Lecture 7: The Magisterium and the Moral Life

Praised be Jesus Christ. In this segment of our introductory course to Catholic Moral Theology we look at the role that is played in the moral life by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Magisterium refers to the College of Bishops. It refers to all of those men who have been ordained as successors to Our Lord's Apostles, who share a common ministry within the Church under the headship of His Holy Father the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. We have said that Catholic moral teaching makes use of the understanding of the Natural Law, that is, that we are capable of looking at the nature of the human person to see that there are certain objective criteria for good moral behavior that anyone can recognize and see. Paul said in Romans that even those without the written law are without excuse because God has written the law upon their hearts. God knows our difficulty in understanding the moral law simply as it is written upon our hearts; therefore, He revealed to us the truth that we could come to know with difficulty by reflecting upon and studying the human person. God has revealed to us that marriage, for example, is indissoluble, and that we ought not kill or hate another person. Revelation has helped to clarify the moral life for us. God is the one who created us, and He knows what will bring us to perfection. God's revelation is contained in Scripture, and we can see there what His plans are for us. We also know that there are various interpretations to Scripture. In fact we wouldn't have so many different Christian bodies were the words of God in the Scriptures abundantly clear to everyone.

I remember one time attending a National conference of the National Association of Evangelicals. At this conference they had a big banner across the front of the stage that said, "The Holy Bible -- our infallible guide." I was there manning a pro-life group, I was there as a Catholic, and at one point I entered a discussion with one of the men who had organized the conference. I have some relatives who are Protestants, and so I asked the man if this particular Protestant group was a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. He said, "Oh no, it's not." I said, "Well why not?" He said, "You know they take this passage from the Gospel of Luke," and he cited the passage, "and they interpret it in a way that doesn't agree with the proper understanding of Scripture." I said that I didn't realize that. I asked another Protestant man if his group were members of the National Association of Evangelicals. He said, "No, we are not." I asked, "Why is that?" He said the NEA had this understanding with regard to our Lord's return and obviously this isn't the way Scripture tells us it will occur, and so they were not members of the Association either. Well, I couldn't contain myself. I looked at the banner across the stage that read, "The Holy Bible -- our infallible guide," and I said, "It seems to me that what you need is an infallible interpreter of your infallible guide." We, as Catholics, believe that God has left to us in Scripture all that is necessary for our salvation. He has revealed this to us, and he has preserved it in the words of the Scriptures themselves, but we have the certitude of the interpretation of Scripture so that we can guide our lives with complete certitude and be pleasing to God.

The Second Vatican Council wrote in its Conciliar Decree on Revelation that the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God (whether in its written form or in the form of tradition) has been entrusted to a living teaching office of the Church alone. Here in the United States we have a Constitution which orders our life together as citizens, and yet we know that there are those interpretations of the Constitution. Some people think that a given law is in conformity with the provisions of the Constitution while other people think it is not. The way in which these questions can be resolved is to turn to some higher authority to interpret what the Constitution means. In the United States that body is called the Supreme Court. The fact that the Catholic Church should have a body of experts to interpret the Scripture shouldn't be surprising even on the natural level. Even on the natural level we should see that some mechanism like this would be necessary for the interpretation of the founding document of the Christian religion, of the Catholic faith.

We believe that the bishops have been endowed with Divine authority so that God Himself assists them in the interpretation of Scripture for our good. If we are going to understand the role of the bishops we have to consider the place of authority within the Church. We have to see that persons, not things, carry authority. The Scripture has authority because it manifests the mind of God Himself, who is the ultimate authority. If we even look to the Word itself we see that it refers to an author, the One who knows His work better than anyone else and who can interpret the work that He has written, obviously. Since God is the author of all things, and God is the author of Scripture, it's understandable that we would turn to God and trust His authority. We were talking earlier about the virtue of faith that God gives us which has this capacity of our minds to give intellectual sense to truths which surpass the natural powers of our minds. If we have faith we turn to and believe those things which God has told us. Persons bear authority not things.

