The Magisterium in the New Millennium

The first lecture I ever gave on the topic of the church’s magisterium was given in Latin to my students at the Gregorian University more than 40 years ago. Little did I think then that one day the Latin word magisterium would become so commonly used, at least by Catholics, that I could give a public lecture with that word in the title without having to explain that it means the special kind of teaching authority that is conferred by the sacrament of episcopal ordination and that authorizes the pope and the Catholic bishops to teach in the name of Christ on matters of faith and morals.

What writing and lecturing I have done on this topic have been concerned with the specific nature of this kind of teaching authority and with the way it has been exercised until now. I had never before thought of speculating as to how it might be exercised in the future.

But when Father Thomas J. Reese, the editor of America, asked me to give this lecture, that is what he suggested I should do. I am sure that Tom is not laboring under the illusion that I have some prophetic gift by which I could foresee how the magisterium will actually be exercised in the future, nor of course am I claiming to have any such gift. So my title does not mean that I am going to predict how the magisterium will be exercised in the new millennium. Rather, I am going to share with you my thoughts as to how I believe the magisterium could and should be exercised in this millennium, in such a way that it would correspond more fully with the very nature of the church of whose structure it is a major component.

Spirituality of Communion

I suppose it is obvious that if I am going to suggest how I think the exercise of the magisterium could be improved so as to correspond more fully with the nature of the church, I must also think that its present exercise does not correspond to it as fully as it should. That, in fact, is what I think; and some articles published recently in America have shown that I am not alone in thinking so. However, in this lecture I do not intend to dwell on the shortcomings of the past or present exercise of the magisterium. Rather, what I intend to do is to look to the future, as Pope John Paul II has done in his apostolic letter of Jan. 6, 2001, Novo Millennio Ineunte (“At the Beginning of the New Millennium”).

In that letter he spoke of various ways in which the church needs to make progress in the new millennium—and among those ways he has particularly stressed the call of the church to realize more fully its nature as communion, declaring that communion “embodies and reveals the very essence of the mystery of the church.” He goes on to say: “To make the church the home and school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings.” The pope insists that “before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion,” which he explains as “an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in the faith within the profound unity of the mystical body and therefore as ‘those who are a part of me.’” He further says: “Such a vision of communion is closely linked to the Christian community’s ability to make room for all the gifts of the Spirit. The unity of the church is not uniformity, but an organic blending of legitimate diversities. It is the reality of many members joined in a single body, the one body of Christ. Therefore the church of the third millennium will need to encourage all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the church’s life.”

In his treatment of what he calls a “spirituality of communion,” Pope John Paul has recalled the solid theological foundation on which the practice of communion has to be based. The key idea is the Pauline notion of the church as the body of Christ, in which each member is called to make a contribution to the life of the whole, according to the gifts and capacities that each has received. The pope then goes on to offer practical suggestions as to how this can be carried out. He says: “The new century will have to see us more than ever intent on valuing and developing the forums and structures that, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council’s major directives, serve to ensure and safeguard communion. How can we forget in the first place those specific services to communion that are the Petrine ministry and, closely related to it, episcopal collegiality? These are realities that have their foundation and substance in Christ’s own plan for the church, but which need to be examined constantly in order to ensure that they follow their genuinely evangelical inspiration.

Much has also been done since the Second Vatican Council for the reform of the Roman Curia, the organization of synods and the functioning of episcopal conferences. But there is certainly much more to be done in order to realize all the potential of these instruments of communion.... Communion must be cultivated and extended day by day and at every level in the structures of each church’s life.... The structures of participation envisaged by canon law, such as the council of priests and the pastoral council, must be ever more highly valued.... The theology and spirituality of communion encourage a fruitful dialogue between pastors and faithful: on the one hand uniting them a priori in all that is essential, and on the other leading them to pondered agreement in matters open to discussion.” He concludes: “The spirituality of communion, by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the people of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul.”

Structures of Participation

At the risk of needless repetition, I would like to recall some of the terms the pope has used, such as “forums and structures which serve to ensure communion,” “specific services to communion,” “instruments of communion,” “structures of participation” and “fruitful dialogue which leads to pondered agreement.” I would recall also his insistence that “much more needs to be done in order to realize all the potential of these instruments of communion.”

It seems to me that basically what needs to be done in order to realize the potential of these instruments of communion is to make sure that they truly deserve the name “structures of participation.” The key word here is “participation,” because it is the English word that comes closest to the original meaning of the Greek word koinonia. This is brought out in the passage in which St. Paul speaks of what we share in the Eucharist. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ?” What Pope John Paul calls “instruments of communion” will realize their potential to be such when they are so organized and conducted that everyone involved in them can really participate to the full measure of the gifts and capacities that God has given to them.

