Magisterial Documents and Public Dissent

Author: Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B.

Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B.
Archbishop emeritus of Vercelli
Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

In ecclesial and ecclesiastical circles total assent and deep appreciation has been expressed for the publication of these documents by Cardinals and Bishops as well as well as by Episcopal Conferences and many individual priests and lay faithful, who have written to the Holy Father or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stating their adherence and assent to the doctrine taught by the Magisterium in these documents. It should also be pointed out that the practice of first presenting papal documents (the two Encyclicals and the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis) to the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences most concerned with these issues at a meeting in the Holy See has been appreciated and has borne good fruit inasmuch as it has deepened the bond of communion between the Apostolic See and the individual Bishops and these Episcopal Conferences, and has produced even greater results for the dissemination and reception of magisterial documents.

On the other hand, discordant and dissenting voices have been raised by theologians, associations and ecclesiastical groups, which have questioned both the content and the theological basis of the teaching found in these documents, as well as their value and binding doctrinal force, disputing whether these doctrines can be considered definitive or even infallibly taught by the Magisterium. Thus it seems appropriate to reflect on the main difficulties connected with the value and degree of authority of these magisterial interventions.


Doctrinally, and in view of the description of the reactions and principal criticisms of these magisterial documents, special attention should be paid to several key aspects which in today's theological and ecclesial climate are a source of confusion and ambiguity, and entail negative consequences for the teaching of theology and for the behavior of some ecclesiastical circles:

1) first, we must point out the tendency to measure everything on the basis of the distinction between the "infallible Magisterium" and the "fallible Magisterium".

In this way infallibility becomes the criterion for all authority problems, to the point of actually replacing the concept of authority with that of infallibility. Furthermore, the question of the infallibility of the Magisterium is often confused with the question of the truth of a doctrine, by assuming that infallibility is the pre-qualification for the truth and irreformability of the doctrine, and by making the truth and definitive nature of the doctrine depend on whether or not it has been infallibly defined by the Magisterium. In fact, the truth and irreformability of a doctrine depends on the depositum fide), transmitted by Scripture and Tradition, while infallibility refers only to the degree of certitude of an act of magisterial teaching. In the various critical stances towards the recent documents of the Magisterium it is often forgotten that the infallible character of a teaching and the definitive and irrevocable character of the assent owed it is not a prerogative belonging solely to what has been solemnly "defined" by the Roman Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council. Whenever the Bishops dispersed in their individual Dioceses in communion with the Successor of Peter teach a truth to be held in a definitive way (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 25, 2), they enjoy the same infallibility as the Pope's ex cathedra Magisterium or that of a Council.

It must be stressed then that in the Encyclicals Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae and in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, the Roman Pontiff intended, though not in a solemn way, to confirm and reaffirm doctrines which belong to the ordinary, universal teaching of the Magisterium, and which therefore are to be held in a definitive and irrevocable way.

Moreover, it must also be kept in mind that if the authority of the Magisterium's teachings admits of varying degrees, this does not mean that the authority of a lesser degree can be considered on the same level as theological opinions or, when it is not a question of infallibility, that only the arguments count and it is impossible for the Church to have a common certitude in a given doctrinal matter.

2) Second, these considerations are highly significant regarding adherence to the teaching of Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae, of Ordinatio sacerdotalis and also of the Responsum and the Letter of the Congregation on the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and remarried members of the faithful: since these documents deal with teachings not proposed or confirmed by the Magisterium in the form of a definition (solemn judgement), there is a widespread idea that these teachings can be revised or reformed at a later date or perhaps in another pontificate. This idea is totally groundless and betrays a mistaken understanding of the Catholic Church's doctrine on the Magisterium.

