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Teaching Authority

Teaching Authority

by Ladislas Örsy, SJ

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

Let us return to the fundamental fact: the good seed is in the hand of the people of God; the whole church is the trustee of the word of God. In the beginning it was given to the fledgling community of the disciples who heard it, treasured and proclaimed it. The understanding of its full meaning, however, was not given to them; by God’s will it was to unfold in the course of history.

In this process of unfolding, the episcopate plays a specific role. The bishops are the custodians (not exclusive possessors) of the Word. If ever divisions arise in the community concerning its essential meaning, they have the capacity to bring a judgment in the Spirit, which may not be inspired but which will not fail in truth either.

This is a sacramental task; nothing else explains it. At the final result their statement does not depend on their learning or on their holiness. By the Spirit they are prevented from giving a false testimony.

Out of such testimonies the great Creeds were born, and in their affirmations the faithful recognized the truth of God.

While such solemn proclamations of the meaning of the Word were always rare, a quite ordinary process of understanding it at a greater depth has been going on (and is going on) all the time. In this process, too, there is a dialectical exchange between the episcopate and the whole church. As the bishops can speak with different degrees of solemnity and determination, according to the requirements of the subject matter and the historical circumstances, the response of the people must vary too.

But no matter in what way the bishops speak, they will speak in a human language with all its modulations and nuances, with all its certainties and ambiguities. If God has handed over the good seed to human persons, they will go about sowing it in their own way. No exception to that.


Today the common name for the teaching authority of the episcopate is magisterium. The term comes to us from the ancient Romans (1); in subsequent ages its various meanings have been preserved in new cultural and religious contexts. It could mean either civil or ecclesiastical jurisdiction (cf. the English “magistrate”) or an authority to teach (cf. the academic degree which traditionally empowered a person to teach, Magister Artium).(2)

However, a restrictive and exclusive usage of it, signifying “the teaching authority of the hierarchy” began to develop among German theologians and canonists in the 18th century and became widely accepted in the 19th. Its first appearance in a papal document was probably in 1835, in an encyclical by Gregory XVI to the Swiss clergy.3 It was used amply in the schemata of Vatican 1, and from then on it became a household term in Catholic theology.

In particular, the new term, magisterium, was soon applied to a new way of exercising the teaching power: the popes began to instruct the universal church through “circular letters”, that is, encyclicals. It was Gregory XVI ( 1831-46) who initiated the frequent use of such letters as teaching instruments; his successors followed him. Papal pronouncements on virtually everything of interest to the church kept multiplying ever since; sometimes instructing the faithful in the fundamentals of our faith, sometimes deciding highly technical theological issues debated among theologians. Pius IX (1846-78) published 33 encyclicals, Leo Xlll (1878-1903) 48, and Pius Xll (1939-58) 41— although not all of them of doctrinal interest.4

Behind the increasing number of encyclicals, there was a deeper change there was a shift in the popes’ own perception of their magisterium. Traditionally, they conceived their role either as called to exhort the faithful, using the common expressions of faith (the writings of Gregory the Great would be a good example of this); or, as called to decide an issue about which the church was divided (of which an example is the Tomus I Leonis, a clarification given by Leo the Great concerning the two natures of Christ against the heresies of Eutyches, cf. DS 296-299).

This development in the conception of the teaching office brought with it the problem of how to determine the authority of particular papal pronouncements. Since they have become so numerous and kept covering so many issues, all of them could not be of “supreme apostolic authority.” Side by side with the proclamation of the evangelical message, the private opinions and personal intuitions of each pope were bound to play a much greater role than they did in earlier times when papal declarations were rare.

That was not all, however. The increased intensity of the teaching office necessitated increased help; the popes turned for assistance to individual theologians perhaps more than ever before. Not surprisingly (especially if one takes into account the difficulties in travel and communications) the popes sought help from the professors of the Roman schools of theology, and from their own curial officials who (mostly) were educated in those schools. It was only natural that the advisers tended to identify their own theological opinions with Catholic doctrine, (5) with the

Vatican Council I: The Preparatory Commission was composed of five cardinals; four Italians from the curia and one Bavarian. They were helped by 96 other members and consultors, 61 of them domiciled in Rome. The first schema on Catholic faith was prepared by Johannes Franzelin, professor at the Gregorian; it was often described as a no doubt well meant attempt by a teacher to have his textbook canonized by the Council. It underwent radical revision by Joseph Kleutgen, the theologian of the Bishop of Paderborn.

Vatican Council II: Although the membership of the preparatory commissions was more international, the Roman schools of thought marked strongly the 73 documents prepared for approval, except the one on liturgy. Indeed the reform of liturgy was accepted without substantial changes; but the conflict surfaced during the debate on the second schema submitted to the Fathers on the “Sources of Revelation.” It was mostly the work of Sebastian Tromp, reflecting his lectures at the Gregorian. For all practical purposes it was rejected, as were another 70, or (a few of them) modified so radically that the original could not be recognized. (The only one apart from Liturgy that was approved without serious modifications was the schema on the media of communications; it happened at a critical


result that the pronouncements of the popes began to reflect the views of Roman theologians to the exclusion of others. Examples of this can be found in the talks and writings of Pins Xll, who relied very heavily on some professors from the Gregorian University. (Pius’s doctrine on the Mystical Body reflected that of Sebastian Tromp; many of his moral instructions can be found in the books of Franz Hürth, etc.). Such a reliance on local advisers, who inevitably represented a limited portion of Catholic thinking, raised again the questions of how far a given papal pronouncement was the proclamation of Catholic doctrine universally held, and how far it reflected the opinion of a theological school.

