Last year, Cardinal Dulles wrote a book entitled Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith (Sapientia Press 2007).
Unlike some fluffy, bantamweight popularizers like Scott Hahn and Karl Keating, Dulles is a serious theologian. This instantly becomes the standard monograph on the Catholic Magisterium. If we want to evaluate the pros and cons of the Magisterium, this is the logical point of reference.
He has a chapter (2) on the Magisterium in the NT, which I’ll post on separately. For now I’m going to do a running commentary on other relevant and representative portions of his presentation.
I’ve already spoofed his book in another post. Since satire often exaggerates for effect, some readers might dismiss my satirical treatment as bearing little resemblance to the real deal. But, as we shall see, I didn’t exaggerate. The real Magisterium is every bit as haphazard, convoluted, and ambiguous as my little parody of the Magisterium.
“The Church as a divine oracle is commissioned to bear authoritative witness to God’s revelation in Christ” (2).
Of course, the Bible doesn’t identify the church as a “divine oracle.” And there’s no extrabiblical reason to identify the church as a “divine oracle.”
“In establishing the Magisterium, Christ responded to a real human need. People cannot discover the contents of revelation by their unaided powers of reason and observation. They have to be told by people who have received in from on high. Even the most qualified scholars who have access to the Bible and the ancient historical sources fall into serious disagreements about matters of belief” (4).
i) Dulles is equivocating. Notice the shift from access to revelation to disagreements over the meaning of revelation. These are two separate issues which require separate arguments.
ii) As a matter of fact, 2nd Temple Jews did fall into serious disagreements about matters of belief, even though they shared common access to the same revelation. Therefore, it would be unhistorical to stipulate that serious disagreement is unacceptable, and then reason back from that unacceptable consequence to the necessity of a Magisterium. God, in fact, tolerated a measure of serious disagreement among members of the covenant community.
“It is logical to suppose that if God deems it important to give a revelation, he will make provision to assure its conservation” (4).
That’s roughly true at a generic level, but it’s also one of those statements which can either be true or false depending on the direction in which it’s developed.
Even that is somewhat overstated. Not every revelation was preserved for posterity. For example, Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthian church, of which only two survive. Although the gospels record many of Jesus’ speeches, they don’t record every speech he ever made in the course of his public ministry.
It would be more accurate to say that God will conserve representative examples of his revelation, and also conserve examples of enduring worth, rather than purely topical disclosures.
“If he did not set up reliable organs of transmission, the revelation would in a few generations be partly forgotten and inextricably commingled with human speculations, as happened, for instance, in Gnosticism” (4-5).
That’s roughly true at a generic level, but it’s another one of those statements which can either be true or false depending on the direction in which it’s developed.
i) Dulles has just given, if unwittingly, an argument for the necessary commitment of revelation to writing. For oral tradition “would in a few generations be partly forgotten and inextricably commingled with human speculations.”
ii) Did the Catholic church set up a scribal office to copy the Scriptures? No. Has this scribal office been in continuous operation for 2000 years? No.
We should be grateful to monks and scribes who diligently copied the Scriptures from one generation to the next, but there was no centralized command-and-control to coordinate or oversee this operation. No quality control mechanism to ensure reliable transmission.
So, if we accept the premise of Dulles’ argument, then the historical outcome falsifies his case for the Magisterium.
“Just as the Christians of the first generation had to rely on the word of the Apostles and their follow-workers, so the Christians of later generations must continue to rely on the living authority of those who succeed to the place of the Apostles” (5).
Here Dulles is asserting an analogy rather than actually arguing for an analogy. In what respect are the two cases analogous?
i) 1C Christians relied on the spoken or written word of an apostle or his deputies. We no longer have the spoken word of an apostle or his deputies.
ii) There’s no reason to assume that Apostolic deputies like Timothy and Titus were automatically infallible.
iii) The Apostles personally chose men like Timothy and Titus to speak for them. The Apostles never chose Innocent III or Pius IX or Leo XIII or Benedict the XVI or the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston to speak for them.
iv) Today we rely on the written word of the Apostles and their deputies (e.g. Mark, Luke). If we were to press the logic of Dulles’ argument, then that would be an argument, not for a prelatial Magisterium, but a scribal Magisterium. We rely on the work of scribes who faithfully copied the scriptures from one generation to the next. But one doesn’t need to be a bishop or pope to transcribe the Bible.
“The Bible, understood in its totality, is a final authority in the sense that it may not be contradicted” (8).
