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Trouble with Teaching Authority

607px-Second_Vatican_Council_by_Lothar_Wolleh_001While he thinks it unlikely and probably ruled out by the nature of the church, Ross Douthat worries that Pope Francis could be preparing the way for a major doctrinal shift on marriage and communion in the church, a change, he says, that would threaten outright schism.

If Pope Francis were to change the official teaching of the church on the indissolubility of marriage, or even try to do so, he would undermine the very teaching authority of the church. Conservative Catholics, convinced that this teaching cannot possibly change, would question the legitimacy of the pope’s move and the authority he used to make it. For this reason, Douthat doubts the pope would take any such step; and yet because bishops, Pope Francis included, seem to be debating the matter, the possibility is not inconceivable.

Douthat has, perhaps inadvertently, shined a light on the fundamental instability of ecclesiastical teaching authority. In the Catholic Church, the teaching authority is called the Magisterium. This office claims to have, from God, the authority to teach authentically and, in some cases, definitively and infallibly, on matters of faith and morals:

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

[…]

The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

Moreover, the Magisterium expects the faithful to receive with docility its directives and teachings. All of them. It’s not like a professor who encourages students to learn the ideas taught in the classroom while also engaging them critically. Rather, it asks for the submission of the mind and will: learning coupled with obedience. The Magisterium teaches and enforces its teaching through sanction.

This might seem a stable setup, but there’s trouble below the surface. As Douthat’s speculations show, the faithful are not always clear on where this teaching authority is actually exercised. In the minds of the faithful, the appearance of this teaching authority doesn’t necessarily correspond to its substance, either in the past or in the present.  The Magisterium contributes to this confusion. Popes and bishops, speaking through official channels, have said all sorts of contradictory things, all the while expecting assent. As a result, no one gives ear to every word of every papal bull and encyclical and council document. Even those who believe themselves to be faithful adherents to the Magisterium wiggle around official statements they dislike by arguing that such statements are not actually magisterial teaching.

Sometimes they’re right. It’s one thing to say that definitive teaching is true and unchangeable; it’s another thing to know exactly which teachings are of this sort. Some are obvious enough: the existence and revelation of God, the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. Others are less so. The Magisterium doesn’t waffle on the meaning of human sexuality or the limits of its own teaching authority, but it’s not absolutely inconceivable that the church could revise its teachings on these and other matters. The conceivability of doctrinal change opens the door to dissent among the faithful, but of course dissent is the last thing the church wants to encourage.

Kyle Cupp is an author and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebookand his website.

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15 thoughts on “Trouble with Teaching Authority

    • I think that it’s the case of liberal dissent = ‘rebellion against authority’; right-wing dissent = ‘conserving/restoring true authority’.

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  1. This is why Platonism has always gone particularly well with Catholicism: One can always imagine that the current crop of entirely human Church authorities has nonetheless escaped the cave, and they are explaining the wonderful things they see outside. Or not.

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    • In reading Thomas Cahill, as well as other books it is clear that the christian church adopted Plato as a prophet. Augustine integrated him into western teachings. Or see The Cave and the Light the story of the contest between Aristotelian and Platonic thought. Again makes the point that the neoplatonism was adopted by the christian church, and that Plato was made an almost saint in the process. Aristotle came back with Aquinas, but then Plato came back later. Since Plato sees the need for the philosopher king to rule not rule by the people (he did not like the way Athens functioned, after all they killed Socrates). The church leadership sees its leadership as that of a philosopher king.

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  2. “If Pope Francis were to change the official teaching of the church on the indissolubility of marriage, or even try to do so, he would undermine the very teaching authority of the church. Conservative Catholics, convinced that this teaching cannot possibly change, would question the legitimacy of the pope’s move and the authority he used to make it. ”

    Yes, they would. And most of them (heck, all of them) would be the same people who denounced ‘cafeteria Catholics’ on the left, for not submitting utterly to previous Popes.

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  3. Is divorce vs. annulment really the sort of hot-button controversy that would threaten a schism? I’m skeptical, particularly when annulments seem to be granted on the basis of favor, not according to any set standard.

    (I was going to say that divorce isn’t something people would lose their heads over, but then I remembered Thomas More.)

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  4. When I was 11 or 12, I went up to my Grandmother’s house (she lived a mile up the road, I visited her frequently). There was a strange car in the driveway, so at first I was excited to meet a new person — the plight of young people who grow up in small communities. I got onto her front porch, and was stunned to hear her sobbing. And then a man’s voice, not yelling, but speaking in an almost menacing way, “All your children are illegitimate.” I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but it my young mind interpreted it to mean that my mother and aunts and uncles will burn in hell for what she’d done.

    And my grandmother wept and begged him to leave.

    I left the porch, and hid in her barn, and waited and watched to see who left. It was a priest. My grandmother had been raised Catholic, and left the church when she married my grandfather, who, as far as I can tell, subscribed to Christianity only as a cultural norm and not as a belief system. Later, when I asked my mother about what I’d witnessed, she told me that it was an annual event, and very traumatic for my grandmother.

    So this schism in the church, I view through that lens, and multiply it by all the women the world over who are told they or their children will suffer damnation. This is coercive and abusive. The Catholic Church does tremendous good the world over. But it does tremendous harm, too; particularly to women. Doctrine that says contraception as sin is troublesome to me; particularly given that we embrace medical advances that help save women’s lives in child birth but not the advances that give them the right to control family. The lack of women in leadership and priesthood is pure misogyny. To me, these things are evil.

    1000 years of not changing in a world that changes strikes me as a path lacking wisdom, a path that fails to see the schisms and cracks that have, inevitably, already happened because culture evolves and changes; yet the argument, so far as I understand it, is that changing causes the schism. This is nonsense. So I agree — Douthat’s only pointing out what’s already happened; the seeds are planted.

    Thank you, Kyle. I know that you love your church, that for you, the heart of belief is love. I admire that greatly. But I’ve been compulsively reading Douthat and Dreher, and I they are like that priest, they are not like you in some essential way. I hope your’s is the message sprouts from those seeds. Please speak louder.

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    • As Thomas Cahill notes in Heretics and Heros p 291 there are two different aspirations in religious history first a desire to limit membership and limit it severely,” to limit the circle of the saved –to be exclusive, as small … as posible” The second and opposite aspiration “to include as many as possible, to open… the doors to all comers” My guess is Christ would take the latter approach as the Pharisees tended towards the former. Francis to me appears to want to follow the latter as compared to the Roman Churches (and indeed many protestant denominations) trend from Trent onward to restrict membership. Of course Cahill is a big fan of John XXIII.

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    • Zic,

      I have a very close relative who hasn’t taken Communion in 30 years because she never got her marriage annulled before remarrying. Amazingly she still attends Mass from time to time but respectfully remains in her pew.

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    • Add in the women who are told their kids aren’t the product of a true marriage because their husbands left them for someone else and had the clout to get an annulment.

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    • “And then a man’s voice, not yelling, but speaking in an almost menacing way, “All your children are illegitimate.” I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but it my young mind interpreted it to mean that my mother and aunts and uncles will burn in hell for what she’d done.

      And my grandmother wept and begged him to leave. ”

      Somebody deserved a long, leisurely massage with a baseball bat or axe handle.
      After which the implement should have been used to give him a prostate ‘exam’.

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  5. This is a good post, Kyle. As an outsider, I’ll refrain from commenting too much (lest I distract from the topic at hand to a greater divide). I’ll just say that your thoughts on this are refreshing, and are applicable (at least indirectly) to other religious or philosophical (hell, even political) issues.

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