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In an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (of which Dutch Bishop Jan Liesen is a member), Pope Francis shone a light on the Catholic understanding of the Bible. This is an ever-necessary effort, as there is still much confusion and misunderstanding on exactly how the Bible fits in our faith and tradition.
In his address, the Holy Father explained:
“As we know, the Holy Scriptures are the testimony in written form of God’s Word, the canonical memorial that attests to the event of Revelation. The Word of God, therefore, precedes and exceeds the Bible. It is for this reason that the center of our faith is not only a book, but a history of salvation and especially a Person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Precisely because the Word of God embraces and extends beyond Scripture to understand it properly we need the constant presence of the Holy Spirit who “guide us to all truth” (Jn 16:13). It should be inserted within the current of the great Tradition which, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Magisterium, recognized the canonical writings as the Word addressed by God to His people who have never ceased to meditate and discover its inexhaustible riches. The Second Vatican Council has reiterated this with great clarity in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum: “For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God “(n. 12).”
What we may gather from this is that the Bible does not exist in isolation: it is not a book that came into being as we know it today. Instead, it grew, developed and exists not for its own purpose, but to communicate the Word of God. And a second important point is the role of Tradition, the magisterium, and – not least – the Holy Spirit, which act as interpreters of this Word.
We are a Religion of the Book, but our religion is not about the book. It is about what - who - the book is about. And that gives us a hint about how we should relate to the Bible. As Pope Francis explains later:
“The interpretation of the Holy Scriptures cannot be only an individual scientific effort, but must always confront itself with, be inserted within and authenticated by the living tradition of the Church. This norm is essential to specify the correct relationship between exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church. The texts inspired by God were entrusted to the Community of believers, the Church of Christ, to nourish the faith and guide the life of charity.”
The nature of the Bible tells us how it relates to us and the greater body of faith. We should receive it as it was given: the testimony of the Word of God for the community of faithful.
In an address to the International Theological Commission a few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI (pictured at left with Bishop Jan Liesen, one of the Commission’s members) spoke about a difficult but important topic: the sensus fidei. This religious sensibility is something that we must recognise and cultivate in order to recognise what is and what is not the truth that has been handed down through the Apostolic Tradition of the Church.
What is especially important today, the pope said, is “to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.”
This passage says a lot about how we are called to live as faithful people, with an innate sensus fidei. In the first place, it is not an opinion. Secondly, it does not exists separately from the Church and the Magisterium which are equally given by God, like the sensus fidei. Thirdly, it can’t grow if we are not active participants to the fullest in the life of the Church.
But perhaps the most important lessons we can draw from this is that faith, our sense of it and therefore also our practice, is never solitary. We are never alone, but always live, act and believe with our fellow faithful. The Church is the combined body of those faithful, and that is why faith is lived with and in the Church, of which the Magisterium is an indispensable part. Just like the Apostles lived with Christ and according to His teachings, so we are called to live with our teachers and follow them in charity and obedience.
Photo credit: l’Osservatore Romano
The website of the Dutch Dominicans – usually something of a hotbed of liberal thought and vague spirituality of the 1960s – features a short interview with English Dominican Timothy Radcliffe, Master of the Order from 1992 to 2001. The interview is presented in the context of issues between parishes and dioceses, most recently the student chaplaincy in Tilburg. Fr. Radcliffe has some interesting things to say about the hierarchy and its role in the Church, a topic that never fails to raise hackles in the “spirit of Vatican II” camp.
My translation follows here, with some thoughts of mine added in red.
TR: “There is often much talk about the “official Church”. I don’t like those words, because it makes “them” official and “us” unofficial. But as Dominicans we are just as official as anyone else. The very same goes for the words “the institutional Church”. The Order is also an institution, The Tablet is an institution, your website is an institution. The Church is alive when she creates many institutions. I resist those words, because it marginalises us. I don’t believe at all that I am marginal. I hope I’m on the edge, if you know what I mean, but I’m not marginal.”
So what are you?
