Address by Most Rev. David M. Maloney, Bishop of Wichita, to a
Symposium on the Magisterium which was held in Philadelphia January 6-8,
I have a "Concise Theological Dictionary" in an English
edition published in 1965 which tells me that the Magisterium is
"The Church's active competence, juridically embodied, to prolong
by its witness God's self-communicative self-revelation in Christ, which
necessarily inheres in the Church (as the eschatologically definitive
community of believers in Christ, founded by him as an hierarchical
society, empowered by a mission to bear testimony to Christ), and which
demands obedience." (p. 268 Burns and Oates, Herder and Herder, New
York, London, 1965).
That definition may explain my own conviction that it is
indispensable to preface any discussion of the Magisterium with those
fundamental notions about the Church, its mystery, its nature, its
purpose, the qualities with which the Lord endowed it, which make it
possible to see the Magisterium for what it is. Any discussion which
would start out cold by presenting a definition or description without
such context, would inevitably open itself to misunderstanding and even
distortion, and especially to the misunderstanding widely prevalent
today which sees the Magisterium only in juridical terms and
authoritarian connotations. For the Catholic concept of the Magisterium
and its work is simply a part, a very necessary part, but a part of the
catholic concept of the Church of Christ and of the work Christ gave
that Church to do, in the on-going ministry by which he himself, with
the Holy Spirit, continues to shepherd, to teach, to guide, to direct
and to govern his people.
We can begin by insisting that the mystery is the mystery of a unity,
not simply a group of parallel ways of conceiving of the Church, a
variety of paradigms of the Church. I propose that as the first
necessary concept: namely, there is a Catholic doctrine about the
Church. It is a doctrine which includes mystery in that way so
happily and expertly presented by Paul VI in his address of Sept. 29,
1963, opening the second session of the Second Vatican Council and
directing the work of the bishops especially to the document setting
forth doctrine about the church. It is a concept which, with all its
richness, remains a unity, as the Body of Christ which it
describes and identifies, remains a unity. The fact of mystery in the
very nature of the Church does not preclude clear and authentic catholic
doctrine "de ecclesia"; it is not a doctrine in fieri,
being worked out today as though ex nihilo.
Such a concept of the depth of the mystery of the Church is not new
to this century. With all respect to those who love to contrast our
wisdom and the richness of our current ecclesiology with what they call
the nineteenth century manuals, we must acknowledge that the ideas we
treasure today are to be found in the documents of an earlier day, with
a richness that astonishes one who first reads them. They can be found
with lengthy exposition in such writers as Billot, Franzelin, Perrone,
Scheeben (lest we seem hopelessly "Roman") and in Newman. It
is difficult to over-emphasize the traditional in Newman; it is that
which gives such value to what was innovative in his thought—he drew
on his extensive knowledge of tradition, in which he was well grounded
from his Anglican days, and on his contact with the contemporary Roman
theologians of' his day. The same richness is to be found in the post-Tridentines
like Suarez and Bellarmine, not to mention the early and late
medievalists and the Fathers.
It is out of such ecclesiology that we should derive our
understanding of the Magisterium, and in the context of such rich
ecclesiology that we should pursue our understanding of it and of
The present Pontiff, in his encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, dwelt
at some length on this unitive understanding of the Church and of its
mystery. Voicing the same limitations of the Church in its human
elements he had so dramatically applied to ecumenical relations in the
memorable Sept. 29th address, he reminded us all, especially the world's
bishops, that "the actual image of the Church is never as perfect,
as lovely, as holy or as brilliant as that formative divine idea
(namely, "as Christ sees it, wills it, and loves it") would
wish it to be". Nevertheless, he affirmed our common faith in the
fidelity of the Church to its Founder, and directed our thoughts to the
mystery of the Church, a mystery which is "a result of a mature and
"The mystery of the Church is not a mere object of theological
knowledge; it is something to be lived, (something attainable by a sort
of supernatural illative process), something that the believer can have
a kind of connatural experience of, even before arriving at a clear
notion of it. Moreover the community of the faithful can be profoundly
certain of its participation in the Mystical Body of Christ when it.
