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Foundations and Context of the Magisterium

Foundations and Context
of the Magisterium

by Ladislas Örsy, SJ

Chapter One in his book The Church: Learning and Teaching, Michael Glazier 1987; here republished with the necessary permissions.

The fundamental theme of this book is the progress of the Christian community toward the whole truth.(1)

1. In this book the footnotes play a more important role than is usual. They contain further explanations on the main topics, also some asides, obiter dicta, which may enliven an otherwise heavy subject matter and bring some relief to the reader who is asked to traverse an unfamiliar territory. My aim was to safeguard the unity of exposition in the main text while providing some more information and a few diversions in the footnotes.

Bibliographical references in the footnotes are given in full only when a work referred to is not listed in the main Bibliography.

It is about the Word of God that was given to the church, and about the interplay that takes place between those who possess the Word (that is, the whole church) and those who within that community have a special power to proclaim it and authenticate it (that is, the episcopate). (2)

2. "Episcopate" throughout this study means the episcopal college in the sense that it is described and explained in Chapter Three of Lumen gentium.

The college is an organic social body, which has for its head the pope, and for its other members the bishops. Unless the body is whole, that is, the head and the other members are working together, there is no college.

This should not be taken as if the church were divided into two separate groups. All have received the Word, but some among them were given the sacramental mandate to speak it with authority and, should dissensions arise in the community, to determine its true meaning with unfailing fidelity.

About this interplay many questions are raised today. In particular, people want to know more concerning the role and extent of the “teaching power” in the church, and their obligations in responding to its voice.

“Conciliarism” is false because it assumes that a body without its head can be a living body. On the other hand, a head that would try to operate independently of the other members, could harm the body in many ways.

The body is held together by communio among all the members. The church is at its healthiest when there is a steady and vigorous exchange among all the members.

There has been a great deal of discussion at the Council and immediately after about the position of the pope. Some held that he had two offices: he was the Vicar of Christ (strictly personal) and the head of the college (collegial). This meant that if something went wrong with the college presided over by him (e.g., at a council), he could (as it were ) step outside of it and correct it as Vicar of Christ. The so called Nota praevia undoubtedly reflects this view. Others held that the pope had one office: he was the head of the college.

The first opinion appears highly artificial and unnecessarily complicated (a theory must not postulate more than what is necessary to explain the facts); the second one is much more in harmony with the organic nature of the church. There is no need to assume that the pope must step outside of a council to correct its course, should it ever be necessary; he can do it just as well, or better, from the inside, as its head. See Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy, pp. 77-106.

There are also problems with the title “Vicar of Christ”; the Council applied it to every diocesan bishop. A more traditional title for the pope is “Vicar of Peter”; see Tillard, [he Bishop of Rome, pp. 92-100.

All questions about this authority converge directly on some fundamental concepts, such as magisterium, which can be exercised either in a solemn or in an ordinary manner, and which can be either infallible or non-infallible.

Similarly, the questions concerning the obligations to respond lead immediately to the concepts of assent and dissent. Ordinarily this response is a matter of conscience for individual persons, yet it can also involve deeply an institution which is called the “house of the intellect” the university.

The scope and purpose of this essay (because an essay it is in the classical sense of the term) (3) is to clarify some of these foundational concepts and to present a framework in which the interplay between the teaching authority and the whole community can be understood. Once we have an understanding of the internal dynamics of this interplay and of the external structures in which it takes place, we

essay, relatively short literary composition in prose, in which a writer discusses a topic, usually restricted in scope, or tries to persuade the reader to accept a particular point of view.

A fitting definition in this case, perhaps even for the “trying to persuade” part of it; if, however, an attempt to persuade is present in the text, it should be in the internal cohesion and harmony of the ideas proposed, and not in any kind of rhetoric are in a better position to make prudent decisions and move on to wise actions.

The literary form of this essay can be best described as a reflective piece, a “theological discourse”, built on foundations which are mostly taken for granted here.(4) There is a season for gathering informational data, there is another for reflecting on them in order to understand them, and there is one again for formulating practical policies on the basis of the understanding achieved. I shall certainly use informational data, but my main scope will be to reflect on them, with a view to finding good norms for action. Faith seeks understanding; indeed, but faith seeks action also. St. Anselm of Canterbury, I am sure, would not object to such an extension of his dictum.

The field we enter and intend to explore presents us with varied situations. There are things which we know and understand quite well, although the cohesion among them may not have been brought to light fully. There are other things which we do not know fully. They keep us puzzled; still, we know enough about them to raise some good questions, even if we cannot produce satisfactory answers. And (a reasonable presumption!) there must be hidden things or events, which we have not even noticed, let alone raised questions about!

