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Benedict XVI, before becoming supreme pastor of the Catholic Church, served for two decades as a theology professor and then, for more than two decades, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His career, together with his many theological writings and doctrinal pronouncements, illustrates ways of harmonizing and even combining the roles of theologian and prelate.

Nevertheless, questions continue to arise about the relationship of theologians and the ecclesiastical magisterium. How is the obligation of pastors to establish the doctrine of the Church to be reconciled with the freedom of theologians to follow what they understand to be the requirements of their own discipline?

The problem has been intensely discussed, especially since the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Theologians all over the world have developed a kind of class consciousness and show a new eagerness to protect their legitimate autonomy. Some resent what they regard as the authoritarianism of Rome and the bishops. As an example of this tendency, one might cite the “Cologne Declaration,” issued in January 1989 over the signatures of 163 German-speaking theologians. This was in large measure a protest against the undue extension of hierarchical control over theology, especially on the part of the pope, and an assertion of the autonomy of theology and the rights of personal conscience in the Church.

In the United States, many statements have been issued, both by bishops and by theologians, describing the doctrinal responsibilities of these two classes of teacher. Unless a harmony of views is achieved on this important question, the Church will be weakened, as it already has been to some extent, by internal division and polarization.

Most parties to the discussion appeal to Vatican II. The council said little about the role of theologians but a great deal about the teaching office of the hierarchy. “The order of bishops,” according to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “is the successor of the college of the apostles in teaching authority and pastoral rule.” Elsewhere in the Constitution on the Church, it is asserted that the judgments of the pope and of individual bishops, even when not infallible, are to be accepted with religious submission of mind. The living teaching office, said the Constitution on Divine Revelation, speaks with authority in the name of Jesus Christ. The bishops, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, establish the official doctrine of the Church, and as pastoral rulers they see to it that the faith is rightly taught in the churches under their care.

Even when all this is recognized, an important task still remains for theologians. The Church needs them because its members are human beings—that is to say, animals who ask questions. When something is proposed as a matter of Christian faith, reflective believers ask, quite legitimately: What exactly is the revealed datum? Where and how is it attested? How can things be as faith says they are? What logically follows from the truths of faith? People who try to answer these and similar questions in a methodical way are called ­theologians.

The functional distinction between the hierarchical magisterium and the theologians has been gradually clarified over the course of the centuries. In the early Church, most of the great theologians were bishops: Irenaeus, Cyprian, Athanasius, the two Cyrils, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Leo, and Gregory the Great. They engaged in what we may call episcopal theology. Theologians who were not bishops, such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Ephrem, and Prosper of Aquitaine, wrote without any apparent consciousness of belonging to a class distinct from the bishops.

In the Middle Ages, the distinction of functions became clearer, especially as university theology came into its own. Only a few of the medieval theologians were bishops, and relatively few of the bishops were theologians. The theologians of the time immersed themselves in highly technical questions about the processions in the blessed Trinity, the nature of the afterlife, the causality of the sacraments, and predestination. They debated such questions with the tools of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics.

As theology took on its distinctive identity, the hierarchical magisterium underwent further development. It became less pastoral and more judicial. The popes and bishops in the Middle Ages were under great pressure to endorse the theological positions of one school and to condemn rival schools. Yielding somewhat to this pressure, the magisterium became embroiled in speculative questions of little concern to the average worshipper.

Since the sixteenth century, the magisterium has taken on a clearer functional identity. It has increasingly sought to stand above purely theological disputes while keeping these disputes from becoming divisive. The Council of Trent was careful not to commit itself to any of the reigning theological systems, whether Thomist, Scotist, or Augustinian, but to pronounce only on matters of Catholic faith. In the following century, when the theological schools gave different interpretations to Trent’s teaching on grace, the Roman magisterium declared that each should be free to hold its own theoretical positions provided it did not accuse the other schools of heresy. The magisterium did not abandon its judicial role, but it sometimes chose to exercise that role in a permissive rather than a restrictive way. While upholding the doctrinal tradition, the magisterium also protected the freedom of theologians to speculate within the limits of that tradition.