In more technical terms: as a virtually new source of theological data, locus theologicus has emerged in recent papal pronouncements; a sound set of rules for the use of this source had to be worked out.

Historical precedents were not of much help they carried an ambivalent message. In the course of ancient history, some solemn declarations by popes were obviously proclamations of Catholic belief, such as the condemnation of crude conciliarism (appeal from the pope to a general moment when the Council was not in the mood to give much time or attention to it.)

The point in saying all this is that the excessive influence of Roman theologians has been resisted by the councils; but when there was no council their influence was often unhindered.

council) by Pius II (Bull Execrabilis, 1460); but some others promulgated with similar solemnity either had to be radically reinterpreted, such as the statement by Boniface Vlll “We declare, affirm, and define that for salvation it is necessary for all human creatures to be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Bull Unam sanctam, 1302); or even abandoned as totally erroneous such as the order of Innocent Vlll to persecute witches, female and male, in southern Germany (Bull Summis desiderantes, 1484). Whatever the rules for weighing the authority of papal documents were in the past, for the age of modern encyclicals new hermeneutics were needed.

To build up such new hermeneutics was a gigantic task in itself (it is still far from being completed), and yet it was not enough. Theologians had to grapple also with instructions, decrees, declarations and many kinds of communications by the increasingly numerous and active offices and commissions of the Holy See. There, even recent history could not provide much guidance while some documents issued by them proved to be of permanent doctrinal value, some others, such as the early decrees of the Biblical Commission, had to be quietly rescinded as mistaken in their content and method.

Besides, there was this principle to be held firmly the charism of infallibility granted to the successors of Peter could not be delegated. It follows that the organs of the Holy See, that is the “dicasteria” of the Roman curia, could not speak “in the Spirit” as ecumenical councils could, (6) nor could they appeal to the gift of infallibility because that gift was personal to the pope and not transferable. Hence, whatever came from such offices on their own authority, (7) needed again to be evaluated according to a new set of rules—the hermeneutics applicable to the documents of the agencies of the Roman See. (8)

The Curia has no more power than what the pope gives to it. An episcopal synod is different because there is an inherent power in every single bishop (through his ordination) participating in it; also because it is á partial but real manifestation of collegiality. The church discovered very

Even such a brief survey shows that the word magisterium, when used loosely, can cover several distinct realities. Let me list them without claiming to be exhaustive ( 1) infallible teaching by the pope (rare, its core not subject to revision); (2) non-infallible pronouncement by the pope (can be the proclamation of truth; can be an evolving theological opinion); (3) declaration by an office of the Roman See, approved specially by the pope (he made it his own); (4) declaration by an office, with routine approval (by which the pope does not lend his authority to the core of the teaching, hence its critical assessment is warranted); (5) a great variety of pronouncements which may come from episcopal synods, conferences, or individual bishops (all to be weighed and measured according to their content and circumstances). (9)


early this intrinsic value of episcopal synods; there is recorded evidence of them from about 170. They were held quite frequently and they played an immense role in developing the doctrine and discipline of the church; long before a strong central government arose.

The synodal tradition is still strong in the Orthodox church. (See P. Joannou, “Synods, Early Church” NCE 13:885-886)

To sum it up since the exercise of the teaching office of the popes underwent a significant change, it became increasingly difficult to determine the weight of their pronouncements. (No theologian has ever succeeded in determining the specific weight of condemnation for each individual item in the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX.) In particular, the enormous output of the popes, covering a very broad spectrum, made it difficult to separate what was affirmed with full apostolic authority and what represented the personal thought of a pope. Moreover, the newly established curial offices or commissions frequently took on themselves the task of deciding disputed doctrinal issues on their authority, which did not (could not) include any participation in the charism of infallibility. Quite naturally, the weight of their pronouncements became a matter of debate.

The inevitable conclusion is that, when the question arises as to how far a point of doctrine proclaimed by the magisterium is binding, the only way of finding it out is not by invoking a precise definition of the type of magisterium which appears to be operational in the case (since such definitions are hardly available) but by referring its content to our ancient traditions, by examining critically the source of that pronouncement and weighing carefully the authority behind it.

Infallible magisterium

In the common parlance and current thinking, infallibility has been connected with the papacy. Nothing shows it better than the frequent recurrence of the expression “papal infallibility” while hardly anyone ever speaks about “conciliar infallibility,” which is of no lesser degree than that of the pope. The church’s infallibility which is the source of the others is mentioned only in academic lectures.

The root of infallibility goes much deeper than the personal wisdom of a pope or of a council, or of the whole people of God. It is in the fidelity of the Spirit: he cannot abandon God’s chosen ones to falsehood. The Spirit who led Jesus to preach (cf. Luke 4:1), cannot let his message go.

