Tradition and Living Magisterium

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

Tradition and Living Magisterium

The word tradition (Greek paradosis in the ecclesiastical sense; which is the only one in which it is used here; refers sometimes to the thing (doctrine, account, or custom) transmitted from one generation to another sometimes to the organ or mode of the transmission (kerigma ekklisiastikon, predicatio ecclesiastica). In the first sense it is an old tradition that Jesus Christ was born on 25 December, in the second sense tradition relates that on the road to Calvary a pious woman wiped the face of Jesus. In theological language, which in many circumstances has become current, there is still greater precision and this in countless directions. At first there was question only of traditions claiming a Divine origin, but subsequently there arose questions of oral as distinct from written tradition, in the sense that a given doctrine or institution is not directly dependent on Holy Scripture as its source but only on the oral teaching of Christ or the Apostles. Finally with regard to the organ of tradition it must be an official organ, a magisterium, or teaching authority.

Now in this respect there are several points of controversy between Catholics and every body of Protestants. Is all revealed truth consigned to Holy Scripture? or can it, must it, be admitted that Christ gave to His Apostles to be transmitted to His Church, that the Apostles received either from the very lips of Jesus or from inspiration or Revelation, Divine instructions which they transmitted to the Church and which were not committed to the inspired writings? Must it be admitted that Christ instituted His Church as the official and authentic organ to transmit and explain in virtue of Divine authority the Revelation made to men? The Protestant principle is: The Bible and nothing but the Bible; the Bible, according to them, is the sole theological source; there are no revealed truths save the truths contained in the Bible; according to them the Bible is the sole rule of faith: by it and by it alone should all dogmatic questions be solved; it is the only binding authority. Catholics, on the other hand, hold that there may be, that there is in fact, and that there must of necessity be certain revealed truths apart from those contained in the Bible; they hold furthermore that Jesus Christ has established in fact, and that to adapt the means to the end He should have established, a living organ as much to transmit Scripture and written Revelation as to place revealed truth within reach of everyone always and everywhere. Such are in this respect the two main points of controversy between Catholics and so-called orthodox Protestants (as distinguished from liberal Protestants, who admit neither supernatural Revelation nor the authority of the Bible). The other differences are connected with these or follow from them, as also the differences between different Protestant sects--according as they are more or less faithful to the Protestant principle, they recede from or approach the Catholic position.

Between Catholics and the Christian sects of the East there are not the same fundamental differences, since both sides admit the Divine institution and Divine authority of the Church with the more or less living and explicit sense of its infallibility and indefectibility and its other teaching prerogatives, but there are contentions concerning the bearers of the authority, the organic unity of the teaching body, the infallibility of the pope, and the existence and nature of dogmatic development in the transmission of revealed truth. Nevertheless the theology of tradition does not consist altogether in controversy and discussions with adversaries. Many questions arise in this respect for every Catholic who wishes to give an exact account of his belief and the principles he professes: What is the precise relation between oral tradition and the revealed truths in the Bible and that between the living magisterium and the inspired Scriptures? May new truths enter the current of tradition, and what is the part of the magisterium with regard to revelations which God may yet make? How is this official magisterium organized, and how is it to recognize a Divine tradition or revealed truth? What is its proper rôle with regard to tradition? Where and how are revealed truths preserved and transmitted? What befalls the deposit of tradition in its transmission through the ages? These and similar questions are treated elsewhere in the CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA, but here we must separate and group all that has reference to tradition and to the living magisterium inasmuch as it is the organ of preservation and transmission of traditional and revealed truth.

The following are the points to be treated:

I. The existence of Divine traditions not contained in Holy Scripture, and the Divine institution of the living magisterium to defend and transmit revealed truth and the prerogative of this magisterium;

II. The relation of Scripture to the living magisterium, and of the living magisterium to Scripture;

III. The proper mode of existence of revealed truth in the mind of the Church and the way to recognize this truth;

IV. The organization and exercise of the living magisterium; its precise rôle in the defence and transmission of revealed truth; its limits, and modes of action;

V. The identity of revealed truth in the varieties of formulas, systematization, and dogmatic development; the identity of faith in the Church and through the variations of theology.

A full treatment of these questions would require a lengthy development; here only a brief outline can be given, the reader being referred to special works for a fuller explanation.

I. Divine Traditions not contained in Holy Scripture; institution of the living magisterium; its prerogatives.

Luther's attacks on the Church were at first directed only against doctrinal details, but the very authority of the Church was involved in the dispute, and this soon became evident to both sides. However the controversy continued for many years to turn on particular points of traditional teaching rather than on the teaching authority and the chief weapons were Biblical texts. The Council of Trent, even while implying in its decisions and anathemas the authority of the living magisterium (which the Protestants themselves dared not explicitly deny), while appealing to ecclesiastical tradition and the sense of the Church either for the determination of the canon or for the interpretation of some passages of Holy Scripture, even while making a rule of interpretation in Biblical matters, did not pronounce explicitly concerning the teaching authority, contenting itself with saying that revealed truth is found in the sacred books and in the unwritten traditions coming from God through the Apostles; these were the sources from which it would draw. The Council, as is evident, held that there are Divine traditions not contained in Holy Scripture, revelations made to the Apostles either orally by Jesus Christ or by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and transmitted by the Apostles to the Church.

