An Ordinary Viewpoint

Faith is the Substance - III


The technical Latin term for the official, living teaching office of the Catholic Church is the Magisterium. This is constituted by the legitimate successors of the Apostles in the Catholic Church, namely the Bishops "with and under" the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Saint Peter. The Second Vatican Council declares, "The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the Magisterium (i.e. the living teaching office of the Church), whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit. It draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed." When properly and legitimately assigned and designated, priests and some lay people, such as catechists, can occasionally have a certain kind of derived and subordinated participation in the magisterial activity of the Church, but it would be incorrect to claim that they (or any non-Bishop theologians for that matter) are, properly-speaking, members of the Magisterium.

The Council goes on to proclaim, "It is clear, therefore, that Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, contribute effectively to the salvation of souls." In the coming Year of Faith, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, special attention is expected to be drawn to the virtue of faith, to the act of faith, and to the contents or the object of our faith. It is in connection with those contents, that is, the substance of what we believe, the deposit of faith, that we should be interested in its authenticity, its correct interpretation, and the guarantee that it comes to us unmutilated, undiluted, and unchanged from its origins in God. For this reason, it is good to consider the place and importance of the Magisterium in the Catholic Church, the one true Church which was founded by Jesus.

Previous Year

In the last recent Year of Faith (in 1967), Pope Paul VI remarked, "The religious truth coming from Christ is not spread among men in an uncontrolled and irresponsible way. That truth requires an exterior and social channel. It demands an authorized Magisterium. And, only with the help of this service (charity in and of the truth) does it conserve its unequivocal divine meaning and its saving value. Yes, this system does bind the truth, but certainly not in any way contrary to deeper study, meditation, and the vital application of religious truth. Instead it educates us to do so. Nor does this system in itself bind religious truth to its verbal expression, although dogmatic formulas are so intimately tied to their content that every change hides some of the content or provokes a change in it."

"But this service of an authorized Magisterium does not allow what so many men of today and yesterday would like for themselves, namely a free examination of the divine word, that is, a separation of the written words of Sacred Scripture from the spoken, living, present, and faithful words of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. Such a separation would permit whatever interpretation best suits their fancy. Saint Augustine warned, ‘You, who believe what you like in the Gospel and do not believe what you do not like, actually believe in yourselves instead of believing in the Gospel.’ That is a stern warning against committing a grave sin of pride and arrogance."

That kind of grave sin, Pope Paul VI points out, "gives free rein to the opinion, which, forgetting the demands of orthodoxy, maintains that one can choose among the truths of faith those which seem admissible in the judgment of an instinctive personal preference, rejecting others, as if the rights of moral conscience, free and responsible for its acts, could be claimed in preference to the rights of truth, foremost among which are the rights of divine revelation (Galatians 1:6-9). This is as if the doctrinal patrimony of the Church could be subjected to revision in order to give Christianity new ideological dimensions, far different from the theological dimensions which genuine tradition delineated with immense reverence for the thought of God."

Words of Pope Paul

Pope Paul VI said, "The concern for doctrinal fidelity which was so solemnly enunciated at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council must direct our post-conciliar times. We must guard the deposit of faith, since the dangers which today threaten are more numerous and serious, immense dangers caused by the irreligious orientation of the modern mentality and insidious dangers which even from within the Church find utterance in the work of some teachers and writers who are desirous, it is true, of giving new expression to Catholic teaching, but who are frequently even more desirous of adapting the dogmas of our faith to profane thought and language rather than adhering to the norm of the Church’s Magisterium."

"The faith, as we know, is not the fruit of an arbitrary or purely naturalistic interpretation of the word of God, just as it is not a religious expression born from some collective opinion, deprived of an authorized guide. Still less is it acquiescence to the philosophical or sociological currents of the passing historical moment. Faith is the adherence of our whole spiritual being to the marvelous and merciful message of salvation communicated to us by the luminous ways of revelation. Faith is not only a searching, but above all else, it is a certainty. And, rather than being the fruit of our investigations, it is a mysterious gift which requires our souls to be attentive and trusting, docile and available for the great dialogue with God Himself."

Vatican Two

The Second Vatican Council teaches that "the apostolic preaching was to be carried on by a continuous succession of preachers until the end of time." Through them the Apostles continue "to warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or in writing (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and to fight in defense of the faith handed down once and for all (Jude 3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes to the holiness of life and the increase in faith of the People of God, and so the Church in her teaching, life, and worship perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes."

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