Timothy Flanders writes for OnePeterFive — In a recent article, I discussed how a new understanding of revelation was brought about at Vatican II, and, as Benedict observed, “a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded” [1]. This article generated some controversy, even an accusation of heresy, which I will attempt to address here. Specifically, I said that “the crucial aspect of the moral tradition was contained in the more general debate over Scripture and Tradition, with moral theology contained in the latter.” In this essay I will attempt to explain in what manner the consensus of the scholastics (and thus their moral theology) is related to Tradition and to what degree a Catholic is bound to it.

The Scholastics Belong to the Monumental Tradition

The word “tradition” in both Greek and Latin can be a verb or a noun, and it means “to pass down through generations.” Therefore, broadly, we may distinguish between Tradition as the Deposit of Faith (whether unwritten or written as Scripture) and tradition as everything else passed down by the bishops and our fathers. The degree of certainty — and thus the binding force — of everything passed down is determined by the theological notes.

Cardinal Franzelin, the classic authority on Tradition, observes that among the things passed down are the monuments [2]. These are the written works of the Fathers, creeds, saints as well as liturgies, architecture, and even music. These are not Tradition per se, but they form a tradition in that they are passed down and by the general virtue of piety we owe reverence to them [3]. The monuments pertain to Tradition in that they guard the Tradition and help to pass it down.

If the monuments show a consensus about Tradition, says Franzelin, “these are not rendered their private opinions, but a unanimous testimony of [T]radition” [4]. The scholastics are one of the favored monuments of the Magisterium “employed by the custodians of the deposit themselves.”[5]

The Scholastics Were Intimately Bound Up with the Magisterium

Franzelin explains why the Magisterium employed the scholastics so heavily:

The Catholic schools [6] from the 12th century even to the middle of the 18th century … were universally considered under the tutelage and under the provident care of the Church[.] … They were erected and fortified by a pontifical charter, constituted under the continual vigilance of the same Apostolic See, so that their every right privilege and authority in teaching derived from the Church. Next, according to this intimate connection with the Church and the relation of the theological schools and with the whole college of teachers, the scope was put in place for the sincere exposition, explication, and defense of the doctrine and discipline of the Church. If one among the teachers appeared to incline to a dangerous opinion they were immediately checked both by the Academies themselves … and by the proper authority of the Bishops, and at length, by the supreme Magisterium of the Pontiff[.] … In addition, the same Bishops, both as individual bishops and in Councils to declare and define doctrine, employed the Academies and the teachers of the schools in counsel so that the common doctrine of the schools would be a type of preparation for an authoritative definition of Popes and Councils. [7]

Thus, Franzelin makes reference to the Ecumenical Council of Vienne, even saying “we ought to revere and hold” to the scholastic schools. We must therefore attempt to remove ourselves from our modern bias, wherein “academic freedom” is assumed, and Catholic universities hold very little authority compared to the old schools. The Scholastic universities formed weighty monuments that the bishops used as true experts and doctors for the sake of conserving the Tradition. This is why their teachings were passed down (“traditioned”) by the bishops themselves and venerated by them. This is why the University of Paris was able to bring Pope John XII to his knees for his errors. These schools were nothing like what passes for academic institutions today. Nothing like this exists anymore.

Questioning the Scholastics’ Authority Questions the Authority of the Church

Because these schools formed an international authority tied closely to the Apostolic See, the rise of excessive state power sought to crush their authority and turn all professors into state officials. Thus, during the 18th century with the heresy of Febronianism, the governments worked to dismantle the authority of the schools to make them subservient to state power. This political effort supported the intellectual movement to discredit the authority of the Scholastics, employed by the Magisterium for some six hundred years and passed down as monuments to the Tradition. For this reason Bl. Pius IX condemned this effort with these words:

In Germany also there prevailed a false opinion against the old school, and against the teachings of those supreme doctors, whom the universal church venerates because of their admirable wisdom and sanctity of life. By this false opinion the authority of the Church itself is called into danger, especially since the Church, not only through so many continuous centuries has permitted that theological science be cultivated according to the method and the principles of these same Doctors, sanctioned by the common consent of all Catholic schools, but it (the Church) also very often extolled their theological doctrine with the highest praises, and strongly recommended it as a very strong buttress of faith and formidable armory against its enemies. [8]

The blessed pontiff understood that questioning the authority of these monuments — though they were not Tradition per se, but a “tradition” — called into question the Magisterium itself, since the Magisterium had used the scholastics as a true authority even in official magisterial acts.

