The phrase “faithful to the magisterium” is found nowadays on websites, in college and parochial school mission statements, in descriptions of parish catechetical programs, Catholic organizations, radio stations, and even Catholic businesses. (“Why buy from us?” asks one. Among other reasons, because we are faithful to the magisterium.)
It is unfortunate that this expression has become in too many cases a shibboleth used to divide Catholics. It seems to imply that while we know that we are real Catholics, we are not at all sure about you.
When we consider the history of the Church, we see that the understanding of fidelity as unquestioning docility is contrary to Catholic tradition. Respectful challenge has been a part of Christian faithfulness to authority beginning as early as the Saint Paul’s challenge to the first pope, Saint Peter, as recounted in Galatians 2. Paul writes that he opposed Peter “to his face,” as Peter appeared to be wobbling regarding the decision not to require Christians to become Jews according to the law.
The fact is that saints can tend to be troublesome to Church authorities.
- Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) carried on a lively correspondence with Pope Gregory XVI. Her letters were both respectful and affectionate, but at times very challenging. She urged him to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon. Not long before his departure, however, he received a warning that he would be poisoned in Rome. Catherine would not accept even the threat of death as a reason for remaining in Avignon. She wrote, “I beg you in the name of Christ crucified not to be a timid child but a courageous man.”
See The Letters of Catherine of Siena,
translated with introduction and notes by Suzanne Noffke
(Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000).
Today Catherine might well be accused of not being faithful to the magisterium. But for her, fidelity was not the same thing as agreement with everything the pope said or did. In her case, fidelity to Pope Gregory meant challenging him to do the right thing for the people of God.
- Saint Joan of Arc, we remember, was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. It didn’t help her case that she was considered a cross-dresser.
- Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was imprisoned by the Inquisition.
- It was announced in December that Mary Ward (1585-1645) is declared venerable, a step in the process toward being officially named a saint. Mary Ward founded the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), but her apostolic vision was ahead of its time and not in accord with the subservient role of women in her day. She was charged with heresy and imprisoned.
- Mary MacKillop (1842 – 1909) is to be the first canonized Australian saint. She founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who established many schools for poor children. Mary was excommunicated for a period of several months, supposedly for insubordination.
That Mary Ward and Mary MacKillop are on the way to canonization is a heartening development, considering the events of their lives, but it is not really surprising, for many saints were considered difficult – and sometimes even heretical – in their day.
Did this mean that they and the other vexatious saints just did whatever they wanted and called it God’s will?
No, they would not be called venerable and blessed and saint today if that were the case. On the other hand, having carefully discerned, it is also unlikely that they would be canonized if they had yielded to the pressure put upon them to act in a way contrary to God’s call.
Saints have to assume, as we also must, that our bishops and popes are men of good will, trying, like us, to be faithful to Christ and intent on proclaiming only the truth of God — just as they must assume that we are trying to be faithful.
Our presumption must also be that other ordinary Catholics are, like us, trying to be faithful. To quote the “Presupposition” found at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:
…it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, A Translation and Commentary by George E. Ganss, S.J.
(Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1992).
One last word, this time from John Henry Newman (whose beatification has been approved by Pope Benedict XVI with the recognition of a miracle resulting from Newman’s intercession):
In On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, Newman pointed out that during the time of the Arian heresy, orthodoxy “was maintained during the greater part of the fourth century not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See, Councils, or bishops [many of whom had been swayed by Arianism], but by the consensus fidelium,” that is, primarily by the laity.
In the case of the Arian heresy, much of the magisterium was in error. More often in the history of the Church, it has not been a question of the magisterium straying, rather of occasionally needing a nudge in order to recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit. To acknowledge this is not to denigrate either the authority or the holiness of bishops and popes. It is simply to accept the fact that God often works through unexpected people and in unexpected ways. And sometimes, so we learn from our history, one generation is not sufficient for the action of God to become clear to the whole Church.
We are called to be faithful to Christ along with the magisterium who are called to teach us. The surest way to be faithful to the magisterium, then as now, is to grow in union with Christ in his divinity and in his humanity.
We honor best the teaching authority of the Church when our whole being joins in that wondrous prayer which is said quietly in our name by the priest or deacon at Mass as he adds a small amount of water to the wine:
By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
This prayer expresses both the path of fidelity and the ultimate purpose of our lives.
Icon of Saint Paul from Holy Stavronikita Monastery
Painting of Joan of Arc, Miniature, 1450-1500, Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris
Portrait of John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais, 1829-1886, London, National Portrait Gallery