Jesus Christ bears the authority of God in His very person because He is God. The fullness of the Divinity resides in Jesus Christ, Saint Paul told us, and Scripture is full of testimony to this fact. You remember the story of the men bringing a paralytic to our Lord. The man was paralyzed. He couldn't walk so his friends go to great lengths to bring this man to Jesus. As he is laid before Jesus to be healed, Jesus turns to the man, and He says, "Your sins are forgiven." No sooner does he say that than there is great murmuring in the crowd. Those individuals who are particularly well trained in theology and in Scripture were incensed. They murmured among themselves, "This man blasphemes." No one can forgive sins but God Himself. An act of immorality may be an act against ourselves or against a neighbor, but a sin is an act against God. I can't get into a fight with my friend Joe and then, wanting to be made up with him, go to Fred to forgive me for socking Joe. The only way I could be reconciled with Joe is to go to him for forgiveness. It makes even natural sense that we would turn to God in order to be forgiven for the offenses we have committed against Him.

There is a way in which the religious leaders of our Lord's day were correct when they said, "This man blasphemes." Only God can forgive sins. Jesus knows what they are saying and he turns to them and he says, "which is easier? For me to stand here and say your sins are forgiven or say to this paralytic who has never walked, 'you are healed, get off your bed, go home?'" Obviously, anybody can say your sins are forgiven, and who can pass judgment on it? The thing that is so stupendous about that story is that through that healing Jesus proved that He indeed did have authority and the power to forgive sins. The power of God resided in Him and He was able to bring about this reconciliation. Our Lord gathered His apostles after His resurrection, and He told them all authority has been given to Him both in heaven and on earth. He gives them the great commission to go teach and baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus commissions his Apostles with divine authority to go forward, to teach, to heal and to govern.

When our Lord appeared to His apostles in the upper room after His resurrection. He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit: whosoever's sins you forgive are forgiven. Whosoever's sins you retain are retained." Jesus took His Divine authority and placed it into the hands of men so that they could carry on His ministry. He said to His apostles, "Whoever receives you receives me, whoever hears you hears me, whoever despises you despises me, and whoever despises me despises Him who sent me." The authority which the Bishops of the Church exercise on our behalf is an authority which has been given to them by Jesus Christ Himself that they exercise on His behalf for our good both in the Sacramental and in the moral life. The Scriptures refer to the Church as the pillar and bulwark of truth. It is the truth to which we must conform ourselves if we are to lead a wholesome life pleasing to God.

There can be differences that arise even among men who have been given authority, but there always has to be a leader among any group of men for the sake of good order. In democratic societies or in a society in which the leadership is passed on to the oldest son (as in a constitutional monarchy) or the oldest legitimate heir. One of the reasons we know that the Church must be the true Church is because the supernatural life of the Church reflects the natural order of things as well. There is a leader within the College of Bishops who provides leadership for them, and that is of course the successor to Saint Peter. Jesus said to the Apostles, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter said, "You are Christ the Son of the Living God." And our Lord said, "Flesh and blood did not give this to you, Peter, but my Father in Heaven. You are the rock and upon this rock I will build my Church." He entrusts to Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. He passed on to him at that time also the powers that bind or loosen man's sins.

After His resurrection our Lord appeared to Peter on one occasion and recalled the fact that Peter had betrayed our Lord. He said, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," Peter responds, "you know that I love you." At which Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Peter had denied our Lord three times before His crucifixion, but Peter is now being provided with the opportunity of making three affirmations of faith to balance out that betrayal. A second time Jesus asks this question, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord," Peter said, "you know that I love you." Jesus replied, "Tend my sheep." The third time Jesus asked, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because He asked the third time, "Do you love me?" Peter said to Him, "Lord, you know everything, you know well that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." If Peter was to manifest his love of Jesus he was to do so by tending our Lord's sheep, by tending our Lord's lambs. Feed my sheep. Tend my flock. This is the ministry which has been entrusted into the hands of Saint Peter and his successor the Bishop of Rome.

The Second Vatican Council tells us in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, that Jesus willed that the Apostles' successors, the bishops mainly, should be the shepherds in His Church until the end of the world. In order that the Episcopate itself, that is the College of Bishops, might be one and undivided, he put Peter at the head of the other Apostles. In him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion. This teaching proposes anew to be firmly believed by all the faithful that God in His goodness entrusted to men on earth the Divine power to interpret the moral law, the Scriptures, to guide and to lead us into all truth. It's natural that there should be some kind of ultimate authority even in the natural order. It doesn't even make sense that God would have gone to the lengths to save us in order to reveal to us what the truth is and then not to have provided some mechanism to resolve disputes which almost necessarily would have arisen among His followers. It doesn't make any sense that God would have established the Church for our good without providing it with some kind of authoritative body which would pass judgment on questions of faith and morality, of what we must believe and do in order to be saved. It is perfectly reasonable that there would be this authoritative body within the Church entrusted with God's authority.

