The Magisterium, the Bishops, and the Theologians

Author: Most Rev. David M. Maloney


Most Rev. David M. Maloney

Address by Most Rev. David M. Maloney, Bishop of Wichita, to a Symposium on the Magisterium which was held in Philadelphia January 6-8, 1978.

I have a "Concise Theological Dictionary" in an English edition published in 1965 which tells me that the Magisterium is "The Church's active competence, juridically embodied, to prolong by its witness God's self-communicative self-revelation in Christ, which necessarily inheres in the Church (as the eschatologically definitive community of believers in Christ, founded by him as an hierarchical society, empowered by a mission to bear testimony to Christ), and which demands obedience." (p. 268 Burns and Oates, Herder and Herder, New York, London, 1965).

That definition may explain my own conviction that it is indispensable to preface any discussion of the Magisterium with those fundamental notions about the Church, its mystery, its nature, its purpose, the qualities with which the Lord endowed it, which make it possible to see the Magisterium for what it is. Any discussion which would start out cold by presenting a definition or description without such context, would inevitably open itself to misunderstanding and even distortion, and especially to the misunderstanding widely prevalent today which sees the Magisterium only in juridical terms and authoritarian connotations. For the Catholic concept of the Magisterium and its work is simply a part, a very necessary part, but a part of the catholic concept of the Church of Christ and of the work Christ gave that Church to do, in the on-going ministry by which he himself, with the Holy Spirit, continues to shepherd, to teach, to guide, to direct and to govern his people.

We can begin by insisting that the mystery is the mystery of a unity, not simply a group of parallel ways of conceiving of the Church, a variety of paradigms of the Church. I propose that as the first necessary concept: namely, there is a Catholic doctrine about the Church. It is a doctrine which includes mystery in that way so happily and expertly presented by Paul VI in his address of Sept. 29, 1963, opening the second session of the Second Vatican Council and directing the work of the bishops especially to the document setting forth doctrine about the church. It is a concept which, with all its richness, remains a unity, as the Body of Christ which it describes and identifies, remains a unity. The fact of mystery in the very nature of the Church does not preclude clear and authentic catholic doctrine "de ecclesia"; it is not a doctrine infieri,being worked out today as though exnihilo.

Such a concept of the depth of the mystery of the Church is not new to this century. With all respect to those who love to contrast our wisdom and the richness of our current ecclesiology with what they call the nineteenth century manuals, we must acknowledge that the ideas we treasure today are to be found in the documents of an earlier day, with a richness that astonishes one who first reads them. They can be found with lengthy exposition in such writers as Billot, Franzelin, Perrone, Scheeben (lest we seem hopelessly "Roman") and in Newman. It is difficult to over-emphasize the traditional in Newman; it is that which gives such value to what was innovative in his thought—he drew on his extensive knowledge of tradition, in which he was well grounded from his Anglican days, and on his contact with the contemporary Roman theologians of' his day. The same richness is to be found in the post-Tridentines like Suarez and Bellarmine, not to mention the early and late medievalists and the Fathers.

It is out of such ecclesiology that we should derive our understanding of the Magisterium, and in the context of such rich ecclesiology that we should pursue our understanding of it and of its work.

The present Pontiff, in his encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam,dwelt at some length on this unitive understanding of the Church and of its mystery. Voicing the same limitations of the Church in its human elements he had so dramatically applied to ecumenical relations in the memorable Sept. 29th address, he reminded us all, especially the world's bishops, that "the actual image of the Church is never as perfect, as lovely, as holy or as brilliant as that formative divine idea (namely, "as Christ sees it, wills it, and loves it") would wish it to be". Nevertheless, he affirmed our common faith in the fidelity of the Church to its Founder, and directed our thoughts to the mystery of the Church, a mystery which is "a result of a mature and living faith".

"The mystery of the Church is not a mere object of theological knowledge; it is something to be lived, (something attainable by a sort of supernatural illative process), something that the believer can have a kind of connatural experience of, even before arriving at a clear notion of it. Moreover the community of the faithful can be profoundly certain of its participation in the Mystical Body of Christ when it. realizes that by divine institution, the ministry of the hierarchy of the Church is there, to give it a beginning, to give it birth (cf. Gal 4:19; 1 Cor 4:15), to teach and sanctify and direct it. It is by means of this divine instrumentality that Christ communicates to his mystical members the marvels of his truth and of his grace, and confers on his Mystical Body as it travels its pilgrim's way through time, its visible structure, its sublime unity, its ability to function organically, its harmonious complexity, its spiritual beauty.

