An ecumenical council has the authority to issue infallible statements, although not every council does.
But what about the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)? Many Catholics debate whether the council issued any infallible statements. Sadly, some want an answer to this question to have an excuse to dismiss the council.
Before we investigate this issue, let’s clarify some points of confusion.
1. Documents are not infallible, but statements in those documents may be.
People sometimes erroneously speak of “infallible” documents. But even if a document has one or more infallible statements, that doesn’t make the entire document infallible. The infallible part of a document could just be a single sentence.
2. There is a difference between dogmatic and infallible statements.
All dogmatic declarations are infallible, but not all infallible declarations are dogmatic. A statement is dogmatic when, in addition to being infallible, its subject matter is declared to be divinely revealed and believed with a divine and Catholic faith. Other statements may be infallible without being directly divinely revealed or requiring the same level of assent.
What about the Vatican II documents?
It’s generally agreed that Vatican II didn’t define any new dogmas. Many theologians also say it didn’t issue any new infallible statements. It did reiterate many infallible teachings (including dogmas) that were defined earlier. Nevertheless, Vatican II is full of authoritative teaching, even if those statements don’t meet the criteria for infallibility.
A dogmatic constitution doesn’t necessarily define new dogma.
The 16 documents of Vatican II are put in different classes. Two are known as “dogmatic constitutions.” Some people are confused by this term and think it means the documents define new dogmas. They do not. They refer to dogmas that were already established.
Even if Vatican II didn’t issue new infallible teachings, it still has authority. Pope St. Paul VI taught that Vatican II “has invested its teachings with the authority of the supreme ordinary magisterium, which ordinary magisterium is so obviously authentic that it must be accepted with docility and sincerity by all the faithful, according to the mind of the Council as expressed in the nature and aims of the individual documents.”