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A non-magisterial magisterial statement?

December 15, 2015

Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, is not something, I suggest, that can be switched on and off. Magisterium is either, according to objective (not subjective) criteria, engaged, or it isn’t. There are, of course, various degrees of magisterial authority in the Church and, yes, most folks hearing the word “magisterium” immediately, but usually wrongly, think that some grand ecclesiastical pronouncement is in the offing. But when popes and bishops publicly address themselves to matters of faith and morals, they are, I think, engaged in a magisterial act. A small act, usually, but nevertheless a real one. Protestations to the contrary—including treating magisterial acts as if their character were a matter of specific intentionality—do not change that fact.

Consider two scenarios.

First, some of Pope Francis’ unscripted remarks, e.g. his homilies during daily Mass, have caused confusion for the faithful. Early on, his spokesman, poor Fr. Lombardi, tried to steer controversial papal remarks into less problematic phrasings. Lombardi’s next step (well, after he declared he would no longer comment on unscripted papal remarks—a resolve that lasted a few days, as I recall) was to announce that Francis’ unscripted remarks were not part of the Church’s magisterium.

Excuse me?

Vatican press reps do not get to define what the “magisterium” of the Church is or what constitutes a “magisterial” act. Popes and bishops, addressing faith and morals, in public statements made during a constitutive part of a liturgy (see the definition of a “homily” in Canon 767), are, I think, engaged in a magisterial act, whether they expressly advert to that fact, or not (see CCC 87, 892, 2034; Canon 753). Of course, papal or episcopal remarks made under such circumstances rank near the bottom of the magisterial authority list but, once uttered (not to mention, recorded and published), they contribute, in some small degree at least, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church. Appreciating that point should, if nothing else, give prelates pause in how they express themselves in certain contexts.

Of course Francis is by office as well as by personality a unique figure in the Church so the concerns some might feel at how his press office treats the notion of “magisterium” could be assuaged by seeing it is as a necessary expedient. But lately, I fear, the ‘it’s-magisterial-only-if-we-say-it’s-magisterial’ line is appearing elsewhere in Rome. Consider a second scenario: the recent “Reflections on Theological Questions” published by the “Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews”.

In this document, signed by the cardinal president of a pontifical commission and co-signed by the bishop vice-president, “theological questions are further discussed, such as the relevance of revelation, the relationship between the Old and the New Covenant, the relationship between the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ and the affirmation that the covenant of God with Israel has never been revoked, and the Church’s mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism.” Now, if cardinals and bishops, appointed by popes to direct pontifical commissions, issuing statements on some important points of faith entrusted to those commissions and publishing them through the Holy See, are not engaged in a magisterial act contributing to the “ordinary magisterium” of the Church, who exactly would be?

To be sure, the PCRJ document is not “infallible” (as if only infallible assertions were part of the magisterium), nor is it directly papal in character (as if only popes could contribute to the magisterium), nor is every assertion therein ‘magisterial’ (as if, say, historical summaries were objects of magisterium). But the PCRJ document definitely, and in many places beautifully and insightfully, contributes to the Church’s ordinary teaching regarding, among other things, the relevance of revelation, the relationship between the Old and the New Covenant, the relationship between the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ and the affirmation that the covenant of God with Israel has never been revoked, and the Church’s mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism.

And yet the PCRJ text claims that it “is not a magisterial document or doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church”. Of course it is!

If Cardinal Koch had wanted to publish personal reflections on Jewish-Catholic relations he could have sent them to a scholarly or popular journal. Context would have satisfied all but the most scrupulous that such remarks were personal, not ‘magisterial’ in character. But that is not what Koch did. Instead, in his capacity as the prelatial head of a pontifical commission in charge of certain questions he issued a document expressing certain theological points. That makes this document a small, but definitely magisterial, exercise. If there are people out there who do not understand what it means, and what it doesn’t mean, to say that such-and-such a statement is part of the (here, ordinary) magisterium of the Church, then by all means, let’s explain matters to them. But let’s not downplay the character our own documents just to avoid setting off a tizzy of confusion among semi-informed observers.

But there is, I think, a deeper point to be appreciated in all this: the relationship between an intention behind, and the nature of, an act is complex; the lawyer in me knows that much. But lately, a rising number of persons seem to think that they can control the characterization of their act simply by declaring an intentionality for their act. That’s a very slippery slope. As a rule, I think an intention to perform an act is relevant to one’s responsibility for the act, but is not dispositive of the characterization of the act.

Popes who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in public remarks are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church; dicasterial prelates who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in materials published through the Holy See are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church; the rest of us should be able to tell, without having to await (unqualified) clarifications from press offices and without having to scan dicasterial documents for (ineffective) disclaimers, whether the Church’s magisterium is in play. If it is in play, then we can worry about what level of magisterium is being applied.

Update: Jimmy Akin responds to my post, here. He makes some good points, as usual. Those reading his comments might be interested in my reactions.

(1) Of course the Holy See issues some non-magisterial statements. (2) I too think some examples of ‘non-magisterial magisterial’ statements can be found prior to Francis. (3) My approach does not make identifying magisterial statements “very easy”. Real thought still has to be applied. What my approach does do, I suggest, is underscore that magisterial character is not so casually turned off and on, and underscores that prelates need to exercise greater care in making assertions on faith & morals. (4) Jimmy’s analysis strikes me as having exaggerated the conscience-binding character of individual prelatial statements; rather than our looking, as I think the Church has traditionally done, at the magisterial teaching on XYZ as a whole, Jimmy seems to fear that my approach makes every individual prelate’s statement on XYZ into something binding on consciences. To avoid that, he prefers to let magisterial character be turned on and off much more readily than I think can be supported. (5) Jimmy seems to leave unaddressed my concerns that what I am calling ‘specific intentionality’ (whereby an action must be characterized as the actor intends it be to characterized, rather than characterized for what it really is) is, more and more, being allowed to determine the character of an ecclesial act (although this problem appears in several other areas of life), rather than just responsibility for an act. I repeat that I think this is dangerous path to have set out on.

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