On non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium and the meaning of “obsequium religiosum”

Sometimes “religious obsequium” is translated “religious assent,” at other times “religious submission,” and at other times “religious respect”. What exactly are we being asked to do?

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Pope Francis’ many controversial statements have brought with them a new interest in how Catholics should respond to non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium. The Pope’s infallibility was only solemnly defined in the late 19th century, so it is no surprise that careful reflection on non-infallible-but-still-authoritative teachings is a fairly recent thing. Vatican II’s constitution Lumen Gentium tackles the topic head-on, but even there it just says that we owe the Pope’s non-infallible statements a religious obsequium of mind and will. This language was picked up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon Law, the CDF’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the theologian, the Professio fidei, and the CDF’s doctrinal commentary on the concluding formula of the Professio fidei, so it appears to be the Church’s phrasing of choice for describing a Catholic’s proper response to non-infallible magisterial teaching in general.

But what does it mean? Sometimes “religious obsequium” is translated “religious assent,” at other times “religious submission,” and at other times “religious respect”. What exactly are we being asked to do? Taking into account everything said in the above-mentioned documents, and looking a bit deeper for a theological account of what they say, let’s unpack the key term obsequium.

The dictionary meaning of the word

The Latin word obsequium is not a mystery in itself. It means a readiness or willingness to comply. So for example, the Roman army would bring a people back to obsequium—that is, subjugate them—by force of arms. Or a lover would show obsequium—a readiness to, erm, “comply”—to her man. In English we have an old-but-not-quite obsolete word “obsequy” to signify the same thing.

As the above examples show, to call something obsequium is a fairly outward description of what is going on: the interior motivation behind the obsequium could be almost anything. One has a readiness to comply with one’s lover out of amorous love. One has a readiness to comply to the Roman army because they kill disobedient people. One has a readiness to comply with the commands of one’s parents out of respect for them as parents—or perhaps for fear of a spanking. One has a readiness to comply with the government’s laws both because they are the custodians of the common good (reverence) and because they can punish (fear). In some of these cases the obsequium is a moral obligation, while in others it is just a fact arising from the situation. When someone’s readiness to comply is driven by flattery, such that he changes with every slightest perceived whim of his master, we call him “obsequious”.

The obsequium we give to the Magisterium is specified as “religious”: it does not arise from fear for our lives, nor from amorous love, but from reverence.

Reverence for what? For the office, bestowed on certain men by God, of protecting the Church’s common good, a common good that includes the truth of the faith. We meet a teaching from the Magisterium with a readiness to assent (obsequium) inspired by reverence for the Magisterium’s God-given office (religiosum). It is like the reverence one has for a sacred place: one would not carry out a non-religious activity in a Church without a pressing reason; one would be even more reluctant to transgress the sanctuary itself except in a case of great necessity; one would never in any situation agree to strike a monstrance or a tabernacle or do anything else that would endanger the Eucharist; and one could not conceive of disrespecting the Eucharist itself. The reverence due to the sacred forbids it.

To refuse assent to a magisterial teaching is to transgress the Magisterium’s sacred office, while to assent is to act with reverence toward it. This is why some translations of Lumen Gentium render the word obsequium as “respect,” which is a decent attempt to describe the nature of the act. In fact, the word obsequium survives in Italian as “ossequio,” which retains only the meaning of “respect” or “deference.” Hence the official Vatican translation of the Oath of Fidelity renders obsequium religiosum as “religioso ossequio,” which can only be translated “religious respect.”

Degrees of engagement of the Magisterium’s authority

While I compared reverence for the Magisterium to reverence for a church or a tabernacle, there is a key difference between reverence for inanimate sacred things and reverence for a sacred person. The sacred thing is simply there, more or less sacred as the Church has made it so. But a person holding a sacred office can choose to bring the sacredness of his office more or less to bear on a situation. So while a church is only as sacred as it is, and the sanctuary inevitably more so, and the tabernacle even more so, a person holding the magisterial office can engage his office to a lesser degree, a greater degree, or a maximal degree, depending on his judgment.