From the fidelity of the Spirit follows the fidelity of the church to the evangelical message.

The episcopal college or the pope are instrumental in this fidelity when they solemnly proclaim the original message, they are protected from misleading the people, hence they cannot err, hence they are infallible—because the faith of the church cannot be touched by corruption. If it could, the mission which Christ has given to the apostles could not be fulfilled.

The term “infallibility” is not the best expression to tell the whole truth. It is negative, it does not specify the object of the charism, it leaves the door open for all kinds of sinister conjectures. (10)

“Fidelity to the revelation” is a far more positive expression, and in substance it means what we intend to convey by “infallibility”; it has also a venerable history. Right from the earliest times, the Christian community believed in the unfailing fidelity of the Spirit to the church. The belief that the ecumenical councils can proclaim unfailingly “what is contained in the Scriptures” or what is an integral part of God’s revelation, developed precisely from this steady conviction. (11) One could wish Vatican Council I had chosen a better expression!

Be that as it may, Vatican Council I defined infallibility in a very cautious and circumscribed way. It is safe to say that a large portion of the hierarchical teaching, as it is exercised now, does not fall into that category. Therefore the precise understanding of what is meant by noninfallible teaching is more important than ever. (12)

Non-infallible magisterium

The “non-infallible” teaching is really composed of two organically united strata of doctrine it contains part of God’s revelation and (mixed or fused with it) it includes changeable human thoughts. Simple statements, such as “non-infallible proclamations are not binding”; or “non-infallible statements by ecclesiastical authorities are binding” do not pay enough attention or respect to the complex character of the body of “non-infallible” beliefs.

Indeed, no one has ever asserted that all that we have to believe has been the object of infallible pronouncements. It follows that we must handle the beliefs that have not been infallibly defined cautiously; some of it (perhaps a great deal of it) may be part of God’s revelation. When a point of doctrine was peacefully believed and no crisis developed around it, no council or pope ever thought of infallibly defining it.

An infallible “determination” (ancient councils preferred that term to “definition”) means that a point of belief has been marked, specially authenticated; but there are other points which have not been so singled out yet are no less true than those so “determined.”

Once this much is admitted (how could it be denied?), it becomes obvious that there is an organic unity between “determined” and “not-determined” truth; between doctrine infallibly proclaimed and doctrine non-infallibly taught.

To separate within the “non-infallible” portion of beliefs the incorrupt expressions of our faith from what are human opinions is not easy. To determine if a given point of doctrine is an integral part of revelation or not, it is necessary to examine the precise content of that doctrine, its place in Christian tradition, its connection with other mysteries. Such inquiry is always a slow process, and can be full of pitfalls. It requires a good deal of historical knowledge and training in methodology. Indeed, theological research has become a no less sophisticated activity than research in (e.g.) theoretical physics—with the additional limitation that no verification can be done by experiments. (13)

What is ordinary magisterium?

Non-infallible magisterium is referred to also as ordinary magisterium. Immediately, a cautionary word should be sounded about what is “ordinary.” The term has undergone a significant transformation in the last two or so decades, particularly noticeable in the official language of the Holy See, be it in writings, be it in oral statements.

The expression “ordinary magisterium” in the standard theology textbooks published before Vatican Council II used to refer to the manner (modus) in which a point of doctrine was determined as an integral part of our faith not through the rather extraordinary act of a decree by a council, not through the extraordinary event of a papal definition, but through its consistent affirmation as Catholic doctrine by the popes and the bishops (in Vatican II terminology, by the college of bishops). For all practical purposes such an ordinary teaching was equivalent to a formal definition.

Interestingly enough this understanding of “ordinary magisterium” is retained in the new Code of Canon Law:

All that is contained in the word of God, as has been handed over in writing or by tradition, that is, [all] that is in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the church, and is proclaimed either by the solemn magisterium of the church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which becomes manifest in the common assent of the faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium, must be believed with divine and Catholic faith; . . .all are bound, therefore, to reject doctrines contrary to it. (Canon 750). (14)

The canon clearly implies that there are two ways of teaching infallibly: by solemn magisterium or by ordinary magisterium.

But the expression “ordinary magisterium” is used also in a different way, in particular by Roman authorities:

“The Church does not build its life upon its infallible magisterium alone but on the teaching of its authentic, ordinary magisterium as well. (Sacra Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, ]uly 25, 1986, Re Curran.) (15)

On the basis of this text, the suggestion could be made that ordinary and universal teaching is infallible, while ordinary and non-universal is fallible. But the term universal is not precise enough to ground such an important distinction. After all, the ministry of Peter’s successor is certainly universal, his proclamations are, as a rule, addressed to the whole church, hence have a universal character, but without having necessarily the character of infallibility. The same could be said of the college of bishops: Vatican Council II was certainly a universal gathering; its proclamations could not have been more universal; yet, no one has ever asserted that they are infallible in all their parts.

