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A brief history of the modern magisterium
In the Middle Ages, the primary arbiters of theological disputes were the theology faculties of the great universities, such as those in Paris and Bologna. The term magister referred to various teaching authorities in the Church. Thomas Aquinas famously distinguished between a magisterium cathedrae pastoralis (a pastoral teaching office generally exercised by the bishops) and a magisterium cathedrae magistralis (a teaching authority exercised by masters of theology—i.e., scholars). Indeed, into the 19th century, the pope and bishops played a relatively peripheral role in the resolution of doctrinal disputes.
When the pope and bishops did intervene, their method was discreet. Consider, for example, the late 16th- to early 17th-century de auxiliis (“regarding the divine helps”) controversy, waged between the Jesuits and the Dominicans over the relationship between divine grace and human freedom. (The Jesuits maintained Dominicans slighted the latter; the Dominicans felt the Jesuits undervalued the former.) The papacy inserted itself into the dispute only after the two religious orders began accusing each other of heresy. Papal investigations begun under Pope Clement VIII in 1594 came to their conclusion two papacies later, under Pope Paul V in 1605. The process included 17 formal debates before the pope involving representatives of the two positions. Finally Pope Paul V settled the matter in a decree that prohibited either side from condemning the views of the other, reminding both factions of the need for humility when delving into the holy mystery of God. Such forbearance would be snuffed out by the threatening winds of modernity.
In the 18th century, the Catholic Church confronted an Enlightenment rationality that appeared to marginalize religious authorities as a source of religious truth. Church leaders saw the French Revolution for what it was—the death knell of Christendom and of any hope for a stable partnership between Church and state. (T. Howland Sanks put the Church’s plight succinctly in his 1992 book, Salt, Leaven, and Light: The Community Called Church. If the Age of Reason threatened the Church’s intellectual authority, he said, “the Age of Revolution threatened its very existence.”)
With the birth of modern liberalism came, in simplest terms, the exaltation of the individual. And with this elevation came a predominantly negative understanding of freedom as freedom from external constraint. In a 1994 essay, Rev. Joseph Komonchak described the perspective of 19th-century Church leaders. For them, he wrote, “Liberalism had its origins in Satan’s ‘Non serviam’ [I will not serve],” but it took shape “in the Lutheran revolt against the Church’s authority and on behalf of free examination; in the naturalism of the Renaissance; in the Enlightenment’s repudiation of tradition . . . and community; in the secularization of the political sphere; in the possessive individualism of capitalist economics; and in the cultural anarchy produced by an unrestrained freedom of opinion, speech, and the press.” What was required, in the eyes of Catholic leadership, was an aggressive, comprehensive response: the establishment of Roman Catholicism as a “counter-society” (Komonchak’s term). From a confident engagement with the world, the Church moved toward a defensive, siege mentality, with pronouncements against state interference in Church matters, denunciations of anti-clericalism, and a repeated assertion of the state’s obligation to preserve the right of Catholics to practice their faith. In his 15 years as pope (1831–46), Gregory XVI produced a series of condemnations of various aspects of modern liberalism, in the encyclicals “On Church and State,” “On Civil Disobedience,” and “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.” Pope Pius IX (who served 1846–78) was initially open to the liberal impulse, but was shocked by the wave of nationalist revolutions that swept Western Europe in 1848. He would henceforward advance Gregory’s program, most famously in the Syllabus of Errors (1864), with its repudiations of religious freedom and autonomy of conscience.
With the pontificate of Leo XIII in the late 19th century, the Church embarked, albeit temporarily, on a more positive, if still cautious, engagement with the issues of the larger world. In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (on the “rights and duties of capital and labor”), for instance, Leo declared, “Everyone should put his hand to the work which falls to his share [and] should rest persuaded that the main thing needful is to re-establish Christian morals.” Moderation gave way to vituperation, however, in the writings of Leo’s successor, Pius X (1903‚Äì14), reflected in Pascendi Dominici Gregis (an encyclical on the doctrines of modernists) and Lamentabili Sane (the “Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists”). A critical stance toward society prevailed into the first half of the 20th century, with the papacy issuing sharp rebukes of significant elements of modern capitalism, socialism, industrialism, and state encroachment in what were held as Church matters.
At the heart of this construction of Roman Catholicism as a “counter-society” was the creation of a vast institutional apparatus, with the papacy at its head. It is no coincidence that it is only at the beginning of the 19th century that the term “magisterium” acquired its modern meaning as a reference to, first, the authority of the pope and bishops and then to the Church hierarchy overall. Although, from this period on, the term would refer to the teaching authority of pope and bishops, the rise of Ultramontanism, with its emphasis on papal sovereignty, guaranteed that it was the teaching authority of the pope that constituted its essential core. Over the course of little more than a century, from Gregory XVI to Pius XII (whose reign began in 1939 and ended in 1958), the papacy was transformed from the doctrinal court of final appeal to the supreme doctrinal watchdog, vigilantly scanning for any sign of theological innovation.
It is worth noting that the principal instrument of papal teaching authority in the Church today, the encyclical, is a relatively recent development, first employed in the 18th century by Benedict XIV. His encyclicals were very brief and tended to be either disciplinary or exhortatory. In the 19th century, when Gregory XVI and Pius IX made more use of the encyclical, often addressing doctrinal matters, they too wrote tersely. In their condemnations of erroneous views, it seems there was no intention of stimulating new theological insight.
