89 There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith
90 The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ.51 "In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith."
I have paired these two entries in the Catechism because it is hard to do justice to para. 89 as a free-standing statement. The first sentence of para. 89 states what most everyone would agree upon, that our Christian identity and intensity depends upon our belief in the statements of Christian reality derived from Sacred Scripture and formally defined in the “Christological Councils” of the fourth and fifth centuries, which in turn give us the language of our Creed recited at Mass. The difficulty arises from the fact that the further one gets historically from the earlier Councils there is greater debate over precisely what are the actual doctrines and how the Church arrived at them. Vatican II acknowledged this problem in the Decree on Ecumenism (section 11) stating that “in Catholic doctrine there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith.” This Vatican II understanding is a staple of Catholic catechetics, as seen in this example.
Para. 89 states that dogmas are “lights along the paths of faith,” but the Catholic definition of dogmas includes several statements of belief which remain stumbling blocks to the consciences of those who share the Apostolic Tradition of Faith as articulated in the Nicene Creed. For the most part this collection of contested doctrines involves Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Each Marian doctrine has a long and intriguing history. The doctrine of Mary as “Mother of God” was the subject of the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.); the opponents of the doctrine objected that such a statement was blasphemous. Strictly speaking, the doctrine is logically impossible; its true meaning rests with the nature of Jesus as God and man, i.e., Mary’s infant is consubstantial with the eternal God.
The other Marian doctrines likewise spring from Christology or the nature of Christ—from the doctrine of the Virgin Birth from the second century to the Assumption declared by Pius XII in 1950. The idea of the Virgin Birth sprung from the Gospel data, notably Matthew and Luke, and Church fathers and bishops began to incorporate the idea into their writings as early as the second century until the idea had solidified into a dogmatic belief affirmed in several councils as late as 680 A.D. On the other hand, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is a separate issue; the Scriptural basis is conflicted. Jaroslav Pelikan, whose five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1975) remains indispensable in anyone’s Catholic history library, observes that Christian views on anthropology, particularly a pessimistic view of “fallen” human flesh, may have colored the writings of Sts. Ambrose and Augustine on human sexuality. (pp. 286-290) The belief in Mary as completely virginal throughout her life complimented the beginnings of the monastic movement of the early fifth century, where members vowed sexual abstinence in a quest for holiness.
For many of our Protestant confreres in the Christian faith, acceptance of every Marian dogma or doctrine is difficult. The classical Protestant tradition looks to the bible as the two-edged sword of Christian belief, and its sincere examination of the Scripture has been hard put to find biblical bases for the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, for example. After Vatican II Catholic theologians actually discussed whether Catholicism could accept converts from Protestantism without requiring full adherence to certain of the Marian doctrines. In more recent times, though, our attention has turned to the nature of doctrine itself as metaphor for deeper understanding of the Christ event.
When we profess faith, it is not the literal doctrine we have in mind, but the intention of a perfect God we wish to incorporate into our consciousness. As Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote some years ago, it is not the verbal proposition which is eternally sacred, but the divine reality we humans fumble around to put to paper for our guidance and salvation. No doctrine of the Church exists today unless it can be traced to the centrality of Christ as savior of the world. Over two millennia the Church has put forth a number of doctrines, and as I illustrated earlier, their origins take some time to come to cohesive expression. Vatican II would have done better to adopt the phrase “development of doctrine” rather than “hierarchy of doctrines,” (as Cardinal Newman did in the nineteenth century) for the latter seems to imply that some doctrines are “truer” than others. It is better to say that some doctrines have emerged from previous Church understandings.
The Catechism makes a strong case here for human engagement with statements of belief, or more specifically, the mysteries behind the metaphors. Doctrines are, after all, metaphors for a perfect truth we cannot fully penetrate in this life. The wording of para. 88 might be clearer; there is a chicken or egg phrasing, in the sense that it is not clear to the reader whether doctrines move us to holiness, or a holy life makes us capable of opening up to the mysteries of God. There is a hint of the old predestination controversy here, but one is safe to say that the invitation to faith and belief comes from God through his Son, Jesus, who in turn enriches the believer to a point where intimacy with God’s message is very possible. What the Catechism intimates here is that engagement with doctrinal metaphor is more mystical than logical.
I will be away for the next few Thursdays, and I should be posting again on the Catechism around June 14. I may have opportunity to post on happenings in the Church that do not require my library, so check in here or on Facebook from time to time on Thursdays.
88 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.
The term “Magisterium” is not commonly used in parish life and preaching. The word derives from the Latin magister or “teacher,” but in Catholic theological usage the term goes much further in meaning than, say, the term "catechist." Wikipedia, a secular source, actually has it right: “In Catholicism, the magisterium is the authority that lays down what is the authentic teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church, that authority is vested uniquely in the pope and the bishops who are in communion with him.”
