Magisterium Exercises Authority in Christ's Name*
by Pope John Paul II
The following is an abridged translation of the Holy Father's address to the members and staff of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an audience last 24 November 1996. In it, the Pope discussed the role of the Magisterium and the proper response owed to it, particularly on the part of
The continual dialogue with Pastors and theologians throughout the world enables you to be attentive to the demands of understanding and reflecting more deeply on the doctrine of the
faith, which theology interprets, and at the same time, it informs you of the useful efforts being made to foster and strengthen the unity of the faith and the Magisterium's guiding role in understanding the
truth and in building up ecclesial communion in charity.
Magisterium Is a Service to the Truth
The unity of the faith, for the sake of which the Magisterium has authority and ultimate deliberative power in interpreting the Word of God written and handed down,
is a primary value, which, if respected, does not involve the stifling of theological research, but provides it with a stable foundation. Theology, in its task of making explicit the intelligible content of
the faith, expresses the intrinsic orientation of human intelligence to the truth and the believer's irrepressible need rationally to explore the revealed mystery.
To achieve this end, theology can never
be reduced to the "private" reflection of a theologian or group of theologians. The Church is the theologian's vital environment,
and in order to remain faithful to its identity, theology cannot fail to participate deeply in the fabric of the Church's life, doctrine, holiness and prayer.
This is the context in which the conviction that theology needs the living and clarifying word of the Magisterium
becomes fully understandable and perfectly consistent with the logic of the Christian faith. The meaning of the Church's Magisterium must be considered in relation to the truth
of Christian doctrine. This is what your Congregation has carefully explained and spelled out in the Instruction Donum veritatis on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian.
The fact that the
dogmatic development which culminated in the solemn definition of the First Vatican Council has stressed the Magisterium's charism of infallibility and clarified the conditions of its exercise must not lead
to the Magisterium's being considered only from this standpoint. Its power and its authority are actually the power and authority of Christian truth, to which it bears witness. The Magisterium, whose
authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 10), is an organ of service to the truth and is responsible for seeing that the truth does not cease to be faithfully handed on
throughout human history.
Today we must note a widespread misunderstanding of the meaning and role of the Church's Magisterium. This is at the root of the criticisms and protests regarding its
pronouncements, as you have particularly pointed out with respect to the reactions in not a few theological and ecclesiastical circles to the most recent documents of the papal Magisterium: the Encyclicals
Veritatis splendor, on the principles of moral doctrine and life, and Evangelium vitae, on the value and inviolability of human life; the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, on the
impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women; and the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the reception of Eucharistic Communion by divorced and remarried faithful.
Difference between theological discussion and dissent
this regard, it is certainly necessary to distinguish the attitude of theologians who, in a spirit of cooperation and ecclesial communion, present their difficulties and questions, and thus positively
contribute to the maturing of reflection on the deposit of faith, from the public stance of opposition to the Magisterium, which is described as "dissent"; the latter tends to set up a kind of
counter-magisterium, presenting believers with alternative positions and forms of behavior. The plurality of cultures and of theological approaches and systems themselves has its legitimacy only if the unity
of the faith is presupposed in its objective meaning. The very freedom proper to theological research is never freedom with regard to the truth, but is justified and realized when the individual
complies with the moral obligation of obeying the truth presented by Revelation and accepted in faith.
At the same time, as you have rightly considered in your assembly, it is necessary today to foster
a climate of positive reception and acceptance of the Magisterium's documents, calling attention to their style and language, so as to harmonize the solidity and clarity of the doctrine with the pastoral
concern to use forms of communication and means of expression that are incisive and effective for the consciousness of contemporary man.
It is not possible, however, to overlook one of the decisive aspects
that lies at the base of the malaise and uneasiness in certain parts of the ecclesiastical world: it is a question of the way authority
is conceived. In the case of the Magisterium, authority is not exercised only when the charism of infallibility is involved; its exercise has a wider field, which is required by the appropriate defense of the revealed deposit.
For a community based essentially on shared adherence to the Word of God and on the resulting certainty of living in the truth, authority for determining the content to be believed and professed is
something that cannot be renounced. That this authority includes various degrees of teaching has been clearly stated in two recent documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: the
Professio Fidei and the Instruction Donum veritatis. This hierarchy of degrees should not be considered an impediment but a stimulus to theology.
Authentic Concept of Authority Must Be Recovered
However, this does not entitle one to hold
that the pronouncements and doctrinal decisions of the Magisterium call for irrevocable assent only when it states them in a solemn judgment or definitive act, and that, consequently, in all other cases one
need only consider the arguments or reasons employed.
In the Encyclicals Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae, as well as in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, I wished
once again to set forth the constant doctrine of the Church's faith with an act confirming truths which are clearly witnessed to by Scripture, the apostolic Tradition and the unanimous teaching of the
Pastors. These declarations, by virtue of the authority handed down to the Successor of Peter to "confirm the brethren" (Lk 22:32), thus express the common certitude present in the life and teaching of the
It therefore seems urgently necessary to recover the authentic concept of authority, not only from the formal juridical standpoint, but more profoundly, as a means of guaranteeing, safeguarding and
guiding the Christian community in fidelity to and continuity with Tradition, to make it possible for believers to be in contact with the preaching of the Apostles and with the source of the Christian
* Taken from L'Osservatore Romano, 29.XI.1995.