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CHURCH-TRADITION-MAGISTERIUM

(by Brunero Gherardini)


The grand semicentennial celebration has begun. No tam-tam as yet, but one can feel it in the air. The semicentennial anniversary of Vatican II will uncork whatever it will be possible to dream up by way of laudatory judgements. Not the faintest shadow of the sobriety that had been requested both as an attitude of mind and as a moment of reflexion and analysis to evaluate the conciliar event at a greater critical depth. Free-wheeling assertions and repetitions of what has been said and repeated for the past fifty years are already underway: Vatican II is the pinnacle and the quintessence of Tradition. International congresses on the greatest and most significant among all ecumenical councils have already been planned, while other gatherings of greater or lesser impact will follow along the way. Literature on the topic is swelling by the day. Obviously, the Osservatore Romano does its share, harping mostly on the adherence due to the Magisterium (2 December 2011, page 6): Vatican II is an act of Magisterium, hence... The reason adduced is that every act of Magisterium is to be received from Shepherds who, because of the Apostolic succession, speak with the charism of truth (DV 8), with the authority of Christ (LG 25), in the light of the Holy Spirit (ibid.)

Apart from proving the Magisterium of Vatican II with Vatican II (what used to be called petitio principii, it seems evident that such a way of reasoning starts from the premise that the Magisterium is an absolute entity, a subject independent of anything and anybody but the Apostolic succession and the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Now, while the Apostolic succession is guaranteed by the legitimacy of the sacred Ordination, it seems difficult to ascertain who might guarantee the intervention of the Holy Spirit in the terms in which it is spoken of.

One thing is, however, out of the question: nothing in the world, the receptacle of things created, is endowed with absoluteness. Everything is in flux, in a circuit of mutual interdependency, and thus everything is dependent, has a beginning and will come to an end: 'Mutantur enim - said the great Augustine - ergo creata sunt' ["They change, therefore they have been created"]. The Church is no exception: not her Tradition, nor her Magisterium. These are lofty realities, at the top of the ladder of all creatural values, endowed with qualities that make one's head swim, yet they are still penultimate realities. Eschaton, the ultimate reality, is God and God alone. Often the language used turns this matter of fact upside down, and to these lofty realities are attributed significance and impact above and beyond their limits: they become absolutized. As a consequence, they are expropriated from their ontic status and are made into an unreal presupposition that, for this very reason, also loses the lofty greatness of their penultimate reality.

Immersed in the Trinitary moment of her planning, the Church is and works in time as sacrament of salvation. Theandrism, which makes of her a mysteric continuation of Christ, is not under discussion, nor are her constitutive properties (unity, holiness, Catholicity, and apostolicity), nor her structure and service; but all of this remains within a reality that is of this world, a reality habilitated to mediate sacramentally the divine presence, but always as, and inasmuch as it is of this world. Hence, by definition, it eschews absoluteness.

So much so that the Church identifies with her Tradition: from it the Church derives her continuity with herself, to it the Church owes her life-breath, from it the Church draws the certainty that her yesterday always becomes her today in order to prepare her tomorrow. Thus, Tradition gives the Church the inner impulse that urges her toward the future, while safeguarding both her past and her present. But even Tradition is not an absolute entity: it began with the Church, with the Church will it end. God alone remains.

The Church exercises a real control on Tradition: a discernment that distinguishes what is authentic from what is not. The Church does this with an instrument not wanting in "the charism of truth," provided that the temptation to absoluteness does not gain the upper hand. This instrument is the Magisterium, whose title-holders are the Pope (as successor to the Apostle Saint Peter, the first Pope on the Roman chair), and the bishops (as successors to the Twelve in the ministry or service to the Church) wherever it may exist as a local expression. It is not necessary to note the distinctions within the Magisterium (solemn, if exercised by the Pope or ecumenical Council; ordinary, if exercised by the Pope in his specific activity and by the bishops as a whole and in communion with the Pope). It is far more important to define within which limits the Magisterium is guaranteed the "charism of truth."

First of all, it must be said that te Magisterium is not a super-church that can force judgements and modes of behaviour on the Church herself; nor is it a caste privileged over and above the people of God, a kind of higher power that must be obeyed without further ado. It is a service, a diakonia. But also a task to be performed, a munus, indeed the munus docendi that cannot and must not be superimposed upon the Church, from whom and through whom it was born and operates. From a subjective viewpoint, it coincides with the teaching Church (Pope and bishops united with the Pope) for the function of proposing officially the Faith. From the operational viewpoint, it is the instrument through which such function is carried out.

All too often, though, the instrument is made into a value in itself and called upon to cut short any form of discussion at its very onset, as if the instrument were above the Church and the huge mass of Tradition - to be received, interpreted, re-transmitted in its integrity and fidelity - did not stand before it. And here, precisely, those limits become evident that safeguard the Magisterium from the danger of elephantiasis and the absolutistic temptation.

No need to dwell on the first of these limits, the Apostolic succession. It should not be difficult for anybody to prove, case by case, its legitimacy and consequently the succession in the possession of the charism proper to the Apostles. Some words, however, must be spent upon the second limit, to wit the assistance by the Holy Spirit. The quick-and-easy process that has taken hold today is more or less the following one: Christ promised to the Apostles (hence to their successors, that is to say to the teaching Church) the mission of the Holy Spirit and his assistance for the exercise of the munus docendi in truth; thus, error is abjured from the start. Yes, Christ did make such a promise, but He also showed the conditions for its coming true. Unfortunately, in the very way of appealing to that promise, one can discern its serious adulteration: the words of Christ are either not reported or, should they be cited, not given the meaning they have. Let us see what this is all about.

