The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 50, No 2, March-April 1997

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

The Christian virtue that we have considered most often in this bulletin is the supernatural virtue of faith, and we have done so for several reasons. Faith is the very foundation of the Christian life, without which one’s knowledge is limited to only what he knows by the light of reason. Yet, basic and essential as this virtue is, it is only superficially understood and lived by many who have received this divine gift. It is a free gift of God which we did not and cannot merit, but a gift that carries with it certain obligations that must be fulfilled if it is not to be lost. This infused virtue of faith has been defined by the first Vatican Council as follows:

Faith, then, is the acceptance of another’s testimony concerning some particular matter which is unknown to the believer himself. And in this case it is the testimony of God Himself, Who is infinite TRUTH. So the reason why we believe what God has revealed is obvious. The function of the Church is to point out what truths God has revealed, that is, what truths are contained - whether expressly or implicitly - in God’s revelation. This function of the Church is clearly defined in the above Council:

So the Church is not the source of divine faith, but its transmitter, its guardian, its interpreter. She has been established by Christ for that very purpose, and has been promised the special assistance of the Holy Spirit in the fulfillment of those functions.

Key words in the above definition are those which express how the Church declares certain things are divinely revealed, namely, through her “solemn pronouncements” (i.e. her extraordinary magisterium), or her “ordinary and universal magisterium.” To understand clearly the obligation the virtue of faith imposes on us, it will be helpful to examine what the MAGISTERIUM is, and what is its origin.


The word “magisterium” is taken from the Latin word “magister” meaning teacher, and is the divinely established teaching authority of the Church. The second Vatican Council speaks of it as follows: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written (Scripture) or handed down (tradition), has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Lumen Gentium, n.4)

The Magisterium, or the official teaching authority in the Church, is invested in the Roman Pontiff, and those Bishops who teach in union with him; and this teaching authority is exercised in various ways:

  1. The solemn or extraordinary magisterium is exercised when the Pope alone teaches solemnly (ex cathedra), that is, in a formal, definitive and public way that is addressed to the whole Church, and declares a precise meaning of God’s word as binding in faith upon the whole Church; and when, in the same manner, a teaching comes from the Bishops together with the Pope (as in an ecumenical council). Such teaching, by the special guidance of the Holy Spirit is infallibly free from error.
  2. The ordinary magisterium is exercised when the Pope or Bishops in union with him express the meaning of God’s word in the normal course of the performance of their pastoral teaching responsibility. Both of these exercises of the magisterium are authoritative and require the assent of Roman Catholics. (Lumen Gentium, n. 25) The ordinary magisterium may also be infallible when Bishops scattered throughout the world together with the Pope, in their capacity as authentic teachers of faith and morals, agree on a teaching to be held as definitive. (Canon Law, 749, §2)

The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine referred to this when they issued a critical evaluation of the two-volume work of Fr. Richard McBrien entitled “Catholicism.”


The authentic teaching authority of the Church was conferred on the apostles by Christ Himself, having its origin in the Father. “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.” (Jn. 20:21) “He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me, rejects Him Who sent Me.” (Lk. 10:16) “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

This teaching authority conferred by Christ upon Peter and the apostles was handed down to their successors, namely, the Roman Pontiff as successor of Peter, and the Bishops of the Church as successors of the apostles. While the Magisterium of the Bishops is the same as that of the apostles, individual Bishops are not infallible as the apostles were. After the last of the apostles only the Roman Pontiff has personal infallibility.

We have stressed the divine origin and the hierarchical nature of the Magisterium, for some theologians and scholars, ignoring the clear teaching of Vatican II that the task of authentically interpreting divine revelation has been entrusted exclusively to the hierarchy (Dei Verbum, 10), claim the “right to dissent” from the official teaching of the Church. They believe that, as a class or category, they form a kind of parallel Magisterium, as if their opinions constitute an alternative voice to that of the Church’s Magisterium - which is the voice of Christ. (Lk. 10:16)

Because of this, when some theologians publish opinions that differ from the official teaching of the Church (and dissent usually gets better press than the Magisterium) we hear the comment from some “We have a choice,” as if the opinion of private theologians or canonists (no matter how renowned) carries the same weight as that of the official teaching office of the Church. This involves not only an undermining of the gift of faith, and a rebellion against the authority of the Church, but an attack on the very nature of the Church as Christ founded it, conferring on the apostles and their successors the threefold powers of teaching, of governing, and of sanctifying.

