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The Teaching Authority of the Church

The authority of the Church as a teacher, and her authority as a ruler are, we must observe from the outset, two different conceptions. When we speak of an official as having authority, we mean that he holds a warrant or commission issued by some higher power. When we speak of a writer or teacher as having authority, or as being “an authority,” we mean that he has knowledge, or powers of judgment, superior to our own.

So if we were to speak of acting in a particular way “on the authority of the Church,” we should mean that we acted in that way because the Church told us to, or at least allowed us to. But when we speak of “believing a thing on the authority of the Church,” we do not mean that we believe it because the Church allows us to, or because the Church tells us to. We mean that we believe it because the Church assures us that the thing is so. The authority here is not that of a superior who empowers you to act, but that of a person with superior knowledge, whose word you are prepared to take for a piece of information. It is by appealing to authority that a policeman arrests you in the name of the king. It is by appealing to authority that a historian assumes the truth of a statement that he has found in Caesar’s commentaries. In either case there is the idea of appealing to something behind you to back you up. But in the former case your appeal is to a superior right; in the latter it is an appeal to superior knowledge.

The Safeguarding of Revelation

It is possible to have a religion without a revelation. It is possible, if you can rid yourself of the materialist prejudice, to arrive at the notion of a Creator from the evidence found in his creation. But most religions that have been operative in history have been religions depending upon some alleged revelation, and the Christian religion among them. The Christian revelation was not enshrined in a Book; it was enshrined in a Life. And the record of that Life was not, at first, committed to paper; there were no Gospels when the Christian message was first preached. The safeguarding of revelation depended, therefore, upon a set of firsthand witnesses, who were called apostles, and next to them upon “the elders,” whose memory would go furthest back. The Church was thus a teaching Church in its earliest beginnings; religious certitude was based upon a set of living memories; and those memories were perpetuated in their first instance by tradition. When St. Paul exclaims, “Though an angel from heaven should deliver to you any other doctrine than that which you have received, let him be accursed” [Gal. 1:8], he shows clearly enough the attitude of primitive Christianity. The Church contained an inner core of “witnesses,” whose duty it was to pass on to the world supernatural doctrines, to be accepted immediately on their authority, remotely on the authority of Jesus Christ.

It was but natural that as time went on some of the apostles and some of those who had listened to the apostles should put facts and doctrines on record by writing. It was almost equally to be expected that other writings of early Christians, often fantastic and sometimes heretical in tendency, should falsely gain the reputation of apostolic authorship. Thus a literature grew up, with varying degrees of authority corresponding to its varying degrees of authenticity. Who was to decide which of these writings were genuine, and which spurious? Necessarily the tradition of the Church was the arbiter. Thus, in time, when the heat of local partisanship had cooled, the Universal Church recognized certain writings as unquestionably genuine, and it is these that go to form the body of literature known as the New Testament.

It is not true to say that the New Testament depends upon the Church for its authority. The Church teaches that Scripture, whether of the Old or the New Testaments, was written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and is consequently free from error; no other title is needed to claim for it the assent of Christians. Its authority springs from its own origin. But it is true to say that we should not be conscious of this authority if the Church did not assure us of its existence. In the order of our knowledge, belief in the Church is antecedent to belief in Scripture, and is the condition of it. Historical criticism assures us, indeed, that the books of the New Testament are veracious in their main outline, but only revelation could make us confident in the belief that they have God as their author. It is the Church that assures us, for example, that the epistle of St. Jude has a higher authority than that of the epistle attributed to St. Barnabas; it is the Church, further, that assures us that St. Jude wrote under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever is found clearly asserted in Scripture of either testament is part of the Christian revelation. We believe it, even apart from anything that the Church may have said in affirmation or in explanation of it. We distinguish it from the doctrines actually defined by the Church as being the object of “divine” (not of “divine-Catholic”) faith. To deny such an assertion is (of course) impossible for a faithful Catholic; it is not, however, heresy strictly so-called, for heresy so-called is contrary to “Catholic” faith. Such misbelief is only an indirect attack upon the teaching authority of the Church.

It would have been possible for Almighty God to have given us a revelation in Scripture so completely and so unmistakably that the teaching office of the Church would have been unnecessary—or rather, that the Church would have been able to confine herself to asserting the authenticity and veracity of Scripture, without further comment. But it is a commonplace of experience and of history that the Bible gives rise to various interpretations even amongst those who, in general, admit its veracity. It is, therefore, the office of the Church not only to preserve the text of Scripture, but to expound it—to compare a multitude of statements, made in a variety of different contexts, and to extract from these the essential principles of theology.