Socrates spent a life trying to find out how much he did not know; worse still, he tried to demonstrate to his fellow citizens how much they did not know! He practiced his art of questioning relentlessly, and he found it helped him to grow in wisdom. It was an unusual (and as it turned out, dangerous!) enterprise in fifth century Athens, and he paid a terrible price for it.

One wonders if a courageous soul should not attempt a similar venture in the field of our contemporary theology, since we may have reached a point where affirmations abound and are pitted against each other in great intellectual battles but little is said about “what we do not know.” This is all the more surprising given the fact that the proper subject matter of theology is mysteries, which by definition defeat our effort to know.

Admittedly, in sciences which deal with the human spirit (Geisteswissenschaften as the Germans incisively call them), it is always easier to claim certainty than in sciences which deal with inanimate matter. After all, if a physicist or chemist is wrong in his assumptions, there is a built-in penalty his experiment may end in disaster and his equipment may be blown into pieces.5 No such thing ever happens in the field of philosophy or theology; it may take generations before the collective and corrective forces of critical reviews can have their impact.

Be that as it may, the time for a Summa on What-we-donot-know may not have come yet. Nor has a godly Socrates appeared in our market places to teach us his kind of wisdom. Let us proceed therefore as we can: with some affirmations (when there are good grounds to support them), with some questions (when we know enough to put them correctly), and with the hope that we might even expand (a little) our horizons into the hitherto unknown.

The scientific theorist is not to be envied. For Nature, or more precisely experiment, is an inexorable and not very friendly judge of his work. It never says"Yes" to a theory. In the most favorable cases it says “Maybe,” and in the great majority of cases simply “No.” If an experiment agrees with a theory it means for the latter “Maybe,” and if it does not agree it means “No.”. Probably every theory will someday experience its “No” - most theories soon after conception.

This built-in control by mother nature is not present in the theological enterprise.

A preliminary note on the historical context

It may well be that a future historian of Christian doctrine will describe our times (from the second part of the nineteenth century onward) as the age when the church was coming to grips with the laws of evolution, especially in doctrinal matters.(6)

Even in the recently ( 1983) promulgated Code of Canon Law, there are no provisions for a peaceful and ordered development of ecclesiastical laws and structures (that is, laws and structures of human origin, therefore historically conditioned); although the need for such provisions in a community which is alive, growing and serving the needs of the human family, is fairly obvious.

The absence of orderly procedures is one of the reasons why the Catholic Church suffers so frequently from internal agitations and conflicts; they appear to the faithful as the only means of bringing to the notice of the authorities that some measure of change is needed.

In fairness, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Verbum Dei, of Vatican Council II, has done much to correct the situation. It proclaims that continuity and change go hand in hand in the church. But there is a long way from the clarity of intellectual insights to the revision of practical attitudes and the creation of new structures.

Not that there has not been some awareness of evolution before; there has been. No one at the Council of Nicaea (325) thought that the term homoousios was in the Scriptures, nor did anyone at the Council of Trent (1545-63) pretend that a specific enumeration of the seven sacraments could be found in the Bible. But there was not (not until Newman, that is) any competent analysis of the phenomenon of the development of doctrine; there was no reliable theory to explain its mysterious process.(7)

It took a long time, however, for Newman’s insights, to be accepted. But the fact of doctrinal development could not be discarded; in one way or another the issue kept returning. Questions that the church could not ignore kept arising. Was the universe really created in six days, according to the pattern described in Genesis, or did it evolve over so many billions of years, as the scientists argued? Did Moses himself write the Pentateuch, or is it a document that matured over several centuries? Have the four gospels been conceived independently from each other, or are they the fruits of protracted reflections on the earliest common traditions? And so forth . . . Today, we may well know how to respond to these questions, but when they were first mooted, the answers were not readily available and there was a great turmoil in our household.(8) Moreover, as natural sciences developed, humanity became confronted with moral problems about which the church could not remain indifferent. Yet, there were no obvious solutions in the treasury of our ancient traditions, unless, of course, the traditions themselves could evolve and bring forth responses old and new! The questions kept multiplying Could a healthy person donate one of his kidneys to his brother who needs it to survive? Are atomic weapons acceptable for legitimate self-defense? Is fertilization in vitro permissible? What is the right balance between the public good and the private ownership of goods? And so on . . . (9)

To find the correct answers, it was not enough to come to an understanding of the abstract concept of the development of doctrine; it was also necessary to understand that the concrete reality of the church was subject to evolution. Such new perceptions were not always well received; they seemed to conflict with the permanency of the word of God and the stability of the institution.

