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Nicholas LashDecember 13, 2010

When the Second Vatican Council ended, several of the bishops who took part told me that the most important lesson they had learned through the conciliar process had been a renewed recognition that the church exists to be, for all its members, a lifelong school of holiness and wisdom, a lifelong school of friendship (a better rendering of caritas than “charity” would be). It follows that the most fundamental truth about the structure of Christian teaching cannot lie in distinctions between teachers and pupils—although such distinctions are not unimportant—but in the recognition that all Christians are called to lifelong learning in the Spirit, and all of us are called to embody, communicate and protect what we have learned. Much of what is said about the office of “teachership” or magisterium seems dangerously forgetful of this fact.

Aspects of Instruction

The concept of instruction is ambiguous. If I am “instructing” someone, I may be teaching or I may be issuing a command. Someone who is “under instruction” is being educated, but “I instructed him to stop” reports a command. “Instructions for use,” however, provide information and hence would seem to be educational. There may be cases in which it is not easy to decide the sense. It is, however, important not to confuse the two senses and even more important not to subordinate instruction as education to instruction as command.

I have long maintained that the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism lies in just such subordination of education to governance, the effect of which has too often been to substitute for teaching proclamation construed as command. As Yves Congar said, it is impossible to make the function of teaching an integral element of jurisdiction because it is one thing to accept a teaching, quite another to obey an order: “Autre chose est agréer une doctrine, autre chose obéir à un ordre.”

Dissent and Disagreement

I have said that Catholic Christianity is a lifelong school of friendship, holiness and wisdom. Yet the tasks of those exercising the pastoral teaching office seem not, in fact, primarily to be teaching, at least as this activity is understood in most schools.

In 1975 a plenary session of the International Theological Commission issued a series of theses on the relationship between the magisterium and theology. In 1966 Paul VI had addressed an international congress on “The Theology of Vatican II” on the same topic, and the commission introduced its theses with two brief quotations from that address. The commission defined ecclesiastical magisterium as “the office of teaching which, by Christ’s institution, is proper to the college of bishops or to individual bishops joined in hierarchical communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”

What terminology might be appropriate to describe what someone is doing when, for whatever reason, he or she seeks to take issue with some particular instance of magisterial teaching? “Disagreeing” is the term that comes to mind. But because teaching is, in current ecclesiastical usage, usually construed as governance, as command, such taking issue is described in the recent literature not as disagreement but as “dissent.”

Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., reminded readers of his 1983 book Magisterium that Pius XII, in “Humani Generis,” announced that “when a pope, in an encyclical, expresses his judgment on an issue that was previously controverted, this can no longer be seen as a question for free discussion by theologians”; Father Sullivan goes on to point out, however, that “there is no such statement in any of the documents that were approved by the Council.” The silence of the Second Vatican Council notwithstanding, John Paul II, addressing the American bishops in Los Angeles in 1987, said without qualification: “It is sometimes said that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops in the United States and elsewhere.”

If Father Sullivan’s study seemed content to work with the terminology of “dissent,” Ladislas Orsy, S.J., is more troubled by the notion. “Dissent has become,” says Father Orsy, “one of the dominant themes in Catholic theology in the United States,” but “is mentioned less in European writings.” Dissent, he says, “is an imperfect term under several aspects”: It is purely negative; it implies “deep-lying internal antagonism”; it is historically loaded; and so on. “It follows that if we abandoned the word ‘dissent’ altogether, we would lose little and gain much.” I agree. Yet, “All these arguments notwithstanding,” Father Orsy concludes, “it appears that for the time being at least” we must “live with an unsuitable word.” For goodness’ sake, why?

Here is a very simple model: The teacher looks for understanding, the commander for obedience. Where teaching in most ordinary senses of the term is concerned, if a pupil’s response to a piece of teaching is yes, the student is saying something like “I see” or “I understand.” If the response is no, the pupil is saying “I don’t see” or “I don’t understand.” When subordinates say yes to a command, they obey; when they say no, they disobey. Dissent is disobedience. The entire discussion about the circumstances in which it may be permissible or appropriate to dissent from magisterial utterances makes clear that what is at issue is when and in what circumstances it may be virtuous, and not sinful, to disobey. There could, in my opinion, be no clearer evidence that what we call “official teaching” in the church is, for the most part, not teaching but governance.

I am not in the least denying that governance, the issuing of instructions and commands, has its place in the life of the church, as of any other society. That is not what is at issue. The point at issue is that commands direct; they do not educate. It is one thing to accept a doctrine, quite another to obey an order.