Holy Scripture is therefore not the only theological source of the Revelation made by God to His Church. Side by side with Scripture there is tradition, side by side with the written revelation there is the oral revelation. This granted, it is impossible to be satisfied with the Bible alone for the solution of all dogmatic questions. Such was the first field of controversy between Catholic theologians and the Reformers. The designation of unwritten Divine traditions was not always given all the clearness desirable especially in early times; however Catholic controversialists soon proved to the Protestants that to be logical and consistent they must admit unwritten traditions as revealed. Otherwise by what right did they rest on Sunday and not on Saturday? How could they regard infant baptism as valid, or baptism by infusion? How could they permit the taking of an oath, since Christ had commanded that we swear not at all? The Quakers were more logical in refusing all oaths, the Anabaptists in re- baptizing adults, the Sabbatarians in resting on Saturday. But none were so consistent as not to be open to criticism on some point. Where is it indicated in the Bible that the Bible is the sole source of faith? Going further, the Catholic controversialists showed their opponents that of this very Bible, to which alone they wished to refer, they could not have the authentic canon nor even a sufficient guarantee without an authority other than that of the Bible. Calvin parried the blow by having recourse to a certain taste to which the Divine word would manifest itself as such in the same way that honey is recognized by the palate. And this in fact was the only loophole, for Calvin recognized that no human authority was acceptable in this matter. But this was a very subjective criterion and one calling for caution. The Protestants dared not adhere to it. They came eventually, after rejecting the Divine tradition received from the Apostles by the infallible Church, to rest their faith in the Bible only as a human authority, which moreover was especially insufficient under the circumstances, since it opened up all manner of doubts and prepared the way for Biblical rationalism. There is not, in fact, any sufficient guarantee for the canon of the Scriptures, for the total inspiration or inerrancy of the Bible, save in a Divine testimony which, not being contained in the Holy Books with sufficient clearness and amplitude, nor being sufficiently recognizable to the scrutiny of a scholar who is only a scholar, does not reach us with the necessary warrant it would bear if brought by a Divinely assisted authority, as is, according to Catholics, the authority of the living magisterium of the Church. Such is the way in which Catholics demonstrate to Protestants that there should be and that there are in fact Divine traditions not contained in Holy Writ.

In a similar way they show that they cannot dispense with a teaching authority, a Divinely authorized living magistracy for the solution of controversies arising among themselves and of which the Bible itself was often the occasion. Indeed experience proved that each man found in the Bible his own ideas, as was said by one of the earliest reforming sectarians: "Hic liber est in quo quaerit sua dogmata quisque, invenit et pariter dogmata quisque sua." One man found the Real Presence, another a purely symbolic presence, another some sort of efficacious presence. The exercise of free inquiry with regard to Biblical texts led to endless disputes, to doctrinal anarchy, and eventually to the denial of all dogma. These disputes, anarchy, and denial could not be according to the Divine intention. Hence the necessity of a competent authority to solve controversies and interpret the Bible. To say that the Bible was perfectly clear and sufficient to all was obviously a retort born of desperation, a defiance of experience and common sense. Catholics refuted it without difficulty, and their position was amply justified when the Protestants began compromising themselves with the civil power, rejecting the doctrinal authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium only to fall under that of princes.

Moreover it was enough to look at the Bible, to read it without prejudice to see that the economy of the Christian preaching was above all one of oral teaching. Christ preached, He did not write. In His preaching He appealed to the Bible, but He was not satisfied with the mere reading of it, He explained and interpreted it, He made use of it in His teaching, but He did not substitute it for His teaching. There is the example of the mysterious traveller who explained to the disciples of Emmaus what had reference to Him in the Scriptures to convince them that Christ had to suffer and thus enter into His glory. And as He preached Himself so He sent His Apostles to preach; He did not commission them to write but to teach, and it was by oral teaching and preaching that they instructed the nations and brought them to the Faith. If some of them wrote and did so under Divine inspiration it is manifest that this was as it were incidentally. They did not write for the sake of writing, but to supplement their oral teaching when they could not go themselves to recall or explain it, to solve practical questions, etc. St. Paul, who of all the Apostles wrote the most, did not dream of writing everything nor of replacing his oral teaching by his writings. Finally, the same texts which show us Christ instituting His Church and the Apostles founding Churches and spreading Christ's doctrine throughout the world show us at the same time the Church instituted as a teaching authority; the Apostles claimed for themselves this authority, sending others as they had been sent by Christ and as Christ had been sent by God, always with power to teach and to impose doctrine as well as to govern the Church and to baptize. Whoever believed them would be saved; whoever refused to believe them would be condemned. It is the living Church and not Scripture that St. Paul indicates as the pillar and the unshakable ground of truth. And the inference of texts and facts is only what is exacted by the nature of things. A book although Divine and inspired is not intended to support itself. If it is obscure (and what unprejudiced person will deny that there are obscurities in the Bible?) it must be interpreted. And even if it is clear it does not carry with it the guarantee of its Divinity, its authenticity, or its value. Someone must bring it within reach and no matter what be done the believer cannot believe in the Bible nor find in it the object of his faith until he has previously made an act of faith in the intermediary authorities between the word of God and his reading. Now, authority for authority, is it not better to have recourse to that of the Church than to that of the first comer? Liberal Protestants, such as M. Auguste Sabatier, have been the first to recognize that, if there must be a religion of authority, the Catholic system with the splendid organization of its living magisterium is far superior to the Protestant system, which rests everything on the authority of a book.