Actually, if we consider the act of teaching, the Magisterium can teach a doctrine as definitive either by a defining act or by a non-defining act. First of all, the Magisterium can proclaim a doctrine as definitive, and thus to be believed with divine faith or to be held in a definitive way, through a solemn ex cathedra pronouncement of the Pope or an Ecumenical Council. However, the ordinary papal Magisterium can teach a doctrine as definitive because it has been constantly maintained and held by Tradition and transmitted by the ordinary, universal Magisterium. This latter exercise of the charism of infallibility does not take the form of a papal act of definition, but pertains to the ordinary, universal Magisterium which the Pope again sets forth with his formal pronouncement of confirmation and reaffirmation (generally in an Encyclical or Apostolic Letter). If we were to hold that the Pope must necessarily make an ex cathedra definition whenever he intends to declare a doctrine as definitive because it belongs to the deposit of faith, it would imply an underestimation of the ordinary, universal Magisterium, and infallibility would be limited to the solemn definitions of the Pope or a Council, in a way that differs from the teaching of Vatican I and Vatican II, which attribute an infallible character to the teachings of the ordinary, universal Magisterium.

The particular nature of a teaching of the papal Magisterium that is meant merely to confirm or re-propose a certitude of faith already lived consciously by the Church or affirmed by the universal teaching of the entire Episcopate can be seen not in the teaching of the doctrine per se, but in the fact that the Roman Pontiff formally declares that this doctrine already belongs to the faith of the Church and is infallibly taught by the ordinary, universal Magisterium as divinely revealed or to be held in a definitive way.

In the light of these considerations, it seems a pseudo-problem to wonder whether this papal act of confirming a teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium is infallible or not. In fact, although it is not per se a dogmatic definition (like the Trinitarian dogma of Nicaea, the Christological dogma of Chalcedon or the Marian dogmas), a papal pronouncement of confirmation enjoys the same infallibility as the teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium, which includes the Pope not as a mere Bishop but as the Head of the Episcopal College. In this regard, it is important to make clear that when the Responsum ad dubium of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the doctrine taught in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis mentions the infallible character of this doctrine which is already possessed by the Church, it simply meant to recall that the doctrine is not infallibly proposed only on the basis of this pontifical document, but that it confirms what has been held everywhere, always and by everyone as belonging to the deposit of faith. So it is essential to maintain the principle that a teaching can also be infallibly proposed by the ordinary, universal Magisterium by an act that does not take the solemn form of a definition.

3) In some quarters the question has been raised regarding the recognition of a doctrine taught by the ordinary, universal Magisterium as revealed or to be held definitively. It has been said, for example, that for this recognition it is necessary that the unanimous consent of the entire Episcopate be explicitly evident not only in proposing a determinate judgement, but also in declaring its absolute and definitively binding character. Hence there is a doubt as to whether these requirements have been met regarding the doctrine about the non-admission of women to priestly ordination and about certain universal norms of the natural moral law.

However, these questions and the doubts that have been raised do not seem to take into account several factors which must be briefly mentioned.

a) The ordinary, universal Magisterium consists in the unanimous proclamation of the Bishops in union with the Pope. It is expressed in the fact that all the Bishops (including the Bishop of Rome, who is the Head of the College) give a common witness. It is not a question of extraordinary statements, but of the Church's normal life, of what is preached in ordinary circumstances as universal teaching in the everyday life of the Church. "This ordinary Magisterium is thus the normal form of the Church's infallibility".' As a consequence, it is not at all necessary that everything pertaining to the faith become explicit dogma; on the contrary, it is normal for the truth to be proposed simply by its proclamation in common -which includes non only words but also facts; the particular and explicit emphasis of a dogmatic definition is, properly speaking, an extraordinary case, usually required for very precise and particular reasons.

b) Moreover, when speaking of the need to verify the actual consent of all the Bishops dispersed throughout the world or even of the whole Christian people in matters of faith and morals, it should not be forgotten that this consent cannot be understood only synchronically, but also diachronically. This means that a morally unanimous consent embraces every era of the Church, and only if this totality is heard does one remain faithful to the Apostles. "If in some quarter", the wise Cardinal Ratzinger observes, "a majority were to be formed in opposition to the faith of the Church in other times, it would not be a majority at all".2

It is also worth noting that the agreement of the universal Episcopate in communion with the Successor of Peter about the doctrinal and binding character of an assertion or an ecclesial practice in ages past is not annulled or diminished by dissent that may occur in a later era.

