Friday, 11 October 2013

Is an interview Ordinary magisterium? I don't think so!

There is another low in the increasingly large 'kick a traditionalist' genre today, with a piece by William Oddie in the UK Catholic Herald.

Essentially it attempts to use a helpful blog post by Fr Tim Finigan to argue that traditionalist reactions to Pope Francis' assorted comments, especially his round of media interviews, are rejecting the Ordinary Magisterium and that makes them uncatholic.

Well no.

Media interviews are not magisterial teaching

For a starter, what Fr Finigan's post  actually suggests is that the interview comments and other off the cuff remarks that have caused angst with many (and not just traditionalists at that) of late amount to no more than private teaching, with which we are perfectly free to disagree.

Pope Francis' assorted 'baffling and unclear' remarks, at worst claimed to be outright erroneous in the view of some, involve no issue of Ordinary Magisterium at all in other words.

I'm not sure it is quite that straightforward, but there is a real point here.  Fr Finigan's post is a reminder on the one hand, of the need to grant respect to the Office of Pope, and on the other, a useful counter to those ultramontanists currently pouring out posts urging us to treat every word of the Pope's as dewdrops from heaven (typified by Deacon Kendra's recent 'He. Is. Peter. post).

In fact, the evident presence of the dewdrops from heaven mentality notwithstanding, one very positive aspect of Pope Francis' ministry to date is that it seems to be having some impact on breaking down that ultramontanist tendency as conservatives find themselves unable to reconcile their JPII-we-love-you brand of neo-Catholicism with Francis-speak.  Some are starting to express their tiredness and chagrin at having to 'explain' what the Pope is (really) saying - you know the posts I'm talking about, they fall into these broad categories:
  • it was a mistranslation, text was omitted, taken out of context, or the journalist or source misunderstood what was said;
  • the comments can be interpreted as perfectly orthodox if we just understand them correctly;
  • (my personal favourite, proffered by the Vatican PR machine amongst others) the pope was pitching to a secular audience rather than speaking with theological precision (and some add comments to the effect that he is is not a highly skilled theologian like his predecessor/we should consider the 'broad sense' of what he is saying rather than actual words).  
Others, particularly in the pro-life movement, such as Janet Smith, are now openly challenging some of the directions he seems to be trying to set.

This seems to me to be a healthy thing for the Church, a counter to what Pope Francis recently described as the narcissistic tendency.  The role of the bishop of Rome, as Pope Francis likes to style himself, is, after all, first and foremost to confirm his brother bishops in the faith; to guard the Tradition and transmit it.  His other roles are subsidiary to this, hence the lower levels of assent and/or obedience due to them.

Where do you find the Ordinary Magisterium?

That said, there are some proper limits to public debate. But what are the principles we should apply in relation to what Popes say?

Fr Finigan pointed to the traditional approach to formal papal documents, and Vatican II also talks about 'documents'.  But I'm not sure one can really draw the line there these days, given that the papal website (and Acta Apostolica Sedes, the official record of a papacy) do actually include a lot more than just encyclicals and other traditional forms of papal teaching and governance (yep, even that interview is up there, in all its reconstructed after the fact glory!).

The current Code of Canon Law actually distinguishes between three levels of papal statements - infallible definitions, Ordinary Magisterium, and decisions on governance.

There are more infallible definitions than many people (including some bishops!) seem to think.  But it is important to be clear - it is only the actual definition itself that is infallible, not, to use the words of Sheen's revised Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, "merely expounding, commenting, observing, exhorting or discussing, etc." (p193 of the 2001 edition).  The actual teaching is not the same thing as the theological arguments made to reach or present it.

A similar point can be made about Ordinary Magisterial teaching.  It is, as Fr Aidan Nichols points out in the excellent book The Council in Question, perfectly legitimate to criticise incomplete or unbalanced formulations, and the way conclusions are reached.  It is a rather different matter to publicly disagree with a proposition put forward by the Pope or a Council, even where it is not put forward as a definitive proposition.  Moreover, we need to examine things that look like doctrinal statements in the context of their history: something stated once in an off-the-cuff is unlikely to have much weight.  Something a Pope repeats over and over again in a variety of contexts, is something that should be taken seriously.