"Images do not suffice to translate into meaningful language the full reality and depth of this mystery. However, after dwelling on the image of the Mystical Body, which was suggested by the Apostle Paul, we should especially call to mind one suggested by Christ himself, that of the edifice for which he is the architect and the builder, an edifice indeed founded on a man who of himself is weak but who was miraculously transformed by Christ into solid rock, that is, endowed with marvelous and everlasting indefectibility: ‘upon this rock I will build my Church’ (Mt l6:18)" (Eccl. Suam, par. 39).

Notice the Pope speaks of foundation, not apex, or crowns. To me, it is interesting to place that Roman theology of hierarchy beside a nineteenth century German discussion of Papal Infallibility. In his profound analysis of the whole idea, intimately connected with our subject of the Magisterium, Father Scheeben dwelt in the same way—on the solidity of the structure of truth whose foundations and roots were established by Christ, and on the derivation of the papacy as a centre of the Church because it had been made by Christ, the foundation, the roots from which come the life and durability of its teaching office.

It is in such context that the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on the Church sets forth the existence and the function of a Magisterium of the Church. We will notice that it is the classical, the official Magisterium that is the topic here, and that it is committed to the bishops of the Church in union with the sovereign pontiff. Perhaps it would be well at this time and place to establish that this "official idea" of Magisterium is something more than "late, Roman theology". We can begin with the conciliar constitution Dei Verbum with all its mysterious mixture of divine and human, temporal and eternal, internal and external, history and eschatology. We find the prophetic announcement of the Kingdom, all the symbols used by the Lord to describe his Kingdom, its functioning, the ways it can be recognized.

We find the pregnant image of the Mystical Body, of which Christ is the head. We find the work of the Holy Spirit, the communication of grace. We find the spiritual and visible unity of the one Church. We find the obligation that ties the Church to the means and methods given to it by Christ. From these concepts we are led to the doctrine of the people of God, that spiritual chosen race, the holy nation, the chosen people of God, chosen to be the instrument of salvation to the world, We find the mysteries of the sacramental life, the priestly office, the universal call to holiness, the variety of gifts and ministries, all of them coming from the same spirit. And we find the apostolic mandate which sent this Church, this people, to evangelize the world.

It is in that context that we are taught, by the very arrangement of the text, to view the hierarchy and its mission.

No one who reads the text will imagine that the Council watered down or attenuated the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. The teaching about the apostolic succession of the episcopal college could not be clearer. Nor could the doctrine about the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. In that way the Council leads us to the doctrine about the ecclesiastical Magisterium.

It is in article 25 of this constitution that the subject of the Magisterium is directly treated.

It would be a mistake to refer to that treatment without a brief recognition of the conciliar doctrine about the witness which the whole Church gives to Christ. ..."it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to his name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people's supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ (quoting S. Augustine, De praed. sanct.) they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. This discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts what is not just the word of men but the true word of God. By this means the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, with unfailing judgment penetrates more deeply into its mystery and applies it more fully to its life" (L.G. 12).

Here we should notice:

1. The whole body of the Church cannot err.

2. The cause of this inerrancy is attributed to the anointing of the Holy One.

3. It is called a supernatural discernment in matters of faith.

4. An essential condition is that it is the whole Church "from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful"—there is no dichotomy between the hierarchy and the laity, as though the latter alone were the Church.

5. They show universal agreement; it should not be necessary to say this does not mean we have a referendum, and count heads.

6. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority: again, therefore, sociological surveys attempting to show how many Catholics defy the moral teaching have nothing to do with the conciliar concept of "sensus fidelium".

7. It speaks of "faithful and respectful obedience" to the Magisterium as something presupposed.

8. The consent given to belief, is a consent to what is not just the word of men, but held to be the word of God.

Finally, there are two significant results of this universal consent of the Church to the faith given to it: one is a deeper penetration into the mystery of the faith (would the Immaculate Conception be an example?); a second is a fuller application of the faith to life (would this suggest a rich field for application of the lay actuositas envisaged by the council?).

What, then, does the Council give us as the proper work of the Magisterium? I suggest these can legitimately be drawn as conclusions of the text of article 25 of Lumen Gentium.

1. The preaching of the gospel, the integral gospel, oral and written. It is to be noted the council lists this as one of the "more important duties" which among those given to the bishops "has pride of place".