The statement is substantially correct, but undoubtedly it uses the expression “ordinary magisterium” in a sense different from the one in the canon quoted; “ordinary” now is opposed to “infallible”. It refers to something less than the proclamation of a point of belief with full and final apostolic authority (whether in council or otherwise); it means simply the ordinary and usual teaching and preaching activity of the hierarchy, affirming a point of doctrine which (as yet) cannot be said to be part of our Catholic faith because (as yet) the church has not affirmed it with a conclusive judgment.

To call such teaching “ordinary magisterium” is a relatively new use of the term “ordinary.” In theory such an ambivalence in its meaning should cause no serious problem, provided we are aware of it, but in practice conflicts are bound to break out when ecclesiastical authorities begin to demand the same absolute obedience to their usual teaching and preaching as is due only to articles of faith, or when they attempt to impose their views with heavy (or subtle) penalties on all those who see the matter otherwise. (16)

Is there a magisteréum of doctors?

Some years ago Avery Dulles suggested another refinement in the understanding of magisterium: he proposed that we should speak of a dual magisterium, one exercised by the hierarchy, another by the theologians. (17) Although Dulles could invoke good medieval authorities (among them Gratian and Aquinas) to support his view, Francis Sullivan in his book Magisterium is opposed to such a use mainly from a pastoral point of view. (18) I am inclined to agree with Sullivan, given the evolution of the concept of magisterium and its meaning today. To speak of two magisteria could lead to endless confusion.

But an opinion about the use of a term does not necessarily decide the merits of an issue. Indeed, side by side with the hierarchical magisterium, there has been continually another kind of magisterium in the church. Moreover, the church has not failed in according solemn recognition (rarely adverted to) to this non-hierarchical teaching power. (19)

Let me explain. As we have seen in the first section of this essay, the deposit of revelation has been handed over to the whole church; it is in the possession of the whole body, not in the exclusive possession of the hierarchy. Peter was called the rock on which the church was to be built; he was never called the “church”, nor were the twelve. (The modern usage of saying that “the church” has spoken or has done this-and-that when in fact an office or an official has spoken or acted, is theologically incorrect and misleading; a better usage would be to name the office or the official involved, such as “The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stated,” or, “The bishop of ... ordered,” etc.)

Vatican Council I is quite explicit in affirming that the revelation has been received by, and belongs to the whole church when it says that the pope has that infallibility with which the church is endowed.

The Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra . . . has [pollere] that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wanted his church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith and morals. (DS 3074)

If any doubt remains it should be dispelled by the plain speech of Vatican Council II:

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 faith which characterizes the People as a whole, it manifests its unerring quality when, ‘from the bishops down to the last member of the laity’ (Cf. St. Augustine, De prued. sanct. 14, 27), it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals." (LG 12)

Once it is clear and accepted that revelation is in the possession of the whole church, it becomes obvious that all believers have access to it; all can perceive it, witness its truth, have insights into its depths.

It is at this point that the difference between the specific task and charism of the hierarchy and of the theologians (some ancient sources prefer to use the expression “the interpreters of the Scriptures”) can be distinguished.

The specific vocation of the popes and bishops is to be witnesses to the truth of evangelical doctrine (“you shall be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth,” cf. Act 1 8), which does not necesarily include the capacity to have the deepest insight into the content of the mysteries. I am not suggesting that popes and bishops could not have such a gift; many did, Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm are outstanding examples. But new insights into the mysteries require other qualifications than ordination.

Indeed, there have been other persons in the church (whether we should call them interpreters of the Scriptures or theologians is immaterial), who were not in any hierarchical position yet had an extraordinary capacity to penetrate the mysteries to an unusual depth and the gift to articulate their discoveries for the whole community. The most resounding recognition on the part of the church has come to them always posthumously when they were declared doctors of the church. In such a declaration the church is not adding anything to their heavenly status; it merely recognizes what they have been in their earthly life teachers and “magisters” for the whole church.

Obviously, I do not mean that all those who had the title of, say, theologian had also the gift of genuine insights; there were many “prophets” in Israel who did not speak the word of God. Yet, the fact stands that while the hierarchy, popes and bishops kept the faith intact in all ages, some of the most significant developments came from persons who were not in the episcopal order.

Thomas Aquinas has been named the doctor communis, the common teacher of the whole church, conceivably for all ages. Teresa of Avila has been honored as doctor vitae spiritualis. John Henry Newman has been an inspiration for more recent developments in theology, including the teaching of Vatican Council II, and he may well be recognized one day as the doctor subtilis of the nineteenth century.

Moreover, the immense influence exercised at Vatican Council II by the experts who were not bishops is well known.

So, there has always been a genuine and recognized magisterium by others than popes and bishops the magisterium of graced, learned and wise men and women to whom it was given to have new insights into the old truths.

Magister Gratianus (around 1140) has a small piece on this issue, which is a jewel in its brevity. I am not sure what is more significant, the fact that he wrote it, or the fact that no one took offense; not even the Roman correctors when they “revised” the Decretum after the Council of Trent. The Master was defining the various degrees of authority in the church; after he stated that the decretal letters of the popes have the same rank as the canons of the councils, he raised the question about the authority of the expositores scripturarum, the interpreters of the sacred Scriptures.