Manuals and Rule Books

Commenting on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Splendor of Truth” (1993), Herbert McCabe, O.P., contrasted manuals and rule books. A manual helps one to acquire some skill: as a football player or a piano-tuner or, if we extend the range of skills to those habits we call the virtues, as a just or generous person. A manual is an instrument of education. In addition to manuals there are rule books, which tell you what, in some particular context, you are and are not allowed to do. Father McCabe writes: “The rule book does not tell you anything about acquiring skills in football; it simply tells you the rules and the kinds of action that would break them.” The rule book is an instrument of governance. What worried Father McCabe about “The Splendor of Truth” was that it is, he said, “in great part, an attack on those who want to read the rule book as a manual by those who want to read the manual as though it were a rule book.”

Nowhere in “The Splendor of Truth” does John Paul II discuss disagreement in the church or the duty of episcopal authority to monitor and guide it. Indeed, near the end of the encyclical, in a passage denouncing “dissent” and “opposition to the teaching of the Church’s pastors,” the pope comes close to claiming that there is simply no place for disagreement on moral questions in the church: “While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for such a process.” It “cannot depend simply” upon “exchanges and conflicts of opinion”—fair enough. But might Catholics not have expected him to say something about the part such “exchanges” should play?


“It is for ecclesiology,” said Robert Murray, S.J., an English Jesuit, “that [the term] magisterium till about the mid-nineteenth century referred to the activity of authorized teaching in the Church. The use with a capital ‘M’ to denote episcopal and especially papal authority was developed mainly in the anti-Modernist documents.”

The 19th-century shift from the name of a function, that of teaching, to the name of a group of officers or “functionaries” was for two reasons most unfortunate. First, it was unfortunate because it created the impression that in the church only bishops bear responsibility for witnessing to the Gospel. (We should never forget that most bishops were first catechized by their mothers.) Second, it was unfortunate because bishops seldom do much teaching in the ordinary sense, being preoccupied with the cares of middle management. As a result, the contraction of the range of reference of magisterium to the episcopate alone served only to deepen the subordination of education to governance that I have deplored.

There are, of course, exceptions to the claim that most bishops seldom do much teaching in the ordinary sense. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, when he was archbishop of Milan, could fill his cathedral with people who came to hear him interpret the Scriptures. And an encyclical like Pope Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate” (2009) is surely a quite straightforward exercise in teaching.

I have referred to the contraction of the range of “official teachers” to the episcopate. In fact, during the 20th century the magisterium contracted even further. John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” is addressed “to all the bishops of the Catholic Church.” Near the end of it, the pope says: “This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching,” thereby contracting the range of reference still further—to himself.

According to the church historian Eamon Duffy, John Paul II, like Pius XII before him, “saw the pope as first and foremost a teacher, an oracle.” However accurate the image of particular popes as “oracles” may be as a description, it remains the case that any pope who behaves within the church as an oracle misunderstands his office. The image of the oracle is of one who brings fresh messages from God. This no pope can do, for the church he serves as its chief bishop has already heard the Word and lives by that faith, which is its God-given response. It is the duty of those who hold teaching office in the church to articulate, to express, to clarify the faith by which we live.


Hence the importance of the doctrine of “reception.” In one of St. Augustine’s sermons (No. 272) he says: “When I hold up the host before communion, I say ‘Corpus Christi,’ and you reply ‘Amen,’ which means: ‘Yes, we are.’” The response of the faithful to sound teaching in the church is to say, “Yes, that’s it.” Where this response is lacking, the teaching is called into question.

Securus judicat orbis terrarum (“The judgment of the whole world is secure”). In the months leading up to the first Vatican Council, Cardinal John Henry Newman insisted that he “put the validity of the Council upon its reception by the orbis terrarum” (whole world). And when, after the council, he hesitated before accepting the definition of papal infallibility, Lord Acton remarked, “He was waiting for the echo.”

“Human community,” says Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., “is sustained by conversation.” That he regards this axiom as an ecclesiological and not merely an anthropological principle is clear from his later remark that “sharing our faith is always more than stating our convictions: it is finding our place in that conversation which has continued ever since Jesus began to talk with anyone whom he met in Galilee, and which is the life of the Church.” Disagreement is an unavoidable feature of serious conversation about the things that matter most. David Woodard, a brilliantly effective but somewhat eccentric parish priest with whom I had the privilege of working in the early 1960s, came back one day after visiting a neighboring parish and exclaimed: “Those people are completely lacking in Christian charity; they can’t even disagree with one another!”

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (“Unity in essentials, liberty in open questions, in all things charity”). Pope John XXIII quoted this 16th-century motto in his first encyclical. It seems to me that where the relationships between governance and education and between the episcopate and teachers of theology are concerned, there are few more important tasks for the bishops to undertake than to act as moderators of disagreement, educators in Christian conversation.

From the archives, Nicholas Lash reports on contintent-wide meeting of European theologians.

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Vince Killoran
13 years 7 months ago
A powerful article.  I've copied it and will be re-reading often.

