14. Authority and Truth

14. Authority and Truth
Some of my readers may have taken part in a simple parlor-game which consists in the following: sit ten or twelve people in a row or a semi-circle, whisper a story to the first person, who has then to whisper it to the second and so successively around the row. The last person stands up and speaks out his or her version of the story. The results will be surprising; at times, very amusing. What is certain is that the final version will be different in many important details to the original. If the original story is slightly complex and is sent along a line of twenty or thirty persons, the final version may be almost unrecognizable.
In the case of a game it does not matter if the story is handed on wrongly. That is precisely the point of the game; that is what makes it funny.
But suppose it does matter. Suppose that we are no longer playing a parlor-game, but that the story to be passed on contains an important message and that the lives of many people depend on the faithful reception and understanding of this message which, for whatever reason, has to be transmitted in this person-to-person way. Then mistakes in transmitting the story are not funny. It is essential - if it is possible - to avoid them.
In such a case, if I were the originator of the message, I would (if I could) listen in carefully to each person as he receives the message and passes it on to the next; and now and then I would certainly intervene and say, "No; you did not get that correct. It's not that way; it's this way".
It is obvious that I would not be able to fulfill this corrector-prompter role if the story had to be handed on not to twenty persons living in the same time and place, but handed down to twenty successive generations. Then the problem would be beyond me. I cannot be present in each generation ensuring the validity and integrity of each transmission of the message.
God can. Jesus Christ, God become Man, communicated the message of salvation to his Apostles and told them to go and preach it to the whole world. He was with them, after Pentecost, when they went forth; and he has been with their successors ever since, prompting the true transmission, correcting errors, giving deeper understanding, ensuring that the authentic version of his saving message reaches down through all generations throughout time.
Christ could have said, "Go, teach; and be careful how you do it, because I will not be around. You get on with the job, but don't count on me. I have too many other things to look after". He could have added explicitly, "If you run into any difficulties about understanding the message, if there is a difference of opinion among you about its content, then after debating the matter, take a democratic vote and hope for the best".
He of course did not say that at all. He said: "Go, teach ... I am with you always" (Mt 28:20).
The logic of God's presence
It is what we would expect. Even in human affairs those who found an institution or enterprise with important aims and who expect or want it to last, give it a constitution; and knowing that, however clear the written word may be, men will still differ about its meaning or application, they usually entrust the authentic interpretation of the constitution to some particular body. Then they die; and, from eternity, can watch how their foundation remains faithful to or gradually departs from its original aims.
An example could be the founding fathers of the United States of America. More than 200 years ago, having drawn up a written constitution, they entrusted the task of constitutional interpretation to a Supreme Court. If they have been contemplating events from some vantage point of eternity, one may well wonder whether they can have been happy with all the subsequent constitutional amendments and, especially nowadays, with Supreme Court rulings about what is in accord with the constitution and what is not.
They could do no better than that. God, we repeat, can. God knows that we men, on our own, can mistake even the clearest message, and so He did not leave us on our own. "Go, teach; I am with you...".
From God's point of view - if we can express it this way - it was a logical thing to do. It is also logical from our point of view. After all, the big question in regard to any major matter of belief or conduct is: what does Christ have to say on this? For He is the One who knows.
Did Christ just speak once two thousand years ago, and then go silent? Or has his living Voice remained with us, continuing to speak to us today, not saying new things, but prompting and correcting us in the reception and transmission of his saving message, and saying what his Mind is, what the Truth is, if a matter not explicitly dealt with in the Scriptures comes up?
If we have learned to know Christ's Voice in the Gospel, if we have caught something not only of the authority of truth but also of the accent of tenderness, of infinite love, behind his words, then we will constantly ask ourselves, "Where is that Voice today?", and will not rest content until we have found and recognized it and are being led by it.
