Pope John Paul II's 25th: Honor Him by Accepting All His Teachings

It's not unusual to see someone dozing off at a diplomatic summit.

Diplomatic proceedings tend to bore even the most motivated and disciplined person. Yet no one slept when Pope John Paul II addressed nearly a year ago the ambassadors of the world accredited to the Holy See on the issue of going to war with Iraq.

The world's leading moral authority delivered a clear message to the 177 ambassadors: “No to war! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity,” the Pope said.

The Holy Father pointed out that “international law, honest dialogue, solidarity between states, the noble exercise of diplomacy: These are the methods worthy of individuals and nations in resolving their differences.”

How did many American Catholics respond to John Paul's moral objection against war in Iraq? The organization Catholics for a Just War summed up the attitude of many by saying, “The Pope is not stating a defined teaching of the Church with regard to this specific war.”

In other words, the Pope's teaching on the moral interpretation of the just war doctrine as applied to Iraq is not a definitive teaching. Consequently, it is not binding in conscience for Catholics. This means it should be considered a matter of prudential judgment. So far so good.

But unfortunately, Catholics who reject Church teaching use “prudential judgment” language to butress the logic of dissent from the Holy Father's ordinary magisterium on many moral issues.

Many Catholics view the Pope's ordinary magisterium as optional. Many Catholic dissenters on issues such as contraception, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research and similar questions give the impression that their “prudential” judgment is as good as the infallible teaching magisterium of the Church.

It may be time for a reiminder of what Catholics' attitude should be toward the Church's ordinary magisterium.

Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church, gives the answer: “The religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra [or in a definitive way]. That is, it must be shown in such a way that supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine or from his manner of speaking.”

The term religious submission, or obsequium, indicates that the faithful should show the Holy Father's ordinary magisterium a religious allegiance “of will and of mind.” For this reason, the judgments made by the Pope are to be “sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”

The word authentic also needs some explaining since the expression “authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff” is often misunderstood. The Latin word authenticum is often translated in English as authentic. In modern English, authentic means genuine. However, it once meant authoritative or entitled to obedience, which corresponded well to the original sense in Latin. But this meaning today is archaic.

In other words, the most accurate translation today for authenticum is not authentic but authoritative. This distinction helps us to understand that the Holy Father serves the people of God by teaching with authority.

All of this shows beyond any doubt that the teachings of the Holy Father's ordinary magisterium represent for Catholics much more than an optional educated opinion. At the same time, John Paul's ordinary magisterium is not identical with his supremely authoritative magisterium. At first glance, some might not see the difference. However, there's a distinction. The formulation or particular way that the Pope's ordinary teaching is expressed could need refinement or qualification. Nonetheless, the substance of the teaching is truth.

Some Catholics question why they should put so much trust in the Holy Father's magisterium. After all, he's a man. The answer to this is that the Holy Spirit, which justifies our confidence in the general reliability of the ordinary magisterium, guides the Church. Consequently, the fidelity of the Church to Christ and the Gospel does not rest upon an individual but on the abiding presence and assistance of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ to his Church.

This requires a vision of faith. Faith is perfected by love. If we love the Church, we will shun public dissent. When public dissent takes on an organized form, it always undermines the common good of the Church. It polarizes the faithful into factions, weakens the practice of charity and undercuts the authority of the episcopate and the papacy. In short, the effect of public dissent on the life of the Church is always detrimental.

On Oct. 16 John Paul will celebrate his 25th anniversary as successor of St. Peter, Bishop of Rome and universal pastor of the Church. His pontificate has not been easy. He has traveled literally around the world to the point of exhaustion preaching and teaching the truth of the Gospel.

May faithful Catholics never cease to accept and to love that truth.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae Institute of Higher Education for consecrated women in Greenville, Rhode Island.