The prerogatives of this teaching authority are made sufficiently clear by the texts and they are to a certain extent implied in the very institution. The Church, according to St. Paul's Epistle to Timothy, is the pillar and ground of truth; the Apostles and consequently their successors have the right to impose their doctrine; whosoever refuses to believe them shall be condemned, whosoever rejects anything is shipwrecked in the Faith. This authority is therefore infallible. And this infallibility is guaranteed implicitly but directly by the promise of the Saviour: "Behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world." Briefly the Church continues Christ in its mission to teach as in its mission to sanctify; its power is the same as that which He received from His Father and, as He came full of truth no less than of grace, the Church is likewise an institution of truth as it is an institution of grace. This doctrine was intended to be spread throughout the world despite so many obstacles of every kind, and the accomplishment of the task required miracles. So did Christ give to his Apostles the miraculous power which guaranteed their teaching. As He Himself confirmed His words by His works He wished that they also should present with their doctrine unexceptionable motives for credibility. Their miracles were the Divine seals of their mission and their Apostolate. The Divine seal has always been stamped on the teaching authority. It is not necessary that every missionary should work miracles, the Church herself is an ever-living miracle, bearing always on her brow the unexceptionable witness that God is with her.

II. The relation of Scripture to the living magisterium, and of the living magisterium to Scripture.

This relation is the same as that between the Gospel and the Apostolic preaching. Christ made use of the Bible, He appealed to it as to an irrefragable authority, He explained and interpreted it and furnished the key to it, with it he shed light on His own doctrine and mission. The Apostles did in like manner when they spoke to the Jews. Both sides had access to the Scriptures in a text admitted by all, both recognized in them a Divine authority, as in the very word of God. This was also the way of the faithful in their studies and discussions; but with pagans and unbelievers it was necessary to begin with presenting the Bible and guaranteeing its authority- the Christian doctrine concerning the Bible had to be explained to the faithful themselves, and the guarantee of this doctrine demonstrated. The Bible had been committed to the care of the living magisterium. It was the Church's part to guard the Bible, to present it to the faithful in authorized editions or accurate translations, it was for her to make known the nature and value of the Divine Book by declaring what she knew regarding its inspiration and inerrancy, it was for her to supply the key by explaining why and how it had been inspired, how it contained Revelation, how the proper object of that Revelation was not purely human instruction but a religious and moral doctrine with a view to our supernatural destiny and the means to attain it, how, the Old Testament being a preparation and annunciation of the Messias and the new dispensation, there might be found beneath the husk of the letter typical meanings, figures, and prophecies. It was for the Church in consequence to determine the authentic canon, to specify the special rules and conditions for interpretation, to pronounce in case of doubt as to the exact sense of a given book or text, and even when necessary to safeguard the historical, prophetical, or apologetic value of a given text or passage, to pronounce in certain questions of authenticity, chronology, exegesis, or translation, either to reject an opinion compromising the authority of the book or the veracity of its doctrine or to maintain a given body of revealed truth contained in a given text. It was above all for the Church to circulate the Divine Book by minting its doctrine, adapting and explaining it, by offering it and drawing from it nourishment wherewith to nourish souls, briefly by supplementing the book, making use of it, and assisting others to make use of it. This is the debt of Scripture to the living magisterium.

