"The Teaching Ministry of the Bishop of Rome"
Archdiocese of Milwaukee 2003 Pallium Lecture Series
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
June 10, 2003
Truth as a Value
G. K. Chesterton is supposed to have said: There are hundreds of reasons for being a Catholic, but they all boil down to one: Catholicism is true. I agree. The necessary and sufficient reason for coming into the Church or remaining in it is nothing else than this. The Lord in whom we believe says of himself, "I am the truth." The human mind is built for truth. Without truth it suffocates, like lungs without oxygen, but with truth it finds joy and peace, even in the midst of trials.
The truth is spelled out in ideas and expressed in words. The Church lives by her creeds, which are in turn interpreted by the great edifice of Christian doctrine. The extraordinary popularity of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when it was published a decade ago, is a sign that people hunger for the truth of God's word embodied in doctrine. That truth is living and life-giving; it enables us to find our bearings on earth and points the way to the eternal vision of God, in which we shall see the truth as it sees itself. So precious a gift is her patrimony of doctrine that the Church cannot forfeit any fragment of it for the sake of some other good, such as peace or unity. Christian unity is greatly desired, as is unity with people of every faith, but unity without agreement would be a deception, and agreement would be hollow unless it were agreement in the truth.
The fabric of Catholic doctrine, for which many martyrs have died and many saints have toiled, is complex and delicately woven. Even well-instructed Catholics do not always understand how it all fits together. Quite understandably, truths that were recognized as belonging to the deposit of faith only after centuries of prayerful meditation and scholarly investigation are not self-evident to every believer. They are received by the vast majority of the faithful on the authority of teachers who are considered dependable.
The Concept of Magisterium
In bestowing revelation as the ordinary way to salvation, God provided for its maintenance throughout the centuries. The primary function of the Church is to preserve and expound the deposit of faith. The Church performs this task through her "teaching office," her magisterium. As currently used, this term means the power and function of teaching with the authority of Christ, specifying what the faithful ought to believe in order for their minds to be in conformity with the word of God. Because she possesses a definite creed, the Church cannot be hospitable to every opinion. She must draw the line between right and wrong, between orthodoxy and heresy. Her acceptance of the truth must be firm and eager, so that her members may proclaim it with conviction. "If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound"--asks Paul--will prepare for battle" (1 Cor 14:8)?
Those of us who live in a democratic society are likely to have difficulties with authoritative Church teaching. We are inclined to say that since it is legal in the United States to think what we want and to express our ideas, even when we are wrong, the same freedom ought to obtain within the Church. If we value religious freedom in society, why should we not value it within the Church? The answer is that there is a radical difference between the Church and secular society. Secular society is an association of people who cooperate for practical ends. The State can tolerate erroneous beliefs unless they subvert public order or prevent peaceful coexistence. The Church, however, is a community of faith. As a union of persons who profess and proclaim a single faith, it cannot include persons who reject or do not share that faith.
By the magisterium, then, we mean the system of authority that determines what beliefs are necessary, as tolerable, or as so antithetical to faith that they must be prohibited. For practical purposes, every church has a magisterium, but in some cases the magisterium is so permissive that the common ground is minimal. The Unitarian-Universalist Church, for example, allows for a denial of the Trinity and of the divinity of Christ, which are usually taken to be the most fundamental Christian dogmas.
Loci of Magisterial Authority
By and large, different Christian traditions differ because they disagree about the locus of teaching authority. Protestants typically take the Bible alone as the ultimate and decisive rule of faith, although they recognize the leaders and traditions of their own communities as subordinate authorities. Every Christian belief, they say, has to be tested against the Bible.
The Orthodox churches--and many Anglicans, we may add--place sacred tradition on a par with Scripture. Tradition for them includes the liturgy, the testimony of the Church Fathers, and especially the teaching of the ecumenical councils of the first millennium. Scripture alone, they contend, is an insufficient guide, since heretics such as Arius and Nestorius could find texts seeming to support their views. The councils went beyond the words of Scripture so as to preserve the faith of the apostles. Orthodox Christians adhere to the teaching of the ancient councils as an obligatory safeguard against fundamental heresies.