How the Church Teaches with Authority

It is evident that for this purpose the Church must teach with authority. She must be able to say to a scholar, however profound his learning, “No, you have understood this passage in the wrong way; you have attached too much weight to this piece of evidence, as opposed to that. With all your learning, you are wrong.” Unless some such authority exists, it is inevitable in the nature of the case that disputes should arise about interpretation such as may confuse the minds of the faithful; it is inevitable, also, in view of the temptations to cleverness that always beset the scholar’s mind, that such indiscriminate interpretation will eat away, in time, the supernatural fabric of Christian devotion, unless there be some authoritative voice to silence argument.

It might easily be supposed that if the Church is thus occupied in guaranteeing and interpreting revelation, the Church no less than the Bible must be inspired; that the same Spirit who communicated revelation to the sacred writers must have communicated it equally to the fathers of the councils. This is altogether a misconception. The Church has not, and does not profess to have, any sort of access to fresh information about the unseen world beyond what is already contained in the “deposit” of faith. This deposit includes all those beliefs that, whether explicitly asserted in Scripture or not, have been handed down to us from the earliest generation of Christians.

In what, then, does the teaching authority of the Church consist? Does she simply hand on, by means of the same unvarying formulas, the same body of doctrines that she preached in the first century? She hands on the same body of doctrines, but not necessarily in the same formulas. She is in the position of a trustee who is called upon, not merely to carry out his commission, but to interpret, from time to time, the terms of it. If two parties in any other religious denomination dispute with one another as to which represents the genuine tradition, it is sometimes necessary for them to have their differences settle by the award of a secular tribunal, like any other question of trusteeship. The Catholic Church does not appeal to such awards, she contains within herself a principle of authority divinely appointed to adjudge all possible quarrels.

Suppose that, today, some violent controversy should arise about a point of doctrine that has never hitherto been accurately defined by the Church—such a doctrine, for example, as that of the essence of the sacrifice in the Mass, which is explained in different ways by different schools. Suppose that two strong rival bodies of theological opinion should build themselves up over this question. Such a controversy may be settled in one of two ways, either by summoning a general council, whose members bear testimony to the tradition that has been handed down in the several parts of the Catholic world, or by a decision made at Rome with the supreme pontiff’s authority—which authority itself reflects the tradition handed down by the Church in Rome, the “mother and mistress of all churches.” In such a case, the competent authority may decide that no sufficient data exist, whether derived from documents or from oral tradition, for pronouncing judgment. If so, the two rival views will still be equally tenable; and sometimes (as in the famous controversy over grace) the competent authority will forbid either side, under pain of sin, to attach the stigma of heresy to the rival view. Or a definite decision may be given in favor of one party.

If such a decision is given, the teaching that it enshrines becomes, thenceforth, part of the official teaching of the Catholic Church. The contrary teaching, thenceforth, will be formal heresy. The stigma of heresy will not attach to the name of any theologian who has taught such contrary doctrine during nineteen hundred years of Christendom; it will be recognized that such theologians, writing when they did, had a right to their liberty of opinion, since they failed to see that their teaching was not in accordance with Christian tradition. In the future, however, anyone who embraces their opinions will be ipso facto guilty of heresy.

In acting thus, the Church has not added anything to the body of her doctrines. No positive element has entered into her theology that was not there before; she has only clarified her doctrine by discarding what was (she says) an inadequate interpretation of them all the time. As a rule, indeed, this clarification will involve the use of a terminology hitherto not used, or not universally used.

It could not, for example, safeguard her theology against misrepresentations of St. Paul’s teaching about the Incarnation without using words such as person and nature, which are not part of St. Paul’s own theological vocabulary. She could not vindicate against sophistical interpretation the vivid faith of, say, John Chrysostom about the Blessed Sacrament, without using a distinction between “substance” and “accidents” with which Chrysostom would have been unfamiliar in such a context. She could not say what St. Leo would have said (had he been alive) in condemnation of Gallicanism without using un-Leonine phrases such as irreformable. She acts, on such occasions, not as Legislator but as Judge; and it is the judge’s business to interpret law, not to make it.