In the long and complex struggle which ensued, the need for clarifying some key concepts emerged; a need that is still with us. What is the correct meaning of magisterium? What is the difference between doctrine taught infallibly and doctrine not so taught? Can a line be drawn between the two, or do they form an organic and undivided unity?

Important as moral issues may be, if in the mind of the people they overshadow the great mysteries of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, and of the “divinization” of human persons. A slanted perception of the good news emerges—which news may not even appear all that good since not enough attention is paid to the very best of the message. Once this happens, the religious life of the believers becomes impoverished and the evangelization of the unbelievers becomes difficult.

What is the obsequium due to the non-infallible teaching of the magisterium? How far is dissent allowed? (10)

This process of clarification has by no means been concluded; it is going on. The final answers are not in the consciousness of the church - whether we like to admit it or not. To be in such a predicament is rather humiliating for an otherwise infallible community; but in truth, to search for the whole truth, with all the fallibility that such a search may entail, belongs to the humanity of the church. (11)

The preaching or teaching of the theology of the church according to Lumen gentium must be always balanced by a parallel course on church history.

While the church cannot fail in proclaiming the evangelical message, the charism of sudden enlightenment in resolving issues has never been promised to Peter, or to the twelve, or to any of their successors.(12) Consequently, those who have authority need time to study the new problems, to come to grips with them, and to reach conclusions grounded in faith and reason. Important as a question may be, a final and authentic answer may not be easily and quickly available.(13)

This apparent vagueness and slowness can be disappointing all the more now that we have become used to clarity and to speedy solutions. Scholastic philosophy and theology taught us about a well ordered universe, natural and supernatural, where all things and all beings can be defined by genus and species; it taught us order and clarity.

Moreover, right before our eyes, modern technology is providing instantaneous answers to problems which (as we kept thinking) were beyond the power of the human mind; it taught us to expect speedy solutions. It is only natural that we build up similar expectations toward the operations of the church we want clear answers without delay; we want to see scholastic orderliness produced with computerized efficiency.14 But that is not how our church lives and operates. (15)

The pattern of the encounter between God and human persons

The interplay between the acts of the teaching authority and the response of the community takes place in a broad

I am not suggesting that we should not try to be efficient; there are many parables about provident administrators as well. But at times the desire for order and clarity can go beyond the evangelical limits.

context: it is part of an on-going communication between the Creator and his creatures. To see this broader picture will help us to achieve a better understanding of the interplay we are interested in.(16)

1. God touches the heart.

Any first encounter between God and human persons happens in the depth of the human spirit, without words and without signs. The Spirit of God reaches out for human beings, who in a gentle and mysterious way are invited to surrender to God. In this encounter the first promptings toward faith are perceived, the initial stirrings of hope are experienced, and an invitation to love a transcendental being is sensed. Such communications are inarticulate (ineffable would be a better word), but no less

Much effort has been expended by theologians to organize the scriptural data into a cohesive system. Some of the more recent ones who should be mentioned are Pierre Rousselot (t878-1915) among the French; he spoke of the “eyes of faith,” les yeux de la foi", better translated “the eyes that faith gives”; Karl Rahner among the Germans who insisted on the openness of our human nature to the infinite, hence to the transcendental gift of grace; Bernard Lonergan who taught in Rome but did much of his work in Canada and spoke of a “conversion” at the invitation of the Spirit and of “belief” in accepting the message.

real for that. They are not (as yet) bound to any profession of faith. They may happen to anybody (we believe that it does happen to everybody), independently from what a person may or may not know in a conceptual way about God.

This initial encounter is the first stage in a dynamic pattern, which is meant to continue, for the simple reason that God lives and wants to communicate with his creatures.A t this level the teaching authority has no role to play; no more need be said.

2. God speaks.

In the second stage of his encounter with human beings God speaks. He speaks externally, using the language of those to whom he has chosen to speak; words, sentences, signs—anything through which a meaning can be conveyed. (17) This communication reached its peak when the Lógos, the eternal word of God, “was made flesh” and proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom and the universal call to salvation. This proclamation was in a language that we could understand, as that mystery which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit . . . (Eph. 3 5)

But no matter how close God may be to his creatures and what language he may be using, if he speaks about his mysteries, there is a problem in communication: the truth of his speech cannot be tested by our ordinary criteria; the proofs we can handle do not reach up to his mysteries. (18)

We Christians believe that God has appointed the church (the whole church) to continue to speak his Word by proclaiming to all nations the good news of salvation, and also by speaking with power in the sacraments the word of sanctification. (It is interesting to note that the most powerful word of sanctification is spoken in baptism, which brings a participation in the divine nature and gives a capacity for other sacraments, and that this powerful word can be spoken by every Christian.)