The Catholic Church, the third great segment of Christianity, agrees with the Protestants that the teaching of Scripture is to be accepted. She agrees with the Orthodox on the authority of liturgy, the Fathers, and the early councils. She is therefore at one with both the Protestants and the Orthodox in what they positively affirm, but she goes beyond both in her esteem for the magisterium.
Scripture itself, we Catholics hold, teaches that Jesus chose the twelve apostles and commissioned them to teach all nations as he had taught them. Matthew records the risen Lord as assuring the apostles: "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20). This promise seems to imply that the apostles were to have successors throughout the centuries.
It is not enough, we Catholics believe, that an effective magisterium existed in the past. The Church must have the capacity to respond to current challenges. The Catholic magisterium, while continuing to uphold the wisdom of the past, guides the faithful by addressing new questions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives an authoritative synthesis of Catholic tenets regarding a vast multitude of religious questions.
The various tenets, to be sure, differ in their obligatory force. Some are safe and approved opinions still subject to revision. Others are theologically certain doctrines closely connected with, but still distinct from, the deposit of faith itself. Still others are articles of faith that must be held under pain of exclusion from the Church.
Functions of the Magisterium
The magisterium has a variety of functions, both negative and positive. Beginning with the fourth century, it has periodically intervened to protect the deposit of faith against heretical distortions. The medieval councils and the modern councils of Trent and Vatican I perpetuated this predominantly defensive tradition, anathematizing the errors of their day. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, much papal and conciliar teaching has been positive in its content, unfolding new implications of the faith. Pope John XXIII instructed Vatican II to move forward in a deep and tranquil exposition of the riches of Catholic doctrine, without pronouncing new anathemas.
Pope Paul VI and John Paul II, faithful to the spirit of Vatican II, have refrained from defining new dogmas. In their encyclicals they have sought especially to proclaim and interpret the faith in relation to new questions and situations.
John Paul II uses encyclicals not only to clarify points of doctrine but to present meditations on various aspects of the Christian life. His social encyclicals reaffirm traditional principles and apply them to our post-colonial, post-industrial, globalized world. His latest encyclical, the one on the Eucharist that appeared last spring, contains no new doctrine but recalls a number of important points that are often forgotten if not denied. Its main purposes would seem to be to rekindle devotion and to correct certain abuses.
The Magisterium of the Pope
These examples plunge us into the main topic for this evening: the teaching ministry of the Bishop of Rome. Catholics believe that the teaching authority given by Jesus to the twelve apostles was given in its fullness to Peter. After founding his Church on Peter "the Rock," Jesus prayed that Peter's faith would not fail and instructed him to confirm his brothers in the faith. The Pope as Successor of Peter has a special grace for keeping the faith and for strengthening the witness of his brother bishops. Just as the first apostles proclaimed the gospel with and under Peter, the whole body of bishops in subsequent generations proclaims, expounds, and defends the faith with and under the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome.
The Pope and the bishops, to be sure, are not the only teachers in the Church. The vast majority of teaching is done by others--by priests, religious, and lay people. The hierarchical teachers as a group have the responsibility to formulate binding doctrine, to censure doctrinal errors, and to supervise the transmission of the faith by others.
The Pope and the College of Bishops
From about 1400 to the present time much effort has been devoted to finding the correct the balance between the teaching authority of the Pope and that of the body of bishops. Some Catholics have held that the Pope's teaching could not be definitive until accepted by the bishops of the various nations. This school of thought was known Gallicanism, because it thrived in France where there was a very close union between the Church and the national government. Analogous movements arose in other countries, notably Austria and Germany. These nationalist tendencies were struck down by the First Vatican Council, which distinguished two modes of definitive teaching. The first was the consensus of all the bishops, who could teach the faith definitively in union with the Pope at an ecumenical council. The second was an act of the Pope invoking his authority as successor of Peter and visible head of the universal Church. Vatican I also recognized that the unanimous day-to-day teaching of the bishops throughout the world was inerrant, even though not solemnly promulgated. It did not take up the teaching authority of individual bishops or groups of bishops in particular assemblies.
