Different understandings of ‘magisterium’ spark arguments in the Church

The very strong intervention by former president, Mary McAleese, on the subject of Catholic teaching on homosexuality has certainly caused a stir. Along with initiating very necessary discussion on Catholic Church teaching and attitudes towards gay people, the succeeding days since her intervention have clearly highlighted some of the difficulties surrounding any form of dialogue between the differing views in the Church. Pope Francis has signalled that he wants this dialogue and discussion to take place; he talks about “an open Church where everyone can share”. But for any benefit to accrue, this dialogue has to be tolerant and respectful, with more listening than talking, and devoid of any attempt to brow-beat alternative views into submission. Those of us on “one side” have to try to see things from the perspective of the “other side”.
In this article I would like to outline three main barriers to this open dialogue. Within the Church what we call ‘The Magisterium’ is the body that defines, clarifies and has the final say on what the Church teaches on any given subject. But there are two views on precisely what this Magisterium is. Under the last two popes, as the Church became increasingly centralised, the Magisterium was understood as the Vatican, or, more specifically, the Curia, and in particular the pre-eminent body within the Curia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But an older understanding, which was central to the Vatican Council in the last century, has a more complex, wider view of what constitutes the Magisterium. According to this perspective, it consists of the Vatican, the bishops of the universal Church, the body of theologians, and, most significantly of all, the ‘sensus fidelium’, the good sense of the ordinary Catholic faithful. The Council goes so far as to say that unless a teaching is accepted by the consensus of the faithful it cannot be considered a defined teaching. Clearly there are two very different understandings here. In the first one, all we need in order to know Church teaching is a decree from the Vatican; the second understanding involves a whole process of dialogue and discussion going on right across the Church, out of which Church teaching grows and develops and can never be seen as static.
Mary McAleese recounted how she went to the Papal Nuncio to discuss her concerns about a possible link between Church teaching on homosexuality and young male suicide. She says that he responded by asking her if she wanted him to change Church tradition, and that she replied: “Yes, if it is wrong”. This highlights the second big area of difficulty—the meaning of Church tradition? For some, tradition is a body of knowledge passed down through the ages from the great teachers of old. It is fixed and unchangeable. For others tradition is a living thing, which dialogues with each generation, absorbing new knowledge, discoveries and understanding, and adapting the teaching and approach of the Church accordingly, – reading the signs of the times, as the Vatican Council said. It would appear that in the exchange between Mary McAleese and the Nuncio, the two different understandings of tradition were in conflict.
The third stumbling block is our different interpretations of the Bible. During the current debate I listened to some speakers who quoted sentences from the Bible, mostly the Old Testament, condemning homosexuality. They seemed to work out of a belief that every word in the Bible comes directly from God and must be interpreted literally. This is what is usually called the fundamentalist approach to scripture. On the other hand there are those in the Catholic community who learned from some of the great Scripture scholars of the last century that the text of the Bible needs to be interpreted within the social and cultural milieu of its time, and that its core teaching needs to be mediated and understood through the very different circumstances of each age. It is obvious that these two approaches to the sacred book can lead to very different conclusions.
These three issues underlie all debates, discussions and arguments in the Church in recent times, and explain why, so often, attempts at dialogue quickly develop into conflict and division. Among clergy, if I can be allowed to generalise a little, the younger generation, those trained roughly in the last twenty years, are more likely to lean towards the first understanding; the older ones, who date back to John XXIII and the Vatican Council, mainly support the second approach. Although it is probably too early to be certain, it would appear that Pope Francis wants to restore the Church to that period of openness, decentralisation and dialogue and that will challenge all of us to be more tolerant of differing viewpoints. Most of all he wants the Church to be open to all, regardless of status, marital state, sexual orientation, but with a special care and concern for the poor.

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  1. Gene Carr says:

    The view that a Church teaching is not valid until it has been “received” can work many ways. Was not this the method used by the Jansenists in the 17th Century to deflect Papal censure of their extreme rigorist worldview, which inflicted so much damage? Could it not be used by todays extreme traditionalists to justify rejection of Vatican II? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. And how pray does one decide whether a doctrine has been “received” or not? Does the Pope have to check teachings out beforehand, by sending drafts for approval to Mary and Tony and the Editorial board of the National Catholic Reporter?
    Christ have the keys of the kingdom to Peter not to a theological commission or a colloquia of bible scholars.

  2. Margaret Trench says:

    What a wonderful read – the first clear and balanced explanation I’ve read which helps me understand the ongoing divisions and disputes in my church.
    We need more such articles on this site and much less of the comments which seem to fuel one extreme or the other in all discussions.

  3. Shaun the Sheep says:

    To understand how to be sure we are adhering to the true Catholic Faith, we could do a lot worse than look to the criteria explained by St. Vincent de Lerins:

    “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself, we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, Bishops and Doctors alike.
    “What then will the Catholic Christian do, if a small part of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal Faith? The answer is sure. He will prefer the healthiness of the whole body to the morbid and corrupt limb.
    “But what if some novel contagions try to infect the whole Church, and not merely a tiny part of it? Then he will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot now be led astray by any deceit of novelty.