On the other hand the living magisterium owes much to Scripture. There it finds the word of God, new-blown so to speak, as it was expressed under Divine agency by the inspired author; while oral tradition, although faithfully transmitting revealed truth with the Divine assistance, nevertheless transmits it only in human formulas. Scripture gives us beyond doubt to a certain extent a human expression of the truth which it presents, since this truth is developed in and by a human brain acting in a human manner, but also to a certain extent Divine, since this human development takes place wholly under the action of God. So also with due proportion it may be said of the inspired word what Christ said of His: It is spirit and life. In a sense differing from the Protestant sense which sometimes goes so far as to deify the Bible, but, in a true sense, we admit that God speaks to us in the Bible more directly than in oral teaching. The latter, moreover, ever faithful to the recommendations which St. Paul made to his disciple Timothy, does not fail to have recourse to Biblical sources for its instruction and to draw thence the heavenly doctrine, to take thence with the doctrine a sure, ever-young, and ever-living expression of this doctrine, one more adequate than any other despite the inevitable inadaptability of human formulas to divine realities In the hands of masters Scripture may become a sharp defensive and offensive weapon against error and heresy. When a controversy arises recourse is had first to the Bible. Frequently when decisive texts are found masters wield them skilfully and in such a way as to demonstrate their irresistible force. If none are found of the necessary clearness the assistance of Scripture is not thereby abandoned. Guided by the clear sense of the living and luminous truth, which it bears within itself, by its likeness to faith defended at need against error by the Divine assistance, the living magisterium strives, explains, argues, and occasionally subtilizes in order to bring forward texts which, if they lack an independent and absolute value, have an ad hominem force, or value, through the authority of the authentic interpreter, whose very thought, if it is not, or is not clearly, in Scripture, nevertheless stands forth with a distinctness or new clearness in this manipulation of Scripture, by this contact with it.

Manifestly there is no question here of a meaning which is not in Scripture and which the magisterium reads into it by imposing it as the Biblical meaning. This individual writers may do and have sometimes done, for they are not infallible as individuals, but not the authentic magisterium. There is question only of the advantage which the living magisterium draws from Scripture whether to attain a clearer consciousness of its own thought, to formulate it in hieratic terms, or to triumphantly reject an opinion favourable to error or heresy. As regards Biblical interpretation properly so called the Church is infallible in the sense that, whether by authentic decision of pope or council, or by its current teaching that a given passage of Scripture has a certain meaning, this meaning must be regarded as the true sense of the passage in question. It claims this power of infallible interpretation only in matters of faith and morals, that is where religious or moral truth is in danger, directly, if the text or passage belongs to the moral and religious order; indirectly, if in assigning a meaning to a text or book the veracity of the Bible, its moral value, or the dogma of its inspiration or inerrancy is imperilled. Without going further into the manifold services which the Bible renders to the living magisterium mention must nevertheless be made as particularly important of its services in the apologetic order. In fact Scripture by its historic value, which is indisputable and undisputed on many points, furnishes the apologist with irrefragable arguments in support of supernatural religion. It contains for example miracles whose reality is impressed on the historian with the same certainty as the most acknowledged facts. This is true and perhaps more strikingly so of the argument from the prophecies, for the Scriptures, the Old as well as the New Testament, contain manifest prophecies, the fulfilment of which we behold either in Christ and His Apostles or in the later development of the Christian religion.

In view of all this it will be readily understood that since the time of St. Paul the Church has urgently recommended to her ministers the study of Holy Scripture, that she has watched with a jealous authority over its integral transmission, its exact translation, and its faithful interpretation If occasionally she has seemed to restrict its use or its diffusion this too was through an easily comprehensible love and a particular esteem for the Bible, that the sacred Book might not like a profane book be made a ground for curiosity, endless discussions, and abuses of every kind. In short, since the Church at last proves to be the best safeguard for human reason against the excesses of an unbridled reason, so by the very avowal of sincere Protestants does she show herself at the present day the best defender of the Bible against an unrestrained Biblicism or an unchecked criticism.

III. The proper mode of existence of revealed truth in the mind of the Church and the way to recognize this truth.

There is a formula current in Christian teaching (and the formula is borrowed from St. Paul himself) that traditional truth was confided to the Church as a deposit which it would guard and faithfully transmit as it had received it without adding to it or taking anything away. This formula expresses very well one of the aspects of tradition and one of the principal rôles of the living magisterium. But this idea of a deposit should not make us lose sight of the true manner in which traditional truth lives and is transmitted in the Church. This deposit in fact is not an inanimate thing passed from hand to hand; it is not, properly speaking, an assemblage of doctrines and institutions consigned to books or other monuments. Books and monuments of every kind are a means, an organ of transmission, they are not, properly speaking, the tradition itself. To better understand the latter it must be represented as a current of life and truth coming from God through Christ and through the Apostles to the last of the faithful who repeats his creed and learns his catechism. This conception of tradition is not always clear to all at the first glance. It must be reached, however, if we wish to form a clear and exact idea. We can endeavour to explain it to ourselves in the following manner: We are all conscious of an assemblage of ideas or opinions living in our mind and forming part of the very life of our mind, sometimes they find their clear expression, again we find ourselves without the exact formula wherewith to express them to ourselves or to others an idea is in search as it were of its expression, sometimes it even acts in us and leads us to actions without our having as yet the reflective consciousness of it. Something similar may be said of the ideas or opinions which live, as it were, and stir the social sentiment of a people, a family, or any other well-characterized group to form what is called the spirit of the day, the spirit of a family, or the spirit of a people.

