Because of the great confusion prevailing today concerning the doctrinal authority of the Church and how it is exercised, it is vital that Catholics clarify their thoughts on the subject. If we have a right understanding here, our total theological outlook is likely to be balanced; if we do not it will certainly be warped.
The twelve Apostles were chosen by Jesus to shepherd his Church, with St. Peter as the supreme leader. 'You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven' (Mt. 16, 1819).
St. Paul, knowing that the truth would remain in the Church, speaks of 'the Church of the living God, which upholds the truth and keeps it safe' (1 Tim. 3, 15). Although individuals go astray, therefore, the Church will not. This ecclesial aspect is important, as indicated by St. Peter in his warning: 'we must be most careful to remember that the interpretation of scriptural prophecy is never a matter for the individual' (2 Pet. 1. 20).
The fourth Pope, St. Clement, wrote a long letter to the Church in Corinth about A.D. 96, endeavoring to settle dissensions there. He states: 'Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full knowledge of this, therefore. they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of. and they went on to add an instruction that if these would die, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office (Corinthians, no. 44).
St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church in Smyrna about A.D. 107 exhorts them: 'Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father' (Smyrneans, no. 8).
St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and the great opponent of Gnosticism in the second century, insists on the need to follow the Church's bishops if we are to have the truth. 'It is necessary to obey the presbyters in the Church-those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the Apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father' (Adv. Haereses, IV, 26, 2).
Irenaeus names all the Bishops of Rome down to his own time, and says: 'In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the Apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us' (111, 3, 3).
Nothing here about a parallel magisterium composed of theologians! Mysterium Ecclesiae, in accordance with the whole of Tradition, sees bishops as those who teach authentically in Christ's name.
The first Vatican Council, in 1870, declared that all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal Magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed' (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. 3).
One of the most important sections in the whole of the documents of Vatican II is no. 25 in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, where the teaching authority of the Church is outlined. Concerning the bishops, the document says: 'Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's Successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teachings concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.'
Their infallible authority is exercised in the clearest way when they assemble in a General Council and, together with the Pope, define a matter of faith and morals. 'Assembled in an Ecumenical Council they are, for the Universal Church, judges in matters of faith and morals, whose decisions must be adhered to with the loyal and obedient assent of faith.'
Repeating Vatican I, the Pope is declared to be infallible when, as supreme teacher of the faithful, 'he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.'
Having said that the faithful must adhere to the bishops' teachings on faith and morals, the Council continues: 'This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic 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 sincere assent be given to decisions made by him.'
The substance of the above doctrine from Vatican II is repeated in the Code of Canon Law, Canons 749752.
Now to clarify some terms. Extraordinary Magisterium refers to a special exercise of their teaching office by either the Pope and bishops together, or the Pope alone, in which a definitive judgment is given. When a General Council pronounces a solemn definition, this is an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium. So is an ex cathedra definition by the Pope: a decision definitively settling the question.
By contrast ordinary Magisterium refers to the exercise of the teaching office without a solemn definition being given. This is the case with the day-today teaching of bishops in their dioceses, or the greater part-almost the entire part-of the Popes teaching. (Much in these categories, however, has already been defined infallibly.)
The term ordinary universal Magisterium means an exercise of the Church's teaching office where there is complete agreement, or fairly close to complete agreement, among the Catholic Bishops of the world that a particular doctrine is certainly true, but without a solemn definition.
The extraordinary Magisterium is infallible. A definition given by a General Council or an ex cathedra definition by a Pope cannot be erroneous. Likewise, the ordinary universal Magisterium is infallible. The fact that the bishops are dispersed throughout the world' (in the words of Vatican II quoted above) does not make any difference.
What of the ordinary (but not universal) Magisterium? Is it infallible? No, as Vatican II indicates in the quotation above concerning statements that are not ex cathedra.
We started by noting common attitudes to the Church's teaching. Let us now evaluate those views, beginning with the claim that there are few infallible teachings.
Actually there is a very large number, as we might expect when we recall that the Church has existed for nearly 2000 years and that numerous disputes about doctrine have raged during that long and turbulent period. Infallible definitions have been given about our knowledge of God. about his nature, about the Blessed Trinity, about creation, angels, man, grace. the fall, redemption, the divinity and humanity of Christ, the Church. the sacraments in general and each sacrament in particular, our Lady, heaven, hell, purgatory, the general resurrection, the final judgment. Quite a number of infallible pronouncements have been made in some of these areas; and this list is not complete.
I flipped through Ludwig Ott's standard text Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma to see how many points he classifies as infallible, and my rough count was about 250!
Why, then, the preposterous notion that de fide pronouncements may be as few as two (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption)? I am sure the root cause of the error is the propaganda spread by dissident theologians against the Church's authority. One ploy is to concentrate on ex cathedra definitions of the Popes, and to stress that there are few of these; leaving people with the impression that there are no infallible pronouncements apart from these.
We have seen that Vatican II insists on the acceptance of teachings given by the ordinary Magisterium, even though they are not infallible. We have seen too that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in Mysterium Ecclesiae, said the faithful must accept the teaching of the Pope and bishops 'with an assent that is proportionate to the authority that they possess and that they mean to exercise.'
Canon Law states the position in these plain words: 'While the assent of faith is not required, a religious submission of intellect and will is to be given to any doctrine which either the Supreme Pontiff or the The Church 's Magisterium College of Bishops, exercising their authentic Magisterium, declare upon a matter of faith or morals, even though they do not intend to proclaim that doctrine by a definitive act (Canon 752).
Another statement calling for comment, and mentioned at the beginning of this article. is that God speaks to us in many ways including conscience, the Church, life experience, nature. This kind of remark seems to put the Church on the same level as other ways of arriving at the truth. In fact she is unique, for God preserves her from error.
This practice of downgrading the teaching Church leads on to the notion of a parallel magisterium comprised of theologians. But once we realize that the Pope and bishops comprise the Church's true Magisterium, for the Holy Spirit guides them in a way he does not guide anyone else, we see that theologians who classify themselves as part of a parallel magisterium are setting themselves up in opposition to the Holy Spirit.
The Magisterium is a wonderful gift from God. Faithfulness to it will preserve us from intellectual slavery to trendy theology, personal prejudices, secularism, and all the other forces that threaten to rob us of the truth.
From Catholic Position Papers, series A, no. 217. Published by the SEIDO FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF EDUCATION (12-6 Funado-Cho, Ashiya, Japan), July, 1993 with general permission to reprint.
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