Catholics Are Bound to the Authority of the Scholastics

Thus does Pius conclude that Catholics are also bound to the consensus of the Scholastics according to their theological note. The assent of divine faith, he writes, is not:

… limited to those matters which have been defined by express decrees of the ecumenical Councils, or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this See, but would have to be extended also to those matters which are given in tradition as divinely revealed [tanquam divinitus revelata traduntur] by the ordinary teaching power of the whole Church spread throughout the world, and there, by universal and common consent are held by the Catholic theologians [scholastics] to belong to the faith [ideoque universali et constanti consensu a catholicis Theologis ad fidem pertinere retinentur]. [9]

Here I have translated traduntur as “given in tradition” as an example of something passed down with authority, yet not Tradition per se. The consensus of the Scholastics, says the blessed pontiff, is also a mode of authority and infallibility in the Church, since it has been employed by the Magisterium for centuries. Therefore, he condemned this proposition in the Syllabus:

[Condemned:] The obligation by which Catholic teachers and writers are absolutely bound is restricted to those maters only which are proposed by the infallible judgement of the church, to be believed by all as dogmas of the faith. [10]

Ripperger thus explains that De Fide dogma can be defined (from the councils and popes) or not defined:

… there are also de fide non-definita [not defined] statements which bind the person likewise under pain of mortal sin [of heresy]. Pius IX in Tuas Libenter states that not only the decrees of the councils and popes and ordinary Magisterium throughout the whole world but also that which is the (1) universal and (2) constant consensus of the theologians [scholastics] is also to be held as pertaining to the faith. It is important to note that something does not have to be de fide definita [defined] in order for assent to be required absolutely. [11]

Thus, as I have written elsewhere, the sources of infallible, De Fide dogma are not only the ecumenical councils and the popes, but also the consensus of the Scholastics who can identify other De Fide propositions not defined. Franzelin:

Thus, although the schools and theologians of the schools are not an organ constituted by Christ for the conservation of revealed doctrine under the assistance of the Spirit of truth, nevertheless, from the unanimous and constant opinion of those in the affairs of the faith, when they teach thus [that any doctrine is De Fide] it is to be believed not merely as something which is true, but by Catholic faith, we are brought to recognize Catholic understanding and doctrine, a recognition which the very apostolic succession — as guardians and authentic interpreters of revelation — conserves and gives as tradition. [12]

Thus, even though the scholastics as monuments are not Tradition, they are still a tradition intimately bound to Tradition, to which we are obliged to give assent. This is why their authority is contained in the debate over Scripture and Tradition.

Doctrines Binding to a Lesser Degree

Not only this, but Catholics are also bound to the consensus of the Scholastics when they consider something to be of a lesser theological note, such as sententia communis (common teaching). Pope Pius continues:

It is not sufficient for learned Catholics to accept and revere the aforesaid dogmas of the Church, but that it is also necessary to subject themselves [se subiiciant] … to those forms of doctrine which are held by the common and constant consent  of Catholics [quae communi et constanti Catholicorum consensu retinentur] as theological truths and conclusions, so certain that opinions opposed to these same forms of doctrine, although they cannot be called heretical, nevertheless deserve some theological censure. [13]

Thus, even the common opinion of the Scholastics (sententia communis) cannot be set aside without sufficient reason. Otherwise, a man would deserve the theological censure of “temerarious” [14]. Thus bishops appear temerarious who argue that because the Church has not defined that any soul is in Hell, this gives us the freedom to hold to the error of “Dare we hope that all men be saved?”

Rather, these lesser doctrines yet common opinions are also binding, but to a lesser degree. As Ripperger notes, even if the Church has not defined something, the Catholic is still bound to whatever else is common within the Tradition [15]. It is the sin of temerity to dismiss the saints and doctors without sufficient reason. In other words, we cannot dismiss them on our own authority. In order to prove that such a change can be effected, as Franzelin points out, they must prove that no such consensus exists in the Scholastics. This alone can justify a “change” of common teaching [16].

At Vatican II, these things were not demonstrated with a sober, clear mind. Rather, a revolution was effected and celebrated, which has kept the Church reeling in confusion ever since. Even the defenders of Vatican II admit that common teaching was reversed without explanation. This is why Congar’s essay — which specifically called for setting aside the Scholastics — was given censure since, as Ven. Pius XII also saw in 1950, these ideas “threaten to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine” [17]. And indeed they have.


[1] Benedict XVI, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” translated by Anian Christoph Wimmer (National Catholic Register: 2019). Accessed November 23, 2019. Emphasis mine.

[2] Cardinal Franzelin, De Divina Traditione (Trans. Ryan Grant, Mediatrix Press: 2016), 295

[3] Piety is the virtue in which we give what is due to our parents (II II q101 a1).

[4] Franzelin, 230

[5] Ibid., 295

[6] It should be noted that the terms “theologians,” “scholastics,” and “schools” are all used interchangeably for the same body of writers here described.

[7] Franzelin, 298

[8] Bl. Pius IX, Epistola Tuas Libenter (1863), Denz. 1680. Emphasis mine.

[9] Ibid., Denz. 1683

[10] Bl. Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors (1867), Denz. 1722

[11] Fr. Chad Ripperger, The Binding Force of Tradition (Sensus Traditionis: 2013), 36

[12] Franzelin, 299-300. Emphasized portion translation my own: in cognitionem ducimur intelligentiae catholicae et doctrinae, quam ipsa successio apostolica ut custos et interpres authentica revelationis conservat et tradit.

[13] Bl. Pius IX, Epistola Tuas Libenter (1863), Denz. 1684

[14] Ripperger, 38

[15] See Ripperger, Magisterial Authority (Sensus Traditionis: 2014), 46ff.

[16] Franzelin here cites (op. cit., 308ff) the teaching on the minor orders and others, which were once held as common but, he argues, never reached a consensus.

[17] Subheading to the Encyclical Humani Generis (1950) condemning the Nouvelle théologie movement.