Christ promised his Church personal assistance in her task of the evangelization and salvation of mankind. Ordinarily, he lends that assistance through the pastors who, as his vicars, lead the Church in his name. Christ gave this assistance first to the apostles, then to the bishops, who succeeded them in the pastoral ministry (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 81).
One of the functions that Christ entrusted to the pastors of his Church is the Magisterium, the teaching of the Gospel of Christ in the name of Christ, who is the only teacher and pastor of our souls: “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16).
The Second Vatican Council declared: “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.” The Magisterium of the Church is an explanatory source of theology because it interprets revelation without adding or removing anything from the deposit of faith. Naturally, the Magisterium is subordinated to Sacred Scripture.
Theology and the Magisterium are complementary Church ministries. They are not opposing forces, representing contrary interests in a dialectical struggle. It would be a serious mistake about the nature of both to think of them as such.
The Magisterium is the contents of the official teaching of the Church as well as the exercise of her teaching role. This role is entrusted exclusively to the Hierarchy of the Church (the pope and the bishops united to him), which was established by Christ and received his pledge of the special assistance of the Holy Spirit in order to prevent any error in the exercise of its magisterial function.
The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. (Second Vatican Council, DV,10)
The Church is a prophetic community that preaches the word of God. As Christ was sent by the Father to be a witness to the truth, so also has the Church been sent by Christ to preach the Gospel to the entire human race, enabling all to believe and be saved. This prophetic nature is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people of God, whereby his children unfailingly adhere to the faith.
To guide the faithful in this growth and to teach the truth, Christ endowed his Church with a living Magisterium (Second Vatican Council, LG, 12; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 785, 888–892). This was the reason why Jesus Christ instituted in the Church a living, authentic, and never failing teaching authority.
“This teaching authority he endowed with his own power; he endowed it with the Spirit of Truth; he authenticated it by miracles; and it was his will and solemn command that the doctrinal precepts of this Church be accepted as his own” (Leo XIII, Enc. Satis Cognitum).
The mission of the Magisterium is not to reveal new truths –revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle– but rather to defend, guard, and interpret the received deposit of faith.
One of the most important historical responsibilities of the Magisterium is composing the Symbols of faith (Creeds) and the Catechisms, which contain and summarize the basic truths of Revelation. The oldest and most revered Symbols are the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes up this subject matter in nos. 185-197).
The Church’s Magisterium even though carried out through human instruments is not a human Magisterium: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26).
The mission of the Magisterium is linked with the definitive character of the Covenant between God and his People. To fulfill this service, God made the universal Church infallible; it means that she cannot err in her teachings. The exercise of this charisma has the following characteristics:
· The Roman Pontiff is infallible when solemnly teaches matters of faith or customs, or in his ordinary Magisterium, when he teaches truths concerning faith or morals which have to be held definitively by all Christians.
· The College of Bishops under its head, the Pope, is subject of the same infallibility, when gathered together in an Ecumenical Council and exercising their Magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals, definitively declare for the universal Church a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals; likewise, when the Bishops, dispersed throughout the world but maintaining the bond of union among themselves and with the successor of Peter, together with the same Roman Pontiff authentically teach matters of faith or morals, and are agreed that a particular teaching is definitively to be held.(Code of Canon Law, 749. )
· The totality of the faithful possess a supernatural sense of faith; they are infallible when they unanimously believe that a truth has been revealed by God. Thus, the holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office. The entire body of the faithful cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the entire people, when, “from the bishops to the last of the faithful” they manifest a universal consensus in matters of faith and morals. (Second Vatican Council, LG, 12).
The ordinary Magisterium of the Pope and of the bishops in communion with the Pope dispersed throughout the world enjoys also Christ’s assistance and is always authentic because it is exercised in the name and with the authority of Christ: “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16). It proposes infallible definitions when it sets forth truths contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, or when it pronounces itself in a “definitive manner” (i.e., in a conclusive manner) on some truth.
The scope of the Church’s Magisterium covers everything referring in any way to faith and morals. This has the following consequences:
i) The Church has the right and duty to condemn all errors concerning faith and the salvation of souls.
ii) The Church has the right and duty to make judgments, with maximum authority, on social questions. As the Code of Canon Law states in can. 747, 2: “The Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls.”
iii) By divine right, she has the duty to interpret the natural moral law, whose faithful fulfillment is necessary for salvation.
iv) Regarding the interpretation of Holy Scripture, “no one should dare to rely on his own judgment ... and to distort Sacred Scripture to fit meanings of his own that are contrary to the meaning that holy Mother Church has held and now holds; for it is her office to judge about the true sense and interpretation of Sacred Scripture” (Code of Canon Law, 747).