There is nothing mystical about this. Every moral authority works the same way. For example, a child should obey his father out of piety, and the father can invoke his God-given role as father to a greater or a lesser degree. Sometimes the father only interposes his paternal office slightly, and the child knows that a slight reason would be enough to justify transgressing his father’s request. At other times the father interposes his paternal office more significantly, so the child knows that it is unlikely any reason would justify disobedience. And sometimes, in rare cases, the father can lay his entire paternal office between the child and a given deed, as though to say: If you do this, you utterly disrespect my paternity. The child who goes ahead with the deed at that point estranges himself from his father.

The same thing is true of governmental authority. While the government has power to punish those who are not motivated by anything more noble than fear, a good citizen obeys the law out of reverence for the office of the lawgiver. And the government indicates the greater and lesser degrees to which it interposes the dignity of its office between a citizen and a given deed by assigning greater and lesser penalties. For something trivial, like a speeding violation, the penalty is trivial. For something that defies all the demands of reverence for lawful authority, like treason, the penalty can even be death.

Notice that neither of these cases depends on the particular expertise of the one who holds the office. It helps if one’s father is wise, but piety makes demands even toward a mediocre parent; no one in his right mind presumes the government knows best, but every good citizen intuitively obeys laws promulgated by the legitimate authorities.

Invoking the office of the Magisterium to varying degrees

So it comes as no surprise that those entrusted with guarding the Church’s common good, the truth of the faith, can interpose the sacredness of their office between believers and a given path to a greater or lesser degree, even to the point of putting their entire office at stake. When the Magisterium only partially interposes its office between believer and deed, we have non-infallible yet magisterial teachings. When the Magisterium entirely interposes its office between believer and deed, it makes a difference who does this and how:

  • If an individual bishop completely interposes his office and the believer goes ahead anyway, he is estranged from that bishop, although not necessarily from the Church. One might have to do this sometimes, if the bishop in question has himself betrayed the office he invokes. This is like the case when a child simply must disobey an abusive father, who has made a mockery of his paternity.
  • If the bishops all together, or the bishop of Rome acting as their head, completely interpose their office—not just this man’s episcopacy, but the episcopacy as a whole—and one goes ahead, then one is estranged from the Church. Because God gave the episcopacy to the Church, breaking ties with the episcopacy as such can never be a good idea.
  • If the bishops all together declare that statement X is in the deposit of revelation, then the case is more serious still. When a person begins to consider whether he should adopt the Christian faith, he hears many different voices: the Bible says things, this and that preacher say things, bishops say things, and even his own experience and random books he picks up. But when he makes the decision that is the act of faith, what he commits to is this: All these many voices were but one voice, the voice of God inviting me to him. His act of faith is an act of hearing the voice of God in obedience. And when the bishops all together, or the Pope speaking as their head, declares that a given statement is in the deposit of revelation, their statement merges into the many voices that the believer originally heard and accepted as the voice of God. The believer’s response is no longer one of reverence for the office of the Magisterium but of trust in God. To withhold assent at this point would be to void the act of faith itself, to undo one’s original commitment. It would no longer be a sin of irreverence toward the Magisterium but of heresy. In the analogy of respect for sacred things given above, this would be like desecrating the Eucharist, the very reason why everything around it is sacred.

Each of the above-mentioned levels of authority has a distinct term to describe it. As regards non-infallible magisterial statements, i.e., lesser interpositions of the office, normal people normally do not have any sufficient reason to transgress the interpositions. So the normal outcome of “readiness to comply” is compliance, i.e., assent. This assent does not take the form of saying “I know X is true”—this is for acts of faith or of compliance with the definitive magisterium—but of saying “I think that X is true,” using the language of firm opinion. Even though the Magisterium can invoke its office more and less here, yielding varying degrees of moral obligation to comply, the responses to these various degrees do not differ in kind and so are all described by the same terms.

