MAGISTERIUM AND THEOLOGY
by: Rev. Fr. Battista Mondin
Magisterium and theology
Recently the Sacred Congregation for the Faith has taken very serious measures with regard to some eminent theologians (Pohier, Schillebeeckx, Kung),
which have surprised everyone and made many persons cry out that it was scandalous. Demonstrations of protest have been organized and insults have been bandied about, such as Holy Office, Inquisition, suppression
of freedom of research, etc.
Simple people, who understand little about theology and have difficulty in grasping the terms of the conflict that has arisen between the Congregation for the Faith and the
theologians, are wondering: who is right, the Holy Father (the Roman Curia, the Congregation for the Faith, etc.), or Schillebeeckx, Kung etc. and their supporters?
To answer this question exhaustively, it is
necessary to specify in the first place who the theologian is, what his function is in the Church, what his work consists of: and light must also be shed on his relations with the other members of the Church, in
particular with the Magisterium.
The theologian and his function in the Church
The theologian is, by definition, a specialist, who proposes, with his work, to make a "scientific" study of the Word of God. And in fact theology "is the science of
The profession of the theologian is neither easy nor simple, so it is impossible to claim to describe it with a little formula. However it can be said that, essentially, it consists of a double
operation. First, to discover the mentality, dispositions, characteristics, culture, self-understanding, and expectations of modern man; second, to work out an interpretation of the Christian message which is in
harmony with these requirements, mentality, and culture.
A rapid glance at modern theology confirms to us the accuracy of this description. For Tillich and Bultmann modern man is an alienated, tormented,
and desperate man and consequently he is presented with an interpretation of the Christian message in the existentialist key. For van Buren and Robinson modern man is dominated by interest in science and
recognizes only its canons of truth as having value, and therefore he is offered a presentation of the Christian message in a positivistic key. Bonhoeffer, Altizer, and Hamilton, taking into account the
secularization and areligiosity in which present-day man lives, have offered him an areligious, atheistic, secularized interpretation of Christ's message. Moltmann, Pannenberg and Schillebeeckx, exploiting his
utopian aspirations, have made an interpretation in the eschatological key. Metz and Peukert, noting the importance that the political dimension and the phenomenon of socialization have assumed during our time,
have worked out an interpretation in the political key. Gutierrez, Cox and Assmann, starting from the state of oppression and suffocation in which modern man is floundering nearly everywhere, have presented the
Christian message to him in a political key.
That the craft of the theologian is that of finding a harmony between the Christian message and the man to whom this message is presented, is admitted by everyone
today, not only by progressive theologians but also by traditional ones. Oscar Cullman, who belongs to the second group, writes: "The task of all preaching, as of all theology, is that of bringing the
Gospel, at every generation, nearer to the 'modern' world in which it finds itself placed anew everytime. Already in the first century, when the Gospel made its entry into the world, the task of the apostles was
to preach the Gospel, which was an alien body for the man of that time--a stumbling block and folly (1 Cor 1:25)--and in such a way that the latter could understand it. But since the world changes with every
century and furthermore the mission incessantly acquires for Christianity new territories of different cultures, the problem always remains open. So every age must formulate the confession of faith anew, and
theology confront that world which it addresses" (O. Cullmann, Vero e falso ecumenismo, Morcelliana, Brescia 1972, pages 37-38).
Today the whole world, but particularly Europe, is going through a cultural
crisis which has few precedents in history. To describe it, people often speak of the "New Middle Ages". The development of science and technology, social progress, socialization, secularization, world wars
and other phenomena of far-reaching significance, have made necessary a deep revision of values, criteria, methods, and language in all fields of human culture: from painting to architecture, from music to the
theatre, from poetry to the novel, from philosophy to pedagogy, from sociology to morality, from law to religion, etc.
This cultural earthquake could not leave theology indifferent or barely touch it
superficially, as if it were a question of a sacred enclosure, outside the world. For in fact, for multiple reasons, theology is closely bound to the fate of the world of culture, of which it is a very important
expression. The world, it can be said, is both the starting point and the point of arrival of theology. It is the starting point since the reflection that the theologian carries out on faith, is made by
means of the mental categories, the language, the methods of research that he receives from the world. And it is also the point of arrivval, since one of the principal reasons why he studies the
meaning of his faith and tries to express it appropriately, is to make it intelligible to the world.
It was natural, therefore, that sooner or later theology too should feel the repercussions of the cultural
earthquake that has shaken humanity for the last two centuries. Evangelical theology was involved first, already at the beginning of the last century. Far later, practically only after Vatican II, Catholic
theology was also involved.