That’s pretty weak. It’s authoritative in the purely negative sense that it can’t be contradicted? What about authoritative in the positive sense that it supplies the basic content of our faith? Revealed theology.
“But Tradition and the Magisterium are necessary to ensure the correct use and interpretation of Scripture” (8).
If we begin with that premise, then the historical outcome falsifies the premise since, as a practical matter, the Magisterium hasn’t begun to issue an official commentary on the Bible. Just go through every verse of the Bible and ask yourself what is the correct interpretation according to the Magisterium? Where would you find the correct interpretation? You won’t.
“On the basis of Tradition the Magisterium drew up the canon of Scripture and assumed responsibility for safeguarding the sacred books as an authoritative record of revelation in its constitutive period” (8)?
It did? Once again, this assumes a very centralized operation. When and where, exactly, did the Magisterium perform this function? Anyone who’s studied the history of the canon can see that it was a very decentralized affair. The process was never stage-managed from the top down. For someone who’s into historical theology, Dulles presents a very anachronistic version of what actually happened.
“By its unceasing vigilance the Magisterium preserves the Scriptures as a sacred deposit and supervises editions, translations, and commentaries” (8).
Really? Did the Magisterium “supervise” patristic commentaries on the Bible? Did the Roman Magisterium supervise the exegesis of the Greek Fathers?
Once again, it looks like theory dictates history. Dulles begins with his theory of the way he thinks things ought to happen, then historicizes his theory as if that is, in fact, how things happened.
There may be some truth to this description at later times in church history, and even then it’s limited to the Latin Church. But is there, in fact, a continuous history of the Roman Magisterium supervising editions, translations, and commentaries? Or is this, in fact, a far more intermittent phenomenon?
“The Council of Trent, in 1546, published a list of canonical books” (8).
Notice how he leapfrogs from the “constitutive period” to the 16C. So what does it mean to say “the Magisterium drew up the canon of Scripture…in its constitutive period”?
Isn’t this, indeed, a tacit admission that the Magisterium did not, in fact, draw up the canon of Scripture in the constitutive period? So far from “unceasing diligence,” it looks like a very long nap. A 1500-year siesta before it was roused from its slumbers by the Reformation.
“In the earl Christian centuries each local church was headed by a bishop, who was not only the leader but, above all, the teacher of the community” (21).
i) To say he was a “bishop” is anachronistic. I assume what he really means is that a pastor was an elder. Even so, the NT evidence points to plural eldership in the governance of local churches.
ii) Furthermore, if teaching ability is a criterion for the episcopate, then how many Catholic bishops measure up to that yardstick? Isn’t the average Catholic bishop more of an administrator than a teacher? Upper level management?
“The true doctrine of the Apostles, he [Irenaeus] asserts, comes down through the succession of bishops…In a phrase not easy to interpret, Irenaeus affirms that bishops of the apostolic churches, upon their accession to the episcopate, have received the ‘sure gift of truth’…He seems to mean that the bishops are reliable teachers not only because they have received the sacred deposit of faith but especially because the Holy Spirit, through a sacramentally conferred charism, assists them to discern the truth of revelation” (22-23).
i) This argument trades on two very different principles:
a) A bishop is a reliable teacher because he is accurately repeating apostolic tradition, which has been handed down by word of mouth from one successor to the next.
b) A bishop is a reliable teacher because ordination confers divine inspiration on a bishop.
Now, if (b) is true, you don’t need (a); and if (a) is true, you don’t need (b). So it looks like Irenaeus is making up his arguments on the fly. Instead of answering the heretics point-by-point, which is a tedious process, Irenaeus is casting about for some apologetic shortcut which will fell the heretics at one stroke. And he comes up with two very different arguments.
ii) If bishops are individually inspired, then collegiality or papal primacy is superfluous. So how does Dulles’ appeal to Irenaeus advance his case?
Dulles then cites Tertullian and Cyprian. But he doesn’t mention that Tertullian became a Montanist while Cyprian became a schismatic.
He also refers to the Donatism and Novatianism as “heresies.” Now, since he’s a Cardinal of the Roman Church, he has to call them whatever his church calls them. But, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t brand them as heretical. Both movements went to erroneous extremes, but they were also raising legitimate concerns. The Catholic party also went to erroneous, if opposite, extremes.
“Since the ecumenical councils of the patristic era were all held in the East, very few Latin bishops actually took part…the pope was not personally present, but usually sent delegates, who were treated with great deference. It eventually became a rule that the decisions of the council could not be valid without Roman approval” (24).