Now the question is about the interpreters of the sacred Scriptures; are their writings of the same rank [as the decretal letters] or are they subject to them? The more someone is grounded in reason, the greater authority his words seem to have. Many of the interpreters, being more eminent than others in the grace of the holy Spirit and in ample learning, can be shown also to be better grounded in reason. Therefore, it seems, preference should be given to the sayings of Augustine, Jerome and other writers over the constitutions of some pontiffs.

But there is a difference between deciding cases [causas] and diligently interpreting the scriptures. To decide cases learning is not enough, power, too, is needed ... it appears [therefore] that those who interpret the divine scriptures, although they are more eminent in learning than the pontiffs, in deciding cases [causas] must take their places after the pontiffs, because they have not been raised to the same pontifical dignity; in the exposition of the Scriptures, however, they must be placed before the pontiffs. (20)

The text itself needs some interpretation; but undeniably Gratian was aware of a teaching authority in the church that has its source not in the episcopal ordination but in the grace of the holy Spirit, the knowledge of the Scriptures and sound reasoning. He goes so far as to say that at times such an authority can prevail over a pontifical document.

Arguably, one must not simply substitute “theologians” (as we understand it today) for the “interpreters of scriptures”; Gratian may have been thinking principally of the Fathers of the church.

Further, Gratian clearly conceived a final doctrinal pronouncement by those who had pontifical (episcopal) authority as a judicial act; it terminated a “case.” For him the bishops were the final judges in doctrinal disputes which arose among the faithful.

Indeed, the pope and his brother bishops can be correctly described as the final judges of what belongs to the doctrine of faith, as iudices fidei; yet the very same expression is unsatisfactory under other aspects. A judicial act is a jurisdictional act; to proclaim the evangelical message is much more than that. Also, in the Scriptures the principal task given to the apostles is to be witnesses of the great events of our redemption. To restrict the episcopal teaching to judicial decisions only would not do justice to the charism of their office.

For these reasons, throughout this book I prefer to use a scriptural expression and describe the task of the bishops as that of being the authentic witnesses of the great events of our redemption.

Obviously, I do not mean to deny (I rather steadily affirm) that every Christian has to be a witness of the same events. The bishops, however, are qualified witnesses: through their ordination they have been designated as principal preachers, and when the community is divided, their testimony about the truth is the final and authentic one—through the invisible and gracious assistance of the Spirit.

But the issue of the authority of the bishops as compared to that of the theologians was clearly a disputed question in the medieval schools; Aquinas returned to it a century later. He distinguished two cathedras magisterial and pontifical. Here is his most elaborate text on the topic:

. . . there is a threefold difference between the magisterial cathedra and the pontifical cathedra.

The first is that he who receives a magisterial cathedra, does not receive any eminence that he has not had before; he receives only an opportunity, which he did not have before, to communicate his science . . . But he who receives an episcopal cathedra, receives an eminence of power, which he did not have before; as regards power, he was like all the others.

The second difference is that the eminence of science, which is required for the magisterial cathedra, is a perfection residing in the person; the eminence of power is attributed to a person only in relation to others.

The third difference is that a person becomes apt for a pontifical cathedra by being outstanding in charity; but for a magisterial cathedra a person becomes apt through having sufficient learning. (21)

Aquinas’s mind was certainly not that in the church there were two independent magisteria of equal standing; he saw the two cathedras as operating on different levels and as performing different tasks. From the one, learning was communicated to the community, from the other decisions were made, including final decisions when the community was divided on a doctrinal issue of some substance; which meant that when an article of faith was contested the cathedra magistralis was subject to the cathedra pontificalis. (22)

If holy and learned theologians could have had a special authority in the earlier centuries, there is no reason to deny that similarly blessed persons can have it today. Magisterium may not be the best term today to describe their ministry; yet, under whatever name, we need their specific service. Nor should this service be conceived as separated from, or opposed to, that of the hierarchy; ultimately whatever insight they may have into the mysteries, if it is authentic, cannot be different from what the popes and bishops are witnessing.

The organic unity of Christian doctrine

Yes, there is an organic unity of Christian doctrine. All that has been infallibly determined or defined belongs to it. A great deal of what has not been so singled out belongs to it. But there is much among the non-infallible teaching that is human opinion.

As we have seen earlier, the division of our beliefs into two neat categories, infallible and fallible, coupled with the suggestion that dissent from non-infallibly stated doctrine should be always permissible, is a simplistic approach to a complex issue. (23) Some of the non-infallibly stated doctrines may well be integral parts of divine revelation.

It follows also, with no less force, that many non-infallible propositions are no more than respectable school opinions, and as such, they are not part of the universally held Catholic doctrine. Theologians should not be easily castigated for criticizing or rejecting such teachings; to say that all non-infallible statements form an organic unity with infallible doctrine is nonsense.

A particularly difficult issue in determining the boundaries of the Catholic doctrine in its organic unity is in the field of morality. There is no doubt that the evangelical message includes particular moral precepts: it tells us about God’s mighty deeds and the way to the Father. The church cannot be less competent in proclaiming this way than it is competent in narrating the story of our redemption.

