How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself – Chapter IIIa of Fr J.M.A. Vacant’s nineteenth-century work on the magisterium

Chapter III of Vacant’s work is long, and so the WM Review is publishing it in two parts. This first part addresses the express teaching of the ordinary magisterium, and the second will consider its implicit and tacit teaching acts. This part also describes the ways in which the Church makes use of natural sciences such as philosophy.

As we already noted, the author J.M.A. Vacant was the initial director of the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique and was a seminary professor. This short work was awarded the prize for the theological competition in La Controverese, judged by members of the theological faculty of Lyon. Several theologians of the twentieth century engage with his ideas.

Image: Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (Source)

From

THE ORDINARY MAGISTERIUM OF THE CHURCH AND ITS ORGANS

J.M.A. VACANT

Master of Theology, Professor at the Major Seminary of Nancy

Printed with the permission of the Bishop of Nancy and the Archbishop of Paris.

DELHOMME ET BRIGUET, BOOKSELLERS-PUBLISHERS 1887

PARIS 13 RUE DE L’ABBAYE, LYON 3 RUE DE L’ARCHEVÊCHÉ

Translated by the WM Review

Source – Les Amis du Christ Roi du France

The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs – J.M.A. Vacant, 1887.

Introduction & Chapter I: The ordinary and universal magisterium in general
Chapter II
: The ministers or organs of the ordinary magisterium
Chapter IIIa: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (explicitly)
Chapter IIIb: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (implicitly and tacitly)
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium

Chapter IIIa: How the ordinary magisterium of the Church expresses itself

Owing to the multitude and unequal authorities of those who serve as her organs or instruments, the acts of the Church’s ordinary magisterium form a complex and varied whole. This variety is more striking when we consider the various ways in which these organs express themselves. Sometimes the Church speaks explicitly, presenting her doctrine to us, whether or not mixed with other elements. At other times she “leads the way” which her children must follow; and thus her acts become implicit teachings. More often than not, she is silent; and thus by leaving us to speak and act in accordance with her previous teaching and the rules which she has laid down, she exercises a tacit magisterium. This tacit magisterium confirms the acts of her explicit and implicit magisterium.

The “explicit” magisterium

We shall give and overview of these three kinds of teaching, dwelling more on the first, which we have called explicit. This teaching may be given by solemn judgments or by the ordinary magisterium. Solemn definitions have the purpose of clearly determining points of doctrine imposed on us, requiring our adherence. These definitions free it from extraneous elements and usually indicate on what grounds it is binding – as can be seen from the canons of the Council of Trent.

When the magisterium of the Church dispersed throughout the world wishes to achieve the same end, and exercises itself regarding fully-elucidated truths, it expresses itself in the same way and borrows the formulae of the solemn definitions that have been brought to bear, or other similar formulae. But more often than not, this is not so.

As long as the ordinary magisterium is exercised always and everywhere; as long as it speaks through the mouth of the missionary, proclaiming the Gospel to those brought up in false religions; as long as it speaks through the mouth of the catechist, explaining it to children; as long as it speaks through the mouth of the theologian, synthesising and systematising the revealed truths; as long as it speaks through the mouth of the apologist, showing the harmony of Christianity with all the sciences as they develop; as long as it speaks at all times, to all countries, to all conditions, to all civilisations, to all preoccupations and all needs, raising the unbeliever from the knowledge of the sensible world to the science of the divine; leading the faithful from the knowledge of the principal truths of the faith to a higher understanding of creation, putting its powerful imprint on everything that has anything to do with religion: it follows that we find its teaching united with the most diverse elements.

The Church, the guardian of doctrine, prevents that which is mingled from being confused. Through her Sovereign Pontiffs, her bishops, her theologians and her preachers, she makes it possible to discern what is sacred from what is profane, what is of faith and what is certain from what is opinion, and what is obligatory from what is free; but this discernment is not always made clearly, nor is it always easy; for in the exposition of a truth, how often is it not impossible to distinguish between what is the substance of a thing, and what is only the envelope; between what principle and its mere application.

The magisterium and human reason

Moreover, the teachings of the Church contain elements of human origin, and these form one body with the divine doctrine.

The infallible Magisterium is, in fact, a living organism, divinely constituted to develop in the midst of all civilisations, and which has received the power to incorporate everything that is true and just. Just as the bishops create for themselves, in the priests chosen from the people, organs which facilitate the accomplishment of their mission: just so, by the free action of the teachers, and under the assistance of the Holy Ghost, the sacred science assimilates the materials supplied by the secular sciences, and forms channels from them, through which circulates the sap of revealed doctrine. This is how plants create and renew the different tissues which constitute them.

Theological conclusions are deduced from divine dogmas by reason, and that they develop like so many branches and twigs born of the trunk of Revelation. But here we shall insist a little more on the part which is given to these “secular materials” in the expression of the truths of religion.