“Eventually”? So what does this mean? Does that apply retroactively? Does it mean ecumenical councils were invalid until they were later validated by the pope?
“The adherence of the five great patriarchates (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem) was considered important, but in the event of disputes among the other patriarchates, the judgment of Rome prevailed” (26).
But Roman primacy undercuts the Irenaen appeal to apostolic succession. Wasn’t Jerusalem an Apostolic See as well? Indeed, the mother church of Christendom.
And according to tradition (Apostolic Constitutions 7:46), Antioch was another Apostolic See. Indeed, according to the very same tradition, Peter ordained Eudodius to be the bishop of Antioch. So even if you subscribe to Petrine primacy, why would Rome trump Antioch?
Appeal to apostolic succession cuts both ways. If two or more Apostolic Sees disagree with each other, then you can’t very well adjudicate the dispute by appeal to apostolic succession.
Appeal to Roman primacy is arbitrary. Either an Apostolic See transmits authentic apostolic tradition or not. One authentic apostolic tradition can’t trump another. If you deny that Jerusalem or Antioch can be trusted, then that also undercuts the apostolicity of Rome.
And if it’s a question of inspiration, then it’s not as if Peter was more inspired that his fellow apostles. So there’s no reason to suppose a successor to Peter would be more inspired than successors to other apostles—assuming, for the sake of argument, that we buy into this framework.
And even if, ex hypothesi, there’s something extra special about Petrine succession, tradition doesn’t limit Petrine succession to Rome.
We’re clearly dealing here with an ex post facto justification of a partisan tradition. Extraneous supporting arguments that are tacked on after the fact. Supporting arguments that don’t even hang together but cancel each other out. It’s incoherent in principle and unworkable in practice.
Dulles then cites several popes (Stephen, Damasus, Siricius, Innocent I, Leo I) in support of Roman primacy. But, of course, we’d expect a bishop of Rome to plug Roman primacy. He’s hardly a disinterested observer. Rather, he has a personal stake in the claim he’s making. It’s like turf wars between one branch of gov’t and another.
“Papal censures often did no more than ratify lists of condemned propositions prepared by theologians. The University of Paris was considered especially authoritative in its doctrinal determinations…The doctrinal decrees of several general councils (Lyons I, 1245; Lyons II, 1274; and Vienne, 1312) were submitted to university faculties fore approval before being published” (29-30).
“At the Council of Constance (1415-18), Pierre d’Ailly, former chancellor of the University of Paris, successfully contended that the doctors of sacred theology should have a deliberative vote since they had received the authority to preach and teach everywhere—an authority that ‘greatly exceeds that of an individual bishop or an ignorant abbot or titular’” (30).
So, during the Middle Ages, the locus of the Magisterium remains fluid. Indeed, the center of gravity has shifted from the papacy and episcopate to councils and theologians. What does it say about the Magisterium when it lacks a core identity?
Of course, as Dulles will point out, the pendulum later swung back to the papacy. But how would you know, from one phase of church history to another where to find the Magisterium? And which period of church history is definitive?
“In Modern Catholic teaching the term ‘Magisterium” generally designates the hierarchical teachers—the pope and the bishops who by virtue of their office have authority to teach publicly in the name of Christ and to judge officially what belongs to Christian faith and what is excluded by it. This concept of the Magisterium, though it seems almost self-evident today, is relatively recent. Before the nineteenth century, the dichotomy between private and public, unofficial and official was not so clearly drawn” (35).
This is a denomination which claims to be the one true church founded by Christ, with a continuous 2000-year-old history. So, once again, why is the identity of the Magisterium so unsettled for so long?
Isn’t this exactly what you’d expect to find in a merely human institution which, lacking divine foresight, keeps redefining itself in the face of unforeseen contingencies? An institution which is shaped and reshaped by ever-changing circumstances?
It isn’t simply adapting to its surroundings. Rather, it’s constantly evolving in response to its surroundings. Its identity continues to shift in response to shifting situations. Hence, its identity is imposed from without—by culturebound conditions of one kind or another. A piece of silly putty which assumes the configuration of whatever container it’s placed inside. No internal structure. You can squeeze it and pull it to assume various forms.
