The Magisterium, Biblical and Pastoral Aspects

Author: Most Rev. John F. Wealon


Most Rev. John F. Wealon

One year ago the televised show Roots made many Americans give thought to their own genealogical origins. In parallel fashion, we Catholics, when gathering to discuss the Magisterium, are going back to the origins, the tap root, of our faith. We are talking not about an optional or secondary aspect of the faith, but about that which in final analysis makes Catholics Catholic and separates Catholics from other Christians. Acceptance of the magisterium and assent to the magisterium is the identifying Catholic belief.

In a real sense magisterium is an identifying mark of the Catholic Church, and acceptance of the magisterium is an identifying mark of the Catholic. In this ecumenical age I have come to understand the different Christian communities as differing indeed in doctrine, but differing also according to where they place final ecclesial authority under Christ. For the Orthodox it is the Patriarchate; for the Episcopalians it was the episcopoi or bishops; for the Presbyterians the presbytery; for the Congregationalists the individual congregation; and for the Baptists, no authority exists above the individual Christian. But for Catholics, as Section 25 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council teaches, final authority under Christ is found in the Pope and bishops, just as in the New Testament it reposed in Peter and the Apostles.

The importance of this for the ecumenical dialogue is evident. Historically various Christian groups separated themselves from the Catholic Church because of theological or political reasons or a combination of both. The separation entailed a new authority under Christ. The challenge of the ecumenical dialogues, therefore, is to face both the theological questions and finally the authority question—which of course is profoundly, totally theological. And the resolution of the authority question, of the magisterium issue, will be the ultimate hurdle and will bring with it the resolution of the other dogmatic differences.

Key issue in ecumenical dialogue

For this reason I am concerned about an AP press release, dated last December 28, reporting that representatives of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches in the United States said "they've found basic unity between them and now want directives for further steps to take".

The joint dialogue group, said the article, summarized the results of 19 meetings over 12 years, concluded that the representatives have found "a significant and substantial unity between the two churches", asked for further direction and mandate from the two sponsoring bodies, and identified four "problem areas" needing further investigation by the sponsoring churches. These "problem areas" were listed as: 1) authority in the Church, including the role of pope and bishops; 2) the role of women; 3) the relationship between normative tradition and the individual conscience; 4) a study of the degree of unity necessary for sacramental sharing.

That which concerns me is that these doctrinal issues seem to be given equal weight, with authority regarded simply another unresolved problem. In my judgement, authority is in a certain sense the key issue in the total ecumenical dialogue, so that resolution of the issue of authority under Christ is that which will solve any other unresolved problems, which will make possible and even imperative our sacramental unity, and without which other agreements are only preliminary steps—beautiful and commendable steps indeed—towards the goal of Christian Unity we must pray for and continue to seek.

In Catholic life and thinking today no topic is more important than the magisterium. For any priest or lay Catholic there is hardly any subject more alive, timely and helpful. Yet considering the importance of the magisterium for Catholic identity and unity, not enough has been written on it. Some contemporary catechetics seems not even to know the belief, and seems therefore to lose Catholic identity in favor of a vague Christian Church with a Pope and bishops. How beneficial, therefore, to Catholics is a Symposium on the magisterium and its place and benefits in Catholic belief and life.

In this presentation I speak of magisterium or the teaching authority in the Catholic Church. I am thinking not of the rarely exercised infallible extraordinary magisterium, exercised when the Holy Father—with or without the college of bishops—solemnly defines a dogma of faith. I am speaking rather of the ordinary magisterium, the day-to-day admittedly reformable teaching of the Bishop of Rome, of the episcopate, or of the local diocesan bishop in union with the Pope (DS 3061; Constitutiononthe Church, par. 25). The ordinary magisterium presumes that the Pope and bishops are in relationship with God's word and are in dialogue with all voices in the Church, but are possessed of a special authority by reason of their ordained position in the Lord's Church.

The magisterium question is whether there exists in the Catholic Church an authority which ultimately by its authority obliges a Catholic to accept a teaching which that Catholic is not logically or psychologically disposed to accept. One recent example is the 1838 Constitution of Pope Gregory XVI, repeating papal teaching that slavery is immoral and that blacks are equal to whites in human dignity and rights (DS 2745-6). This magisterial teaching, now universally accepted, was rejected by those who held that the negro had no soul and could be subjected to slavery. A second example is the magisterial teaching of Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1929), teaching that contraception is immoral. This teaching, essentially restated by the Second Vatican Council (1965) and by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (1968), was rejected in its restatement by some Catholics who held that contraception is not intrinsically evil. A more recent example is the magisterial teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion. Though generally accepted by Catholics, even this doctrine is rejected by a few Catholics.

