the Acts of the Apostolic See, which is customary for such decrees. Canon 9 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law says that laws are typically published in the official commentary called the Acts of the Apostolic See (AAS - Acta Apostolicae Sedis). We don’t merely find disciplinary decrees published in the AAS but also encyclicals and things pertaining to doctrine. Since Suprema Haec Sacra wasn't even published in the AAS, it’s true to say that it was never officially published or at least that it was irregular. But even if it had been published in the normal fashion would not make it infallible or magisterial.
Instead of the Acts of the Apostolic See, it was published in The Pilot, the news organ for the Archdiocese of Boston. Indeed, when it was initially published in The Pilot in 1949, it wasn’t even published in full. It was only published in full in The Pilot three years later, in 1952. It’s really a piece of trash modernist document. In reality, it’s a pseudo-Holy Office letter. It also became the foundation for the modernist rejection of the dogma Outside There Is No Salvation. The entire purpose of the letter was to give cover to the modernists who wanted to silence and condemn Fr. Feeney for preaching that non-Catholics must be converted to Catholicism to be saved.
Suprema Haec Sacra
(Aug. 8, 1949)
• Filled with modernism and error
• Approved in common form, not specific form
• Not signed by Pius XII
• Never officially published in the AAS
• Written by “Cardinal” Marchetti-Selvaggianni
That’s why at about the same time it was published in Boston, a new England paper ran a typical headline that stated:
Holds No Salvation
Doctrine to be false
- Worchester Telegram, Sept.
That was the effect of the modernist, pseudo-Holy Office Letter Suprema Haec Sacra. It was written in response to the modernist heretic ‘Cardinal’ Richard Cushing, a man who called the dogma Outside The Church There Is No Salvation nonsense and became a B’Nai Brith man of the year. Fr. Feeney was having much success converting people by preaching the absolute necessity of the Catholic faith for salvation, just as true Catholics in our day who hold the same position have success converting people that far exceeds other groups. The heretic Richard Cushing silenced Feeney and put his group under interdict because they were preaching Catholic dogma and converting people. Cushing was upset that Fr. Feeney was boldly telling non-Catholics that they won’t be saved unless they convert to the Catholic Church, so he complained to Rome.
What Cushing received in response was the modernist letter he was looking for. Sadly, most of the priests in the years just before Vatican II had fallen into heresy on salvation. Vatican II didn’t happen overnight. Decades of errors and even heresies in fallible sources, especially on salvation, led to it. The modernist document Suprema Haec Sacra was the pre-Vatican II culmination of that process.
This video is not about the errors in Suprema Haec Sacra. It is about the Holy Office and Roman Congregations. We have covered the facts on this.
These facts demonstrate that when people run around and act like the irregular, common form supposed Holy Office letter Suprema Haec Sacra is a definitive act of the Magisterium, they are just deceiving people. They don’t understand the proper role or authority of the Holy Office or the distinction between it and the Magisterium and the Chair of St. Peter. Suprema Haec Sacra was a fallible letter written by modernists and it must be rejected because it contradicts the teaching of the Chair of St. Peter.
NOT INFALLIBLE BUT NECESSARILY SAFE?
In response to these facts about the fallibility of Roman congregations, some argue that although Holy Office decrees are not infallible, they are absolutely guaranteed in every case to be safe. Their claim is false and they have no magisterial support for it. It’s true that the Holy Office would sometimes declare a doctrine safe or unsafe; but if that act is fallible in itself there is no ultimate safety in what can be erroneous. It’s true that laws of the Catholic Church, which have been promulgated as binding upon all by the supreme authority of the Church, are necessarily safe; but this does not apply to fallible Holy Office acts. Indeed, if something can be mistaken, unsound and erroneous, as they admit, then it can contain error that is opposed to the faith. There’s no “absolute and guaranteed safety” in embracing error.
On this matter we had a brief exchange with the sedevacantist priest who was ordained by Donald Sanborn. The priest’s name is Damien. We asked him if he agrees with Donald Sanborn that souls can be saved in false religions.
“And if someone is saved who is in those false religions, it has nothing to do with that false religion. It has to do with the grace of God and their ignorance.” - Donald Sanborn, Feb. 17, 2008
He refused to answer the question. The idea that souls can be saved in false religions is of course a heresy that contradicts defined Catholic dogma. He wouldn’t answer the question because he’s sadly a heretic who holds the same position as Sanborn and similar priests. In our exchange, Damien admitted that decrees of the Holy Office are not infallible. “Not infallible, yes”, he wrote on June 5, 2019. He then argued, on the same day, that “there is no way you can go wrong” following them.
So, according to him, a Holy Office decree is not infallible (which means that it can contain error), but there’s “no way” you can be wrong following it. Of course, that is self-refuting nonsense. Such contradictory claims emanate from people who attempt to defend a false position and labor under a false understanding of Church teaching. What they are confusing is safety with a diminution of culpability. Someone who follows the error contained in a fallible act of a Roman Congregation or some other approved work, sincerely believing that it’s Catholic teaching, isn’t absolutely safe; but he or she could very well have diminished or eliminated culpability until it’s clear to the person, from some fact or a teaching of greater weight, that what he or she thought was the correct position is not. Those are the true principles about the Holy Office and Roman Congregations.
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