“In the first millennium…The great teachers of sacred doctrine were for the most part bishops, though there were notable exceptions such as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ephrem, and Jerome. These non-bishops engaged not only in theological speculation but also in the proclamation and defense of the faith, and sometimes played a prominent role in the formulation of official doctrine. For example, Athanasius, while still a deacon, participated actively in the debates at the Council of Nicaea” (35-36).
i) Once again, where is the locus of the Magisterium? In the episcopate? Or is it broader?
ii) What about bishops who are not great teachers, or even good teachers? Is teaching ability a qualification for episcopal office? If so, does that disqualify many pedagogically inept bishops?
“With the rise of the universities in the high Middle Ages a clearer division of labor emerged. The studium (academy), having its center in Paris, came to be recognized as a third locus of authority, alongside the sacerdotium (priesthood in the sense of spiritual authority), centered in Rome, and the imperium (secular rule), situated at the capital of the Empire” (36).
As we keep reading his historical exposition, keep in mind his programmatic claim that we can’t discovery the contents of revelation on our own—which is why that information must be channeled through the Magisterium (4-5). But if the Magisterium presents a moving target, then doesn’t that undermine his programmatic claim?
What is the Magisterium? Where is the Magisterium? You get different answers if you live at different times and places.
In what sense is the church of Rome a divine institution, founded by Christ? To judge by modern expositions, Catholicism follows the model of evolutionary deism. God got the ball rolling, but where it rolls after the initial push is subject to random factors. There’s no inner direction. The direction is imparted by whatever historical wall it happens to bound off of. Or the bumpy surface on which it travels.
“Thomas Aquinas, for example, called ‘magisterium cathedrae magistralis’ (a magisterium of the professorial chair). The bishops, by contrast, had a ‘magisterium cathedrae pastoralis’ (a magisterium of the pastoral chair)…Ioachim Salaverri recognizes both a magisterium docens, which uses human argumentation, and a magisterium attestans, which bears authoritative witness to the deposit of faith” (36-38).
“Frances Sullivan distinguishes between magisterium mere docens, sue scientificum, and magisterium attestans” (38n6).
By my count, that’s six different magisteria: magistralis, pastoralis, docens, attestans, scientificum, and imperium (assuming that studium and sacerdotium correspond to two of these categories). As you approach the intersection, on your way to the fabled Magisterium, the finger posts point in six different directions.
I guess that covers the four points of the compass—plus up or down. If we were to diagram a magisterial street map, it would resemble a three-dimensional pretzel or labyrinthian maze.
I myself would find that a wee bit disorienting, but, of course, I’m a benighted Protestant whose exposure to doctrinal chaos has blinded me to the crystalline clarity of the Roman Catholic alternative.
As Dulles also points out, these distinctions weren’t merely theoretical: “In the centuries after his [Aquinas’] death the university faculties exerted considerable power over the hierarchy itself, prevailing on bishops to condemn propositions disapproved by the professors” (37).
“Non-bishops have at times exercised a variety of magisterial functions. In the first few centuries Christian emperors were considered competent to convoke councils, preside over them (though without a vote), and promulgate their decrees. The Church of that time does not seem to have objected. In the Middle Ages secular princes, religious superiors, and theologians frequently took part in ecclesiastical councils…Conciliar documents and encyclicals are not uncommonly drafted by theologians under the direction of hierarchical teachers” (39-41).
Clearly the lines of demarcation are pretty blurry.
“As indicated by the preceding citation from Melchior Cano, the Fathers of the Church hold a preeminent place among theological authorities. Already in the sixth century, the Gelasian Decree ‘On Books to Be Received and Not Received” lists on the positive side, immediately after Holy Scripture and the acts of the ecumenical councils, the writings of the Fathers that are accepted in the Catholic Church. The authors here listed include not only the great bishop-doctors of the East and West but also the presbyter Jerome and the layman Prosper of Aquitaine” (43).
Once more, we bump up against the same problem: how can the Magisterium give me clear directions if I can’t even get clear directions to the Magisterium? What’s the address? Who speaks for the Magisterium?
“The official title ‘Doctor of the Church’ has been bestowed on certain canonized saints who have been singled out by popes or councils for their eminence in learning and soundness of doctrine. Doctors in this sense do not have to be members of the Magisterium. Nearly half of the thirty-three were not bishops. A few, such as St. Ephrem, were never ordained to the priesthood. Under Paul VI and John Paul II three women were added to the catalogue of doctors: Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux” (44).
So many teachers to choose from. How many masters can one man serve?
“The hierarchy, as Cardinal Newman pointed out, frequently consults the laity before defining doctrines. After a doc trine is proclaimed, the laity are obliged to accept it, loyally deferring to the Magisterium” (45).