realizes that by divine institution, the ministry of the hierarchy of
the Church is there, to give it a beginning, to give it birth (cf. Gal
4:19; 1 Cor 4:15), to teach and sanctify and direct it. It is by means
of this divine instrumentality that Christ communicates to his mystical
members the marvels of his truth and of his grace, and confers on his
Mystical Body as it travels its pilgrim's way through time, its visible
structure, its sublime unity, its ability to function organically, its
harmonious complexity, its spiritual beauty.
"Images do not suffice to translate into meaningful language the
full reality and depth of this mystery. However, after dwelling on the
image of the Mystical Body, which was suggested by the Apostle Paul, we
should especially call to mind one suggested by Christ himself, that of
the edifice for which he is the architect and the builder, an edifice
indeed founded on a man who of himself is weak but who was miraculously
transformed by Christ into solid rock, that is, endowed with marvelous and everlasting indefectibility: ‘upon this rock I will build my
Church’ (Mt l6:18)" (Eccl. Suam, par. 39).
Notice the Pope speaks of foundation, not apex, or crowns. To me, it
is interesting to place that Roman theology of hierarchy beside a
nineteenth century German discussion of Papal Infallibility. In his
profound analysis of the whole idea, intimately connected with our
subject of the Magisterium, Father Scheeben dwelt in the same way—on
the solidity of the structure of truth whose foundations and roots
were established by Christ, and on the derivation of the papacy as a
centre of the Church because it had been made by Christ, the foundation,
the roots from which come the life and durability of its teaching
It is in such context that the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic
constitution on the Church sets forth the existence and the function of
a Magisterium of the Church. We will notice that it is the classical,
the official Magisterium that is the topic here, and that it is
committed to the bishops of the Church in union with the sovereign
pontiff. Perhaps it would be well at this time and place to establish
that this "official idea" of Magisterium is something more
than "late, Roman theology". We can begin with the conciliar
constitution Dei Verbum with all its mysterious mixture of divine
and human, temporal and eternal, internal and external, history and
eschatology. We find the prophetic announcement of the Kingdom, all the
symbols used by the Lord to describe his Kingdom, its functioning, the
ways it can be recognized.
We find the pregnant image of the Mystical Body, of which Christ is
the head. We find the work of the Holy Spirit, the communication of
grace. We find the spiritual and visible unity of the one Church. We
find the obligation that ties the Church to the means and methods given
to it by Christ. From these concepts we are led to the doctrine of the
people of God, that spiritual chosen race, the holy nation, the chosen
people of God, chosen to be the instrument of salvation to the world, We
find the mysteries of the sacramental life, the priestly office, the
universal call to holiness, the variety of gifts and ministries, all of
them coming from the same spirit. And we find the apostolic mandate
which sent this Church, this people, to evangelize the
It is in that context that we are taught, by the very arrangement of
the text, to view the hierarchy and its mission.
No one who reads the text will imagine that the Council watered down
or attenuated the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. The
teaching about the apostolic succession of the episcopal college could
not be clearer. Nor could the doctrine about the primacy and
infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. In that way the Council leads us to
the doctrine about the ecclesiastical Magisterium.
It is in article 25 of this constitution that the subject of the Magisterium
is directly treated.
It would be a mistake to refer to that treatment without a brief
recognition of the conciliar doctrine about the witness which the whole
Church gives to Christ. ..."it spreads abroad a living witness to
him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering
to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to
his name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the
Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special
property by means of the whole people's supernatural discernment in
matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay
faithful’ (quoting S. Augustine, De praed. sanct.) they show
universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. This discernment in
matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is
exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in
faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts
what is not just the word of men but the true word of God. By this means
the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for
all to the saints, with unfailing judgment penetrates more deeply into
its mystery and applies it more fully to its life" (L.G.