We can say to Jesus like the Pharisees (but with more faith):"Lord, we know that you are true and that you teach the way of God truthfully" (Mt 22:16).... But then, Lord, You know the truth about man and about the problems he faces: the problems of the tenth or twentieth or thirtieth centuries. You know whether certain modes of conduct are within the way of God - Your way - or outside it. You know what is right or wrong in these matters. Then - tell us! Or is it possible that, although You know the truth, You deliberately choose to leave us in the dark?...
This is not an issue to be lost in abstract philosophizing about the nature of truth; all the less so when, as happens nowadays to many of our secular and religious philosophers, the debate ends up, Pilate-style, in an ultimate questioning: "After all, is there such a thing as truth?" (cf. Jn 18:38). The ordinary citizen, who is more versed in commonsense than in higher philosophy, knows that there is such a thing as truth and error in belief, that there is such a thing as right and wrong in conduct. And deep inside, if he reflects at all on life and personal destiny, he wants to know what is true, what is right, and what is not.
Some of our modern philosophers or psychologists may describe the craving for certainty as pathological. It is no such thing; it is a basic tendency of human nature. Philosophers who have got themselves into the fix of not believing in objective truth - i.e. in any truth at all - naturally do not seek truth or certainty. Ordinary people - who are at least as important as the philosophers and far outnumber them - do.
No mind likes a half-truth or half the truth, if the full truth is available. Those who want to know the truth in matters of faith or morals, will not be satisfied with being told "anything goes" or "one's man opinion is as good as another's". Christ's "opinion" - his view of the truth - is better than any man's; and if it is available, we want to know it. Is it available? We all have freedom to think "in our own way". Have we the freedom to think in Christ's way? Have we access to the mind of Christ?
If it is not possible for us to think as Christ thinks, if we cannot identify his Thought, if there is no way of knowing with certainty what Christ's Mind is (and what it is not), then we are out of touch with the Mind of Christ; his Voice and the message it conveys are not coming through to us loud and clear, but have got lost somewhere along the line in a babel of human voices and opinions; and we just do not know what is the Truth.
But it is not so. Have we concrete and certain access to the Mind of Christ? The answer is Yes. His Mind is available to us in the mind of the Church, in the mind of the Magisterium.
This answer, we repeat, corresponds both to the "logic" of God's design - i.e. to the effective bringing of his saving message to all men - and to the logic of our expectations, that is, to our longing to know the truth.
So powerful is the force of these considerations that they moved Newman, in his Essay on Development, to conclude that God, in giving the gift of Revelation, would virtually have given nothing unless he also gave a divinely instituted means - an infallible organ - to protect Revelation and to ensure that his true and complete message (and no garbled or adulterated version of it) comes down to each generation.
The important point here of course is not to speculate about what God might logically have done or what we might expect him to have done. The point to see is what God actually did. It is no surprise that he did what was to be expected (the surprising thing would be if he had not done it); but the point in any case is that he did it.
He sent his Apostles to preach, and to teach the saving message: "Go, make disciples of all the nations ... teach them to observe all the commands I gave you" (Mt 28:19-20). And, to guarantee their teaching, He made the promise both of his presence - "know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time" (ibid.) - and of his warranty and protection: "whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven" (Mt 16:19; Mt 18:18); "anyone who listens to you listens to me; anyone who rejects you rejects me" (Lk 10:16).
In other words, he established a Church with a teaching mission and with the guarantee that it would teach with his Truth and his Voice, his living Voice, because he is alive and present in his Church.
When Vatican II in its Constitution on Divine Revelation speaks of the role of the Magisterium, it describes it as living: "the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office (Magisterium) of the Church alone" (DV 10).
It is necessary - so it seems to me - to focus our understanding of the Magisterium in some such way as we have outlined if we are to overcome so many current prejudices: that the Magisterium is a bureaucratic imposition, an asphyxiating force, a devitalizing power, a straitjacket for thought, an enemy of theological progress, etc. etc.
The fact of the matter is that the Magisterium is a gift of God. It is not a dead-letter, it is a living thing, for it is the expression of the mind and the voice of the living Christ, it is the presence of the Spirit of Truth (Jn 16:13) guiding the thought of the Church into the fullness of truth (cf. DV 8).