We cannot grasp any doctrine without the help of the language in which it is “incarnated”; and language spoken to us must be composed of things in keeping with our normal thoughts. This is all the more so, if we wish to place such exalted truths within the reach of limited intelligences.

Thus, in the Old Testament, God seems to attribute to Himself the bodies and passions of men, in order to make the Israelites understand His conduct and His sentiments. In the same way, the New Testament expresses mysteries so far beyond our conception that St Paul sometimes needed to create for himself a language of images and comparisons, which was capable of giving these divine thoughts to the humblest minds. The ordinary magisterium could not do otherwise. In the Church, theologians teaching revealed doctrine in a scientific manner are not afraid to employ theories and methods that have been perfected by philosophers; while catechists, preachers and authors addressing the unlearned may use parables, following the example of Jesus Christ. Could St. Thomas have left us such an admirable synthesis of theology, if he had not known Aristotle’s philosophy and had not found in it a host of frameworks and general perspectives – which all seemed to have been waiting to be applied to the exposition of Christian doctrine? Did not Saint Francis de Sales take from the science of his time those charming comparisons which make the devout life understood and loved by the men of the world?

The ordinary magisterium thus diversifies its teachings almost to infinity, to accommodate itself to all our needs. But how is the unity of Christian doctrine preserved in such a variety, and in the midst of so many elements that tend to alter it? This is what we have yet to investigate.

It may be answered, no doubt, that this unity is the consequence of the infallibility promised to the Church and to those who govern her. But this infallibility is safeguarded by the assistance of the Holy Ghost, and not by miracles or constantly-renewed revelations; and this assistance leaves all the ordinary magisterium’s means of elaborating and promulgating its teachings to the free actions of its ministers. It is therefore necessary to examine the principles of uniformity which, in the exercise of this magisterium, counterbalance those striking causes of diversity.

If we were to consider the great number of persons who exercise the ministry of the word, we would see that it is the authority of the episcopate and that of the Sovereign Pontiff that maintains harmony among them. This is a point which we have already addressed and to which we will return in Chapters V and VI. But here, we are concerned the development and form of the ordinary magisterium’s teachings. Having noted the factors that make this teaching varied and flexible, just so shall we study what is uniform and constant in it.

The “struggle for life”

Evidently the universal Church regards what is found always and everywhere in this teaching as obligatory, whether it be the substance of doctrines or the formulas which express them. Now, that which the universal Church regards as obligatory has been proposed as such since apostolic times, or in the course of the following centuries. It is understandable that the Apostles’ prescriptions should be respected in the churches which they established and in all those which have grown out of them; it is also understandable that everywhere we should bow to the express decisions of the ecumenical councils and of the Supreme Pontiffs; but what we have to investigate is how the ordinary magisterium has been able to circulate those beliefs, to introduce into all the churches, and to make obligatory what was hitherto free. This study is all the more interesting because most solemn definitions, before the judgment of the Holy See or Council, were prepared by the same mysterious action which led the universal Church to accept the doctrines or formulas promulgated therein.

We have seen the divergences which tend to arise, either between the numerous formulae into which we try to fit doctrines not yet fully elucidated or defined; or between the multiple expositions of the fully-clarified doctrines. But we have not yet commented on the simultaneous struggle for life, by which defective formulations and imperfect expositions disappear and, little by little, leave the ground clear for exact formulations and better expositions.

It is easy to study how certain formulations in some first-century writings favoured errors regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity; how they could have allowed entry to those errors; and how they gradually gave way to more perfect expressions.

The reflections and heretical conclusions of Sabellius, Paul of Samosata and their followers had the effect of showing the ambiguities of certain formulations from which they were drawn. Such formulations were abandoned, and then condemned. Other formulations, whether already old or relatively new (and seeming more fortuitous – such as the term consubstantial) replaced the defective expressions everywhere. At the same time, the judgments of the ecclesiastical authority redoubled the blows against the unfortunate expressions and the errors which they favoured, until finally a definition permanently fixed the language which had been the object of so much controversy and work. Sometimes it was the language that became more precise, at other times it was the doctrine itself that developed under the action of the ordinary magisterium.

It is not difficult to see that this “struggle for life” takes place not only between short and precise formulae making up our creeds and catechisms, but also between longer works. Treatises in which the Church does not find her doctrine expounded with accuracy, clarity and neatness disappear or fall out of use; on the contrary, remarkable writings remain, they find themselves in the everyone’s hands, and pastors recognise in them the faithful expression of the Christian teaching.

This chapter will be continued in the next part.

The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs – J.M.A. Vacant, 1887.

Introduction & Chapter I: The ordinary and universal magisterium in general
Chapter II
: The ministers or organs of the ordinary magisterium
Chapter IIIa: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (explicitly)
Chapter IIIb: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (implicitly and tacitly)
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium

Don’t forget!

Scroll down for footnotes, sometimes full of hidden gems.

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No footnotes for this translation – but Chapter IIIb has a few.

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