TR: “We marginalise ourselves when we discuss the institutional or official Church. We must claim the centre. The same, by the way, goes for the magisterium, the teaching authority. The historian Eamon Duffy says that it consists of Christians who teach, and there are many of those: from the Pope to parents who teach their children. Some do well, others don’t, but it’s all part of the magisterium.” [Fr. Radcliffe seems to limit the magisterium merely to the act of teaching. The magisterium is also - firstly, even - a body that has the specific role to teach and defend teachings (and thus the faith) in the Church. It is therefore more than a person teaching something. The things that need to be taught are well defined and define the identity of the magisterium, which then does not stand or fall by the abilities of individual members.]
So religious and parishioners should do as they please? [A favourite desire in liberal circles...]
TR: “Authority exists when authority is given. Not just to the faithful and their questions, but also to the Vatican. I should try my best to understand what the Vatican is saying, even if they don’t listen to me [Ah! Authorities do not need to listen to me in order to speak authoritatively]. By that I refuse to be marginalised. You see, playing victim is so easy, but it is so negative and also extremely boring [The relics of the 1960s in the Church are good examples of this]. You should refuse to play the victim game.”
In the Dutch Church and in society that game is very popular.
TR: “It’s a dangerous game. When you make yourself the victim, you are bringing yourself down. It is repressive.”
So how do you call the official Church?
TR: “The hierarchy. And that is like the chassis of a car: it keeps everything together, but it is not the engine, or the tyres of the steering wheel [I think it is a steering wheel as well, with Christ doing the actual steering, but that's just me...]. A car’s dynamics do not come for the chassis. We need the hierarchy like we need a chassis. But we shouldn’t blame the chassis for not being dynamic. Dynamics should come from us, the religious and lay groups [And it all depends on what you consider dynamic. If it's just a matter of doing stuff, many in the Church are quite dynamic]. When you’re driving you don’t often think about the chassis. You think about where you want to go and you are happy about your journey. If we would think about our chassis all the time that we were underway, we wouldn’t get far.”
But there is rather an obsession with the chassis.
TR: “The Dominican Herbert McCabe said: the world is interested in the Church, we should be more interested in the Gospel. I think that we would be far happier if we wouldn’t be talking about the Church all the time, and if we would be passionate about the Gospel.”
While I have my questions about some points in the interview, I fully agree with the final answer. Without the Gospel we have little hope of achieving anything. The Gospel should always be what propels us to do things, and it should shine through in those things.That goes for blogs as well, my own not excluded. While the hierarchy is a regular feature in my blog, it should be seen in the context of the Gospel, of proclamation of the Word of God. That is the new evangelisation.
They may conjure up images of medieval witch trials and whatnot, but heresies are really nothing to get into a fuzz about. Well, the specific heresies may be, but the fact that the Church calls certain beliefs and opinion heretical should not. A heresy is nothing more complicated than a teaching that undermines the faith in a grave enough manner that supporting, promoting or following it has a serious penalty as a consequence. And that because such a heresy endangers the souls of the faithful.
One such heresy that I came across today* has several names, but most people who know it, will know it as modalism or Sabellianism. A short definition would be that modalism holds that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely three ways, or modes, in which God has revealed Himself to people.
Why is this a heresy? Why can’t the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not be three forms in which God interacts with us? Well, for starters, it would make His own existence, as we have come to know it, a fake. Countless times do we read in the Gospels how Jesus prays to His Father. If both were just roles played by the one God, why would He do that? In the Prologue of the Gospel of John we read that the Word was God and was with God. The Word of God is Jesus, the Son, but why, if the Son and the Father are the same, would John tell us that the one was with the other? In Genesis, we read about the spirit of God hovering over the deep. Not God, but His Spirit. Why would God play a role before an empty deep?
There is one God in three Persons. These three Persons are not the same. They are separate and unique, but they are all equally God. This is a mystery of our faith, which means that it is something that goes beyond our understanding. It is good that some things are beyond our ken, because God is not limited to the understanding of his creatures. If He were, He would be limited. A two-dimensional creature has no way of understanding three or even four dimensions. We have no way of understanding or even imagining the five, six or more dimension that scientists say exist. And we have no way of grasping the Trinity, but that has no bearing on its reality.
Is the Trinity unlikely? Perhaps. But it is what God has taught us, through Jesus’ prayers, and through the work of the Holy Spirit.