Integrity and authenticity
This matter of the handing on of the faith revolves round two key ideas: integrity and authenticity.
The integral Christian faith - the whole of the saving message - has to be handed on. If only part were passed on, while part were lost or discarded, then subsequent generations would gradually be deprived of the full power of the word and grace of Christ.
From apostolic times this concern for integrity has been present. St. Paul warns the Galatians not to listen to versions of the Gospel different to the one he had preached to them (Gal 1:6-9). Elsewhere he urges the same thing, particularly in his famous admonition to Timothy, "depositum custodi": guard what has been entrusted to you (2 Tim 6:20). No one has ever made a better commentary on that exhortation than St Vincent of Lerins writing almost 400 years later.
"Keep safe the trust", exhorts the Apostle. "What is this trust? What has been entrusted to you, not what you have invented; what you have received, not what you yourself have formulated, something that comes not by way of original thinking, but by way of teaching; not by private acquisition, but by public tradition; something that has come to you, not that you have created; regarding which you must consider yourself not author but guardian, not founder but disciple, not guide but follower... What has been entrusted to you, may this remain in you, may this be handed on by you. You have received gold; give gold. I do not want you to put one thing in place of another. I do not want you shamelessly or fraudulently to exchange gold for copper or lead. I do not want the appearances of gold, but real gold" (Commonitorium, 22, PL 50, 667).
The task is clear: to pass on the saving faith, pure, whole and unadulterated. But if disputes about the content of the faith arise, how can we know what is genuine or authentic and what is not?
By authentic Christian teaching is meant teaching that truly reflects the Mind of Christ, that faithfully communicates the message of Christ to men.
Authentic teaching means in the first place teaching that derives from Revelation in its twofold source of Scripture and Tradition (DV, chap. 2). But it is always possible for disagreement to arise about whether or in what sense a particular belief appears in these sources. That is where the need for authentic teachers arises. Authentic teachers means teachers with the proper credentials. In this matter the credentials are given by God. Lumen gentium, having spoken of the authority and infallibility of the Pope (nos. 18-23), goes on to say that bishops too "are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ" (no. 25).
We are of course not suggesting that others besides the Roman Pontiff and the bishops cannot teach the truth of Christ. We are simply saying that when dispute arises about what is actually the true teaching of Christ, then, in order to authenticate his Voice and to identify his message, it is nothing human that counts: not public image nor personal sincerity nor intellectual brilliance, but a divine mandate. Only the Magisterium possesses that.
Other teachers may be endowed with great authority deriving from their academic positions or degrees, their ability as speakers, their popularity with the media, etc; but it cannot be said of them that they are endowed with the authority of Christ. That hall-mark of authenticity is borne only by the teaching office of the Pope and the College of Bishops.
Under the guidance of the Magisterium, the task of teaching the Faith is shared by many people: priests, religious, catechists, teachers in schools, lecturers in universities, professors in seminaries, etc. Parents especially, as Vatican II strongly emphasizes, are the first and natural educators of their children in the Faith (GE 3).
The theologian, as a teacher of the faith, is basically in the same position as other teachers, the only difference being that, having studied the Faith in greater depth, he should be better qualified to teach it. But of course it is the Faith that he is meant to teach.
How about the research aspect of theology - the theologian's search for new insights into Revelation? There are really two points to be considered here: the development of doctrine itself, and the role of the theologian in this development.
Development of doctrine
The revelation of Christ - oral and written - was completed in apostolic times. There can be no new public revelation. Yet down through the ages, the one Voice of Christ continues to speak to us, not in order to teach us new things but to help us understand more and more perfectly what his message is.
This is what is understood by the development of doctrine. Revealed Truth remains the same; new understanding of it can and should be achieved.
So, Vatican II teaches that "the Tradition that comes from the Apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.... The Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church ... leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness" (DV 8).
