Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Magisterial Statements and the Faithful Response

The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church, given by Christ to Peter in Matthew 16: 18–20 and guided by the Holy Spirit. The word “magisterium” comes from the Latin term magister, which means “tutor” or “teacher,” but can also mean “master.”[1] The term was once used for both the theological teaching office of academicians, as well as the Apostolic teaching office. For the sake of clarity, the term is no longer used by mainstream Catholics to refer to the teaching role of theologians. Since the 19th century, the term is used solely in reference to that Apostolic teaching office of the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him.[2]

Magisterial teaching has varying degrees of authority, as well as varying scopes. Bishops exercise the Ordinary Local Magisterium when they teach in their diocese, write letters or columns for their diocesan newspapers and bulletins, give homilies at Mass, and release statements in conjunction with their brother bishops in regional conferences and synods.[3] Lumen Gentium states,

For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith.[emphasis added][4]

Bishops exercise the Ordinary Universal Magisterium when they act in one accord when teaching matters of faith and morals. This authority is in effect whether they meet in a synod or council or even when dispersed and teaching in unanimous agreement.[5]

The Holy Father exercises his authority using the Ordinary Universal Magisterium whenever he teaches—most notably when he issues encyclicals, exhortations, or Apostolic constitutions, but also when he preaches or speaks extemporaneously to a private audience. He also exercises his authority in conjunction with bishops in synodal documents and catechetical works. The Holy Father can also exercise this teaching authority in an extraordinary way, referred to as the Extraordinary Universal Magisterium. Together with the college of bishops, the Holy Father exercises supreme solemn authority in the canons of ecumenical councils. However, he can also make pronouncements ex cathedra or “from the chair.” In these instances, the Holy Father exercises the Extraordinary Universal Magisterium on his own without the college of bishops.[6] Whether the Holy Father acts on his own or with the college of bishops, the role engaged is not one which expounds new revelation. This authority only interprets existing revelation handed on through Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture.[7] In these acts, the Sacred Magisterium is not master, but servant.

While the means for exercising this authority are many, the types of statements that pope and bishops make under this authority fall into four categories: infallible dogma, definitive statements, ordinary teaching on faith and morals, and ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters. The manner of delivery (whether written or oral), the language used, and the frequency of repetition all have an impact on how a Magisterial statement should be interpreted. In addition, the object of the teaching (whether on faith, morals, or discipline) also indicates the level of authority with which the teaching is being presented.[8]

Infallible dogmas are statements that are revealed truths persistently held by the faithful. Dogma is not simply a teaching but a settled matter of faith declared in a definitive fashion and attributed directly to Divine Revelation. The faithful Catholic’s response to such statements is defined in part 1 of Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law as follows:

Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.[9]

This “divine and Catholic faith” is also called “the obedience of faith”[10] or theological faith, which means “the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God.[11] This level of adherence is highest primarily because of the degree of certainty concerning Divine Revelation. Dogmas represent the most certain truths of the Catholic faith.

Because dogma is, by definition, revealed truth, dogmatic definitions are irreformable and cannot be changed in substance. However, the understanding of a dogma can develop over time. An example of this development is the Church’s understanding of the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus. While the statements from Unam Sanctam and the Councils of Florence and Trent do not mince words,[12] some quarters characterize the current formulation in sections 846 through 848 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as language purée. However, when one interprets the dogma in light of Sacred Tradition (for example, the acceptance by some early Church fathers of “righteous pagans” such as Socrates and Heraclitus or the Old Testament patriarchs[13])
and considers the historical conditions of the past and the current situation of the Church, the rigid phraseology of the Renaissance period becomes unacceptably harsh and uncharitable, not at all in line with the concept of a loving God who shows mercy to those who are invincibly ignorant of their errors. The Catechism positively restates this dogma in section 846 (“all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body”[14]). At the same time, the basic claim of the dogmatic formula still demands the obedience of faith from faithful Catholics. For theologians in a post-Reformation world, the ability to understand the temporal limitations of language are critical, not only for gaining converts, but also for promoting the faith of modern Catholic Christians.

Bishops and the Holy Father also employ the Ordinary Universal Magisterium when they make definitive statements about doctrine that is not in itself revealed truth but closely related to revealed truth.  Because the Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit in such matters, such doctrine is to be “firmly accepted and held.”[15] In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promulgated a revised formula for the profession of faith during John Paul II’s pontificate. Concerning matters proposed definitively, the profession states, “I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing (omnia et singular) that is proposed by the same Church definitively (definitive) with regard to teaching concerning faith and morals.”[16] While this profession is made by those holding ecclesial offices, all Catholics are bound to the same requirements, as expressed in Canon 705, part 2 of the Code of Canon Law:

Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.[17]

This point is again made in Donum Veritatis section 23.[18] These definitive statements, while not divinely revealed truth, still require the firm adherence of the faithful.

An example of a definitive statement, the subject of which still draws considerable debate, is Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. This Apostolic letter was issued on May 22, 1994 to address the question of whether women could be ordained to the priesthood. The teaching is direct and, as should be expected, definitive:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.[19]

This statement was followed by a responsum ad dubium in October of the following year. In this response, written to clarify the level of authority of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, “This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”[20] While some theologians and laity who consider themselves faithful Catholics still hold opposing opinions on the matter of women’s ordination, the documents on this subject and the law of the Church regarding definitive statements make clear that dissent on this subject is not an option for faithful Catholics.