But there is no evidence that answers to all issues of morality that human beings can ever face are somehow given in Christian revelation, or can be deduced from it, or somehow can develop from it. There are complex problems in bioethics, in economy, in politics for which Christian tradition offers no clear guidance. At most, the church could invoke a philosophical system and solve a problem with the help of some principles derived from it, as for instance Pius XII has invoked the “principle of totality” to decide how far the transplant of an organ from one living person to another could be allowed—or should be forbidden. (24) The result may be an honest and prudent attempt to find a solution; but it is doubtful that the position taken can be part of the organic unity of Christian doctrine. After all, the church always refused to canonize any philosophical system; hence an affirmation grounded in philosophy must not be easily admitted into the realm of the "evangelical message." (25)

There is nothing in our tradition that would forbid the view that there are moral issues concerning the temporal and secular order which must be solved with the help of human intelligence and ingenuity, without any specific guidance from revelation. If that is the case, it follows that the church should help and respect any honest attempt to solve them, but it should claim no divine authority to impose a solution.

In other terms, the limits of the organic unity of Christian doctrine in the field of morality are not, as yet, clearly determined.

Excursus prudential decisions by popes and bishops

What follows can be called an excursus, yet the matter we touch on is organically connected with the issue of the magisterium. We have seen how the Spirit protects the college of bishops or the pope speaking in the name of the whole college; through his providence, he prevents them from error when they solemnly authenticate a point of doctrine.

But what about practical decisions by popes and bishops? How far are they guided and protected by the Spirit in matters prudential?

Before answering those questions, let us make one point clear: no amount of human imprudence or neglect on the part of anyone can ever destroy the fundamental orientation and the actual progress of the church toward the fullness of the Kingdom of God; that much the Spirit guarantees. The good news will be announced to the end of time.

Once this is clear, we can return to our initial questions. The answer is that the pope and the episcopal college have been granted the charism of infallibility in matters of doctrine, but they have not been guaranteed the highest degree of prudence in matters of practical policy. There is nothing new in this statement for those who are familiar with the history of the church.

There is a difference between seeing the truth, and reaching out for a value. Truth is one and indivisible, either we surrender to it or not. Prudence has degrees, and history proves amply what theology knows in theory: popes and bishops can fail in reaching its highest degree; in fact they can fail to act prudently altogether.

This statement, however, needs immediate qualifications. It is not to say that the Spirit cannot guide those in the episcopal order in practical matters; he certainly can and he certainly does. But there is no guarantee of indefectibility in matters of prudence. Not even when a great solemnity surrounds the decision, as happened (to quote an example) when Pope Urban II 1aunched the first crusade at Clermont in 1095. It follows that the practical decisions and actions of the popes and bishops are legitimate subject matter for evaluation. In fact, such evaluations have been done on an immense scale by historians; all one has to do is to read Pastor’s well known History of the Popes, highly praised by many popes.

Often, there is an illegitimate transfer, perhaps inadvertently. The rules concerning obsequium in the case of teaching are transferred to practical decisions, and the same intellectual respect or submission is required and given to a practical decision which is due to doctrinal proclamations only.

From all this, an important consequence follows: in merely practical matters, the episcopate ought to be advised, protected and controlled not only because of human frailty, but also for theological reasons; prudence in practical decisions and actions is not guaranteed by the Spirit. The official documents of the church may not stress this doctrine, but canon law is certainly mindful of it. For instance, in every diocese there must be a financial committee (see canons 492 - 494) which has far-ranging powers to prevent the bishop from making mistakes, including the right to stop him from making unsound transactions.


With this, our reflections on the teaching authority (including a short note on the practical decision-making authority) are now concluded. Let us turn our attention to the response of the people.


1. The Oxford Latin Dictionary gives the following meanings 1. The office of superintendent, president or master. 2. Control, governance. 3. Instruction, teaching.

2. It is interesting to note that modern canon law has eliminated the venerable and ancient title of Magister from its academic hierarchy. Ignatius of Loyola, M.A. (Paris, earned), used it throughout his life; in fact, it was his preferred title. In his correspondence with Francis Xavier, M.A. (Paris, earned), who was on his apostolic journeys in India and beyond, they addressed each other by the title Magister.

3. See Yves Congar, Droit ancien et structures ecclesiales, (London: Variorum Reprints, 1982), Vll: 85-98.

4. See H. Bacht, “Enzyklika” in LTK 3910-911. The increase in papal teaching may have been due also to the decline in vitality of the traditional schools of theology.

5. This excessive use of local theologians marked the preparatory phase of both Vatican Councils.

6. A Roman Congregation could never say placuit Spiritui sancto et nobis, “it pleased the Holy Spirit and us”; an ancient formula used by great ecumenical councils.

7. The approval by the pope of a document issued by a Roman Congregation does not necessarily indicate that the pope made the content of the document his own. There are two kinds of papal approvals, in common form and in special form. An approval in common form means that the pope agrees to the publication of the document but does not make its content his own; an approval in special form means that the pope gives his own authority to the content of the document. The former is not papal teaching, the latter is. The special character of the approval must be explicitly stated in the document itself; it must never be presumed. Thus to know the form of approval is crucial for the interpretation ot the document; also for determining the type of response that is due to it.