A follow-up essay might explore why diocesan seminaries don't make these necessary distinctions. 
Leonard Villa
13 years 7 months ago
Theologians and the Pope and bishops do not constitute parallel magisteria.  Pope Benedict just reiterated (December 3, 2010) the task of the theologian in his talk to the Int'l Theological Commission:

"No theological system can subsist if not permeated by love of its divine 'Object,' if it is not always nourished by dialog-that is, the welcome in the mind and heart of the theologian-with the divine Logos, Creator and Redeemer. Moreover no theology is such if it is not integrated in the life and reflection of the Church across time and space, Yes, it's true that to be scientific theology has to argue in rational fashion but it also has to be faithful to the nature of ecclesial faith centered on God rooted in prayer in a communion with the other disciples of the Lord guarenteed by communion with the Successor of Peter and the entire Episcopal College."
13 years 7 months ago
Wonderful article. I plan to send this to the pastor of my parish. I think he understands the difference between instructing and commanding. If the hierarchy would read this and reflect on it, there could be hope for the future of the church. Unfortunately, I doubt that such a change in attitude is likely.
Joseph Keffer
13 years 7 months ago
This is a profound article and unbelievably timely to the Catholic church, not only in the U.S. but in the "Catholic" world.  I pray that the Holy Spirit encourages the reception of the thought and concepts contained within, by the appropriate persons.
Come Holy Spirit.
john fitzmorris
13 years 7 months ago
the inisght of the writer is amazing. It is a wonderful statement of the way things should be. Of course, that will never come to be as long as the Church is not regarded as discipleship of equals where we all instruct, listen and guide one another. But the model of the Church that prevails in the hierarchy is military where the generals in particular the Supreme Commanding General orders and all others must obey.
Joseph O'Leary
13 years 7 months ago
Luminous, seasoned, instructive, from a voice that carries great persuasive force in today's Church. How ironic that John Paul II gave such currency to the Stalinist language of "dissent".
George Clayton
13 years 7 months ago
Excellent, thought-provoking article. Without trying to paint all bishops with the same brush, I would simply say that the Church would be better off if our bishops were, and were seen as being, more authoritative and less authoritarian
William Rydberg
13 years 7 months ago
When the new State of Israel was formed, official government policy was to use Hebrew language for public documents.  Among the early challenges for State of Israel administrators was finding a new Hebrew word for the english "obey" as there was none extant in Hebrew.  They finally settled on importing an Aramaic word in to the Hebrew lexicon..  The closest original Hebrew word up until that time meant "listening closely".  Something to think about..... Blessed Advent
Jack Barry
13 years 7 months ago

Powerful article, in part because of the simple clarity that suffices for Nicholas Lash to describe this Church problem and need.  

'We’re … teachers,' Archbishop Dolan said of the bishops’ role, '… the teachers'", on his election as USCCB president.   Dolan Is Picked as the Leader of U.S. Bishops.

The test of any teacher is what the pupil has learned.  Consider what the bishops have managed to teach their pupils in recent decades on contraception, Mass attendance, confession, marriage, and loving _all_ the neighbors, for examples.  No others would tolerate such demonstrable ineffectiveness where teaching and learning are important - in public schools, private schools, the military, etc.

The military offers an instructive parallel to those who can learn.  They depend centrally on obedience and (two-way) loyalty to achieve performance under duress, which ranges from the ultimate testing of combat to the mindless boredom of waiting.  They vigorously study, teach, and practice both education and governance as if lives might depend on how well they do.  Those who fail are removed.  Would that Archbishop Dolan and his brethren could grasp Lash's straightforward analysis of their situation with similar understanding.  
Craig McKee
13 years 7 months ago
This article reminded me of a quote:

"Wojtyla, a man who prided himself on speaking many languages, listened in none of them. But then no Pope in 2,000 years has been listened to by more and heeded by fewer. As the late Vaticanologist, Peter Hebblethwaite, remarked during the early years of this reign, "They like the singer, not the song."

cf. David Yallop, The Power and the Glory: Inside the Dark Heart of John-Paul II's Vatican, page 680.

Luckily for us, the same cannot be said about this author or the Jesuit whose work he was honoring.
David Smith
13 years 7 months ago
Yes, it's important to distinguish between teaching and commanding, but I think a great many modern American Catholics choose not to believe that the Church does both, and prefer to treat the commands as relics of an outdated theology and an ignorant and perhaps corrupt hierarchy.

However, most teachers in the Church generally do not, I suspect, take the trouble to explain how it all fits together, choosing instead just to teach the Catechism.  That could lead to a Church in which the only members are Catechism Catholics, content to obey without troubling much to think things through.
David Bjerklie
13 years 7 months ago

If there is no room for the rules of morality to be discussed, but only followed, then the rules will never be taught or understood, only given as orders.  This way of looking at moral rules and the law is no different than the concept of sharia law.  Thinking of the rules and the law in this way is not Christ’s legacy. I believe that Christ’s legacy is Love which gives us the freedom and the means to place the law in its proper perspective, and gives us the freedom to question and understand the law in its full dimension including its limitations. This is not saying that disobedience is a virtue, but rather obedience is now cast as a means to listen and work at understanding (an education).

