Saturday, May 23, 2009

Authentic Orthodoxy, I

In the Roman Canon, the Church prays: "...omnibus orthodoxis atque catholicae et apostolicae fidei cultoribus", which is roughly translated "...the orthodox and catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles." Most of us, however, are familiar with the I.C.E.L. translation, "...the catholic faith which comes to us from the Apostles." The new translation of the Order of Mass, produced by the Vox Clara Commission, unfortunately perpetuates this one-sided translation. It is not only the thirteen autocephalous Orthodox Churches who are called "orthodox", but the Catholic Church as well. Let us not forget that St John of Damascus, whom St Thomas Aquinas quotes often in his Summa theologiae, titled his major work On the Orthodox Faith.

Recently, Christopher West has come under fire for his inaccurate portrayal of the late John Paul II's "Theology of the Body." This morning, however,
Dr David L. Schindler, dean and provost of the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, made the following statement:

West presents a problem for the Church, not because he lacks orthodox intentions, but because his unquestionably orthodox intentions render his theology, a priori, all the more credible.

pretence to orthodoxy constitutes a grave danger in the life of the Church. Consider, for example, the following slogans:

Christendom College is a Catholic coeducational college institutionally committed to the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church;

Southern Catholic College is a co-educational liberal arts college committed to the authoritative teachings of the Roman Catholic Church;

In conformity with the desires of the Church as expressed in the apostolic constitution
Ex Corde Ecclesiae and in Canon Law, the Catholic members of the teaching faculty of Thomas Aquinas College publicly take the Oath of Fidelity and make a Profession of Faith at the beginning of their terms of office. By these, they confirm their commitment to teaching all the parts of the program in a way that leads to and aids in reaching the natural goal of all honest intellectual inquiry - the contemplation of the truth about reality whether discovered through reason or revealed by God Himself.

One website that lists Catholic colleges and universities who call themselves "orthodox" or "faithful to the magisterium," has the following wise disclaimer: "While it is believed that at least by intention the following organizations are Catholic – presenting authentic teachings of the Church – some may fail to accept a logical sequence of doctrine and authorities."

This is precisely the problem with Catholic institutions claiming "loyalty" or "faithful" to the magisterium. The very fact that such nomenclature as "faithful to the magisterium" indicates how prodoundly misunderstood the teaching authority of the Church is, because it is not the
teaching office we are to be loyal or faithful to, but to the teachings of the magisterium; moreover, the various teachings of the magisterium do not require "loyalty" or "fidelity" but different kinds of assent that correspond to the nature of the teachings, i.e., to the primary or secondary objects of infallibility. There are, moreover, teachings of the Church that have not been defined but are nonetheless official teachings of the Church: these are usually found among the lex orandi of the Church's liturgy--such as the Dormition of the Mother of God.

All of this parading the badge of orthodoxy, I would suggest, shows how well conservative members of the Church play the game of
Who's More Catholic. Hollow self-marketing, and nothing more. Case in point: Christopher West.

One cannot be "orthodox" by brute force. Simply because a given Catholic claims presumption in favour of the magisterium does not guarantee that he or she in fact is. Why? Because various articles of belief proposed by the magisterium require various kinds of assent. In the first place, there is an hierarchy of Church teaching: First, dogma; second, authoritative doctrine, third, prudential admonitions and provisional applications of Church teaching.

On the liberal side, these three categories of Church teaching tend to be understood in terms of "most important" (dogma), "important" (authoritative doctrine), and "dispensible" (prudential admonitions). The reality, on the other hand, is that these categories differ not by their rank of importance, but by the ground of their assent.

On the conservative side, these three categories are often blurred and given a single type of assent for all three, which is hardly any better than the liberal approach to the Church's teaching authority. To make matters worse, conservatives--as exhibited by such slogans as "faithful to the magisterium"--end up placing their assent in the wrong place, that is, in the subject of infallibility rather than in the object of infallibility.

