The Magisterium of the Vicar of Christ

Author: Cardinal Norman Gilroy


Norman Cardinal Gilroy
Archbishop of Sydney

Quest for Truth

Man's great search is the search for truth. Truth sets him free—free from the torturing doubt that paralyses, free to develop his whole personality and reach out to his destiny.

But, apart from a few fundamental axioms which the human mind perceives almost instinctively, man does not possess truth within himself. Nor does he communicate directly with it. On the contrary, truth is mediated to him by others. Man is fundamentally a being who is taught.

These observations are pre-eminently valid in that sphere of religious truth—that sphere which considers the great basic problems that vex the human mind and heart. They hold good even as regards that body of truth known as the "natural truths of religion" which are needed for the correct ordering of life.

Limits of Human Intelligence

What the First Vatican Council had to say on this matter (Session 3, chap. 2) is tragically borne out by human experience. History has shown how, on the great fundamental issues of life which are based on truths "not inaccessible to human understanding as such" (ibid.), mankind has been left in confusion and doubt by human teachers. Authority contradicts authority, philosophy rebuts philosophy, disciples refute masters until, in the end, it would seem that mankind is made the unhappy sport of human opinion. Through all the centuries the perennial question has been: where is the truth?

Even in this sphere, then, man labours under the moral necessity to be taught by God. But who shall mediate the truth to him? If there is not on this earth an authentic teaching voice, communicating a teaching free from error, then the plight of man is the most pitiful all: he cannot break the curtain of doubt, be cannot escape the nightmare of confusion.

When we ascend to the immeasurably higher sphere of the divine mysteries and of God's mysterious plan for man’s salvation, then not only is it absolutely necessary that man be taught by God through revelation (Cfr. First Vatican Council, Sess. 3, ch. 4), but the need for an authentic teaching voice, that is, an authority teaching in God's name, is absolutely necessary if truth is not to be transformed into error.

Magisterium a gift of God

The authentic legislation is not only one of God's greatest gifts to His Church; it is also that which man most needs. It is not a strange and incomprehensible privilege.

There is nothing strange in the fact that God's revealed truths are preserved, interpreted and communicated to men by means of a teaching free from error. As has often been pointed out, what is strange is that this teaching should be challenged or despised, notwithstanding our need of it—an anomaly that can only be explained by the disorder introduced by original sin.

Without the God-given guarantee of the authentic magisterium how could the Church demand our faith, our religious assent? How could the Church be a "community a Faith, hope and charity"? (Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, ch. 1, n. 8). How could we, God’s people, on our twilight pilgrimage of faith, walk with sure and joyful step toward the kingdom of light?

If there is anything for which we should be constantly, profoundly and humbly grateful to Almighty God it is this precious gift of a magisterium sealed with divine authenticity. Man’s deepest need is the firm establishment of hisrelations with the truth that saves.And it is the authentic magisterium alone that answers that and deepest need.

The "Sacrament" of Truth

What Baptism is in the sacramental economy, that the magisterium is in the order of truth. Baptism is the most necessary sacrament and the indispensable foundation of further sacramental sanctification and consecration. It transfers us from spiritual darkness to spiritual light. It gives us the freedom of the sons of God—the freedom to be led by the Holy Spirit even to the heights of sanctity. By analogy, the magisterium of the Church is the most necessary "sacrament" in order of Christian truth and Christian morality, and the indispensable guide to further penetration of the truth and a more thorough living of the Christian life. It too transfers us from darkness—the darkness of doubt, confusion and mere human opinion both inside and outside the Church—to the clear light that shines as beacon our pilgrim path.

Thus the Second Vatican Council says: "God’s People accepts not the word of men but the very Word of God (cf. I Th. 2:13). It clings without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints (cf. Jude, 3), penetrates it more deeply by accurate insights, and applies it more thoroughly to life. All this it does under the lead of a sacred teaching authority to which it loyally defers" (Conc. Vat. II, ch. 2, n. 12).

