Paragraph 86: SubsistingRead Now
86 "Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith."
Paragraph 86 describes the relationship of the teaching authority of the Church to the Word of God. For many centuries, right up through Vatican II, the language of Church leadership smacked strongly of a unity with God’s mind that led to the belief that there was no difference between God’s mind and the Church’s words. At Vatican II, however, there was considerable debate about the Church’s identity as teacher, particularly when the Church Fathers debated whether other Christian (Protestant) churches exercise a true ministry of preaching and teaching. After considerable and intense debate, the Council arrived at a formula which continues to spark discussion to this day. It stated that the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, when it could have used the traditional phrasing in the original draft of Lumen Gentium, that the Church of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church.
For the last fifty years, the meaning of Vatican II’s change in terminology has been the object of clarification. No one denies that the Catholic Church is not the “official” guarantor of sacred revelation; the question is whether it is the sole arbiter of revelation. In 2005, an editorial from L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican paper, weighed in on the subject: “As is well known this famous expression "subsistit in" [subsists] was subsequently the object of many and contradictory interpretations. The notion became quite widespread that the Council had not wanted to adopt as its own the traditional statement according in which the Church of Christ is (est) the Catholic Church — as was stated in the preparatory schema 2 — so as to be able to say that the Church of Christ subsists also in Christian communities separated from Rome.”
The wording of para. 86, which favors “is” over “subsists in,” is a little troubling to me and calls for elaboration on several points. The first issue is its rather sanguine assessment of how the Magisterium of the Church has passed along the Word of God. The second point is its over simplicity. The third is its exclusiveness in describing the authority of the Magisterium.
On the first point, the paragraph states that the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church “teaches only what has been handed on to it.” The Church certainly has taught what was handed down from the Apostles, but it has also taught—at times with surprising confidence—many things that pastoral practice, time, scholarship, and reform have gently corrected or removed from public proclamation. In the first century St. Paul convinced the mother church that Gentiles could and should be baptized without Jewish initiation rites, most notably circumcision. Medieval popes held that their authority was both secular and religious. For many centuries, the Church defined human nature without freedom of conscience; it held to the political principle of the confessional state; it maintained the right to execute heretics. Catholic women, including religious sisters, were not admitted to Catholic theological degree programs until my lifetime. In its present teaching on the subject, the Church refers to homosexuality as a “gravely disordered state,” with the same tone and overconfidence that it condemned the Jews as “perfidious” on Good Friday, as late as the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
These examples, and there are many others, illustrate that the claim of teaching only what has been handed down is an ambitious claim, to say the least. Para. 86 passes over the misunderstandings of Revelation that plague the Church to this day, not surprising because the Church is a body of imperfect men and women. Vatican II was correct to describe us as a “Pilgrim Church.” To state baldly that the Church and God are of one mind on all things is a dangerous thing—millions have suffered and lost their faith because of such overconfidence. To say that Christ’s Church subsists in the Catholic Church acknowledges that as Magister, the Church does indeed hand on the Revelation of God in its fullness, but its structures for teaching have been aided considerably by the wisdom of the world at large, by history, and the good will of persons not fully in communion with Rome.
Many of the theological experts at Vatican II were Church historians who appreciated the complex development of Church doctrine as well as the means and limitations of teaching it over time. Para. 86 and many other portions of the Catechism take an ahistorical and simple posture: the Church has always known the precise mind of God in Revelation essentially from day one, and all its teachings enjoy a Teflon protection from serious faith-filled questioners within and outside the Church. Distinction between formal doctrinal declaration, or papal infallibility, and what is often called ordinary magisterial authority, is rarely if ever made clear in Catholic catechetics.
It is true that Vatican II, in many of its documents, spoke of the Church as the entire body of those professing Jesus Christ and Trinitarian Baptism, and even Sacrosanctum Concilium, the 1963 decree on the Sacred Liturgy, [and focus of our Saturday Stream] spoke of its working principle of making Catholic worship a means of embracing Christians of other faith families. There is a timeliness to the “subsists” controversy in an ecumenical vein in 2017. This year marks the formal beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and you can expect to hear much about Martin Luther in academic and secular formats. How the Catholic Church will formally mark this observance is hard to say.
