Theology and the Magisterium

A little while ago, the CDF released a document, Donum Veritatis, which addresses primarily theologians and the magisterium and how the two interact. The magisterum is the teaching authority of the Church, which is given to the pope and the bishops. Christ gave them the power and authority to teach in His name. The magisterium “must protect God’s People from the danger of deviations and confusion, guaranteeing them the objective possibility of professing the authentic faith free from error, at all times and in diverse situations.”

However, this is not necessarily the same job as the theologian. A theologian is “to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word Of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church.” The theolgian attempts to take the truths of the faith and find ways to explain them to a new generation. In our modern world, this is so important because, “In times of great spiritual and cultural change, theology is all the more important.”

In other words, the magisterium is charged to make sure the authentic truths of the faith are given. But the role of the theologian is to find the best ways to express the faith in ways that are effective. For example, as I high school teacher, I use lots of analogies to things that my students would understand: movies, social media, high school drama, etc. But when I teach the same subject to adults, I tend to pivot towards things that are more applicable to them: marriage, children, jobs, taxes, and the like. In both cases, I have to make sure that I am teaching the truths of the faith (as guarded by the magisterium), but I have to teach it in a way that my audience will understand (like the theologian).

We are all believers who are in need of the grace of Christ. Most lay people do not have the same depth of training on theological matters as the theologian or members of the magisterium. The document states that, “The theologian’s work thus responds to a dynamism found in the faith itself …Theology, which seeks the ‘reasons of faith’ and offers these reasons as a response to those seeking them…” Those seeking the reasons of faith are the lay persons. The theologian works at expressing these reasons in an understandable way. “Theology therefore offers its contribution so that the faith might be communicated.”

The relationship the magisterial authority of the bishop and the theologian is a “reciprocal relationship. The [magisterium] teaches the doctrine of the Apostles. And, benefiting from the work of theologians, it refutes objections to and distortions of the faith and promotes, with the authority received from Jesus Christ, new and deeper comprehension, clarification, and application of revealed doctrine.” This means that a magisterium should use the insights of the theologian to aid in its work of handing on the faith of the Apostles. But the theologian also is influenced by the magisterium: “Theology, for its part, gains, by way of reflection, an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the Scripture and handed on faithfully by the Church’s living Tradition under the guidance of the Magisterium.” The theologian should not simply speculate in ways that are contrary to the faith of the Apostles. Instead, the magisterium offers the framework under which the theologian can gain insight into the authentic revelation of God and not merely into his or her own opinions and theories.

When St. Thomas Aquinas began incorporating much of Aristotle’s philosophy into his theology, there were many at the time who were dubious. There was a fear that this non-Christian philosophy could lead to a corruption of the truth. It was St. Thomas’s job as a theologian to explore the best legitimate avenues for teaching the faith. In this case it was using Aristotle’s language to explain things like transubstantiation. The job of the magisterium was to make sure that St. Thomas was not bending the Gospel in innappropriate ways to fit in with Aristotle’s philosophy. Sitting where we are now, hundreds of years later, we can see the benefits of St. Thomas’ project. But it is not always so obvious. For example, decades ago there was a surge in popularity of “Liberation Theology,” which was influenced heavily by the philosophy of Karl Marx. While the theologians weren’t wrong in exploring if any insights from Marx could be useful, they were wrong when they adopted the parts of Marx’s thinking that were contrary to the Gospel. This led to that famous moment when Pope John Paul II publically scolded Fr. Ernesto Cardenal when he visted Nicaragua (the situation was more complicated than that, but it was part of the issue). The Pope, acting as leader of the magisterium, saw that it was important to keep this theology from straying from the teachings of Christ.

The ultimate task of the theologian as theologian is, “to clarify the teaching of Revelation with regard to reason and [give] it finally an organic and systematic form.” The ultimate task of the magisterum is to pass on the authentic teaching of the apostles. The ultimate task of the lay person is also that of the theologian, which is to deepen his or her relationship with Christ and thus enter into His saving power. In other words, “the People of God must continually reawaken or “rekindle” its own life of faith.” This draws all of us to “respond to this calling ‘above all by means of the life of faith and charity, and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise.’”

Copyright 2024, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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