95 "It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls."
Paragraph 95 marks the end of a general section of the Catechism titled “The Interpretation of the Heritage of Faith;” next week we will move to specific treatment of Sacred Scripture. Our text here is a concluding summary of the past twenty statements on the transmission of the Faith. Para. 95 reasserts the nature of God’s plan, that “salvation of souls” comes about through Sacred Scripture, Tradition [the Church’s history of biblical interpretation], and the Magisterium or present-day authority and guidance of the Church (from magister, teacher).
It is interesting that this text lists sacred Tradition first in the sequence. In the historical sense, this is true; one of the first and most critical doctrinal acts of the Church was establishing what were the legitimate books of sacred Scripture, a process that extended well into Augustine’s lifetime (c. 400 A.D.) In fact, the formation of the New Testament Canon (i.e., the official compilation of books in your bible) is probably as good an example as any of what para. 95 is attempting to convey in terms of the three-fold forces of salvation. The first Council to define the constitution of the New Testament—a solemn declaration of pope and bishops--was the Council of Trent, April 8, 1546, in response to Protestant claims that the Epistle of James had put good works ahead of faith as the means of salvation. [James 2: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
I have long felt as a teacher—and more recently as a blogger—that I generally do a lousy job explaining Tradition, the process by which the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, interprets the Scripture and formulates the doctrines and practices central to the Church’s work in saving souls. The formation of the body of Tradition is indeed an audacious power, which is why para. 95 is careful to explain its unity with Revelation itself and the Apostolic exercise of the Church’s teaching authority granted by the Spirit. The content of Tradition was a target of ferment in the Reformation, when the Church’s claim of granting salvation through the sale of indulgences caused Luther and others to say that much of the content of Tradition was “overreaching.”
What complicates the teaching of Tradition further is confusion with the term Magisterium, the act of Church leadership and governance. Generally speaking, the Magisterial authority of the Church exists to maintain fidelity and proper understanding of Scripture and Tradition. Church authority itself is another point of controversy at the present time—though this is hardly anything new. There are two levels of Magisterial authority: ordinary and extraordinary. I can think of one example that might help distinguish the two levels, the issue of the priest shortage.
If you read the Catholic press or numerous Catholic blogsites, you will see many suggestions to alleviate the shortage, the main ones being permission for priests to marry and the introduction of the practice of ordaining women. One solution is possible, the other probably not so. The fact is that marriage is not an impediment to Holy Orders. In the body of Tradition, there is nothing which states that a priest in the Roman Catholic rite must be unmarried. As of this writing, there are Roman Catholic priests with families—priests who converted to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church are permitted, all things being equal, to continue ministry in the Roman rite even if they are married and have families. The matter of priests and marriage falls under the “ordinary Magisterium,” the day to day governance of the Church.
The Church for the past millennium has exercised its authority to legislate through Canon Law and general counsel the ideal of celibacy for priests of the Latin Roman West, with some exceptions noted above. There are spiritual reasons for this—the holiness of the sacrifice of family life, the imitation of Christ, the desire that a priest be unencumbered by a family to serve his parish more fully, the example of prayer and asceticism of religious orders which take vows of chastity, etc. Although I see nothing on the horizon right now that might suggest a change in the teaching, it is possible that a future Council may revisit the question and conceivably allow the ordination of married men. When Council and Pope meet and formulate a definitive teaching on priesthood and marriage, one way or the other, we have moved from ordinary Magisterium to Extraordinary Magisterium, and the teaching passes into the body of Tradition in the Church.
But what of the issue of ordaining women? Here is a question where the Tradition of the Church has developed a strong teaching, to the point that present day popes have said, in so many words, that a male priesthood is of “divine law” and therefore unchangeable. The most recent reiteration of this article of Tradition can be found in a 1976 Vatican document, “On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood.” I linked to the full document for your perusal, but I will briefly list the reasons behind the Church’s belief as most recently articulated in the 1976 statement.