David Smith
13 years 7 months ago
David B. writes:

"This is not saying that disobedience is a virtue, but rather obedience is now cast as a means to listen and work at understanding (an education)."

The only command to be followed is a command to study and think?  That sounds nice, but I don't understand where it could come from.  I don't remember ever being taught to study - just to obey.  In my limited experience, study isn't a particularly Catholic imperative, as it seems to be for, say, Judaism.
Michael Barberi
13 years 7 months ago
Good article. You have to learn something before you can teach it. More importantly, some so-called truths in some doctirnes can only be definitely taught is there is reception. Reception does not limit itself to the laity but also to the clergy and the Magisterium. When the Vatican closes debate to many controversial issues of sexual ethics it ceases to learn and to listen. When a teaching is not recieved it does not mean it is wrong, but it does not call forth any power to change behavior. If the Church wants reception, debate should be open, not closed, and a solution to divisive disagreement must be formulated in the reality of cogent understanding and not in demands for obedience.
13 years 7 months ago

Thought provoking article!  I find the most telling quote to come near the end: “Human community,” says Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., “is sustained by conversation.”   

Conversation, and its concomitant opportunity for enlightenment by another person's thoughts and opinions, is the route by which humans grow beyond themselves.  When conversation is denied, one's world becomes a darker place. 

Witness the relationships in families. The bonds of familial love are damaged when, in the midst of a serious discussion over a difference of opinion, one person says, "Because I said so!  End of discussion."  Such ultimatums are an exercise of power and authority - a repudiation of the other - and a sign of dysfunction in the relationship.

In the family of God, those ordained to lovingly shepherd souls to salvation do well when they invest themselves in conversation with the faithful, respectfully sharing their knowledge and gently guiding the people along the path.  

It is easy to issue orders.  It is more difficult to be a true shepherd - but far, far more effective.


Jim McCrea
13 years 7 months ago
"Pope Benedict just reiterated (December 3, 2010) the task of the theologian."

In effect, do what I tell you to do.  When I want your opinion/insight I will ask for it but reserve the right to absolutely reject it unless you tell me exactly what I want to hear.

William McCormick
13 years 7 months ago
I respectfully dissent. If the role of bishops is merely to attempt understanding and agreement, then what happens in the great number of instances when the hearers fail or refuse to do so? Ecclesiastical chaos. Thus, the true role of the bishops is to educate and hopefully convince. If the hearers persist in their misunderstanding, the bishops must resolve the differences with a single magisterial voice. That's why we have bishops.

William McCormick
13 years 7 months ago
To the Editors;

Thanks for editing my post to make it totally unintelligible. (Post no. 17). Why did you do that?
Art Osten
13 years 7 months ago
Mr. Lash misinterprets St. Augustine and shows his shyness in proclaiming truth.  The consecration does not depend on the audience's approval to take place.  Their "amen" is their personal acceptance and belief in what has already occurred by God through the priest.  Further, the Magesterium does exist to teach and promote theological discussion - with the aim of generating a greater understanding of the truth.  But it also exists to command - to clarify and correct ideas which stray outside the Faith.  This is part of the Church's role and councils were convened in the past for this sole purpose.  Lash demonstrates a lack of faith that there can be objective truth.  With a nod toward Pilate's intellectual sneer, the preference in some circles is to let the pot of discussion simmer endlessly, never to achieve its end.  Christ, through his life with us and the Church He established, came to establish truth so that truth might set us free from sin.  Granted, a much better process to refine the truth should be championed.  But the current truths, while incomplete, are essentially correct and must be accepted with humility in the knowledge that the full truth can never be known by any of us on this earth. 
C Walter Mattingly
13 years 7 months ago
I wonder if a modern Moses went to the mountaintop today, would he come down with the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Suggestions?
13 years 7 months ago
Perhaps the reason that our bishops so often command and don't teach is because of the model they have for teaching. Many of them received their theological education in the large lecture halls of the Roman universities. They diligently recorded the lectures and fed them back at exam time with no opportunity for disagreement or dialogue. The professor commanded and they obeyed. The problem is that we, the educated laity, don't take to that style of "teaching." 
Roy Campbell
13 years 6 months ago
Approaching this intriguing question from an Orthodox mindset, one wonders what all the fuss is about.

Bishops, priests, and laity are equally responsible to discern doctrinal and practical truths of the faith; the role of the bishops is to "rightly define the word of Thy truth" - as the priest intones during the Divine Liturgy - as a result of such a conciliar process.

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