Luther is a controversial man. New biographies are appearing this year; I have Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2017, many formats) on hold with Amazon, and will probably use it here at the Café at some point in the future. Whatever one thinks of Luther, his place in history will be recalled as the man who advocated a return to the Sacred Scriptures as the centerpiece of Christian thought. Catholicism, which at Luther’s time governed with a scholastic and monarchical style, would eventually profit from this insight, though not publicly till the twentieth century. As I write these words (Friday afternoon) Pope Francis and the Coptic Orthodox “pope” in Egypt agreed on the integrity of both Churches’ baptism. Pope Francis clearly understood the intention of Vatican II in his outreach today, believing that the Copts contribute to the holiness of the Church as a whole, and deserve official respect even without full communion.
85 "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."47 This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
An interesting book review came across my desk yesterday, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America (2016) by Kenneth Briggs, a lifetime religion journalist. The premise of the work is the decreasing readership of the Bible in our society, or as Briggs puts it, we buy a lot of bibles but we don’t read them. On the book’s Amazon page, there is an opportunity to read select passages, and I came across a quotation in the book from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):
“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
Kierkegaard was not a practicing Christian, though Christianity absorbed a good amount of his thought. It does seem that the Dane understood the power of the Bible better than most Catholics, and opponents of the Church from the beginning of the Middle Ages through the Reformation and in our present time have held to the contention that Catholicism has indeed “defended itself against the Bible” in Kierkegaard’s words by expanding a Tradition that can distract from the hard-core language of Biblical truth.
The Catechism goes to great pains to emphasize the unity of Scripture and Tradition; the difficulty, as Briggs elaborates, is that Christians are Biblically illiterate. One reason—though hardly the only—is what Briggs describes as a gulf between the Biblical academic community and the folks in the pew. In an interview with the author provided by the publisher, Eerdmans, on YouTube, Briggs describes the difficulty of congregations accepting the idea that the Book of Isaiah is three separate books with three separate authors. He depicted the typical congregant as saying, “Well, that’s not how I learned it,” and unwilling to go to the trouble of sorting out the disparity.
Briggs is on to something here, as his commentary resonates with my own experience as a catechist dating back to my college years in the 1960’s. I never had a bad classroom experience over Isaiah; my troubles started earlier with the Creation stories (yes, plural) and Noah’s Ark. Our youth and adult religious education/Catholic school curriculums are devoid of any meaningful teaching on Inspiration, or how divine Biblical authorship relates to the humans who wrote the texts. Once you introduce the human element, the typical reaction is “so the Bible is really written by men, and not by God.” Our generation’s way of circumventing Kierkegaard’s New Testament dilemma. As a teacher and as a blogger, it is very disconcerting to hear the most elementary Biblical questions from 40 and 50-year-old Catholics with post-bachelor’s professional degrees in non-religious disciplines.
The principle of para. 85 rests upon a full understanding of the Word of God “in its written form or in the form of Tradition.” In truth, Scripture and Tradition are locked together in one unity of faith. Take next Sunday’s Gospel (April 23) where Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room. He breathes upon them the Holy Spirit and tells them that God’s forgiveness—the determination of who enters eternal life—is in their hands as conveyors of this divine forgiveness. Tradition would flesh out the structure of forgiveness in terms of sacramental practice, bringing God’s original revelation to our world and our time. But it takes an astute reader of Scripture—in this case, the Gospel of John—to connect the urgency and assuredness of forgiveness to the tradition and rite of Penance as the Church celebrates this sacrament today. Briggs observes that confusion and/or denial of death and its subsequent experience is a factor that keeps readers away from the Bible in the first place.