Vatican II, in the mid-twentieth century, reaffirmed the teaching of Vatican I, but developed it in important ways. It taught that all the bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome constitute a college which, with and under the Pope, has supreme teaching authority. Collegial acts are those that proceed from the whole body of bishops, with and under the Pope as their head. Collegiality does not diminish the responsibility of the Pope, since the college does not exist except with and under the Pope and cannot act without his concurrence.
The Pope is under no obligation to act collegially, associating the other bishops in his action. It remains true, as Vatican I had solemnly taught, that the Pope as visible head of the entire flock of Christ can act individually. He can declare "ex cathedra that a certain doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith" (UUS, referring to DS 3074). He more commonly teaches by his ordinary power, without making a solemn definition.
John Paul II's Style of Teaching
Like Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, has refrained from proclaiming new dogmas, but both of them have occasionally used encyclicals with the intention of terminating debate on controverted questions. In 1968 Pope Paul VI attempted to settle the doctrine of the Church on contraception without recourse to an ex cathedra proclamation. Besides invoking his own authority as Pope, Paul VI mentioned that the natural law, interpreted by the universal and constant teaching of the magisterium, "teaches that each and every marital act must remain open to the transmission of life" (HV 11). A significant and apparently growing number of theologians contend that the teaching of the encyclical is irreformable not by reason of the encyclical itself but by reason of the constant and universal teaching of the Church.
John Paul II, even more conspicuously than Paul VI, gives a collegial dimension to his own doctrinal pronouncements. In many of his most emphatic statements he claims to be speaking "in the name of all the pastors of the Church in communion with him" (UUS 94). Before doing so, he consults with bishops and cardinals and makes use of their advice.
Some examples may be found in the encyclical Evangelium vitae, in which John Paul II mentions that the cardinals in a consistory of 1991 unanimously asked him to use his authority to reaffirm the value of human life in the face of current threats. He then wrote personal letters to all the bishops of the world to seek their cooperation. Their responses, he says, bore witness to their unanimous desire to share in the doctrinal office of the Church in the defense of life. Thus the encyclical, although signed by the Pope alone, is not his solitary act. It involves the cooperation of cardinals and bishops from every country in the world. The encyclical claims that its decisive prohibitions on the taking innocent human life, on abortion, and on euthanasia are grounded in Scripture and the natural law, taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium, and confirmed by the Pope. The language on abortion is particularly striking:
- Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops--who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who, in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have show unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine--I declare that direct abortion ... always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. [EV 62]
This and similar statements on issues of human life in EV make it clear that the Pope is using the encyclical to proclaim what he considers to be the teaching of the universal magisterium of the bishops dispersed throughout the world. Although he does not use the term "infallible," his language implies that the infallibility of the whole body of bishops is here engaged.
One of the most critical decisions of Pope John Paul II has been his declaration in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination upon women. In this case the Pope pointed out that although the tradition had been constant and universal, and had been confirmed by the magisterium in recent documents, questions were still being asked. Exercising his own ministry to "confirm the brethren," he stated that his judgment was to be definitively held by all the faithful (OS 4).
Subsequently, when the question was raised as to whether the teaching of OS was infallible, the CDF replied that it was "an act of the ordinary papal magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnessing to the infallibility of a doctrine already possessed by the Church" (Response to Dubium, Oct. 28, 1995). Again, as in Evangelium vitae, the teaching authority of the Pope and that of the bishops were intertwined, so that the two cannot be entirely disentangled. The participation of the Pope is a major factor in achieving and certifying the consensus of the bishops.
