In a recent post, canonist Dr. Edward Peters offers some interesting reflections on a puzzling phenomenon: Why are there statements issued by the pope and by offices at the Vatican that are expressly flagged as being “non-magisterial”?

The Magisterium of the Church is its teaching office, which consists of the pope and the bishops of the world in union with him (CCC 85).

It can be surprising, therefore, when comments made by the pope or by Vatican offices deal with matters of faith and morals and yet are expressly identified as non-magisterial.

How does that work?

Dr. Peters seems skeptical that it does work. In his post, he seems to entertain the idea that such statements are magisterial, even if those who issue them do not recognize them as such. In other words, these acts have a magisterial character even if those making them did not have the intent to issue magisterial statements. He writes:

[T]he relationship between an intention behind, and the nature of, an act is complex; the lawyer in me knows that much. But lately, a rising number of persons seem to think that they can control the characterization of their act simply by declaring an intentionality for their act. That’s a very slippery slope. As a rule, I think an intention to perform an act is relevant to one’s responsibility for the act, but is not dispositive of the characterization of the act.

Consequently, he concludes:

Popes who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in public remarks are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church; dicasterial prelates who make deliberate assertions about faith or morals in materials published through the Holy See are contributing, in a small way, to the ordinary magisterium of the Church.

The view that Dr. Peters proposes is attractive in that it would make it very easy to determine whether an act is magisterial. It would not settle the question of what level of authority the magisterium was investing in an assertion, but it would make it clear that the assertion is backed by the Church’s teaching authority.

As attractive as the proposal may be, it is evidently not how officials in Rome view the matter. This is made clear by the number of statements we find coming from the relevant figures and documents that particular statements are not magisterial though they fit Dr. Peters’ criteria.

This also is not a new phenomenon. It goes back years. Although I have not done a thorough study of the question, I am aware of non-magisterial interventions (that touch on matters of faith or morals) from offices connected with the Holy See going back at least to the 1960s.

What I’d like to do here is look at some of the factors that, I suspect, are behind the decision to flag certain statements as non-magisterial and why these are more common today.

 

1) Binding Authority

At the root of the decision to flag statements as non-magisterial is the fact that magisterial statements are authoritative and bind the consciences of believers. This is true even when the Church’s infallibility is not being engaged. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.

To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it (CCC 892).

Even the ordinary teaching of the Magisterium has binding authority—it calls for the faithful to adhere to it with “religious assent.”

Knowing that, put yourself in the position of a pope. The responsibilities of the papal office are amazingly daunting—even superhuman—and it is easy to see how a pope would blanch at the prospect of binding the consciences of the faithful every time he says anything about faith or morals in public.

People are going to come to the pope, publicly, with questions, and he’s not going to have the leisure to privately study, pray, meditate, and consult the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about precisely how to formulate every answer.

Even without a question being posed to him, a pope may feel it would be helpful to propose an idea for the consideration of the faithful without binding them to believe it.

A classic example of this is the discussion of the fire of purgatory in Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, where he writes:

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves (Spe Salvi 47). 

The question of what purgatory’s fire consists of has been a thorny one, with Medieval theologians pondering how what they took to be a physical fire could affect an immaterial soul. More recently, theologians including Fr. Joseph Ratzinger proposed that the fire is better understood as a symbol of a transforming encounter with Christ (see his book Eschatology).

In writing his encyclical, Benedict XVI apparently wanted to give the new proposal official recognition without requiring theologians and the faithful to reject other understandings of purgatorial fire. By proposing it as a theological opinion—rather than a Church teaching—he made it clear that this is a permitted and even a favored view but not the only one possible.

This example represents one way a pope can propose a theological idea without imposing it, but there are others—including making an explicit statement that a particular act is non-magisterial. Benedict XVI also did this in writing his series Jesus of Nazareth. In the introduction to the first volume of that work, he famously wrote:

It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

In any event, popes—and, by extension, various departments at the Vatican—feel the need to be able to say things connected with faith and morals in public without binding the consciences of believers to accept them.

They want the freedom to be able to propose (even officially propose, as in Spe Salvi) without being forced to impose.

 

2) Broad Engagement

Magisterial officials could, of course, refrain from engaging on questions where they are not prepared to bind the consciences of the faithful. They could limit their public statements to only those matters where they want the faithful to give religious assent.