To make matters worse, many conservatives fail to see dogma or authoritative doctrine unless it is defined. For example, in a conversation with a traditionalist priest last year, it was claimed that since the Church has never defined whether or not the Mother of God died prior to her Assumption, it follows that we are free to believe or disbelieve the Dormition. The priest here got one out of two right: indeed, the magisterium has never defined whether the Mother of God died; his error was that simply because it was not defined, it did not require assent, when in fac the lex orandi of the Church has made very clear the lex credendi of the Mother of God's death.

But there is more. There can be no blanket assent for all teachings of the magisterium, because they are categorised according to their relationship to Divine Revelation. Dogma is propoerly that teaching which is to be found in Divine Revelation, and as such requires the assent of faith. Subsequently, doctrine is properly that teaching which is "connected" to Divine Revelation and serves to safeguard it, and this requires the kind of assent called obsequium religiosum. In other words, the primary object of infallibility, which pertains to Divine Revelation, requires the "assent of faith"; the secondary object of infallibility, which is connected to Divine Revelation and thus serves to safeguard it, requires the kind of assent called obsequium religiosum. As the Code of Canon Law legislates:

Although not an assent of faith [Non quidem fidei assensus], a religious submission of the intellect and will [religiosum tamen intellectus et voluntatus obsequium praestandum] must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act... (can. 752).

Such a blanket slogan as "faithful to the magisterium", then, is misleading on two accounts: (1) It wrongly shifts the assent from the object of infallibility to the subject, namely the teaching office of the Church; (2) it fails to distinguish the different kinds of assent required of different categories of Church teaching. This second point becomes all the more clearer when we take notice of the fact that "fidelity" is related to "faith" and faith is not the kind of assent owed to authoritative doctrine. Such solgans, then, attempts "orthodoxy by brute force" but misses the mark because it fails to understand properly the charism of teaching exercised by the college of bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter.

The problem of the "masque of orthodox" is really root-and-stock. We know that, prior to receiving Orders, candidates must make a profession of faith and sign the Oath of Fidelity. Unfortunately I have yet to come across a single seminary faculty that provides adequate formation in the different levels of Church teaching and the kinds of assent required. Too many private conversations with seminarians, priests, and seminary professors have left me convinced that the Oath of Fidelity has been reduced to a mere formalism. And with the Oath taken with one's right hand on the book of the gospels!

So, for those who whine about lack of "orthodoxy" in the Church, let us put the blame squarely where it belongs--on both the liberals and the conservatives.


DULLES, Avery. Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith. Naples, FL: Sapientia Press, 2007.

SULLIVAN, Francis. Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting the Documents of the Magisterium. London, UK: Wipf and Stock, 2003.

__________. Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. New York, NY: Gill and MacMillan, 1984.

GAILLARDETZ, Richard. By What Authority: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium and the Sense of the Faithful. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003.

__________. Teaching With Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium of the Church. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997.


  1. Very good points Matthew, though, I'm surprised you didn't explicitly include "say the black..." as being the wrong sort of orthodox.

    But you may be conflating material heresy with pretence. In the case cited, the danger with West is not that he's pretending to be orthodox, is that he's trying to be orthodox, and failing, whereas people who make the errors that you're describing aren't really trying.

    For instance, you see this especially when conservative and liberal Catholics get into discussions about contraception. The liberal will argue that because Humane Vitae wasn't infallibly declared, it isn't binding, and the conservative will argue that because it's an encyclical it is. Or in discussions about abortion, where the conservative will engage in a similar sort of hair-splitting to justify being agaisnt abortion but in favor of invading Iraq. Both of them have made very serious errors in their attitudes towards Church teaching.

    People, like West, can try to think with the Church, and perhaps fall into a bit of heterodoxy. But people who only assent make a different sort of mistake.

  2. Does the Magisterium itself use the expression "faithful to the magisterium"?

  3. You raise a significant point. I don't recall reading any such phrase in any of the documents of the Roman Curia. The object of faith is owed not to the Ecclesia docens but to God who is the ground of Truth.

    Thanks for raising this one.


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