The issue of the Magisterium will probably come up this year in catechetical aids and discussions in the observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, since this teaching authority of the Catholic Church has been and remains a source of contention between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (as well as between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.) While the Reformation is quite complicated in its issues, one of the constants of Protestant reformers was a return to reliance upon the Scriptures alone as the source of divine authority; hence the Latin battle cry sola scriptura!
The purists who advocate Scripture alone as the source of all religious teachings charge bravely onto a field studded with landmines. Most tellingly, history itself narrates a different story. The first-generation Church existed without any written texts discovered to date. The dating of the first known written text, Paul’s letter to Thessalonica, has been estimated at 50 A.D., give or take. The formal establishment of a canon of revealed books, what we call today the New Testament, was a lengthy process debated by the Church as recently as the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Purists or literalists cannot claim history as a source for the direct and solely divine authority of the Bible, as the Church itself recorded the texts and vouched for their authenticity and inspiration.
It is probably the Church’s role in the development of the New Testament that has led to the recognition of the Church’s authority as based in the New Testament but in some way distinct from it, particularly in matters of interpreting and applying scriptural teaching. The collected body of Church authoritative teaching is known as Tradition; the formal exercise of this authority is described as the Magisterium or act of teaching. Magisterium is the exercise of Church teaching; Tradition is the content of Church teaching.
Paragraph 88 defines both the nature of the Magisterium and its extent. The Church enjoys Christ’s authority to the fullest when it defines dogmas, truths contained in divine Revelation. It goes on to include under this umbrella “truths having a necessary connection with these.” Luther and other Protestant reformers would probably have had little argument with the first half of para. 88, since they never rejected the Nicene Creed. It is the final clause, “truths having a connection with these,” where Protestants take issue. In Luther’s time, the Church’s assurance of salvation through indulgences was the issue, viewed by many as a Magisterial overreach.
However, even within Roman Catholicism, there is theological debate about the legitimate extent of defining doctrinal truths. Yesterday, while I waited for my carpets to dry, I was able to finish John W. O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II? (2010), a work which throws considerable light on the nature and extent of Tradition and Magisterium, since both were exhaustively debated at the Council. Vatican II, it may be recalled, produced the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum [Word of God] in 1965. Although the final vote was 2344 in favor to 6 against, the public and private debate over the wording of the document was intense, specifically on the matter of Magisterium, Tradition, and the “necessary connection” dogmas.
Conservatives at the Council fought to retain the “Two Source” principle of divine Revelation, i.e., Scripture and Tradition. Progressives fought to avoid the definition of Tradition in the document as a source independent of and equal to Scripture. Many scholars were uncomfortable defining the Church as a separate font of Revelation and fought to bring the Bible into greater visibility in the development of the ongoing exercise of the Magisterium. Conservatives fought to preserve the “Two Source” wording; their concerns were fueled by the fact that two dogmatic statements involving the Virgin Mary rested very heavily upon Tradition and not Scripture, specifically the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception defined in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, and the Doctrine of the Assumption of Mary defined in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. (see O’Malley, pp. 277-280) Neither doctrine is found directly in the Scriptures.
[For the record, the approved formula defined by the Council in Dei Verbum, section 9: “Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore, both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.] How would you like to serve on that drafting committee???
In my lifetime, the Church has not come close to making another definition of dogma. There was some talk that Pope John Paul II considered defining Mary The Mediatrix of All Graces, but the title was seen as detracting from the unique role of Christ. The more common discussion in the Church today is the binding of the ordinary [non-doctrinal] Magisterial teaching on the faithful in matters of morals. For example, some theologians in the late 1960’s argued that Humanae Vitae in 1968 was infallible in its teaching on artificial birth control, but wisely the teaching was not held infallible to a level of the Creed. The constant challenges of new circumstances require that the Magisterium have a certain freedom of movement, which Pope Francis enjoyed in his recent encyclicals Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia.
87 Mindful of Christ's words to his apostles: "He who hears you, hears me",(49) the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.
The footnote source (#49) comes from St. Luke 10:16, and I was interested to see the precise context of Christ’s words. Chapter 10 in St. Luke is subtitled “The Mission of the Seventy-two” in the 1970 New American Bible. Jesus, in this chapter, appoints a further 70 or 72 disciples. As the NAB notes, various manuscripts differ in number, and each count is not without significance. The “72” is a multiple of twelve and may be related to the later apostolic mission of Twelve described later by St. Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. The number “70” has significance, too, as the Greek canon of the Old Testament was referred to as the Septuagint translation, i.e. “translation of the seventy interpreters” not long before time of Jesus. In Bible books today, the abbreviation LXX refers to the Septuagint canon/translation.