In the nineteenth century, the term magisterium took on a more precise meaning. Where previously it had meant simply the office or function of teaching (and thus applied as much to theology professors as to bishops), the term came to mean the public teaching authority of the Church. Magisterium became a collective noun meaning the class of people who are institutionally empowered to put the Church as such on record as standing for this or that position. The ­theologians, by contrast, came to be regarded as private persons in the Church. Unlike popes and bishops, they could not speak for the Church as an institution or oblige anyone to accept their views. As a result of this clarification, the term magisterium was used almost exclusively for the hierarchical authorities. It is rarely taken in our day to mean the teaching function of ­theologians.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a further clarification of the terminology occurred. Until that time, the teaching power of the hierarchy was not clearly distinguished from its power of jurisdiction or government. Thanks to the labors of theologians such as Yves Congar, that distinction has been clarified and even canonized, so to speak, in the documents of Vatican II. Even when the teachers are the same persons as the rulers, the magisterial role is different from the power to govern. To teach is not simply to command or to forbid a course of action. Teaching is addressed to the intellect and calls for internal assent. Commands are addressed to the will and call for external obedience.

This clarification has had some practical effects. The popes and bishops no longer confine themselves, as they generally did in the Middle Ages, to passing judgment on positions held by theologians. They are increasingly disposed to originate or develop doctrine on their own initiative, especially doctrine that is ­closely connected with the worship and pastoral ­government of the community. This kind of teaching is ­illustrated by the dogmatic definitions of Pius IX and Pius XII and their doctrinal encyclicals. The proliferation of binding decrees could be seen as burdening the conscience of the faithful. Perhaps for that reason, Pope John XXIII instructed the Second Vatican Council to conduct its magisterium in a pastoral manner and refrain from issuing new doctrinal condemnations. While avoiding anathemas, the council nevertheless produced an abundance of pastoral teaching.

Some might question whether there is any need for a continuing magisterium. After all, the revelation by which Christians live was completed long ago, and it has, in substance, been committed to writing in the canonical Scriptures. Scripture alone, however, has not proved to be a sufficient rule of faith. From the early centuries, it has been supplemented by creeds and doctrinal declarations. Popes and councils were called on to decide doctrinal questions that arose as the faith became rooted in Hellenistic soil and interacted with the culture and philosophy of the ancient world. For the same reason, a living magisterium continues to be needed in every century. The message of Christ must be proclaimed in new situations. The ecclesiastical leadership must decide whether new hypotheses and ­formulations are acceptable in the light of Christian faith. On occasion, the Holy Spirit may enable popes and councils to speak with full assurance in the name of Christ and to settle some grave question definitively.

The objection can be made that it is the theologians’ role to study current questions and that the magisterium, if it speaks at all, must follow the guidance of theologians. The historic experience of the Church, in my estimation, shows that theologians are often unable to resolve their own differences, still less to establish doctrine for the Church. They are, by training and temperament, suited to gather data, to ask questions, and to speculate, rather than to make doctrinal decisions for the Church. Some theologians regard doctrinal decisions as an unwelcome intrusion on their own freedom of inquiry. As scholars, theologians dwell in a somewhat rarified atmosphere, concocting new theories and interminably debating them. For all these reasons, the Church needs a living voice other than that of theologians to preserve continuity with the apostolic faith and to maintain communion throughout the Church. We may be grateful, then, that Christ has equipped the Church with a body of pastoral teachers, competent to decide what is to be preached and to set the limits of theological debate.

For fruitful relations between themselves and theologians, it is desirable for popes and bishops to be ­theologically educated. According to the present Code of Canon Law, every bishop ought to have a licentiate or doctorate in biblical studies, theology, or canon law, or at least be truly skilled in these disciplines. But the same canon requires that bishops be outstanding in strength of faith, moral probity, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and other human virtues and gifts needed for their office. Professional theologians do not necessarily make the best bishops. If they are raised to the episcopal office, they must learn to separate their theological positions, which are personal and private, from the doctrine of the Church, which it is their responsibility to promote. For good reasons, therefore, the Church generally selects its bishops from priests experienced in preaching, counseling, and active ministry who have, in addition, shown a capacity to delegate and to govern.

In their magisterial role, residential bishops have a primary responsibility to judge what should be preached and taught in their particular church at a particular time. Even popes and councils, speaking to and for the universal Church, do not escape the conditions of their own age and culture. The bulk of official teaching is correlated with particular historical contingencies but is not for that reason less authoritative. The magisterium has a pastoral mandate to direct the Church’s response to new challenges and opportunities. Prudential decisions of the magisterium, responding pastorally to particular crises, may lose their binding force under changed conditions, though the principles they embody may be permanently valid.