The effects of the involvement of theology in the cultural earthquake were enormous. To realize this, it is enough to make a quick comparison between present-day theology and the
preceding theology: it is seen that everything has changed. The following have changed:
... the principles (for St. Thomas it was obvious that the principles of theology are the truths of faith,
"procedit ex principiis notis lumine superioris scientiae, quae scilicet est scientia Dei et beatorum". S. Theol. I, 1, 2), which are often no longer drawn from the Word of God.
... the method (no longer from above but from below);
... the language (no longer metaphysical, but personalistic, existential, political, etc.);
... the contents (so many contents,
though considered fundamental in the preceding theology, such as the Four Last Things, the Sacraments, the Angels, have almost entirely disappeared in the new theology).
... It was natural that such a deep
and radical renewal could not pass unobserved. It often caused wonder and scandal not only among the faithful but also among priests, and among theologians themselves...
Thus the ecclesiastical Magisterium
could not remain indifferent. Generally, however, it did not intervene with personal admonitions, addressed to this or that theologians, but rather with addresses or with documents intended for all theologians in
general, warning them against exaggerated pluralism, against the assumption dangerous philosophical instruments, against the use of inadequate methods, against lack of faithfulness to Holy Scripture and the
ecclesiastical Magisterium, against arbitrary and reductive interpretations, against partial presentations of the Christian message and of the figure of Christ, etc.
In this way the problem of the relations
between the ecclesiastical Magisterium and theology inevitably arose. Many theologians have invoked the case of Galileo, and warned the Magisterium not to commit the error that has already been repeated several
times in history: that of encroaching upon the field of others, and they called upon it to respect the areas of competence of the theological science, just as it is bound to respect the fields of competence and
the autonomy of philosophy, experimental sciences, human sciences, art, etc. In 1968, some forty theologians published in Concilium a "Declaration on freedom and on the function of theology". But the
magisterium, as has been said, did not disarm, and in the last few months it has begun to take severe measures against some of the most famous Catholic theologians who have assumed very questionable doctrinal positions.
Which of them is right? Is the ecclesiastical Magisterium right to intervene against the aberrations of theologians to safeguard the deposit of the faith? Or are the theologians right, on the
contrary, to demand full autonomy in the exercise of their scientific function?
To answer these questions, the problem must be approached correctly. In the first place, it must be taken into account that it
is not a sociological or political or philosophical problem, but an exquisitly theological, more precisely, ecclesiological problem. It is an ecclesiological one because both the representatives of the Magisterium
and the theologians are the members of the church, and above all because both the magisterium and theology are important, in fact essential, functions of the Church.
It is therefore in the light of the nature and
the functions of the church that I will try to suggest a solution for the thorny problem of relations between theology and the ecclesiastical Magisterium.
Theological charism and magisterial charism
The theologian is a member of the Church, and he
carries out his work in the service and for the good of the Church herself, and not so much for personal reasons and interests. Therefore the theologian must reflect in his being and in his work the properties and
the aims of the Church herself.
This, as all believers confess, is an essentially theandric, that is, human and divine reality; as a human one it possesses a somatic, temporal, and visible dimension; as
divine, it is essentially spiritual, supernatural, invisible, eternal.
As is seen from the Gospels and other New Testament writings the Church possess an organic structure, that is, a structure made up of
many elements, each of this has a distinct role and a special task to carry out. The Church is not a heap of sand or an ocean of water, in which the grains or the drops are all equivalent and can occupy any
position indiscriminately, but it is a social body, which needs structures of every kind (sacramental, ministerial, institutional, etc.) to meet the multiple requirements of the vast and complex social body. It is
seen from the same sources that the Church possesses also a hierarchical structure: that is, there are organisms in it which carry out functions of service, assistance, and guidance with regard to others.
Such are the papacy, the episcopate, the priesthood and the diaconate. These hierarchical organisms were instituted by the will of the Holy Spirit, as is seen from explicit testimonies in the Scriptures and in
Tradition. To every structural element and to every official ministry there corresponds a pneumatic element, that is, a charism that makes it operative. It follows that charisms and ministries interpenetrate
each other and refer to each other. Therefore there cannot be any opposition between the structural dimension and the pneumatic dimension of the church. "No real opposition or contradiction can exist between
the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit and the juridical office that Pastors and Doctors have received from Christ. On the contrary, these two realities complete and perfect each other (as the body and the soul
in us) and proceed from one and the same Saviour" (Mystici Corporis, 64).
Conflicts can arise, on the other hand, in the sphere of charisms themselves, in particular between ministerial (or structural or
public) charisms and free (or personal or private) charisms, that is between charisms bound up with the ministries, and charisms that accompany a particular vocation.