Doctrine Is Guided, Not Inspired

In all this, the Church as such has no divine guarantee of inspiration. Doubtless, in virtue of Christ’s promises to us, the Holy Spirit will quicken the intelligence of the council or of its members. But this might be true also of any local or provincial synod. The special guarantee that attaches to the decisions of a general council, or of the pope when he speaks ex cathedra, is negative rather than positive. The charisma of infallibility means that providence will not allow an erroneous decision to be made in such circumstances.

It is the business of pope or council to use every possible human precaution, making sure that the tradition of the Church has been fully weighed, and that the statements issued are issued in the most accurate terms available. The guarantee is simply that God would interfere sooner than allow a wrong decision. Accordingly we say that the Church, in defining her doctrine, is guided, not inspired. The difference between inspiration and guidance is the difference between a schoolmaster who should control the hand of a pupil while he wrote, and that of a schoolmaster who should stand by, ready to intervene if he saw him about to go wrong.

It must not be supposed, however, that this power of defining doctrines exhausts the Church’s power of infallible teaching, or that doctrines can be divided into those that must be believed under pain of heresy, and those that Catholics hold merely as matters of private opinion. It is not only in her solemn conclaves, not only in the solemn definition of her head, that her Master’s promise protects the Church from error. Just as the actions of a seditious mob may violate the security of the realm, although they do not technically constitute a riot until the Riot Act has been read, so there are theological opinions that can confidently be pronounced disloyal to Catholic teaching, although there has not been any occasion hitherto to brand them with the stigma of heresy.

It would be manifestly false theology to deny the Assumption of our Blessed Lady, although (in spite of certain proposals made at the [First] Vatican Council) the doctrine in question has never been defined. The devotional practice of the Church, in celebrating that event as a feast of the highest possible dignity, is sufficient guarantee that her mind is made up on the subject. Naturally this principle cannot be pressed so as to cover every incidental phrase used in the devotional formulas sanctioned by the Church.

It would be unreasonable so suppose, for example, that the Church is solemnly committed to a miraculous explanation of the phenomena that attend the exposition of St. Januarius’ relics, although the second nocturn of his feast appears to mention them among his miracles. For the ordinary devout Catholic, common sense will be a sufficient guide in determining what the ordinary magisterium of the Church does and does not teach; if this fails, he may safely fall back upon the common sense of the theologians.

The Church as a teaching body is not bound to pronounce at once upon each theological difficulty that occurs; sometimes she suspends her judgment, and more particularly in cases where some branch of human learning, such as history of the natural sciences, threatens to have its repercussions in theology. It is her practice, however, when she sees or suspects that the dogmatic assertion of theories hitherto unproved will confuse the minds of the simple, to regulate by her decrees the teaching that may be given upon such matters by those who are her own subjects.

Thus, while the Copernican system of astronomy still rested upon very insecure foundations of argument, the Holy Office insisted that it might be taught only as a hypothesis, not as an established fact, and inflicted a sentence of nominal imprisonment upon Galileo Galilei, when he went back upon his promise to conform with the decision. As [St. Robert] Bellarmine pointed out in writing to Foscarini, the sentence was not irreversible; if real proof of the hypothesis were forthcoming, it would be necessary to reconsider the interpretation of Scripture that had determined the action of the Holy Office.

This action, then, was disciplinary in its character; and the doctrinal position involved was only that which (in the opinion of the judges) was safest in view of the knowledge then available. This principle applies in our own day to some of the answers given by the Roman congregations upon such matters as biblical criticism. The decision that a given view “cannot safely be taught” means that in our present state of knowledge the arguments alleged for it are not significant enough to outweigh the harm that its dissemination might involve—all this without prejudice to the possibility that fresh evidence may be forthcoming that might put the whole question on a different footing.

It might appear at first sight that the Church’s teaching authority could never be compromised by excursions into the realm of natural science, or of historical criticism. The proper object of infallibility is the sphere of faith and morals. But it is evident upon a little reflection that the subject is not patient of such hard-and-fast limitation. The interpretation of the Bible, in particular, is intimately bound up with the structure of theology, so largely determined by the authority of Scripture. Thus there are some speculations of biblical criticism that might be pronounced erroneous by an infallible decree, since their acceptance would undermine the truth of the whole Christian tradition.

But where matters of less importance are concerned, it is the practice of the Church to move slowly, and to content herself with judicial pronouncements, deferring her solemn judgments until more evidence has accumulated. Such judicial pronouncements, it will easily be seen, belong by their nature to the judicial authority of the Church, which we shall consider lower down, rather than to her charisma of infallible teaching.

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