While 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.