More on the Temporality of the Church

And they say Roman Catholicism doesn’t change:

Traditionally, the Church’s teaching is encapsulated in something called the deposit of faith. The deposit of faith is the body of revealed truth in the Scriptures and tradition proposed by the Roman Catholic Church for the belief of the faithful. This “deposit” is protected and promulgated in three ways: Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Church’s Magisterium. Scripture and Tradition are the written and unwritten revelations of God, while the Church’s Magisterium forms a kind of living, interpretive arbiter of Divine Revelation.

The job of the Magisterium is to look at a given subject of faith or morals and tell the Christian faithful what the Church’s constant teaching has been. It is a living voice of Tradition in every subsequent generation. We are probably all familiar with the concept of the stool with three legs which represents how these three elements, Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium interact.

The role of the Magisterium is to tell the faithful of each generation what the unchanging truths of the Catholic Faith are. If there is confusion about a teaching, the Magisterium is supposed to diligently seek the solution in the sources of faith and propound it faithfully.

Contemporary Catholicism, however, seems to have adopted a new view of the Magisterium. Rather than authoritatively explaining the Church’s perennial tradition, the contemporary Magisterium has become the mechanism whereby a current pope’s priorities are transmuted into policy. A pontificate thus becomes more akin to an American presidential administration, where each successive president has certain policy objectives that are implemented through the machinery of the federal government. Instead of asking, “What does the Church teach?”, the question is increasingly becoming, “What is the policy of the current pontificate?”

Obviously every pope has had and always will have things that are of special importance to him; but what I think alarming is seeing the way the contemporary popes—beginning with Paul VI but really culminating in Francis—essentially endeavor to recreate the Magisterium with each successive pontificate to reflect their own personal pet-projects.

For example, look at the subject of Catholic social teaching since Vatican II. Paul VI gave us Populorum Progessio, the first post-conciliar Catholic social teaching encyclical. St. John Paul II gave us three, Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centesimus Annus (1991). Then Benedict XVI wrote Caritas in Veritate (2009). Not even a decade has passed and the Franciscan pontificate has promulgated Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and Laudato Si (2015). One gets the idea that each new pope is expected to issue his own social teaching encyclical—not because the needs of the Church require such an encyclical, but because it is expected that a new pope will want to put his own “stamp” on the Church’s body of social doctrine. It seems as if the way modern encyclicals are used is that they become occasions for each pope to re-evaluate a subject in light of his own particular interests. When a new social encyclical is issued, pundits’ mouths water as they wonder “What is this pope’s take on Catholic social teaching?”, as if it is each pope’s job to “shape” what comes down to them by offering a new “take” each pontificate. (Related: “The Curiosity of the Modern Papal Encyclical”, USC, June, 2015).

Yes, the Magisterium is treated the way a president would treat the federal government: as an outlet for his “policy objectives.” We even have gotten to the point where Pope Francis’ new amendment to the Catechism cites as its source a letter of the very same Pope Francis. How humble! And the letter is supposed to have been elevated to Magisterial authority by its inclusion in the Catechism. This seems kind of backwards, as originally the CCC was promulgated as a compilation of teachings already considered authoritative. A teaching was considered authoritative, and therefore included in the CCC; now a teaching is included in CCC and therefore considered authoritative. It all feels so lop-sided.

When churches want to address policy, reach for your double-edged sword.

2 thoughts on “More on the Temporality of the Church

  1. From Stephen Bainbridge:

    According to Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria, “… the new formulation of the Catechism expresses “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.

    He then explains that previous Church teaching with regards to the death penalty can be explained in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and “had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”

    That statement is obviously in tension with itself–one might even say embarrassingly so–how can a change in doctrine to reflect changed social contexts not be in contradiction with the old doctrine? It’s also insupportable…As far as the death penalty itself goes, I am not troubled by the Church’s change in doctrine. I’ve long been skeptical of the death penalty. It’s the broader principle that worries me.

    This sudden and dramatic shift calls to mind the debate over Judge John T. Noonan’s book A Church that Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. According to Wikipedia:

    “John Thomas Noonan, Jr. (born October 24, 1926) is a Senior United States federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, with chambers in San Francisco, California. … Noonan was the 1984 recipient of the Laetare Medal, awarded annually since 1883 by Notre Dame University in recognition of outstanding service to the Roman Catholic Church through a distinctively Catholic contribution in the recipient’s profession. Noonan has served as a consultant for several agencies in the Catholic Church, including Pope Paul VI’s Commission on Problems of the Family, and the U.S. Catholic Conference’s committees on moral values, law and public policy, law and life issues. He also has been director of the National Right to Life Committee.”