Some theologians have criticized this style of papal teaching as a "questionable shift." If the Pope had wanted to speak infallibly, they say, he could have conducted a formal consultation with the entire episcopate or else he could have spoken ex cathedra on his own authority, but he did neither. For this reason the critics hold that the doctrine of OS is still open to revision.
I personally do not share either criticism or the conclusion drawn from it. The testimony of Holy Scripture and of tradition on the point at issue is so solid that no polling of the bishops could possibly overthrow it. As recently as 1976 Paul VI had commissioned the CDF to undertake a thorough study, which left no room for doubt. Under John Paul II the question took on new urgency. Prompt action was needed to avoid the kind of difficulties that had plagued the Anglican Communion since the illicit ordinations in Philadelphia in 1974. A formal consultation would have taken a long time and would have aroused divisive and acrimonious debate. An ex cathedra pronouncement, issued without long preparation, would have alienated many Catholics and entailed the excommunication of many dissenters. The Pope had good reason to declare that the matter was definitively settled without imposing his decision as a matter of dogma.
Even if some doubts can be raised about the infallibility of OS, the judgment of the Pope and of the CDF in the matter should prevail. The highest doctrinal authority in the Church has pronounced on the question, thereby overcoming what might otherwise seem to be legitimate doubts.
Apart from the few instances I have mentioned, the issue of infallibility does not arise in connection with the teaching of the Popes since Vatican II. Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have been content to set forth standard Catholic positions without recourse to their extraordinary magisterium. Except where they are declaring points on which the settled doctrine of the Church leaves no scope for disagreement, they expect the kind of assent that is proportionate to noninfallible but authentic teaching. Catholics may be expected to accept the teaching of their Supreme Pastor, especially when his doctrine is manifestly in line with Scripture and tradition.
The Roman Curia
The papal magisterium, broadly understood, includes actions of the Roman curia, which exercises vicarious papal power by virtue of its close relationship with the Pope. Of themselves, documents proceeding from Roman congregations, pontifical councils, and other dicasteries have less authority than documents issued by the Pope himself. But the curial offices speak under the Pope's authority and with his approval. He personally approves all their major pronouncements, either in ordinary or specific form. If he grants a document specific approval it becomes a properly papal action, so that no appeal can be made against it.
A great deal of the teaching of the Holy See on doctrinal matters comes from the CDF, which has had Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as its prefect for more than twenty years. Because Cardinal Ratzinger works very closely with John Paul II, and because the Pope gives specific approval to the more important documents of the CDF, I disagree with those critics who strive to uphold the authority of the Pope while contesting that of Ratzinger and other curial officials. The CDF inevitably incurs some hostility because it has the unenviable task of stigmatizing the errors of dissident theologians.
The Synod of Bishops
In treating the teaching authority of the bishops, Vatican II distinguished between strictly collegial acts, which occur when all the bishops in communion with the Pope speak in unison, and actions of particular groups of bishops, which cannot be strictly collegial because the college is indivisible. But groups of bishops should nevertheless act in a collegial spirit (affectus collegialis). After Vatican II several new organs were set up to implement this collegial spirit.
One such organ is the Synod of Bishops. Consisting as it does of a small fraction of the episcopal college, it cannot speak with the authority of the college and is not a strictly collegial entity. The Synod is intended to assist the Pope in his direction of the universal Church. But because its members are members of the episcopal college, the Synod helps the Pope to speak with greater collegial consciousness.
Pope John Paul II is very favorable to the Synod of Bishops. Before becoming Pope he had been a leading voice in the Synod throughout the previous decade. Since becoming Pope he has convoked more than a dozen Synod Assemblies, both general and special, and has consistently encouraged their work.
One of the most interesting developments since Vatican II is the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation. This form of teaching, introduced Paul VI in Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), has been followed by John Paul II after the six General Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops held between 1978 and 1994, as well as after four of the five great continental synods held in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000.
