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Andrew Tennessee wrote:

Hi, guys —

Thank you for this wonderful web site. I could not find specific answer to my question,
so I thought I'd just go on ahead and ask.

  • Can you tell me how to recognize a statement that is ex cathedra?

I've been learning about this and am unsure when something is proclaimed ex cathedra from the Holy Chair and when something is not. It appears different Catholic apologists have different estimates as to the number of times ex cathedra statements have been made by various Popes over the last century.

This all seems to be very confusing to me, and I wish to resolve it — so that the Theotokos
(Mary, Mother of God) might eventually illuminate me with the truth about the Catholic Faith.

In Christian charity,


  { Can you tell me how to recognize a statement that is ex cathedra (i.e. from the Pope)? }

Mike replied:

Hi, Andrew —

Thanks for the very good question.

There is a little confusion in this area among faithful Catholics. I'll try to give you my best answer and let my colleagues and visitors comment if they wish.

You said:

  • Can you tell me how to recognize a statement that is ex cathedra?

As Vatican Council I defined it, there is no exact form or statement used. Here is what Vatican I said:

“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 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 in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema."

(See Denzinger § 1839).

That said, in 2,000 years of Church history, an ex cathedra statement has only been pronounced twice, when:

  1. Pope Pius IX defined the Dogma of Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854, and
  2. Pope Pius XII defined the Dogma of Assumption of Mary on November 1, 1950.

It's extremely important to note, that unlike other faiths, like the Mormons, who may also pronounce teachings, when a Pope pronounces an ex cathedra statement, he isn't creating or changing teachings, but he is reaffirming Catholic teaching that has always been taught by the Church since the time of the Apostles. He is defining it more seriously or dogmatically for the faithful so they understand the importance of this teaching to their Catholic faith.

If the Pope declares a teaching ex cathedra, he doesn't have to be sitting on a chair either; this is a metaphor we derive from Moses' cathedra, or chair in Matthew 23:2-3.

A good parallel would be if the President of the United States declared that something was legally binding on Americans based on the office of the Presidency. He wouldn't necessarily have to be in the oval office in the White House to make it legally binding.

Now to your exact question. If we look at the previous two ex cathedra statements by Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII we can see some similarities:

1854, Pope Pius IX, infallibly defined, ex cathedra:

"We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful."

— Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854
[EWTN][Papal Encyclicals Online][New Advent]
1950, Pope Pius XII, infallibly defined,ex cathedra:

"By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."

— Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, November 1, 1950

In both ex cathedra statements, the previous pontiffs used three words: pronounce, declare, and define.

  • Does any future Pope who declares an ex cathedra statement have to use a combination of these three words or use a specific phrase like By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ to proclaim an ex cathedra statement?

Theologians may argue over this, but the answer appears to be, No, based on the definition of Vatican Council I. Nevertheless, it's probably best to use these proclamations for recognizing
a future ex cathedra statement proclaimed by a future Pope. I'm also sure that the Holy Spirit can inform the public of such an up-and-coming statement.

On the issue of how many times ex cathedra statements have been pronounced in the past, I read a previous posting in the Catholic Answers forum, and believe what I have selected represents what the Church teaches. In this posting, some said there have been as many as nine ex cathedra statements in Church history. OTM, a Regular Member in the forum, stated:

Keep in mind that there are three ways infallible statements could be made:

  1. ex cathedra (literally "from the chair; a definition given by the Pope);
  2. doctrine defined through a council and, if the Pope is not present at the council, ratified by him; and
  3. the continual magisterial teaching of the Church (such as the issue of abortion; not defined or declared by either a Pope or a council, but continually taught by the Church from the earliest times.)

It would be my opinion, that seven of the nine other times these statements were made fall into categories 2 or 3, but even if I'm incorrect, I don't think it's something that should weigh heavily on the faithful.

There is also, in my opinion, a fourth way an infallible statement could be made:

  • the Pope, himself says so! e.g. The introduction, that can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, contains this letter.

Apostolic Constitution: Fidei Depositum, Section 3., from Pope St. John Paul II .

3. The Doctrinal Value of the Text

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church's faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion. May it serve the renewal to which the Holy Spirit ceaselessly calls the Church of God, the Body of Christ, on her pilgrimage to the undiminished light of the Kingdom!

The approval and publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church represent a service which the Successor of Peter wishes to offer to the Holy Catholic Church, to all the particular Churches in peace and communion with the Apostolic See: the service, that is, of supporting and confirming the faith of all the Lord Jesus' disciples (cf. Luke 22:32 as well as of strengthening the bonds of unity in the same apostolic faith. Therefore, I ask all the Church's Pastors and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life. This catechism is given to them that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Ephesians 3:8). It is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians, showing carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.

This Catechism is not intended to replace the local catechisms duly approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, the diocesan Bishops and the Episcopal Conferences, especially if they have been approved by the Apostolic See. It is meant to encourage and assist in the writing of new local catechisms, which take into account various situations and cultures, while carefully preserving the unity of faith and fidelity to catholic doctrine.

At the conclusion of this document presenting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I beseech the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word and Mother of the Church, to support with her powerful intercession the catechetical work of the entire Church on every level, at this time when she is called to a new effort of evangelization. May the light of the true faith free humanity from the ignorance and slavery of sin in order to lead it to the only freedom worthy of the name (cf. John 8:32): that of life in Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, here below and in the Kingdom of heaven, in the fullness of the blessed vision of God face to face (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8)!

Given 11 October 1992, the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, in the fourteenth year of my Pontificate.

Joannes Paulus II

I hope this answers your question.


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