There is one other thought to consider with para. 85. This text emphasizes the primacy of the Word of God. My experience in Catholic church life, the small groups and Bible studies (of which I belong to one) is that Catholic readers turn to Scripture not for its divine content as much as for personal comfort— “what it means to me.” This is unfortunate for many reasons; not least of which is the loss of what God intends to say to the reader. It is very much like praying to God and telling him how he should answer the prayer. Monks are taught from the beginning to adopt a “humility to the text.”
A Christian who takes the Bible to heart as a daily experience is making a major commitment along the lines of choosing a career, marrying a mate, undertaking a doctoral program. It is a decision that is life-changing and ever present to the mind. As difficult as the Bible is to understand at times, it is our choice to love God enough to learn his language—and an essential part of Catholic life to provide partners who “speak the language.” The Bible is not an hors d’oeuvres tray of pithy wisdom like Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, but a unified narrative of God’s life with us, his creation. To paraphrase John Kennedy, “Ask not what your Bible can do for you, but how you can respond to your Bible.”
1381 "That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that 'cannot be apprehended by the senses,' says St. Thomas, 'but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.' For this reason, in a commentary on Luke 22:19 ('This is my body which is given for you.'), St. Cyril says: 'Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.'"
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.213
Late this afternoon the Triduum, or three-day continuous observance of the Lord’s death and resurrection, begins with the celebration of the Lord’s final meal with his disciples on the night before he died. The Triduum begins at the normal time of Vespers today, 4 or 5 PM, but this evening’s Mass replaces Vespers in the Church’s office of prayer. Generally, parishes celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at an evening time most advantageous to the entire community; my home parish’s observance is at 7 PM. Liturgical law for Holy Thursday is very clear that the Mass this evening is the central event of the parish; no other Masses or sacraments are celebrated today (except in emergency.)
I am hard-pressed to think of a solemnity in the Church calendar in which more themes of the Faith coalesce. Needless to say, the centrality of the Last Supper event as the beginning of Christ’s redemptive act for our salvation can hardly be overemphasized. At this unique meal, most likely a Passover, Jesus left his disciples and future generalizations the priceless custom of breaking bread and sharing the cup in his memory. The term “memorial” is much stronger in Jewish tradition than in common parlance today. When Jews celebrate their annual Passover, the act of memorializing returns the very moment when the Angel of Death passed over the Israelites. Past becomes present. Thus, when Jesus shared the bread and cup in his memory, he made possible his actual presence whenever the bread and cup are shared by his followers in his memory.
Thus, the Holy Thursday feast marks the institution of the Eucharistic sacrament and Real Presence. Para. 1381 quotes St. Thomas Aquinas some twelve centuries later emphasizing the need for faith in the Eucharist—one might paraphrase this as the need for understanding the act of breaking bread and bringing the proper disposition of transcending mere practical considerations. Whether St. Cyril in the fifth century understood the term “memorial” in its Jewish theological sense is hard to say, but his quotation here leave little doubt that divine authority stands behind the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Cyril, too, challenges the believer to go beyond the confines of limited human experience into the infinite world of divine faith.
The instruction of Jesus to his disciples, “do this in memory of me,” has been understood by the Church as the institution of the priesthood, and thus Holy Thursday has long been a day of reflection upon Holy Orders. The Roman Missal (as did its predecessor) calls for a morning Mass today concelebrated by the bishop and all of his priests in the diocese in the cathedral. At this Mass, the sacred oil of consecration, or chrism, is blessed [hence the name “Chrism Mass”] and priests rededicated themselves to their mission and in obedience to the bishop. (The Oil of the Sick and the Oil of Catechumens are also blessed at this Mass.) The practice today is to celebrate the Chrism Mass on an evening earlier in Holy Week for a number of practical reasons, not least of which is the opportunity for priests to share happy hour and dinner. I remember those Chrism Mass dinners well, and as they were held on Wednesday evenings in my diocese, it was a useful coincidence that there was no scheduled morning Mass the next day, Holy Thursday.