When the magisterium completely interposes its office, i.e., hands down a definitive teaching, the response is not “readiness to comply”—which might or might not issue in compliance—but “compliance”. So the response is not described here as obsequium religiosum, but firmiter tenere, to “hold firmly,” saying not “I think” but “I know.”

The response to God’s voice is credo—I believe.

Obsequium religiousum in cases of disagreement

With regard to the lesser interpositions of the Magisterium’s office, people can find themselves in a hard situation where a good reason for withholding compliance presents itself. However, the reverence given to non-infallible acts is always the same for the same degree of interposition of the office, even though how one acts on that reverence will depend on other factors like one’s academic training, one’s responsibility for instructing others, the harmony of the teaching with other magisterial teachings, etc. Disagreeing with a non-infallible teaching does not mean withdrawing the essence of the obsequium religiosum: in a given case one may not be at all “ready or compliant,” and yet the reverence that normally drives compliance is still present.

The reverence still present is not an empty form, either, because it still imposes certain limits on one’s actions. If necessity forced a soldier to move through a church sanctuary with a rifle, for example, he still would not spit chewing tobacco or write on the walls: his reluctant violation of the space would not eliminate his reverence. And similarly, even when we must disagree with magisterial statements—e.g., when they disagree with other magisterial statements—we do so with sorrow at the necessity and respect for the office and its holder.

It might seem as though the fact that magisterial statement A disagrees with greater magisterial statement B voids the reverence due to A, because reverence for the magisterium itself outweighs what would have been given to A. But this is not so. Suppose for example that a Catholic saw the Eucharist in danger of desecration in the sanctuary and ran pell-mell through the church and through the sanctuary to prevent the desecration: his religious reverence for the church and the sanctuary would not diminished by his apparently disrespectful behavior. Quite the contrary: he could reverence the sanctuary only by rushing to save the Eucharist, the reality which makes the sanctuary sacred.

Again, none of this is mysterious: it is the way moral authority normally works. If a father has repeated command X time and again, in the most serious terms, and then later gives command Y once casually as the child leaves for school, what does the child do if he finds that obeying Y conflicts with obeying X? He understands that his father has substantially invested his paternal office in X and only slightly in Y, and consequently to obey command Y would be to disrespect his father’s very fatherhood, and therefore would constitute “obedience” only in an outward and physical way.

The difference in authority levels is also crucial from the parent’s point of view: the father expresses some things more seriously and other things more casually precisely because he wants his child to know which things give way in a crisis and which things do not. Imagine the pressure on a father if he knew that every statement he uttered put his entire paternity at stake. Imagine the constraint he would feel if he knew that every command he gave his child, no matter how small, absolutely bound that child in all circumstances. It would be practically unworkable.

The Magisterium is no different in this regard. Sometimes the Church speaks infallibly, putting her entire office at stake and forcing a Catholic to choose: union with the Church or estrangement? Sometimes the Magisterium invests its office not entirely, but substantially. At other times, the Magisterium puts its office behind a given statement only in a small way. These differing levels of authority are there both for the faithful and for the Magisterium itself, to make its moral authority workable. The Pope does not have to suffer the intolerable burden of speaking infallibly in every circumstance, no matter how casual his utterance. And in hard circumstances, when choices must be made between teachings of higher authority and teachings of lesser authority, the faithful can know that only assent to those teachings in which the Magisterium’s office is more invested is true obsequium religiosum.

About Dr. Jeremy Holmes 1 Article
Dr. Jeremy Holmes is Associate Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College and co-founder of The Aquinas Institute.


  1. All good technical information and how an interpretation in “degree” can be confused with one in “kind”.

    It is one thing when a papacy struggles to bring forth a more complete understanding of Church teachings and doctrine.

    It’s quite another when a papacy purposely, by its own admission, wants to “mix things up.”