Saint Augustine himself said that he would not believe the Gospel unless he were compelled to by the authority of the Catholic Church. The written word alone doesn't have authority. Its authority is derived from the authority of the author, and God is the author of Scriptures. It was the Church itself, the bishops, who determined which books were divinely inspired and were certain guides to the life of faith and morality. We can trust the Scriptures. We can trust those who are to interpret the Scriptures on our behalf. A question has arisen in recent times, as to whether or not the Church really does have the authority to give us guidance in the area of morality. There are some revisionists who go so far as to say that the Church has never proposed any moral doctrine to us to believe infallibly, that is, with the full assurance of faith. But we must see that we have a moral obligation to respond to God's truth, and to those who impart to us God's truth. There are various ways in which we respond to the teachings of the Church. If a Doctrine is proposed to us as coming from God Himself, we are morally bound to give to that Doctrine the assent of faith. We must believe what has been proposed as true without harboring any shadow of doubt whatsoever, because the one who is proposing this teaching is actually God Himself. So we give the assent of faith to an infallible teaching of the Church. It is infallible because it is necessary to believe this teaching in order to be saved. We have a moral obligation to ourselves to do everything necessary to attain salvation. We have a moral obligation vis-a-vis our relationship with God to respond to Him because He is the truth and we must respond to it. If there is confusion about the Doctrines to which we are supposed to give this assent of faith still we are morally bound to give the assent of faith.

There is confusion today as to how the Church teaches infallibly. Revisionists say that the Church teaches infallibly only through an ex cathedra pronouncement of the Pope, that is, when the Pope is sitting upon the chair of Saint Peter.Ex cathedra means "from the chair," and when the Pope symbolically, as it were, sits upon the chair of Peter. Historically, the teaching position was sitting down. It was a sign of authority. The teacher would sit and the students themselves would stand around or would be sitting below him. When the Pope would teach from the chair, he would be proposing something to be infallibly true, and we would have the obligation to assent to that. In truth, the Church teaches that there are other ways in which infallible propositions are put forth. It is also done through the solemn pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils. This is another way in which the Church teaches solemnly and infallibly. The Church teaches infallibly not only through the extraordinary means of ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope and solemn pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils, it also teaches infallibly through the ordinary exercise of its Magisterium.

It is obvious that we are morally bound to accept the truth which God tells us about Himself and ourselves. The Church has been given the authority to interpret the Scriptures for us so that we can know exactly what the truth is with regard to the moral life. When the Church teaches infallibly, that is when it teaches that something is true and necessary for our salvation, we are morally bound to accept it. The way in which the Church does this is various. But the one that most people are familiar with are ex cathedra pronouncements by the Pope and also solemn definitions by the Church Councils, Ecumenical Councils. However, we also find that there is an ordinary exercise of the infallible Magisterium of the Church. In the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church we read that although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the Doctrine of Christ on the following conditions, namely: Even though dispersed throughout the world, but preserving for all that amongst themselves, and with Peter's successor, the bond of communion in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely. We have a picture of the bishops dispersed throughout the world teaching the same thing that the Pope himself is teaching, and that the other bishops are teaching, and they are doing so authoritatively about a matter of faith or morals, and they are in agreement among themselves that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely. There can be no compromise on this particular teaching. Most of the infallible teaching of the Church to which we assent is passed ordinarily by the bishops filled with the Holy Spirit, living in union with the other bishops of the world, and the Pope himself. It would be a terrible restriction upon the life of the Church if the bishops must gather in Council to make some kind of solemn pronouncement. If the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, makes an ex cathedra pronouncement there is usually some dispute within the Church that has to be clarified. The ordinary way in which God's saving truths are taught is simply by the bishops' teaching in union with one another and with the Pope.