The promise is reported mainly by two texts of the fourth evangelist: John 14:16-26 and John 16:13-14. In the first one already, one of these limits resounds with extraordinary clarity: Jesus, in fact, does not stop at the promise of the Spirit of the truth (please note these italics, due to the definite article tes, which keeps being translated far and wide with "of"; as if truth were an option for the Holy Spirit who, to the contrary, impersonates it), but foretells his function: He will recall to memory all that He, Jesus, had previously taught. It is, then, an assistance that preserves the revealed truth, not one that inserts into it truths other than, or different from those revealed or presumed to be such.

While confirming the first text of John's Gospel, the second one further defines the matter: the Holy Spirit, in fact, "shall lead you to the whole truth," even to that which Jesus does not tell as yet, because it is above and beyond the capacity of his disciples (John 16:12). In so doing, the Spirit "will not speak on his own account", but will say all that he hears...He will take from what is mine and convey it to you." Thus, there will be no further revelations. The single one is closed with those to whom Jesus is now speaking. His words appear with a univocal meaning concerning the doctrine taught by Jesus, and that doctrine alone. This is no cryptic or coded language, but bright as the sun. One might take exception on the perspective of apparent novelty in relation to what, now untold by Jesus, shall be announced by the Holy Spirit, but the fact of limiting his assistance to a lead function toward the possession of all truth revealed by Christ excludes substantial novelties. Should such novelties emerge, there will be new meanings, not new truths; hence the perfectly correct "eodem sensu eadmque sententia" of Vincent de Lérins. In summary, the claim to latch on to the assistance of the Holy Spirit at every rustling of leaves - I mean at any novelty, and particularly at those that measure the Church by standards common to those of the dominant culture and the so-called dignity of the human person - is not only a structural overturning of the Church on herself, but also consigns to total oblivion the texts cited above.

This is not all. The limit to magisterial intervention is also found in its technical formulation. In order to be truly magisterial, whether or not in a definitorial sense, the intervention must resort to an already enshrined formulary that must convey, without any uncertainty whatsoever, the will to speak as "Pastor and Doctor of all Christians in matters of faith and morals, by virtue of his Apostolic Authority," if it is the Pope who speaks; or the will of the Council fathers to link Christian faith with divine Revelation and its unbroken transmission must be conveyed with equal assurance (for example, by an ecumenical Council) through the usual formulae of dogmatic declaration. Failing such premises, one may speak of Magisterium only in a broad sense. Not every single word of the Pope, be it written or spoken, is Magisterium; and the same holds true for the ecumenical Councils, quite a few of which did not deal with dogma or did not deal with it exclusively: on occasion they even grafted dogma onto a context of internal diatribes and personal or faction quarrels, such as to render absurd any magisterial claim on their part within that context. An ecumenical Council of unquestioned dogmatic-Christological importance such as that of Chalcedon, that spent most of its time in a shameful struggle over personal preferences, prerogatives, depositions, rehabilitations, still makes a decidedly negative impression. Not in this is Chalcedon dogma. Likewise, the Pope's word is not dogmatic when he declares privately that, "Paul did not intend the Church as an organization, an institution, but as a living organism, where all work for one another and with one another, being united from Christ on." The exact opposite is true, and it is a known fact that the first institutional form was structured by Paul in a pyramidal shape, precisely to favour the living organism: the Apostle at the summit, then the episkopoi-presbyteroi, the hegoumenoi, the proistamenoi, the nouthetountes, the diakonoi: these are distinct functions and tasks, not precisely defined as yet, butthe distinctions are already those of an institutionalized organism. Let it be quite clear that, even in this case, the christian attitude must be one of respect and, at least in principle, also of adhesion. If, however, adherence to a case such as the one set above is not possible for the conscience of the individual believer, this fact does not imply rebellion against the Pope or denial of his Magisterium; it only means that this is not Magisterium.

Now, in closing, the discourse reverts to Vatican II in order to say (if possible) a final word on its belonging - or not belonging - to Tradition and on its magisterial quality. No question about the latter, and those laudatores who for no fewer than fifty years have been tirelessly upholding the magisterial identity of Vatican II waste theirs and other people's time: no one denies such things. Yet, given their acritical ebullience, a quality problem arises: what Magisterium are we dealing with? The article in "L'Osservatore Romano" that I recalled initially speaks of doctrinal Magisterium; and who ever denied that? Even a purely pastoral assertion can be doctrinal in the sense that it belongs to a given doctrine. However, should one say doctrinal in the sense of dogmatic, he would be in error: no dogma has been accredited to Vatican II, which, if it has also a dogmatic value, does so as a reflexion, wherever it latches on to previously defined dogmas. In summary, its Magisterium - as has been stated over and over again, to anyone who has ears to hear - is a solemn and supreme Magisterium.

Its continuity with Tradition is more problematic, not because the Council has not declared such continuity, but because - especially in those key points where it was necessary that such continuity be evident - the declaration has remained unproven.

Translation of Chiesa-Tradizione-Magistero, Disputationes Theologicae 2011/12.

To understand why a critical assessment of Vatican II is sorely needed, read The Ecumenical Vatican Council II. A Much Needed Discussion

Of related interest:
A domanda risponde. In dialogo con Karl Barth sulle sue "Domande a Roma" (English version)
Gherardini online

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