Faith and Reason, and the
Teaching Authority of the Church
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We commonly think of the Churchs teaching
authority in connection with controversies that arise among Catholic scholars
or when some issue touching on faith or morals threatens the integrity of the
Christian religion. No doubt the Church is called upon to exercise her magisterium
(teaching authority) in circumstances that externally are controversial or that
practically are dangerous to the spiritual well being of the faithful. On closer
analysis, however, these occasions when the Church, as it were, steps in with
her hierarchical authority are really situations in which some aspect of faith
and reason is involved.
This calls for some explanation. The human
mind has two avenues of knowledge open to it by God. One of these is the avenue
of reason and the other is the avenue of faith. Or from another viewpoint one
is the disclosure that comes from natures self-manifestation of its secrets,
while the other is Divine revelation which is supernatural.
Both sources of knowledge have God as their
Author, and therefore there can be no objective contradiction between them.
The First Vatican Council was explicit about this fact:
Although faith is above reason there can never be any
true conflict between them. For it is the same God who reveals mysteries and
infuses faith, and who endowed the human spirit with the light of reason. God
cannot contradict Himself, nor can what is true ever contradict the truth.
So far the objective impossibility of a real
conflict. But subjectively and in practice there not only can be but too often
are conflicts between what the faithful are expected to believe and what they
consider the conclusions of human reason.
Why should this be so? The source of conflict,
so the Church teaches, can arise from one of two failures: one from the side
of reason and the other from the way the faith is taught or understood. Again
the First Vatican Council gives the explanation:
An apparent form of this contradiction generally arises
either from the fact that doctrines of faith are not understood or presented
according to the mind of the Church, or from the fact that unproved opinions
are taken for established conclusions of reason. Consequently. We define that
every assertion contrary to the truth of enlightened faith is absolutely false
(Fifth Lateran Council).
Around these two foci have centered
all the conflicts of faith and reason in Catholic history. Either what God has
revealed was not correctly conceived or was mistakenly proposed to the people,
or what human reason had studied but not really demonstrated was claimed to
be certainly true.
This points up the grave duty of Church leaders,
especially those in preaching and teaching the Faith, to know exactly what the
Church holds as the doctrines of faith. Otherwise they may place an intolerable
burden on the consciences of believers, to defend the indefensible.
It also indicates the importance of a healthy
skepticism on the part of believers as regards the statements of scientists,
whether physical, social, political or psychological. Theories in the sciences
abound, but they are not always offered as theories and quite often become established
myths without having been really proved. Failure here is more pardonable among
the theorists themselves since it is so human to jump to conclusions before
all the facts are in. But it is unpardonable among Church leaders, whether in
authority or in scholarship, because if they take as seriously proved what are
only widespread opinions, they mislead the faithful and again place a heavy
burden on believers; the burden of trying to reconcile the Faith with what may
well be an irreconcilable myth.
The Anatomy of Heresy
We are now in a better position to see why
over the centuries since the time of Christ there have been so many and such
varied heretical manifestations with which the Church inevitably came into conflict.
We might almost say that every heresy of which
the Church has taken official notice was in this area of relationship. Either
what God had revealed was misrepresented or misunderstood or what the human
mind conceived to be true was actually an unfounded theory that someone then
claimed was in conflict with Gods revealed word.
To be noted is that heresy may therefore take
on either of two fundamental forms. It may first of all be a misjudgment of
what God has revealed. Building on that misconception, it then draws the logical
conclusion that some article of faith is untenable. Such was the position of
Arius who wrongly conceived the Divine generation of the Second Person of the
Trinity by comparing it rigidly with human generation, which is always the result
of a free decision on the part of the parent, who always precedes in time the
offspring he begets. But if the Son of God was generated by a free decision
of the Father, the Son is a mere creature and most certainly not God. So too
if God the Father literally preceded the Son; then there was a time when the
Son did not exist. Again He would not be God, since by definition God exists
from all eternity.
Heresy may also arise from the opposite source.
It can assume that some postulate of reason is an established fact and argue
from hypothesis to some apparent contradiction with the Faith. This is the position
of those moderns who claim that the Churchs teachings on monogamy are no longer
tenable because according to social scientists, it is impossible to live the
monogamous ideals of Christianity, in todays sexually, active society.
