In a typical exchange between a Catholic and a Protestant, a Catholic will say that we need a Magisterium to rescue us from the vicissitudes of private judgment—to which a Protestant will counter that a Catholic must apply his own private judgment to the interpretation of Magisterial statements.
Since this reply answers the Catholic on his own grounds, the Catholic ought, at that point, to withdraw his objection. Instead, it doesn’t make a dent.
I think a major reason for this reaction, or lack thereof, is that the Protestant response too abstract. The whole point of the Catholic appeal to a Magisterium is to offer an intellectual shortcut. Hence, Catholics who use this argument don’t conduct serious research in church history or canon law. As such, they exhibit a very naïve attitude towards the interpretation or application of Magisterial pronouncements. They act as if it’s no different than reading the local newspaper.
But the interpretation of a Magisterial document or pronouncement often requires a highly specialized knowledge of arcane church history, historical theology, and canon law. And beyond the interpretation is the question of how to apply a past Magisterial teaching to the present. What abiding value or timeless truth, if any, can we extract from the historical formulation?
Let’s take the famous or infamous bull by Pope Boniface VIII: Unam sanctam. This is a brief statement of a few paragraphs:
Now I quote some passages from the analysis of Unam sanctam by Fr. George Tavard. Pope John XXIII named Tavard a peritus conciliaris at Vatican II, where he also served as a consultant to the Pontifical Secretariat for Christian Unity.
Several theological lines converge and meet in Unam sanctam. The ‘mystical’ conception of the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies, deriving from the writings of (Pseudo-) Denys the Areopagyte, and significantly altered in the Middle Ages. It was in favor with the Franciscan School, especially St. Bonaventure. As the orthodox Franciscans, reacting against the heterodoxy of the Spirituals, were staunch promoters of papal supremacy, the expression of this supremacy in terms of the hierarchy of creation came, as it were, naturally, although this implied, in fact, a gross distortion of what Denys had meant by hierarchy, “The Bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII,” Paul Empie & T. Murphy, eds., Papal Primacy and the Universal Church (Augsburg 1974), 109.
In the same line, the exegesis of scriptural passages is highly spiritual, not to say allegorical. This was a common method of illustrating theological or canonical positions (109_.
The theology of the plenitudo potestatis of the pope. Originally used by St. Leo, who contrasted it with the pars sollicitudinis granted to his legates, it came to be applied to papal, as being intrinsically different from episcopal, authority: the pope alone has plenitudo potestatis, whereas the bishop has only partem sollicitudinis, that is, a participation in the pope’s authority. This second sense of the expression had appeared for the first time in the False Decretals of Isidorus Merctor. Gregory VII had used both senses. The Decree of Gratian included it with its original meaning. But St. Bernard gave it, in the De Consideratione, the latter sense. It is in use in the curial style in Rome since Celestine III (1191-98) (109-10).
In this context, the expression is taken in three different senses:
• Plenitudo potestatis designates papal authority in its universality, extensively, but not essentially, different from episcopal authority (v. gr., Huguccio).
• It designates papal authority as essentially different from episcopal authority (Innocent III), but within the ecclesiastical order.
• It designates papal authority as supreme even outside of the ecclesiastical order, i.e., the pope’s power over kings and emperors and his right to interfere in the temporal order (Innocent IV, 1243-1254, claiming the right to dispose of all benefices in France, a point which was not admitted by St. Louis IX, 1226-1270).
• In its extreme form, plenitudo potestatis is identified by some canonists with God’s own power over creation. It is limited only by the Christian faith, which the pope has no right to change (v. gr., Durand de Mende, Bernard of Parma, [d. 1266], Innocent IV) (110).
The theology of the two powers, by which the Middle Ages tried to regulate the relations of pope and emperor: since the ninth century (Hincmar of Reims, Nicholas I, 858-867, John VIII, 872-882), the bishops and popes, faced with the degradation of the Carolingian monarchy in France and Lotharingia, had upheld the principle that a king who turns bad loses thereby his legitimacy. As a necessary consequence, the spiritual authority was judge of the king’s exercise of his function and, by extension, of the capacities of a claimant to the throne. The ceremonies of the coronation were widely interpreted in this sense. In the thirteenth century itself, the emperors reversed the meaning of the principle: in order to safeguard the harmony of the two powers, the emperor shares both: he is priest and king; he must judge the pope in case the pope turns bad. Whence the conflict between Frederic II and Innocent IV, both using the same theoretical conception, but putting the onus on preserving the harmony of the corpus [christianorum], the former on the emperor, the latter on the pope (110-111).
Direct sources: The bull may have been written by Matthew d’Aquasparta, Franciscan, cardinal and friend of Boniface. (In his Quodlibet VII, p9, Mathew teaches that papal authority extends to infidels, Jews, pagans, and Moslems.) One of the other sources of the language of the bull is the canonist Gilles of Rome…the doctrine of Gilles de Rome throws light on the meaning of “instituere” as used by Boniface VIII (111).