The Council taught us that infallibility belongs in a special way to the Pope by virtue of his office. We read in Lumen Gentium that this infallibility is coextensive with the deposit of revelation which must be religiously guarded, and loyally and courageously expounded. The Roman Pontiff, head of the College of Bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office. In other words, this charism, this gift, was given in a unique way to the head of the College of Bishops because of the special charge that our Lord gave to Saint Peter to feed His sheep, and to look over His flock. When it comes to the authority of the teachers of the Church they sometimes propose to us propositions for the least articles of belief which may not be presented infallibly but are presented authoritatively. Now this has come to constitute an area of contention and confusion in the contemporary Church as well. There are those who say that the Catholic Church has never taught anything in the area of morality infallibly because no Ecumenical Council or no ex cathedra pronouncement of a Pope has ever specifically addressed a moral issue.

However, the documents of the Second Vatican Council tell us that even if something has only been authoritatively taught, we still have to accept it. Theologians who deny that there has been moral teaching which has been infallibly taught by the Church will maintain that they have a right to dissent from teachings which are merely authoritative but not infallibly taught. These theologians do not have the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Lumen Gentium says that in matters of faith and morals the bishops speak in the Name of Christ and that the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. This religious submission 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. It must be shown in such a way that its supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence.

The Second Vatican Council tells us that there is to be a religious submission of mind even to non infallible authoritative teachings on the part of the Magisterium and on the part of the Holy Father. There is no provision within Catholic teaching for the kind of public dissent from authoritative teaching that has been proposed by the Magisterium since the close of the Council.

We know that a lot of this difficulty has arisen from the controversy surrounding the issuance of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 which condemned contraception as being immoral and beneath human dignity. Many Catholics didn't like that teaching, so over time they have come to develop a doctrine which they insist allows them to dissent from that Encyclical teaching because it wasn't put forth as infallible dogma. It was simply put forth as authoritative teaching. The tradition tells us that we are to have an obsequious silence about teachings to which we feel we can't give our full assent even if they are not infallibly proposed to us. (I urge you to read Section 25 of Lumen Gentium to clarify a lot of these issues in your own mind and be able to turn your friends to that portion of the documents of the Second Vatican Council if this question comes up about the kind of assent that we are to give to authoritative but not infallible teachings).

The question is also raised as to whether or not the Church has taught anything at all infallibly in the area of morality. I have already given you the definition of the ordinary exercise of the infallible Magisterium of the Church which was found again in Lumen Gentium. It says, if the bishops have taught the same thing, even when they are dispersed throughout the world, and have taught this in union with the Holy Father, it is a doctrine regarding faith and morals, then it is taught definitively and absolutely, then we are to adhere to it as such. There are those who say that the teaching on contraception, for example, and indeed most of the moral teachings of the Church, have been taught infallibly under the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church.

There has never been a time when a Bishop of Rome or the bishops of the Church have suggested that it would be morally admissive to practice contraception. This is a debated question in the Church today. There are those who maintain that the Church's teaching is infallible and requires virtually an assent of faith because it is so definitive and put forth for so long. Even those who don't accept the Church's teaching on contraception as infallible would have to accept it as authoritative with a religious assent of mind and will if they are to see that they are pleasing in God's sight. The one thing about which we can have complete certitude is that we will never be displeasing to God if we accept the teachings of the Magisterium. Now I am not talking about what might be referred to as disciplinary measures on the part of the Magisterium, such as bishops saying that we are to kneel or to stand in the Mass. We are talking about clear teachings of the Church which may be authoritative but not infallible. We can never run the fear of being displeasing to God if we accept those teachings because it would be reflective of our desire to love God and to show forth that willing submission to Him as our Father and as the source of all truth. God has given to His people the Magisterium to lead us into all truth and to provide us with the assurance that we need in both faith and morals in order to lead a life that is pleasing to Him.

The Church teaches that the Magisterium has this ability to interpret not only the Scriptures but even the natural moral law, because after all God is the author of nature as well as the revealed word of Scripture, so we can trust the bishops to clarify, to interpret and to apply even the teachings of the natural moral law. We still have to face this charge that is made by some revisionists that the Church doesn't propose anything infallible for us in morality. When it comes to specific norms the revisionists say the Church teaches infallibly when it says that we are to pursue good and avoid evil and to act in a loving way, but they say the Church has never proposed anything infallibly when it comes to specific concrete kinds of actions that we have to do or not do. Their argument is silly really. When you think of what we are, as human beings, for the Church to propose things for us in the area of morality that are simply formal, because we don't do things lovingly in the abstract. We love this person or we don't love this person. We aren't abstract realities, we are concrete, historical bodies, and so it would be pointless for the Church to provide us only these formal, abstract kinds of directives for the moral life. God Himself is in no way abstract, but the second person of the Trinity who took on flesh and became a human being.

