The Magisterium and History


The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_CaravaggioI’m currently taking a course on the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, so his thoughts tend to show up a lot on these posts.  Here’s an interesting quote from him in light of Nathan’s post, in which Ratzinger, as prefect, comments on the relationship between theologians and the Church’s teaching authority:

[Donum Veritatis] states—perhaps for the first time with such candor—that there are magisterial decision which cannot be the final word on a given matter as such but, despite the permanent value of their principles, are chiefly also a signal for pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional policy.  Their kernel remains valid, but the particulars determined by circumstances can stand in need of correction.  In this connection, one will probably call to mind both the pontifical statements of the last century, especially the decisions of the then Biblical Commission.  As warning calls against rash and superficial accommodations, they remain perfectly legitimate: no less a personage than J. B. Metz, for example, has remarked that the anti-Modernist decisions of the Church performed the great service of preserving her from foundering in a bourgeois-liberal world.  Nevertheless, with respect to particular aspects of their content, they were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time (The Nature and Mission of Theology, 106).

Given the context of Metz (no magisterial “yes-man”), the “bourgeois-liberal world” would probably have been the milieu of German, Protestant academics, who proved generally accommodating to the Nazi party. Bultmann’s hermeneutical project of demythologization and Heideggerian transposition had left Scripture largely powerless to speak against the forces of totalitarianism.  Of course, Heidegger’s own regrettable cooperation in this regard has already been mentioned in this blog.

The underlying attitude must clearly be discerning.  The Magisterium can’t always speak with oracular certainty (especially vis-à-vis the problems raised by emergent political or scientific realities); yet even her “superseded” statements have indicated a prudent pastoral direction, and represent a continuity of principle rather than the wholesale contradiction of subsequent positions.

Following on this view, then, both those who insist on a radical “change” and those who insist on seamless continuity would alike be guilty of a certain “fundamentalism”—if by that ambiguous term one means an inability to situate a document historically or weigh its degree of magisterial authority.

Pope John Paul’s ascription of an “early mythical character” to Genesis 2 would be a prime example of respectful discernment.  Doubtlessly sensitive to past condemnations of Genesis as “myth”, he gives a lengthy footnote in which he distinguishes his own understanding from the 19th century understanding, according to which myth indicated “what is not contained in reality (Wundt), the product of imagination, or what is irrational (Lévy-Bruhl).”  This is presumably the meaning of myth that the Instruction of 1909 condemned.  Hence, he still shows some respect for the core principles even of the Magisterium’s “superseded” judgments, while also indicating a direction by which we might improve on them.

7 Responses to The Magisterium and History

  1. bill bannon says:

    I’ll be brief. In general as to all issues, Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” is makeup on the Bride of Christ. After 1252 AD according to the essay on the Inquistion at New Advent, a series of Popes made burning heretics at the stake mandatory on secular rulers who could be excommunicated if they did not do the burning at the stake. Now, “Splendor of the Truth” in section 80 calls such torture an intrinsic evil (which means it does not depend on the historical context). If there is a principle..a kernel…that has remained continuous between those two events, then such continuity and such a kernel are meaningless concepts.

    “Romanus Pontifex” by Pope Nicholas V in 1454 gave the right of despoilment of all property and perpetual slavery over peoples to the king of Portugal over “all other enemies of Christ” in the newly discovered lands….enemies of Christ who resisted the gospel….and now section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth” condemns slavery as intrinisic evil despite historical circumstances (that is what intrinsic means) and Vatican II condemns coercion in religious matters. If those two time period events are continuous, the concept is meaningless. It makes the Church complacent since no matter what the Church does…whether burning people or stretching people…it is all good in the end. It’s actually a concept of non accountability….and one can see it at work in the non punishment of those magisterial figures who shunted priest molestors around near new children without informing parents. None were punished. All actions are good in the end no matter how bizarre because there is always a kernel of priniciple that never changed no matter what the action or inaction.

  2. Thanks Aaron. Recognizing “prudent pastoral directions” in past decisions is still not making them prescriptive for the present. That is the concern I have among certain scholars.

  3. Aaron,

    Where is the “lengthy footnote” that you refer to? I would like to take a look at that. I couldn’t find it in my “Theology of the Body” text where I was reading his analysis of myth. Thanks.

    • Aaron Pidel, SJ says:

      Nathan, PC

      I have the new translation of TB by Michael Waldstein, “Man and Woman He Created Them. There, the footnote is in Section 3:1, pp. 138-139 fn 4. I don’t know it was included in the old translation, though, since Waldstein has included audiences and perhaps other materials that were not in the first version.

  4. Father Joseph SJ says:

    Thank you, at 80, I am finding out just how much I never knew. .. good work on the blog …all of you who contribute and respond.

  5. brettsalkeld says:

    Is there any chance you would be willing to pass on the syllabus from this class to me via e-mail (which you will have once I post this)? I expect to teach a course on Ratzinger some day and would love to see which writings others are including.

  6. Virgil Kaulius says:

    Inspite and despite any sins any of us have,
    or our guiding institutions, we are not
    ever here discussing Angels! The Church remains,
    in mystery, a guiding Light because founded
    by Light. So all the administrators, lesses
    to the Lessor on this rented planet,
    can do is the best human nature can….

    Instructive for me has been my many years
    in applying Ecumenism (that Vat II tells us all
    to do!) that whatever Protestant lecture on
    theology I ever attended, they would always
    refer (and many times defer!) to “what Rome
    says!” on their given topic of discussion.
    At first I thought nothing of it, but after
    a pattern of years of hearing this, it hit
    home that while denouncing Rome, they always
    nevertheless wanted to know what it thought!
    Hmmm, what’s the mystery of continuity here, eh?!

    Anyway, good old Churchill also just may have
    the last word on this subject: “History is one
    goddam thing after another!” Peace! And always AMDG!

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