Need for a Rule of Faith

As we said when speaking of the natural truths or religion and of rational morality so now we say with immeasurably more justification, when speaking of the revealed doctrines, of the Faith and the code of morality that accompanies them, it is the authentic magisterium alone that saves the members of the Church from being the miserable sport of more human opinions within the Church, no matter from whom or from how many they may emanate.

The validity of this cannot be questioned. It has been and that "fools rush in where angels fear to tread". History has signally verified that nowhere is this so true as in field of religious truth and morality. And this holds good for those who were, and are, within the Church as much as it did, and does, for those without.

It is only through "loyal deference to the sacred teaching authority"—a loyalty due to Christ Himself—that you and I, members of Christ’s Body, can truly discern the tenets of Christian faith and morality, penetrate them more deeply, and enrich our lives with them. There is no other way. It is the way given by Him who said: "I am the way, the truth .ad the life" (Jn. 14, 6). He is still, and forever, all that, but only through and in those charged with the magisterium: "Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And, behold, I am with you all days (teaching) even unto the consummation of the world" (Mt. 28, 19-20). Again: "He who hears you, hears me" (Lk. 10, 16). This is the crux of the matter; and often it is a heavy cross.

Vatican II on the Magisterium

The Second Vatican Council, dwelling on the authentic magisterium, states: "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" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, ch. 3 n. 25).

Some seem to think that the Vicar of Christ exercises his authentic teaching authority only when he speaks "ex cathedra". They seem to think that only in those solemn circumstances are they bound in conscience to accept his teaching.They seem to think that in all other cases, even in the case of a papal encyclical, or a similarly authoritative document, they are at liberty to challenge, to argue, to criticize, to accept or reject. They do not hesitate to weigh the doctrine imparted against their own arbitrary judgements and reasoning, seemingly oblivious or ignorant of the fact that Christ our Lord has sealed the teaching authority of His Vicar on earth with a special charism for the protection of the People of God, not only against overt error but also against speciousness and plausibility.

Such a mentality is radically uncatholic, radically unorthodox. Plainly it is a rejection of the authentic ordinary magisterium of the Vicar of Christ.

Catholic doctrine, re-affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, demands a special (singulari ratione) religious submission of our will and mind to the authentic ordinary magisterium of the Supreme Pastor. Plainly, our consciences are bound. Plainly, Christ binds.

The authentic ordinary magisterium of the Pope "must be with reverence, and the judgments made by him sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will" (ibid.)

Authentic ordinary Magisterium

The Council indicates the main criteria by which we are to judge when the Sovereign Pontiff is exercising his authentic ordinary magisterium. "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". And, we way add, this magisterium is then most certainly exercised when the Pope, having reserved to himself the decision on any matter of faith or morals, finally gives his teaching to the Church.

It is often said that devotion to the Vicar of Christ is at the heart of Catholicism. It is a saying dear to every true son and daughter of the Church. It speaks of love, of reverence, loyalty, generosity. But the real test of devotion to the Holy Father is a spirit of docility—a willing readiness to accept his teachings and decisions.

A loyal Catholic does not seek to distinguish between the different modes by which the Pope exercises his teaching authority before making up his mind whether he will accept the teaching or not. After all, a Thomas More and a John Fisher did not lay down their lives fora distinction!

The Cathedra of Peter, "the source ofpriestly unity" (St. Cyprian, Letter to Pope Cornelius, n. 59), was set up by Christ our Lord "so that in that one Cathedra unity might be preserved by all" (St Optatus Milevitanus, Against Parmenian, c. 2, n. 2).

In these difficult times of renewal, accompanied often by ferment, and sometimes by painful dissension, we can offer no greater service to Christ our Lord and His Church than that of complete loyalty to the teaching authority of the Vicar of Christ. Priestly unity in the unity of the whole People of God—that is the will of Christ for His Church. But that unity can be preserved and intensified only by unswerving devotion to him whom Christ made the foundation—rock of the Church—the very principle of unity, cohesion and stability—and to whom He gave the authentic mission to confirm his brethren in the Faith, and the power to bind and loose the consciences of all members of the Church, without exception.

Archbishop of Sydney  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 April 1968, page 7

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