    [The Vincentian Canon, in Commonitorium, chap IV, 434]

    To be clear, at no time in the 2000 years of the Church were homosexual acts accepted as good and holy, therefore this can rightly concluded to be a current day novelty, and thus one to be firmly rejected.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    The Vincentian Canon is no panacea — see Owen Chadwick, “From Bossuet to Newman”. In any case it concerns dogma not ethics, where church teaching is even more subject to variation and development.

  5. Con Devree says:

    These disputes within the Church probably started the day Judas complained about Mary Magdalene’s perceived extravagant use of unguents, and will continue to the Last Day.
    Could I suggest that Father Flannery (a) read the Pope’s Address to Members of the International Theological Commission Vatican City, December 06, 2013 (particularly paragraph 5),
    (b) consider again the whole of paragraph 12 Lumen Gentium, and (c) comment as to whether both in their entirety are accurate expressions of his views.
    Secondly, should his preferred mode of the Magisterium have been assembled to deal with the case of the recently excommunicated Australian priest?
    Such clarifications are necessary for the dialogue he requests.

  6. carole young says:

    I would like to echo Margaret Trench’s point that the article is indeed a “wonderful read” and, like her, I would welcome more like this. I also feel that comments so often lead us into the realm of argument and a sort of intellectual competition. My attitude to homosexuality has been transformed by the fact that I have a gay child. I live with what to others is just a theological argument but I get the distinct impression that Pope Francis wants to hear from ordinary punters like myself because he recognises the authenticity and value of our life experiences.
    I can’t express the sense of liberation this man has given to me and the confidence to express my feelings here, however clumsily.

  7. Fr. Kieren says:

    Con (5) I agree. Lumen Gentium is pretty clear.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    I suggest that Francis offers an antidote to many problems when he says we should not obsess about details but should place them in the broad sweep of the Christian vision as a whole. His “pastoral” approach, like that of Vatican II, is not just icing on the dogmatic cake but is a presentation of Christian truth in the most integral and rooted way. If some teachings are persistently challenged (including not only teaching that demand obsequium, such as Humanae Vitae or Ordination Sacerdotalis, but even “defined” doctrines on ministry and the Eucharist) this is perhaps a symptom of a problem that should be a topic of open discussion, not of peremptory crackdown.

  9. Kay Mcginty says:

    Totally agree with you, Margaret, Fr.Tonys article is ‘clear and balanced’ .. Would that we could have more of this perspective and perhaps the church might not be in the sorry situation it finds itself.to quote a very good friend who “tried to balance the basic truths of Christianity with modern day secular living”, that is how the Church will survive, in my opinion .

  10. Robert Rennick says:

    I have come to the view that the Magisterium is a starting point for life’s journey, and a starting point only.
    If you still firmly hold to all of it without variation, at the end of life, then your faith has not matured, because you have not personally processed the content, and made it your own.
    The processing (mind boggling, if you like) will change the content of what you believe,

  11. Patrick Rogers says:

    I find this a pretty worthwhile discussion, so far, and hope it might spur more regular ACP-site readers to indicate how they understand the magisterium. A heartening detail of this conversation is that all the contributors – apart from the intransigent “Shaun the Sheep” – write under their real names. Like some others, I’d favour requiring all participants to do this, and would exclude comments from those who insist on using a nom-de-plume. What do others think of this?

  12. “[the Magisterium] consists of the Vatican, the bishops of the universal Church, the body of theologians, and, most significantly of all, the ‘sensus fidelium’, the good sense of the ordinary Catholic faithful. The Council goes so far as to say that unless a teaching is accepted by the consensus of the faithful it cannot be considered a defined teaching. ” I always find Fr. Tony’s articles thought provoking, especially as one who would seem to be on the “other side. I am genuinely interested in his opinions especially when we disagree. I find this article to be an interesting reading of the Second Vatican Council, where would I find it referenced in the documents?

    I’ve read the documents several times but I have only seen the Magisterium described as being comprised of the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him(cf Lumen Gentium 12,18&25). In addition as far as I can see theologians considered as theologians have never been thought of as part of the Magisterium of the Church, nevertheless they have often made valuable contributions to the Magisterium when they faithfully exercise their ecclesial vocation.

    In addition with regards to the Sensus Fidelium, Lumen Gentium 12 seems to describe it in a different way to the one outlined above, when it says that: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”

    As far as I can see this does not mean that something must be held universally in order to be believed, on the contrary, it seems that if it is held universally by all Catholics then it should be considered worthy of belief in a grassroots sense, rather than as a check on Magisterial statements, like a handbrake in a car, which seems to me to be rather different to Fr. Tony’s proposal above.

    In fact it seems analogous to the definition and exercise of Papal Infallibility where its not that the Pope is always right, but that on very specific occasions he cannot err. Of course the sensus fidelium cannot rightly operate apart from the teaching, in matters of faith and morals, of the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him. Which all of us, whether a priest like Fr. Tony or a layman like me, must adhere with religious submission of will and intellect(Cf. Lumen Gentium 25).

