How Magisterial Was Monday's Finance Document?

As we saw previously, many commentators—including George Weigel, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, and Mark Brumley—were quick to point out that the “note” released by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on world finance should not be understood as a magisterial act which the faithful were bound to accept with religious submission of intellect and will. At least not as a whole (it did, however, contain quotations from prior documents of a magisterial nature).

From what the average person could tell from the way the document was reported by some in the mainstream media, though, the document was fully back by the teaching authority of the pope himself.

Other than the fact that the press usually gets this kind of thing wrong and thoughtful commentators like those mentioned above are much more reliable, how can the ordinary person tell which is right? How can we determine what represents the authoritative teaching of the Church and what does not?

A full treatment of the overall subject goes beyond what can be done in a blog post. (Indeed, entire books and graduate level courses are devoted to the subject.) But here are a few pointers that may help.

1) The Church’s Magisterium, or teaching authority, is vested in the bishops teaching in communion with the pope.

2) Each individual bishop can engage this teaching authority in a limited way that is authoritative for his own subjects.

3) Bishops may also collaborate in the exercise of their teaching authority. This happens most dramatically in the case of an ecumenical council, but it can happen in other ways, such as certain acts of national conferences of bishops. In these cases the exercise of their Magisterium is authoritative for a broader audience (as in the case of a conference of bishops or a local council) or, depending on the situation, even universally (as in the case of an ecumenical council).

4) Canon law has regulations governing these collaborative exercises of the Magisterium. Among the factors we must look to in assessing the doctrinal authority of a particular document is the applicable canon law.

5) The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as we saw in the prior post, is a dicastery (department) of the Roman Curia, whose fundamental legal framework is provide in the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus (Latin, Good Shepherd). According to this document,

Art. 1 — The Roman Curia is the complex of dicasteries and institutes which help the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good and service of the whole Church and of the particular Churches. It thus strengthens the unity of the faith and the communion of the people of God and promotes the mission proper to the Church in the world.

The different dicasteries and institutes of the curia are thus said to “help” the pope in his pastoral duties. These duties do include exercising the Church’s teaching authority, but they also include many other things. The fact that a dicastery is part of the curia does not automatically mean that it is expected to exercise the Church’st teaching authority. For example, the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts would be clear cases of dicasteries that would not normally issue magisterial acts.

6) If the mere fact that a dicastery is part of the Roman Curia doesn’t guarantee that its documents exercise the Magisterium, what might? A logical next place to look would be to the charter that a specific dicastery is given in Pastor Bonus. In the case of the PCJP, here is what Pastor Bonus says:

Art. 142 — The goal of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is to promote justice and peace in the world in accordance with the Gospel and the social teaching of the Church.

Art. 143 — § 1. The Council makes a thorough study of the social teaching of the Church and ensures that this teaching is widely spread and put into practice among people and communities, especially regarding the relations between workers and management, relations that must come to be more and more imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.

§ 2. It collects information and research on justice and peace, about human development and violations of human rights; it ponders all this, and, when appropriate, shares its conclusions with the groupings of bishops. It cultivates relationships with Catholic international organizations and other institutions, even ones outside the Catholic Church, which sincerely strive to achieve peace and justice in the world.

§ 3. It works to form among peoples a mentality which fosters peace, especially on the occasion of World Peace Day.

Art. 144 — The Council has a special relationship with the Secretariat of State, especially whenever matters of peace and justice have to be dealt with in public by documents or announcements.

I’ve highlighted certain phrases here that describe the more relevant activities of the PCJP. None of them indicate that the PCJP is authorized, in normal circumstances, to issue doctrinally binding statements. The Council is said to study the Church’s social teaching, but studying teaching and issuing teaching are two different things. Pastor Bonus would seem to be constituting the PCJP as a study body, one that is intended to analyze and reflect upon what the Magisterium has already authoritatively taught and to see how it might be applied to particular areas, based on the information and research that the body gathers. After reflecting on all this (”pondering” it), the PCJP may than share its conclusions with the bishops, who (although this is unstated) might choose to incorporate some of the PCJP’s findings in their own exercise of the Magisterium.

The PCJP thus might be expected to play an indirect role in the development of doctrine, but under normal circumstances it would not seem to be envisioned as a dicastery that exercises the Magisterium directly.

7) What might intervene to give a particular PCJP document magisterial character? Well, the pope can do what seems best to him, and hypothetically he could intervene in a particular case to lend his own authority to a document. This happens, in a particular way, when the pope approves of a document in forma specifica (“in specific form”), though there is also the lesser form of papal approval in forma generalis (“in general form”).

Such notes of papal approval are often attached to documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for example (a body that much more regularly issues documents of a magisterial character), but there is no such approval attached to the PCJP note. (Presumably the PCJP ran the note past the Secretariate of State, per Pastor Bonus art. 144, but that doesn’t give it magisterial character, either.)

In view of the foregoing, it would appear that the PCJP note does not itself represent an act of the Magisterium.

Are there any other indications that might confirm this?

8) One is the fact that the document is characterized as a “note.” This is a fairly low-level term when it comes to indicating authority. A more powerful term—which is found on more authoritative curial documents—would be “instruction.”

9) At the press conference presenting the note, the head men of the PCJP both use language indicating that the document was not itself an authoritative teaching instrument. As Weigel comments:

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the council, said that the document was intended to “make a contribution which might be useful to the deliberations of the [upcoming] G-20 meeting.” Bishop Mario Toso, S.D.B., the secretary of the council, was just as subjunctive as his superior, saying that the document was intended to “suggest possible paths to follow.” Both Cardinal Turkson and Bishop Toso indicated, in line with long-standing Catholic social doctrine, that the Church-as-Church was incompetent to offer “technical solutions” but rather wished to locate public policy debates within the proper moral frameworks.

It seems that commentators like Weigel, Zuhlsdorf, and Brumley are on safe ground, then, in saying that the PCJP note does not represent an exercise of the Church’s teaching authority. At least the document as a whole does not. As we’ve mentioned, though, it does contain quotations from prior documents that are magisterial, such as Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, and since the authority of those quotations is independent of this document, they retain whatever doctrinal force the pope invested them with in the original.

There is also the fact that, though the PCJP note does not carry magisterial authority itself, it is a product of a council of the Roman Curia, and Pope Benedict himself chose the men who run it, which must count as something of a vote of confidence in them.

That’s something to think about as one reads the document and tries to assess how much it may provide “a contribution which might be useful” and “possible paths to follow.”