What I intend to do in the rest of this lecture is to suggest how I think the various structures through which teaching authority is exercised in the Catholic Church could become more fully “structures of participation” and “instruments of communion.” I shall begin with the magisterium of the bishop of Rome, about which Pope John Paul II has made a very significant statement in his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (1995). There he said: “He has the duty to admonish, to caution and to declare at times that this or that opinion being circulated is irreconcilable with the unity of faith. When circumstances require it, he speaks in the name of all the pastors in communion with him. He can also—under very specific conditions clearly laid down by the First Vatican Council—declare ex cathedra that a certain doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith. By thus bearing witness to the truth, he serves unity. All this, however, must always be done in communion. When the Catholic Church affirms that the office of the bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, she does not separate this office from the mission entrusted to the whole body of bishops, who are also ‘vicars and ambassadors of Christ.’ The bishop of Rome is a member of the ‘college,’ and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry.”

I’m sure you can understand why I wish to stress the fact that Pope John Paul, after describing the various ways in which the pope exercises his teaching authority, has affirmed that all this must always be done in communion with his brother bishops. While he did not spell out in detail how this should be done, his strong statement that it must always be done in communion encourages me to offer my suggestions as to how in the future popes might exercise their teaching authority in communion with their brother bishops. What I understand that to mean is that in the exercise of their magisterium, popes would allow and encourage the participation of the bishops to the full extent of their roles as teachers and judges in matters of faith and morals.

Frequent General Councils

The most effective way that a pope can do this is to summon the whole college of bishops to a council. After the First Vatican Council had defined the dogma of papal infallibility, there were some who thought that there would be no more need for councils, since the pope could settle any questions of faith that might come up. But Pope John XXIII surprised everyone by summoning Vatican II, and the event has shown the immense value of having the bishops of the whole world gather to exercise their teaching role in communion with the pope.

My first suggestion is that in the new millennium the popes should summon the bishops to general councils more frequently than they have been doing. My suggestion is that they summon a council every 50 years. It is true that this would be more often than they have been held since the Council of Trent. No general council was held in the 17th or 18th century, and only one in the 19th and one in the 20th. But before Trent they were not so infrequent. Two ecumenical councils were held in the fourth century, two in the fifth, one each in the sixth, seventh and eighth. In the second millennium three general councils were held in the 12th century, three in the 13th, two in the 15th and two in the 16th. So the modern practice of infrequent councils is not so traditional after all. And while the majority of the bishops would now be traveling far greater distances than they would in the past, the modern facility of travel would more than outweigh that possible objection.

One reason for which a pope could summon the whole college of bishops to a council would be if there were some question regarding the church’s faith that might best be settled by a solemn conciliar definition. This is the way in which most of the challenges to the church’s faith have been definitively resolved in the course of history. However, as Vatican I decreed, the pope can define dogmas of faith without having to summon a council to do it with him. On the other hand, as Pope John Paul II said in Ut Unum Sint, even this must be done in communion with his brother bishops. My question, then, is: how could the pope exercise his own authority to define a dogma of faith in such a way that this would be a truly convincing example of teaching in communion with his brother bishops?

Perhaps someone will suggest that he could follow the example set by Pius IX and Pius XII, who consulted all the bishops by letter prior to defining the Marian dogmas. I suppose this might be an adequate form of consultation on questions concerning which there was hardly any controversy among Catholics, as was the case with the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Our Lady. But since Vatican II the popes have at their disposal a far more effective instrument of consultation, namely, the synod of bishops.

I would propose that the best way a future pope could enlist the participation of his brother bishops in any decision to settle a question of faith definitively, would be to make that question the topic for the next synod of bishops. In preparation for the synod, he could ask all the episcopal conferences to study that same question and express their views about it.

ADeliberative Role for Bishops

When the bishops gathered for the synod, the pope could give them not only a consultative role, as normally is the case, but a fully deliberative role, so that they would really participate in reaching the decision with him. If the decision is to issue a solemn definition, this would still be a papal definition, but it would be the result of a decision taken in synod, or synodically, with the added weight that the deliberative vote of the bishops had given to it. In the early centuries of the church, this is actually the way a bishop of Rome would handle important questions that were referred to him. He would summon the bishops of central and southern Italy to discuss the question with him, and would then communicate the answer that had been agreed on by the Roman synod.

Another exercise of papal teaching authority that would more fully correspond to the principle of communion if it were first submitted to the discussion and deliberative vote of a synod of bishops is the declaration that a particular doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium. The Second Vatican Council declared that the whole college of bishops proclaims the doctrine of Christ infallibly when—even though dispersed throughout the world but maintaining among themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of communion—in authoritatively teaching matters to do with faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular doctrine is to be held definitively. To say that a particular doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium is to affirm that all the conditions laid down here by Vatican II have been fulfilled. But who better than the bishops themselves can verify the fact that they are all in agreement that a particular doctrine is to be held definitively?

