The “Unanimous Consent” of the Church Fathers
The concept of the unanimous consent of the Fathers is widely misunderstood
In 1546, the Council of Trent issued a decree which prohibited people from interpreting Scripture “contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.”
The meaning and significance of this concept has been widely misunderstood, so let’s take a look at the subject.
Here are 15 things to know and share . . .
1) What was the context of the decree?
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was called to deal with two subjects: (1) doctrinal errors that were being spread by the Protestant Reformers and (2) internal reforms needed within the Catholic Church. Consequently, historian Hubert Jedin notes:
By the terms of the decision of 22 January , dogma and reform were to be discussed simultaneously and every dogmatic decree was to be matched by a decree on Church reform (A History of the Council of Trent 2:87-88).
Therefore, the decrees of Trent are divided between those of a doctrinal nature and those of a disciplinary nature. Thus the fourth session of the Council thus released two decrees:
- Decree Concerning Canonical Scriptures
- Decree Concerning the Edition, and the Use, of the Sacred Books
The first of these decrees was dogmatic (i.e., concerning doctrinal matters), and it dealt with which books the Catholic Church regards as sacred and canonical.
The second decree concerned Church reform (i.e., disciplinary matters), and it’s the one that mentions the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
2) What subjects did the second decree cover?
It dealt with several abuses that had been proposed for reform by one of the Council’s committees (Jedin, 70-71). The final, published form of the decree established several disciplinary norms:
- Of all the Latin editions of Scripture then in circulation, the Vulgate would be used as the standard one “in public lectures, disputations, sermons, and expositions.”
- No one is to interpret the Scripture contrary to the sense held by the Church or the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
- Printers are not to publish copies of the Scriptures unless they have been approved by the local bishop; the same applies to books of a theological nature, which also must carry their authors’ names; and the same applies to the circulation of unprinted manuscripts.
- No one is to use the words of Scripture in superstitious or profane practices (e.g., incantations or defamatory libels).
The second decree also empowered bishops to impose appropriate penalties on those who violated these norms.
3) What did the second decree say about the unanimous consent of the Fathers?
The relevant provision says:
Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, [the Council] decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall—in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine—wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church—whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures—hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published.
Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries [i.e., bishops], and be punished with the penalties by law established.
The core of this statement is:
No one . . . shall—in matters of faith and of morals . . . —interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church . . . hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published.
4) What does this mean?
It means that the Council is establishing a law providing that—even in writings not intended for publication—Catholics are not to contradict (1) the teaching of the Church about the meaning of Scripture or (2) the unanimous consent of the Fathers about what it means, and if they do, their bishops can apply appropriate penalties.
5) Is this an infallible doctrine?
Here we encounter a major misunderstanding of the text.
Trent’s doctrinal decrees contain infallible teachings. These are found among its canons, which use the formula “If anyone says . . . let him be anathema”—anathema being a type of excommunication that existed at the time (not a condemnation to hell).
However, this is not a doctrinal decree but a reform decree. It does not have canons, and it does not use the requisite anathema formula, as the quotation above indicates.
Consequently, it’s establishing a discipline—a law—that barred Catholics from contradicting Church teaching or the unanimous consent of the Fathers about the meaning of Scripture, even in writings not intended for publication.
This law is based on doctrinal principles—which we will cover below—but it isn’t itself a doctrine. It’s a discipline regulating discourse within the Church (note the context, which deals with the edition of Scripture to be used in public, what book printers must and mustn’t do, how people are to avoid profaning God’s word).
The status of this requirement as a law was underscored by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), who referred to it as a “very wise law” (Providentissimus Deus 14) and by Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), who included it among “the rules and laws promulgated by the Church” (Divino Afflante Spiritu 47).
6) Does the decree mean that Catholics can’t interpret the Bible and must simply repeat what the Church or the Fathers say it means?
No. The decree doesn’t say anything so restrictive. Catholics are free to read and interpret the Scriptures.
The law merely established that they weren’t to contradict Church teaching or the unanimous consent of the Fathers when these sources had a definitive teaching on the meaning of a passage.
7) Are there many such passages?
No. Pope Pius XII pointed out in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu:
There are but few texts whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church, nor are those more numerous about which the teaching of the Holy Fathers is unanimous (n. 47).
Catholic biblical interpreters thus have a broad liberty of interpretation. As Leo XIII stated:
By this very wise law the Church by no means retards or blocks the investigations of biblical science, but rather keeps it free of error, and aids it very much in true progress. For, to every private teacher a large field is open in which along safe paths, by his industry in interpretation, he may labor efficaciously and profitably for the Church (Providentissimus Deus 14).
8) What is the status of the law today?
There is more to its legislative history than we can cover here, but the short answer is that it is no longer part of Church law per se.