One of the interesting points of tonight’s Holy Thursday liturgy is the Lectionary’s assignment of texts. One might have expected that the Gospel would portray the “consecration moment” of the Last Supper. Instead, the account of Jesus’ sharing of the bread and cup is presented in the second reading, St. Paul’s famous eucharistic lesson in 1 Corinthians 11. The Gospel tonight is taken from St. John’s description of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Given that the only participants of the meal were the root of the priesthood as we know it, this self-effacement by Jesus seems to be a lesson in leadership and authority. He says at the conclusion of the washing, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do." Other translations have it “a new commandment,” from the Latin mandatum (mandate.) For this reason, Holy Thursday is also called Maundy Thursday in other churches and in civil usage. In any translation, the message is clear that whatever the disciples and their successors take from Jesus, charity and service must shape their personalities if they are to be true to Christ in the Eucharist.
I bring your attention here to the hymn cited in para. 1381, better known as Adoro Te devote by St. Thomas Aquinas and a staple of Catholic devotion to the Eucharist for centuries. The English translation here comes from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is acknowledged in footnote 213 of this paragraph.
The reforms of Vatican II have tampered some of the dramatics of the rubrics of my youth. The ringing of the church bells during the singing of the Gloria is retained; the bells are then silent until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil. The tabernacle is empty with the doors left open. After the distribution of communion, the celebrant and ministers process through the church (not around it) to a “place of reposition” formerly called the Altar of Repose. The Missal instructs that veneration of the Eucharist should come to an end no later than midnight for those wishing to remain and pray there when the priests return to the sacristy. The old rite encouraged veneration through the night until the Good Friday service.
The Missal notes that the stripping of the altar takes place, but after the formal close of the Holy Thursday Mass and apparently without a congregation or fanfare. I have long felt that this is a major mistake in the revised rite; in the old rite, the celebrant returned from the Altar of Repose, changed his vestments at the chair from white to purple, and personally (with attendants) removed all moveable fixtures, candles, altar cloths, etc. Interesting, the stripping rite never died; I retained it on Holy Thursday in my years as pastor. Today, my present pastor provides an option: the congregation may join the Eucharistic procession to the repose site in another building, or remain in the body of the church as the altar and sanctuary are stripped by lay ministers. It is surprising how many in attendance opt for the second option. The stripping is a striking sacramental of the abandonment and grief of Gethsemane, a very powerful moment of emotional prayer.
A pastoral note: your own parish may have late night adoration this evening if you cannot attend the primary Mass.
84 The apostles entrusted the "Sacred deposit" of the faith (the depositum fidei),45 contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. "By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practicing, and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful."46
Paragraph 84, in describing the handing on and practice of the faith, emphasizes that “a remarkable harmony” between the bishops and the faithful” ought to exist. One of the intensive debates of Vatican II was the place of bishops in the execution of authority in the Catholic Church, where there was little “remarkable harmony” between bishops and the Curia, at least not on November 8, 1963. On that day, Cardinal Frings, on the Council floor, told Cardinal Ottaviani to his face that his “Holy Office does not fit the needs of our time. It does great harm to the faithful and is the cause of scandal throughout the world,” followed by several minutes of applause. There is an excellent essay on the history behind this debate in John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II? which traces the role and function of bishops, individually and collectively, in the centuries leading up to the Council, with attention to the relationship of the episcopacy to the papacy, bishop to pope.
What the bishops were angry about was what they perceived as a diminishment of their role vis-à-vis the Roman congregations. There was a very personal side to this—Vatican offices could be notorious arrogant toward individual bishops. The greater objection, though, was the theological identity of a bishop as a legitimate successor of the apostles with an inherent right to govern and exercise judgment in his pastoral duties. As O’Malley explains, with the definition of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I in 1870, the office of bishop came to be understood in juridical terms in the sense that bishops possessed authority based exclusively upon a sharing of power from the pope. There were many who believed that the doctrine of Infallibility made the concept of synods and councils obsolete, with all apostolic responsibility for leadership personified in the Bishop of Rome.