Here we should notice:
1. The whole body of the Church cannot err.
2. The cause of this inerrancy is attributed to the anointing of the
3. It is called a supernatural discernment in matters of faith.
4. An essential condition is that it is the whole Church
"from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful"—there
is no dichotomy between the hierarchy and the laity, as though the
latter alone were the Church.
5. They show universal agreement; it should not be necessary to say
this does not mean we have a referendum, and count heads.
6. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching
authority: again, therefore, sociological surveys attempting to show how
many Catholics defy the moral teaching have nothing to do with the
conciliar concept of "sensus fidelium".
7. It speaks of "faithful and respectful obedience" to the
Magisterium as something presupposed.
8. The consent given to belief, is a consent to what is not just the
word of men, but held to be the word of God.
Finally, there are two significant results of this universal consent
of the Church to the faith given to it: one is a deeper penetration
into the mystery of the faith (would the Immaculate Conception be an
example?); a second is a fuller application of the faith to life
(would this suggest a rich field for application of the lay actuositas
envisaged by the council?).
What, then, does the Council give us as the proper work of the
Magisterium? I suggest these can legitimately be drawn as conclusions of
the text of article 25 of Lumen Gentium.
1. The preaching of the gospel, the integral gospel, oral and
written. It is to be noted the council lists this as one of the
"more important duties" which among those given to the bishops
"has pride of place".
2. Making new disciples. Here we have the whole field of the synod on
3. Therefore, i.e. to carry out these duties, the
bishops teach authentically, i.e. with the authority of Christ.
4. The object of their preaching and teaching is specified. It is the
faith men must believe and put into practice, or as we are accustomed to
speak, matters of faith and morals.
5. They are to "bring forth from the treasury of revelation new
things and old".
6. It is their duty to ward off errors, and the adjective used is
"diligent". Any error that threatens the faith must be the
object of their concern and vigilance.
In order to do such witnessing, faithfully and effectively, the
Magisterium has as a first duty to safeguard, to preserve intact, in its
totality and its integrity the message given "once for all to the
saints". Only if we remember that, will we understand the constant
insistence of catholic tradition on the Magisterium's duty to
"preserve", to "safeguard"—and its repeated
reference to the Depositum Fidei...
The object of magisterial teaching is the full body of a divine
revelation and it can be accepted only on the authority and the dignity
of him from whom it comes. Its acceptance, therefore will have that
quality of divine faith which is something unique, unknown in any other
human process of knowledge.
The Magisterium of the Bishops
For purpose of practical approach, I intend now to say, something
about the part the individual bishop has in the Magisterium... Here
again, to avoid subtle distinctions and endless bypaths, I have in mind
the residential bishop.
We should begin by noting that the recent council places the teaching
duty of a bishop among the fruits of his sacramental ordination. It also
insists that his work as teacher, to a degree which affects the validity
and credibility of his teaching, depends on hierarchical union with the
college of bishops and with the Roman See. "From the tradition,
which is expressed especially in liturgical rites and in the practice of
both the Church of the East and of the West, it is clear that, by means
of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of
the Holy Spirit is conferred, and the sacred character impressed, in
such a way that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the role
of Christ himself as teacher, shepherd and high priest, and that they
act in his person" (L.G. 21). "...Hence, a man is
constituted a member of the episcopal body in virtue of sacramental
consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the
body" (ibid. 22).
Moreover, like the entire magisterial office, the teaching office of
the individual bishop, together with his entire ministry is one of
ministry for the service of his people and the building up of the
universal church. He can never be considered, nor consider himself in
his exercise of his episcopal office, as separated from the episcopal
college, the universal Church, the peculiar bond that ties him to those
committed to his personal care, and above all, the union which keeps him
in hierarchical communion with the Roman Pontiff. Nor may his work as
teacher be thought of out of the context we have already given, the
context of the whole church of Christ in its mystery as sacrament of
Christ and mystical Body of the Saviour.
