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Home : Faith/Spirituality : The Question Box
2/20/2012 12:22:00 PM
Absolute authority comes from God

Deacon Owen Cummings

Q —Are Catholics required to believe even non-infallible teachings of the Pope?

A — Faith is always faith in God, not simply a notional awareness of God but a commitment to live out of the reality that is God as the fundamental orientation of one’s life, and that commitment necessarily implies beliefs. In the life of a believing/committed Christian the one absolute authority, therefore, is God. Under God, several types of authority exist in Christian communities. In point of fact, any religious group will be characterized by a whole apparatus of authorities, regarded as providing a reliable path to salvation/union with God, which is the aim and goal of Christianity.

Obviously, there must be some way of publicly expressing the faith of the church, against what are judged to be aberrations. If everything is equally true, nothing may be regarded as true. Not every attitude and expression is consonant with the Gospel. There is a need for discernment. That brings us to the magisterium, “the teaching office.” The magisterium exists not simply to settle debated and disputed questions, but also to inspire, encourage and stimulate the Christian intellect. Talking about what Catholics are “required to believe” does not come close to this understanding of the magisterium. It is not simply a matter of checking off assent to a list of statements or beliefs. It is allowing one’s intellect and will to be shaped, guided, stretched and led by the competent authorities in the church, that is, the magisterium.

The pope makes use of his extraordinary magisterium when he issues an ex cathedra pronouncement, as occurred when Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1854 and when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in 1950. The pope exercises ordinary magisterium in his day-to-day preaching and in written statements that do not claim to enjoy the guarantee of infallibility, for example, an encyclical. An encyclical is an expression of the pope’s ordinary teaching authority, which, according to the common teaching, is not infallible. The same may be said of apostolic exhortations, letters to priests, messages, homilies, and the like.  A Catholic honors and respects and usually receives statements of the ordinary magisterium without much difficulty. That is the normal situation, requiring what might be called a tensive balance. This tensive balance has been well described by the Catholic historical and patristic scholar, Anthony Meredith, SJ: “To overstress the obedience of the subject and the enlightenment of the superior is to open the doors to an unchristian despotism; to overstress the freedom of the subject and the superior’s duty to serve is to run the risk of losing the enlightening and unifying guidance of the Spirit as he speaks through the Magisterium.” [Anthony Meredith, SJ, The Theology of Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: Fides Publishers, Inc, 1971), p. 46]. It would be difficult, it seems to me, to come up with a better answer to the question posed: “Are Catholics required to believe even non-infallible teachings of the Pope?”

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