Trust in the Teaching Authority of the Church

Author: La Civilta Cattolica


La Civilta Cattolica

The following is the translation of an article which appeared in La Civilta Cattolica in the issue of June 15th, 1968.

Some significant facts show us that we are facing a crisis of faith in the teaching authority of the Church. In fact members of the faithful are denying or doubting, if not the teaching authority of the Pope and bishops, then at least the validity or the obligatory power of their doctrinal interventions. In this regard one cannot but remember the reserved acceptance in some Catholic circles and even ecclesiatic of the encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus—a target for bitter criticisms.

Appeal to the prophetical function

Some Catholics appeal against the decisions of the magisterium to the fact that the teaching or prophetical function in the Church does not belong only to the hierarchy but to all the People of God, as they share in the teaching or prophetical function of Christ; or they make an appeal to the freedom that everyone has to follow his own conscience when he is convinced that he is in the right.

Finally, in order to deny assent to the decisions of the teaching authority, in regard to doctrine, others again appeal to the fact the Pope and the Bishops are not sufficiently informed, or that they are badly informed. Their decisions, therefore, because of lack of knowledge of the situation in hand or because of failure to take account of recent theological and scientific findings, would not have obligatory value.

Why the crisis of faith?

Hence there is a crisis of faith in the Church’s teaching authority and its capability as a doctrinal guide for the People of god. Thus there arises that sense of irritation with which her decisions are received, and also the critical spirit with which such decisions are weighed and discussed—almost as if they were private opinions of some theologians.

And yet more strange is the fact that while there is extreme caution regarding the teaching authority of the Church, there is, on the other hand, complete trust in the ideas, even the most unusual and questionable, of some fashionable theologian whose critical attitude really makes an impression—as if one were dealing with a new Father of the Church!

How this crisis of faith in the teaching authority of the Church originated is difficult to say. Certainly the critical spirit of our times and the prejudice against authority have played their part. The man of today wants to see with his own eyes how matters stand; to obey, he must be convinced of the justice of what is told him. He does not accept anything imposed on him by authority. First he must evaluate the validity of the motives for a decision before he accepts. As the Christian of today lives and breathes the atmosphere of his era, it is little wonder that the critical spirit of the times influences his attitude regarding the teaching authority of the Church.

Hierarchical teaching a dogma of faith

However, we think that this crisis of faith in the teaching authority of the Church is set in a wider background of a crisis of Christian faith which our age faces. Hierarchical teaching is, in fact, a dogma of faith. The Catholic believes that Christ constituted the Pope, and the Bishops united with the Pope, as teachers of the faith, its guardians, its interpreters. He promised them the special assistance of the Holy Spirit so that they do not fall into error when they propose for belief the truths contained in revelation. In other words the teaching of the Church is not a natural fact, imposed by the need that the Church must be an authority on doctrine for the sake of order and unity. It is, rather, a supernatural fact, freely willed by Christ who gave Peter as head of the Apostolic College, the command to confirm his "brethren" in the faith: that is, the other Apostles, and in and with them, all the faithful (cf. Luke 22,32); and invited the other Apostles to preach the Gospel to all the people.

All the more so because the deepening of the Mystery of the church, with its new relations between the hierarchy and the laity, between pastors and the faithful—all this has made more complex the restatement of the nature, the duties, the prerogatives of the ecclesiastical teaching of the Church. The old distinction between a "Teaching Church" and a "Church taught" has been shown to be inadequate, as the "Teaching Church" is distinct—yes, but it is also organically united to the "Church taught" of which it expresses and attests the "faith" that the Holy Spirit kindles and sustains, giving them also special "charisms" of wisdom and doctrine for a fuller knowledge and assimilation of the faith. The "Church taught" not only "learns" but it can and must collaborate with its charisms, both in the formulation of the truth of the faith and in the teaching of it.

Teaching of Vatican II

"The holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office. 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 hour to His name (cf. Heb. 13,5). The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. Jn 2,20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the People as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when "from the bishops down to the last member of the laity," it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals."

There musts be then between "the teaching" Church and "the learning" Church a communication, a vital exchange, so that the one can better fulfil its teaching mission and the other can more easily and more joyfully believe. It is likely that the uneasiness some Catholics feel today in regard to the Church’s teaching may be ascribed to the fact that the vital exchange that must exist in the Church between the one who "teaches" and one who "receives" the faith is lacking or insufficient—or better, that the instruments adapted for such communication are not yet sufficiently developed.