Trent added the requirement to the body of canon law that existed at the time, which was scattered in many documents. Subsequently, Vatican I (1870) renewed the decree, and when canon law was codified (brought together in a single volume) in 1917, the first edition of the Code of Canon Law contained provisions that gave the requirement ongoing legal force.
However, Vatican II (1962-1965) did not repeat the requirement, and after the Council it was dropped from the legal instruments where it still existed.
When the 1983 Code of Canon Law was released, it abrogated both the 1917 Code and “any universal or particular penal laws whatsoever issued by the Apostolic See unless they are contained in this Code” (see can. 6, §1, 1° and 3°).
Consequently, canon law has been revised in a way that the decree no longer has legal force.
However, this does not mean that we don’t have to honor the doctrinal principles behind it.
9) What are the doctrinal principles behind the decree?
In the case of Catholics not contradicting the teaching of the Church regarding the meaning of Scripture, the decree spelled out the underlying doctrinal principle. Catholics aren’t to do this because the Church “is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures.”
That’s just as true today as ever, and Catholics are bound today to honor the teaching of the Church when it intervenes authoritatively on the meaning of a Scripture passage.
However, apart from a handful of cases, the Church presently gives interpreters very broad liberty in how they take particular passages (see my piece, The Limits of Scripture Interpretation).
Trent did not spell out the doctrinal principles underlying the requirement that Catholics not contradict the unanimous consent of the Fathers. However, it was explored by Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus:
The Holy Fathers, we say, are of supreme authority, whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come down from the apostles as a matter of Catholic faith. The opinion of the Fathers is also of very great weight when they treat of these matters in their capacity of doctors, unofficially (n. 14).
Here he considers two different situations:
- When the Fathers “all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith and morals,” and
- “When they treat of these matters in their capacity as doctors [i.e., teachers], unofficially.”
In the first situation, he says that their unanimity shows that “such interpretation has come down from the apostles as a matter of Catholic faith,” while in the second situation he says that their opinion is “of very great weight.”
We thus need to distinguish, in any given case, which of these two applies. If it is the latter then a modern interpreter needs to give the Fathers’ views due weight, but he is not ultimately bound to accept them.
If, however, something they teach is a matter of Catholic faith, then it is binding.
In fact, to say that something is “a matter of Catholic faith” is a term of art in theology that indicates an infallibly defined teaching.
This means that we need to situate Leo XIII’s statement within the doctrinal development that has occurred on when the Church teaches infallibly.
10) What doctrinal development has occurred on the Church’s infallibility?
When Leo XIII issued Providentissimus Deus in 1893, the First Vatican Council (1870) had met and defined papal infallibility.
However, because of the wars going on in Europe at the time, the Council was unable to complete its work, and it fell to Vatican II to formulate other aspects of the Church’s infallibility. This was done in its document Lumen Gentium.
It held that God has given the Church a charism of infallibility. This gift protects the Church as a whole from error in matters of belief (in credendo), and it protects the Church’s Magisterium from error in matters of teaching (in docendo). Infallibility manifests in the following ways:
- Through the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful, “from the bishops down to the last member of the laity”)
- Through the “ordinary magisterium” of the bishops scattered throughout the world, teaching in union with the pope
- Through the “extraordinary magisterium” of the bishops meeting in an ecumenical council
- Through the “extraordinary magisterium” of the pope when he issues an ex cathedra statement
The conditions for the first of these are discussed in Lumen Gentium 12 (cf. CDF, Mysterium Ecclesiae 2) and the others in Lumen Gentium 25.
11) How do the Fathers relate to these categories?
The Fathers were a mixed group. Some were bishops (e.g., St. Augustine), some priests (e.g., St. Jerome), some deacons (e.g., St. Ephrem the Syrian), and some lay faithful (e.g., St. Anthony of Egypt).
The Fathers as a whole thus do not represent the Church’s Magisterium, which consists only of the bishops teaching in union with the pope.
They would, however, be representative of the whole people of God in their day, and thus a unanimous consensus among them could be taken as an unerring manifestation of the sensus fidelium.
On the other hand, the Fathers who were bishops would be capable of exercising the Church’s infallibility, and a unanimous consensus among them could be taken as an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium.
12) How would a consensus of the Fathers as a whole manifest the unerring sensus fidelium?
According to Lumen Gentium 12:
The entire body of the faithful . . . cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.
One of the keys to understanding this passage is recognizing that the Church’s infallibility applies “in matters of belief” (Latin, in credendo). This is a technical term referring to truths which must be believed as part of the faith, as opposed to mere theological opinions. They therefore represent things which have a definitive character—things that are to be held by the faithful definitively.
The passage then indicates that the unerring sense of the faithful is manifested in these matters when three conditions are met:
- “The entire body of the faithful . . . from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” is involved
- “They show universal agreement”
- This agreement concerns “matters of faith and morals”
For the Fathers to fulfill these conditions regarding the interpretation of Scripture, we would need to understand them as representative of the people of God of their time, which is reasonable, thus fulfilling condition (1).