With encyclicals such as Aeterni Patris (“On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy,” 1879), Providentissimus Deus (“On the Study of Holy Scripture,” 1893), Satis Cognitum (“On the Unity of the Church,” 1896), and Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII instigated a significant shift in the role of the pope toward teaching. His pontificate began an era of extended theological treatments issued by popes in formal magisterial documents on important topics. Pius X would follow the precedent with Pascendi, and both Pius XI and Pius XII would issue lengthy encyclicals during their successive pontificates.
It was Pius XII, in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis (“Concerning Some False Opinions”), who effectively limited the task of the theologian to faithfully explicating what the pope and bishops proclaimed. Theologians, he said, were teachers of the faith only by virtue of a delegation of authority from the bishops. They should be expected to submit their work to scrutiny and to potential censorship by the magisterium.
The new restrictions were not absolute, to be sure. The Church’s dogmatic manuals acknowledged the legitimacy of limited speculative discussion, but only among accepted experts and with narrow opportunities for publication. Given that not every doctrinal proposition carries the same weight, the manuals made use of a sophisticated system of “theological notes” to specify the authoritative status of the proposition at hand. Such notes were formal judgments by theologians or the magisterium on the precise relationship of a doctrinal formulation to divine revelation, and their purpose was to avert confusion between binding doctrine and theological opinion. The assumption was that if theologians discovered a significant difficulty with a doctrinal formulation that had not been proposed infallibly, they were to bring it to the attention of the hierarchy in private.
The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) offered a new framework. It largely replaced the “trickle-down” theory of divine revelation, in which truths were transmitted exclusively to the bishops, with a theology of revelation rooted in the Trinitarian self-communication of God in the person of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. According to the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the whole Church was the recipient of revelation, not just the bishops. Although the bishops remain its guardians by virtue of their apostolic office, the Word of God resides in the baptized, who receive a supernatural instinct for the faith (sensus fidei)—a capacity to recognize God’s Word, penetrate its meaning, and apply it in life.
Vatican II did not address the role of the theologian in any depth. However, it did insist that the work of biblical exegesis and theology must be done under the guidance of the magisterium, declaring that “Catholic exegetes and other workers in the field of sacred theology should work diligently together and under [its] watchful eye.” The council reiterated the responsibility of theologians to interpret and explicate Church teaching faithfully. But that was not all: “It is the task of the whole people of God, particularly of . . . pastors and theologians,” Vatican II stated, “to listen to and distinguish the many voices of our times and to interpret them in the light of God’s word.” Theologians must consider new questions—”recent research and discoveries in the sciences, in history and philosophy.” And they must spread the answers by developing “more efficient ways of communicating doctrine to the people of today.”
Vatican II took on topics that included religious freedom, ecumenism, authority of conscience, and the sacramental foundations of the episcopate. And it did so with theologians and bishops collaborating at numerous points in the process of promulgating its 16 major documents. Both individual bishops and regional episcopal groupings sought out theological experts such as Yves Congar, OP; Karl Rahner, SJ; Rev. Joseph Ratzinger; and others, asking for theological background, position papers, and unofficial draft texts. Jared Wicks, SJ, writes (in Doing Theology, 2009) of a “well-functioning epistemological duality” that took shape between the “consultative thought” of theologians and the “decisive judgments” of the council’s members. This substantive cooperation, vital to the council’s success, raised hopes for a new theologian-magisterium relationship.
The early returns were encouraging. A few years removed from the council, Pope Paul VI (1963–78) created the International Theological Commission as a way of formalizing a positive and constructive relationship between the magisterium and the theological community. In 1975, the commission published a document it called “an attempt to clarify” participation in that relationship. In 12 short theses, it discouraged political jockeying and publicity-seeking, unilateral claims, and the premature abandonment of discussion; it encouraged “personal conversation” and a “full and flexible stock of responses” when consensus appeared unobtainable.
Unfortunately, the presidency of the commission was granted to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the Roman Curia (the administrative arm of the Church); over several decades, voices at times critical of Church pronouncements came increasingly to be excluded from the commission. In truth, any hopes for the establishment of a new magisterium-theologian relationship were probably dashed earlier, by the widespread theological criticism that greeted Paul VI’s final encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“On the Regulation of Birth”), in 1968.
Although much that transpired during the ambitious pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1978–2005) can be seen as growing out of the vision of Vatican II, it is difficult not to see in that long tenure an attempt to recover the modern trajectory in which the pope was fashioned as chief theologian of the Church. In sheer volume of pages, no pope wrote more in the genre of the encyclical than John Paul II. The comparison becomes more dramatic if his often-weighty, post-synodal exhortations and shorter documents are counted. Occasional rhetoric notwithstanding, the policies of his pontificate appeared in tune with Pius XII’s suspicion of theological autonomy.
The pontificate of John Paul II produced the “Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity” (1989), the “Vatican Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” (1990), and the papal letter Ad Tuendam Fidem (“To Defend the Faith,” 1998), all oriented toward limiting the theologian’s freedom to critically assess even those Church teachings that were not proposed infallibly. The early years of the current pontificate give no sign of a departure from this policy.
Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. This essay is drawn from his introduction to the book When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today’s Church (2012), a collection of essays by contemporary theologians, to which he contributed and on which he served as editor. (Copyright © 2012 by the Order of Saint Benedict; reprinted by permission of Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.)