2. Making new disciples. Here we have the whole field of the synod on evangelization.

3. Therefore,i.e. to carry out these duties, the bishops teach authentically, i.e. with the authority of Christ.

4. The object of their preaching and teaching is specified. It is the faith men must believe and put into practice, or as we are accustomed to speak, matters of faith and morals.

5. They are to "bring forth from the treasury of revelation new things and old".

6. It is their duty to ward off errors, and the adjective used is "diligent". Any error that threatens the faith must be the object of their concern and vigilance.

In order to do such witnessing, faithfully and effectively, the Magisterium has as a first duty to safeguard, to preserve intact, in its totality and its integrity the message given "once for all to the saints". Only if we remember that, will we understand the constant insistence of catholic tradition on the Magisterium's duty to "preserve", to "safeguard"—and its repeated reference to the Depositum Fidei...

The object of magisterial teaching is the full body of a divine revelation and it can be accepted only on the authority and the dignity of him from whom it comes. Its acceptance, therefore will have that quality of divine faith which is something unique, unknown in any other human process of knowledge.

The Magisterium of the Bishops

For purpose of practical approach, I intend now to say, something about the part the individual bishop has in the Magisterium... Here again, to avoid subtle distinctions and endless bypaths, I have in mind the residential bishop.

We should begin by noting that the recent council places the teaching duty of a bishop among the fruits of his sacramental ordination. It also insists that his work as teacher, to a degree which affects the validity and credibility of his teaching, depends on hierarchical union with the college of bishops and with the Roman See. "From the tradition, which is expressed especially in liturgical rites and in the practice of both the Church of the East and of the West, it is clear that, by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is conferred, and the sacred character impressed, in such a way that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the role of Christ himself as teacher, shepherd and high priest, and that they act in his person" (L.G. 21). "...Hence, a man is constituted a member of the episcopal body in virtue of sacramental consecration and hierarchical communion with the head and members of the body" (ibid. 22).

Moreover, like the entire magisterial office, the teaching office of the individual bishop, together with his entire ministry is one of ministry for the service of his people and the building up of the universal church. He can never be considered, nor consider himself in his exercise of his episcopal office, as separated from the episcopal college, the universal Church, the peculiar bond that ties him to those committed to his personal care, and above all, the union which keeps him in hierarchical communion with the Roman Pontiff. Nor may his work as teacher be thought of out of the context we have already given, the context of the whole church of Christ in its mystery as sacrament of Christ and mystical Body of the Saviour.

In such a context, his work is to teach, to preach the gospel, the truth of Christ. He is, in his own diocese, the voice of the shepherd having his mandate from Christ. In the words of the Council, "as vicar and ambassador of Christ, he governs the particular church entrusted to him". And the Council lists the way he works: "by counsel, exhortation, example... by authority and sacred power". It is a power he should use only to build up his flock, but he does use it "in Christ's name".

He is, therefore, an authentic teacher, the authentic teacher of the faith in his own diocese. That imposes a fearful responsibility. He must speak the doctrine of faith, he must preach it to believer and non-believer. It is his duty to cherish and preserve unsullied and undiminished the entire deposit of faith. He must be its interpreter and defender. It is for him to condemn error, when it appears. It will be his duty, sometimes, to warn those toying with dangerous novelties, to correct misunderstandings of Catholic teaching, to reprove the presumptuous and foolhardy, and with great prudence and only after exhausting all other remedies, it can be his duty to punish those who offend, especially if their offence be in teaching.

The nature of his work is that of a witness to the faith. By himself, he speaks by virtue of an office received from Christ, but by himself, that office does not include infallibility. His words and his actions will be subject to correction by the general teaching and practice of his brother bishops. Before all else, they will be subject to correction by the Holy See. His people can know that he acts and speaks within the limits of his authentic role when they see that he is in harmony, first of all, with the Holy Father, and also with the other bishops of the region and of the world. The subject of his teaching must be, by a sacred duty, the faith of the Church, not his own opinions—although he has a reasonable liberty to speak his opinion when he thinks it serves the common good and when he makes it clear that he speaks an opinion, not authentic doctrine.

Like all his brother bishops, singly and collectively, he has that grave duty of being loyal to the teaching given by the Word of God, both oral and written, and he must ever regard himself as the servant of the Deposit of Faith, of tradition, of the Scriptures—in no way the master. He must remain the faithful guardian, devoted to the treasury of the faith which has been placed in his keeping.

In the exercise of his office be will have need of prayer and study. He will depend heavily, and happy that he is able to find them, on reliable theologians and scholars both in his own diocese and in other parts of the country and the world. He will study to be mindful always that it is his office to minister to others. He will feel humbly his own need to be ministered to by others in the very times that he strives to carry out his own ministry as a faithful steward of God.

