Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Conflicting Teachings of the Magisterium?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 12, 2009

The doctrinal issues which divide the Society of St. Pius X and other Traditionalists from the Church are all rooted in the perception that, in the second half of the twentieth century and particularly at the Second Vatican Council, the Magisterium of the Church has contradicted its earlier teachings. There are three key areas of perceived conflict: (1) Traditionalists allege that Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty contradicts earlier teachings; (2) They allege that Vatican II’s teaching on ecumenism contradicts earlier teachings; and (3) They allege that Vatican II’s teaching that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church contradicts earlier teachings which tended to use “is” where Vatican II used “subsists in”.

The Ongoing Magisterium

It is not possible in one column to study these three issues in detail, and in any case two of the three have since been clearly addressed by the ongoing Magisterium of the Church. To those with open minds, for example, any misunderstanding of the third issue was (or should have been) put to rest by the clarifications issued under Benedict XVI by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2007 (see Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church and Commentary on the Document: Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church). Similarly, the misunderstanding of the second issue should have been swept away by Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical That They May Be One (Ut Unum Sint) and by his promulgation in 2000 of the CDF’s very pointed document On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (Dominus Iesus).

The Magisterium has also consistently upheld Vatican II’s teachings on religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae as not only compatible with previous Catholic teachings but as requiring the assent of the faithful. In this case, however, we have had no further Magisterial presentation of the precise manner in which all the various statements on religious liberty are to be understood when taken together. However, many faithful scholars have shown how these teachings can be seen to fit with each other, including the late theologian and Scripture scholar Fr. William Most, Christendom College’s chairman of Theology William Marshner, and Fr. Brian Harrison, who has devoted years of research and writing to this question. Recognizing the renewed interest in this subject in the wake of Pope Benedict’s efforts to bring the episcopal leaders of the SSPX into full communion with the Church, is currently digitizing the relevant essays and articles of these and other authors, and we will call them to the attention of our users as soon as they are available.

Proper Procedure

At the present moment I merely wish to point out the proper way to proceed in such matters. The question of religious liberty is an excellent case study because we do not necessarily yet know the best method of explaining all the relevant texts. Various scholars have shown several different ways in which the texts can be understood so that the full truth of each is upheld. But one of these arguments may ultimately prove to be more accurate than the others, or new developments may show that an as yet unforeseen approach will yield still richer fruit.

One is reminded of the rivals who challenged Chesterton’s famous fictional detective Fr. Brown, insisting that a particular crime was so impossible that it must have a supernatural cause. When Fr. Brown demurred, they dared him to show how the crime could have been committed by human agency. Fr. Brown immediately demonstrated that it was not at all difficult to see any number of ways in which the available evidence could be pieced together to make a whole, and he proceeded to reel off several possible solutions in short order. The difficulty, he noted, lies not in imagining various ways in which it could be done, but in knowing for certain the one way in which it really was done. So too, the teachings on religious liberty have been repeatedly shown to be easily reconciled in various ways; but the Church has not yet said which of these ways, if any, produces the most perfect understanding of the question.

Concerning the authenticity and truth of all the relevant Magisterial statements, this situation does not provide the least occasion for concern. Throughout history, it has been not at all uncommon to find teachings of the Magisterium which appear, at first glance, to contradict some aspect of earlier teachings. Consider the Christological controversies, in which the Church had to assert that Christ was both true God and true man! Nor is it uncommon to find two statements in Scripture that appear to contradict each other, or even two (or more) statements by Our Lord and Savior Himself. All of these teachings are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, leaving no doubt of their veracity. What is required is to understand all of the teachings properly, holding each in the correct relationship to the others, discerning which aspects of the general topic they address, and determining precisely what they say (rather than making lazy or opinionated assumptions about what they “must” mean). Once the proper understanding is achieved, everything fits. When it comes to Christ, Scripture and the Magisterium, everything always fits.

Scriptural Analogy

If a man first reads the passages in Scripture in which St. Paul says that “the just shall live by faith” (see, for example, Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11) and the same man later comes across that passage in St. James which asks, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” (see Jas 2:14 and the whole chapter), he will be very foolish indeed if he rushes out to proclaim to the world that Holy Scripture contradicts itself. And he will be just as foolish (as was Martin Luther) if he decides that the canonical book which contradicts his own understanding (in Luther’s case, The Letter of James) is not true Scripture and must be torn out of the Bible. Or to take another case: Since Jesus said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34), should we contend that Our Lord contradicted Himself when he later stated, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27)? No, we simply assume we have some work to do, that we must deepen our understanding to see how all of Our Lord’s statements on a given issue are fully, equally and absolutely true at the same time.

Through the authority vested in the Church by Christ Himself, who gave Peter the power of the Keys; who gave the power to bind and loose to all the apostles with Peter; who asserted that He who hears them hears Him; who told Peter He had prayed for him that his faith might not fail, so that he in turn could confirm his brothers; and who promised to be with His Church until the end of time—by this authority of the very Word of God, the Magisterium speaks with the same inspiration of the Holy Spirit as does Scripture. We may not always understand how all of its teachings fit together. We may have a good deal of study to do to understand everything properly. But we may be certain that every Magisterial teaching is true.

Jesus Christ is never self-contradictory, not while He walked on earth, and not while He speaks through His Church. It is, in fact, a great folly—a folly which betrays either a lack of Faith or a lack of humility—to assert that the Magisterium has contradicted itself, or that the Magisterium is not really the Magisterium when it teaches something that goes against one’s own understanding of an issue. For to say these things of the Magisterium is to say them of Christ Himself—Christ united with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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