Although the functions of the magisterium and of the theologians are distinct, each group requires and profits from the work of the other. Theologians depend on the magisterium because the creeds and dogmas of the Church are constitutive for their own enterprise. Theology is a reflection on the faith of the Church as set forth in the canonical Scriptures and in the official statements of the Church’s belief. If the magisterium were not trustworthy, the foundations of theology, including even the canon of Scripture, would crumble. The more abundantly theology draws on the teaching of the magisterium, the richer, generally speaking, will it be. To ignore or dismiss magisterial teaching is to neglect resources that are at hand. It is possible, of course, to disagree with the magisterium on some point or other or to wish to nuance its declarations, but the first instinct of the theologian should be to accept and build on what is officially taught in the Church. It is a great benefit for theology to have a magisterium that is committed and qualified to safeguard the apostolic faith.

Just as theology depends on magisterial teaching for its data and security, so conversely the hierarchical magisterium depends on theology. Pope Paul VI acknowledged this in an address of 1966:

Without the help of theology, the magisterium could indeed safeguard and teach the faith, but it would experience great difficulty in acquiring that profound and full measure of knowledge which it needs to perform its task thoroughly, for it considers itself to be endowed not with the charism of revelation or inspiration, but only with that of the assistance of the Holy Spirit. . . .
Deprived of the labor of theology, the magisterium would lack the tools it needs to weld the Christian community into a unified concert of thought and action, as it must do for the Church to be a community which lives and thinks according to the precepts and norms of Christ.

By their preliminary research, theologians help to mature the judgments of the Church. When such judgments are made and promulgated, theologians are often the drafters. They provide the exact technical language and make sure that what is said takes into account the latest findings of sound scholarship. Vatican Council II provided an outstanding example of fruitful collaboration between bishops and theologians.

The services of theology to the magisterium are manifold. Most of them are positive, for, as just stated, theology prepares the way for the magisterium to speak; and, after it has spoken, theology explains and, as necessary, defends what has been taught. To perform these various services, theologians must have the freedom to follow the principles of their own special ­discipline.

The service of theology to the magisterium can, on occasion, involve criticism. Scholarly investigation may indicate that some reformable teaching of the Church needs to be modified or that the traditional concepts and terms that are used for the communication of the faith are misleading when repeated today. If so, theologians have the right and even the duty to make their views known.

In the past century or so, we have seen many examples of theological criticism, some justified and some unjustified. At times the criticism has been bitter and intemperate and has produced alienation in the Church. Examples might be the writings of modernists such as Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell at the beginning of the last century. On the other hand, other thinkers of the same period, such as Friedrich von Hügel and Maurice Blondel, while close to the modernist movement, nonetheless exerted a strong positive influence on the official teaching through their intellectual probing.

More recently, in the pontificate of Pius XII, several of the most eminent Catholic theologians, such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, and Karl Rahner, cautiously advocated doctrinal positions that were, for a time, resisted by the magisterium. They made their proposals without rancor and, when rebuffed, submitted without complaint. After they had proved their loyalty and obedience, they were rehabilitated and invited to take part in Vatican Council II, where they made immense contributions to the official teaching of the Church. In view of cases such as these, it is difficult to deny that critical questioning of current magisterial teaching may sometimes be legitimate.

Just as the theologian may sometimes be entitled to raise questions and present doubts about current official teaching, so the magisterium has the right to keep dissent from impairing the unity of the Church and the integrity of the faith. The hierarchy has an inalienable responsibility to see to it that the Christian faith is transmitted without diminution or distortion. It therefore has a right of supervision over theology, insofar as theologians engage in teaching Christian doctrine.

This right is exercised in a variety of ways. The bishops can insist on prior supervision of books on certain sensitive subjects, such as catechisms, liturgical texts, and manuals of doctrine. The bishops can require, and on occasion refuse, ecclesiastical permission to publish books and articles (imprimatur). The hierarchical authorities can control the appointment of seminary professors and members of ecclesiastical faculties who teach with a canonical license (missio canonica). They can issue warnings against books that misrepresent or attack Catholic doctrine (monita).

Controls such as these are considered necessary to prevent the true teaching of the Church from being obscured and to protect the faithful from being confused about whether certain teachings are in force. Some restriction on the freedom of theologians may thus be necessary to enable the magisterium to perform its task and to enable the faithful to ascertain the approved doctrine of the Church. These restrictions, when prudently exercised, are a positive benefit to sound theology.

