Quite coincidentally I learned yesterday that I am conducting a workshop in late June on Ecclesiology, or the nature of the Church, and of course Paragraph 82 will form a major pillar of the outline. For convenience sake, it may be helpful to repeat the previous paragraph from which 82 comes forth: “And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching."
Paras. 81 and 82 describe the authoritative status of the Church as teacher and protector of Sacred Revelation until the end of time. When, in the phrase from the Nicene Creed of the Mass, we are called upon to state our belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” (“catholic” being a synonym for universal), this is what we are talking about—faith that the Church has received the Holy Spirit; that its first leaders, the Apostles, have accurately handed down the essence of Jesus’ revelation to their successors; that these successors enjoy the power of the Spirit to preach and accurately interpret Revelation and God’s until the Second Coming; and that this authority must be embraced in good faith by anyone who considers himself/herself Catholic.
The thing to bear in mind with today’s Catechism text is its context: a section devoted to outlining the sources of the Faith, the Church’s constitutional birthright, in other words. The Catechism is not going out of its way to flaunt the unique position of the Church, but rather to establish that a commitment to Jesus in the Roman Catholic Community is a faith well placed. Somewhere on this post I used the word “audacious” to describe how the claims of the Church must sound to an “outsider.” I suspect that for many Roman Catholics, too, this definition of the Church is an eye-opener, particularly as we live daily in the Church and the magnificence of our forest gets lost among the diseased trees.
The definitions of authority outlined in the Catechism today are offered with more restraint than some popes have understood them. Perhaps the most audacious (I like that word) claim of Church authority was made by Pope Boniface VIII in his encyclical Unam Sanctam (1302). Boniface claimed that the Church possessed authority over all matters, not just Revelation and Faith. He wrote: “Certainly, the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: 'Put up thy sword into thy scabbard' [Mt 26:52]. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power.” Boniface was under political and physical harassment from King Phillip IV of France at the time of composition, so his excesses can probably be excused somewhat.
While Roman Catholicism does through Tradition teach authoritatively on matters of morals (e.g., the killing of noncombatants in warfare) it does not claim special expertise outside of the realm of Scripture and Tradition, nor make extravagant claims in the public forum a la Boniface VIII. Vatican II reemphasized the power of Baptism/Confirmation in anointing the laity to bring Gospel values to their respective spheres of influence.
This does bring us to an intriguing question: who actually does exercise the authority of paras. 81 and 82? The easy answer is to look to the pope, successor of Peter. Tradition holds that the Bishop of Rome can speak for the Church infallibly in matters of faith and morals. However, the exercise of this authority has occurred only once since the doctrine of infallibility was formalized in 1870; in 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a doctrine of the Church.
Infallibility is not, then, the primary vehicle for the day-to-day governance of the Church. The correct term for on-going exercise of teaching authority is magisterium, from the Latin magister (teacher). Solemn exercise of the Church’s authority, such as the 1950 Declaration of the Assumption of the Virgin, would be called an “Extraordinary Exercise of the Magisterium.” More common to our lives is the ordinary exercise of the Magisterium, the daily discipline of faith and morals that bishops—in communion with the pope—exercise in their respective dioceses and conferences. The ordinary magisterium maintains unity of worship and mission. A rather common example is oversight of the sacramental rites and texts, such as approval of the English translation of the Mass that went into effect in 2011. The ordinary magisterial Church authority maintains a unity of essentials; the Catechism itself is an exercise of this authority.
There will be much discussion at the Café about a number of aspects of the Church’s Magisterium, and in several streams. Is there, for example, a hierarchy of importance in Church teaching, or put another way, are some doctrines and disciplines more essential to the core than others? This becomes a major question in the science of Catholic morality. Some conduct is clearly more offensive to God than others; I wrote recently of the Church’s teaching that all moral matters of sexuality are “of grave matter” and thus mortally sinful if committed (which led one of my professors to joke that, speaking of sexual mores, you may as well stretch a single into a double as far the state of your soul was concerned.)
Two major questions have endured and continue to do so since Vatican II: the circumstances of a Catholic who, in good faith, finds difficulty in compliance with some matter of the ordinary Magisterium (artificial birth control, for example) or that of a Catholic academic whose exploration of Scripture and Revelation brings her to new and contemporary expressions or understandings of the Deposit of Faith. I raise these questions here because everywhere I teach I am peppered with questions from adult catechists and teachers, and I think as a Church we are a lot better off to listen to the discontent that drives many of these inquiries.
Which reminds me: I am teaching all day Saturday near Melbourne, Florida: “Catechesis and Human Sexuality.” Talk about sticking your head into the lion’s mouth. I taught this course a month ago, and received an anonymous letter that I should have spent the whole day present John Paul II’s Theology of the Body series. As I would have written her if I had an address, that text is 25 years-old, and no less than the present pope saw fit to address sexual morality in a new encyclical in 2016. I wish I had infallibility.