In such a context, his work is to teach, to preach the gospel, the
truth of Christ. He is, in his own diocese, the voice of the shepherd
having his mandate from Christ. In the words of the Council, "as
vicar and ambassador of Christ, he governs the particular church
entrusted to him". And the Council lists the way he works: "by
counsel, exhortation, example... by authority and sacred power". It
is a power he should use only to build up his flock, but he does use it
"in Christ's name".
He is, therefore, an authentic teacher, the authentic teacher of the
faith in his own diocese. That imposes a fearful responsibility. He must
speak the doctrine of faith, he must preach it to believer and
non-believer. It is his duty to cherish and preserve unsullied and
undiminished the entire deposit of faith. He must be its interpreter and
defender. It is for him to condemn error, when it appears. It will be
his duty, sometimes, to warn those toying with dangerous novelties, to
correct misunderstandings of Catholic teaching, to reprove the
presumptuous and foolhardy, and with great prudence and only after
exhausting all other remedies, it can be his duty to punish those who
offend, especially if their offence be in teaching.
The nature of his work is that of a witness to the faith. By himself,
he speaks by virtue of an office received from Christ, but by himself,
that office does not include infallibility. His words and his actions
will be subject to correction by the general teaching and practice of
his brother bishops. Before all else, they will be subject to correction
by the Holy See. His people can know that he acts and speaks within the
limits of his authentic role when they see that he is in harmony, first
of all, with the Holy Father, and also with the other bishops of the
region and of the world. The subject of his teaching must be, by a
sacred duty, the faith of the Church, not his own opinions—although he
has a reasonable liberty to speak his opinion when he thinks it serves
the common good and when he makes it clear that he speaks an opinion,
not authentic doctrine.
Like all his brother bishops, singly and collectively, he has that
grave duty of being loyal to the teaching given by the Word of God, both
oral and written, and he must ever regard himself as the servant of the
Deposit of Faith, of tradition, of the Scriptures—in no way the
master. He must remain the faithful guardian, devoted to the treasury of
the faith which has been placed in his keeping.
In the exercise of his office be will have need of prayer and study.
He will depend heavily, and happy that he is able to find them, on
reliable theologians and scholars both in his own diocese and in other
parts of the country and the world. He will study to be mindful always
that it is his office to minister to others. He will feel humbly his own
need to be ministered to by others in the very times that he strives to
carry out his own ministry as a faithful steward of God.
And he will need to keep always before him the admonition given him
when he was ordained a bishop. After addressing the community of the
Church on the office of a bishop the ordaining prelate turned to him and
said: "You, beloved brother, have been chosen by the Lord. Proclaim
the message whether it be welcome or unwelcome; correct error with the
greatest patience and in a spirit of teaching... As a steward of the
mysteries of Christ in the church assigned to you, be a faithful
supervisor and guardian. Are you resolved by the grace of the Holy
Spirit to discharge to the end of your life the office entrusted to us
by the apostles, which is about to be passed on to you by imposition of
our hands? Are you resolved to be faithful and constant in proclaiming
the gospel of Christ? Are you resolved to maintain the content of faith,
entire and uncorrupted, as handed down by the apostles and professed by
the Church at all times and places? Are you resolved to be loyal in your
obedience to the successor of Saint Peter the apostle?
It is of such duties to the faith that a bishop thinks when he hears
the word Magisterium. Concerning the duties common to all bishops in
their ministry of the Word of God to our people, Pope Paul on Dec. 8,
1970 addressed an exhortation to fidelity. He asked us to be mindful of
the pledge sent by the bishops at the Council in 1962 in the opening
days of their deliberations, promising a common effort to speak to the
world the integral and unsullied word of God, hoping that we might put
that word in language apt for this time so that men might both
understand it and be led to embrace it.