c) Lastly, with particular reference to the teaching about reserving priestly ordination to men alone, it must be remembered that the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis confirmed that this doctrine has been maintained by the Church's constant, universal tradition and has been firmly taught by the Magisterium in its most recent documents (n. 4). Now, everyone knows that Tradition is the hermeneutic locus where, in various ways—including that of calm conviction—the Church's self-verifying consciousness operates and is expressed. In this specific case, the Church has unanimously and consistently maintained that women cannot validly receive priestly ordination, and this same unanimity and consistency reveals not the Church's own decision, but her obedience and dependence on the will of Christ and the Apostles. Consequently, universal Tradition in this matter, marked by consistency and unanimity, contains an objective magisterial teaching that is definitive and unconditionally binding.3 The same criterion must also be applied to other doctrines regarding universal moral norms: the killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral; abortion is always gravely immoral; adultery or slander is always evil, etc. These doctrines, although not yet declared by a solemn judgement, nevertheless belong to the Church's faith and are infallibly proposed by the ordinary, universal Magisterium.

In conclusion, in order to speak of the infallible ordinary and universal Magisterium, it is necessary that the consent between the Bishops have for its object a teaching proposed as formally revealed or as certainly true and undoubted, such that it calls for the full and undeniable assent of the faithful. One can share theology's insistence on conducting careful analyses in researching the reasons for this consent or agreement. Nevertheless, there is no basis for the interpretation that the verification of an infallible teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium would also require a particular formality in the act of declaring the doctrine in question. Otherwise we would be dealing with a solemn definition of the Pope or of an Ecumenical Council.4

These clarifications seem necessary today, not for answering subtle and sophisticated academic questions, but for rejecting a simplistic, reductionist interpretation of the infallibility of the Magisterium, while offering at the same time correct theological principles for interpreting the value of magisterial teachings and the quality of the doctrines.


In addition to these considerations and clarifications of a doctrinal and theological nature, it is also appropriate to reflect on and indicate solutions to the problem of public dissent. It is impossible here to examine the breadth of the pastoral and practical repercussions involved in this question, but it is useful to define clearly some fundamental aspects which seem to lie at the base and root of this phenomenon. This is the only way to avoid proposing remedies that are merely empirical and incidental.

1) We cannot neglect the basic fact, which seems essential: the true, deep root of dissent is the crisis of faith. Efforts must thus be made to reinvigorate the life of faith as a priority dimension of the Church's pastoral work. This strengthening of the faith demands and presupposes the call to an ever greater and deeper interior conversion.

2) One of the first expressions of the spiritual crisis of faith is the crisis of the Magisterium's authority, which is a crisis in the authority of the Church founded on the divine will. An artificial opposition is created between authority and freedom, detaching them from the question of truth.

3) It seems then that the primary remedy should be sought in the commitment to serious spiritual, doctrinal and intellectual formation in conformity with the Church's teaching.

In this regard, we call attention to several important points:

a) first of all, the need for an integrated, systematic theological formation. The increasing specialization of theology tends to fragment it, to the point of making theology a collection of theologies. Theology is in danger of losing its organic unity, and although information becomes more and more detailed a basic unifying vision is missing. in the same way, we must insist on the responsibility of Bishops in catechesis and catechist formation, which must strengthen the sense of faith and of belonging to the Church.

b) the need for sound philosophical formation, which must include the study of metaphysics; one notes the disturbing lack of this study in various academic centres today.

c) the need to redress the balance between the demand for safeguarding the individual's right and the requirement of preserving and defending the right of the community and the People of God to the true faith and to the common good. I would like to draw attention to the fact that the real tension is not between defending the individual's right and that of the community, but between those who defend the right of the culturally stronger and more powerful, and the right of those who are weaker and more defenceless in the face of corrosive, anti-ecclesial tendencies.

d) the urgent need to form public opinion in the Church so that it conforms to Catholic identity and is free from subservience to secular public opinion as reflected in the mass media. Openness to the world's problems, however, must be properly understood: it is based on the missionary impulse to make Christ's revelation known to all and to lead everyone to the mystery of Christ.

4) From the disciplinary standpoint, it seems quite appropriate to recall that the Bishops are obliged to enforce the Church's normative discipline, especially when it is a question of defending the integrity of the teaching of divine truth. This is to be done in the context of a new and forceful re-presentation of the Christian message and the spiritual life for the sake of a renewed evangelization.