Exercise of authority a service in Christ

A December 17, 1975, article in America expressed the impatience of the Catholic author "with Catholic officialdom and dissent from the unqualified magisterial teaching against abortion". In 1971 the Holy Father approved a Curial statement making First Penance normative before First Communion—and dissent has not yet ended. In 1976 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a Declaration on Certain Questions concerning SexualEthics,approved by Pope Paul VI. The document presented traditional Catholic doctrine concerning premarital sex, living together without marriage, homosexual relations, masturbation, mortal sin and the ideal of chastity. The secular press gave generous coverage to Catholics, especially theologians, who publicly criticized this document. In 1977 there was released a Curial statement, approved by the Pope, that the ordination of women cannot be authorized according to Catholic tradition—and dissent was heard, though muted. And in 1977 the book Human Sexuality, written by Catholic theologians and actually subsidized by the Catholic Theological Society, publicly undermined both magisterial teaching on human sexuality and the very bases for that teaching.

These examples illustrate the problem of the magisterium for many contemporary Catholics. Is there in the Catholic Church an authority which ultimately by its authority alone obliges a Catholic to accept a teaching which that Catholic logically or psychologically really doesn't want to accept? To search out the answer we must look at the Biblical evidence first. And the New Testament has something to say on authority in the Church—the authority of the apostles; the special authority of Peter. Let me indicate this briefly. From the New Testament comes a conviction that the ultimate authority and the one authoritative Teacher is Jesus our Master. Also from the New Testament comes our belief that the Master gave teaching authority to Peter and the other apostles. The word authority holds the root augere:it is solely (as Robert Grosseteste said) to increase or build up the Church. The exercise of this authority is a service, in Christ and for the Body of Christ. Also from the New Testament comes the lesson that Peter had a dominant authority in teaching. Mark's Gospel, as Peter's didache, was the foundation of the other Gospels. Cephas (Peter) influenced Paul also, stood first on the list of the apostles, and had the normative teaching. From Paul we get the picture that is essentially the concept of magisterium: there were and are false apostles and false teachers, but agreement with Cephas was and is the norm of Christian orthodoxy (cf. Brown-Donfield-Reumann, Peter in the New Testament,passim).

The major texts testifying to the magisterial office of Peter and the Apostles are Matthew, Chapter 16—the chapter in which the human weakness of Peter is stressed along with Christ's promise to make Peter the foundation of the Church and keeper of the keys of heaven—and also John 21, undoubtedly the last Gospel material to be written down, in which the Church recalled how the risen Lord appointed Peter to be Shepherd of the Lord's entire flock, with love for Christ as the precondition to the appointment. I consider the New Testament evidence for the authority of Peter and the apostles to be clear and convincing. One indeed can challenge the way in which this concept developed in the Catholic Church or has been exercised at various periods of history. Those are real questions, indeed—but questions that should not obscure the Biblical evidence. Theologically, the doctrine on the ordinary magisterium is presented in Chapter Three of the Constitution on the Church. Thischapter begins with the teaching that the successor of Peter and the successors of the apostles—the Pope and the bishops—have inherited the responsibility and service in the Church that is magisterium.

The key text for understanding the ordinary magisterium is Paragraph 25 of the Constitution on the Church.

"Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul This religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking".

Too few willing to learn

I see this text as saying that the members of the Lord's flock are in doctrinal matters to follow the one appointed as Shepherd of the entire flock. Organizationally the Church's teaching authority is an immeasurable service to the entire Church. A Catholic can know what the Church teaches. Even when the question is a particularly controverted one, the Catholic need have no doubt concerning Catholic doctrine.

Psychologically, the very idea of magisterium is not well received in an age when all authority is challenged. The word magisterium comes from magister or "master". For us in the United States the master is one who dominates. We have lost the meaning, still found in England, of the master as the teacher. There is a certain tension in this, because magisterial teaching is teaching given with the authority of a teacher. The authority in the magisterium, however, comes not from the person but rather from the doctrine and the office. It must be teaching given in the name of Christ, in the Spirit of Truth. And the correlative to magister is minister. The spokesmen of this Teaching of Christ are themselves subservient to it.

In this modern age there is a resistance to the inescapable intellectual humility, docility, openness to acceptance which magisterium demands. As teachers today testify, too few seem willing to learn. But a teacher makes no sense, functionally and philosophically, unless there are learners. There can be no docentes without discentes. Conceit and presumption cause special problems here, as the German bishops have noted. We do not like to be considered sheep of the Lord's and Peter's flock. So psychologically the magisterium does not now receive an open reception, a fair hearing.

