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Heresies & Heretics

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Faith and Reason, and the
Teaching Authority of the Church

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We commonly think of the Church’s 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 nature’s 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 God’s 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 Church’s teachings on monogamy are no longer tenable because according to social scientists, it is impossible to live the monogamous ideals of Christianity, in “today’s sexually, active society.”

But there is more to the Church’s 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 Church’s 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 faithful’s understanding of what they believe and why.

Church’s Magisterium

The expression, “Church’s magisterium,” is ambiguous. Literally it means the teaching authority of the Church’s hierarchy vested in the successors of the apostles under the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

As such the magisterium pertains to the Divinely authorized prerogative of the Church’s 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 Church’s 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 Church’s 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 Church’s 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 man’s 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 found.

Catholic Truth
Vol. 2 - #2, Mar/Apr 1998, pp. 12-14

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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