In articles 253 to 255, the Catechism of the Catholic Church delves into the Trinity. It has this to say [emphasis mine, notes removed for ease of reading]:
253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”
254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.” “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.” They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The divine Unity is Triune.
255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: “In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance.” Indeed “everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship.” “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.”
But who’s to say that what the Church teaches through the Catechism is right? That belief, that trust in the dogmatic teachings of the Church flows directly from th words of Jesus and the belief in the Holy Spirit who guides us. If we express faith in His words to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and in the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we must als have faith in the Church that Christ established upon Peter, and the faith that she safeguards and communicates.
God is Triune: one Being in three Persons. This we know through Scripture, the Word of God, and the teachings of the Church of Christ. To say otherwise is a denial of God as He is. God does not pretend. He is who He says He is. He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all true Persons, not phantasms or roles He plays before us. Because He takes us seriously, He reveals Himself to us as He is.
*The source linked to above is a Dutch text, a reflection given by lay Dominican Leo de Jong on Trinity Sunday, at the nominally Catholic church ‘Het Steiger’ in Rotterdam. In this reflection, Mr. de Jong denounces our understanding of the Trinity as three separate divine Persons as nonsense. Instead, he says, these persons are three forms in which Gods allows Himself to be known. This misleading teaching, presented as profound knowledge, is in reality a centuries-old heresy.
For a further Biblical explanation of the Trinity, go here.
Art credit:  Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1737-1738.
Popes rarely correct specific groups of people during high-profile events, instead opting for private audiences or similar occasions. Pope Benedict XVI chose to do otherwise today,in his homily at the Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. His intended audience? The priests from Austria, Belgium and other countries who have launched a ‘call to disobedience’ to the Church and her teachings:
“Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord. Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?
But let us not oversimplify matters. Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God? Indeed he did, so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice. Nor must we forget: he was the Son, possessed of singular authority and responsibility to reveal the authentic will of God, so as to open up the path for God’s word to the world of the nations. And finally: he lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.”
Thank you, Holy Father.
Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
Over the past week or so, I have come across a number of instances in which the faith of the average churchgoing people is put in opposition to the rules or dogmas which are handed down from Rome. Some examples:
- The ongoing dispute between the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch and the parish of San Salvator (they have now claimed to be expecting a break with the diocese, looking for alternative locations to continue their ‘services’, and they will bar Auxiliary Bishop Mutsaerts from entering the church through passive resistance (although he is invited to attend one of their priestless Masses – what Masses?!)).
- An announcement of the Mariënburg-old-codgers’-club-of-’critical’-Catholics’ upcoming annual symposium centered around the question of what they still believe (judging from the words of chairman Erik Jurgens, who said he doesn’t need to believe in the Trinity or take the Creed seriously to be a good Catholic, they don’t believe in anything much).
- Retweets by the Dutch Dominicans of an article by a one of their own warning us against believing that Christ is, in fact, God.
- And, lastly, an assurance from theological publishers’ Berne Heeswijk that one of their new publication “will not be going the way of dogma, but the way of the faithful”.
Just some examples, but indicative of a trend that, although often not very visible, is still well alive. To me, the division between the faithful on the one hand and dogma on the other is an artificial separation, which is potentially very dangerous. It’s not as if these are not related or connected in any way.They are, and we need both.
Faith is our answer to God. As the Catechism tells us: “Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life” . God takes the first step, we respond. The faith is our response to God’s active revelation and gift. Since it comes from God, this gift is perfect, but our faith is not automatically perfect: it is, after all, our response, and we are merely human. Were our response perfect, the relation between God and us may have been something like that between a programmer and a computer: the programmer inputs something and the outcome of his input is perfect and predictable. We’d be mindless automatons when it came to faith. But we are not. God created us with free will, we are free to act and to choose in all we do, including our quest for God or our denial of Him.
A consequence of that free will is that we have to be active partners in our relationship with God, in our faith. God helps us, but we need to do some of the work ourselves as well. Otherwise, again, we’d be left without choice and freedom. God offers his assistance in that through the Church he founded (Matthew 16:18-19). In the Church we find the means to develop our faith, to allow it to grow.
