A web post with a title similar to this sent me scrambling for my books on the magisterium, confused by this new possibility.
I invested in these books back in the early 1990s when pelted by demands of “Listen to the Magisterium.” That was The Magisterium.
Quite frankly, I had never heard of the magisterium in all my 13 years of Catholic education before Vatican II—back in the Old Church—or in studying for my Master’s in Ministry. I was working as the Director of Religious Education in a parish, trying to stay abreast of Church documents and obedient to my pastor and bishop. I was quite aware that the Bishop is the main catechist of the diocese; and the pastor, of his parish. Without knowing the official term for it, that was my magisterium.
The situation there was quite different from the one we face today. Then, faithful Catholics who had tried to understand and implement the teachings of Vatican II were faced with a more rigorist interpretation of papal and CDF teaching, which did not always coincide with those of our American bishops, and certainly not with our bishop’s. We were being called to align ourselves more closely with Rome--a view of Rome that was not necessarily completely in line with the actual magisterium of Rome either.
Today, those concerned with The Magisterium are concerned by Rome.
The former tendency in the Church is called Ultramontanism, from the centuries when a European church looked to Rome, across the mountains, for authority in bolstering local jurisdictions. In contrast, but not necessarily in opposition, to this is the sharing of authority on a more local level—by Bishops’ conferences, local bishops, heads of religious orders. This assumes that matters which are of particular importance to given area need not be decided for the whole church unless they involve faith and morals already decided upon for the entire church.
So I dusted off my copy of Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church by Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. , hoping to refresh my thinking and to come up with a succinct definition of The Magisterium, so as to understand how it might be fractured or incomplete.
Turns out my former, and present, confusion was not unwarranted. Magisterium refers to the teaching office of the Church. That sounds simple, but this leads to the question: who, or where, exactly, is that teaching office? Is it the Papacy itself, with the supreme authority of its word? Is it the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office? Is it the assembled bishops of the Church? Does it lie in the working documents guiding the Church, as issued by the above? Is it a teaching authority shared by Pope and bishops, which also honors the thinking of theologians?
Is it something hard and fast, which can be easily grasped and held; which can be imposed? Something like the Constitution, which can be quoted verbatim? Or is it, like the Constitution, something held to be precious but whose meaning still has layers to unfold?
The current magisterial question arises now that Pope Francis has named a new head to what was called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed during the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II by Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict. Sometimes called The Supreme, sometimes The Holy Office, and much earlier, the Office of the Inquisition, this office has sometimes been seen as Rome’s watchdog—the office on the lookout for heresy and abuse. Part of its recent task has been to sort out cases of clergy sex abuse.
That division of the office will continue to function under its present leadership, but Pope Francis has replaced the retiring head of the CDF with the Argentinian Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, nicknamed “Tucho.” Like Cardinal Ratzinger, Tucho is a scholar, evidence of the way Pope Francis wants to incorporate theology in finding new ways to explain and elucidate the Faith to the world. No longer mainly a watchdog, the purpose of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith will be “to safeguard the teaching that comes from the faith ‘to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns. (Evangelii Gaudium 271)’”
Setting aside whatever fears, suspicions, or unanswered questions one might have about this choice of magisterial leadership, it is critical to consider the world we look to evangelize today. What are the “signs of the times” that Vatican II calls us to observe? How are we, like Paul, who sought to be as a Jew for the Jews and a Greek for the Greeks, equipping ourselves to be on the same wavelength as those we encounter? Are we able to speak their language, so as to be able to convince them of the compelling beauty of our faith? Do we understand the questions of our day sufficiently that we can answer them effectively?
The old Director of Religious Education in me shouts out, we need words that really speak to our communities that are looking for truth that satisfies. These generations have been poorly catechized: I’ll be the first to admit it. Some were simply not taught the faith in a convincing way; others were convinced, but not given a vocabulary and theological structure that could flex to cope with new situations.
I’m not talking about watering down the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or about the immutable truths of the Creed and the holy constancy of the sacraments here, but about the essence of our faith: Christ and his desire to relate to our present world.. I am saying we need to find better ways of helping people to see these treasures of our faith as the pearl of great price for which they will sell their false treasures.
This is what Pope Francis hopes to do in his appointment of Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez. Our part is to pray that under his leadership the Magisterium of our Church will be able to shine forth as a beacon, as the light on the hill, revealing to the nations the Light of the World.
I have not answered the question of a partial magisterium, but here it is: the Magisterium is necessarily spread throughout the teaching body of the Church. It will always be incomplete, in that we will never exhaust the message of the Gospel or thoroughly explain it, for each generation will have to hear the message in its own words. It will always be shared among all who participate in the apostolic and teaching roles of the Church. If that seems inexact, it's because the teaching role, while simple, is also complex. If you doubt that, ask yourself if you are taking part in Christ's command: Go forth and teach all nations. If so, you are involved with the Magisterium.