He reminded us that the lasting duty of the episcopal office is to
give the people the word of God in all its fulness. The bishop must
stand firm and unmoved, on the ground of tradition and the sacred
scriptures in order to give the whole people of God food which is the
word of God. This he must do without interruption, teaching unceasingly,
teaching truth, striving to help it grow among men. He must give the
truth without adulteration, with great charity. For it is given to us by
the imposition of hands to preserve the faith pure and entire. People
have a right to hear the word of God in its entirety.
The Pope then cited with approval a message of the German bishops,
issued in December of 1968, that such work can only be done in the
Church, in the community of the Church, and he repeated their warning
against a dangerous misunderstanding of what the Council had said about
freedom of conscience. He pointed out with them, that the freedom of
conscience spoken of by the Vatican Council is a freedom men have,
because God will not force them, to accept or to reject the faith. It is
not a freedom to judge for themselves what is to be the content of
faith; that judgment is the work and the duty of the bishops, of the
In the series of theses which were proposed by the International
Theological Commission in June, 1976, concerning the relationship
between the ecclesiastical Magisterium and theology, much reference was
made to an address given by Pope Paul to a gathering of theologians in
Rome—on Oct. 1, 1966 (cf. AAS p. 889 ff., vol 58). It seems not
inappropriate therefore to turn to that address for some ideas about the
work of the theologian in the church and his relations with the teaching
The common root from which both the Magisterium and the theologians
draw their teaching is divine revelation, a revelation given by
the Holy Spirit to the Catholic Church, and preserved by the Holy
Spirit in that Church.
The Church has been constituted by the Lord a faithful teacher of his
truth, and it enjoys from him the charism of indefectibility in the
truth he gave for the salvation of the world.
Hence, the Church continues to call herself the pillar and ground of
For the theologian, the proximate and the universal norm of
indefectible truth is to be found only in the authentic Magisterium, and
this is by the will of Christ. For the theologian's work concerns the
truth of faith, the deposit of faith, and the work of faithfully
preserving that and infallibly interpreting it belongs to the
Magisterium. In this connection, the Pope recalled that the promise of
the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles, as was the power to teach
with the authority of Christ.
The Magisterium and the theologian pursue the same goal, work for the
same purposes. They strive to safeguard the deposit of sacred
revelation, to explore its meaning more deeply, to expound it, to teach
it, to defend it. Both work to enlighten the church by exposition of
divine truth, and both work for men and their salvation.
The Pope signaled out these differences, concentrating on the
Theology, using reason illuminated by faith, and always docile to the
light of the Holy Spirit, engages in the work of exploring and seeking
after a more perfect knowledge of the truths of divine revelation.
The theologian offers the results of his labour to the Christian
community and especially to the Magisterium, so that through the
teaching given by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the whole Christian
people may progress, may gain further understanding of the faith and of
the depths of its mysteries.
The theologian undertakes his work so that the truth taught by the
Magisterium may be more widely known, may be illustrated, clarified,
We do not need instant scientific proof that the Church is right
every time someone questions the cogency of a traditional argument in
favour of accepted Catholic teaching. The doctrines of the faith do not
take their validity from the scientific theological proofs, as they are
often called, offered by theologians or biblicists.
Their validity rests upon the witness given by the Catholic Church
that a particular dogma is a part of the integral faith; that witness is
given by sacred tradition, by the biblical texts correctly read in the
community of the Church under the guidance of the Magisterium. And I put
it to you that this will usually be by no means what is currently
ridiculed as the "proof-text" approach. The Magisterium, as
interpreter, authorized interpreter and judge of Tradition and
Scripture, remains the proximate source of our doctrine.
It is well that our scholars seek to be informed, and to be able to
answer questions, whether these come from Catholics or Non-Catholics.