Isn’t that a transparent charade? Even though, superficially speaking, the laymen propose while the bishops dispose, yet the bishops merely ratify popular opinion. There’s no “deference” here. The laity submits to its own opinions.
“Ecumenical councils are gatherings of bishops from the whole world. The pope, and he alone, has the prerogative of convoking and presiding over such councils. Their decrees, to be valid, but be confirmed or at least approved by him (LG 22). This view of councils is a development beyond the ancient view, in which the Emperor normally convoked councils and gave juridical force to their decrees: it differs also from the medieval conciliarist theory, in which the bishops could decide, independently of the pope, when and how often they would meet in council. The teaching of Vatican II on ecumenical councils, unlike the imperialist and conciliarist models, reflects a correct theology of primacy and episcopacy” (49-50).
i) But if papal primacy “corrects” imperialism, then it doesn’t represent a “development” of the ancient view. Rather, it contradicts the ancient view and supplants it with a contrary view. That’s revolutionary, not evolutionary.
ii) If, moreover, convoking and presiding over an ecumenical council is a uniquely papal prerogative, then why wouldn’t that nullify the ecumenical councils convoked and presided over by Christian emperors?
Presumably the rationale behind this distinction is that an ecumenical council is an expression of the universal church, and only the head of the church has the unilateral authority to act on behalf of the universal church by convoking and presiding over an ecumenical council. Hence, an emperor lacked the authority to either convoke or preside over an ecumenical council.
This is another instance in which Catholicism has a way of backdating its theological innovations. But the pope didn’t evolve this authority, did he? Either he has that intrinsic authority or not, by virtue of his office.
The best the papacy can do is to legitimate an illegitimate process after the fact. Endorse the results. But that’s a patch-up job that doesn’t do justice to either the original principle (imperialism) or the novel replacement (primacy) that usurps the original principle.
iii) It isn’t that easy for the papacy to extricate itself from conciliarism. The Great Schism generates a conundrum. The papacy couldn’t very well adjudicate rival claimants to the papacy, since only the true claimant would be in a position to evaluate that claim, and the identity of the true claimant was the very issue in dispute.
So it was left to the bishops and civil authorities and other ecclesiastics to broker a deal. If, however, a council has the authority to depose a pope—a council which, in the nature of the case, could hardly be sanctioned by the very pope(s) it intended to depose—then the papacy is subordinate to the episcopate.
And the papacy can’t very well repudiate the Council of Constance, for that would render every subsequent pope an antipope. It poses an inescapable dilemma.
“All agree that the pope as head is able to perform certain acts that other members of the college cannot perform. One school of theologians, who, sometimes point to Mt 16:19 and 18:18, contend that the Lord made Peter his vicar and head of the Church before he formed the apostolic college and endowed it with similar powers. Hence it follows tha the pope’s powers are independent of those belonging to the college of cardinal’s theologians of another school contend that the pope is head of the Church and Vicar of Christ only because, and insofar as, he is head of the college of bishops” (52).
In other words, 2000 thousand years down the pike, Catholic theologians can’t even agree on how to construe the leading prooftext for the papacy. But how can you even claim that Mt 16:19 predicts and authorizes the papacy if you can’t make up your mind on what it means?
“The acts of congregations [i.e. dicasteries of the Roman Curia], though not issued in the name of the pope himself, gain juridical authority by being approved by him either in a general way (in forma communi) or specifically (in forma specifica)” (53).
And how does the average Catholic know which is which?
“The exact ecclesial status of the Synod of Bishops is still in flux and his debated among experts” (55).
Notice a pattern here? Two thousand years later, the Magisterium is still a work in progress. So does the Synod of Bishops express the Magisterium or not? And, if so, to what extent?
“The theological status and teaching authority of episcopal conferences were clarified by Pope John Paul II in his motu proprio Apostolos suos in May 21, 1998” (56).
If Jesus Christ in fact founded the Catholic Magisterium 2000 years ago, then why is the Magisterium still under construction? At what point in the future will it be possible to point to a specific entity and say: “There’s the Magisterium!”
Once again, how can the Magisterium direct us if it can’t even direct us to itself? The signage keeps migrating.
“This was followed in 2004 by the Directory of the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, Apostolorum successors” (56-57).
See a pattern here? The Magisterium is like some sort of interminable treasure hunt. You go from clue to clue to clue without ever unearthing the hidden treasure. Remind me again of how this is supposed to be any improvement over sola Scriptura?