This common sentiment is in a sense nothing else than the sum of individual sentiments, and yet we feel clearly that it is quite another thing than the individual taken individually. It is a fact of experience that there is a common sentiment, as if there were such a thing as a common spirit, and as if this common spirit were the abode of certain ideas and opinions which are doubtless the ideas and opinions of each man, but which take on a peculiar aspect in each man inasmuch as they are the ideas and opinions of all. The existence of tradition in the Church must be regarded as living in the spirit and the heart, thence translating itself into acts, and expressing itself in words or writings; but here we must not have in mind individual sentiment, but the common sentiment of the Church, the sense or sentiment of the faithful, that is, of all who live by its life and are in communion of thought among themselves and with her. The living idea is the idea of all, it is the idea of individuals, not merely inasmuch as they are individuals, but inasmuch as they form part of the same social body. This sentiment of the Church is peculiar in this, that it is itself under the influence of grace. Hence it follows that it is not subject, like that of other human groups to error and thoughtless or culpable tendencies. The Spirit of God always living in His Church upholds the sense of revealed truth ever living therein.

Documents of all kinds (writings, monuments, etc.) are in the hands of masters, as of the faithful, a means of finding or recognizing the revealed truth confided to the Church under the direction of her pastors. There is between written documents and the living magisterium of the Church a relation similar, proportionately speaking, to that already outlined between Scripture and the living magisterium. In them is found the traditional thought expressed according to varieties of environments and circumstances, no longer in an inspired language, as is the case with Scripture, but in a purely human language, consequently subject to the imperfections and shortcomings of human thought. Nevertheless the more the documents are the exact expression of the living thought of the Church the more they thereby possess the value and authority which belong to that thought because they are so much the better expression of tradition. Often formulas of the past have themselves entered the traditional current and become the official formulas of the Church. Hence it will be understood that the living magisterium searches in the past, now for authorities in favour of its present thought in order to defend it against attacks or dangers of mutilation, now for light to walk the right road without straying. The thought of the Church is essentially a traditional thought and the living magisterium by taking cognizance of ancient formulas of this thought thereby recruits its strength and prepares to give to immutable truth a new expression which shall be in harmony with the circumstances of the day and within reach of contemporary minds. Revealed truth has sometimes found definitive formulas from the earliest times; then the living magisterium has only had to preserve and explain them and put them in circulation. Sometimes attempts have been made to express this truth, without success. It even happens that, in attempting to express revealed truth in the terms of some philosophy or to fuse it with some current of human thought, it has been distorted so as to be scarcely recognizable, so closely mingled with error that it becomes difficult to separate them. When the Church studies the ancient monuments of her faith she casts over the past the reflection of her living and present thought and by some sympathy of the truth of to-day with that of yesterday she succeeds in recognizing through the obscurities and inaccuracies of ancient formulas the portions of traditional truth, even when they are mixed with error. The Church is also (as regards religious and moral doctrines) the best interpreter of truly traditional documents; she recognizes as by instinct what belongs to the current of her living thought and distinguishes it from the foreign elements which may have become mixed with it in the course of centuries.

The living magisterium, therefore, makes extensive use of documents of the past, but it does so while judging and interpreting, gladly finding in them its present thought, but likewise, when needful, distinguishing its present thought from what is traditional only in appearance. It is revealed truth always living in the mind of the Church, or, if it is preferred, the present thought of the Church in continuity with her traditional thought, which is for it the final criterion, according to which the living magisterium adopts as true or rejects as false the often obscure and confused formulas which occur in the monuments of the past. Thus are explained both her respect for the writings of the Fathers of the Church and her supreme independence towards those writings--she judges them more than she is judged by them. Harnack has said that the Church is accustomed to conceal her evolution and to efface as well as she can the differences between her present and her former thought by condemning as heretical the most faithful witnesses of what was formerly orthodoxy. Not understanding what tradition is, the ever- living thought of the Church, he believes that she abjured her past when she merely distinguished between what was traditional truth in the past and what was only human alloy mixed with that truth, the personal opinion of an author substituting itself for the general thought of the Christian community. With regard to official documents, the expression of the infallible magisterium of the Church embodied in the decision of councils, or the solemn judgments of the popes, the Church never gainsays what she has once decided. She is then linked with her past because in this past her entire self is concerned and not any fallible organ of her thought. Hence she still finds her doctrine and rule of faith in these venerable monuments; the formulas may have grown old, but the truth which they express is always her present thought.

IV. The organization and exercise of the living magisterium; its precise rôle in the defence and transmission of revealed truth-- its limits and modes of action.