    There is no doubt that Noonan is a brilliant lawyer and a devout Catholic. Yet, his view of Church history has been controversial. In its review of Noonan’s book, the NY Times wrote:

    “Noonan drives home the point that some Catholic moral doctrines have changed radically. History, he concludes, does not support the comforting notion that the church simply elaborates on or expands previous teachings without contradicting them.”

    …Is this really a reversal or just an evolution?

    But it seems to me that Noonan’s thesis just got a shot in the arm from Cardinal Ladaria’s statement that “previous Church teaching with regards to [fill in the blank] can be explained in a social context in which [fill in the blank was] understood differently.”

    Is it really so hard to imagine Pope Francis (or his successor) announcing that “previous Church teaching with regards to divorce can be explained in a social context in which marriage was understood differently”? Or “previous Church teaching with regards to sexuality can be explained in a social context in which sexuality was understood differently”? Or “previous Church teaching with regards to abortion can be explained in a social context in which fetal development was understood differently”?

    One hopes Pope Francis explains in detail his views on the evolution of church teaching.

    A far more parsimonious explanation is simply that Luther was right and that Popes, bishops, and councils have erred. The “church” must be continually reformed according to God’s Word.


  2. When Reformed historians keep telling us that the use of state violence is clean as long as used privately outside the true church , are they thereby safeguarding the notion that their own visible churches (in continuity with Christendom) are already the kingdom of God come to earth? Yes, some priests raped some children, but it would be “Donatist” for anybody to focus so much on the “not yet” of some undisciplined clergy that they would fail to see that the church of Rome continues to already administer the grace of God which is not necessarily given at the time of administration.

    Scott Clark– “Rejection of the status of Christian children continues to perpetuate a principle of radical discontinuity between Abraham and the Christian, i.e. a radical principle of discontinuity in the history of redemption . This denial of the fundamental unity of the covenant of grace as symbolized in the administration of the sign and seal of the covenant of grace to covenant children is serious enough to warrant saying that any congregation that will not practice infant initiation (baptism) into the administration of the covenant of grace is not a church.”

    Bavinck– “Lutherans almost exclusively have an eye for the ACCUSING function of the law, but for the Reformed the pedagogical use of the law is only accidentally necessary because of sin. Among the Reformed the law occupies a much larger place in the doctrine of gratitude than in that of misery… The Lutherans, out of fear of the Anabaptists, increasingly omitted the extraordinary manner and said, ‘God grants his Spirit or grace to no one except through or with the preceding outward word’, or as Luther kept saying, ‘God does not give internal things except through external things.And when Rahtmann issued a work in which he taught that the Word alone did not possess the power to convert a person unless the Holy Spirit with his grace joined himself with it, almost all Lutheran theologians rose up and articulated as the true Lutheran doctrine that …power has been put in it by divine providence and is so inseparably bound up with it that it is still present in the Word even ‘before and apart from its legitimate use’

    Bavinck–“The dualisms between the internal and external, the spiritual and the material, eternity and time, essence and form (and so forth) are products of a false philosophy and contrary to Scripture. God is the creator of heaven, yes, but also of the earth; of the soul, yes, but also of the body; of spirit, yes, but also of matter. Similarly, therefore, the word is not an empty set of vibrations in the air, nor an empty sign.”

    Bavinck–“We must distinguish between the word of God and Scripture. Not in the sense that the word of God could be found only in Scripture and was not Scripture itself; but in this other sense, that the word in most cases does not come to us at all in the form of Scripture. In fact, it comes in such a way that, having been absorbed from Scripture into the consciousness of the church, it proceeds from there to the most diverse people in the form of admonition and speech, nurture and education, books, magazines, tracts, and speeches and exerts its effect. And always it is God who causes that word to go forth to people in all those diverse forms….There may be the odd instance where the expression “Word of God” refers to a part of Scripture, say to the written LAW. But for the rest, the word of God in Scripture is never the same as Scripture, if for no other reason than that at the time, Scripture was NOT YET COMPLETE…


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