Necessity of Instruction in the Catholic Faith: Part 6

The Magisterium of the Church.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 85 -87)

Pope Leo XIII gives as the following explanation: “As the Church was to last to the end of time, something more was required besides the bestowal of the Sacred Scriptures. It was obviously necessary that the Divine Founder should take every precaution, lest the treasure of heavenly-given truths, possessed by the Church, should ever be destroyed, which would assuredly have happened, had He left those doctrines to each one’s private judgment. It stands to reason, therefore, that a living, perpetual “magisterium” was necessary in the Church from the beginning, which, by the command of Christ himself, should besides teaching other wholesome doctrines, give an authoritative explanation of Holy Writ, and which being directed and safeguarded by Christ himself, could by no means commit itself to erroneous teaching” (Encyclical Caritatis Studium on the Church in Scotland, July 25 1898)

The Magisterium of Catholic Church teaches the faithful in three ways:

  • Solemn Magisterium: It is used only rarely. This includes dogmatic definitions by Ecumenical Councils or Popes teaching “ex cathedra”. The form of this teaching has infallible character.
  • Ordinary universal Magisterium: the teaching of Divine truths by the enterety of the episcopate constantly and unchangingly along all ages. The form of this teaching has infallible character as well.
  • Authentic or daily Magisterium is exercised:
  1. By the official pronouncements, preachings and written documents of the Roman Pontiff (among the most common are Encyclicals, Apostolic exhortations, Apostolic letters, Apostolic Constitutions).
  2. By the pastoral and disciplinarian documents of Ecumenical Councils and by doctrines which a concrete Council is not proposing definitely, as it did for instance the Second Vatican Council or the Council of Florence, when it taught about the matter of the sacrament of the Orders.
  3. By the Synods on various level (the Synod of Bishops in Rome, Plenary, Provincial and Diocesan Synods).
  4. Doctrinal documents unanimously approved by the episcopate of a concrete country or region, that means by Bishops’ Conferences.
  5. By the teaching office of the diocesan bishops.

The authentic or daily Magisyterium does not possess an infallible character, and in theory can contain even doctrinal errors, which is however rare. Theological errors or doctrinal ambiguities occurred in some Papal documents (for instance in the letters of Pope Honorius I concerning the two wills of Christ, in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitiae of Pope Francis).

Theological errors and ambugities occurred also in some non strictly definitive doctrinal documents of Ecumenical Councils (for instance the errors regarding the matter of the sacraments of Orders by the Council of Florence, some ambiguous and erroneous formulations in some documents of the Second Vatican Council concerning for example the alleged common adoration of Catholics and Muslims of the one God, affirmations about the non-Christian religions, about the ecumenism, about the alleged natural rights of people who are propagating religious errors and false religions, about the social kingship of Christ in all human societies).

However, the overwhelwing majority even of not strictly definitive doctrinal affirmations of the Ecumenical Councils and of the Popes contain no errors, nonwithtanding the fact that they do not posses in these cases the charism of the infallibility. Usually Divine Providence grants the holders of the Magisterium also in the daily exercise of their teaching office the graces of state.  In order that in the authentic or daily Magisterium the Pope and bishops may avoid ambiguities or errors, it is demanded from them an assiduous personal collaboration with the graces of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This collaboration with the grace on behalf of the Pope and of the bishops presupposes the cultivation of the supernatural faith in the personal life, a life of prayer and virtue, fidelity to the Tradition and to the teaching received by all the Roman Pontiffs, by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

Regarding the object of an infallible pronouncements of the Pope and logically also of a Council, we have this dogmatic pronouncement of the First Vatican Council.

These are the conditions for a Pope and logically also for a Council for an infallible pronouncement, called “ex cathedra”:

  • It has to be directed to all faithful of the entire Church.
  • It has to be exercised in the quality of the supreme apostolic authority.
  • It has to oblige the entire Church to hold that specific doctrine.
  • The doctrine which is obliged to believe must refer to faith and morals.

The object of an infallible pronouncement must be contained in the written Word of God or in Tradition. An infallible pronouncement must be believed, therefore, by divine and Catholic faith.

The Pope or a Council are very much limited in their choices, actions and formulations when they issue an infallible doctrinal statement. There is nobody less free and there is nobody who must more scrupulously cling to the constant doctrinal tradition of the Church than the Pope, when he issues an infallible doctrinal statement. Very aptly the First Vatican Council states, that “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.” (First Vatican Council, Pastor aeternus, chap. 4).

The very aim of an infallible pronouncement of a Pope or a Council consists in the following:

  • The defense of all faithful from the poison of doctrinal and moral errors. That “the whole flock of Christ, be kept away from the poisonous food of error” (First Vatican Council, Pastor aeternus, chap. 4). Hence this means refusal of any error and ambiguity. If a doctrinal pronouncement or an affirmation of a Pope or of a Council shows unclarity or ambuiguity, it lacks by this very fact infallibility, since infallibility demans by its nature highest clarity and precision.
  • The nourishment of all faithful with the sureness and clarity of the doctrine of the Divine Revelation. That “the whole flock of Christ might be nourished with the pasture of heavenly doctrine” (First Vatican Council, Pastor aeternus, chap. 4).
  • The prevention or removal of the occasion of schisms and divisions, caused by errors, doubts and ambiguities regarding the doctrine of faith and morals (cf. ibid.)
  • The maintance and guarantee of the internal and external unity of the entire Church, that means among the bishops themselves, among the bishops and the faithful and among all the faithful. “And so the whole Church might be kept one” (First Vatican Council, Pastor aeternus, chap. 4).
  • The spiritual equipment of the entire Church against the attacks of the evil spirits. Since the most insidious and dangerous attack of the evil spirits consists in spreading heresies, which spiritually defiles the chaste and virginal purity of the Church. “That the whole Church might stand firm against the gates of Hell” (First Vatican Council, Pastor aeternus, chap. 4).