8. I do not know of any thorough study from a theological point of view of the power of the Roman curia. In general it is said that it is the arm of the pope in governing the church, which of course is true. An ambivalence that would deserve serious study is in the situation that the pope cannot hand over to anyone his charism of infallibility (fidelity to the message) but he can let others participate in his power to govern (jurisdiction).

9. As a rule, in the United States there is little awareness of these subtle distinctions among the reporters and commentators of religious events. Whenever a document arrives from Rome, it matters little if it is a private letter from a cardinal made public, or a decree by the authority of a congregation, or an apostolic constitution by the authority of the pope; they all are described as “Vatican documents,” and they are attributed to (falsely) pretty much the same authority. At times not even the Catholic press displays a knowledge of these vital distinctions. To attribute more authority to a document than was given to it by its source is to falsify its meaning and intent, and consequently, to mislead the people.

10. Albert Lang (University Professor at the University of Bonn) writes in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche : The term “infallibility”, in use since the late scholastic times, and dominant since the Council of Trent, was an infelicitous choice (nicht glücklich gewahlt); in its unrestricted generality it is arrogant (anmassend) and overbearing (überhelich), especially when in a one-sided fashion it brings the infallibility of the pope into the foreground. It leads easily to the misconception that the charism of infallibility excludes other types of failures in the exercise of the teaching office, such as imprudence, human weaknesses, moral failure, inaction and similar ones. Moreover, it generates a fear that the pope on the ground of his infallibility could claim an unrestricted jurisdiction to govern and to judge. But these are caricatures and distorted presentations of infallibility. (LTK 10 485). If the use of a word can give occasion for such distortions, it is reasonable to ask if the same reality could not be described better by another word; especally if we wish to facilitate the ecumenical dialogue and make easier for unbelivers the understanding of the Christian doctrine.

11. After all, one could ask if there is any Christian church or ecclesial community which does not believe in this unfailing fidelity of the Spirit to the “gathering” of Christians. Each group may see the ultimate manifestation of this fidelity in different ways in the definitions of an ecumenical council, or in the reading of the Scriptures coupled with an internal enlightenment in the reader, or in a convocation of clergy and laity, etc. If a Christian group did not believe in this fidelity of the Spirit to them, they could never be sure that they still have the authentic message of Christ. Catholics differ from the others not so much in their belief in infallibility (all communities seem to have that ) but in seeing the instruments or agents or the criteria of infallibility in a different way from the others.

12. A theologian conscious of history will be always careful not to draw the dividing line too sharply between the infallibly defined and the not-so-defined beliefs. After all, for many centuries there was no such distinction; there was a unity of beliefs. Gradually, through councils and papal statements some parts of the beliefs have been specially marked as containing no error; some other parts have not been so marked, but for that they have not lost their organic connection with the rest.

13. It is interesting to compare the style of publications in theoretical physics, with publications in systematic theology. At times, the difference is striking. The physicists, after their expositions and explanations, tend to stress how much more they do not know and consequently they display a reluctance to make final and apodictic statements. The theologians after they have given their presentations and clarifications tend to come to firm and decisive statements concerning the ultimate truth of the matter. Is this because the scientists know that nature is there and quite ready to correct them, while the theologians know that a correction out of a supernatural world is not likely? I submit that this tendency among theologians (of diffferent denominations?) is a survival of the post-Tridentine method (remember the controversalists?), which postulated that every inquiry should begin with a thesis to be defended, not with a question to be investigated—as was customary in the middle ages, cf. the sic-et-non method of Abelard and the Quaestiones in the works of Aquinas. One wonders if the “thesis method” already current in the sixteenth century has contributed to the bitter tone of the Reformation controversies and made reconciliation more difficult.

14. The text of the canon is taken from the Constitution Dei Filius by Vatican Council 1; cf. DS 3011.

15. See Charles E. Curran, Faithful Dissent, (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1986), p. 268. Cf. also Page, Qui est l’ Église?, vol. 3, p. 547: he warns about the different senses of magistère ordinaire.

16. In the years after Vatican Council II there has been much talk about “creeping infallibility,” meaning the tendency to regard doctrines not infallibly defined as if they had been so defined. To hold such exaggerations on a purely intellectual level is already bad enough, but when practical sanctions are taken against someone who does not accept them, the situation becomes even worse. Failure in truth may lead to failure in justice... (One more reason to promote sound, loyal and critical theological reflection!)

17. See CTSA Proceedings 35 (1980), pp. 155-169.

18. "In my view, it would cause confusion and lead to misunderstanding, to use the term magisterium nowadays to describe the role of theologians and exegetes, and so to insist on there being a twofold magisterium in the church. The fact is that in modern usage, the term magisterium has come to be associated exclusively with pastoral teaching authority." See Sullivan, Magisterium, p. 29.

19. Those Catholics who strongly deny that there is a non-hierarchical teaching charism in the church, should oppose also, if they wish to be logical, the calling of anyone who was not ordained bishop “doctor of the church.”