A further problem for the magisterium is its very name. "Magisterium" sounds foreign, oppressive, heavy. The expression "teaching authority" is more palatable. However this is a concept not to be sold by advertising. Perhaps it is good that we see this in all its Roman bluntness, as no easy pill to swallow.

Excessive expectation

The magisterial aspect of the Catholic Church is indeed its least attractive feature. In Vatican II's masterwork, The Constitution on the Church Chapter Two describes the Church as the People of God. This Chapter is a pleasure to read and to present to others through instruction and homily. But the next chapter of that same document is dramatically different in spirit. Chapter Three, treating of the hierarchy and the magisterium of the Church, is theological, canonical, formal. Chapter Three is hardly attractive for teaching or preaching.

That Chapter Three is something like the skeleton of the Mystical Body. No beauty is there, especially when isolated or dissected. Yet like a skeleton it performs an essential function in the Church. So this unappealing concept of the operative ordinary magisterium is, intellectually speaking, a critical question in today's Church for the priest and for many laity.

Historically the concept of magisterium needs, it seems to me, a far more searching and sympathetic interpretation than it has generally received. As was indicated earlier in this paper, I am speaking of the admittedly reformable magisterial teaching of the Church, and not of its rare, irreformable, infallible teaching. Yet so often the reformable magisterium is criticized because it has been reformed, because in subsequent times with changing conditions and greater wisdom a previous teaching was seen as erroneous or inadequate and in need of correction. There is, in regard to the fallible magisterium, an excessive expectation that it too must be always infallible. Too many share Faber's view that the Pope should be understood "as if heaven were always open over his head and the light shone down upon him" and that opposition to him was the sin against the Holy Ghost. Too many still would like an infallible statement at the breakfast table each morning with their copy of the London Times.

The usual objections against a revisionist magisterium are teachings on usury, the Galileo incident, Popes who had, personal problems from politics or sex or worldliness. Back of the objections are erroneous expectations that the successors of St Peter must always be perfect and that their teachings and practices must always be perfect. The concept of the ordinary magisterium is however one of the safe and prudent guidance of the shepherd in matters of faith and morals—but a guidance that is open to improvement and even correction if greater wisdom comes.

It is helpful to note how the theologian John Henry Newman regarded the magisterium. A Catholic parent asked Newman if her son might enroll at Oxford University, even though a rescript from the Holy See had cautioned Catholics against attending Oxford or Cambridge. Newman replied: "Whether the Pope be infallible or not (Newman's words were written before the definition of papal infallibility) in any pronouncement he is to be obeyed... His facts and his warning may all be wrong. His deliberations may have been biased. He may have been misled. Imperiousness and craft, tyranny and cruelty may be patent in the conduct of his advisers and instruments. But when he speaks formally and authoritatively, he speaks as Our Lord would have him speak, and all these imperfections are overruled for the result which Our Lord intends..." (Quoted in Facing the Truth,by D'Arcy, S,J.).

Probably the most complete change in magisterial teaching is that which has taken place since 1964 in regard to Biblical Studies. In 1902 Pope Leo XII issued the Apostolic Letter Vigilantiae,establishing a Commission for Biblical Studies to give direction in Biblical studies according to the norms of Biblical scholarship and Catholic doctrine. In 1907 Pope Pius X made the decisions of the Biblical Commission binding. That Commission, starting in times of Modernism, upheld the general historicity of the books of Holy Scripture and the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; stated that the Apostle John and no other authored the Fourth Gospel, that there was one author of Isaiah, that Paul wrote the Pastorals and Hebrews. In 1943, however, Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, mandating attention to literary forms in the Bible. In April of 1964 the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued its latest decree, mandating a study of the gospels as developing through three states of composition. That 1964 Decree, with the 1965 Constitution on Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, effectively reversed and superceded all the earlier Decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (as the Secretary said), and turned Catholics away from fundamentalism to an open scientific study of the Sacred scriptures. With the knowledge of the 1970’s we could easily criticize those early biblical Commission decrees. But such criticism would be both unfair and cheap. We should rather express contentment that we have a magisterium that is reformable and flexible.