He may well be speaking, but how can we know that he is the speaker; how can we know that the content of the speech we hear is true?

The Spirit of God it is who comes to our rescue

. . . no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. (1 Cor.2, 1l-12)

That is, the gap is bridged by the Spirit. He does it by lifting up our minds and hearts to recognize the one who speaks, to understand his speech and then to surrender to the truth of what he says. We accept what we hear externally on the testimony which we perceive internally. The acceptance is not the fruit of logically compelling proofs. Paul’s words are to the point:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is the Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (I Cor. 12: 3)

To conclude: when someone says, “.Jesus is the Lord” the encounter is completed; the first and the second stage blend into one. The closing act is a profession of faith.

At this stage, the specific role of the episcopate, which is the teaching authority, is to bring witness to the word that God has spoken; nothing more, nothing less.

The Spirit assists them (protects them) in such a way that in their collective and solemn declarations they cannot bring false testimony to the Word. Through their ministry the scope and purpose of the Incarnation is safeguarded, the Word once proclaimed cannot be lost in the vagaries of history or among the passions of human minds.

3. Faith seeks understanding.

The interplay (a sacred play) does not end there: faith seeks understanding. The mind that receives the Word is not satisfied with simply repeating it, but with a steady effort will seek to penetrate it deeper and deeper. There the work of systematic theological reflection starts. Indeed, the beginnings of it are already in the Scriptures: the prophets reflected on Yahweh’s words and deeds and tried to explain their fuller meaning to the people. In the New Testament, there is no piece that does not carry some reflections on the events of Jesus’s life and his words; such reflections abound especially in the writings of Paul and John.

Indeed, ever since the beginning of Christian times, the faithful and the church did not cease to meditate on the events of our redemption and on the meaning of the saving message we have heard. Insight followed insight, and they were expressed in the writings of the great Fathers of the church in the early centuries, in the voluminous disputations of the scholastic theologians in the middle ages, and in the penetrating reflections of outstanding thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Faith was seeking understanding, and the church has become immensely enriched in the intelligence of faith.

Faith seeking understanding is again a part in the dynamic process of the encounter between God and human beings; a stage which can never exist separately, it is the fruit of the earlier ones and leads also to another one. Therefore, to draw too sharp a line between these “stages” would be wrong; they flow from, and into, each other; they compenetrate to some degree; they form an organic unity. Yet, each retains its distinctive character within the whole.

The role of the teaching authority at this stage is different because the emphasis is not any more on witnessing the truth but on penetrating deeper into its meaning in a systematic way. To this all are called who are in possession of the revelation. It is an activity sustained by the Spirit, but feeding also from human ingenuity. Besides, while there is a simplicity in witnessing the truth and surrendering to it, at this stage the complexities and sophistication of human thought patterns play an increasing role. Some of the early Fathers approached revelation with Platonic images and ideas; the scholastic theologians borrowed their thought pattern from Aristotle; more recent theologians reached out for fresh methods and new categories into the world of modern philosophers; dispersed seeds of truth can be found in unexpected places! The episcopate has this capacity of seeking a systematic understanding as much as the rest of the faithful (in God’s Providence can have it even more), but it is not the specific charism conferred on the bishops at their ordination. Hence, there is no divine guarantee that at any given moment of history the bishops have the deepest insights into the divine mysteries

4. Faith seals action.

The interplay (or sacred play) continues: faith is seeking action. Human persons cannot grow unless they move from thoughts to deeds; human communities cannot develop unless they reach out for values and make them their own. Jesus himself spoke of his ministry of preaching and teaching as the sowing of the good seed destined to bear fruit—a hundredfold. The fruit of the Word received is in godly deeds.

The episcopate has the power to guide the church toward the fullness of the kingdom. It has also the role to proclaim the basic Christian values which the faithful, individual persons and communities, must seek. Also, it is called to uphold basic human values which the “eyes of faith” can perceive. But there could be complex issues of morality about which “witnessing” in the ordinary sense is difficult to the point of being nearly impossible because the revelation is silent about them.

Further, in ordering the practical life of the church, all kinds of human considerations can enter into the decisions and actions of those who have authority; considerations which do not come from the Spirit.

With this, I conclude this all too brief presentation of the pattern of the encounter that takes place between God and human beings. A description of the whole process was necessary in order to understand each part in it and appreciate the various roles that different members of the community can play in it. But some particular questions still need further clarifications.

Who is in possession of the Word?

A fundamental question, surely, is: who is in possession of the Word of God? In other terms: to whom has God spoken, and to whom has he entrusted his Word? Did he give it to the episcopate so that they alone have it and they alone can communicate it to others? Or did he give it to each one of the faithful so that he or she can form the ultimate judgement on the authenticity of the Word? Or did he give it to the people as a collectivity so that they speak it authentically with the voice of the majority?

