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.