The Modern Catholic and the Magisterium of the Pope

Author: Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa


Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa

This article was specially contributed by His Eminence Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa for the English editions of Osservatore, Romano.


When trying to analyse the attitude of the modern Catholic vis a vis the teaching authority in the Church, we cannot help noticing a certain inconsistency, even at times amounting to a kind of dichotomy, in his mental outlook and corresponding practical behaviour. He appeals to the Bible, more particularly to the Gospels, but in doing so he is inclined to overlook certain passages, to demythologize others or give them a personal interpretation. On the one hand he will brandish the documents of Vatican II but on the other he is ready to skip some paragraphs as already outdated or as squeezed in by a conservative minority. He claims it the duty of the Church to come forward with a clearly formulated statement in the matter of family planning while at the same time he is extremely allergic to any kind of authoritative guidance. And we might go on in the same vein.


This attitude we must try sympathetically to see, and understand. Nobody can judge it with complete impartiality or total objectivity because everybody is infected by this mentality in some degree one way or another. It is only a partial manifestation of a far wider pattern which affects the whole of our life. Modern man wants to see for himself, to be given proofs, to take his own decisions, to apply the rule of thumb of his own conscience and experience. Criticism is in the air and nothing escapes from it.

It is within this very imperfectly drawn context that we must place the subject-matter of the present article: the modern Catholic and his relations with the magisterium of the Pope. For what may have sounded as blasphemy, say some thirty years ago, has become, at least in some wide-spread regions of the Church, almost daily currency, viz. criticism of the Pope, his pronouncements and activities. In this field, too, the modern Catholic has become very conscious of his freedom, of his personal judgment, the younger generation of priests perhaps even more than the educated laymen and religious. This should not unduly alarm, even less frighten us. God's message is meant for all peoples of all times and if modern man happens to be what he is, mostly because of circumstances which are beyond his control, like the date of his birth, this message can and ought to reach him in his very concrete existence.


But consciousness of freedom ought to go hand in hand with awareness of responsibility. An honest man will come to the conclusion, at times painfully acquired, that his freedom has its limits. He must be willing not only to express what he thinks, feels, or presumes is right, but also to listen. And this all the more so in matters revealed by God or linked up with revelation. We cannot just identify without further ado our own convictions with the word of God.


Precisely because we are dealing with God's message to us, it is our responsibility to study how this 'Good News' has been communicated to us. This message, this word, this revelation of God's saving love, is found in the Church, it is its common good: 'Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the Church' (Dei Verbum), 10). But the preaching, the preservation, the growing understanding of this word has been submitted by God himself to certain conditions: to the preaching of the Apostles and of those ‘who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth' (ib. 8). 'The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ' (ib. 10). "My teaching is not from myself ".

It is on these and similar passages that the modern Catholic ought to reflect as much as on others. He may not pick and choose according to his liking.


Now divine revelation as proposed by the teaching authority of the Church makes it abundantly clear that in the apostolic body, Peter was given a special place and that in him was instituted 'a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship' (Lumen Gentium, 18). This role given individually to Peter was meant by the Lord to be permanent and to be transmitted to his successors (ib., 20), to the effect that now, in the episcopal body, the Bishop of Rome occupies a place analogical to that of Peter in the apostolic body. Without in the least separating the Pope from the other Bishops this place nevertheless confers on him special responsibilities. The whole of chapter III of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church should be studied very carefully in this regard. It is not feasible to quote all the relevant passages in this article no more than the scriptural texts on which they are based. If it is true that in the episcopal order the apostolic body continues without a break its teaching authority and pastoral rule (ib. 22), it follows these functions are the Pope's in an eminent degree. And thus the Catholic, the modern as much as the ancient, is invited by Christ to acknowledge this authority and to follow it. For it is an authority in the name of Christ. If only we could see that this authority is not a crushing weight, that it is not given to stifle personal thinking and responsibility, that it is a loving invitation rather than the iron rod of Psalm 2, that it is a portraying of Christ's care for us as the Good Shepherd. It is for such reasons that modern people call the Church inhumane. The blame is not exclusively on the side of the rank and file Catholics—those in authority too should be critical of their attitude and see to it that the ordinary Catholic is not forced to miss the sound of the good tidings, of liberating grace, of encouraging goodness, in what he reads or hears. At the same time the Catholic is obliged in conscience to make serious efforts to see what the Pope means, to discover the deeper motives animating a ruling, an encyclical, a reprimand. Too often he is ready to indulge in a wholesale rejection of all that comes from the top. This would denote a spirit of unwillingness to listen to Christ who said: "Anyone who listens to you listens to me; anyone who rejects you rejects me" (Lk. 10, 1).

We cannot ignore the critical spirit, it is a reality we have to reckon with, now more than ever in the past, outside the Church as well as inside. Modern man wants to have his opinion and to broadcast it. The ' ecclesia discens ' of old ecclesiologies, in the sense of the flock unprotestingly swallowing in apathetic passivity has, in most countries, become a thing of the past and we have to thank God for that. The modern Catholic has come of age, he likes to ask questions and to put forward his ideas. This is his right. And it can be of great help for the Church leaders: "Every layman should openly reveal to them his needs and desires with that freedom which befits a son of God and a brother in Christ" LG, 3 7). This can even be an obligation. But: "let it always be done in truth, in courage, and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ " (ib.).


