Commission on the Doctrine of teh Faith

 Why the Oath of Fidelity*

    It is now nearly four years since the Sacred Congregation in 1989 required that seminary professors and those who were in charge of teaching theology should take an oath of fidelity to the magisterium of the Church. The first part of this oath consists of an adherence to the Nicene Creed, and the second part to the ordinary magisterium of the Church and the supremacy of the Vicar of Christ, the Pope.

by Edwin Gordon

The Theology of Dissent

The reason why this oath was required was similar to that which prompted Pope Paul VI to issue his Credo of the People of God, namely that some theologians were disputing the teaching of the Church in its ordinary magisterium, and sometimes even in its extraordinary solemn magisterium. This constituted the so-called "theology of dissent." It was moreover claimed that Vatican Council II had emphasized the primacy of conscience. It was further claimed that intellectual freedom should be respected, and that the theological research of the theologian in Scripture, etc. should not in any way be inhibited. On the contrary, the theologian should update his theology to the "modern world" and the "modern man."

It is not surprising then that when this oath was introduced some would either refuse to take it because they disagreed with it, or would justify their opposition to it by claiming that there was no definitive translation or interpretation. This latter reason is blatantly absurd when it is considered that the very authority which would make such a translation or interpretation definitive, (that is to say the Sacred Congregation or, at the highest level, the Holy Father) was itself questioned and sometimes denied! So how could there ever be a definitive translation if there was no one who had the power to define what was definitive, except for the individual theologian himself?

The underlying premise to much of this opposition to the oath is the belief that it is only necessary to accept that which has been infallibly defined, and not necessarily the ordinary magisterium of the Church. (Some, of course, would question even that which had been infallibly defined, and would exclude moral matters from infallibility!) If such a premise were correct, then the early Christians would not have had to believe in anything, because nothing had been infallibly defined! Yet it is clear that Our Lord gave his apostles the commission to teach in his name, and to teach not an uncertain message, but the outline of teaching that he himself had entrusted to them, St, Paul tells Timothy to "insist on sound doctrine in season and out of season in all patience" precisely because there were some who disputed this doctrine; so too in numerous other texts. In the Acts of the Apostles St. Paul, when he was bidding farewell to his followers, warns them to beware of ravenous wolves who would try to destroy this sound doctrine.

This means that the early Christians did believe in certain definite truths: they did believe that Our Lord was God; they did believe in the forgiveness of sins; they did believe in Heaven and Hell; they did believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus; even though none of these doctrines had been defined. In other words, infallibility precedes definition. These doctrines were infallible before they came to be defined. Very often a doctrine was defined as infallible because it had been disputed.

Conscience and freedom of thought

The full public revelation of God to his people was concluded with the death of the last apostle. These revealed truth, contained in seed much more that would unfold under the guidance of the Holy Spirit across the ages, in the same way as the mustard seed would grow into a tree. This development is not a "new" revelation, but the growth of existing Christian doctrine in richness and understanding.

The importance of following one's conscience is of course true, provided it is an informed conscience, informed by the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Church that he founded. Of course we must respect the sincerity of those who believe contrary to us, but that does not mean that we condone or accept the errors that they believe in. Take for example the sincere cannibal: by all means respect his sincerity, but that does not mean that you permit his cannibalism, particularly if you are at the receiving end!

Again, the question of freedom of thought is a matter that has to be looked at in relation to the meaning of faith. Faith is a supernatural gift of God by which we believe without doubting whatever God has revealed. If we have faith in certain teachings of the Church which our blessed Lord founded, then we are not free to believe otherwise. I might want to believe that I had a million dollars in the bank, but I am not free to believe so if I know that I haven't. We are not free to believe what we would like to believe. I might wish not to believe in Hell, but I am not free to do so. The moment the authority of the Christ, that is to say the Vicar of Christ and the bishops who are united to him, is denied, then faith degenerates into opinion. In the words of Dom Columba Cary Elwes in Law, Liberty and Love, "The difference between divine faith and human opinion for history is that the former can give a certitude strong enough for men to build order out of chaos, while the second is so fluid that it produces chaos out of order." This is surely the case today, when so many have abandoned the teaching authority of the Church.

In the November 1991 issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review there is a letter written in 1968 from Fr. Hubert Jedin to the German bishops, in which he showed how the sixteenth century "reformers" had this in common with the modern dissident theologians, namely their opposition to the magisterium; and furthermore the fact that some of them still claimed to be Catholic. Perhaps the situation is worse today in that some of the scriptural errors hinted at by Fr. Jedin have even led in one or two cases to the total rejection of the scripture as a court of appeal, as they are only considered to be a myth within which God works. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that have led to the revival of pantheism within that "myth." The rejection of the magisterium, and particularly of papal authority in the sixteenth century, led to the separation of different schismatic groups from the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church. The authority of the individual theologian was substituted for the teaching authority of the Church, and so arose the sad spectacle of a divided Christendom, which itself would continue to divide according to the opinions of individual theologians. The consequence of those who reject the magisterium today is very much the same as in the sixteenth century, namely separation from the unity of truth, and schism.

Teaching Catholic theology

The taking of the Oath of Fidelity to the magisterium may appear to be only a small step, but it is an essential step for those who have the responsibility and the mandate to teach theology. Without that authority the teachings they proclaim would be merely opinions, and not "the firm prophetic word" of faith. Fr. Kenneth Baker in his editorial (HPR, August-September 1990) emphasized that "every administrator and teacher should be obliged to make a profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity. Those who refuse to take it and those who violate it should be dismissed.

The responsibility lies heavily on the bishops with authority over seminaries to insist that the profession of faith and the Oath of Fidelity be taken. Vocations to the priesthood depend very much on this, because young men are attracted by a challenge and an ideal, the ideal of Jesus the Good Shepherd, rather than by diverse opinions. That challenge and that ideal are presented by the full teachings of our Blessed Lord, handed on through his Church. Where this teaching is insisted on vocations follow. An example of this comes readily to mind. When Cardinal Marcelo Gonzalez Martin was appointed Archbishop and Primate of Spain in the Archdiocese of Toledo over twenty years ago there were only twenty students for the priesthood. They were living in flats and the major and minor seminaries had been closed. Cardinal Marcelo decided to reopen both the major and minor seminaries. This was opposed by the Council of Priests and their chairman, who threatened to resign if the Cardinal persisted in his decision. The Cardinal accepted their resignation and reopened the seminaries, appointing professors who were totally committed to the magisterium of the Church. When I spoke to him in 1987 he had 500 young men studying for the priesthood in the major seminaries and he had reopened the minor seminaries. He had no shortage of vocations: which goes to show that if Fr. Kenneth Baker's suggestion in the same editorial that "the bullet should be bitten" is followed, then young men will answer the challenge and the ideal of the priesthood. They do not want an anemic watered-down Christianity without the cross, but rather the total Christ, who did not preach a comfortable message, but on the contrary said, "If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me."

The publishing of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is a very hopeful sign for the future as it provides an excellent resource for the teachings of the Faith. It is here suggested that those who are involved in this teaching in seminaries and colleges should make a public profession of faith before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. This could be done in a cathedral or in a seminary chapel, when the Credo of the People of God could be read out during the exposition, and the individual teachers be required to express their adherence. They could then be publicly commissioned by the Bishop to teach in the name of Christ. Pope Paul VI referred to the tabernacle as "the living heart of the Church," and it is surely from there that teachers can receive the grace to teach authentic Catholic truth.


*  An abridged version of an article which originally appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, IV.1994, pp. 59-62. Subheadings have been added to facilitate reading.


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