The answer is that he has spoken to the whole church, and that he has entrusted his Word to the whole church. But this was not like the depositing of a document for safekeeping; a document in which there is no life and which must be kept unaltered forever.

The whole church is in possession of revelation. But (as it were) God had to provide for two necessities: let the church grow in the understanding of the Word, but also, let the Word be safeguarded in this process. The “growing into” the Word is surely the task of the whole church, of each and all, bishops and laity. The formal safeguarding of it, however, is part of the sacramental ministry of the episcopate. Sacramental is a key word here: they can do it in virtue of a power received through ordination, independently of their merits.

Thus, the interplay is not between two separate or opposed parts of the church, the bishops versus their subjects; it is more subtle: all participate in one vital development but to some of them is given the charism to prevent the others from going in a wrong direction.

We are now in position to handle the next question.

What does it mean to speak the Word with authenticity?

In theological literature, there is a permanent problem with the meaning of the word “authentic” and its derivatives. If anything the problem is compounded in canon law. The ambivalence inherent in the term is brought out in the listing of the Oxford English Dictionary: “authentic” can mean “of authority, ... entitled to obedience or respect," or “really proceeding from its reputed source or author, of undisputed origin, genuine.” Those meanings are not the same; the first one can be rendered also as “official,” the second one must be rendered as “genuine.”

Vatican Council II uses the word repeatedly—but not univocally: bishops are “authentic teachers” (LG 25), the pope has an “authentic teaching authority . . . even when he is not speaking ex cathedra” (LG 25), and “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God . . . has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the church” (DV 10). The word is the same, but the meaning keeps shifting. At one time, what is authentic is not necessarily infallible (therefore fallible); at another time, authentic implies utter fidelity to the word of God (which is equivalent to being infallible.)

The same ambivalence is found in the new Code of Canon Law. Canon 753 uses the term authentic with the warning that it may be compatible with error:

The bishops . . . although not endowed with infallibility in teaching, are authentic doctors and teachers of the faith for the faithful entrusted to their care. . .

Canon 749 uses the same word to designate infallibility:

The College of Bishops is also endowed with infallibility in teaching . . . whenever the bishops gathered in an ecumenical council . . . or whenever, dispersed in the whole world, . . . they authentically teach what belongs to faith and morals,. . . as to be definitively held.

The conclusion is inevitable: the official documents of the church use the term “authentic” in two distinct senses; the one is “official but subject to correction if so warranted”; the other is “really proceeding from its reputed source or author, of undisputed origin, genuine.” (19)

Thus, there are two types of authentic teaching; one with authority but not irreformable; the other with the assistance of the Spirit solemnly confirming that a particular point of doctrine is an integral part of God’s revelation. The capacity for such an authentication (in the fullest sense), the Catholic church believes, is given to the episcopal college.

The Word, therefore, cannot get lost; after nearly two thousand years, I can still hear the message. If there were no ways and means of finding it with certainty today, as far as I am concerned, the preaching of the Logos would have been in vain. His words would have been an ephemeral phenomenon, long lost in the mist of history.

Of course, it would be useless to search in the New Testament for an explicit statement concerning the power of the episcopate to authenticate the Word; it has developed gradually. Originally, the apostles were given the command to go out and proclaim the mighty deeds of God; they carried the genuine Word; they witnessed what they had seen and heard; they were the link between Jesus and the first converts. But what about later generations? How could they know?

Long before a theoretical answer was worked out, the church found a practical solution, and found it in an existential way. If there were dissensions, peace and unity had to be restored; a decision had to be made. Thus, from the earliest of times, the practice of holding synods developed. The deliberations and the decisions of the first one are reported in the Acts of the Apostles (concerning the observance of )udaic laws by converts from paganism; see Acts 15). Eventually, the local synods led to “great synods”—we call them ecumenical councils. Behind this evolution, there was, no doubt, the conviction that the Spirit of the Lord would always be with the community, and protect it from falsehood. But if the synods could mislead the church, there would be no protection—which was unthinkable.