The Church does not change its teaching to fit the mentality of the times. It cannot do so, because it is based on the revealed word of God. (Gaudium & Spes, n.51) Pope Paul VI spoke of this in an audience in January of 1972:


As various Popes have declared, theologians have an important role in the research and clarification of doctrine. But as Pope Paul VI pointed out, while theology and the Magisterium have a common source, namely, Divine Revelation, they have different duties. It is the role of the theologian to examine and seek new applications to the truths contained in the deposit of faith; while it is the role of the Magisterium to pass authoritative judgment on the teaching and considerations proposed by theologians as solutions to new questions. The Magisterium may not be capable of doing the work and research that theologians do, but it is capable - with the help of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ - of making the final judgment as to the accuracy of their work.

Individual priests and theologians have a teaching mission in the Church; but their mission is not of divine origin, but ecclesiastical. It is a participation in divine authority, because it is delegated by the Roman Pontiff and Bishops. But, for the same reason, it can be recalled if not properly used, as happened in the case of the German theologian Hans Kueng. A clear reminder of the duty of obedience to the Magisterium of the Church is brought out in the Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith regarding some points of theological doctrine of Fr. Kueng, published in 1979 by order of Pope John Paul II:


In spite of the clear teaching regarding the Magisterium, and the obligation of the faithful to assent to the Church’s official pronouncements, there seems to be a disregard of some of its official teachings in almost epidemic proportions. How many, influenced by the non-Christian culture of our day, and misled by statements of dissenting theologians and teachers, have (with a clear conscience, they say) disregarded the clear moral teaching of the Church. How much this dissent has undermined respect for the teaching authority of the Church is clear from the Doctrinal Statement of the Irish Episcopal Conference on Conscience and Morality:

In keeping with this same idea, Pope John Paul, in an audience on the “ad limina” visit of the Bishops of the state of New York in 1988, reminded them that pluralism in theology is limited by the unity of faith and the teachings of the Church’s authentic Magisterium. He commented:

As Cardinal Newman once pointed out, conscience does not determine moral truth, but only detects it, and that only when it has been formed in keeping with the teachings of the Church. Since the Church’s teaching is arrived at through the special guidance of the Holy Spirit, one would be deceiving himself if he thought that same Holy Spirit was guiding his conscience in a way contrary to the official teaching of the Magisterium. Pope John Paul II reminded the faithful in a general audience Aug. 17, 1983:


We began these reflections with the first Vatican Council’s definition of the gift of faith, stressing the obligation of assent of mind and will to those teachings which the Church has declared are divinely revealed. This was further emphasized by the second Vatican Council when it declared that “religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teachings of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not speaking 'ex cathedra.'” (L.G. 25)

Human governments and organizations can make laws binding on its citizens or members as regards what they are to do or not do, to promote their respective goals. But no human government or organization can make laws binding on its members as to what they believe, for they have no way of knowing the inner workings of the mind. Only God, who knows our innermost thoughts and desires, can require the submission of mind and will, such as occurs in a supernatural act of faith. However, that submission of mind and will (even when we do not see the reasons for it) does not come easy for our proud nature. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great mind and great saint that he was, was well aware that pride is a great stumbling block in the matter of divine faith. That is why he pointed out that “humility removes pride whereby a man refuses to submit himself to the truth of faith.” (II II, 4,7) Such a one refuses what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith.” (Rom. 1:5; 16:27) He refuses to accept some teaching merely on the authority which Christ has established. The virtue of faith needs humility to guard it, to remove pride which hinders that humble submission of the mind to the truth of faith, and which gives rise to dissent.

Because there can be no infused supernatural virtue without the foundation of supernatural faith, when respect for the teaching authority of the Church has been undermined by dissent, there is a corresponding erosion of respect for the Church’s ruling power and the consequent obligation of obedience, so evident in the Church today.

Consequently, what the Church teaches as divinely revealed is not open for debate for those guided by the light of faith. We either accept it, or reject it. There is no middle course. He who is TRUTH itself has told us: "He that is not with me, is against Me.” (Mt. 12:30) But many of the Church’s laws and regulations do not deal directly with doctrine, but more with disciplinary matters. This involves not so much the virtue of faith, but that of obedience. But as we have pointed out these two virtues are so dependent on each other that when one is weak, so is the other. In seeking help in regard to this fundamental gift of faith, we would do well to turn to the Mother of Jesus and our Mother, the perfect model of humble faith. “Blessed is she who has believed.” (Lk.1:45) Ask her to obtain for you a humble openness of mind and heart to the action of the Holy Spirit revealing God’s message through the authoritative teachings of the Church.

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