But here too, if matters are considered
carefully, no conflict should arise, because it is always the same spirit who, for the same purpose (the preservation and development of the Body of Christ), distributes both ministerial and personal charisms.
Conflicts can be avoided or overcome if some fundamental principles are observed.
In the first place, there belongs to ministerial charisms an objective value and therefore a greater certainty that in
the case of personal charisms. This is due to the fact that they necessarily accompany an office without depending on the subjective dispositions of goodness, wisdom, holiness of the person who fills it (thus for
example the charism of absolving sins, the charism of consecrating bread, etc.). The same cannot be said of private, personal charisms, which are closely bound up with the intensity of spiritual life of the one
who possesses and exercises them: they inevitably vanish when a soul is separated from God.
In the second place, precisely because they are destined to nourish and coordinate the internal life of the
Church, ministerial charisms have priority over personal ones. Therefore, those who have ministerial charisms have the task of controlling the authenticity and of watching over the orderly use of personal
charisms (Lumen Gentium, 12). All this, however, is done with great modesty, humility, sensitiveness and open-mindedness, remembering that the Spirit "blows where he likes" and that he "makes holy the
people, leads them and enriches them with his virtues. Allotting his gifts according as he wills". (cf. 1 Cor 12:11), he also distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts
he makes them fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church, as it is written, "the manifestation of the spirit is given to everyone for the common good" (1 Cor
12:7). Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the Church (
Lumen Gentium, 12).
On their side, those who possess personal charisms, in exercising them (under the guidance of the competent authority), must always seek the good of the community (its sanctification) and
not personal advantages. Over all charisms, ministerial and personal, charity must reign.
To my mind, the doctrine charisms, which we have set forth briefly, supplies the necessary elements for the
correct solution of the delicate problem of the relations between Magisterium and theology.
In fact, both the Magisterium (the bishops) and theologians are in possession of a special charism which concerns the
Word of God, but which presents different aspects and purposes. The charism of the theologian is aimed at ensuring the scientific character and intelligibility of the word of God; while the charism of the
Magisterium is aimed at safeguarding the integrity and truth of the Christian message. To the theologian there belongs the function and therefore also the charism of "fides quaerens intellectum" (of making faith
intelligible). The bishops, on the other hand, have "charisma veritatis certum" (of preserving the certainty of truth).
Now it is clear the two charisms not only do not exclude each other, but on the
contrary refer to each other: what the theologian has to make intelligible is the truth and not error, and the whole truth not just a fragment of it.
On the other hand, the Magisterium must proclaim a truth
that is intelligible, otherwise its proclamation necessarily falls on empty air. Therefore the Magisterium must have recourse to the theologian and use his charism to make sure that its presentation of the Word of
God is really intelligible, to improve its expression, and to bring it up-to-date according to the requirments, the culture, the mentality of modern man.
For his part, the theologian must listen obediently to the
Magisterium, when the latter warns him that his interpretation of the Word of God is not correct but leads astray, since it does not express it faithfully and completely.
The freedom of the theologian
As regards to the delicate problem of the freedom of the theologian,
it seems to me that after the heated disputes that have taken place since the end of the Council to the present time, the following truths are now established:
First. The theologian enjoys the utmost
autonomy and freedom in the specific sphere of competence which is the intelligibility and scientific character of the Christian message. That implies among other things that the immediate judgment whether
intelligibility has been safeguarded or not in the theological reflection of a certain author, is the concern of other theologians, not of the Magisterium: it is they who must decide whether the theory of the
colleague of theirs is acceptable or not as "intellectus fidei". If there should arise suspicions with regard to some writing or some doctrine, the ecclesiastical Magisterium may very well ask for it to be
examined by competent theologians, but then it should keep out of the dispute and wait for the conclusion of the discussion among the experts of theological disciplines.
In the second place, the value of
theological doctrines and of the theological discipline as such, has been clarified better. In the past, people were often tempted to consider the science of theology as dogmatic, infallible, absolute, confusing
in this way to prerogatives of its content with those of its form. During the last few decade, after learning to distinguish form from content in theology, people have also become aware of its changeable,
debatable, pluralistic character. As a consequence of this better knowledge of the nature of theology, the ecclesiastical Magisterium is bound to recognize the theologian as having full freedom in his field
of research not only because in carrying out his work he possesses a specific charism of his own, but also because the interpretation and arrangement of the Word of God which he works out does not have an absolute
dogmatic and definitive character, but possesses on the contrary a fair share of elasticity, changeability, partiality, and matter of opinion.
