The Magisterium of the Vicar of Christ

Author: Cardinal Norman Gilroy


Cardinal John C. Heenan

One of the practical problems facing priests is what to do with out-of-date liturgical books. Publications only five years old have now become virtually useless. They may throw away their old missals, breviaries, pontificalia and rituals only to find that within twenty-five years they will be needed again. Baroque is out of fashion now but the next generation may be bored by the purely functional. After all, most of what is now regarded as liturgically extravagant was the result of the liturgists' revolt against lack of movement and colour. In the liturgical world today's expert is tomorrow's antiquarian. Bishops' houses, monasteries and seminaries should therefore displace but not destroy their liturgical collections. What of the rest of the library? How many theological books are now of anything more than historical interest: Billot? Franzelin? Bellarmine? Alphonsus? Aquinas? Ambrose? Augustine? Nobody can tell. We know only that at the moment most pre-conciliar writing might as well be antediluvian for all its practical usefulness.

The above is most relevant to my present task. I have been asked to write an article on the magisterium. Than this there is no more delicate subject in current theology. What is the magisterium? Look up your old (say 1960) text books of, dogmatic theology and you will read that the ordinary magisterium is what guarantees that the faithful will learn revealed truth from the Pope and bishops (''qui fidelibus oralem veritatem revelatam seu Traditionem dispensant" says a popular text book much used during the last decade). It is rather more difficult today to define the magisterium. True, it is authoritative—but who can exercise an authority which is no longer dutifully acknowledged? The ordinary magisterium of the Pope is found in his encyclicals, allocutions and letters. It is no secret that contemporary theologians are often markedly less respectful towards a papal encyclical than, for example, an article in "Concilium".

Solitary voice of Pope

So the magisterium has become a hazardous subject to write about. Nor is this only because the magisterium is widely ignored by those whose duty it is to pass on its directions. The magisterium itself is being exercised with diminishing confidence by those in authority. No matter how novel or brash the theory, it is most unlikely to be condemned by a local bishop or hierarchy. There have been recent reports from Rome that Pope Paul wept when telling a public audience of the disloyalty and disobedience of many who speak and teach in the name of the Catholic Church. These reports are probably inaccurate, but it is true that the Pope does regularly draw attention to the dangers of theological innovations. Nobody else in authority follows his example. During the Synod of Bishops a cardinal drew attention to the fact that the Pope's is becoming a solitary voice. Perhaps the whole notion of the ordinary magisterium of the Church is changing. Since the Council ended, the episcopate of the world rarely re-echoes the anguished cries of the Bishop of Rome.

Magisterium, like hierarchy, has become a dirty word. That may be why so few bishops are willing to risk unpopularity by exercising it. Too often in the past, it is true the magisterium has been used to condemn rather than guide. Today outside Rome it has become so unsure of itself that it rarely attempts even to guide. Dangerous contemporary writing on ecumenism and the Eucharist incurs no episcopal censure. Ecumenists in good standing appear to see no significant differences between Catholicism and other faiths. In seeking solutions to the heartbreaking problems of mixed marriages, for example, they declare that a Catholic has neither the right nor duty to safeguard the faith of his children. This novel doctrine is preached without protest from the magisterium.

Reckless interpretations

For the sake of ecumenical relations we are told, a Catholic must be prepared to sacrifice the Catholic birthright of his children. So far this argument has been applied only to cases of "Mixtae Religionis". Logically and inevitably, however, it will soon be applied by liberal ecumenists also to cases of "Disparitas Cultus". Why should a Jew or Muslim be expected to allow his Catholic wife to bring up the children as Christians? Fr. Gregory Baum, a convert Jew and consultor of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, considers it wrong to attempt to convert Jews. (The Monthly, November 1967). The Sisters of Sion are now told not to pray in public or in private for the conversion of Jews, although this was the chief object of their foundation. It is argued that Jews (Muslims? Hindus? Buddhists?) have a religious role ordained by Almighty God, and it is impertinent to offer them Christian truth. During debates in the Council members of the Secretariat for Christian Unity made it clear that, while ecumenism itself is in no way an exercise in conversion, the obligation to preach the Gospel to every creature remains. This, of course, is well understood by both Protestants and Jews. They appreciate our obligation to spread the Faith. They are rightly suspicious only if under the guise of ecumenism we attempt to convert them.

The doctrine of the real presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist has also suffered distortion with little complaint from the magisterium—except again from the Holy Father. It is suggested by some theologians that Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament only in the same sense as He is present in the sick, the poor or the whole Christian people. The document on the liturgy describes the eucharistic presence as "unique", but this word is now largely ignored. The whole idea of eucharistic worship is questioned under the influence of new "insights" (private revelations?). It is said to be catechetically unsound to teach the faithful to speak directly to Christ. He must be regarded exclusively as a mediator between us and the Father to whom alone prayer should be addressed. The Adorate and Ave Verum are a relic of unenlightened days when it was thought right for Jesus to be adored in the Blessed Sacrament. It was unwarranted for Popes to grant indulgences in order to encourage priests to recite the divine office in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. "Lex Orandi Lex Credendi" remains true. There is therefore some danger that liturgists may provide the new voice of the magisterium. Similar fears were expressed at the Synod. As a body, the bishops were conscious that the magisterium is passing from them into the hands of those who write popular theology.

A false Ecumenism

The Council is used as the excuse for every new flouting of the magisterium. "The word of Christ", said Pope Paul on the 3rd April 1968, "is no longer the truth which never changes, ever living, radiant and fruitful even though at times beyond our understanding. It becomes a partial truth... and is thus deprived of all objective validity and transcendent authority. It will be said that the Council authorised such treatment of traditional teaching. Nothing is more false, if we are to accept the word of Pope John who launched that 'aggiornamento' in whose name some dare to impose on Catholic dogma dangerous and sometimes reckless interpretations."

There speaks the authentic voice of the magisterium. But who is to specify which are the "dangerous and sometimes reckless interpretations"? Presumably local bishops are expected to do so. In the present climate their task is not easy. No theologian will admit that his interpretations are dangerous or reckless. A Bishop who objects will be told that he does not understand. Reading articles by some popular theologians I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's, Through the looking glass: "When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be the master—that's all."

Yes, that's all. That's the whole question. Who is to be the master? That's what we mean by magisterium. The teacher or master must be restored to authority.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 May 1968, page 4

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