Closer study of the living magisterium will enable us to better understand the splendid organism created by God and gradually developed that it might preserve, transmit, and bring within the reach of all revealed truth, ever the same, but adapted to every variety of time, circumstances, and environment. Properly speaking, this magisterium is a teaching authority; it not only presents the truth, but it has the right to impose it, since its power is the very power given by God to Christ and by Christ to His Church. This authority is called the teaching Church. The teaching Church is essentially composed of the episcopal body, which continues here below the work and mission of the Apostolic College. It was indeed in the form of a college or social body that Christ grouped His Apostles and it is likewise as a social body that the episcopate exercises its mission to teach. Doctrinal infallibility has been guaranteed to the episcopal body and to the head of that body as it was guaranteed to the Apostles, with this difference, however, between the Apostles and the bishops that each Apostle was personally infallible (in virtue of his extraordinary mission as founder and the plenitude of the Holy Ghost received on Pentecost by the Twelve and later communicated to St. Paul as to the Twelve), whereas only the body of bishops is infallible and each bishop is not so, save in proportion as he teaches in communion and concert with the entire episcopal body.

At the head of this episcopal body is the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff, the successor of St. Peter in his primacy as he is his successor in his see. As supreme authority in the teaching body, which is infallible, he himself is infallible. The episcopal body is infallible also, but only in union with its head, from whom moreover it may not separate, since to do so would be to separate from the foundation on which the Church is built. The authority of the pope may be exercised without the co-operation of the bishops, and this even in infallible decisions which both bishops and faithful are bound to receive with the same submission. The authority of the bishops may be exercised in two ways; now each bishop teaches the flock confided to him, again the bishops assemble in council to draw up together and pass doctrinal or disciplinary decrees. When all the bishops of the Catholic world (this totality is to be understood as morally speaking; it suffices for the whole Church to be represented) are thus assembled in council the council is called oecumenical. The doctrinal decrees of an oecumenical council, once they are approved by the pope, are infallible as are the ex cathedra definitions of the sovereign pontiff. Although the bishops, taken individually, are not infallible their teaching participates in the infallibility of tie Church according as they teach in concert and in union with the episcopal body, that is according as they express not their personal ideas, but the very thought of the Church.

Beside the sovereign pontiff are the Roman Congregations, many of which are especially concerned with doctrinal questions. Some of them, such as the Congregation of the Index, are not so concerned save from a disciplinary standpoint, by prohibiting the reading of certain books, regarded as dangerous to faith or morals, if not by the very doctrine which they contain, at least by their way of expressing it or by their unseasonableness. Other congregations, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have a more directly doctrinal authority. This authority is never infallible; it is nevertheless binding and exacts a religious submission, interior as well as exterior. Nevertheless this interior submission does not necessarily bear on the absolute truth or falsity of the doctrine concerned in the decree, it may only bear on the safety or danger of a certain teaching or opinion, the decree itself usually having in view only the moral qualification of the doctrine. To assist them in their doctrinal task the bishops have all those who teach by their authority or under their surveillance; pastors and curates, professors in ecclesiastical establishments, in a word, all who teach or explain Christian doctrine.

Theological teaching in all its forms (in seminaries, universities, etc.) gives valuable assistance as a whole to the teaching authority and to all who teach under that authority. In the study of theology the masters themselves have acquired the knowledge which usually assists them to discern truth or falsehood in doctrinal matters, they have drawn thence what they themselves are to provide. Theologians as such do not form a part of the teaching Church, but as professional expounders of revealed truth they study it scientifically, they collect and systematize it, they illumine it with all the lights of philosophy, history, etc. They are, as it were, the natural consultors of the teaching authority, to furnish it with the necessary information and data; they thereby prepare and sometimes in an even more direct manner by their reports, their written consultations, their projects or schemata, and their preparatory redactions the official documents which the teaching authority completely develops and publishes authoritatively. On the other hand, their scientific works are useful for the instruction of those who should spread and popularize the doctrine, put it in circulation, and adapt it to all by speech or writings of every kind. It is evident what marvellous unity is attained on this point alone in ecclesiastical teaching and how the same truth, descended from above, distributed through a thousand different channels, finally comes pure and undefiled to the most lowly and the most ignorant.

This multifarious work, of scientific exposition as well as of popularization and propaganda, is likewise assisted by the countless written forms of religious teaching, among which catechisms have a special character of doctrinal security, approved as they are by the teaching authority and claiming only to set forth with clearness and precision the teaching common in the Church. Thus the child who learns his catechism may, provided he is informed of it, take cognizance that the doctrine presented to him is not the personal opinion of the volunteer catechist or of the priest who communicates it to him. The catechism is the same in all the parishes of a diocese, apart from a few differences of detail which have no bearing on doctrine all the catechisms of a country are alike; the differences between those of one country and another are scarcely perceptible. It is truly the mind of the Church received from God or Christ and transmitted by the Apostles to the Christian society which thus reaches even little children by the voice of the catechist, or the savage by that of the missionary. This diffusion of the same truth throughout the world and this unity of the same faith among the most diverse peoples is a marvel which by itself forces the recognition that God is with His Church. St. Irenaeus in his time was in admiration of it and he expressed his admiration in language of such brilliancy and poetry as is seldom to be met with in the venerable Bishop of Lyons. The outer and visible cause of its diffusion and unity is the splendid organization of the living magisterium. This magisterium was not instituted to receive new truths, but to guard, transmit, propagate, and preserve revealed truth from every admixture of error, and to cause it to prevail. Moreover the magisterium should not be considered as external to the community of the faithful. Those who teach cannot and should not teach save what they have learned themselves, those who have the office of teachers have been chosen from among the faithful and they first of all are obliged to believe what they propose to the faith of others. Moreover they usually propose to the belief of the faithful only the truths of which the latter have already made more or less explicit profession. Sometimes it is even by sounding as it were the common sentiment of the Church, still more by scrutinizing the monuments of the past, that masters and theologians discover that such and such a doctrine, perhaps in dispute, belongs nevertheless to the traditional deposit. More than one among the faithful may be unconscious of personal belief in it, but if he is in union of thought with the Church he believes implicitly that which perhaps he declines to recognize explicitly as an object of his faith. It was thus with regard to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception before it was inserted in the explicit faith of the Church.

