Monday, 14 October 2013

Tradition and Obedience: where is the line?

In my previous post (on Those Interviews) I sketched out some points about the Ordinary Magisterium, and noted that on the face of it, media interviews weren't it.

I wanted to elaborate on a few points today, on just what is and isn't magisterial teaching, and how we deal with so-called 'private teachings' and actions of a pope that appear, on the face of it, to be problematic.

'Private' teaching vs the exercize of the magisterium

Some at both ends of the theological spectrum regularly certain examples of past papal comments that have proved to be erroneous.  The classical example is John XXII's views on the beatific vision, often cited by those wanting to claim cases of past heretic popes in order to justify present dissent and disobedience.

But not everything a Pope says is magisterial.  A lot of what he says will be, purely because he is simply restating previously defined doctrine.  When it comes to new (sounding) ideas or formulations though, as the Code of Canon Law (752) states, the Pope has to be 'exercising his authentic magisterium'.  And, as Lumen Gentium (25) makes clear, we know when that is occurring by the level of authority the document in which the teaching is contained, by the way the doctrine is formulated, or by the frequency with which it is proposed.

So, as Pope Benedict XVI made clear in relation to some of his own interviews and books, the Pope can also propagate 'private' teaching that is not intended to be an authentic exercize of the Magisterium.
Let's go back to Pope John XXII, who, back in 1332, made exactly the same claim in relation to his own views on the beatific vision, stating, when a series of sermons ignited a theological controversy.

His response to his critics was that he was simply trying to begin discussion on a difficult theological issue, and his sermons were only private teaching (a good discussion of the nuances of this particular controversy can be found in Warren Carroll's The Glory of Christendom, Volume 3 in his classic series, pp371-3).  So though imprudent and subsequently defined as erroneous, he was arguably not in fact exercising the Ordinary Magisterium and seeking to bind catholics to his views (nor was he technically a heretic, since you can't be condemned for a teaching that hadn't been formally defined as de fide when you were alive: indeed, if you could be, St Thomas Aquinas would have to be accounted a heretic for his views on certain Marian doctrines!).

The bottom line is that in such cases we are not required to give even 'religious assent' to this kind of 'private' teaching, but are free to disagree with it.

Now it has to be admitted that to use the term 'private teaching' in relation to something a Pope does or says is a bit of misnomer - particularly these days, anything he says and does is going to be in the public domain very quickly indeed.  

And shouldn't the Pope's views, as leader of the Church and its chief spokesperson be given some weight and respect even when they aren't binding on us?

Well yes.

But it needn't be uncritical and unthinking acceptance.

So how do we cope with the challenge posed by such 'private' teachings?

I want to draw your attention to a couple of useful blog posts by others on this subject.

Don't panic!

First Hilary White has a post (over at the always entertaining Orwell's Picnic) that starts off with a warning not to panic:

"I hope everyone feels better today. No silly panicked runnings-off to the Orthodox or the SSP-2.5? 

Good. The sun continues not to set on the Catholic world, and the Faith is still the Faith...

If you are a Catholic, you know what the Faith is. If you don't, trust me, its written down somewhere, using very *very* precise and comprehensible language, leaving NO room for ambiguity or "misinterpretation". Look it up.

Do the work, people. The time of just sitting back and letting the pope do the driving is over."

In fact, she proposes a useful strategy to cope with those interesting utterances (it involves alcohol).  I'm not endorsing everything she says there.  But I think the advice to lighten up and not panic over everything we read in the media on the one hand, and to embrace the suffering of the cross on the other, is sound enough.  Do go and read.

Pope Francis to date

The second point to make is that while we owe respect to the Pope, there is no obligation on us to read and ponder everything the Pope has to say (or is claimed to have said via media reports).

Mr Schutz (of Sentire Cum Ecclesia blog) tweeted today on the problem of an overabundance of food:

If you are brought up on a diet of papal pronouncements, what do you do when you find yourself regularly being served 9 courses 4 breakfast?

My advice: avoid obesity and exercise some restraint.  Don't eat it all!

Certainly if the Pope calls on all Catholics to do something (such as fast and pray for Syria for example), we should give serious consideration to doing so.  And if he asks the bishops to take some good initiative, we should support and encourage their efforts.

If he puts out an encyclical or some major statement, we should familiarise ourselves with it.

We should take notice of the broad directions he is canvassing or setting for the Church.

But we don't have to follow him 24/7.

Avoid papolatry

 Nor do we have to imitate his every action.

When Pope John Paul II, presumably in the heart of the moment, kissed a Koran, we didn't all leap to do likewise and nor should we have, for Popes as much as anyone else can fall down on matters of prudential judgment.  Similarly, I really really hope we won't see a spate of washing Muslim girls' feet next Maundy Thursday, or bishops lighting candles at a Jewish Hanukkah ceremony, for example.  

And when it comes to ideas, just because the Pope is a Jesuit doesn't mean we all have to come Jesuits too (or Lesuits as the case may be!).

As Joseph Shaw on his LMS Chairman's blog puts it in one of his series of five posts that looks at how Pope Francis' approach can be reconciled with the traditionalist perspective (to the extent that it can be) and the challenges it poses to us:  

"Neo-Conservatives...place enormous emphasis on the person of the Pope, seeking at all costs to endorse and live by even their non-magisterial statements and philosophical preferences. Pope Paul was a follower of Maritain? Let's all follow Maritain! Bl John Paul II was a Phenomenologist by training? Let's all be Phenomenologists! Pope Benedict likes St Augustine and Scotus? You get the idea." (from Part 2 of his series)

Do read them all of Mr Shaw's useful series (the link above is to the last in the series, which provides links to all of the others).

But what if?

The pessimists of course are convinced that there are past examples of the Ordinary Magisterium of not just being poorly and inadequately formulated, and lacking the necessary context to properly explain them, but are outright heretical.  And some are getting ready to slit their wrists in the face of the next dose of formal heresy that is surely just about to be formally promulgated.

Personally, I remain unconvinced.

In fact there are, I think, some fundamental divides within the traditionalist movement on this issue, which I'll try to articulate in a subsequent post.

Regardless, in the meantime, let's not get ahead of ourselves!

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