A risk that must be taken

The question here is delicate and complex. I know of no wiser treatment than that of the German bishops in a pastoral letter of September 22, 1967. The pastoral says: "At this point we must soberly discuss a difficult question, which in the case of many Catholics today, much more than in the past, either menaces their faith or their spontaneous confidence in the doctrinal authority of the Church. We are thinking of the fact that in the exercise of its office, the doctrinal authority of the Church can be subject to error and has in fact erred. The Church has always known that something of the sort was possible. It has stated it in its theology and developed rules for such situations. This possibility of error does not affect doctrines which are proclaimed to be held with absolute assent, by a solemn definition of the Pope or of a General Council or by the ordinary magisterium. It is also historically wrong to affirm that errors of the Church have subsequently been discovered in such dogmas. This of course is not to deny that in the case of a dogma growth in understanding is always possible and always necessary, the original sense being maintained while previous possible misunderstandings are eliminated. And of course the problem in question must not be confused with the obvious fact that there is changeable human law in the Church as well as divine and unalterable law. Changes in such human law have nothing to do with error, but simply raise the question of the opportuneness of legal dispositions at different times. As regards error and the possibility of error in non-defined doctrinal pronouncements of the Church, where in fact the degree of obligation can vary very widely, we must begin by accepting soberly and resolutely the fact that the whole of our human life in general has also to be lived simply 'according to the best of our knowledge'. We have to follow our conscience according to our lights, which cannot be justified with absolute intellectual certainty but still remain here and now the valid norms to be respected in thought and action, because for the present there is nothing better. This is something which everyone knows from his own experience. It is a truth accepted by every doctor in his diagnosis and by every statesman in his judgment of a political situation and the decisions to be taken in view of it. The Church too, in its doctrine and practice, cannot always allow itself to be faced by the dilemma of either giving an absolutely binding doctrinal decision or simply remaining silent and leaving everything to the personal opinion of the individual. To safeguard the real substance of the faith, the Church must give doctrinal instructions, which have a certain degree of obligation but not being definitions of the faith, have a certain provisional character, even to the extent of possible error. This is a risk which must be taken, since otherwise the Church would find it quite impossible to preach its faith as the decisive reality of life, to expound it and to apply it to each new situation of man. In such a case, the situation of the individual with regard to the Church is somewhat like that of a man who knows that he is bound to accept the decision of an expert, even though he knows that this is not infallible. "There is no place, at any rate, in sermons and religious instruction for opinions contrary to such provisional doctrinal pronouncements of the Church, even though in certain circumstances the faithful should have the nature and the limited scope of such provisional pronouncements explained to them... The Christian who believes he has a right to his private opinion, that he already knows what the Church will only come to grasp later, must ask himself in sober self-criticism before God and his conscience, whether he has the necessary depth and breadth of theological expertise to allow his private theory and practice to depart from the present doctrine of the ecclesiastical authorities. The case is in principle admissible. But conceit and presumption will have to answer for their willfulness before the judgment-seat of God".

The magisterium has had a more difficult time since 1962 because of the extraordinary publicity given to any theologians who challenged or dissented from the magisterium. Most of the Catholic faithful are able to know what the Pope and bishops teach. But most of the faithful are not equipped to respond personally to the complex dogmatic or moral points made by a dissenting theologian. As a result the faithful are confused.

There is also the danger of undue influence from the pressures of current popular opinion and propaganda. Authentic magisterium has been entrusted exclusively to the bishops as successors of the Apostles in union with Peter's successor. There is no place for a paramagisterium in the Lord's flock.

Medicine of mercy

This present difficulty, in my judgment, dates back to 1962. Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II as a pastoral, eirenic Council. It issued no anathemas. Its spirit was that eloquently described by Pope John in his opening address. The Pope said that the Council must defend and advance truth, but that it should take a non-condemnatory posture towards error. He said: "We see, in fact, as one age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations".

The index of Prohibited Books has been abolished. The standards for the imprimatur have been reduced. Some theologians blithely advocate publicly teaching contrary to the clearly expressed doctrine of the Magisterium. The Holy See, following the medicine of mercy, reiterates its teachings, tries to have them more widely and clearly understood, but takes only reluctant and indirect action against dissenters, with utmost respect for human dignity. The reasons, I think, are a pastoral and magisterial solicitude for reconciling the dissenters, combined with a prudential judgment that in the long run the Church has more to lose than to gain by severe measures. But the price we are paying is some confusion as to what "the Church teaches'' because some do not know the authentic teachers in the Church.

I should like to conclude with practical observations concerning the attitude of a bishop, priest, deacon and lay person towards magisterial teaching.

How should anyone in Holy Orders think and speak when faced with a magisterial teaching which he does not understand or does not like or does not accept?