If we realize that Christ, with his Spirit, has remained with us in the Church we understand more clearly the unity and harmony and homogeneity of the Christian message. It is one Mind expounding one Truth. There are no additions (though there is development); there are no subtractions; there are no contradictions.
There are no additions. One cannot properly speak of new doctrines in the Church. What the Church presents is always the "Same Old Message" of Christ, but seen from new angles and in new depth. More on this in the next chapter.
There are no subtractions. Here a more present and powerful danger exists for men - of taking from the fullness of God's Message, especially when it is demanding. The temptation recurs through the centuries: to want to discover an easier version of Christianity. Easier versions have been invented; but they lack saving authenticity. God does not force us to live up to the fullness of his message; that depends on our individual response. But He does ensure that the message is preserved in his Church and handed on in its entirety.
And there are no contradictions. To think that the Church can change her doctrine in the sense of contradicting or reversing what it taught hitherto in the name of Christ, is either to deny the objective universal nature of truth, or else to deny the living presence of Christ within his Church.
This is not immobilism. It is the truth gathering scope and momentum. The ultimate reason why some things - the essential things - do not change, is that Christ does not change; "beneath all that changes there is much that is unchanging, much that has its ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (GS 10).
As time passes, the clarity of the message grows, the power of the voice grows. The Voice of Christ comes over the ages not as something remote. It does not come like a far-off rumor or a gentle murmur. It comes crystal-clear and loud. It makes itself present like a noonday bell or the clap of thunder.
The theologian's role
The deeper understanding of the message of Christ, although necessarily done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is not achieved without human effort.
Here particularly enters the research or investigative role of the theologian. The Magisterium - indeed the whole Church - looks to the theologian to fulfill this role; just as, in a slightly different sense, the theologian must look to the Magisterium in fulfilling it. Here, once again, a true ecclesiological perspective sees the point in terms of harmony and complementarity, and not of opposition.
The Church, in endorsing and encouraging theological research, adds the proviso that this research is to observe "due allegiance to the Magisterium" (c. 218). This is the juridical provision. Can we express the basis and reason for this provision in more theological - and more appealing - terms?
The theologian's field of research is in fact the Mind of Christ (cf. Chapter 16). His research task is to see what is there, not to put new things there. Moreover, he is researching a living thing; and he should be prepared to have that Mind speak back at him and even rebuke and contradict him, perhaps abruptly; "you are trying to introduce alien ideas into my Mind.... Those are your thoughts; they are not mine..."
That is why he must keep his own mind finely (and humbly) attuned to the Mind of Christ expressing itself in its authentic sources and through its authentic interpreters.
This should be clear enough if the notion of theology itself is clear. Theology, after all, signifies that reasoned knowledge or study of God and divine things which is based on Revelation and is acquired or developed in the light of the Faith.
The Truth is one; and, truly, the Truth is fixed. But theology (man's investigation into divine Truth) is not fixed. Theology is developing; it is constantly on the move. But it has to remain theology, for which three things are needed: a starting point, a means and a reference point.
The starting point is Revealed Truth (Scripture and Tradition) - which cannot deceive.
The means is human reason - which can deceive.
The reference point is Christ speaking to us in his Church, i.e. the living Magisterium - which again cannot deceive.
There are two elements here - Revelation and the Magisterium [46] - that cannot deceive us or go wrong; God will not permit that. But the third element - man's mind - can go wrong. God does not wish that to happen. But He will not prevent it, above all if man is lacking in humility; human pride has always been a main source of error.
The theologian who reasons from Scripture alone, while ignoring Tradition, is not reasoning from revelation (he is ignoring part of it). The same holds true of the theologian who reasons from Revelation but without due reference to the Mind of Christ speaking in the living Magisterium. In either case he is not reasoning theologically and is likely to go wrong.
The theologian ought not (and of course should not want) to create opposition between his mind and the mind of the Church. But there is only one basis on which he can avoid that danger: by accepting that the mind of the Church is superior. This is the tremendous choice always facing the theologian: either I subordinate my mind to the Church, or I seek to subordinate the Church's mind to my mind.