    And the laity is left out in the cold when that should never be on doctrine that is grave to the soul.

    This is not some mental game.

  2. “one would not carry out a non-religious activity in a Church without a pressing reason…

    Very strong piece, but this makes me wonder if the writer has any experience with a broad stroke of American parishes, LOL!

  3. Dear Dr. Holmes, Wonderfully academic but how do I apply any of this to Pope Francis? Have I left the Church because I think the Pope is in serious error, teaching serious error, and driving error throughout the faithful? Does my salvation depend on accepting that adultery is only a serious sin in select situations? Why did you write this – – to cause more confusion?

      • “Sometimes the Church speaks infallibly, putting her entire office at stake and forcing a Catholic to choose: union with the Church or estrangement? Sometimes the Magisterium invests its office not entirely, but substantially. At other times, the Magisterium puts its office behind a given statement only in a small way. These differing levels of authority are there both for the faithful and for the Magisterium itself, to make its moral authority workable.” Pope Francis states that ‘his magisterium’ is completely understandable and insists in written letter that the Malta, German, etc interpretation is the only one to be accepted. So what is confusing? If my superior military officer orders me to kill an unarmed combatant our a civilian, I must disobey that order. But that example was not an option in Dr. Holmes analysis. So if I must obey/honor Pope Francis magisterium but I’m unable to accept it, have I lost my soul? Possibly I simply don’t understand.

  4. I guess I’m a heretic. I was born in late 1930s. Began grammar school in 1944. Raised a Catholic in the Latin Tridentine era. I go by the faith I learned back then. Today I DON’T CARE what Rome says or thinks about anything. I know my faith. Partake in the mass and regularly receive the sacraments. I consider myself a good Catholic.

  5. Pope Francis has stated that a direct personal relationship with Jesus Christ is to be avoided at all costs. Such a directive is absolute drivel! I pray every day directly and personally to Jesus. When I was a small boy in Catholic grammar school I can still remember the nun (nuns taught religion class back then) that if Jesus death on the cross resulted in salvation for ONLY ONE person He (Jesus) STILL WOULD HAVE DONE IT! So tell me, is there any more direct relationship than that?

    • I am unaware of such a statement and am quite interested in reading the pope’s exact words in this regard. Please direct me to where I can do so on my own.

      Thank you.

  6. The language is a bit confusing: what does “interpose the office” mean, or “putting her office at stake”? Just another way of saying “to issue a statement/document”

  7. The center of controversy primarily impinges on one issue, whether communion can be given to D&R. Dr Holmes well delineated article doesn’t isolate the counterpoint given by then Prefect for CDF Ratzinger in the Doctrinal Commentary. Any Sententia [statements whether written or oral] that affect the First Proposition, the Deposit of Faith must comply with Proposition Two and be either solemnly pronounced, or given as Sententia Definitive Intenda. That means the intent is definitively stated. The two letters added to the Acta Apostolica, Amoris Laetitia, Cardinals Coccopalmiero, Parolin contention they confirm Catholic doctrine are mistaken and invalid because nothing contained or uttered is definitively stated by the Pontiff. Furthermore intrinsic evil adultery, false witness, abortion cannot be subject to discernment of gradations of mitigated culpability. Discernment is the ability to distinguish between opposites, the essence of a free decision [liberum arbitrium] and definition of humanness. Intrinsic evil cannot become good due to subjective affect, “concrete circumstances”, intent. The object of the act must be good, meaning ordered to God. Otherwise theology becomes anthropology.

  8. This is a good essay in the sense that it is a Good Start.

    But more needs to be said, to enable the faithful to APPLY all of this.

    In particular, this piece is missing the distinction between an authority declaring XYZ to be True, and an authority commanding ABC to be done.

    The confusing thing about the pontificate of Pope Francis seems to be that he…
    (a.) fully acknowledges that XYZ is true…, and
    (b.) explicitly permits, commends, and possibly commands ABC…,
    in situations where if XYZ is true, then ABC is unwise and quite likely mortally sinful.