Needless to say, an agreement of the whole college of bishops must include the agreement of its head. But in this case, when the pope does not speak ex cathedra, his teaching is infallible only if all the bishops are in agreement with him. In this case, the charism of infallibility is attached to the magisterium of the whole college. For this reason, the whole college should actively participate in a decision to declare that the faithful are bound to hold a particular doctrine definitively on the grounds that it has been so taught by the ordinary universal magisterium.

I do not think it is consonant with the principle of communion that such a declaration should be made without the active participation of the bishops. A pope could enlist their participation by employing the “instruments of communion” that are available since Vatican II: first by inviting the bishops to discuss the question in their regional conferences, and then by having them express their views and cast a deliberative vote on it in a synod. A declaration that a doctrine has been taught definitively by the whole college of bishops will obviously be more convincing if it is evident that the bishops were actively involved in the making of that declaration.

Preparing Encyclicals

To this point, I have been speaking of how I think the principle of communion would call for the active participation of the bishops in the preparation of definitive statements on matters of faith and morals. I have suggested that even when such statements are to be made with papal authority, they would best be made synodically: that is, after the discussion and deliberative vote of a synod of bishops. I would like now to say something about the exercise of ordinary, nondefinitive papal magisterium. The examples of this that are most familiar to Catholics are found in papal encyclicals and similar documents. While the popes issue these with their own authority, we are told by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint that this also they must do in communion with their brother bishops. So the question is: how could a pope best enlist the participation of the bishops in the exercise of his ordinary magisterium?

Here again, I suggest that he could make use of the synod of bishops for this purpose. As a matter of fact, each of the ordinary synods since the one on evangelization in 1974 has been followed by a post-synodal document issued by the pope, in which he has developed the theme of the synod and made use of its recommendations. What I am suggesting is that whenever a pope had in mind to set forth some important teaching in an encyclical, he could enlist the participation of his brother bishops by first having this matter discussed and voted on by an ordinary synod of bishops. Needless to say, this would be a convincing practice of communion only if the bishops enjoyed the full freedom to express their minds on the question. What I have in mind is that an encyclical prepared in this way, while it would still be a document of ordinary papal teaching, would have the added weight of prior discussion and approval by the synod of bishops. The ordinary sessions of the synod take place often enough that future popes might well choose to prepare all their encyclicals in this way. This would certainly be a good example of teaching in communion with their brother bishops.

Teaching by Episcopal Conferences

I come now to the teaching done by bishops in their own episcopal conferences. Obviously they must do this teaching in communion with the bishop of Rome and with the other episcopal conferences. In the first place, this communion is based on the fact that the doctrine of faith and morals on which bishops have authority to teach is doctrine held in common by the whole Catholic Church. Whatever an episcopal conference teaches must be in accord with the doctrine of the whole church. At the same time, the role of the conference is to communicate that doctrine to the faithful of a particular church of a nation or region, in such a way as to meet the contemporary need of that church for guidance on how to understand and apply the church’s doctrine in their daily lives. Teaching is communication, and communication has to be adapted to the particular audience to whom it is directed. Hence, episcopal conferences have a distinct teaching role, based on the cultural and social differences that distinguish regional churches from one another.

I think there is no doubt about the fact that episcopal conferences have always been well aware of their obligation to teach in communion with the bishop of Rome. Recently this obligation has been given juridical force by Pope John Paul II in a document with the Latin title Apostolos Suos that he issued in July 1998. Here the pope has laid down the rule that it is only when an episcopal conference has approved a doctrinal statement with an absolutely unanimous vote, that it can be published without being submitted to Rome for approval. Given the difficulty of reaching total unanimity in a group of bishops as numerous and diverse as that of our conference, it seems inevitable that from now on any pastoral letter or other doctrinal statement they wish to make will require Roman approval, even when it was approved by as many as 200 bishops. Episcopal conferences certainly have every right to expect that the Curial officials who examine their doctrinal statements will treat them with the respect that is due to bishops as divinely authorized teachers and judges in matters of faith and morals. Time will tell whether their experience measures up to their legitimate expectations in this regard. If not, I think there is a real danger that episcopal conferences will be discouraged from exercising their proper teaching role and from putting in such time and effort as our conference expended in preparing its pastoral letters The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All. If the rule laid down by Pope John Paul should have such an unfortunate effect, it is of course possible that it might be changed or abrogated by one of his successors.

Participation of Priests and Laity

I have been speaking of the obligation episcopal conferences have to teach in communion with the bishop of Rome and with the whole college throughout the world. The mention of the pastoral letters that our bishops issued on peace and the economy calls to mind that there are others with whom they must teach in communion: namely, the clergy and laity of the church entrusted to their pastoral care. Our episcopal conference expressed this communion by the serious and extensive consultation that went into the preparation of those pastoral letters.