If 'wisdom has been proved right by all her children' [47], those who seek to prove wisdom wrong, may simply prove they are not her children.
The theologian's first need, therefore, is for faith. Greater intelligence will not necessarily make him a better theologian (although it should help); greater faith will. And no matter how intelligent a person may be, a lack of faith will radically undermine his theology and eventually disqualify him as a theologian. He can continue to reason and speak about God, the Church, the sacraments, etc. But if he has abandoned the starting point of Revelation or the reference point of the Magisterium, he is no longer doing theology.
"Theologians versus Magisterium"?
There is something deeply unecclesial about the "Theologians versus Magisterium" syndrome currently present in some church quarters. It is not surprising that this syndrome is played up in the secular press; antagonism always makes news. How real is this antagonism? How necessary is it?
I don't think it is real, much less necessary, But before we consider whether there has to be a fight, let us identify the possible opponents more precisely.
"Theologians versus Magisterium" is not a proper description of the line-up for the fight (if fight there be). It is rather "man's mind versus God's gift".
If there is a confrontation it is not between two church blocs, but between a divinely instituted organ for the protection of God's Word and the individual or individualistic interpretations of that Word.
Theology is a human endeavor; and, as such, runs the risks of any human endeavor. Revelation is a gift of God; and as such is divinely protected - through the Magisterium, a further gift of God.
The theologians have the right to do theology; and the duty to do it properly. The Magisterium has the duty - and the charismatic power - to protect the Faith in the service of the People of God.
Theology is a sort of intellectual game - puzzle-solving - which should always be played in God's presence. Properly and humbly played, it can offer intelligible solutions to some puzzles and throw partial light on others.
The exercise of the Magisterium is no game. It is a deeply serious, divinely commissioned task of protecting the Faith for the sake of God's People.
A few further points can help understanding:
a) The rule of the Christian mind is not theology but faith: Revelation. If theology helps understanding of Revelation, fine. But Revelation is the objective supernaturally given datum. Theology is the subjective human analysis.
b) The most firmly grounded, deepest and broadest theology is that done by the Magisterium, not only because the Magisterium maintains an over-view of theological perspective, but also and essentially because the Magisterium enjoys special divine assistance in theological judgment. That is why it is quite false to give the impression that the theologians are the ones who "do theology" within the Church, while the Magisterium is a sort of inexpert non-theological bureaucracy that does not really know the theological field and has no right to intrude on it. The magisterial function is thoroughly theological. But it is more than theological; it is charismatic. The theologian's function is not charismatic; it is simply speculative and intellectual.
The Magisterium is in possession of the Faith. Its main task is not to research it for new insights, but to guard it and expound it faithfully so that each generation can understand it properly and hand it on in its integrity to the next.
The Faith is far superior to any theology or all theologies put together. Doing theology, after all, is a work for amateurs (we all need to realize that we are amateurs in the theological field, like Aquinas who felt that his life work was "straw"). Guarding the Faith is a task that requires superhuman qualifications. God has given them: to definite persons, to a definite organ in the Church.
The Magisterium guides the People of God. The theologians tempt God if they claim to guide the Magisterium. For all their intellectual powers, they lack the charism to do so. It is the Holy Spirit who guides the Magisterium. If there is danger of intrusion, then, it is not the danger of the Magisterium intruding on theology. It is the danger of the theologians intruding on the Faith.
c) The Magisterium does not normally originate theological speculation; that is not its task. As Guardian of the People's Faith, its role is more properly activated when that faith is in any way endangered by theoretical or practical trends arising outside or inside the Church. It is then that its precise role as adjudicator appears.
It is presumption and intrusion for the theologians to claim authority over the Magisterium. The contrary, however, is not true. The theologians are not judges of the Magisterium. The Magisterium is judge of the theologians.
