IN my previous series of articles on the crisis through which the Church is passing I stated the need for the widest possible freedom of discussion within the Church, but added that this should be subject to "a continuing ecclesiastical magisterium." Some readers have asked me to clarify this and I propose to embark on the first part of this course this week.
What exactly is the magisterium? It can be conveni ently defined as "the Church's active competence to teach and bear witness to the nature and consequences of God's revelation in Christ." This competence to teach, which strictly speaking is the prerogative of the Pope and the bishops should not be con sidered as something isolated from the life of the Church, nor should the Pope be considered as though he were above and outside the Church and teaching it from a superior external position. Pope and bishops can only teach in communion with the Church as a whole. The magisterium then does not exist of itself or manufacture truth; rather it defines and delineates what is already present in the consciousness of the people of God.
Over the past hundred years or so the stress has been placed on the role played by the Pope as teacher, but Vatican II has brought back to the forefront the part played by all the bishops in relation to the magisterium.
This had been obscured by the exclusive reservation to the Pope of the title "Vicar of Christ."
Down to the ninth century the same title was used of many bishops other than the occupant of the Roman See. The Orthodox use it today of every lawfully instituted di°. ce,sa n and the dogmatic constitution on the Church "Lumen Gentium" returns to ancient usage when it describes the bishops as "the vicars and ambassadors of Christ."
The ecclesiastical teaching function can then be exercised either by the college of bishops together with its head or by the Pope alone acting as head of the college. Attention has been concentrated on the "extraordinary mode of exercising the magisterium when the Pope defines in solemn form a doctrine on faith or morals to represent the view of the Church as such, or when the same is done by the Pope and the bishops gathered together formally in Council.
Such exercises of the magisterium are rare. It was used at the First Vatican Council to define the doctrine of papal infallibility and has subsequently been used only twice by the Pope acting "alone," by Pius IX when he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and by Pius XII in relation to the Assumption.
Solemn definitions demand the assent of faith, a complete acceptance which is the response not only of the intellect but of the whole being. Even then there is still scope for discussion, clarification and development.
A theological definition can never be the final word since it deals with mysteries which cannot be confined within the straitjacket of language, A lifetime could be spent in meditation and discussion of a single truth of the Faith.
Of much greater practical importance in the life of the Church is the "ordinary" magisterium discharged through the constant teaching of Pope and bishops. This may take any of a wide variety of forms, liturgical acts, papal encyclicals, constitutions, admonitions, pas toral letters, sermons, diocesan directives, etc.
When the magisterium is exercised by the episcopal college with its head in the ordinary manner it, too, may be infallible, but is not necessarily so. It seems probable that the Pope as such has no infallible ordinary teaching power other than that exercised in concert with the episcopal college. What are the limits as opposed to the demands of the ordinary magisterium of the Pope? In strict theory these must be the same as those operating in • the solemn magisterium, namely, the sphere of revealed doctrine and morals.
The Pope cannot bind the consciences of the faithful by teaching on morals, for cxampel, unless they are based on or pre-supposed by revelation. If a matter is not within the scope of Revelation it can be argued that the Pope or the bishops for that matter are simply acting ultra vires if they pronounce upon it and that is the end of the matter.
This, I believe, is too narrow a view. It would confine the teaching power of the Pope to a very few matters which after centuries of development had crystallised into certainty. It is more reasonable to conclude that while the basis of the extraordinary and ordinary magisteria are the same, namely, revelation, there is a difference in application.
The ordinary magisterium is a more remote application of the Pope's teaching authority derived from revelation to areas where variables and contingent factors are involved. The Pope, of course, may be teaching "infallibility" without using the solemn form when giving day-to-day guidance on matters of generally accepted doctrine in the Church, but the "infallibility" here probably pertains to the episcopal college not to the Pope as such.
When exercising his ordis nary magisterium the Pope cannot ask for the assent of faith since he is not teaching with the certainty and definitiveness essential for the invocation of the infallible magisterium. What then can he ask for? This is an extremely difficult question to answer since so little thought has been devoted to it by theologians.
In the years between the Councils the Church was in the grip of a process which can be described as "creeping infallibility" which found practical expression in the habit of accepting without question any official statement on doctrinal or moral matters coming from the Holy See. This period was ended by Vatican II, which threw some light on the problem of response to the ordinary magisterium in Lumen Gentium.
I hope to consider this next week.