20. This is a sensitive passage; it deserves to be quoted fully in the original: Decretales itaque epistolae canonibus conciliorum pari iure exequantur. Nunc autem queritur de expositoribus sacrae scripturae, an exequentur, an subiciantur eis? Quo enim quisque magis ratione nititur, eo maioris auctoritatis eius verba esse videntur. Plurimi autem tractatorum, sicut pleniori gratia Spiritus sancti, ita ampliori scientia aliis precellentes, rationi magis adhesisse probantur. Unde nonnullorum Pontificum constitutis Augustini, Ieronimi atque aliorum tractatorum dicta eis videntur esse preferenda.

Sed aliud est causis terminum imponere aliud scriptures sacras diligenter exponere. Negotiis diffiniendis non solum est necessaria scientia, sed etiam potestas. Unde Christus dicturus Petro: “Quodcumque ligaveris super terra, erit ligatum et in coelis, etc.” prius dedit sibi claves regni coelorum: in altera dans ei scientiam discernendi inter lepram et lepram, in altera sibi potestatem eiciendi aliquos ab ecclesia, vel recipiendi. Cum ergo quaelibet negotia finem accipiant vel in absolutione innocentium, vel in condempnatione delinquentium, absolutio vero vel condempnatio non scientiam tantum, sed etiam potestatem presidentium desiderant: apparet, quad divinarum scripturarum tractatores, etsi scientia Pontificibus premineant, tamen, quia dignitatis eorum apicem non sunt adepti, in sacrarum scripturarum expositionibus eis preponuntur, in causis vero diffiniendis secundum post eos locum merentur.

There is a clear distinction, if there ever was one, between the power of jurisdiction and the power of interpreting the Scriptures! (See Dictum before canon 1, Distinctio XX in Decretum Magistri Gratiani, ed. Aemilius Friedberg [Graz: Akademische Verlagsanstalt, 1959] col. 65.)

21. In the original Latin:

. . .oportet triplicem differentiam considerare cathedrae magistralis ad cathedram pontificalem.

Quarum prima est, quad ille qui accipit cathedram magistralem, non accipit aliquam eminentiam qua». prius non habuerit, sed solum opportunitatem communicandi scientiam, quam. prius non habebat ...Ille vero qui accipit cathedram episcopalem, accipit eminentiam potestatis, quam prius non habebat, sed quantum ad hoc in nullo ab aliis differebat.

Secunda differentia est, quad eminentia scientiae, quae requiritur ad cathedram magistralem, est perfectio hominis secundum se ipsum; eminentia vero potestatis, quae pertinet ad cathedram pontificalem, est hominis per comparationem ad alium.

Tertia differentia est, quad ad cathedram pontificalem fit homo idoneus per caritatem excellentem; ...ad cathedram autem magistralem redditur homo idoneus ex sufficientia scientiae. (Quodl. 3, 9, c)

22. The passage about the two cathedras quoted above appears in an “article” entitled Is it permissiblefor someone to request for himself the licence to teach theology? (There is the issue of the “canonical mission” as it was played out in the thirteenth century!) Thomas’s answer is “yes”

Since the one who receives licence to occupy a magisterial cathedra receives only the opportunity to communicate what he has, to ask for such a licence in itself contains no wrong [nullam turpitudinem continere]; because to communicate to others the learning one has is praiseworthy and belongs to charity. . . But this rule does not apply in the same way to those who seek the licence to teach and those who seek a pontifical office [episcopate]. The reason is that someone can know with certainty that he has the learning that qualifies him for teaching; but no one can know with certainty that he has the charity that would qualify him for pastoral office. Therefore, it is always wrong [vitiosum] to ask for the pontifical office. ..

Paul appears as having been of a different opinion: ‘The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task.’ (1 Tim. 3:1)

23. Besides, it displays a lack of sensitivity for history. Should one conclude that before the Council of Nicaea (325), where the first major definitions occurred, Christians could dissent from any part of the tradition handed down to them?

24. See “Mutilation” in NCE 10: 145-146, and “Organic Transplants,” ibid. 754-756; also (and especially) the article by Gerald Kelly “Pope Pius XII and the Principle of Totality” in Theological Studies, 16 (1955), pp. 373-396.

25. Vatican Council I, in defining papal infallibility, said that the pope has that infallibility “with which the divine Redeemer wanted his church to be endowed in defining the doctrine concerning faith and morals” (cf. DS 3074). The Council did not go into the description of the precise limits of this gift—as usual, the Fathers left it to the theologians to work on the problem. Questions remain: What are the limits of this infallibility? What is the meaning of “doctrine of morals”? Does it include moral precepts which in no way can be found in the revelation? Is the church the proclaimer and guardian of “natural law”? How can the church know the natural law if it is not contained in the revelation? There is always a problem with building an argument from natural law and then calling the conclusion part of Catholic teaching. On the one hand, the ecumenical councils have steadily refused to commit the church to a philosophical system, no matter how suitable or helpful it appeared; on the other hand, no statement about natural law is possible without invoking a philosophical system.

See the judicious treatment of this issue in Sullivan, Magisterium, pp. 138-152. His position is that while there are good reasons to hold that particular norms of natural law are not objects of infallible teaching; they can be objects of magisterial teaching. It follows (my remark) that we need a distinct type of hermeneutics for magisterial documents which deal with the natural law.

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