Teaching office is one of service

It is clear, however, that if the whole Church—pastors and faithful—must work together in the growth and deeper understanding of the faith, under the action of the Spirit whose work is precisely this, to lead the Church "to all truth", one must not forget that in the Church the Pope and the Bishops "have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth" (Dei Verbum, no. 8).

Such a charism belongs only to them. It is certainly for the benefit of the faithful because God has granted it to the hierarchy that the People of God do not fall into errors of faith. It is therefore a gift that God makes to the entire Church. It is not given to the faithful, but only to the hierarchy. For this reason, "the office of interpreting authentically the Word of God written or handed down is entrusted only to the living Teaching Authority in the Church, whose authority is exercised in the Name of Christ. (ibid. no. 10). That does not mean that the hierarchy is superior to the Word of God or can judge it. It is at the service of the Word of God and judged by it like the rest of the faithful: "This teaching office is not above the word of god, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed." (ibid.)

The authentic Magisterium

In this mission of teaching at the service of all the People of God, the hierarchy—that is, the Pope alone or the universal episcopate united with the Pope—possesses in determined cases, as Vatican Council II confirmed, the charism of infallibility.

However, it is not to be thought that only the infallible magisterium of the Pope or of Ecumenical Councils is to be regarded as the sole form of "authentic" magisterium which must be accepted by the faithful. Besides this "extraordinary" magisterium (and here we may note in passing that Ecumenical Councils, while classed as part of the "extraordinary" magisterium, need not always teach infallibly. The Second Vatican Council, for example, in proposing Catholic doctrine to the faithful, did not wish to do so in an infallible manner), there must also be regarded as authentic the "ordinary", that is, the common teaching—not solemn nor infallible—of the Pope, and of the bishops throughout the world, but in communion with him. This teaching can range from more binding forms, such as an encyclical and, on the national level, a collective letter of the episcopate of a whole country, to forms which are less binding.

"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 I 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." (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

On what must this "religious respect" and this sincere acceptance be founded? Not so much on juridical motives or even on human motives such as the intellectual endowment, the perspicacity or prudence of the Pope and the Bishops, or the assurance that they thoroughly studied a problem and know a situation perfectly (such motives can help); but on the conviction that Christ directs and governs His Church through the Pope and the Bishops—that is, "through those whom the Holy Spirit has placed to rule the Church of God" (Acts 20:19) and assists them with special graces in their difficult task of teachers and pastors.

Confidence in the Magisterium

Confidence in the teaching authority is, therefore, the expression and the consequence of our faith in Christ, head and guide of the Church, and in the Holy Spirit, "soul" of the Church, "given" to assist her and lead her to the knowledge of the "inexhaustible riches of Christ" (Eph. 3,8). We know that in the words of the hierarchy Christ Himself speaks to us, "Prince of Pastors, and Shepherd of our souls" (1 Pt. 5, 4); 2, 25), for He said to Peter and to the Apostles, and in them to their successors: "He who hears you, hears Me; he who despises you, despises Me" (Luke 10, 16). Priests are the mouthpieces of the hierarchy and also speak in the name of Christ. They must be true witnesses of the Christian faith, rather than fomenters of troubles and disputes.

But above all, trust in the teaching authority must be founded on the sense of the Church, on love for the Church. The way of the Church in the world is difficult and dangerous. It is not exempt from deficiencies which, however, do not affect the substance of the faith. Trusting the word of Christ, the Church faces the tempestuous sea of history. The true Christian does not stand on the shore as a mere spectator to judge the Church with the eye of a stranger. He is in the ship, involved with all the brethren in the faith in the same adventure. He feels he is jointly responsible for the destiny of the Church, and does all he can so that the difficulties may be more easily overcome. Above all, he allies himself solidly with those who carry the heaviest burden—the Pope and the Bishops—and he offers them his confidence, his obedience, and his love. Yes, it is in this feeling of solidarity with the hierarchy and with his brethren in the faith, in his love of the Church that the Catholic finds a valid reason for nourishing a filial trust in the teaching of the Church. Sometimes obedience to the hierarchy may exact from him great sacrifices; but love of the Church, the awareness of being part of a community whose weakest members in the faith are helped and not scandalized—this will help him to obey generously.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 August 1968, page 3

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