(1) An exclusive male priesthood has always been the Church’s belief and practice from earliest days. (2) Even though Jesus broke from his own religious tradition in his esteem and acceptance of women, he did not choose any women for inclusion into the Twelve, who would become empowered by the Spirit to lead what we would call today sacraments. (3) Although the Scriptures provide the names of important women in the ministry of the post-Resurrection Apostles, there is no evidence that the Apostles incorporated them into Apostolic power and authority. (4) The Church cannot turn back the clock on Tradition; “in the final analysis, it is the Church through the voice of the Magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what must remain immutable. When she judges she cannot accept certain changes, it is because she knows she is bound by Christ's manner of acting.” (5) A priest “does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him: ‘the priest truly acts in the place of Christ.’” Consequently, only a male can stand as a sacramental sign of Christ. (6) The Sacrament of Orders is not the appropriate vehicle to address real injustices against women in the present day.
I have gone to some lengths in the preceding paragraph to explain the lines of reasoning and processing that go into the formation of Church Tradition. When I teach for the Church, honesty compels me to explain teachings and doctrines as they stand to individuals and audiences with strong disagreements. I will admit that some arguments cited in the 1976 document are stronger than others, and scholars continue to assess the evidence. [Discussion of how women in the Church are treated in general is not restrained by point 6.] In the light of para. 95, I hope I have distinguished the various levels of teaching in the Church and the way Tradition is developed, and the reasons why some teachings can be reformed or modernized, and others cannot.
94 Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church:
- "through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts";57 it is in particular "theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth".58
- "from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers] experience",59 the sacred Scriptures "grow with the one who reads them."60
- "from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".61
Paragraph 94 describes the process by which the faith of the Church grows. The Christian Church of our own time—and I include all its various branches—has come a long way from the tiny band of believers who witnessed the resurrected Jesus on Easter. As an institution, it is certainly more complex, not simply because of sheer numbers of members, but also in terms of its understanding of Sacred Revelation. As para. 94 itemizes, there are multiple components of the growth progress, most important being “the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” Given God’s animation, the Church has developed in three tracts: (1) theological research of religious experience and the sacred texts of scripture; (2) the collective interior faith of all believers who reflect upon Sacred Scripture; and (3) the preaching of bishops in the Apostolic succession.
What I find remarkable in this text is the emphasis upon theologians, in the present tense. Theologians have enjoyed a place of honor in the Church for most of its history—the evangelists themselves were theologians, each providing a specific aspect of the meaning of Christ. After the apostolic era, certain Catholic churchmen—and more recently, a few church women—became revered for their extraordinary contributions to the creed and beliefs of Christianity. On Monday’s post, I alluded to Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461 A.D.) and his explanation of the unity of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. The title “doctor of the Church” has been applied to such theologians, and in the high middle ages clerics looked to academic centers such as the University of Paris, for insight into matters of faith and morals.
The scope of the theologians’ responsibilities rests chiefly in scholarly and orderly investigation of Scripture, the Church’s history, the experience of present day circumstances, and in recent times, the relationship of the Catholic tradition to other Christian denominations, other world religions, and men and women of good will throughout the world. In the ideal world, theologians inform the rest of the Church—including popes and bishops—of the depths of religious experience and truth, but also the parameters of what the Church can say without drifting into error.
After the Reformation, and certainly after the Enlightenment, the papacy became less enthused with the input of theologians; the Vatican came to define the theological sciences as buttresses of teachings already established, and the more adventurous or cutting edge religious thinkers found themselves under considerable suspicion. In some ways, this is quite understandable, as Rome feared the encroachments of Protestant thinking, and later the explosion of knowledge and temperament of “modern times.” The doctrine of papal infallibility declared at the council Vatican I in 1870 was defined as something of a hedge against new ideas of democracy, freedom of conscience, scientific study of the bible, etc. Seminaries in and around Rome embraced a theological methodology of classical preservation, with the thirteenth century writings of St. Thomas Aquinas forming the backbone of theological work.