Remote Sources: The most important precedents of it are: the decree of Nicholas II (1059), which reserved papal election to cardinals, thus neutralizing the imperial or popular control of the papacy; the Dictatus Papae of Gregory VII (1075); the third Lateran Council (1179) under Alexander III (1159-1181), when for the first time the decrees of a general council were promulgated by the pope rather than by the council (de consilio fratrum nostrorum et sacri approbatione Concilii); the policy of Innocent III (1198-1216), who persuaded several kings to become legal vassals of the pope (Sicily, Anjou, Portugal, Hungary, England, Ireland); the action of Innocent IV in deposing Frederic II, his bull Eger cui levia of 1245, where the pope’s universal authority over temporal government was said to be founded on the power of the keys, and his unusual claim that the pope governs ‘not by human policy, but by divine inspiration’; the Second Council of Lyons (1274), under Gregory X (1271-1276), where the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Paleologos signed a profession of faith containing the follow passage… (111-12).
The history of the two centuries that followed the publication of Unam sanctam shows clearly that this bull was not received by all theologians and canonists of the times as binding on the Christian faith. It goes without saying that in any case one cannot speak of ‘infallibility’ at that period. The first use of the term ‘infallible’ as applied to the pope appears in 1320 in the works of Agostino Trionfo (Summa de potestate ecclesiastica, LXIII, 1. ad 1). In the language of that period, one can speak of plenitudo potestatis. This, however, was not universally accepted in the sense of Unam sanctam, where it entails hierocracy and implies the pope’s authority over princes (112).
The violent reaction of King Philip had political and mercenary more than theological motives. Yet the subsequent policy of the king, who managed to have a French pope, Clement V (1305-1314), elected in 1305 and to move his living quarters to Avignon, cannot be dismissed as purely political. It corresponded to another view of the relationship between the two powers. This was implicitly recognized by Clement V: on February 1, 1306, his brief Meruit considerably toned down Boniface’s doctrine concerning the subordination of temporal authority to the pope (112-113).
(In his account, Congar depicts the theologians of the fourteenth century as divided along four lines. (1) The hierocrats: besides Matthew d’Aquasparta and Egidius Romanus, Jacques de Viterbe (d. 1307) Barthélemy de Lucques (d. 1327), Agostino Trionfo (d. 1328; de duplici potestate praelatorum et laicorum; De potestate collegii mortuo papa), Alvaro Pelayo (d. 1349 or 1353; De planctu ecclesiae), Guido Terreni (d. 1342; Questio de magisterio infallibili), Henri Trotting de Oyta (d. 1397; In Sententiis), the anonymous Determinatio compendiosa (1342). These, with minor differences, considered the pope to be the head of the mystical body, wielding authority over all men and all things (113).
(2) Others recognize the autonomy of the temporal order, in the line of the theology of Thomas Aquinas; Jean Quidort of Paris (d. 1302), De potestate regia et papali), Pierre de la Palu (d. 1342; De potestate papae). This Thomist position subordinates the temporal to the spiritual in the order of final causality, not, as for the hierocrats, in the order of efficient causality (113).
(3) Some assert the autonomy of the temporal order without qualification: the Ghibeline party in Italian politics, Dante (1265-1321; De monarchia), and, in a more extreme form, Marsiglio de Padua (d. 1342; Defensor pacis). Several statements from the Defensor pacis were condemned by John XXII on October 27, 1327 (DS, 941-946).
(4) William of Ockham (d. 1349), Dialogus Adversus haereticos, in his conflict with John XXII over the Franciscan idea of Christian perfection defines papal authority as purely spiritual. He admits a primacy in the church, even a plenitudo potestatis over temporal matters, but only if temporal authority fails to function. He also admits that a General Council may be called without a pope when this is necessary for the good of the Church (113).
This division of opinion on the questions which Boniface VIII tried to settle in his bull Unam sanctam become sharper with time. The conflict between conciliarists and papalists was yet to come; the fifth session of the council of Constance (April 1415) was to ‘define’ an ecclesiology at odds with that of Boniface VIII (113).
Until the end of the Middle Ages, the church’s formal doctrines were still determined by their reception by the body of the church. Although never clearly formulated in theology, this principle had been affirmed by Hincmar de Reims in the ninth century. It was accepted by the canonists who, like Huguccio or Hostiensis (Henri de Séguse, d. 1271), assimilated the church to a medieval corporation. It persisted into the fifteenth century with Cardinal Zarabella (d. 1417) and Panormitanus (Nicholas de Tudeschis, d. 1445) and was predominant among the theologians of the Council of Constance (113-14).
Some theologians distinguish between the conclusion of the bull (DS, n875), to which they ascribe permanent value, and the preliminaries, which they regard as too time-conditioned to be authoritative. Thus Cardinal Journet or the author of the remark in DS, p279: ‘the final sentence alone is the dogmatic definition.’ In line with this, the last section of Unam sanctam was the only one mentioned by the eleventh session of the Fifth Lateran Council (bull Pastor aeternus, condemning the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, 1438, a decree in 23 articles, with a conciliarist orientation, signed by the king of France, Charles VII, and accepted by the Sorbonne). The Lateran Council explicitly stated that it also stood by the declaration of Meruit of Clement V. Congar, who mentions this distinction between the body of the text and its conclusion, does not endorse it clearly (114).
