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Do theologians have a share in "teaching authority"?

Do theologians have a share in ‘teaching authority’?

Some years ago Avery Dulles suggested a 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)

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

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.

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.

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)

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.”

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)

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.)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 2. Read the whole chapter here.

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