Hence there is between the teaching Church and the faithful an intimate union of thought and heart. The teaching authority loses nothing of its rights; these are limited only from above by the very conditions of the command which they have received. But the exercise of this authority is by so much more certain and easy as the faithful, generally, so to speak, confirm by their adhesion the decisions of this authority: a dogmatic definition scarcely does more than sanction the faith already existing in the Christian community. The better to understand, adapt, and preserve revealed truth against attacks or errors the masters in the Church and the professors of theology naturally appeal to all the resources offered by human science. Among these sciences philosophy, history, languages, philology in all its forms necessarily have an important place in the arsenal of the teaching magisterium. With regard to theological systematization in particular, philosophy necessarily intervenes to assist theology better to comprehend revealed truth, the better to synthesize traditional data, and the better to explain the dogmatic idea. In the Middle Ages a fruitful alliance was formed between Scholastic philosophy and theology. It may happen that philosophy and the other human sciences are at variance with theology, the science of revealed truth. The conflict is never insoluble, for the true can never be opposed to the true, nor the human truth of philosophy and human knowledge to the supernatural truth of theology. But the fact remains that scientific hypothesis, science which seeks itself, and philosophy which develops itself sometimes seem in opposition to revealed truth. In this case the teaching Church has the right, in order to preserve traditional truth, to condemn the assertions, opinions, and hypotheses which, although not direct denials, nevertheless endanger it or rather expose some souls to the loss of it. Authority has need to be prudent in these condemnations and it is well known that the cases are very rare when it may be asserted with any appearance of justification that it has not been sufficiently so, but its right to interfere is indisputable for anyone who admits the Divine institution of the magisterium.

There are then between purely profane facts and opinions and revealed truths mixed facts and opinions which by their nature belong to the human order, but which are in intimate contact and close connexion with supernatural truth. These facts are called dogmatic facts and these opinions theological opinions. In very virtue of its mission the teaching authority has jurisdiction over these facts and opinions; it is even a positive truth, if not a revealed truth, that dogmatic facts and theological opinions may also like dogmatic truths themselves be the object of an infallible decision. The Church is no less infallible in maintaining that the five famous propositions are in Jansenism than in condemning these propositions as heretical. A distinction must be made between dogmatic traditions or revealed truths, pious traditions, liturgical customs, and the accounts of supernatural manifestations or revelations which circulate in the world of Christian piety. When the Church intervenes in order to pronounce in these matters it is never to canonize them, if we may so speak, nor to give them an authority of faith; in such cases it claims only to preserve them against temerarious attacks, to pronounce that they contain nothing contrary to faith or morals, and to recognize in them a human value sufficient for piety to nourish itself therewith freely and without danger.

V. The identity of revealed truth in the varieties of formulas, systematization, and dogmatic development, the identity of faith in the Church and through the variations of theology.

The saying of Sully Prud'homme is well known, "How is it that this which is so complicated (the 'Summa' of St. Thomas) has proceeded from what was so simple (the Gospel)?" In fact when we read a theological treatise or the profession of faith and anti-Modernist oath imposed by Pius X they seem at first glance very different from the Holy Scripture or the Apostles' Creed. On closer study we become aware that the differences are not irreconcilable; despite appearances the "Summa" and the anti-Modernist oath are naturally linked with the Scripture and the faith of the first Christians. To grasp thoroughly the identity of revealed truth such as was believed in the early centuries with the dogmas which we now profess, it is necessary to study thoroughly the process of dogmatic expression in the complete history of dogma and theology. It is sufficient here to indicate its general outlines and characteristics. That which was shown in Scripture or the Evangelic Revelation as a living reality (the Divine Person of Jesus Christ) has been formulated in abstract terms (one person, two natures) or in concrete formulas (my Father and I are one); men passed constantly from the implicit seen or received to the explicit reasoned and reflected upon; they analyzed the complex data, compared the separate elements, built up a system of the scattered truths; they cleared up by analogies of faith and the light of reason points which were still obscure and fused them into a whole, in whose parts the data of Divine Revelation and those of human knowledge were sometimes difficult to distinguish. Briefly all this led to a work of transposition, analysis, and synthesis, of deduction and induction, of the elaboration of the revealed matter by theology. In the course of this work the formulas have changed, the Divine realities have become tinged with the colours of human thought, revealed truths have been mingled with those of science and philosophy, but the heavenly doctrine has remained the same throughout the varieties of formulas, systematization, and dogmatic expression. It is seen at different angles and to a certain extent with other eyes, but it is the same truth which was presented to the first Christians and which is presented to us to-day.