A critical mind can be either a very good or a very bad thing. It is a two-edged sword: it can sever all bonds of obedience and thus lead to obstinate rebellion—it can as well remove the veil over one's eyes and help to come to a clearer insight into what is asked for by the authorities, in our case by the Pope. It can be and should be inspired by real love. Only then can there be question of truly constructive criticism. We cannot stop criticism because we cannot help judging. This is the only way to open-eyed obedience which is the only obedience acceptable to modern man and worthy of human nature. But in order to judge lovingly there must be something to be loved. When we are not convinced of that we will close our hearts and nothing will be able to force its way therein. This is why it is so terribly important that the Church, that the members of the Church, those on the top rungs foremost, should manifest the merciful Saviour and loving God. This is the voice the faithful are waiting for and which they are willing to follow (cf. John 10,3). Inspired by the love of Christ and the desire to follow him, their shepherd and leader, they will them turn their full attention to what the Pope tells them so as to perceive with as great clarity as possible what they are invited to do or to omit.


It is a truism to say that the Pope is not the whole of the Church but as Catholics we believe that he is an indispensable element in it because Jesus Christ wants it like that. Christ likes to approach us in visible form. His incarnation will know no end. We can leave it safely to the Pope to remove all that might obscure the radiance of Christ the Head, but the modern Catholic has to try equally hard to tune in to what comes from the Word in human veil. To the man of 1968 Christ speaks through the Pope of 1968—not exclusively of course, but none the less really. It is in the kerygma of the reigning Pope that the message from God is worded for us. And thus "with ready Christian obedience, laymen as well as all disciples of Christ, should accept whatever their sacred pastors, as representatives of Christ, decree in their role as teachers and rulers in the Church" (LG, 37). There will then arise a truly 'admirabile commercium': the ordinary Catholic offers to the Pope his confident obedience while the Pope, like other Bishops, willingly makes use of his advice, recognizes and promotes his dignity and responsibility, and encourages him so that he may undertake tasks on his own initiative (ib.). If only this dialogue could be more frequent and direct!

No one will expect to find within the limits of this article a full treatise on the Church. It will be understood that not all the Pope's decisions, writings, addresses, are of equal dogmatic importance of moral consequence, to say nothing of infallibility. The latter was at times too readily appealed to by some theologians of the past. The second Vatican Council was not afraid to clarify (to use a wide term) conciliary or papal statements of earlier periods. We do not intend to labour obvious points. "The development of the doctrine of development is a vital factor in the contemporary theological situation" (N. Nash, Doctrinal Development and Christian Unity, London 1967, p. 31). It will be understood as well that there is a distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary magisterium. It will be understood above all that the manner in which some disciplinary or other measures taken by one or another Roman congregation, were of a nature to provoke confusion in the mind of educated Catholics. Not everything should be labelled as emanating from 'the Holy See' for then the image of the Pope as the representative of the merciful Christ would become blurred in the eyes of the faithful

It is, of course, a platitude to say that there is a considerable amount of confusion rampant in modern life, religious life included. Everything, even the most central dogmas of the Catholic faith, seems to be put in jeopardy, questioned, harassed by doubts. This is not the first time it happened in the history of the Church. We are allowed to see this as the growing-pains of a great leap forward under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. At the present time this phenomenon asks for a serious renewal of faith, for deep meditation, purity of intention, total openness under the stirrings of the Spirit of Christ. It is above all the moment to rally round the leaders of the Church and particularly round the one who "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of the Bishops and of the multitude of the faithful" (LG, 23). It is the moment to renew our conviction that the Pope, in a special way, is the representative of Christ, and instead of having our bristles up when confronted with a papal pronouncement, we ought to accept it with gratitude and eagerness to comply.

''This religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that this supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgements made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest will and mind. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking" (ib., 25). This is not a brake on our critical mind. On the contrary it is meant as a spur to delve deeper into the plan of God. This plan will always remain partly in darkness until the full revelation at the end of time will become manifest; but in the meantime we know that, when listening to the Pope, we are not deviating from the way of Christ but living up to our christian vocation: "In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, can more effectively fulfil its mission for the life of the world" (ib. 37).

The present time is an immense challenge to the modern Catholic. He is called to live his faith in the midst of political turmoil, moral disintegration, scientific progress, economic uncertainty, racial and ideological clashes, intellectual disarrangement, ecumenical surge, unthought-of technical achievements. It is only natural that he feels bewildered, that he does not know exactly where he stands, that he is tempted to throw up his arms in despair and yield to indifferentism. Only Christ can save him "for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which he can be saved" (Acts 4, 12). It is on him that he must take his stand for "no one can lay any other (foundation) than the one which has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor., 3, 11). It is from this foundation that "the Church receives durability and solidity" (LG, 6) of which the Pope, as representative of Christ and successor of Peter, is the visible sign and guarantee.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 May 1968, page 3
6 June 1968, page 6

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