In the theology game, the theologians and the Magisterium do not have similar or equal roles. The theologians are the players; the Magisterium is the referee. Just as a referee can tell a player that a certain move is not according to the rules, so the Magisterium can tell a theologian that he is "off-side" or that a line of speculation he is following is "out of bounds"; i.e. is not within the bounds of the Mind of Christ. The Magisterium has the mission to do this and the assistance of the Holy Spirit in doing it. It alone possesses "the sure charism of truth" (DV 8).
Catholic theology has to be played according to the rules given by the Magisterium. One can play one's own theological game according to different rules. But then it is not catholic theology.
The Magisterium is within the Mind of Christ; the theologians have to enter into it (cf. Chapter 16), and have to ask the key of the Magisterium. The theologian with a Catholic sense rejoices to know who carries the keys.
Some contemporary theologians may find themselves at loggerheads with the Magisterium. Many do not; they realize that for them, exactly as for any other members of Christ's Faithful, the Magisterium is a service, a sure touchstone of God's Truth. When, in faith, they accept the service Christ offers them in the Magisterium, then they are enabled to fulfill their own distinctive service mission to divine Truth. Their theological speculation follows sure guidelines. Thus they render service for service; for the charismatic service of the Magisterium they return the intellectual service of theological thought. And so they too help to build up the Church in faith [48].
Indeed the Church looks expectantly to the theologians for this intellectual service of theirs. Popes, bishops, Councils, have always relied heavily on theologians in maturing their doctrinal statements and decrees. The charism of magisterial teaching cannot dispense with theological reflection although it does not depend on any particular theology for its effect and validity.
Theologians and Magisterium are therefore natural allies, not adversaries. They have always worked hand in hand. Let us cast a glance back along the ages. We see that many great theologians of the past have in fact been bishops, and, as such, part of the Magisterium itself, like Chrysostom or Athanasius or Augustine. But there have been many others who were not bishops, and so were in no way part of the official Magisterium. Nevertheless, these theologians - a Jerome, a John Damascene, a Bonaventure, a Suarez, a Catherine of Siena, or a Teresa of Avila - enriched the mind of the Church in a way which evidences the work of the Holy Spirit. Who could measure the indebtedness of Christian thought to the theological reflections of men like Thomas Aquinas or John Henry Newman?
Yet though these theologians worked "outside" the Magisterium, they did not work without reference to it. They, as any theologian who understands his task, looked to received Truth and to the Magisterium as their guide and ally and safeguard in their theological investigations. For them a theological reflection out of harmony with Tradition or with the Magisterium meant a thought out of harmony with the Mind of Christ. And that for them was an unthinkable thought, theologically speaking. This remains a norm for sound theology.
Truth and the People
Skepticism about objective truth is the fashion of our age. The fashion will pass because it does not correspond to man's rational nature, to that deep longing for the truth present in every mind and heart. Yet, being the current fashion, it tends to influence even Christians. And Christians should be aware of this influence. If they are not, if they do not discern it and resist it, it can undermine their faith in Christ, the Truth, and in Christ's Church, the guardian of the Truth.
A hankering after democratic processes is also part of the spirit of the age. It corresponds to a fear of tyranny and to a respect for equality. Nevertheless, however much the democratic process may be considered the best means of establishing a government, it clearly is not a trustworthy means of establishing the truth. Few people, if they stop for reflection, will seriously suggest that the truth is to be arrived at by a democratic voting process: "the majority have it". If the majority of directors of a company vote in favor of fraudulent tax returns, does this make the tax returns true? If the majority in a country vote in favor of discrimination against a minority, have they thereby created a new and true norm of conduct?
No. A democratic vote may coincide with the truth, or may not. It does not establish it. Christ was in a minority of One, especially in the critical moments of his life; and yet it is precisely Christ and not "the majority" who is the source and criterion of truth in the Church and in the world.
However, in a certain sense, the majority opinion in the Church does point to the truth of Christ. We are speaking about what is termed the "sensus fidelium" or the "sensus fidei": the sense of the faith possessed by the people. Lumen gentium states: "the whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy One cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals" (LG 12).