“The Roman Pontiff – like all the faithful – is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience; in this sense he is servus servorum Dei. He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition; in other words, the episkope of the primacy has limits set by divine law and by the Church’s divine, inviolable constitution found in Revelation.33 The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence the martyrological nature of his primacy.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Primacy of the successor of Peter in the mystery of the Church, October 31, 1998)

In 1875 the German Bishops issued a declaration, in which they explain the true meaning of Papal infallibility: “The affirmation which says that the Pope in virtue of his infallibility is an absolute souvereign, is based upon an erroneous concept of the dogma of the Papal infallibility. The Papal Magisterium covers exactly the same field as the infallible Magisterium of the Church itself. The Papal Magisterium is bound by the content of the Holy Scripture and the Tradition and as well by doctrinal decisions of the Church’s Magisterium.”

In teaching the truth of the Divine Revelation every Pope and every Council should have the attitude of Blessed Pope Pius IX, who when asked by a group of bishops to make a little change in the text of the Canon of the Mass (adding the name of Saint Joseph), answered: “I cannot make a change, since I am only the Pope!”

Indeed, all holders of the Magisterium in the Church, in first place the Pope, should categorically avoid an attitude, which seeks novelties and changes in doctrine. The Pope should be that member of the Church, who clings most obediently to the unchanging truths of the Divine Revelation and of the doctrinal Tradition of the Church, since his most apt title is “the servant of the servant of God”.

The following words of Pope Pius VI, with which he in 1794 condemned the cunning and Protestantizing affirmation of the Synod of Pistoia, remain valid and very much up to date for our times and for the Shepherds of the Church in our time: “There is the erroneous pretext that the seemingly shocking affirmations in one place are further developed along orthodox lines in other places, and even in yet other places corrected. By this they allow the possibility of either affirming or denying a statement, or of leaving it up the personal inclinations of the individual. However, such has always been the fraudulent and daring method used by innovators to establish error. It allows for both the possibility of promoting error and of excusing it. Whenever it becomes necessary to expose statements which disguise some suspected error or danger under the veil of ambiguity, one must denounce the perverse meaning under which the error opposed to catholic truth is camouflaged.”

“Ambiguity can never be tolerated in a synod [I would add: in any document of a Pope or of an Ecumenical Council], since its principal glory consists above all in teaching the truth with clarity and excluding all danger of error.”

The Seconed Vatican Council explained deeper the truth regarding the teaching infallibility of the Church: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One (1 John 2:20, 27) 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” (St. Augustine, Praed. Sanct. 14, 27) they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. (1 Thess. 2: 13) Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, (Jude 3) penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.” (Lumen gentium, 12)

Impressive remains the oath, which every Pope traditionally had to take when coming into his Papal office: “I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; To the contrary: with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort; To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order that may surface; To guard the Holy Canons and Decrees of our Popes as if they were the Divine ordinances of Heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, Whose place I take through the grace of God, Whose Vicarship I possess with Thy support, being subject to the severest accounting before Thy Divine Tribunal over all that I shall confess; I swear to God Almighty and the Savior Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared. I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church. I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I. If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou willst not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice. Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone — be it ourselves or be it another — who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction to this constituted evangelic Tradition and the purity of the Orthodox Faith and the Christian Religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture.”

The greatest concern and fear of each holder of the Magisterium, be it a bishop or the Pope himself, should be not to change, even not in the slightest, the doctrines of the Divine Revelation. Consequently, every true Catholic bishop and Pope should say, using the formulation of the traditional Papal oath and of the Apostle Saint Paul, “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a Gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema.” (Gal. 1: 8).

May this oath be restored in our days, so that the darkness of errors, ambiguities and novelties in doctrine may be dispelled and the light of the truths of the Divine Revelation may shine in the minds and hearts of all Catholics, and in the first place of all Shepherds of the Church.

Pope Pius X left us the following inspiring words, even though they were written hundred years ago, they remain fresh and very much up to date: “Our Apostolic Mandate requires from Us that We watch over the purity of the Faith and the integrity of Catholic discipline. It requires from Us that We protect the faithful from evil and error; especially so when evil and error are presented in dynamic language which, concealing vague notions and ambiguous expressions with emotional and high-sounding words, is likely to set ablaze the hearts of men in pursuit of ideals which, whilst attractive, are nonetheless nefarious. Such were not so long ago the doctrines of the so-called philosophers of the 18th century, the doctrines of the Revolution and Liberalism which have been so often condemned; such are even today theories which, under the glowing appearance of generosity, are all too often wanting in clarity, logic and truth. These theories do not belong to the Catholic Spirit. We must repeat with the utmost energy in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker – the City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be setup unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City. It has only to be set up and restored continually against the unremitting attacks of insane dreamers, rebels and miscreants. OMNIA INSTAURARE IN CHRISTO.” (Encyclical Notre Charge Apostolique, August 25, 1910)