To this identity of revealed truth corresponds the identity of faith. What the first Christians believed we still believe; what we believe to-day they believed more or less explicitly, in a more or less conscious way. Since the deposit of Revelation has remained the same, the same also, in substance, has remained the taking possession of the deposit by the living faith. Each of the faithful has not at all times nor has he always explicit consciousness of all that he believes, but his implicit belief always contains what he one day makes explicit in the profession of faith. Certain truths, which may be called fundamental, have always been explicitly professed in the Church either by word or action; others which may be called secondary may have long remained implicit, enveloped, as regards their precise detail, in a more general truth where faith did not discern them at the first glance. In the first case at a given time uncertainties may have existed, controversies have arisen, heresies cropped up. But the mind of the Church, the Catholic sense, has not hesitated as to what was essential, there has never been in the Christian world that darkening of the truth with which heretics have reproached it; these might have seen and they who had eyes to see did see. On these points disputes have never arisen among the faithful; there have sometimes been very sharp disputes, but they had to do with misunderstandings or bore only on details of expression.

As regards truths such as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, there have been uncertainties and controversies over the very substance of the subjects involved. The revealed truth was indeed in the deposit of truth in the Church, but it was not formulated in explicit terms nor even in clearly equivalent terms; it was enveloped in a more general truth (that e. g. of the all-holiness of Mary), the formula of which might be understood in a more or less absolute sense (exemption from all actual sin, exemption even from original sin). On the other hand, this truth (the exemption of Mary from original sin) may seem in at least apparent conflict with other certain truths (universality of original sin, redemption of all by Christ). It will be readily understood that in some circumstances, when the question is put explicitly for the first time, the faithful have hesitated. It is even natural that the theologians should show more hesitation than the other faithful. More aware of the apparent opposition between the new opinion and the ancient truth, they may legitimately resist, while awaiting fuller light, what may seem to them unreflecting haste or unenlightened piety. Thus did St. Anselm, St. Thomas, and St. Bonaventure in the case of the Immaculate Conception. But the living idea of Mary in the mind of the Church implied absolute exemption from all sin without exception, even from original sin; the faithful whom theological preoccupations did not prevent from beholding this idea in its purity, with that intuition of the heart often more prompt and more enlightened than reasoning and reflected thought, shrank from all restriction and could not suffer, according to the expression of St. Augustine, that there should be question of any sin whatsoever in connexion with Mary. Little by little the feeling of the faithful won the day. Not, as has been said, because the theologians, powerless to struggle against a blind sentiment, had themselves to follow the movement, but because their perceptions, quickened by the faithful and by their own instinct of faith, grew more considerate of the sentiment of the faithful and eventually examined the new opinion more closely in order to make sure that, far from contradicting any dogma, it harmonized wonderfully with other revealed truths and corresponded as a whole to the analogy of faith and rational fitness. Finally scrutinizing with fresh care the deposit of revelation, they there discovered the pious opinion, hitherto concealed, as far as they were concerned in the more general formula, and, not satisfied to hold it as true, they declared it revealed. Thus to implicit faith in a revealed truth succeeded, after long discussions, explicit faith in the same truth thenceforth shining in the sight of all. There have been no new data, but there has been under the impulse of grace and sentiment and the effort of theology a more distinct and clear insight into what the ancient data contained. When the Church defined the Immaculate Conception it defined what was actually in the explicit faith of the faithful what had always been implicitly in that faith. The same is true of all similar cases, save for accidental differences of circumstances. In recognizing a new truth the Church thereby recognizes that it already possessed that truth.

There is, therefore in the Church progress of dogma, progress of theology, progress to a certain extent of faith itself, but this progress does not consist in the addition of fresh information nor the change of ideas. What is believed has always been believed, but in time it is more commonly and thoroughly understood and explicitly expressed. Thus, thanks to the living magisterium and ecclesiastical preaching, thanks to the living sense of truth in the Church, to the action of the Holy Ghost simultaneously directing master and faithful, traditional truth lives and develops in the Church, always the same, at once ancient and new-- ancient, for the first Christians already beheld it to a certain extent, new, because we see it with our own eyes and in harmony with our present ideas. Such is the notion of tradition in the double meaning of the word; it is Divine truth coming down to us in the mind of the Church and it is the guardianship and transmission of this Divine truth by the organ of the living magisterium, by ecclesiastical preaching, by the profession of it made by all in the Christian life.

JEAN BAINVEL Transcribed by Tomas Hancil

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

Taken from the New Advent Web Page (

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