Out of such existential considerations, the doctrine of the “assistance” of the Spirit developed. This doctrine is of great finesse. It sees the Spirit as giving life to the church, nourishing it, sheltering it and protecting it, and in particular preventing the universal episcopate from misleading it through a false proclamation. For the sake of the chosen ones, the Spirit does not allow corruption to penetrate into the evangelical message. (20)

This assistance of the Spirit must not be conceived as something magical, coming instantaneously (whispering words to inspire a statement) or working dramatically (striking down someone to prevent a fatal error). No. The best way of understanding it, or to have a good image representing it, is to think of Christos Pantocrator, Christ to whom all power was given in heaven and earth, who takes care of his church. In his providence, which extends from the beginning of all times to their very end, he orders all things in such a way that his church will be preserved in truth through the ministry of those whom he chooses to follow the early witnesses. It is a gentle way of providing, through the invisible work of the Spirit, independently from any human merit, by ordering the succession of events to a goal that was set by God. Our faith is ultimately not in any bishop or pope but in the Christos Pantocrator who is intent to keep his Word alive in the church. (21)

What is the meaning of the distinction between the teaching church and the church taught -

ecclesia docens and ecclesia discens?

Its correct meaning is certainly not that there are two distinct groups of Christians, one doing the instructing, the other the learning.

The whole church, no one excepted, is a learning church. There is no person who does not have the invitation (and duty!) to learn more and more about the word of God. Who could ever claim that he or she does not need to progress toward the whole truth? Moreover, who could ever claim that Christians of past or present generations could not teach him new insights or greater wisdom?

We all belong to the learning church.

The whole church, each and every one in it, is called also to proclaim the Word. In fact, this is what is happening: mothers are instructing their children, catechists are explaining the message, missionaries are spreading the Word the world over. They are teaching. One could even go further: during Vatican Council II theologians were instructing bishops, very much so. On many evenings always around, at an appointed time and place, to prevent the universal church from falling victim to false beliefs.

Our belief in the proclamations of an ecumenical councils is ultimately belief in a provident God who is both firm and gentle in carrying out his plans disponens omnia firmiter et suaviter.

During Vatican II the theologians played a key role. When conferences were held all over the city of Rome, the authentic teachers of the church were genuine learners. On the next morning it may have been the bishops’ turn; they approved of the documents which were meant to instruct the whole church, theologians included.

What then can this distinction mean? It can have a meaning in certain well defined circumstances. When an ecumenical council solemnly proclaims the Catholic doctrine, it teaches in the name of the whole church; and the rest of the church is being taught. But the process does not end there: often those who are so taught are able to find a deeper meaning in the doctrine proclaimed than the proclaimers themselves. (22) Many bishops who with their votes contributed to the decisions of Vatican Council II have greatly benefited from reading later the commentaries of theologians. Thus the learners became teachers, and the teachers became learners. In this way the church progresses toward the whole truth.

If the church is healthy and vigorous, there will be a strong and creative interplay between the various members and groups, each contributing according to their calling and capacity to the work of proclaiming the good news. If, however, some members or groups (“constituents”) of the church are less than able to make their own contribution, there will be a vacuum and a shift; others will take their place. Thus, if there is no laity, well informed, reflective and articulate in speech, the clergy will take over, and will begin to function as if they were the only teachers, or the only thinkers, and so forth. The so called “clericalization” of the life of the church was probably brought upon us by such a vacuum and consequent shift. Admittedly, the situation is now changing ever since Vatican Council II a better balance has been sought and there is a gradual progress (even if unduly slow) in granting to the laity their rightful inheritance.

Is there a cultural change affecting the interplay between the episcopate and rest of the community?

Yes, an immensely great cultural change is taking place, and is making its impact felt on the exercise of magisterium and on the response of the people to the teaching authority. This cultural change is in the steadily rising educational level of the Christian people, clergy and laity.

No one should say that this development is on a purely natural level, therefore it cannot affect the exercise of a supernatural office. Rarely does the episcopal college, rarely does the pope as its head, proclaim solemnly with full apostolic authority an article of faith. Most of the time, their magisterium consists in “official” teaching but with less finality, which means that there can be many human elements entering into their declarations. In such teaching situations, the educational level of the community matters a great deal. A well informed laity can direct the attention of the episcopate to current problems, they can help the bishops to formulate the questions correctly before an answer is attempted; more importantly, when the official response is given, they can evaluate it. (23)

I wonder if there is not an imbalance in our theology of the sacraments. Mainly for historical reasons, too much attention has been given to the sacrament of order and not enough to the sacrament of baptism. Order is rooted in baptism, and no matter how extensively we are able to discourse on order, as long as our understanding of baptism lacks depth and breadth, our understanding of order will suffer too. A visible proof of this imbalance is that in our contemporary church there is an overabundant symbolism in clothing, titles, speech in connection with the sacrament of order, virtually nothing in connection with the sacrament of baptism. In the early church baptism held the attention (cf. the white clothing worn for weeks, its frequent mention in liturgy, its frequent illustration in paintings and mosaics, the cult of baptisteria); clerical symbols developed later. The imbalance is present in the new Code of Canon Law: it regularly speaks of “sacred pastors” but never of the “sacred laity.” Yet, there would be no sacred orders without sacred baptism!