These Apostolic Exhortations represent a very felicitous combination of papal and episcopal authority. The General Assembly is a gathering of representatives of the worldwide episcopate, the large majority of whom are elected through the territorial conferences. The topics for the assemblies are suggested by the conferences. After the Pope has chosen the topic, the General Secretariat, a small committee elected by the previous General Assembly, draws up a working paper which is circulated to the conferences for study. At the Assembly itself, each delegate is invited to speak. Then they break up into small groups, usually chosen by language, to discuss the issues and formulate propositions. The propositions are voted on by the entire Assembly before being submitted to the Pope, who incorporates them into his Apostolic Exhortation. In writing the Exhortation the Pope is assisted by the elected council of the Secretariat. The Exhortation, though it carries the signature of the Pope, is in great part produced by the elected bishops and thus has a collegial dimension.
Episcopal Conferences Besides the Synod of Bishops, the territorial episcopal conferences owe a great deal to Vatican II and its doctrine of collegiality. Like the Synod, they are not strictly collegial organs, but express and foster the collegial spirit. John Paul II refers to them as organs of collegial collaboration (RH 5).
Because episcopal conferences are not part of the papal magisterium, they do not pertain strictly to our topic this evening. But in the relatively rare cases in which the Holy See authorizes the conference to legislate or make legally binding doctrinal determinations, the conference is exercising delegated papal power. The binding legislative and doctrinal decrees of the conferences must normally be reviewed by Rome before they take effect.
Some critics see this provision as too restrictive, but in my judgment it is wise. On the one hand it protects the bishops and faithful of the area from being overburdened by supradiocesan local regulations and on the other hand it protects the unity of the universal Church, which should profess the same doctrines in every part of the world. Review by the Holy See helps to assure that the actions of individual conferences will serve to promote universal communion, rather than hinder it.
The Residential Bishop
Last of all, we should make some mention of the teaching office of individual bishops. Each residential bishop has magisterial power not only as a member of the universal college but also as the highest doctrinal authority in the diocese. Although he is not authorized to teach anything that does not belong to the patrimony of the universal Church, he is, as Vatican II declared, an authentic teacher, "endowed with the authority of Christ" (LG 25). Besides being a teacher in his own right, he is also charged with the responsibility of seeing that sound and effective teaching is done by others in the diocese. He is expected to see to it that the doctrine of the Church is effectively communicated and explained, that it is applied with an eye to the social and cultural situation, and that contrary views are not being taught under Catholic auspices.
The teaching ministry of the local ordinary is never independent of that of the Pope. In transmitting the doctrine of the universal Church, the diocesan bishop acts in collegial union with the entire episcopate and especially with the bishop of Rome, who holds a universal magisterium. There should be no rivalry or conflict between the teaching of the Pope and that of the bishop. Since the bishop teaches in communion with the Pope, the Pope may be said to be teaching in and through him. To the extent that each of them has the mind of Christ, they speak with one and the same voice.
The Roman magisterium is one of the great blessings that the Lord has given to the Catholic Church. No other church has a truly universal magisterium. Rome is able to stand above all nations, taking their interests, traditions, and cultures into consideration. Autonomous national churches tend to be culture-bound, mirroring the dominant mentality of their own country, and failing to achieve the critical distance required by fidelity to the gospel. All too often in the past, churches seeking a national identity have fallen into dissent or even into schism.
It is desirable, of course, for the Church in each nation or cultural area to speak to the concrete situation in a language that the people can understand. But the bishops can do so without altering the doctrine of the Church. Catholic doctrine stems from God's revelation in Jesus Christ and is directed to all peoples and all times without exception.
The conferral of the sacred pallium upon Archbishop Timothy Dolan later this month will dramatically symbolize the relationship I have been seeking to describe. The pallium, conferred by the Bishop of Rome upon patriarchs and metropolitan bishops, symbolizes their participation in the Pope's supreme pastoral office and their solidarity and communion with him. The event will allow you to celebrate your membership in a truly universal Church, all of whose bishops are strengthened in their ministry by communion with the bishop of Rome.
Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.