“There is no need to deny that the Magisterium sometimes uses mutable human concepts to convey transcendent truth” (62).
The problem with that admission is that the human concept is the only medium by which the reader can access the transcendent truth. Therefore, the reader is in no position to separate the transcendent truth from the mutable human concept which mediates the transcendent truth.
This leaves the Catholic unable to distinguish which part of a Magisterial statement represents a transcendent truth over and above a merely mutable human concept. Is the sacrifice of the Mass a transcendent truth or a mutable human concept? Where does the historical relativity of the concept leave off and the dogma begin?
“The universal Magisterium of the bishops can be exercised in either of two forms, called ordinary and extraordinary” (67).
As a practical matter, how many Catholic laymen are in a position to apply that distinction?
“There is, however, no canonical list of all the ecumenical councils” (68).
If the Magisterium doesn’t leave a return address, how is a Catholic supposed to find the Magisterium?
“Councils such as Trend and Vatican I often divided their decrees into chapters and canons in such as way that the chapters stated positively the contradictory of what the anathema denied. The teaching of the chapter is definitive at least to the extent that it contradicts the anathema in the canon. But, besides containing defined doctrine, the chapters often contain additional explanatory matter that is not infallibly taught” (68).
i) How is the average Catholic in a position to winnow the infallible part of the chapters from the fallible part of the chapters?
ii) Why is inspiration in such short supply that while the canons (or anathemas) are plenarily infallible, the chapters are only partially infallible? Does the Holy Spirit tire easily? Suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome? Does the Holy Spirit lack the stamina to inspire every sentence? Must he pace himself? Ration his resources lest he run dry?
Or is this just a face-saving distinction which Catholic theologians build into Magisterial claims to buffer them from falsification?
“The sacramentality of episcopal ordination is, moreover, stated with great emphasis…Commentators generally agree that while this is not a dogmatic definition in the strict sense, it ranks as a ‘definitive judgment’ and calls for ‘obligatory adherence’” (69).
How is the average Catholic supposed to distinguish between a “dogmatic definition” and a “definitive judgment”?
“In explaining the infallibility of such definitions, Vatican I laid down several conditions or limitations. The pope’s teaching is infallible only when he speaks (a) ‘in the chair of Peter,’ using his full apostolic authority, (b) concerning a doctrine of faith or morals (doctrina de fide vel moribus), and (c) defining what must be held as a matter of faith by all members of the Church” (70).
Why is the scope of papal infallibility so severely circumscribed? Is the Holy Spirit short of breath? Is the Holy Spirit asthmatic? Does the Holy Spirit need an oxygen tank or inhalant to inspire a compete encyclical? You notice that Bible writers don’t draw all these hairsplitting distinctions.
Or is this just another face-saving distinction which Catholic theologians build into Magisterial claims to buffer them from falsification?
“Except for the definition of the Immaculate Conception, there is little clarity about which papal statements prior to Vatican I are irreformable. Most authors would agree on about half a dozen statements” (72).
“Little clarity.” That’s been the problem all along.
“Although the response of the CDF is not itself protected by the charism of infallibility, it embodies the considered judgment of the highest doctrinal organ of the Church, confirmed by the pope” (73).
Why are there so many filters in the Magisterium? Why wouldn’t we expect the Holy Spirit to simply inspire the pope, or the prefect for the faith, or the college of cardinals, or every individual bishop? Wouldn’t that greatly simplify the process of discernment?
Remember, the rationale for the Magisterium is essentially pragmatic to begin with (4-5). The Catholic premise creates an expectation which the historical conclusion invariably disappoints.
“There has been much discussion regarding the object of the infallible Magisterium. Vatican I stated…Vatican II likewise stated…to clarify this concise statement the Doctrinal Commission at Vatican II provided an explanation…” (73).
Notice how unclear Magisterial statements are constantly subject to subsequent clarifications. How is the laity expected to cut its way through the thicket?
“Theologians accordingly distinguish between the primary object of infallibility, the deposit of revelation itself, and the secondary object, whatever is required to defend and expound the deposit…the line of demarcation between the primary and secondary objects is not always easy to draw, because the primary object has a capacity for expansion as new implications come to be recognized in the original deposit” (74).
Once again, Catholicism draws a blurry line. What’s the value of a blurry line? If a fighter pilot can’t quite distinguish between the runway and the stern of the aircraft carrier, he’s liable to decorate the stern of the ship with the flaming remnants of his fighter jet.
