Remarks on Chapter 5 of 'Fides et ratio'

Magisterial authority as discernment

Fr. Gianfranco Girotti, O.F.M. Conv.
Undersecretary, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith       Reflections Index

Although the subject of authority is not central to the Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, neither can we say that it is marginal. Related to the logic of discernment, magisterial authority is expressed through many channels according to the responsibilities of the bodies in charge of guiding and governing the complex and structured life of Christ's Church.

Even if the viewpoint seems too partial, it would not seem out of place to interpret the many remarks on authority as a sort of commentary on canon 360 of the Code of Canon Law, where it says of the Roman Curia: "The Supreme Pontiff usually conducts the business of the universal Church by means of the Roman Curia, which fulfils its duty in his name and by his authority for the good and service of the Churches".

This is basically the goal of the Roman Curia's work, i.e., to promote the good of all people and to put itself at the "service of the Churches". But how is this service actually carried out and what are the values that inspire it?

It is right to say that the pronouncements of the various Congregations are an ever new attempt to enlighten reason with faith and to strengthen faith with reason according to the issues and problems on which they are called to express their opinion and to give their direction.

Although reason is not faith, the one cannot exist without the other: hence the doctrinal weight of the declarations, directives and suggestions of the various pontifical dicasteries. Faith and reason, in fact, should be combined so that they can "mutually support each other", by each offering the other a critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for truth and a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the Christian faith.

The Pope writes: "This is why I make this strong and insistent appeal — not I trust, untimely — that faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. The parrhesia of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason" (n. 48).

We can see how important the topicand how beneficial the observations, albeit implicit, contained in the Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio from the long historical trajectory authority has followed: its most critical moment was the transition in the modern era from the recognition of its divine origin to the affirmation of the "sole authority of reason", from there to the purely human nature of authority and finally to its extinction, because everyone is solely responsible for his own life.

The history of authority contains an echo of doctrinal, social and political situations that are not easy to untangle. All the same, if anything is looked upon with distrust today, it is authority, especially if it is not enlightened by reason. Authority supports the order that implies unity in multiplicity or the unity of the multiple, not through juxtaposition but through a "consummatio in unum".

Obviously, it is difficult to hold the many together in a way that avoids dispersion, unless blind force is used, in which case the unity achieved is not difficult but fruitless, because either it must spring from within or soon it disintegrates and disappears.

It is important to recall that when Augustine was correcting one of his previous statements in which he had maintained that Christ did nothing by force but everything by persuasion and exhortation, he made it clear in the Retractationes that Christ drove the merchants from the temple and used his power to expel demons. When later commenting on the words "compelleeos intrare", he observedthat fear and discipline can have beneficial effects on those who are coerced, since they provide an opportunity to turn external necessity into internal will. Although not decisive, the reference to the woundedness of human nature is certainly not irrelevant: it is in this context that the Bishop of Hippo reflects on authority and the appropriateness of its interventions.

Along with this awareness of the traces of sin, which deeply marks the nature of authority and the appropriateness of its interventions, we must recall some basic axioms, usually referred to, which let us glimpse the climate of understanding which is meant to be fostered and in which the interventions usually take place. Everyone knows the ancient axiom that there is no salvation outside the Church, but the boundaries of the Church, the "People of God", are mysterious, not always visible or easily perceived.

The Church's structures and sacraments remain the necessary starting point and safeguard of clear doctrine "inter mundanas varietates". Their foundation and their role, even in the historical realm, are irreplaceable. Nevertheless, conscience's relationship with God remains open, and the ways in which this relationship matures are inscrutable.

Sometimes those who reject the Church love her, just as there is authentic religion in those who combat it; it is a question of repressed faith, of a "hidden treasure" or of a seed struggling to grow.

Love misunderstood is still love; repressed faith is still faith, and religion lived on the fringe is still religion. Every human being conceals a treasure, which authority must well beware of squandering.

Certainly, the ordo amoris will be achieved in the heavenly Jerusalem, where the veil will be torn away and we will be able to admire the plurality of secrets and the infinite ways that God's mercy has reached people. This ordo amoris, however, cannot be absent from the Church in her historical phase. Well, the civitas peregrina runs the risk of heavenly hopes becoming purely earthly hopes and thus the temptation to transcribe Christian hope into a horizontal key, to squander the substance of its faith or to break the golden thread of tradition.

For this reason, authority cannot pretend that it does not see or know. The flock would be forced to scatter. Certainly, the winding path it must take is not always easy to follow.

The indispensable goal is to strengthen faith and to support reason in its work of exploring the truth.

In this overall perspective, we can understand the reference made particularly in chapter five of the Encyclical to the nature of the Magisterium's interventions. Here it is said very clearly that the Magisterium must exercise "a critical discernment" (n. 50) of "opinions which contradict Christian doctrine" (ibid.), and it has "the responsibility of expressing a judgement" on the contribution that the philosophical tenets of the various schools of thought can make to theological reflection.