But there is more to the Churchs role with
respect to heresy than merely to defend the Faith against encroachments. As
we shall see, this role is also highly contributive to the development of doctrine,
as expressed by St. Augustine in one of his reflections on the providential
purpose of heresy in the history of Christianity:
Many things lay hidden in the Scriptures, until the
heretics had been cut off and began to trouble the Church of God with questions;
those things were then opened up which lay hidden and the will of God was understood.
Was the Trinity fully treated before the Arians opposed it? Was Penance properly
described before the Novatians raised their attack? So too Baptism was not perfectly
explained before the re-baptizers were cast from the fold when they contradicted
the Churchs teaching (Commentary on the Psalms, 54:22).
Consequently, the Church has not only resolved
the problems raised by the vagaries of reason in struggling with the Faith;
she has profited immensely from the encounter and in the process enriched the
faithfuls understanding of what they believe and why.
The expression, Churchs magisterium, is
ambiguous. Literally it means the teaching authority of the Churchs hierarchy
vested in the successors of the apostles under the successor of Peter, the Bishop
As such the magisterium pertains to the Divinely
authorized prerogative of the Churchs hierarchy to enlighten the minds of the
faithful on what they are to know and what they are to do in whatever pertains
to salvation; and at the same time to bind the consciences of the faithful to
accept and carry out what they are told.
Accordingly, the magisterium covers a broader
spectrum than just teaching, in the ordinary sense of the term. This is teaching,
indeed, but teaching that is supernaturally guided by the Holy Spirit and also
authorized by Him, as a result, the faithful are not only assured inerrancy
because the Holy Spirit will not allow His Church to be led into error on any
substantive issue pertaining to human salvation; they are guaranteed the support
of His grace to be obedient to what they are taught.
The Second Vatican Council has isolated a term
that should be put into context here. It speaks of the supreme magisterium,
either of the Vicar of Christ or of the bishops in union with the pope.
What does the term mean? It means that the
Churchs authority may concretely be exercised either on the highest (supreme)
teaching levels or on less than the highest level when neither the full weight
of the Churchs authority is invoked nor the whole People of God are being taught.
No doubt sometimes it may be less than obvious
how, say, a regional council dealing with some doctrinal error is teaching in
virtue of this supreme magisterium. But this should not seem strange once we
realize that what makes the magisterium supreme in any instance is the intention
of the Vicar of Christ to so teach the faithful. He may do so even when, as
not infrequently happens, he confirms the decision of even a local bishop or,
apart from a particular bishop or synod of bishops, the pope teaches what he
considers relevant for all the faithful in the Church of God.
Why is this important to have clearly in mind?
Because in the centuries of her doctrinal history, the Churchs magisterium
has been exercised in many different ways. Sometimes the pope speaks alone,
although not without much consultation with the bishops, as the popes have so
often done on a variety of dogmatic matters; at other times, there is official
correspondence between the pope and one or more bishops dealing with matters
of doctrine; at still other times, single bishops or groups of bishops, in consort
with Rome, pass judgment on controverted issues affecting the faith and morals
of Christians; and still at other times, the bishops meet in ecumenical council
to discuss and determine, under the Bishop of Rome, what the faithful are to
believe and how they are to serve God.
The key to a proper appreciation of this centuries-long
practice of the magisterium is to see it as the work of the Holy Spirit promised
by Christ at the Last Supper.
I shall ask the Father, and He will give you another
Advocate, to be with you for ever, that Spirit of truth whom the world can never
receive since it neither sees nor knows Him; but you know Him, because He is
with you, He is in you.
I have said these things to you while still with you;
but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will
teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.
When the Advocate comes, whom I shall send to you from
the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, He will be my witness.
And you too will be witnesses, because you have been with me from the outset.
It is for your own good that I am going because unless
I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send Him to
you. And when He comes, He will show the world how wrong it was, about sin,
and about who was in the right, and about judgment.
I still have many things to say to you but they would
be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes He will lead you
to the complete truth (John 14:15-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-8, 12-13).
The Church that Christ founded is animated
by the Holy Spirit whom He sent from the Father. It is this Spirit that now
speaks through the Church on every occasion when the faithful are being taught
what they are to believe, how they are to react to the speculations of human
reason, when they are to defend themselves against the aberrations of mans
pride, whom they are to accept as authentic interpreters of the Word of God,
and where among the myriad expressions of religious experience is truth to be
Vol. 2 - #2, Mar/Apr 1998, pp. 12-14
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica