Patrick Archbold is co-founder of Creative Minority Report, a Catholic website that puts a refreshing spin on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. When not writing, Patrick is director of information technology at a large international logistics company in New York.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
This is what often pops into my head many times when people use the word Magisterium in articles and comboxes across the Catholic Internet.
There are different kinds of Magisteria the infallible and the non-infallible kind. Of course, non-infallible is just a nicer way of saying fallible. As Catholics, we all hold to the infallible teachings of the Church, but there are other teachings as well: the fallible kind or in other words, the non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium. Of course, even the non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium cannot be ignored or rejected simply because they are not deemed infallible. Even the non-infallible teachings require our religious assent as the Pope has authority to teach.
Under this broad class of non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium, we find things such as encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and even the documents of the Second Vatican Council, as that council chose not to make any solemn dogmatic definitions, while at the same time reiterating many Catholic truths that are infallible.
It should be obvious that daily homilies and secular interviews are also considered non-infallible teachings of the Pope’s ordinary Magisterium, even though they too may often re-state many things that are to be definitively held (such as the Trinity.)
This is where the problem often begins. I have noticed that many people seem to take the view that whichever Pope was the latest to address a topic, whether by apostolic exhortation or even in a casual and off-handed way, that his chosen words represent the best and truest expression on the topic or the most perfect prudential and pastoral approach for no other reason than it is the newest.
Worse, when the plain meaning of some such expression might seem in opposition to previous expressions by previous Popes, it is not uncommon for some to take the view the most recent expression of non-infallible ordinary Magisterium overrides or abrogates any previous non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium. Unfortunately, some view any question of the prudence of a particular way of expression as an attack on the magisterial authority of the Pope. Needless to say, this is a profoundly non-Catholic view.
Popes in the past, cognizant of the dangers of contradiction, would regularly and copiously cite their predecessors in their non-infallible ordinary Magisterium. Since the Catholic faith is a treasure handed down to us from Jesus Christ through His Apostles, Popes of the past took great care to cite their predecessors’ ordinary Magisterium to establish this continuity in the mind of the reader. Recent Popes, unfortunately, have been substantially less assiduous in this regard. While none of this above relieves us of our obligation of religious assent even to non-infallible teaching, it makes it much more difficult to understand to what you are giving your assent.
Take for example Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council document on Ecumenism. One might think upon reading it that the topic of the Church’s relations to other denominations or religions had never come up before since it cites none of the previous Magisterium of Popes in its formulations. Pope Leo XIII’s Satis Cognitum and Pope Pius XI’s Mortalium Animos addressed this topic in a fundamentally different way. Pope Saint John Paul II also addressed this topic in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, but even he failed to cite any of his predecessors’ Magisterium prior to the Council. While the issues surrounding Church teaching on ecumenism are much greater than just failure to cite previous Magisteria, to the ordinary reader, this can cause and has caused great confusion.
The point is, sometimes we are faced with multiple bits of non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium on the same topic, but they can be very difficult to reconcile with each other. Worse, recent Popes have failed to even make the attempt to reconcile them or explain in what way their predecessors got it right or wrong or why a prudential or pastoral approach must change. Modern Popes sometimes write in a way that can give the false impression that prior Magisterial writings on the topic do not exist. All we are left with is the Magisterium of the Now.
The faithful never want to be in a position of trying to parse Church teaching regarding what is or is not magisterial teaching or what may carry a lighter or heavier weight, it is not our role or our bailiwick. But when the Popes of today seem to ignore the previous magisterium and neglect efforts to establish continuity and reconcile previous Papal statements for us, there is a gap and that gap will be filled.
As a result, many Catholics have adopted a “latest is greatest” approach to Papal Magisterium to fill the gap simply because they are incapable of bridging it themselves. “If my Pope said, it must be right,.” even applying this approach to the most mundane of Papal utterances.
Other Catholics, unable to easily reconcile previous Papal writings, too readily dismiss the modern papal Magisteria committing, in large part, the same error.
Still, other Catholics, attempting to fill this gap by examining the whole of past and present Magisterium on this topic, weighing all in the light of tradition, are sometimes accused of opposing the Magisterium of current Popes. This is wrong. Catholics can look at the cumulative weight of non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium on this or any topic; they are not limited by the Magisterium of the Now in forming their conscience so as to properly give religious assent. They might even conclude that prior teaching on a topic better expresses the truth of the matter while remaining fully Catholic and loyal to the current Pope. Of course, it would be much better if the Popes would do this for us .