The Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff

Author: Cardinal William Conway


Cardinal William Conway, Armagh, Ireland

The promulgation of the new Profession of Faith by the Holy Father on 30 June last—and, more recently, of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae—throws into bold relief the vital role and significance of the magisterium of the Roman Pontiff in the Church in the world to-day.

One is thinking here primarily of the non-solemn exercise of that magisterium, the day-to-day preaching of the immortalis sanctae Dei ecclesiae traditio, not merely in Encyclicals and such important discourses as that which marked the closing of the Year of Faith, but also in allocutions, general audiences and so on.

It is not too much to say that this day-to-day exercise of the "ministry of the word" by the Pope has an importance and a significance in the life of the Church to-day that is greater than it has ever had in history. The very development of the modern means of communication both creates the need and at the same time supplies the means for a world-wide resonance to the centre of Catholic unity.


It was Cardinal Newman who, in his "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine" written when he was about to become a Catholic, saw in the Primacy of the successor of Peter the necessary and essential means of safeguarding the sacramentum unitatis in the Church. The circumstances of the post-conciliar era, particularly as regards doctrine, give this point a new and urgent significance.

It is obvious that the ferment in the Church released by the Holy Spirit through the Second Vatican Council has resulted not merely in a quickening of her life but also in an increased need for prompt and authoritative guidance, particularly in matters affecting doctrine. The new insights of the Council, the call to preach the unchanging message of the Gospel more effectively to a dramatically changing world, represent a challenge to theologians and ecclesiastical writers in general which, like all real challenges, involves a not inconsiderable element of danger. One aspect of this, emphasized with virtual unanimity by bishops from all over the world at the Synod last year, is the danger of a gradual but significant erosion of the vital principle of continuity in expounding the faith of the Church. No one, I think, will be disposed to deny that this danger has become not merely more evident but also more real in the past few years.

It would be wrong—and here again the Synod of Bishops was definite in its opinion—to adopt a purely negative and defensive attitude towards this ferment. After all it was Our Lord Himself who first used the word fermentum to describe the effects of his teaching. The theologian, in seeking to explore and expound the teaching of the Church in a world whose very thinking processes almost appear to have undergone a profound change, has a most difficult and delicate task. The Holy Father himself has time and again paid tribute to the service which theologians and thinkers have rendered in this situation.


Moreover it may be considered inevitable that in this process opinions should be put forward, in all good faith, which on examination prove to be inconsistent with that "deposit" which Paul charged Timothy to protect and safeguard.

What is of vital importance is that an effective and practical criterion of the principle of continuity, as applied to such opinions, should be at hand at all times. By an "effective" criterion is meant one which is not merely vested with the necessary divinely-given authority but which also has the necessary resonance to make itself clearly heard throughout the world.

It is precisely here that the voice of the Pope has become more indispensable than ever in the life of the church today. His voice alone has that "international dimension" which the needs of today so often demand.

Today the views of an ecclesiastical writer—especially if they are unusual views—can "put a circle round the world in forty minutes"; a book of popular theology may be translated into half a dozen languages and distributed over the whole globe in a matter of months.

There is a positive aspect to all this popularizing of theology which is one of its most important ingredients: that both priests and people are now so intensely interested in the great task of relating divine truth to the problems of contemporary society is a great gain. The negative aspect is that views which are superficial but novel, or which appear to call in question fundamental truths, may receive much greater publicity than those which are within "the obedience of the faith". The publicity which a number of important pastoral letters and statements by individual Hierarchies during the year of faith did not receive was a striking demonstration of this.

During the year of faith it was in fact the voice of the Holy Father, insistently calling attention to the intangibility of the Church’s heritage of truth, which alone made itself heard throughout the world. Individual bishops and Hierarchies were heard within their own domains but only the voice of the Pope was clearly heard everywhere.


It was Newman again who developed the argument that, given the nature of the Church as a body which speaks with divine authority one might have a priori expected a divinely-appointed centre of unity in doctrine. The development of modern means of mass communication has added enormous strength to this consideration. Without such a clear and authoritative voice at the centre, the inevitable result of a medley of opinions on doctrinal matters would be confusion and doubt in the most vital sector of the Church’s life.

When in fact we turn to the New Testament and re-read the texts on the primacy of Peter it is extraordinary how closely related they appear to this essentially contemporary situation. "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church". This is precisely what is needed, a rock which will stand firm when so much around it resembles a turbulent sea. "I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not, and thou being once converted confirm thy brethren". In the great and urgent process of restating divine truth in terms which will bring out more clearly its relevance to contemporary living—and of incorporating the deeper insights into many aspects of that truth which the contemporary world itself has made possible—no unaided human mind could of itself be certain that its faith would "fail not", not in the obvious sense of a innocent failure in fidelity to the principle of continuity. What is needed is one who enjoys a special divine assistance that his faith will fail not and who will thereby exercise a saving influence on the faith of the Church as a whole.


It is important to remember this at the present time—that the voice of the Holy Father is not just that of a central spokesman of official policy. There is question neither of a "spokesman" nor of a "policy" but of an authentic teacher of divine truth. The Church’s teaching de propagatione humanae prolis recte ordinanda is not just a "policy" decided on after a review of all the relevant factors in the world situation, as so many commentators outside the Church take it to be. It is part of the heritage of truth which comes from God, which the Church has inherited and to which she cannot be unfaithful but rather must proclaim. And the Holy Father, in proclaiming this teaching, is not just an administrative head with a duty to come to decisions on such matters. He is the visible head of the Church who enjoys special divine assistance in proclaiming catholic truth pro universo populo Dei, and this not merely when he exercises the fullness of his infallible magisterium but also in his day-to-day exercise of the ministry of the word. To him also the Lord has said: "Peter, Peter, I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not".


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 September 1968, page 10

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