In any discussion of the related question of academic freedom, it would have to be made clear that the rights and powers of the hierarchy differ greatly according to the nature and canonical status of the university or faculty. The Vatican has a measure of direct control over ecclesiastical schools that grant degrees in the name of the Church. For the magisterium to intervene in the operation of nonecclesiastical faculties that grant only civil degrees, provision must be made in the statutes of the university, which must be drawn up with a view to the laws and customs of the place.

Even when they have no power to control the institution, ecclesiastical authorities may be able to judge its right to call itself Catholic. They can also give orders that are binding on the conscience of the individual professor, but the efficacy of any such command would depend on its conscientious acceptance by the professor in question. The Code of Canon Law requires certain professors to have a mandate (mandatum) to teach. According to the usual interpretation, this canon binds the professor, not the institution in which he teaches.

Theologians and hierarchical leaders alike have a responsibility to avoid destructive collisions between them. All Catholics are of course obliged to accept the definitive teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals. Even in the sphere of nondefinitive teaching, theologians should normally trust and support the magisterium and dissent only rarely and reluctantly, for reasons that are truly serious. Dissent, if it arises, should always be modest and restrained. Dissent that is arrogant, strident, and bitter can have no right of existence in the Church. Those who dissent must be careful to explain that they are proposing only their personal views, not the doctrine of the Church. They must refrain from bringing pressure on the magisterium by recourse to the popular media.

The magisterium, for its part, can take certain steps to minimize dissent and conflict about doctrine. In the first place, the hierarchical teachers can use their influence to moderate the charges and countercharges exchanged among adherents of different theological tendencies. The magisterium should discountenance reckless and unsubstantiated accusations of heresy.

Second, the magisterium can avoid issuing too many statements, especially statements that appear to carry with them an obligation to assent. In doctrinal matters, as in legislation, freedom should be extended as far as possible and restricted only to the degree necessary.

Third, before issuing any binding statement of doctrine, the magisterium would do well to consult widely with theologians of different schools. The sense of the faithful should likewise be ascertained, with care to discriminate between an authentic sense of the faith and mere opinions that happen to exist among church members.

Fourth, the hierarchy, before it speaks, should anticipate objections and seek to obviate them. The faithful should not be caught by surprise, and convincing answers should be given to honest difficulties.

Fifth, the magisterium should take care to be sensitive to the variety of cultures in the world. Often the rejection of doctrinal statements is occasioned not so much by their substantive content as by the thought forms and rhetoric. Advance consultation with episcopal conferences can be, and has often proved to be, of great assistance to the Roman magisterium.

In the final analysis, popes and bishops cannot be infinitely permissive. They have the painful duty of setting limits to what may be held and professed in the Church. There is no guarantee that the true doctrine will always be pleasing to the majority. Jesus uttered hard sayings, with full awareness that in so doing he was alienating some of his own followers. Peter spoke for the believing minority when he exclaimed: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Christianity, and perhaps especially Catholic Christianity, requires trust in those who are commissioned to teach officially in the name of Christ. Theologians, like other members of the Church, have no right to demand that the magisterium always refrain from contradicting their personal opinions. In fidelity to Christ and the gospel, the magisterium may be obliged to utter hard sayings of its own.

Whenever doctrinal condemnations are issued, it is easy to protest that the hierarchy is being autocratic. The dissenting theologian will be acclaimed in some quarters as the champion of freedom, the model of courage and independence. But this reaction only raises more acutely such questions as, What is true freedom? What are the proofs of courage and independence? When the current of public opinion is flowing against the official teaching, its acceptance, I suggest, may require a greater exercise of freedom and probity than would contestation.

The abuse of authority is a real danger in the Church as in any other society. In our day, however, it is not the greatest danger. Christianity is threatened by the demonic power of a culture that refuses to submit to the discipline of faith. The tide of public opinion pounds incessantly against the rock of faith on which the Church is built. If the Church allowed herself to be carried away, or even materially weakened, by this demonic force, the very survival of Christian faith would be imperiled. The hierarchical magisterium has commendably served to safeguard the integrity and purity of the faith against the trends and fashions of the day.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. This essay is excerpted and adapted from Church and Society: The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007 (Fordham).

Artwork by William Blake is in the Public Domain. Image cropped.

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