We read in Gaudium et Spes that it is only in the mystery of the word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. The word is made flesh so that the mind of God might be made known in Jesus Christ. Christ was a concrete individual human being, and we can look to Him if we would come to understand the mystery which is man himself. Jesus Christ is perfect God and perfect man. He reveals to us the mystery of our own human nature. If we would know how we are to act we would look to Jesus Christ who acted in a loving way by teaching concrete truths. By healing this cripple. By healing this blind man. By restoring life in another. He actually did concrete actions in a concrete world and this is the way in which we are to lead the moral life. We can't lead it in some kind of abstract way.

Revisionist theologians will go so far as to say even the concrete norms contained in the Ten Commandments aren't concrete enough for them, since the Commandment against adultery doesn't say anything about sodomy or fornication, there might be a way in which these acts could be possible if they were done in a loving way. But the Church has always taken the Ten Commandments as expressive of concrete moral norms for us. The Church holds that there are certain kinds of actions that simply may never be done without bringing violence to ourselves and to other people. The Commandments are understood by the Church to include other acts which would manifest this injustice or attitude as it is expressed in this particular Commandment of the Church. We have to look at the Ten Commandments and their teaching on specific moral norms, as these have been understood within the tradition of the Church.

The Commandment against murder has also been understood by the Church to apply to abortion, or to killing somebody in the course of a robbery, or noncombatants in warfare. Just as the Commandment against adultery has been seen to apply to any specific act which would do violence to the purposes for which God has given us our sexuality, so an act of sodomy or fornication would also be seen as a violation of the gift that God has given us in our sexuality and also of the goods for which that sexuality is ordered. We see that the Church is very specific about certain kinds of acts. Moral theologians who suggest that the Church has never infallibly, through its Magisterium, taught specific moral norms as being always wrong, simply are not thinking with the mind of the Second Vatican Council. We read in Gaudium et Spes, Section 27, that the importance of holding to specific moral norms can be seen in the love we have for others. In the violation of a specific moral norm there is always some violation of a human good. We have our value and our goodness because we have been created in the image and the likeness of God. And that Jesus Christ in taking our flesh upon Him now comes to share in our humanity so that an act of violence against any human being actually constitutes an act of violence against Jesus Christ Himself. The Council quotes Our Lord as saying, "If you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." This is why you reach out in love to others because it's not a matter of an abstract sense of love, it's love concretized in this man and this woman.

Mother Theresa said, she doesn't love mankind in general. She loves this man, and this woman, and this child. In loving this man, this woman and this child, if she gives them a cup of water she cares for them. She is loving Christ in her actions to these specific human beings. Those who would deny that the Church has taught that there are specific acts which may never be done are not thinking with the mind of the Second Vatican Council. In Section 27 of Gaudium et Spes are these crimes against humanity which simply cannot be ever done regardless of the circumstances. The varieties of crimes are numerous, all offenses against life itself such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide, as well as all violations of the integrity of the human person such as mutilation, physical and mental torture or undue psychological pressures. Other offenses against human dignity, such as forcing people to live in subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of men and women and children, degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons, are criminal. They poison civilization and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the Creator. Most of the moral norms which guide our lives have been taught infallibly by the Church and are binding upon us. It can be seen by the way in which the Church has understood the teachings of God Himself in the Ten Commandments. Our Holy Father likes to call them the "Ten Words," the "Ten Instructions" that lead us into a moral life and help us to avoid error, sin, and immorality.

Revisionist theologians will admit (because it is so clearly taught within the Church) that the Church has the power to teach infallibly when it comes to matters of faith. It is very odd indeed that these theologians would preclude from the Church that power also to teach in the area of morals. You can't cut the paper without both of them. We can't split the moral life of the Christian. The Christian who believes in God and loves Jesus Christ will believe what God tells him about sexual morality, for example. He will live in such a way that he will never violate another person because he finds Jesus Christ in that other person. Ours is a life of integrity and hope in which both faith and morality work together to bring us to God, to the fullness of our human life, and into the joy of life with one another as we journey toward Heaven. We see in our reflections today the importance of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church to lead us into our truth in the area of morality both with regard to the Christian life itself and even to the interpretation of the natural moral law.


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