Fr. Chenu identifies the ‘permanent value’ of Unam sanctam as ‘the dogmatic teaching that all political action falls under the light and within the scope of grace.’ He adds: ‘No doubt the arguments of this document are steeped in an unacceptable theocratism; but this resulted from a theology that is outmoded today, and it does not nullify the truth that was enunciated.’ Such an interpretation severs the message from the medium, a procedure which, as will be explained below, I cannot accept. The bull then becomes an allegorical document expressing a truth in terms that are no longer acceptable (theocratism). Chenu effectively discerns the pope’s motivation; this, however, does not adequately account for the formulation of his doctrine (114-15).
The problem raised by Unam sanctam is that of doctrinal formulation. Several remarks are called for. First, I cannot see how one can, in a statement about doctrine, separate the conclusion from the preliminaries which introduce it and, by outlining its context, determine the features and the limit of its horizon (116).
Second, this relates to the question of theological method.
Either the conclusion need not follow upon the premises. In that case it must be somehow protected from error by a sudden charism, but at the cost of the intelligibility of the discourse of which it is a part. It would then be theologically legitimate, although rationally absurd, to elaborate the arguments after reaching the conclusion, and these arguments need not be logically cogent as long as they are apologetically effective.
Or theological language must follow the rule of all language, i.e., effectively reflect the ongoing effort of the mind searching for intelligibility. In this case the conclusion will flow from the premises and preliminaries as stated in the discourse (116).
Fourth, one may express this in more familiar terms: Boniface did not state the conclusion of the bull by itself, but as explained in the context of the bull. In this context, the conclusion refers to the pope’s authority over ‘every human creature’ insofar as this human creature wields, or is subject to, temporal authority. The conclusion reflects the same theology as the complete bull. Its meaning is restricted and its validity qualified by the theology of temporal and spiritual power which the bull embodies (117).
Fifth, if it is advisable to speak in terms of infallibility, we should not say that infallibility protects one sentence from error, while the rest of the discourse may well be erroneous. Rather, the whole discourse conveys, or does not convey, a truth (117).
It is not a fruitful exercise to try to abstract a core of permanent truth from such a culturally dated and politically limited document as Unam sanctam. That such a core of permanent truth may be arrived at, I would not deny. But this core is not evident from what the text itself says. We may reach it by making educated guesses as to what can, may, or ought to have been at the back of Boniface VIII’s mind. This result is so dependent on our knowledge of the historical, social, and psychological conditions in which Boniface VIII lived and worked, that, if it properly belongs within the field of scholarly investigation, it cannot be claimed as a norm for the faith of Catholics who are utterly remote from those conditions (117-18(.
The distinction of John XXIII between the ‘substance’ and the ‘formulation’ of the faith raises a major question here. For the substance of speech is never given without a formulation, and furthermore, in the analysis of language that I would accept, no two formulations ever cover exactly the same substance. If substance is the meaning, the formulation is itself a syntactic combination of themes without which no meaning is available. Accordingly, the suggested contrast between ‘substance’ and ‘formulation’ is misleading. It tends to raise a barrier between the substance or ideal content of doctrine, and its formulation, as though the substance of doctrine could stand by itself in a Platonic world of essences (118).
Keep in mind that Fr. Tavard was an ecumenist, writing in the wake of Vatican II, so he is inclined to minimize the relevance of Unam sanctam to our own time. A Catholic theologian of an earlier era might well be inclined to offer more of a hardline interpretation and application:
Tavard’s analysis illustrates the extreme intricacies and vagaries of interpreting a Magisterial statement from the past, as well as relating that statement to current Catholic theology. You have to look forward and backward. Backward to precedents leading up to the statement to rightly construe the statement in its historical context—and forward to subsequent interpretations and subsequent developments.
Keep in mind that Unam sanctam is just one Magisterial statement among thousands and thousands. Imagine having to bring the same erudite investigation to every Magisterial statement.
And Unam sanctam is a very brief Magisterial statement. The longer the statement, the longer the analysis.
Catholics delude themselves when they suppose that they can sidestep the ambiguities of Biblical exegesis by punting to the Magisterium. Magisterial tradition generates its own hermeneutical layers. Its own imponderables.
And, at least in the case of Scripture, it is God’s will that he rule his people through his word. So we have more reason to believe that our exegetical efforts will be more successful in the case of Scripture than in the case of tradition.
I suspect many Catholics vainly imagine that they don’t have to sift through Magisterial tradition since a compendium like the Catechism has already winnowed the wheat from the chaff. But that’s an illusion. As Cardinal Dulles, along with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, explain:
“The various teachings in the Catechism have no greater authority than they had in the documents from which they are drawn,” A. Dulles, Magisterium: Teaching and Guardian of the Faith, 84.
“’The individual doctrines that the Catechism affirms have no other authority than that which they already possess,’ wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Optimism of the Redeemed,’ Communio: International Catholic Review 20 (1993): 469-84, at 479,” ibid. 84n4.
For example, Ratzinger, now pope, thinks that Vatican II teaches the Pelagian heresy. So taking refuge in the Catechism, with its derivative doctrine, is no escape.