Several points would need to be carefully noted here:
a) The whole body of the faithful cannot err when they manifest a "universal consent" in faith and morals, i.e. when they are united in belief. If they are not united, if there is no universal consent but rather disagreement, then obviously there must be error on one side or another. That is where the more particular organs of infallibility must be looked to.
b) They cannot err when united in matters of belief. It is important to weigh this point well because what people actually believe is not always easy to establish - least of all by certain types of opinion poll.
For example, we read in the newspaper that, according to some opinion poll, 60 per cent of Catholics in a given country "disagree with" the Church's teaching on contraception.... One does not have to question the reliability of the poll to ask: and what exactly are we supposed to conclude from that?
Does "disagree with" meant that they do not observe the Church's teaching on this matter, or that they would "prefer" if the Church's teaching were different and not so demanding? This may well be. Since all of us are sinners, there will always be some point of the Church's teaching that we do not live up to, and we may well wish that it were less demanding. If the opinion poll is simply meant to show that Catholics are sinners like everyone else, we can have little difficulty in accepting its findings.
But I think that the opinion poll is in an offhand way trying to suggest something else: that the Catholics polled believe - i.e. are convinced in faith - that the Church's teaching is wrong. This is the underlying suggestion that needs careful consideration.
If we are to know by opinion poll what people actually believe on the subject, then the questions asked should be: "After taking a good look at your faith and a good look into your conscience, do you believe that the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception is not only clear and demanding, but also false? Do you believe that contraception is permitted and approved by Jesus Christ; that it is according to his law and not against it?"
I wonder what percentage of those Catholics who "disagree" with the Church's teaching on contraception actually believe that the Church's teaching is contrary to the mind of Christ. My experience is that, not to speak of Catholics, many Protestants are not at ease in their heart about the practice of artificial birth control, however much their church or pastors may tell them it is alright. Such unease is quite understandable; contraception after all so evidently denaturalizes sex.
If it could be verified that 60 per cent of Catholics somewhere "disagree with" the Church's teaching on birth control - in the sense that they do not observe it - one would simply have established a sociological fact. It would be a sad comment on their behavior, but it would say absolutely nothing about their faith. To show that their practice has deteriorated does not in any way prove that their faith, on this precise point, has declined.
c) There is a third point to be noted. When we affirm the infallibility of the believing Church, when we say that the whole body of the faithful cannot err in matters of faith, we have to remember that the Church is not just the Church of this present moment. It is the Church of the centuries. The body of the faithful is not "whole" unless it includes past generations as well as the generation which for the time being is "present". We can therefore truly regard the people in the Church as witnesses to the truth, in their united belief, but not if we exclude past generations. To exclude them would be "undemocratic". The former generations are also members of the People of God. And in listening to their voice we are in fact listening to the people's voice: the whole people's voice. It is the voice of the whole people that gives a true echo of the Voice of Christ.
Some further points about the faith of the people:
(i) The faith is the people's. It is theirs not to do what they like with, but to enjoy. It is theirs not to change but to believe and try to live by; and thereby to be saved.
(ii) The faith is the people's. It is their right and heritage. As a heritage it needs protection, so that it can be received from the preceding generation and passed on to the succeeding one, whole and entire. God, through the Magisterium, ensures the protection of this inheritance that He bequeathed to his people.
(iii) Some theologians today claim to be spokesmen for the faith of the people. By what right have they appropriated that role? Even humanly speaking it is not likely that theologians can articulate the people's faith better than the bishops. The bishops are pastorally and physically closer to the people, while the theologians tend to live in a more remote academic world; one sees in practice how the views they advance are often very far removed from the mind of the people. The bishops are not self-appointed. It was God's idea to give them as shepherds and fathers to his people (CD 11-21).