Most of the current debate though goes to an entirely different level of papal authority, namely the power of governance. It seems to me that most of what the Pope has actually been talking about is how the Church should pitch itself to a post-modern world.

This is obviously a key area for the Pope to give leadership on, but also one not protected by the charism of infallibility: plenty of popes have made poor, even disastrous prudential decisions on church directions in the past!

Moreover, by putting his ideas out in the public arena in the modern environment, it seems to me that the Pope is actually positively seeking to stimulate debate.

If he goes so far as to legislate to give effect to some of the directions he has been putting out there (no priest shall own a new car, for example?) then we will have a duty to obey, and, indeed at a certain point to stop complaining about the issue (Roma locuta est).

But we are a way short of that point at the moment, and it seems to me that now really is the time to have our say.

The traditionalist problem

Coming back to Dr Oddie's article, is there really a traditionalist problem at work here?  I think not.

It is true of course, that some - though far from all - traditionalists do indeed have a problem with some parts of the Ordinary Magisterium (in particular, to certain documents of Vatican II), and assert the right to publicly disagree with it when they consider it contradicts the Rule of Faith that is Tradition.  That is not a position that I for one am comfortable with, and I'll say more on that in another post at some point, but it surely isn't what is at stake in the current debate.

Perhaps some have gone too far in the vehemence of their critique of Pope Francis, but I haven't seen any outright rejections of Lumen Fidei or the other formal Magisterial documents of this papacy to date.

Some have suggested that some of his casual comments seem erroneous.  If that is the case, then surely we should speak up and ask questions, and seek explanations, albeit in a respectful way?

The most extreme case I've seen is a call to disobedience on a matter of governance (viz the Franciscans of the Immaculate). I disagree with the line taken, but it is a matter of governance, not Ordinary Magisterium.

But there is a lot more to be said on this topic...


Tancred said...

Well, some of the biggest critics of the Pope are hardly Traditionalists: Novak, Cigona, Magister...

If he hasn't alienated the Pro-Life movement yet, he soon will I'm sure unless someone reigns him in.

A Canberra Observer said...

I saw some time ago someone suggest that Pope Francis seemed to emulate Mr Magoo. Sadly this becomes truer by the day.
It (the Catholic faith) is all true or none of it is true. If every utterance of Francis is the magisterium then I am on a fast boat to despair.

Kate Edwards said...

CO- Since I wrote this I've come across two very useful takes on the papal utterances from a trad perspective. The fist, highlighted by Fr Ray Blake, is Joseph Shaw's series, mystical not ascetic:

The second is Hilary White's as always clear headed view. Here is a quote:

"But how long has it been since anyone has been shocked by incomprehensible New Age Modernist gibberish coming from a cardinal or bishop? How long has it been since we learned to just ignore it, or at least allow it not to burden us personally?

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...."

Do read the whole thing here:

Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW said...

The obvious problem with how Pope Francis is managing his first year or so as Pope is the same problem we all had (and have) with the last ten years of the papacy of Blessed John Paul II, we Catholics want the certainty of what we know we have in The Church. That is Tradition, and in the two above instances, we didn't, and don't, have it and it makes us unsettled.
That said, we need to remember the papacy of Pope Benedict, and before it, his guardianship of The Church as head of the CDF.
I'm unsettled, but not troubled, more challenged and that is not the result of Pope Francis, but Pope Benedict and before that Cardinal Ratzinger.
I've often said I (my faith) and my priesthood were on a fast downhill road to nowhere until I began, in the mid 1990's to study Ratzinger's writings on the Church, faith and the liturgy.
I'm happy to be unsettled by the Pope and to examine the charges of narcissism, ideology, leprosy etc in my own personal life as well as my ministry as a Catholic Priest. I'm finding plenty I don't like and am grateful for the great examples of Pope I've been exposed to in our last three. My only hope is that I can have enough time to get to know the riches of The Church that I was denied by the failure of catechetics in my schooling years and seminary training (with the exception of a few very good professors).