“In the early twentieth century there was an inconclusive debate about whether the Church can dogmatically define what is only ‘virtually’ rather than ‘formally’ revealed” (75).
Yet another inconclusive debate. Another distinction in principle which is indiscernible in practice. Once more, how does the Magisterium confer any advantage over sola Scriptura? The Magisterium is like a shell corporation.
Or one of those construction projects that ran out of funds. Half a bridge. Now, half a bridge can be useful for fishing and diving, but it doesn’t get you to your destination.
“Unless the Church could identify her popes and ecumenical councils with full authority, her dogmatic teaching would be clouded by doubt” (77).
But during the Great Schism, the Church couldn’t identify her popes with full authority. And Dulles just admitted, a few pages ago, that there is no canonical list of all the ecumenical councils.
“At a conference with Cardinal Ratzinger and other representatives of the CDF and several Committees on Doctrine, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, as chairman of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic bishops, remarked, ‘Further clarification about the Church’s ability to teach matters of natural law infallibly would be desirable. According to one opinion…According to another opinion…’” (79).
The Catholic Church is like an amnesiac or adolescent girl who keeps asking herself, “Who am I? Please, someone tell me who I am!”
“In the manuals published before and during Vatican II, it was customary to attach theological notes or qualifications to every proposition being taught. Was it a matter of faith, to be believed by all under pain of heresy, or did it have some lesser degree of obligatory force? These theological notes depended primarily on the degree to which the Magisterium had engaged its authority. A very simplified list would include the following:
1. Doctrine of faith
a. defined (by pope or council)
b. taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium
2. Doctrine infallibly taught as inseparably connected with revelation
3. Doctrine authoritatively but non-infallibly taught by Magisterium
4. Theological conclusion logically deduced from a proposition of faith
5. Probable opinion” (84).
So, even according to a “very simplified” ranking, Magisterial statements must be subjected to a fivefold screening process to assign the correct degree of obligatory force. And that’s the simplified version.
“Ioachim Salaverri, in the treatise De Ecclesia of the multivolume Sacrae Theologiae Summa, lists fourteen theological ‘notes’ used in the series, with the ‘censures’ of errors opposed to each” (83n1).
So Magisterial statements are actually subject to no fewer than 14 gradations of obligatory force. This raises two basic questions:
i) How could a trained theologian, much less a layman, rank the obligatory force of Magisterial statements according to such a hairsplitting scheme with any measure of assurance?
ii) Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that you could rank the Magisterial statements according to a 14-fold metric, how is it psychologically possible to calibrate your level of assent to 14 distinct degrees of doxastic obligation?
“In the decade following the council these theological notes disappeared from textbooks. There was a period of confusion as to what doctrines were binding, on what grounds, and it what measure” (84).
Why does a denomination which claims to be the one true church founded by Jesus Christ undergo a perpetual identity crisis? Should we administer a paternity test?
“To remedy the growing confusion, the Holy See took a series of steps, several of which may be mentioned here” (85).
Keep in mind the qualification. He’s not giving us the full series.
“In 1968 Pope Paul…promulgated a profession of faith popularly known as ‘the Credo of the People of God’…In 1973 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae…In 1983, the pope promulgated the revised Code of canon Law…the Extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985 asked Pope John Paul to draw up a universal catechism…In 1989 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a new Profession of faith. It replaced the much briefer Profession of Faith of 1967, which had itself replaced the Tridentine Profession of Faith…In may 1998 Pope John Paul II in the motu propiro Ad tuendam fidem amended the Code of Canon Law…using the publication of ad tuendam as the occasion, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, together with Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of the Congregation, used a joint commentary on the three concluding paragraphs of the Profession of Faith” (84-86).
Notice how the Catholic church keeps reinventing itself every few years. The meaning of the significance of the signification of the import of the purport of the sense of the reference of the connotation of the denotation—or is it the denotation of the connotation?
“The second added paragraph deals with other doctrines pertaining to faith and morals that are proposed by the Church definitively (definitive). This category has to do with non-revealed truths that are ‘required for the sacred presentation and faithful explanation’ of the deposit of faith…With regard to each and every such teaching, says the Profession of faith, the proper response is to accept and hold it with a firm and irrevocable assent. In saying ‘hold’ rather than ‘believe’ the Profession of Faith here follows the language of Vatican I, which distinguished between credenda (doctrines ‘to be believe’ in the strict sense of the word, DS 3011) and tenenda (doctrines “to be held,’ DS 3074)” (89).