The Fathers then would need to show universal agreement, fulfilling condition (2). The precise nature of this agreement will be discussed below.
Finally, to fulfill condition (3), the matter in question would have to be the interpretation of a particular Scripture text involving “matters of faith and morals.” This is significant because, as Leo XIII noted in Providentissimus Deus:
[The Fathers], in interpreting passages where physical matters are concerned, have made judgments according to the opinions of the age, and thus not always according to truth, so that they have made statements which today are not approved. Therefore, we must carefully discern what they hand down which really pertains to faith or is intimately connected with it . . . for in those matters which are not under the obligation of faith, the saints were free to have different opinions, just as we are (n. 19).
Here the pontiff has in mind matters like the geocentric model of the cosmos, which was one of “the opinions of the age” in which the Fathers lived but which was a “physical matter” that did not “really pertain to faith.”
As noted above, the Fathers would have to be in agreement that this interpretation represents a mandatory belief for all Christians—that it is a belief to be held definitively.
This corresponds to Leo XIII’s distinction between what the Fathers hand on as “a matter of Catholic faith” versus what they teach “in their capacity of doctors, unofficially” (Providentissimus Deus 14).
13) How would the bishop Fathers exercise the ordinary magisterium infallibly?
According to Lumen Gentium 25:
[The bishops] proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.
The following conditions thus need to be met:
- The bishops are “dispersed through the world”
- They maintain “the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter”
- They are “authentically [i.e., authoritatively] teaching matters of faith and morals”
- They “are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held”
Conditions (1) and (2) represent the normal state of the Fathers.
Condition (3) corresponds to Leo XIII’s distinction between what the Fathers hand on as “a matter of Catholic faith” versus what they teach “in their capacity of doctors, unofficially” (Providentissimus Deus 14).
For it to be fulfilled in our context, the subject of their authoritative teaching would have to be the interpretation of a particular Scripture text regarding “matters of faith and morals”—as opposed, for example, to merely “physical matters” or “the opinions of the age” (Providentissimus Deus 19).
Finally, condition (4) would be fulfilled when they unanimously agree on this particular interpretation of Scripture “as definitively to be held.”
14) What kind of unanimity would the Fathers need to display?
The Church has not given us a mathematical way of determining what kind of consensus the Fathers would need to display either for the body as a whole to represent the unerring sense of the faithful or for the bishop Fathers to infallibly exercise the ordinary magisterium.
In fact, the difficulties of verifying when the conditions regarding these two modes of infallibility are met are the main reason we need the extraordinary magisterium (i.e., the infallible definitions issued by ecumenical councils and popes).
However, we can discern the general circumstances that need to occur:
- We would need a large number of the Fathers to address the interpretation of a specific passage of Scripture. One could not say that a consensus existed among them—much less a unanimous one—if only a relatively small number address the passage.
- They would need to teach a single interpretation of this passage as true. Assessing this could be somewhat complex because the Fathers could see passages as teaching several things, based on the different senses of Scripture. However, they would have to hold at least one of these interpretations in common.
- They would need to teach this interpretation as definitive—i.e., not just something they believe to be true but that something all Christians must hold to be true. Otherwise, the conditions needed for the unerring sense of the faithful or the infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium would not be met.
It is frequently pointed out that absolute unanimity is not needed and that a moral unanimity suffices. This is true. However, the Fathers represent such a small number of individuals that even a few dissenting voices on a question would prevent us from describing their consensus as unanimous.
In fact, even a single, highly influential Father—such as an Augustine—who held a contrary view could be seen as preventing unanimity, though a Father of minor status might not.
In view of the difficulty in verifying that the needed conditions have been met, Pius XII’s judgment that the unanimous consent of the Fathers applies only to a few passages seems justified (Divino Afflante Spiritu 47).
Anyone who has worked with the texts of the Fathers knows that it is difficult to find cases where the above conditions have been fulfilled.
The Fathers are a relatively small group of individuals, often only a few of them comment on a given passage of Scripture, and when they do they frequently make different proposals about its meaning.
When there is a reasonable doubt, one must assume that infallibility has not been engaged, for “no doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident” (Code of Canon Law 749 §3).
15) What’s the bottom line?
The concept of the unanimous consent of the Fathers is widely misunderstood.
Trent established a discipline that barred Catholics—even in writings not meant for publication—from contradicting the unanimous consent of the Fathers regarding the interpretation of Scripture.
This law remained in force until the 20th century, but it lost legal force following the Second Vatican Council.
However, the law was undergirded by important theological principles that remain in force and that have been illuminated by doctrinal development.
The unanimous consent of the Fathers as a whole can manifest the unerring sense of the faithful, and the bishops among the Fathers represented the Magisterium of their day and thus could teach infallibly under the usual conditions for the infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium.
The number of cases where this applies to the interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture is small, but such cases must be taken seriously.