The difficulty of intervening is due to the proliferation of systems, methods, concepts and philosophical theses, so that it is not always easy to sort out and identify the viewpoints that best support the access to and recognition of the mystery. Reflection, prudence and prayer are the resources to be used. Only under these conditions does discernment prove capable of evaluating, restraining, guiding and supporting, without destroying.

What, then, is the objective to be pursued? More than to condemn, the interventions are intended "above all toprompt, promote and encourage" (n. 51) in the light, however, of some essential points which it would be good to recall, however quickly.

The first point concerns the proper nature of philosophical truth. The latter is one, but its expressions are historical and thus vary from age to age; most importantly, they cannot exhaust the real. Those expressions which claim to be ail-encompassing, as "the complete explanation of the human being, of the world and of the human being's relationship with God" (n. 51), must be submitted to a rigorous critique because they stray from the path that leads to recognition of the mystery.

The Church knows that "the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" are hidden in Christ (Col 2:3). To support this approach, several interventions arementioned in which the Magisterium had to denounce paradoxical positions or exaggerations of completely one-sided viewpoints. "The censures were delivered even-handedly: on the one hand, fideism and radical traditionalism, for their distrust of reason's natural capacities, and, on the other, rationalism and ontologism because they attributed to natural reason a knowledge which only the light of faith could confer" (n. 52).

In short, "against all forms of rationalism ... the distinction between the mysteries of faith and the findings of philosophy" (n. 53) was reaffirmed, in the quest for understanding and mutual support. If this difficult but absolutely necessary balance is not achieved, neither the cause of reason nor that of faith can be defended.

In this context, we find a footnoted reference to several recent Instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, "in accomplishing its specific task in service of the Roman Pontiff's universal Magisterium, … has more recently had to intervene to reemphasize the danger of an uncritical adoption by some liberation theologians of opinions and methods drawn from Marxism" (n. 54).

The second essential point which must support the competent authority's work of discernment is the "supreme rule of her faith". This rule springs from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church's Magisterium in such reciprocity that none of the three can survive without the others, much less one against the others or not in harmony with the others. It is this overall view that must guide the intervention of the competent authority. Not only philosophy, but theological reflection too does not always seem equal to its task, because it is prone to embrace specific philosophies that limit its horizon, because a questionable and exaggerated biblicism leads it to show little concern for so-called "speculative theology", or because, looking only to the future, it neglects the lessons of tradition.

Well, in these and similar situations the intervention of the competent authority is not only desirable but necessary to heal the wounds that rend the inner tissue of Church life.

In fact, the Pope finds in the theological field censurable attitudes that exaggerate specific aspects of Christian doctrine, to the detriment of others, thus proving themselves unequal to a vision of the whole. For example, when theological discourse indulges in rationalism or fideism, it becomes unbalanced because it does make enough allowance either for faith or for reason, which happens when "opinions thought to be philosophically well founded are taken as normative for theological research" (n. 55).

On the other hand, what is "biblicism", if not a tendency to make the interpretation or exegesis of Sacred Scripture the only true reference-point? "One should not underestimate", the Pope also notes, "the danger inherent in seeking to derive the truth of Sacred Scripture from the use of one method alone, ignoring the heed for a more comprehensive exegesis which enables the exegete, together with the whole Church, to arrive at the full sense of the texts", as he reminds theologians of this fundamental point.

In the realm of theological thought, either one is able to express the Church's thought as a greatstream in which diverse but ultimately convergent aspects flow together, or one remains the victim of fragmentary and isolated experiences. Unity here is like an overflowing river that drags in its current even what is reluctant, transmitting energy and power to what at first seems inert and passive.

It would not be inappropriate to conclude by mentioning the new task assigned to authority. For the most part, in giving a sense of balance to those who have lost the way by taking extreme positions, the interventions of authority seem destined to stifle enthusiasm for the sake of those balanced positions which are wrongly thought to be wedded to a false maturity or the result of mere acquiescence.

Certainly, when these interventions take place in a time of crisis, then not only enthusiasm can be lacking, but also that creative dimension which should characterize serious, productive research. Well, if this seems to be the inevitable result of authoritative pronouncements, the Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio dispels any doubt by encouraging men and women of thought "to trust in the power of human reason and not to set themselves goals that are too modest in their philosophizing. The lesson of history in this millennium now drawing to a close shows that this is the path to follow: it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason" (n. 56).

Respectful of the semantic significance of the word "authority", which comes from "augere", to increase, the bodies responsible for the Church's life are urged, while maintaining discipline, to enable this life to grow by supporting and encouraging it, especially in times of ambiguity or crisis.

To what, then, should we attribute that certain rift between philosophy and theology, or that certain decline in the study of philosophy and the sacred sciences which can be noted in seminaries and sometimes even in academic institutions? Why does that "time of special study of philosophy" (n. 62) not always fulfil expectations, with sometimes conflicting results, either in the direction of a rejection of any form of dialogue or in the opposite direction of an indiscriminate acceptance of every philosophy? The distressing thought, which is perhaps just an observation, is that this sometimes discouraging situation in philosophical and theological studies is due to the fact that "the Magisterium's directives have not always been followed with the readiness one would wish" (n. 61).

This is a serious observation as well as a strong warning.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 February 1999, page 9

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