Ordinary teaching on faith and morals includes those statements that are not definitive or irreformable but that lead “to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.”[21] This level of teaching requires “adherence with religious assent”[22] or, as described in the 1989 profession of faith, “religious submission of will and intellect.”[23] Theologians and faithful alike must do their best to understand the Church’s teaching on the matter, as explained in Lumen Gentium section 25:

[T]he faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention[.][24]

According to Avery Cardinal Dulles, the meaning of “obsequium animi religiosum” (which translates roughly to “religious submission of the mind”) includes a range of responses depending on a variety of factors.[25] In such matters, informed disagreement can be acceptable.[26] However, as Donum Veritatis 24 states, “The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.”[27] The most obvious example of an ordinary, noninfallible teaching on faith and morals is the Church’s teaching on contraception. This teaching, presented in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, met with considerable resistance in the United States and Canada, and it is still a matter of serious contention.[*

The lowest level of Magisterial authority is exercised in ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters. In the past, such matters have included the restriction of certain techniques for Biblical exegesis by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the early 20th century. Like ordinary teaching on faith and morals, ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters is reformable and often does change. Faithful Catholics are free to disagree with these teachings, so long as they do so in an appropriate manner. At the same time, external conformance to these teachings is required. [28] Currently, the issues of capital punishment and immigration reform reflect the exercise of ordinary prudential teaching on disciplinary matters. While faithful Catholics should always give an ear to what the Holy Father and the bishops say on these matters, the faithful can respectfully disagree so long as they are in external conformance.

While Donum Veritatis acknowledges the validity of private disagreement with matters of reformable teaching, making a public spectacle of disagreement is unacceptable, particularly when such actions are done for the purpose of exerting political pressure.[29] Dulles notes three conditions for acceptable dissent outlined by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops in 1968: “(1) The reasons must be serious and well-founded; (2) the manner of the dissent must not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church; and (3) the dissent must not be such as to give scandal.”[30] Unfortunately, many who dissent do so in open rebellion against authority. This rebellious attitude runs counter to the spirit in which the Church should operate. As Donum Veritatis section 40 states, “[T]o pursue concord and communion is to enhance the force of her witness and credibility. To succumb to the temptation of dissent, on the other hand, is to allow the ‘leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit’ to start to work.” This document on the vocation of the theologian closes with a reminder of the perfect submission of our Blessed Mother. While few of us can rise to such perfection, submission to the authority of the Church and obedience to our Lord’s will should be our deepest desires as faithful Catholics.


[1]“Magister,” Handy Dictionary of the Latin and English Languages, (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1958), 68.

[2] Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 8: Magisterium,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03608.htm>, 20 April 2007.

[3] —, “Lecture 9: Magisterium: Papal & Episcopal,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03609.htm>, 21 April 2007.

[4] Austin Flannery, ed., Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing, 2004), 379.

[5] Ibid.

[6] D’Ambrosio, ibid.

[7] Flannery, 381.

[8] D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 11: Hermeneutics of Doctrinal Statements,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03611.htm>, 23 April 2007.

[9] John Paul II, Ad Tuendam Fidem, 18 May 1998, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/motu_proprio/documents/hf_jp-ii_motu-proprio_30061998_ad-tuendam-fidem_en.html>, 23 April 2007.

[10] D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 12: Conclusion,” Norms of Catholic Doctrine, <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03612.htm>, 24 April 2007.

[11] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, 16 June 2000, <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html>, 24 April 2007.

[12] Josef  Neuner, SJ, and Jacques Dupuis, SJ, eds., The Christian Faith: Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th ed., (New York: Alba, 2000), 308–310.

[13] Justin Martyr, First Apology, July 13, 2005, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.xlvi.html>, 28 April 2007.

[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York : Doubleday, 1995), 244.

[15] Ibid., 81.

[16] Neuner and Depuis, 31.

[17] John Paul II, 4.A.

[18] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Veritatis, 24 May 1990, <http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFTHEO.HTM>, 28 April 2007.

[19] John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.html>, 28 April 2007.

[20] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Responsum Ad Dubium,” 28 October 1995, <http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFRESPO.HTM>, 28 April 2007.

[21] Catechism, 257.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Neuner and Depuis, 31.

[24] Flannery, 379.

[25] Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Authority and Conscience,” Fall 1986, <http://www.vatican2andbutler.org/conscience/dulles.asp>, 28 April 2007.

[26] Marcellino D’Ambrosio, “Lecture 12: Conclusion,” <http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03612.htm>, 28 April 2007.

[27] Donum Veritatis, 24.

[28] D’Ambrosio, Ibid.

[29] Donum Veritatis, 30.

[30] Dulles, Ibid.

* When I wrote the essay above, I was responding to an assignment for a course on Catholic doctrine in which the question of the licitness of contraception was held up as an example of reformable magisterial teaching on faith and morals. I was not comfortable with that claim at the time, and after rereading Humanae Vitae, I cannot now accept the claim at face value that the prohibition of artificial contraception is a reformable teaching. Please see this post for an explanation.
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