Both numbers thus refer to teaching or announcing in some context. Continuing with Luke, Jesus sends the 72 in pairs “like lambs among wolves.” (10:3) They travel light, extremely so— “no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and greet no one along the way.” The NAB comments on the sense of urgency here. The mission is the announcement of peace to a household. If you use the Tuesday blog on Sunday Gospels, you may remember that “peace” is a significant word in the Gospels, and the greeting of peace was the first declaration of Jesus to the disciples on Easter in St. John’s narrative. “Peace” is a multi-layered word, conveying the comfort of God, the forgiveness of God, the protection of God. The 72 are commanded to say, “Peace to this household,” as their formal greeting.
Jesus goes on to say that if a peaceful person lives in that household, “your peace will rest on him, but if not, it will return to you.” Several commentaries make the point that the householder is a child of peace, it is because he or she is predisposed to receive God’s kingdom with an open heart or the householder has already heard or seen something of Jesus’ mission. The disciples are to stay in the homes of peaceful people and perform the works of the kingdom, such as curing the sick and expelling demons.
On the other hand, in towns where the offer of peace is rejected—implicitly the rejection of God’s favor—it returns to the disciple and the householder is without the presence of God. As the text unfolds, it becomes evident that this rejection of peace has major consequences: “Go out into the streets and say, ‘the dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.” After citing several cities that have responded poorly or without interest to the might deeds Jesus has already worked in their midst, Jesus states “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
This is the Biblical footing for Paragraph 87: that the “teachings and directives” of pastors in different form are to be received with docility. In one sense the paragraph says too little; in another sense, too much. If indeed the spirit of Luke 10:16 is the intended message here, then para. 87 has said too little. The commission of the 72 was not the delivery of teachings and directives, but a search to find the predisposed or the potential believer, possessing peace, to reinforce that faith by continuing the works of the Kingdom. The Gospel response of the householder is to house and feed the disciples—a very public show of support in a modest sized Palestinian town. When Jesus states in Luke 10 that “the workman is worth his wages,” he understands that public identification with his message is a very big “wage” for a believer, but implied is the reality that the one paying the wage is getting the best of the deal—the peace of God and the assurance of belonging in God’s Kingdom.
To use the word “docility” does not seem to capture the urgency nor the depth of response to what is proclaimed and taught. I am allowing for two mitigating factors: (1) the word “docility” is a translation from the Latin original dociliter, which does have two meanings, attentively and docilely. The first meaning might have translated more forcefully into English. (2) Para. 87 continues a sequence on the handing down of Revelation through the Apostolic Tradition and should be read in that light. Monastic spirituality has a term, “obedience to the text,” where a reader drops his or her “critique mode” and puts full trust into the wisdom of the text, whether from Scripture or other sacred writing of the Church treasury.
On the other hand, there are several considerations—both from Vatican II—that need to counterbalance the nuances of para. 87. The first is the understanding of the Initiation Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist—which invest the faithful with responsibility, power, and insight in the Church. In multiple Vatican II documents the critical roles played by the laity are redefined and their counsel—arrived at through full communion with the Spirit in the Church—has weight. The faithful must hear the Word in “obedience to the text,” to be sure, but their response is anything but docile. The Christian who hears the Word of God but responds in passive docility stands condemned like Chorazin and Bethsaida in Luke 10, where Jesus had invested considerable energy in the pronouncement of his Kingdom.
Para. 87 claims too much when it commands the faithful to receive with docility the teachings and directives of their pastors. I am assuming that the term “pastor” in this context refers to all ordained clergy who transmit the faith of Apostles. The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism teaches that “when comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith.” For example, nearly all major Christian faiths hold to the Nicene Creed, or before that, the Pentecostal summation of Christian faith preached by Peter in Acts 2 on Pentecost.
If this is the meaning of [Apostolic] teaching referred to in para. 87, it is hard to argue with that. I would emphasize, too, that matters defined as doctrines by the whole Church, such as papal infallibility or the Assumption of Mary, must be held and reflected upon by Catholics as part of the treasury of faith. The difficulty with para. 87 is its failure to distinguish between the heart of Tradition and the housekeeping of the kingdom via administrative oversight. The word “directives” is particularly irksome. Directives come from the Vatican on matters such as chalices at Mass (they must be of gold or precious metals.) Or, directives come from bishops, such as in Kansas City, MO, this week where the sale of Girl Scout cookies is now prohibited on church grounds because of the GS’s alleged ties to Planned Parenthood.
Theologians of the last several generations have warned of “creeping infallibility,” or the tendency to ascribe divine origin to every managerial decision under the ecclesiastical sun. Authoritarian overreach obscures the critical heart of the message of the Kingdom, which Luke makes very clear in Chapter 10. What has been taught or handed down in urgency must be received in urgency. Without this principle, docility becomes obfuscation.