However, beyond the Alps the work of theologians was less inhibited, and as early as 1800 attention turned to the methods by which the Bible was studied. The history of biblical research is a long and complicated one, but suffice to say that scholars of all religious schools began to address the bible as literature, with the same methods that other classical works came under scrutiny. The goal of this work was the search for the intent of the sacred authors, resulting in clearer understanding of how the bible might be interpreted and read by the faithful. The application of science to matters of religion was something of a quantum leap; contemporaries of Galileo had been reluctant to turn telescopes up toward the skies, fearing they were intruding into “God’s private domain.”
In 1943 Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, which not only gave permission for Catholic biblical theologians to embrace the newer methods of their Protestant colleagues in study of the Scripture, but also encouraged greater reading of the bible by the faithful and expertise among parish priests. Theologians of other Church disciplines were adopting similar expansive methodologies. Liturgical theologians, for example, studied the sacramental life of the early Church, particularly the Eucharist and the Initiation Sacraments, for indications of how the Tridentine rites might be simplified and reformed. Systematic theologians delved into the works of modern philosophers to develop new terminologies and new understandings of concepts such as grace, redemption, and the nature of man.
Thus, by 1962 and the opening of Vatican II, theologians from the West could lay the groundwork for reforms of many aspects of the Church’s life. I need to add here that the theological input from Eastern Churches in communion with Rome was inadequate for many reasons; it is fair to say that the next council, whenever that might be, will feature the theological work of Catholic scholars from Asia, Africa, South America, and the Pacific rim.\
And women. There were no Catholic women theologians involved in the work of Vatican II; in fact, Catholic universities did not generally admit women into programs of advanced theological degrees until well into the twentieth century. Today the number of successful women theologians is considerable, but there is no denying that the feminine perspective of Catholic theology is sometimes jarring, in the fashion that St. Paul’s teachings on Gentile converts jarred the Jerusalem Church in the late 40’s A.D.
Those of you familiar with the “Catholic blogosphere” are no doubt aware that about 98% of “Catholic sites” are the product of individuals and organizations who are troubled by the direction of Catholic theologians over the post-Council years, and lay the decline of Western Christianity at the feet of theological academicians. In truth, the forefront of theology can be intimidating. In 2008 Sister Margaret Farley, a moral theologian, was censured for her publication Just Love. I read it and reviewed it with some difficulty, but I made the point that the book was a hypothesis, probably intended for other Catholic academics. It was the Vatican’s censure that shot its sales through the roof. In medieval times theological debates could be, though not always, contained to the hallowed halls of the universities.
I don’t think the Church has been damaged by modern theologians. Rather, it has been wounded by the contemporary absence of reading any challenging theology.
93 "By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium),. . . receives. . . the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. . . The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life."
The use of the present tense throughout the text indicates that Paragraph 93 describes a process of Christian life. It has been a month since I visited this stream, and in reviewing past entries I have come to appreciate a utopian ring to the Catechism in its description of the Church. The use of the word “unfailingly” in the last sentence is the goal, not the present condition. None of us unfailingly adheres to the faith, executes right judgment, nor behaves accordingly, but in the life of the Church we acknowledge failure and strive for the fullness of virtue. The Gospel of Matthew—this year’s Cycle A Sunday source—describes Jesus’ understanding of the struggle for faith [Peter’s attempt to walk on the water with him], the drive for better understanding of truth [“teacher, explain this parable”] and the open-endedness of bringing faith to conduct [“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”]
The term “receiving the faith” needs to be understood in terms of the Giver. God is the author and creator of all; while God relates to each of us in ways we can hardly dare imagine, God is also the unchanging essence, the bedrock of reality. How an unchanging God who is “totally” other can engage with the limited and fluid human experience is the key to the mysteries of creation and incarnation. The Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner put it best some years ago when he described Jesus Christ as “the grammar of God’s utterance;” the perfection of Jesus’ human experience is the point where the divine and the human fully connect.