    Now the charism of infallibility protects the Magisterium from imposing false beliefs, but does not protect bishops or popes from commanding unwise disciplinary norms.

    But a disciplinary norm can, itself, be either fitting or unfitting as a response to the truths of the faith.

    Consequently, a pope does have the power to impose new disciplinary norms which implicitly deny the truths of the faith while he simultaneously explicitly teaches those same truths.

    It seems to me that the faithful have a moral obligation to maintain an opinion that the pope’s imposition of a new disciplinary norm is unwise any time that disciplinary norm implicitly denies the truths of the faith.

    But how does “religious obsequium” apply in such cases?

    • R.C. my comment suggests we don’t owe “religious obsequium” because the presumed Pontifical teaching is invalid. Error. We only owe it our rejection.

      • Thank you Father your wisdom/knowledge is always a blessing.
        I have been reading like crazy trying to find root(s) to Pope Francis’ understandings. I just read about John of Mirecourt, a Cistercian monk and a student of William of Ockham. In a chapter on Nominalism, I read: “John of Marecourt also admits that there are temptations which one cannot resist short of a miracle, and that, if the miracle does not take place, intercourse with another man’s wife is then no longer adultery, and so on with other sins.” (John was condemned in 1347 for his writings) See “History of Christian Philosophy In The Middle Ages” by Etienne Gilson – 1972 Sheed and Word London page #505. It would appear that these are not new problems so why are we reliving them six hundred plus years later?

  9. What about those who are not affected by the Pope’s D&R teaching in Amoris Laetitia and refuse to get involved? Are they also morally culpable if they give or no religious obsequium to it?

    Or are they, too, subject to the Niemoller moral culpability as in:

    “First they came for the rosary counters, and I did not speak out—
    Because I did not count the rosaries that I prayed.

    “Then they came for those who want immigration law enforced, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was for merciful illegal immigration.

    “Then they came for the souls of divorced-and-remarried who abstain from sacrilegious Communion, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not divorced-and-remarried.

    “Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.”

  10. We follow the Pope only as he follows Christ, and not necessarily as he “makes a mess”. We still posess free will and an have an obligation to follow our God-given consciences, although discernment can be difficult when a person lacks full knowlege of a situation. When an Arian heresy was taught by some bishops, the faithful were not obligated to follow that heresy, but were justified in backing away from it. That is similar to the fear many of us have concerning some of our Pope’s declarations/suggestions. At least he has stimulated discussion, but he has left some things, and people, dangling over the precipice of sin and damnation.

  11. “This language was picked up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon Law, the CDF’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the theologian, the Professio fidei, and the CDF’s doctrinal commentary on the concluding formula of the Professio fidei”

    All expressions of the Patriarchate of Rome.

  12. This is a basically sound article that makes some interesting and proper analogies. There are, however, a few points to consider. The first is with regard to the term “non-infallible.” At first glance, this seems proper because, if a matter of faith or morals is not taught infallibly, then it must not be infallible. This, though, does not exactly follow. Teachings of the authentic ordinary Magisterium may be true; and if they are true, then they are without error and, therefore, infallible in the objective sense. The question is whether the Magisterium has absolute certitude that the teaching is true. I think this consideration might be the reason why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1990 instruction Donum vertitatis, speaks of magisterial teachings that are “per se not irreformable” (n. 24) and “non-irreformable” (n. 28). It only uses the term, ‘non-infallible” when describing one argument justifying dissent from the authentic Magisterium (n. 33).