Authority, Truth and Scripture
The seeking of scriptural roots for Catholic doctrine is an endeavor that the Church always encourages. But this endeavor needs to avoid several mistaken approaches:
a) ignoring Tradition altogether, as if Scripture alone were the only and sufficient rule of faith. This is the Protestant position.
b) subordinating Tradition to Scripture, as if Scripture were a higher authority or normative source. The Catholic teaching is that both together "make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God" (DV 10); they "are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine wellspring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.... Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence" (DV 9).
c) viewing the Magisterium as an artificial and unjustifiable ecclesiastical restraint imposed on the free interpretation of the Christian message.
A few points of reflection can help us avoid these mistaken approaches, and see instead the harmony that reigns between the sources from which we receive Revelation, and the organ by which we are guided in understanding it.
That Scripture alone was never meant to be the exclusive guide to Christian belief is already clear from the fact that for the first fifteen or twenty years after Pentecost there was no scripture of the New Testament. During that period, all knowledge of Christ's Revelation came through oral preaching or handing on (Tradition of course simply means "handing on"). It is commonly accepted that the earliest book of the New Testament dates from about 49-50 AD; the last were written some fifty years later. The point is brought out by the fact that Christ did not tell his disciples to write, but to preach (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:16), and it was precisely to their preaching that He referred his promise to be present with them (Mt ibid). A few of them [49], under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, consigned essential aspects of the divine message to writing. But the early Christian concern was not to spread these writings, it was to spread the message; and to spread it orally. This was a matter of necessity: in part because very few copies of these scriptures existed (books were extremely rare objects then, and in fact remained rare until the invention of printing more than one thousand years later); and above all because the vast majority of those receiving the message simply could not read. The written word could not enlighten them; the spoken word could.
There is a further main point that should be clear. Scripture cannot stand on its own; i.e. it cannot authenticate itself. Many writings have come down to us from the first centuries, claiming to give an account of the life of Christ or his teaching. A long list could be made: the Gospel according to the Hebrews or the Egyptians, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter or of John, the Acts of Barnabas, etc. These books are rejected as non-inspired, by Protestants and Catholics alike. But, by what authority is the Gospel of Luke to be included in the Scriptures and the Gospel of Thomas to be excluded?
What grounds have Christians for believing that the Bible is made up of our present 72 books, precisely those 72 and no others? The Bible cannot vouch for itself. The Bible cannot prove that the Bible is inspired; to maintain that would be to reason in a circle. The only way we can truly know which books are inspired, which books form part of the Bible, and which do not, is through some authority external to the Bible which itself possesses a divine guarantee of truth. That is the Church. St Augustine sums up the point when he said, "I would not believe the Gospel except on the authority of the Catholic Church" [50]. That is why "internal criteria" for establishing the true sense of Scripture have only a limited value and are not above external criteria such as the sensus fidei, Tradition, the Magisterium.
It should be noted that the accusation of arguing in a circle does not apply to the Catholic position. The Catholic does not appeal to inspired Scripture to prove the Church's claim to divine authority, and at the same time appeal to the Church's authority to prove the divine inspiration of Scripture. No; the Catholic first goes to what actually occurred, i.e. to History; and therefore also to the books of Scripture - but considering them for this purpose simply as part of the historical record. From history he concludes that Jesus Christ existed, that He claimed to be God, and that He proved his claim; that He founded a Church to carry on his work; and that this Church - the Catholic Church - enjoys divine protection in its teaching: also about which books are divinely inspired.
God speaks to us through the Bible. But He must not only tell us what is the Bible - i.e. which books are to be included in it, and which are not - but also what is the meaning He intended in the different passages of the sacred writings. He does so through Tradition and through the living Magisterium.
Scripture gives us God's written word. Tradition conveys the whole message of Christ. And with the help of the Magisterium we learn the true and clear meaning and the application of this divine Revelation. Vatican II emphasizes, "It is clear, therefore, that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls" (DV 10).
When we speak of Tradition therefore, we are not referring just to the established beliefs of the first centuries. Tradition is built up and comes down to us over all the centuries. It is an inheritance that is constantly being enriched, not by addition of belief but by increase of understanding. That is the theme of development of doctrine which we took a brief look at earlier. However there are further aspects to this theme that are important enough to merit a chapter apart.