And he will need to keep always before him the admonition given him when he was ordained a bishop. After addressing the community of the Church on the office of a bishop the ordaining prelate turned to him and said: "You, beloved brother, have been chosen by the Lord. Proclaim the message whether it be welcome or unwelcome; correct error with the greatest patience and in a spirit of teaching... As a steward of the mysteries of Christ in the church assigned to you, be a faithful supervisor and guardian. Are you resolved by the grace of the Holy Spirit to discharge to the end of your life the office entrusted to us by the apostles, which is about to be passed on to you by imposition of our hands? Are you resolved to be faithful and constant in proclaiming the gospel of Christ? Are you resolved to maintain the content of faith, entire and uncorrupted, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church at all times and places? Are you resolved to be loyal in your obedience to the successor of Saint Peter the apostle?

It is of such duties to the faith that a bishop thinks when he hears the word Magisterium. Concerning the duties common to all bishops in their ministry of the Word of God to our people, Pope Paul on Dec. 8, 1970 addressed an exhortation to fidelity. He asked us to be mindful of the pledge sent by the bishops at the Council in 1962 in the opening days of their deliberations, promising a common effort to speak to the world the integral and unsullied word of God, hoping that we might put that word in language apt for this time so that men might both understand it and be led to embrace it.

He reminded us that the lasting duty of the episcopal office is to give the people the word of God in all its fulness. The bishop must stand firm and unmoved, on the ground of tradition and the sacred scriptures in order to give the whole people of God food which is the word of God. This he must do without interruption, teaching unceasingly, teaching truth, striving to help it grow among men. He must give the truth without adulteration, with great charity. For it is given to us by the imposition of hands to preserve the faith pure and entire. People have a right to hear the word of God in its entirety.

The Pope then cited with approval a message of the German bishops, issued in December of 1968, that such work can only be done in the Church, in the community of the Church, and he repeated their warning against a dangerous misunderstanding of what the Council had said about freedom of conscience. He pointed out with them, that the freedom of conscience spoken of by the Vatican Council is a freedom men have, because God will not force them, to accept or to reject the faith. It is not a freedom to judge for themselves what is to be the content of faith; that judgment is the work and the duty of the bishops, of the Magisterium.

In the series of theses which were proposed by the International Theological Commission in June, 1976, concerning the relationship between the ecclesiastical Magisterium and theology, much reference was made to an address given by Pope Paul to a gathering of theologians in Rome—on Oct. 1, 1966 (cf. AAS p. 889 ff., vol 58). It seems not inappropriate therefore to turn to that address for some ideas about the work of the theologian in the church and his relations with the teaching office.

The common root from which both the Magisterium and the theologians drawtheir teaching is divine revelation, a revelation given by the Holy Spirit to theCatholic Church, and preserved by the Holy Spirit in that Church.

The Church has been constituted by the Lord a faithful teacher of his truth, and it enjoys from him the charism of indefectibility in the truth he gave for the salvation of the world.

Hence, the Church continues to call herself the pillar and ground of truth.

For the theologian, the proximate and the universal norm of indefectible truth is to be found only in the authentic Magisterium, and this is by the will of Christ. For the theologian's work concerns the truth of faith, the deposit of faith, and the work of faithfully preserving that and infallibly interpreting it belongs to the Magisterium. In this connection, the Pope recalled that the promise of the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles, as was the power to teach with the authority of Christ.

The Magisterium and the theologian pursue the same goal, work for the same purposes. They strive to safeguard the deposit of sacred revelation, to explore its meaning more deeply, to expound it, to teach it, to defend it. Both work to enlighten the church by exposition of divine truth, and both work for men and their salvation.

The Pope signaled out these differences, concentrating on the theologian.

Theology, using reason illuminated by faith, and always docile to the light of the Holy Spirit, engages in the work of exploring and seeking after a more perfect knowledge of the truths of divine revelation.

The theologian offers the results of his labour to the Christian community and especially to the Magisterium, so that through the teaching given by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the whole Christian people may progress, may gain further understanding of the faith and of the depths of its mysteries.

The theologian undertakes his work so that the truth taught by the Magisterium may be more widely known, may be illustrated, clarified, fortified...

We do not need instant scientific proof that the Church is right every time someone questions the cogency of a traditional argument in favour of accepted Catholic teaching. The doctrines of the faith do not take their validity from the scientific theological proofs, as they are often called, offered by theologians or biblicists.