I looked at the present-day Code of Canon Law (1983), and indeed, on a legal footing, the Code remains clear on the supremacy of the papacy while respecting the collaboration of his fellow bishops. Specifically, Canon 333.1 states “The Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office, not only has power in the universal Church but also possesses a primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groupings of churches by which the proper, ordinary, and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care is both strengthened and safeguarded.” Canon 334 states that “the Roman Pontiff is assisted by the bishops who aid him in various ways….” Here is a frank admonition in 333.3: “There is neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or decree of the Roman Pontiff.”
This formulation of the Code (1983, revised from 1917 Code) appeared two decades after the Council had wrestled with ways and means of better collaboration of pope and bishops in Church governance—specifically, the handing down and interpretation of the Apostolic Tradition. The enduring legacy of these discussions has been the restored practice of regular synods of bishops with the pope. Pope Francis’ recent synod on Marriage and the Family is a prime example, though the flurry of controversy touched off in some quarters by the pope’s encyclical drawn from the synod, Amoris Laetitia, is a reminder that the exercise of Church authority is never quite as smooth as the books say it is.
For all the energy and debate at the Council and elsewhere about the authority and duties of bishops, and respecting their participation in the Apostolic mission, there has been, by comparison, relatively little expressly taught about the relationship of bishops and laity. Para. 84 states that the Tradition belongs to “the whole of the Church,” and one can legitimately ask if the clear majority of the Church, the baptized laity, have a responsibility corresponding to the bishops in passing along and interpreting the Tradition for new generations. If there is a “remarkable harmony” to be hoped for, as the Catechism expresses, how is it visible? We are, after all, talking about two sacraments of identity, Baptism and Holy Orders (the Episcopacy.) What are the outward signs of unity between the baptized and their episcopal shepherds?
I returned to my 659-page 1983 Code with 1752 laws not counting subsets, and sought the entry of “laity” in the index. There were all of three headings: selection of bishops 377.3; associations of laity 327-329; and rights and obligations of laity 224-231. Code 377.3 places the laity at the bottom of a long list of persons to be consulted by the pontifical legate on the suitability of a candidate for elevation to the episcopacy, and this consultation is optional. (I have never heard of lay consultation being done; as a pastor I was asked to submit a ternus with three names of potential bishops every few years.) By contrast, “conferences of bishops” such as our USCCB have 42 Canon Law entries not counting subsets.
The text of Canons 224-231 is rather limited and generic. While the fathers of the Council spoke expansively of the importance of the laity in revitalizing the Church, in the letter of the law of 1983 there is nothing I can see in terms of shared governance and mission involving the laity and bishops. The only basic “right” of consultation in the Law is a Catholic’s freedom to communicate a well-founded opinion to his or her bishop. There is no structure analogous to the bishops’ regular synods with the pope. However, Canons 511-514 speak of a diocesan pastoral council which meets with a bishop at least annually; it is made up of clerics, religious, and laity and functions in an advisory capacity only; a bishop is not bound to accept its advice. I was unable to find mention of such a body on my own diocesan website.
Curiously, the “parish council,” a Vatican II institution, is not mandated by law, nor can it override a pastor’s authority where it is permitted to exist. Canon Law does call for the existence of a parish finance board to advise the pastor as described well here. In my lifetime, parishes—at least the larger ones—as well as dioceses, have developed something akin to the Vatican’s Curia; a sizeable body of professionals (hopefully) with specific staff duties who offer advice to a pastor or bishop to the degree that he permits as part of the work environment. I see the term “pastoral council’ replacing “parish council;” again, communications with the parish at large about its work and advice, or even its membership, is limited or non-existent in most parishes I visit. There is no mention of such a body or its minutes on my own parish’s web page.
The working relationship of bishops, pastors, and the baptized faithful remains a major unfinished piece of business of the Council. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, with its limited legislation on the subject, has allowed local bishops and pastors to retain exclusive executive action without union or transparency. Although there are many notable exceptions among bishops and pastors, the “remarkable harmony” so hoped for in the Catechism remains a long way down the road, and this delay hinders the passing on of the Apostolic Tradition.