Admittedly, not all over the world has the educational level risen, but it cannot be denied that in most places it is rising, and in some places has already reached a very high level.

If the magisterium is not aware of this radical change, and continues to speak and act as if the majority of Christian people had no higher education, and no theological training, surprisingly sharp conflicts may emerge. Reasonable and responsible proposals from the laity and clergy will be regarded as uncalled-for meddling. This in its turn may cause resentment and anger. Official declarations may be supported with arguments which do not satisfy the critically well trained mind. Then the magisterium may simply appeal to a divine authority, when it is common knowledge that the matter has not been the subject of any final definition. The result of such conflicts may be not only a loss of respect for authority but a loosening of the bond of communion and love. (24)

The amount of attention paid to a truth should be in proportion to the importance of that truth, cf. the admonition of Vatican Council II to Catholic theologians:

When comparing doctrines, they should remember that in . . .Catholic teaching there exists an order or “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith. (UR 11 )


With this, the foundations have been set and the context presented for our reflections on the teaching authority and the response of the people to its proclamations.

The good seed now is in human hands, and the spreading of it is a human operation. As always, when God’s abundance meets human limitations, we struggle to understand.

In circumstances when the educational level was lower, the need for explanations was less, too.

In other terms, when in affirming a point of doctrine, the teaching authority is not relying on the full assistance of the Spirit (such as in a solemn definition), but on the authority of theological reasoning, it is right and just that this reasoning should be communicated to the community so that they too may participate in the search for the whole truth.


3. See in the New Columbia Encyclopedia’ p. 892

4. “Notes and Reflections” or “Meditations” would not have been misleading subtitles for this “discourse.” My intention is not to present comprehensive and systematic treatments of the topics discussed in this book; there are such works available. Nor do I wish to repeat what has been handled with some detail in other publications, not even if they are of importance, e.g. the statement by the International Theological Commission in 1975; there is a thorough review of it in Sullivan’ s Magisterium, pp. 174-217.

5. No one knew this better than Einstein who experienced both successes and failures in building scientific theories: (Quoted in Julian Schwinger, Einstein’ s Legacy, [New York Scientific American Library, 1986] p. 203.)

6. The reluctance (or struggle) to accept evolution as a fact of life marks the official attitude of the church on a much broader scale than in reference to doctrinal issues only. The reasons for this are probably manifold. There is the instinct to preserve our ancient traditions, and any potential change is easily perceived as a dangerous step toward infidelity. Also, in the Western church at least, our traditions have been explained in AristotelianThomistic categories, which are not attuned to an evolving universe. Further, in official literature the sayings and actions of the church have been presented, more often than it was necessary or justified, as being of the highest degree of wisdom and prudence; hence no room was left for improvements.

7. There is no better work in English on the development of doctrine than ]an Hendrik Walgrave, Unfolding Revelation The Nature of Doctrinal Development, translated from the Dutch. There is no more comprehensive work on the same subject than George Söll, Dogma und Dogmenentwicklung, in German.

8. Decree of the Biblical Commission, 27 June 1906:
Question: Are the arguments, adduced by critical authors to attack the authentic authorship of Moses of the sacred books, known under the name of Pentateuch, of such weight that they give the right to affirm that Moses is not the author of the books; notwithstanding the testimony of the Old and New Testaments, the perpetual consensus of the Jewish people, the permanent tradition of the church, the internal evidence present in the text itself . . . ?
Answer: Negative.
Question: Does the authentic authorship of Moses require us to hold that he wrote each of the books with his own hands, or dictated each to scribes, or, can another hypothesis be permitted, namely which holds that after he conceived his work under divine inspiration, he committed it to one or several persons to write it down, with the provision that they had to preserve the original sense faithfully, write nothing against his will, omit nothing; and finally when the work was completed, the work was to be published in his name?
Answer: Negative for the first part; positive for the second part.
Approved by the Supreme Pontiff: 27 June 1906. (See DS 3394,3395)

9. Each age in Christian history has its own interest. The great disputes in the early centuries were about the internal life of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit: one God) and his communication with the created universe (the Son became flesh); the focus of the attention of the church was the very core, heart, or canter of revelation. Today disputes on morality tend to override all other interests.

10. There is a remote parallel between developments in philosophical and theological thinking. Ever since Kant, much effort in philosophical reflection has been expended on understanding the operations of the mind and the process of knowing. Ever since Newman, much effort in the Catholic Church has been put into discovering and understanding the process of perceiving and articulating the data of revelation—reflections on how the mind of the church operates and how some knowledge of the mysteries is achieved.