In consulting priests, they recognized them, as Vatican II had expressed it, as “prudent collaborators of the episcopal college,” who, along with the bishops, “announce the word of God” and “labor in preaching and instruction.” In consulting the laity, our bishops put into practice the teaching of the council that, “to the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the church.” As is well known, in preparing those pastorals, our conference consulted a broad spectrum of views in public hearings, then published two drafts inviting general criticism and made extensive revisions in the light of such criticism before publishing the letters. In this way the bishops encouraged a great many of the faithful to participate in the task according to their gifts and capacities. As we have seen above, such participation is the very essence of communion.

Finally, I shall mention another way in which a conference of bishops could have a good many priests and lay persons, both men and women, participate more directly in the preparation of a pastoral letter. Every episcopal conference may, with the approval of the Holy See, hold a plenary council as often as it judges that necessary or advantageous. While the conference is composed only of bishops—and only they take part in its annual meetings—a plenary council is composed not only of all the bishops of the same region, but also of a number of major superiors of religious orders and congregations, both men and women, who are elected by all the religious superiors of the region. Others who must be invited are the presidents of the Catholic universities of the region, together with the deans of their faculties of theology and canon law; and a certain number of rectors of seminaries, who are elected by their peers. The conference may also invite a number of priests and lay men and women, who can constitute one-third of the participants who are not bishops. While only the bishops have a deliberative vote in the council, all the others take part in the discussions and have a consultative vote on whatever is proposed.

The plenary council has much broader competence to make decisions for the region than does the episcopal conference. It provides for the direct participation of a good number of priests, religious superiors, both men and women, and lay men and women, none of whom can take part in the meetings of an episcopal conference. For this reason, it deserves to be numbered among those “structures of participation” of which the Holy Father has spoken. However, the fact is that up until now very few episcopal conferences have held a plenary council for their nation or region. This means that this structure of participation, provided by current church law, is hardly being used at all, and is therefore obviously not realizing its potential to be an instrument of communion.

I conclude by recalling the words of Pope John Paul in his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: “To make the church the home and school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings.”

10 years 3 months ago
Congratulations to Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., for his article, “The Magisterium in the New Millennium” (8/27). Father Sullivan feels he has no “prophetic gifts” with which to foresee how the magisterium will be exercised in the future. I believe he is a prophet foreseeing the future magisterial thrust using his own insights rooted in the teachings of Pope John Paul II in Novo Millennio Ineunte and the teachings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

In his apostolic letter, Pope John Paul II says, “The unity of the church is not uniformity, but an organic blending of legitimate diversities... therefore the church of the third millennium will need to encourage all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the church’s life.”

As pointed out by Father Sullivan, the pope makes much use of the key word “participation” in explaining the third millennium communion of the church. Regarding this communal ecclesial participation of the laity in the new millennium, Father Sullivan quotes Vatican II: “To the extent of their knowledge, competence, or authority, the laity are entitled and indeed sometimes duty-bound to express their opinions on matters which concern the good of the church.”

With great respect to Father Sullivan, Pope John Paul II and the Fathers of Vatican II, I think St. Paul long ago, in one sentence, set the agenda for the magisterial thrust of the third millennium when he said, “Paul [the priest/bishop] plants, Apollos [the layman] waters, and God gives the growth” (1 Cor. 6). Amen!

10 years 3 months ago
I would have been even more excited by “Magisterium in the New Millennium,” by Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., (8/27) if it had scope to address the structure and proper use of the magisterium’s teaching prerogative. Hope for Christian unity in this millennium dies unless the form, functioning and hence the authority of the magisterium becomes acceptable to other Christians. Examination of the role of the papacy in this regard has already been solicited by Pope John Paul II.

Stress exists in Catholic theology because of formulations of faith made when biblical research, knowledge of anthropology and science generally were primitive. Basis for a fundamentalist outlook has eroded.

History will undoubtedly reveal that the problem, though pressing now, is not great. Biblical scholars thought the authority of the Bible was in danger at the time of Galileo. Similarly, a critique of the magisterium will be an enhancement rather than a threat to its authority and proper respect.

10 years 3 months ago
I read with interest “Magisterium in the New Millennium” by Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. (8/27). I was certain as I read along that he would never broach the subject of lay participation in the spirituality of communion. But there it was at the end, following papal infallibility, general councils and the deliberative role of bishops in the decision-making process. Father Sullivan recognizes the important role lay persons should have in matters affecting the church. A consultative role for lay persons in plenary or regional councils is a good first step. Nonetheless, until lay persons are involved in “full communion” in church decisions that so intimately affect their lives, the spirit that pervaded Vatican II remains dormant. But Father Sullivan gives us hope.

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