    Professor Holmes is correct to look at the different ways obsequium can be translated. But obsequium is not the only operative word in understanding the assent the faithful owe to authentic (but non-irreformable) magisterial teachings. The other operative word is “adhaerere” (to adhere to, to cling to). In Lumen gentium, 25, the faithful are instructed to adhere to authentic teachings of Bishops with religious assent. With regard to the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra, one must sincerely adhere (sincere adhaereatur) to the judgments made by him (sententiis ab eo prolatis) “according to his manifest mind and will—which may be principally (praecipue) known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” So, with regard to teachings of the Roman Pontiff, the important task is to discern his manifest mind and will. Once these are known, we must adhere to his judgments with religious obsequium accordingly. If a Catholic has difficulty giving assent to what the Pope teaches, Donum veritatis lays out the proper course to follow.

    • However, Donum Veritatis doesn’t seem to take into account the possibility of one pope teaching something that is clearly contrary to what all previous popes, councils and even Sacred Sacred Scripture have clearly taught. Such would seem to be the case when Pope Francis attempts to change the teaching on capital punishment, not just the prudential judgment regarding its concrete application, but the declaration that it is contrary to human dignity, vengeance and apparently intrinsically evil. He seems to think that the Church has misunderstood what is contained in Scripture and Tradition for 2o centuries. Similarly, in AL, he teaches that “in some cases” people living in adultery can be absolved from that is without repentance and a firm purpose of amendment, which is clearly contrary to the defined and therefore irreformable teaching of the Council of Trent in the Decree on the Sacrament of Trent, not to mention how AL contains statements contrary to Veritatis Splendour by St. John Paul II, which reiterate traditional Catholic moral teaching. It seems to me that a Catholic is obliged to assent to what the Church has always taught and to consider the novelties, not authentic magisterium. Due to the principle of non-contradiction, he cannot assent to two opposing statements, so he has to assent to the one that has been presented with greater authority, such as being clearly stated in Sacred Scripture, defined by a council or a pope or part of what the Church has taught always and everywhere.

  13. Before Pope Francis, obedience to the Holy Father on matters of Faith and Morals was the power in my life. Christ said to St. Peter, “Thou art Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. Christ established the Petrine office as a powerful supernatural source in His Church. Pope Francis has caused unbelievable damage to the Office of Peter established by Christ. I will not allow Bergoglio in all his destruction to remove my reverence for the Petrine office from my soul. I strongly believe Bergoglio to be an anti-Pope, him I owe no obedience to.

    • I was raised a Catholic in the 1940s. And that is what I STILL AM today! I trudge along, paying NO ATTENTION to things like Vatican Two. I pay NO ATTENTION to bishops, cardinals or popes. The bishops LIED to us when we were getting Vatican 2 shoved shoved down our throats. They told us that people didn’t understand the Latin. LIE! After a lifetime of using the English/Latin St Joseph Missal we understood EVERY Latin word in the mass! They told us Rome had outlawed the Latin Tridentine Mass. ANOTHER LIE! They told us these falsehoods because they KNEW we would NEVER have voluntarily accepted this “Protestantized” mass we call the Novis Ordo. When I was a boy many, many would be going to confession every Saturday afternoon and yet most of the church DID NOT approach the alter rail because they KNEW they they were in sin. Today almost NOBODY goes to confession but MULTITUDES, the entire church, receives! I refer to today’s “Catholics” as pew zombies. Most are TOTALLY IGNORANT of transubstantiation and the living presence. It would not surprise me if they thought the Eucharist was/is a cookie.

      • Manfrom Anotherera, The Church that you describe is the Church of my youth. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, the age of the modernist heresy full blown. I was lucky to have been led by an old school Monsignor who counseled me on remaining obedient to the Traditional Church. This caused me to be attacked by many in my parish, but I didn’t care as I was doing God’s will. As for the words of St. John Paul ll and Pope Benedict XVl, they were a treasure that amazed me more than a thousand times. I am a hard line traditionalist who does not compromise. I owe this to the words and actions of St. John Paul ll and Pope Benedict XVl. The two were great theologians, wise men, mystics and Holy. In their public talks they hammered away at ALL the modernist heresies, but sadly most were not listening.

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