Moreover, it is useful to emphasize and make clear, especially at this moment in the Church's life when there seems to be a reluctance to consider canon law in the proper light, that the observance and application of ecclesiastical discipline is not an obstacle or in opposition to true freedom and obedience to the Spirit, but is an indispensable tool for effective and ordered communion in truth and charity.

The application of canon law thus provides concrete protection for believers against misrepresentations of revealed doctrine and against a watering down of the faith caused by that "spirit of the world" which seeks to present itself as the voice of the Holy Spirit.

In this context, it also seems very important to recall the Oath of Fidelity, published in 1989 when the Formula of the Profession of Faith came into force. It expresses the public commitment to exercise one's office properly in relation to the Church and to the institutions and people for whom it has been assumed.

The Oath of Fidelity, as the observance of canonical discipline in general properly expresses the organic unity of action and governance through fidelity to the profession of faith and to Christian truth. In this way, the sense of identity and of belonging to the Church are also guaranteed by law, which prevents one from thinking that he belongs to an imaginary Church of his own invention, instead of to the Church of the apostolic succession, of the Word written and handed down authoritatively, of the visible sacraments and of Catholic communion.

In conclusion, John Paul II’s address to the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the end of their 1995 plenary meeting, remain enlightening (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 29 November 1995, p. 3). Regarding the relationship between the Magisterium and theologians, the Pope stated:

"The continual dialogue with Pastors and theologians throughout the world enables you to be attentive to the demands of understanding and reflecting more deeply on the doctrine of the faith which theology interprets, and at the same time, it informs you of the useful efforts being made to foster and strengthen the unity of the faith and the Magisterium's guiding role in understanding the truth and in building up ecclesial communion in charity.

"The unity of the faith, for the sake of which the Magisterium has authority and ultimate deliberative power in interpreting the Word of God written and handed down, is a primary value, which, if respected, does not involve the stifling of theological research, but provides it with a stable foundation. Theology, in its task of making explicit the intelligible content of the faith, expresses the intrinsic orientation of human intelligence to the truth and the believer's irrepressible need rationally to explore the revealed mystery.

"To achieve this end, theology can never be reduced to the 'private' reflection of a theologian or group of theologians. The Church is the theologian's vital environment, and in order to remain faithful to its identity, theology cannot fail to participate deeply in the fabric of the Church's life, doctrine, holiness and prayer.

"This is the context in which the conviction that theology needs the living and clarifying word of the Magisterium becomes fully understandable and perfectly consistent with the logic of the Christian faith. The meaning of the Church's Magisterium must be considered in relation to the truth of Christian doctrine. This is what your Congregation has carefully explained and spelled out in the Instruction Donum veritatis on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian".

With regard to the connection between authority and truth, between the exercise of authority and the proclamation of the saving truth, the Holy Father noted:

"The Magisterium, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 10), is an organ of service to the truth and is responsible for seeing that the truth does not cease to be faithfully handed on throughout human history".



1 J. Ratzinger, II nuovo popolo di Dio, Brescia 1971, p. 180.

2 J. Ratzinger, La Chiesa, Milan, p. 71.

3 In the past and until recent decades, theologians and canonists who dealt with the problem unanimously considered the exclusion of women from receiving the ministerial priesthood to be something absolute, based on divine apostolic Tradition. See, for example what P. Gasparri stated in his Tractatus canonicus de sacra ordinatione (vol. I, Paris 1893, p. 75): "Et quidem prohibetur sub poena nullitatis: ita enim traditio et communis doctorum catholicorum doctrine interpretata est legem Apostoli: et ideo Patres inter haereses recensent doctrinam qua sacerdotalis dignitas et officium mulieribus tribuitur".

4 In his commentary on the second schema on the Church proposed at the First Vatican Council, J. Kleutgen defines as doctrines of the ordinary infallible Magisterium those that "have been held or transmitted as undoubted" (tamquam indubitata tenentur vel traduntur). Cf. Mansi, LIII, 313.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 January 1997

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