This can also be an attractive proposition. It would make it much easier for the faithful to determine what they are required to believe versus where they can have “a legitimate diversity of opinion” (to borrow a phrase from Cardinal Ratzinger).

It would also mean shorter and fewer Vatican documents, and it would mean that the Holy See would not stray as far into questions of economics or ecology as it presently does.

To cite just one example, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ contains large amounts of material that, properly speaking, are not matters of faith or morals but rather assessments of environmental science, economic matters, and so forth. All of this material would go if the Holy See chose to restrict itself to binding statements of faith and morals.

But this is easier said than done, because there is a fuzzy boundary between matters of faith and morals and those that are related to them (a fact noted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; see section 24 of its 1990 instruction Donum Veritatis).

Further, in order to make statements on faith and morals understood, it is often necessary to set them in a context that refers to related but still distinct topics (e.g., how are you going to talk about the moral principles underlying economic systems without talking about economic systems themselves? Or how are you going to talk about the moral principles involved in reproductive technologies without talking about biology and technology?).

While it could strike a different balance than it has at present, the Magisterium could not fundamentally pull back from such matters without reconceptualizing its mission and sharply limiting its engagement with society.

This it has not chosen to do. In fact, there has never been a time in Church history when the Holy See and the Magisterium did not conduct a form of broad, societal engagement.

The Holy See’s present involvement with the United Nations is one manifestation of that. So were the papal states. So was Pope Leo I’s negotiation with Attila the Hun.

Even in the New Testament itself, we see the Magisterium presiding over charity relief efforts (Acts 6:1-6, 1 Tim. 5:16).

Of course, when the Corinthians wrote St. Paul for advice about marriage, he could have said, “I’m sorry, but I’m only going to tell you the points of faith and morals for which I have a specific command from the Lord,” but he didn’t. He also gave them pastoral advice which was not binding as matters of faith and morals (see 1 Cor. 7:1-40).

In fact, at one point he explicitly notes that he is going beyond what the Lord mandates and is offering his own opinion (1 Cor. 7:10)!

The fact is, officials of the Magisterium have always understood their mission as more than just articulating what the faithful must believe. Since the first century, they have understood it as involving broader engagement, including pastoral advice, theological speculation, and social/political questions (see also the writings of the Apostolic Fathers).

As long as this is the case—and there is no sign that it will change—it can be helpful for Magisterial officials to note when they are and aren’t trying to bind the consciences of the faithful through a magisterial act.

 

3) Global Awareness

The interconnectedness of the globe in the last few years has added new reason for members of the Magisterium to clarify when they are not invoking their authority.

In the fifth century, when Leo I was giving a daily homily, the only people who heard it were those in attendance. He may have had a scribe keep a copy of it in his personal archives, but it was not covered by global media and flashed around the world at the speed of light.

As a result, in the days before telecommunications, popes had much greater liberty to speak informally to their flock, as a local pastor, without having to engage their authority as the supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians.

Today, nobody who works at the Vatican can say anything without the potential for it to generate world headlines like, “Pope Says This!” or “Pope Condemns That!”—even if the pope had nothing to do with the remark.

Given the intense, global scrutiny of everything said at the Holy See, there is additional reason for clarifications about what is and is not binding on the consciences of believers.

This sheds light on the Holy See’s current practice regarding the fervorinos, or daily homilies, preached by Pope Francis at the Casa Santa Marta. The Holy See Press Office has indicated that these are not magisterial—one reason being that the pope would need to review, edit, and approve the texts after the fact, and he has determined that he has more pressing things to do.

It is easy to understand how Francis could desire the same freedom that every parish priest has—and that all of his pre-telecommunications predecessors had—to simply preach a homily without automatically binding the consciences of the faithful.

 

Conclusion

There is more that can be said about this fascinating subject, but it seems to me that we have identified three factors prompting the Holy See (and local bishops) to flag certain statements they issue as non-magisterial:

  • They want to be able to propose ideas without imposing them
  • They want to engage on a broad array of subjects, including ones that have a fuzzy boundary with matters of faith and morals
  • They are under greater scrutiny than ever in history, with a correspondingly greater risk of misunderstanding

All of these factors give them reason to make it clear when they are not binding the consciences of the faithful, and often saying “this is not a magisterial statement” is a useful way to do that.

 

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