But we should all start out with the assurance of Faith that the Church
is still the credible custodian of the truth committed to her by Christ,
and is competent to declare accurately, within the limits, of human
language, what is to be held as of faith. We need the calm assurance
that Christ does keep his promise to be with the teachers of the Church
(the pope and bishops). With great respect we need to recognize that
theologians as such do not and do not pretend to be (in such statements
as those I have been referring to) a part of that official Magisterium.
We need calm faith that the teaching church is in very fact kept from
error by the aid of the Holy Spirit as it goes on teaching the full and
integral and undistorted revelation Christ gave to the world.
And with such calm faith, I submit we can then be prepared, all of
us, bishops and faithful together, to give to the theological community
a sincere and respectful confidence, with the kind of freedom it asks
for in its 1976 theses, as it pursues its special and valuable work;
moreover, we will look on that work as a part of the providential care
God gives to the community of faith through the Holy Spirit. It will be
a confidence that expects a corresponding sense of responsibility, a
sense of responsibility we can expect theologians to evidence in a way
commensurate with its own common self respect and its own shared faith
in the common doctrinal heritage of the Church. It will be a confidence
always bound by the limits set by the divinely established nature of the
Church, in which all members cooperate in cherishing and guarding the
faith, motivated by a deep love for the faith, and guided and led by its
pastors in union with the successor of Peter. It will be a confidence
marked by the love all of us share, all of us in this mysterious,
living, grace-filled Body of Christ, a love for the faith that makes us
The theologian, precisely as a theologian, is one who begins with the
teaching of the Faith. In other words, he is first of all a believer
before he is a theologian. It is as a believer that he does his work in
the field of theology. He bends his efforts and uses his skills, his
abilities, gathering whatever he can gather from the findings of human
sciences and philosophy, as well as from the monuments and documents of
Tradition and the Magisterium, all this in order to build up or
contribute to a reasoned, scientific statement of the Faith.
He will have in special view the needs and intellectual frame of the
men of his own age.
As a theologian, he looks for answers to give us, the faithful and
the Magisterium. He asks questions; and he studies questions others are
asking. His purpose is to find answers, to analyze the questions, to
localize the source of the questions, or difficulties, that others have
voiced, to validate the logic of theological reasons proposed in
expounding the Faith, to explore critically, but always as a believer,
the scriptural, the traditional, the theological arguments used by the
Church community in expounding its Faith...
The work of the theologian, placed as it is by its nature, in
relation to the data of the Faith and the Magisterium, does not mean at
all that he will always approach his subject with these data as premises
from which his conclusions will be drawn. He will be correctly convinced
that he must often prescind by a kind of methodical (fictitious) doubt,
in order better to explore, expound, and study the conclusions of
empirical data, historical research, objective analysis of a text or
document. He will think rightly that the more critical his study is, the
more valuable service he renders to the end result of theology—the
progress and deepening of our understanding of the faith. In no way does
this minimize his commitment to the Faith, or the genuine devotion he
has to the Church and its teaching.
As a Catholic community, we have no need to be disturbed by learned
discussions of points which do not much affect us in our practical
living of the Faith. Theologians can discuss whether a given doctrine is
to be found in a given scriptural text. They cannot change the doctrine,
and (save in very rare instances) they have no wish to do so. Their
intention is not to call the doctrine into question, but perhaps to find
more solid bases on which it rests.
There persists a question, and it is this: is it always possible to
discern when a writer is offering acceptable theological views, and when
he is in conflict with the Church's doctrine.
It is to answer such questions, when there is serious pastoral need,
that the Magisterium must intervene, either on the local, the regional,
or the universal scale—that is, by action of the Holy See.
The vigilance over faith will most often be exercised by positive
teaching of truth, with insistence on the traditional and accepted
understanding of the meaning given to dogma and moral precept in the
community of the Church, under the leadership especially of the Holy
See. It will often be exercised in union with other bishops in such
things as collective pastoral letters. Such warnings as are necessary in
view of incipient or wide-spread errors will be incorporated into
positive and affirmative statements of the Faith. The diocesan bishop
will normally act in the same way.