Third. The theologian, however, cannot claim unlimited freedom
and this for various reasons. In the first place because his research is not an abstract hypothesis or a fantastic construction but is an interpretation of historical documents, which must be treated with the
utmost respect, delicacy, humility, and love since they record acts the with which God accomplished our salvation. The theologian has the task of "preserving, penetrating more deeply, setting forth, teaching, and
defending the sacred deposit of Revelation" (Paul VI, Addressed to the International Congress of Theology of the Second Vatican Council", in Acta Apostolicae Sedis
1966, p. 67). He is in the service of revealed Truth, and this subjects him to three fundamental bonds. 1) The bond of the Word of God because "sacred theology relies on the written Word of God, taken together with sacred Tradition, as on a permanent foundation. By this Word, it is most firmly strengthened and constantly rejuvenated, as it searches out, under the light of faith, the full truth stored up in the mystery of Christ" (
Dei Verbum, 24, 2) The bond of the sensus fidei
which accompanies the People of God in every age, so that "the whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the Holy One cannot err in matters of beliefs" (Lumen Gentium, 12, 3) The
documents of Tradition through which the common faith is proposed to the people of God. Therefore in their studies, "theologians cannot but take into consideration these vestiges of the faith left throughout the
history of salvation of the People of God". ("Tesi sul mutuo rapporto tra Magisterio ecclesiastico e Teologia" of the International Theological Commission, in Civ. Catt. 1976, vol. III, p. 53).
conclusion, the theologian enjoys full freedom in his work, but not unlimited, absolute freedom, because his charism is not dissociated from, but on the contrary complimentary to, other charisms, in particular with
regard to the charism of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. For this reason he cannot claim to lay the law in the Church, as if he had absolute monopoly of the Word of God, as if he alone were capable of hearing the
voice of the Spirit.
In his work the theologian must be very sensitive to the perception that other members of the Church also have of the Word of God and endeavour to find the most appropriate and valid
expression for it.
For this reason, as the International Theological Commission recommended, the theologian must remain in close contact and in assiduous dialogue with other members of the Mystical Body,
especially with the Pastors of souls (cf. "Tesi sul mutuo rapporto tra magistero ecclesiastico e teologia", of the International Theologican Commission, in Civilta Cattolica 1976, vol. III, pages 53 f.).
The interventions of the Holy Father and the S. Congregation for the Faith against Kung, Schillebeeckx, and Pohier do not have just a punitive character, but take on also a doctrinal value. And they have a
doctrinal value not only in the negative sense, in that they condemn certain theological errors, but also in the positive sense, since they cast new light on the relations between theology and the ecclesiastical
Magisterium, and they do so precisely by referring to the doctrine which we set forth above on the specific charisms of the Magisterium and of theology.
We saw above that the specific charism of the
ecclesiastical Magisterium is that of safeguarding the truth and integrity of the depositum fidei. That is reaffirmed in the "Declaration on some points of the theological doctrine of Hans Kung". "The
Church of Christ—we read in the Declaration—has received from God the mandate to keep and safeguard the deposit of faith, so that all the faithful, under the guidance of the Sacred Magisterium through which Christ
himself exercises his role as teacher in the Church, may cling without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints, may penetrate it more deeply by accurate insights, and may apply it more thoroughly to life.
"In order to fulfill the important task entrusted to itself alone, the Magisterium of the Church avails itself to the word of theologians, especially those who in the church have received from the authorities the task
of teaching and who therefore have been designated in a certain way as teachers of truth. (…) It is necessary, therefore that theological research and teaching should always be illumined with fidelity to the
Magisterium since no one may rightly act as a theologian except in close union with a mission of teaching truth which is incumbent on the Church itself. When such fidelity is absent, harm is done to all the
faithful who, since they are bound to profess the faith which they have receive from God through the Church, have a sacred right to receive the Word of God uncontaminated, and so they expect that vigilant care should be
exercised to keep the threat of error far from them" (Oss. Rom. 19 Dec. 1979).
What are we to say of such a peremptory affirmation of the primacy of the Magisterium with regard to theology as the one
contained in this document? In this way is not its autonomy and its freedom attacked?
In spite of a certain flavor of totalitarianism, it must be recognized that it corresponds perfectly to the organic
conception that the Catholic Church has of herself.
There are multiple charisms in the Church: but there exists an order and a hierarchy among them. Ministerial charisms have primacy over personal
Now doctoral charism is of a personal nature while the charism of the Magisterium is of a ministerial major. Consequently while the latter is certainly indefectible, the former cannot be
described as such.
Therefore it will always be a right and duty of the Magisterium to promote theology and make good use of it, but also to watch carefully in order that it does not depart from orthodoxy, but
operates, on the contrary, so as to procure a deeper, more rigorous, more orderly, and more intelligible knowledge of the Word of God.