Their validity rests upon the witness given by the Catholic Church that a particular dogma is a part of the integral faith; that witness is given by sacred tradition, by the biblical texts correctly read in the community of the Church under the guidance of the Magisterium. And I put it to you that this will usually be by no means what is currently ridiculed as the "proof-text" approach. The Magisterium, as interpreter, authorized interpreter and judge of Tradition and Scripture, remains the proximate source of our doctrine.

It is well that our scholars seek to be informed, and to be able to answer questions, whether these come from Catholics or Non-Catholics. But we should all start out with the assurance of Faith that the Church is still the credible custodian of the truth committed to her by Christ, and is competent to declare accurately, within the limits, of human language, what is to be held as of faith. We need the calm assurance that Christ does keep his promise to be with the teachers of the Church (the pope and bishops). With great respect we need to recognize that theologians as such do not and do not pretend to be (in such statements as those I have been referring to) a part of that official Magisterium. We need calm faith that the teaching church is in very fact kept from error by the aid of the Holy Spirit as it goes on teaching the full and integral and undistorted revelation Christ gave to the world.

And with such calm faith, I submit we can then be prepared, all of us, bishops and faithful together, to give to the theological community a sincere and respectful confidence, with the kind of freedom it asks for in its 1976 theses, as it pursues its special and valuable work; moreover, we will look on that work as a part of the providential care God gives to the community of faith through the Holy Spirit. It will be a confidence that expects a corresponding sense of responsibility, a sense of responsibility we can expect theologians to evidence in a way commensurate with its own common self respect and its own shared faith in the common doctrinal heritage of the Church. It will be a confidence always bound by the limits set by the divinely established nature of the Church, in which all members cooperate in cherishing and guarding the faith, motivated by a deep love for the faith, and guided and led by its pastors in union with the successor of Peter. It will be a confidence marked by the love all of us share, all of us in this mysterious, living, grace-filled Body of Christ, a love for the faith that makes us one.

The theologian, precisely as a theologian, is one who begins with the teaching of the Faith. In other words, he is first of all a believer before he is a theologian. It is as a believer that he does his work in the field of theology. He bends his efforts and uses his skills, his abilities, gathering whatever he can gather from the findings of human sciences and philosophy, as well as from the monuments and documents of Tradition and the Magisterium, all this in order to build up or contribute to a reasoned, scientific statement of the Faith.

He will have in special view the needs and intellectual frame of the men of his own age.

As a theologian, he looks for answers to give us, the faithful and the Magisterium. He asks questions; and he studies questions others are asking. His purpose is to find answers, to analyze the questions, to localize the source of the questions, or difficulties, that others have voiced, to validate the logic of theological reasons proposed in expounding the Faith, to explore critically, but always as a believer, the scriptural, the traditional, the theological arguments used by the Church community in expounding its Faith...

The work of the theologian, placed as it is by its nature, in relation to the data of the Faith and the Magisterium, does not mean at all that he will always approach his subject with these data as premises from which his conclusions will be drawn. He will be correctly convinced that he must often prescind by a kind of methodical (fictitious) doubt, in order better to explore, expound, and study the conclusions of empirical data, historical research, objective analysis of a text or document. He will think rightly that the more critical his study is, the more valuable service he renders to the end result of theology—the progress and deepening of our understanding of the faith. In no way does this minimize his commitment to the Faith, or the genuine devotion he has to the Church and its teaching.

As a Catholic community, we have no need to be disturbed by learned discussions of points which do not much affect us in our practical living of the Faith. Theologians can discuss whether a given doctrine is to be found in a given scriptural text. They cannot change the doctrine, and (save in very rare instances) they have no wish to do so. Their intention is not to call the doctrine into question, but perhaps to find more solid bases on which it rests.

There persists a question, and it is this: is it always possible to discern when a writer is offering acceptable theological views, and when he is in conflict with the Church's doctrine.

It is to answer such questions, when there is serious pastoral need, that the Magisterium must intervene, either on the local, the regional, or the universal scale—that is, by action of the Holy See.

The vigilance over faith will most often be exercised by positive teaching of truth, with insistence on the traditional and accepted understanding of the meaning given to dogma and moral precept in the community of the Church, under the leadership especially of the Holy See. It will often be exercised in union with other bishops in such things as collective pastoral letters. Such warnings as are necessary in view of incipient or wide-spread errors will be incorporated into positive and affirmative statements of the Faith. The diocesan bishop will normally act in the same way.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 April 1978, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069