Role of the Theologians
Theologians receive revelation from the Church and receive faith within the Church. (John Paul II, “Homily at the Mass for the Roman Pontifical Universities”: L’Osservatore Romano, Nov. 9, 1981; CCC, 168–169)
At the same time, theology is extremely important for the life of the Church. Besides its scientific value, theology shares in the salvific function of Christian faith. Theologians have a special ecclesial responsibility; they must make sure that the talent they have received—the capacity to penetrate deeper into the deposit of faith with their intelligence—yields fruit for the glory of God and the benefit of souls.
In the Church, theologians are “teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11–12). A good theologian should feel this responsibility and be aware that this scientific work is also a service to the Church: “Theology is an ecclesial science because it grows in the Church and works on the Church. Thus, theology is never the private affair of a specialist, cut off in a kind of ivory tower. Theology is a service of the Church; the theologian should feel himself dynamically involved in the mission of the Church, particularly in her prophetic mission.” (John Paul II, “Address at the Pontifical Gregorian University”: L’Osservatore Romano, Jan. 21, 1980).
“A deep ecclesial awareness,” teaches Pope John Paul II, “will be the most certain criterion to safeguard you from the risk of building on a foundation other than the one laid by God” (John Paul II, “Homily to the Roman Pontifical Universities”: L’Osservatore Romano, Nov. 9, 1981).
Further, he states, “Nobody can make of theology, as it were, a simple collection of his own personal ideas; everybody must be sure of being in close union with the mission of teaching the truth for which the Church is responsible” (John Paul II, Enc. Redemptor Hominis, 19: L’Osservatore Romano, Mar. 19, 1979).
A clear manifestation of this ecclesial outlook, “feeling with the Church” (sentire cum Ecclesia), is the willingness to correct any personal opinion that may break with the Magisterium of the Church.
“The role of the theologian is geared to the building up of ecclesial communion, so that the people of God may grow in the experience of faith” (Paul VI, “Letter to the Rector of the Louvain University,” Sep. 13, 1975).
“We do not wish that a mistaken suspicion unduly take hold of your mind: that there is a rivalry between two primacies, that of science and that of authority. There is only one primacy in the field of divine doctrine: that of the revealed truth, that of the faith, to which both theology and ecclesiastical Magisterium want to give diverse, though converging, approvals” (Paul VI, “Address to the International Theological Commission,” Oct. 6, 1969) .
Ecclesial Dimensions of Theology
Theology has the capacity and responsibility to enlighten the pastoral activity of the Church and the apostolate and spiritual life of each Christian.
The task of the theologian is an ecclesial mission, a participation in the evangelizing mission of the Church, and a pre-eminent service to the ecclesial community. Hence the grave responsibility of the theologian, who should always have in mind that the People of God—particularly the priests and future priests who will have to educate them in the faith—have the right to have explained to them without ambiguities or reductions the fundamental truths of the Christian faith (John Paul II, “Address to Theology Professors in Salamanca, Spain”: L’Osservatore Romano, Dec. 20, 1982) .
Theologians have great influence in the life of the soul. Therefore, their ecclesial responsibility should lead them to be extremely prudent in the publication and diffusion of their conclusions; they must avoid any scandal or confusion among the faithful in matters of faith or morals.
The faithful have the right not to be troubled by theories and hypotheses that they cannot judge, or that are easily reduced or manipulated by public opinion for ends that are opposed to the truth. On the day of his death, John Paul I stated: “Among the rights of the faithful, one of the greatest is the right to receive God’s word in all its entirety and purity....” (September 28, 1978).
It behooves the theologian to be free, but in that freedom must be openness to the truth and to the light that comes from faith and from fidelity to the Church (John Paul II, “Address at the Catholic University of America”: L’Osservatore Romano, Nov. 5, 1979).
“Aware of the influence that their research and their statements have on catechetical instruction, theologians must take great care not to pass off questions that are matters of opinion or of discussion among experts as certain” (John Paul II, Ap. Ex. Catechesi Tradendae, Oct. 16, 1979, 61 (in More Post-Conciliar Documents, p. 800).
“Those who are teachers of the faith should avoid bewildering people and using confusing language that may lead to ambiguity.