11. Much has been written and said about the divine gifts with which God has endowed his church; no one described them better than Vatican Council 11 in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen gentium. But councils, popes, bishops and theologians, as a rule shied away from speaking of, and reflecting on, the humanity of the church. The result is that we are often unaware of the limitations and shortcomings that flow from this humanity; we tend to deny them; we act as if they did not exist; we take no precautions and protections against them. But an imbalance in the perception of any reality, even if that reality is part of the church, can lead to disaster in the practical order.

12. 0ne needs to remember how slow the apostles were in understanding the message of Jesus—as it is recorded in the gospels.

13. An intemperate zeal in pressing for an answer can do more harm than good. Those in authority ought to resist such pressure; at times the honest answer can be only “As yet, we do not know!”

14. Aristotle taught the Latin theologians to be relentless in their inquiries. Thus, the scholastics wanted to know the exact moment when the bread became the body of Christ, and the significance of the words of consecration was stressed without giving an equal importance to the unity of the eucharistic prayer, including the invocation of the Holy Spirit. Or, the canonists wanted to know the precise moment when marriage came into existence; once determined, all validity had to turn on the disposition of the parties at that point of time, with little possibility left for the healing of an initial defect. Divine mysteries are not like physical bodies to have some understanding of them, we must keep a respectful distance.

15. Recall that a favorite saying of Yves Congar during the Council was that a safeguard for the church in the course of history is in examining itself regularly “in the mirror of the Gospel.” My own reflections. The Gospel does not show a neatly organized and efficiently run community. But it displays a belief that the Spirit takes care of the group of believers. In fact, several of the images and parables present the church as a rather “mixed” gathering it is like a field where good and bad plants grow side by side until the harvest; it is like a haul of fish with creatures good and bad in the net; it is like a flock where some of the sheep have gone astray but still belong to it,. . . and so forth.

16. What we describe here is certainly of scriptural inspiration. The passages which affirm that it is the Spirit who moves a person to surrender to God in faith are too numerous to be quoted; also, the passages which say that the Spirit is the one who helps the hearer to recognize the truth in the message of the preacher, are frequent, too.

17. In the Hebrew tradition God appears right from the beginning as the “Speaking God.” With his Word he creates the universe; he keeps talking to his creatures in and out of the garden of Eden; he instructs Noah; he calls Abraham and keeps conversing with him as a friend; he appoints Moses to lead his people out of Egypt; he never ceases to communicate with his prophets; and then in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. (Heb 1 2-3)

18. It should not really surprise us that there is such a problem, after all as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts [says the Lord] (Is. 55 9) —and that is the problem: there is a gap; and it cannot be bridged by the operations of our mind.

_ 19. 0n the use of “authentic” see also the judicious remarks of Sullivan in his Magisterium, pp. 26-28.

20. To put it differently: Christ sent the apostles to be witnesses to the fact of the resurrection. But today there are no such living witnesses to the same event. How do I know? I àccept the Word of the church because the Spirit witnesses in my heart that it is the truth (the evidence is from the Spirit, not from anyone else). At the same time the Spirit protects those who have taken the place of the apostles from misleading me in narrating the truth.

21. (We believe that:) The One who holds this world in his hands and has so arranged the course of human events that Simon and Andrew, James and John should meet him at his own appointed time by the Sea of Galilee, is also taking care of his church in such a way that the right persons are

22. Newman’s writings testify that he probably (certainly?) achieved a better understanding (intel-legere) of the doctrine of infallibility than many of the bishops who defined it at Vatican Council I—including the bishop of Rome, Pius IX. The bishops had the capacity to bear authentic witness to the existence of the mystery, the theologian had the charism to penetrate its meaning to a depth that eventually was universally appreciated.

23. To describe the task of the laity as primarily and principally secular is erroneous. Before anyone can have a lay or clerical vocation, each has a Christian vocation through the sacrament of baptism. This is a vocation to the sacred. Vatican Council II was very explicit about this: The laity are gathered together in the People of God and make up the Body of Christ under one Head. Whoever they are, they are called upon, as living members, to expend all their energy for the growth of the Church and its continuous sanctification. For this very energy is a gift of the Creator and a blessing of the Redeemer. The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the saving mission of the Church itself. Through their baptism and confirmation, all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord Himself. (LG 33)

24 Some of the conflicts which developed in recent times around documents published by the Holy See may well have been caused by the method used in approaching the issues: the Holy See has not taken into account the increasingly large number of highly educated Catholics. They are willing to surrender to the truth when solemnly proclaimed, but as long as the church has not come to a final judgment, they wish to know and to weigh the arguments used in deciding an issue. This is a healthy development, a cause for rejoicing.

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