Men of the Church

Certainly every priest, deacon and bishop must look upon self as a man of the Church. Such are, indeed, men of Christ. But every Christian is expected to be another Christ. That which sets ordained ministers apart from the others is the Sacrament of Orders. Those in Orders are placed in special relationship to Christ, and in particular relationship to the Church. They become ministers of the Church to the rest of God's people. They are not their own. They are men of the Church.

Recently there has been considerable obscuring of the understanding by priests of themselves as churchmen. During the past ten years bishops have been made to feel occasionally almost isolated from priests and priest groups—as if somehow an adversary relationship exists between bishops and priests, so that a bishop must defend before priests the teachings of the Church. The unity of the presbyterium is important. And that unity will be stronger when bishops and priests sense themselves as united in Holy Orders and priestly ministry, together men of the Church. Certainly the relationship is never to be one of management vs. labor, with a Senate of Priests acting as an adversary labor union.

Considering self a man of the Church means considering self a man of Chapter Three of the Constitution on the Church—as a part of the hierarchy—as well as of Chapter Two. As the Cahpter Three states: "Priests, prudent cooperators with the episcopal order as well as its aids and instruments, are called to serve the People or God. They constitute one priesthood with their bishop... Associated with their bishop in a spirit of trust and generosity, priests make him present in a certain sense in the individual local congregation of the faithful..." (par. 28).

A second expectation is that the priest—as well as the bishop and deacon—will teach and preach as the Church's doctrine only that which the magisterium has presented as the Church's doctrine. As men and ministers of the Church they are fully expected to present the Church's teachings—and not their own ideas or speculations, or the ideas and speculations of theologians qua theologians. This point—which is expectation of the official and the general Church—is of paramount importance. The neglect of this principle has led to enormous confusion in the minds of the laity and of some priests.

Cause of confusion

The entire concept of faculties to preach and teach illustrates how the spokesman for the Church must present the Church's doctrine. The bishop cannot give faculties to one who does not preach or teach the Church's doctrine.

What are the expectations for the laity? How can the laity know what is the official teaching of the Church on a question of faith or morals? That doctrine is easily learned, especially in this age of rapid communications. A rule of thumb for the Catholic laity is to accept the teaching of a deacon or priest if he is in agreement with the local bishop, and to accept the teaching of the local bishop if he is in agreement with the Pope. And for a priest the rule of thumb is even more simple. The priest (or deacon) follows the teaching of his bishop if that worthy is in concert with the Pope, and in every final instance he follows the Pope. It is now as it was in New Testament times: Cephas is the norm for our doctrine; unity with Peter's Successor is essential. The Petrine office is our guarantee of unity of faith and doctrine. And with modern communications so effective, no deacon or priest, no bishop or lay person need long doubt as to what is Catholic teaching.

What of the priest who does not reflect or express the official Church teaching in his public or private utterances? Here precisely is the cause of confusion. The simple Catholic trusts the priest and rightly expects that a priest would not teach a doctrine at variance with that of the local bishop or the Pope. Yet Frank Sheed, that doughty theologian and student of the Catholic scene, writes that "there is hardly a doctrine or practice of the Church I have not heard attacked by a priest" (IsIt the Same Church?, p. xiv). Small wonder that there has been widespread confusion in the minds of Catholic faithful. The duty of us ministers of the Church, particularly ordained ones, is to present publicly the Church's teaching, the whole Church's teaching and (as formal doctrine) nothing but the Church's teaching, so help us God.

Guidance and peace

The Encyclopedia of Theology expresses :well the need for a modern understanding of magisterium: "In spite of the individualism of later days, which is still very much the prevailing temper of the West, a new understanding of the magisterium of the Church must surely now be possible, in view of our knowledge of the man of today and tomorrow. Man cannot possess his truth as an isolated individual, since he is no such thing... But in a post-individualistic epoch new possibilities of understanding may be opened up, even for the understanding of the magisterium of the Church" (article "Magisterium" in Encyclopedia ofTheology, ed. by Karl Rahner. The Seabury Press, N.W., 1975). A better understanding of the Church's magisterium is indeed imperative for many contemporary Catholics. Until that better understanding is reached, confusion will continue.

Any Catholic who does not follow the teaching and direction planned by Christ, given by the Pope and the bishops united with him, is left only with personal opinion of self or others. That Catholic is crossing Niagara Falls on a tight rope and not on the bridge built by the Pontifex. For such a Catholic the key has been discarded, the sheep has no shepherd, the net does not enfold and there is no assured witness to the genuine Christ.

The magisterium, an enormous gift to the Church, is by the design of Christ there to give guidance and bring peace of mind. And we need the magisterium even more in this questioning, challenging, publicity-conscious, changing modern society.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 April 1978, page 7

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