How does a Catholic distinguish between credenda and tenenda? And assuming that he could draw that distinction in practice, how does he adjust his assent to correspond to each category? Are Catholics equipped with some prehensive dial that fine-tunes their level of assent to the exact degree required? Perhaps Lt. Commander Data can perform this operation on himself.
“The majority of pre-Vatican II theological manuals admitted the concept of ‘ecclesiastical faith,’ but some very distinguished authors (including Francisco Marin-Sola, Ambroise Gardeil, and Charles Journet) opposed it” (89n9).
Is there some reason why, this far down the pike, the “true church” can’t even define something as elementary as the nature of faith?
“This does not foreclose the possibility that in the future the Church might progress to the point where this teaching [the reservation of priestly orders to men] could be defined as a doctrine to be believe as divinely revealed” (90).
Why does a divine teaching office need to “progress” to that point? Is it waiting for new revelation? Don’t we already need to know enough about men and women to make that determination?
Isn’t the real reason because the Catholic church prefers to float a trial balloon? If the balloon is shot down, the institution preserves its reputation intact because it can always claim that this wasn’t “official” teaching. So it moves incrementally, allowing itself a graceful exit.
“Such a reclassification, according to the Commentary, would not be unprecedented…As examples of truths connected with the deposit of faith by historical necessity the Ratzinger-Bertone Commentary suggests…the invalidity of Anglican orders, as declared by Pope Leo XIII…Since Vatican II, moreover, there have been new debates about the possibility of recognizing Anglican orders” (90-91).
So one can simply reverse Leo’s declaration by reclassifying the pesky doctrine at issue? That’s nifty. The Church of Rome likes to leave its options open. But the price you pay for that flexibility is scepticism about everything it teaches from one generation to the next.
“Following the language of Vatican II, the Profession of Faith states that the Catholic must adhere to authentic but non-definitive teaching with ‘religious submission will and intellect.’ The term obsequium religiosum, introduced at this point, is notoriously difficult to translate into English…but if falls short of the absolute and irrevocable assent required in the first two categories because in this case the infallibility of the Church is not engaged” (93).
Underlying all these fine-grained distinctions is the voluntarist assumption that our degree of mental assent is subject to direct control of the will. I will myself to assign a suitable degree of assent to a given article of faith. It should be unnecessary to point out that this entire framework is a psychological fantasy. Although we do have degrees of belief, this is spontaneous.
“Even in the case of definitive teaching, development occurs through a kind of dialectic of proclamation and response” (106).
In what sense is the teaching definitive if it continues to undergo dialectical evolution? At what point can you say, “This is what we teach”?
“Vatican II in fact overcame many imbalances that had affected Catholic official teaching during the years since Trent” (106).
So, for 400 years (Trent, 1563; Vatican II, 1965), Catholic theology was out of balance. What’s the point of a divine teaching office if it can allow this situation to continue for 400 years before its rectified?
“Some scholars believe that it not only filled in deficiencies but in some respects corrected previous non-infallible teaching on subjects such as membership in the Church, Church and state, religious freedom, ecumenism, and non-Christian religions” (106).
“For discussion of these possible ‘reversals,’ see Dionne, The papacy and the Church” (106n5).
On this interpretation, it’s more than a mere “deficiency” or “imbalance” in Magisterial teaching, but a “correction” or “reversal.”
“Other scholars content that in these areas the previous teaching was not wrong but was in need of being adapted to a changed social and religious situation. The Council, they maintain, simply made a new application of principles that had long been part of the Tradition. Each of these cases is complicated and must be carefully examined for its own sake” (106).
What fraction of the laity is even competent to review the pros and cons of each case?
“It often takes several generates before a consensus is reached or before the Magisterium itself issues an authentic interpretation…In 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of the council, Pope John Paul II summoned an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops to lay down guidelines for its correct interpretation” (108).”
Of course, every council interprets or reinterprets earlier councils, not to mention non-conciliar interpretations of various councils. So we’re trailing a regress of scholia on scholia on scholia on scholia. Where does it end? It doesn’t.
Communication is a three-way relation between a speaker, the spoken word, and a listener (or a writer, writing, and reader). But all three relata involved in Magisterial communication are ambiguous. The speaker (Magisterium) is amorphous. The Magisterial teaching is amorphous. And the degree of required assent is amorphous. It’s like walking through a hall of trick mirrors. Distorted reflections reflecting other distorted reflections.