“Theologians and those who work with them should teach the Christian people to understand well the events and situations of doctrinal confusion in which their Christian faith and vocation are placed under practical challenge.… The treatises of theologians should render the faith more lucid; theology is not merely to be consigned to weighty volumes and Summas (however valuable), but to be lived in a simple—I dare say—“popular” fashion” (John Paul II, “Address to Belgian Bishops”: L’Osservatore Romano, Oct. 25, 1982).
A practical consequence of this attitude of humility is that the declarations of the Magisterium will always be received with appreciation and veneration.
Also, if there is sincere humility, the duty of teaching the faith and giving clear orientations to the faithful cannot be seen as a limitation of freedom.
Faithfulness to the Pope includes a clear and definite duty: that of knowing his thought, which he tells us in encyclicals or other documents. We have to do our part to help all Catholics pay attention to the teaching of the Holy Father, and bring their everyday behavior into line with it. This norm especially applies to theologians, who should always be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, support it, and defend it with their science.
Revelation is not a set of impersonal ideas; rather, it is the Creator’s word and invitation to mankind. Theologians must, therefore, pay special attention to his word, and give it the consideration due to the living God.
Thus, theology implies an attitude of prayer, since prayer is the human word uttered in response to the word of God. Prayer is the most effective way to impel, inspire, and verify any understanding of the faith—intellectus fidei. A prayerful theologian imitates St. Mary, Mother of the Church, who kept divine revelation in her heart: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).
The assent due to the different Magisterial declarations differs, depending on the type of documents involved or whether or not it is proposed in a definitive manner. “By divine and Catholic faith everything that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, and that is proposed by the Church must be believed as a divinely revealed object of belief, be it in a solemn decree or in her ordinary, universal teaching.” (Very well known compilation of the defined truths of Henrico Denzinger, later expanded (32nd ed.) by Adolf Schoenmetzer: Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum [DS].DS 1507).
Regarding the doctrinal and moral decisions of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff and of the Bishops in the exercise of their authentic Magisterium, external silence is not sufficient. One has “to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind.”(DS 3011).
Limits of Theological Pluralism
Theological pluralism does not refer to dogma (dogmatic pluralism) or to doctrines definitively settled by the Church. The truth revealed by God and taught by the Church as such is as immutable as God himself.
In referring to the object of faith, “any meaning of the sacred dogmas that has once been declared by Holy Mother Church must always be retained”(DS 3020).
Questions that are properly de fide are no longer subject to free interpretation; any opinion different from the sense defined by the Church would no longer be a valid theological opinion, but a heresy. “There must never be any deviation from that meaning on the specious ground of a more profound understanding” (Ibid).
“The due freedom of theologians must always be limited by the word of God as it is faithfully preserved and expounded in the Church and taught and explained by the living Magisterium.” (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Decl. Mysterium Ecclesiae, June 24, 1973 (in More Post-Conciliar Documents).
Theologians should strive to go deeper into revelation and understand it better, confident that intellectual rigor and the guidance of the Holy Spirit will go hand in hand. They will never be led to the extreme of having to doubt or contradict what the Church had already conclusively defined with divine certitude.
A traditional formula sums up the golden rule of theological research: Unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is debatable, charity in everything (In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas).
Role of the Laity
The laity—part of the Church—also teaches, announcing Christ with their words, the testimony of their lives, and their speech. Thus, they teach their children, relatives, and friends “so that the power of the Gospel may shine out in daily family and social life.”(Second Vatican Council, LG, 35)
Lay people with sufficient knowledge may impart catechetical formation, teach the sacred sciences, and collaborate in the means of social communication. In keeping with their knowledge, they also have the right and the duty to manifest to the pastors (and to the other faithful) their views on matters that concern the good of the Church, always respecting the integrity of faith and morals.(Code of Canon Law, 212, 229, 774, 776, 780, 823).
It is their task to cultivate a properly informed conscience, and to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city.… The lay people are called to participate actively in the entire life of the Church; not only are they to animate the world with the spirit of Christianity, but they are to be witnesses to Christ in all circumstances and at the very heart of the community of mankind (Second Vatican Council, GS, 43)
This evangelization [by the lay people] … acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world.
[Married and family life have] a special importance in this prophetic office [of the Church].… In it, the married partners have their own proper vocation: they must be witnesses of faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children.…
Therefore, even when occupied by temporal affairs, the laity can, and must, do valuable work for the evangelization of the world. (Second Vatican Council, LG, 35).