How autonomous is the “magisterium”?

This is the sort of thing that makes me nervous about Catholicism: the Touchstone magazine blog includes a comment today on the Reflections on Covenant and Mission put out by the bishops’ committee not long ago. The comment points out that in a recent piece in America members of the committee that wrote the report dealt with inconsistencies between that document and statements in Paul and Hebrews by claiming “The magisterium can explicitly contradict an idea of an individual New Testament author because the Catholic tradition is one of commentary, not of sola scriptura (Scripture alone).”

To my mind the justification for accepting the authority of the Church is that it is the guardian of what it has received. It seems to me that view makes the Church a liberating force that proclaims truths that don’t depend on any of us and not a tyranny that binds us to accept whatever the dominant faction in the hierarchy, or those who claim expert knowledge, see fit to tell us. I thought that the traditional view was that public revelation ceased with the death of the last of the apostles, and that legitimate “development” of doctrine is not a matter of legislating new truths but making explicit what was already and has always in substance been believed. If that is so it ought to be visibly so. To the extent such a view of the mission of the Church is obscured it becomes harder to recognize in the Roman Catholic Church its legitimate authority.

3 thoughts on “How autonomous is the “magisterium”?”

  1. You are correct.

    I don’t
    You are correct.

    I don’t like commenting on sentences out of context. But I will. 🙂

    Alas, the sentence quoted strikes me as an act of deception. The magisterium can “contradict” (if you like) the Sacred Scriptures in matters of discipline. (For instance, nobody cares too much if women have their heads uncovered in Catholic churches these days.) But, of course, doctrine set out in the Sacred Scriptures cannot be “contradicted”.

    I do not know what the writers had in mind when referring to “an individual New Testament author”. I suspect that whatever this sentence was taken from is as poorly, badly, horribly written as the Reflections document itself.

  2. True enough that it’s hard
    True enough that it’s hard to tell much from a statement out of context (the America article in which it occurs is not available online unless you’re a paid subscriber). Still, the reference to “commentary” suggests the writers didn’t have the continuing disciplinary authority of the Church in mind.

    The point of the entry, of course, was my own state of mind as a prospective convert. The more one has to read warily considered statements by bishops on basic issues and judge them for oneself the harder it is to to see that the Church has a special public teaching authority that can be relied on. Matters are made worse if experts working with the bishops say things that support the worst possible interpretation of what the bishops are doing.


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