When para. 93 uses the term “faith,” it must be understood as a living encounter with Christ. When the People of God “receive” this faith, it is not a book or collection of documents being handed over, but a collective witness to a real life. Catholic Tradition understands the “passing on” of faith as originating with the genuine lived experiences of the Apostles with Jesus, a faith for some years passed along and received orally until put to paper in the four Gospels and later into creedal and catechetical form four centuries later in the “Christological Councils.” The dogmatic reality of Jesus and his Father remains unchanged throughout history. What does change and develop is (1) the hearer’s ability to “receive” eternal revelation and (2) the hearer’s quest to interpret this revelation into words for communication and virtues for action. [If you have time, you may want to look at a 1979 Vatican document, “Select Questions on Christology,” which addresses recent struggles to “receive” the truth of Christ through Bible studies.]
Catholic theology over the centuries has paid considerable attention to the question of how the faith is transmitted and received. While present-day religious education tools—including the Catechism itself—put considerable emphasis upon the role of the Magisterium—the teaching office of the pope and bishops—to determine the correctness and the content of what is passed along, much less official emphasis is placed upon the role of the baptized laity. This has not always been the case, for Catholic theology over the centuries has established terminology for the place of the faithful. Two related terms are reception and sensus fidelium.
First, the term sensus fidelium refers to a spiritual consensus, so to speak, of the universal Church. Rome was more comfortable with the concept and the term prior to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, when there was more consensus to start with. Christians across the board had considerable input in the formation of creed, worship, and morals. The Canon of the New Testament itself—the selection of the 27 texts we hold as the core of Christian Revelation—was honed from early liturgical usage in local churches. Belief in Mary as the Mother of God evolved from popular piety as much as logical inference. In modern times, as humans have become more independently minded, Rome has hunkered down against anything that smacks of “majority rule” or putting matters to a vote. In 2012 Benedict XVI stated that “the sensus fidei cannot be authentically developed in believers, except to the extent in which they fully participate in the life of the Church, and this demands responsible adherence to the Magisterium, to the deposit of faith.”
Pope Benedict, then, is defining sensus fidelium as a universal affirmation of a Church as it is now. In 2013 Pope Francis affirmed his predecessor a bit more to the point when he said “the sensus fidelium [sense of the faithful] cannot be confused with the sociological reality of a majority opinion.” To understand papal reservations about counting heads in the development of Church teaching, we must turn to another reality of Church theology, the technical term reception. I am providing a link to a lengthy essay on the subject by one the Church’s eminent canon law professors, James A. Corriden, to simply introduce the principle to Catholic readers, since this issue is almost never incorporated into catechetics. Father Corriden, long-time dean of my theological alma mater, would blush with shame at my homespun definition of reception, but here goes: reception is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the old question of what happens if a tree falls to the ground and no one hears it. Did the tree really fall?
In other words, what if the Church teaches a matter of morals (for here is where the problem usually lies) and the faithful as a whole do not receive it? The textbook case is Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 which declared that artificial birth control was intrinsically immoral, a prohibition against the pill and barrier methods of birth control in the sexual acts of married couples. Many Catholic moralists of the day took issue with the encyclical’s overly physical emphasis upon the integrity of the sex act as a matter of procreation at the expense of the unitive nature of conjugal love. As for the laity’s reaction, look around your church and count the two and three children families.
Official Church reaction to this “non-reception” has been to double-down, as a rule, and adherence to Humanae Vitae’s teaching turned into something of a litmus test for clerics seeking promotion. This is unfortunate on several scores. The most serious consequence has been the regrettable effect of the faithful’s taking many of the Church’s sexual teachings seriously. Along with that, an opportunity was lost to listen to the genuine experiences of Catholic couples who might have enriched the Church by their input. In his autobiography the noted moralist Father Bernard Haring, a member of the panel to advise Pope Paul on the matter prior to Humanae Vitae, discusses how his interactions with the married couples on the panel impacted his thinking on marital sexuality. In one of the rare occasions when heads were actually counted in 1966, Pope Paul overrode a 3-1 majority vote from his panel against a prohibition of artificial contraception.
The matters of reception and sensus fidelium, it goes without saying, place great responsibilities upon the Church across the board. History is witness to the fact that God has been generous in revelation and wisdom in every age and to all strata of the ecclesial society. A teaching Church must listen, and its contributors need to bring prayer, thought, and experience to the Lord’s table.