In the Gospel of John we read the Parable of the Vine (15-1-11). Jesus tells us there: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a branch — and withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire and are burnt” And later: “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”
Jesus asks us to remain in Him, to keep His commandments and His teachings, lest we be thrown away and come to nothing. Now, Jesus’ teaching includes some very clear dogmas, so to speak: He is God, there are various things we need to do and understand to be able to follow Him. In other words, there are certain rules we need to follow. Just like the sabbath was made for us, and not we for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), the rules are there for us, not we for the rules. They allow us to grow in faith, to reach our full potential. The rules are also educational: they teach us about God and His identity, and likewise about ourselves, through the things we say do and believe.
What’s the consequence of we do not follow the rules that Christ gave us, and which were later given to us by the Church with the authority given to her by Christ? We need only to look at San Salvator, Mariënburg, the Dutch Dominicans, Berne Heeswijk… and so many others. Places were faith is a matter of mere feelings and nice thoughts. We will wither and come to nothing.
There is no opposition between the dogmas and the faith of the common man, so to speak. The former helps the latter achieve his full potential, which does require a conscious effort and desire to achieve in us.
An interesting related question to this whole matter is what comes first: our conscience or the teachings of the Church? Father Juan R. Vélez offers an interesting article about that very question, offering answers based on the teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman. The article is also available in Dutch.
In an address given on 3 June at the annual Catholic Media Association convention in New Orleans, Bishop Gabino Zavala spoke about what it means “to be a faithful Catholic media organisation in the 21st century”. In the National Catholic Register, Matthew Warner highlights a passage in which the bishop speaks about bloggers.
“As I talked with brother bishops in preparation for this presentation, there was consistent agreement that one aspect that is most alarming to us about media is when it becomes unchristian and hurtful to individuals. For example, we are particularly concerned about blogs that engage in attacks and hurtful, judgmental language. We are very troubled by blogs and other elements of media that assume the role of Magisterium and judge others in the Church. Such actions shatter the communion of the Church that we hold so precious.”
Many popular Catholic blogs, by clergy and laity alike, consider it a duty to write honestly about all kinds of developments within the Church. And there is much that is cause for concern and often that concern leads to contrary opinions and disagreements between people. Elsewhere in his address, Bishop Zavala discusses this in relation to the media in general, and he says that the bishops of the United States and Canada look for several things when Catholic media addresses such topics.
The first is to adopt a basic principle of “Speak the truth in love.” Speak the truth out of a love for the Church, and a love for the people of God. There also has to be a place for mercy. All too often, secular media seems to seek the destruction of individuals when they are caught in a mistake. This is not what our Lord taught us. And so this is something Catholic media can teach the secular media – how to report divisive or scandalous stories in a spirit of love and mercy. To do this, we have to have a “nose for grace” and a conviction that God turns everything to the good. So even in the midst of dark and depressing stories Catholic media can be asking, “What is the potential for good in all of this?”
As Catholics active in (new) media, we bloggers must keep our faith, so to speak. We must defend it, certainly, but not in such a way that it shatters the communion of the Church, to paraphrase Bishop Zavala. That is something to always be mindful about, I think. It is so very easy to only focus on what the other does or thinks wrong, to have that lead or behaviour and our writing.
Bishop Zavala also warns against bloggers (and I would imagine other media as well) assuming the role of the Magisterium and so judging others. The Magisterium is the Church’s teaching authority, made manifest in those people appointed to it and endowed with the gift of authority – a gift from the Holy Spirit given through consecration. The Magisterium consists of the pope and the bishops in union with him. Their authority does not belong to man, but to God, although men can wield it, so to speak. It is not an authority that belongs to everyone, and we must not pretend it does. A blogger who claims to live and act in unity with the Church can certainly speak truth, even has an obligation to do so. But he (or she) should not attack or use “hurtful, judgmental language”. You are not the Magisterium (unless you are a blogging bishop, of course).
The Magisterium is one of the things that maintains the communion of the Catholic Church. If we take the role of the Magisterium on our own shoulders, that communion shatters. That is also not what Jesus taught us.
Bishop Zavala is auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee. You can read his complete address here.