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.