  13. We have the Apostles Creed. Is there any evidence that God is blessing the efforts of the doctrinal inquisitors in the Vatican or anywhere else? What is God clearly blessing right now?

  14. Con Devree says:

    Robert (10)
    Robert’s statement is unclear. There is an assumption that one knows all of the teachings of the Magisterium. If that is the case and if one firmly holds to all of the said teaching, and strives to practise it, one will probably move from mere knowledge to understanding. Credo ut intelligam! This practice involves tensions, and requires interaction with God in terms of Word, Sacrament, prayer and charity. This interaction creates the gift of an increase in faith. In this sense “variation” will occur on the basis of the gift of enhanced knowledge and understanding that emerges. Of course knowledge of the whole of the content of faith is not necessary for God to grant this variation.
    On the other hand Robert’s reference to one not having “personally processed the content” may refer to using a philosophical process, of laying hands on the content of the faith, and altering it and inventing a new “varied” text for oneself. But faith reaches into eternity, so the words in which faith is expressed never captures the content of the faith in full. Using a philosophical process instead of a theology identical with the faith creates a disjointed pluralism of subjectively minted selective Christianities.
    Pope Francis has emphasized that the teachings of the Church are in situ, that he is a “son of the Church.” In other words, the day to day business of the Church is not an ongoing Ecumenical Council, a constant deliberation on the teachings of the Magisterium. Rather he is in a sense taking the teachings as given and seeking to orient us, albeit in a very challenging fashion, to a greater focus on the Love of God, on the plight of the poor, and on the importance of creating suitable pastoral approaches to involving people in Word, Sacrament, prayer and charity. This latter was a constant formula also used by Pope Benedict

  15. Teachings of the Church
    Surely if there ever was a perfect catch-all phrase,
    it is “teachings-of-the-Church”.
    It includes everything from defined dogmas,
    items in the Apostle’s Creed,
    1752 Canon laws,
    opinions of the Pope (like steam locomotives are the work of the devil), every one of the 2865 items in the Catechism,
    to the thoughts of cranky old bishops like Burke and Molino.
    It has become a universal cliché of the hierarchy to discourage dissent.
    Falling into the same catch-all basket of against
    “The Teachings of the Church”
    are those who disagree with pre-Vatican II liturgical norms and language, contraception,
    mandatory celibacy for priests,
    collective bargaining,
    just war and torture,
    women’s ordination,
    same sex unions,
    the resurrection of Jesus,
    the nature of the Trinity,
    and if God really exists.
    Note that some “Teachings of the Church” are slippery,
    time-bound, and culturally-colored.
    At stake here is the power and authority,
    originating from the community of the Church
    and appropriated by unelected leaders to set the rules
    for who is in and who is out.
    By voting a certain way,
    you could be considered “out”
    according to “The Teachings of the Church”.
    By not behaving/believing according to the bishop’s instruction,
    you are obviously against the Teaching of the Church.
    Some (bishops?) believe good teaching is the attempt to influence,
    even coerce,
    the faithful into believing what is being taught.
    But the criteria for effective teaching
    involves rather if the teaching makes sense
    and is received by the faithful.
    If you do not accept that all contraception is sinful,
    or legalizing same-sex unions are wrong,
    or only men can be ordained,
    or contributors should have a say in how their money is spent
    and who should be responsible,
    or the language of prayer should be strange or contorted,
    or bishops should tell us how to vote,
    you are dissenting against “the teachings of the Church”.
    Without careful and intelligent scrutiny,
    accepting every “teaching of the Church”
    is similar to checking the box
    “I agree” to observe every privacy/usage rule
    for downloading new software/ upgrades.
    Study the reasoning behind Church teachings,
    consult and observe how your Catholic community receives them,
    and judge for yourself.
    Follow your own well-formed conscience,
    as fallible as it may be.
    Who is going to save the church? Not the bishops, not the priest and religious. It is up to you the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save Her.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

  16. Peter Shore says:

    Quote: “During the current debate I listened to some speakers who quoted sentences from the Bible, mostly the Old Testament, condemning homosexuality. They seemed to work out of a belief that every word in the Bible comes directly from God and must be interpreted literally.”
    This is a straw man. If you look at paragraphs 2357-2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which deal with homosexuality, you will see that the footnotes reference four scripture passages of which three are from the New Testament. The Scriptures are taken holistically, as they must be, not in the literalist way that Fr. Tony alleges.

  17. Joe O'Leary says:

    Very well said, John Chuchman.

  18. I’d like to point out that the only part of post 15 written by Sheen was the last 4 sentences. It’s not clear from the way it’s presented.

  19. Con Devree says:

    15 John Chuchman

    “Catholicism is used to proposals to cut down the creed to a few clauses; but different people have wanted quite different clauses left and quite different clauses cut out. … After nearly two thousand years of this sort of thing, Catholics have come to regard Catholicism as one thing, all the parts of which are in one sense equally assailed and in another sense equally unassailable.” — G. K. Chesterton (The Catholic Church and Conversion)

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