Magisteriumism and Other Myths

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 23, 2008

I am indebted to a sharp-eyed reader for referring me to the treatise on the heresy of Magisteriumism posted by Ronald Conte on his Catholic Planet web site. The burden of this treatise is to warn people against adhering to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church as if it alone exhaustively encompasses the entirety of the Catholic Faith. Conte identifies more than twenty-one errors associated with this heresy. Despite the fact that he is in no sense a typical dissenter, he is very keen to emphasize the limitations of the Magisterium. The very first thing one wonders is: Why?

Before answering that question, it is important to admit the grain of truth in Conte’s argument. The Catholic Faith is not fully encompassed by the Magisterium in the sense that if something has not been particularly and fully enunciated in a magisterial document, it is therefore not part of the Faith. On the contrary, the Magisterium is silent about a great many things, intervening only when controversy or necessity demands an authoritative clarification. The idea of a magisterium without the deposit of Faith in Scripture and Tradition is self-contradictory. We don’t ordinarily learn our faith or develop our spirituality primarily by reading the pronouncements of popes and councils; we simply turn to these sources when uncertainty arises, to make sure we have not misunderstood.

Therefore, if anyone were to hold (as Conte so laboriously describes) that there is nothing to be gained from exploring Tradition and Scripture directly, and that the only sources of Faith are magisterial documents, and that every word spoken by popes and bishops is an exercise of the Magisterium, then such a Catholic would be not only impoverished, but extraordinarily confused.

But have you ever met someone who embraces this view of the Faith? I doubt it.

As defined by Conte, Magisteriumism includes a collection of potential (and badly-explained) errors which an unwitting Catholic might just conceivably fall into. Grouping these under a single heading, Conte is pleased to call these disparate errors a formal heresy—Magisteriumism—despite the fact that this “heresy” has never been heard or seen, still less adjudicated by the Magisterium of the Church (which even Conte admits should, in cases of this type, have the final word).

Again, the question is why? As I've mentioned, Conte is not a liberal dissenter. He holds no brief for a Magisterium of Theologians in opposition to the Magisterium of the Pope. He is not at all beset by moral relativism. He does not appear to be struggling against any of the basic teachings of the Church. He betrays no secret vices. So why is he so intent on getting us to accept the dangers of Magisteriumism?

When you look at the rest of his web site, the penny will drop. On nearly every page, Ronald Conte explains the most abstruse doctrinal and pastoral questions with unbridled confidence and clarity, setting everything forth on his own authority, with occasional references to whatever else happens to support his ideas. Mystical Baptism? Conte has you covered. The sinlessness of St. Joseph? Conte knows exactly how it works. The question of Limbo? Never fear, Conte is here. Moreover, Conte is here all by himself. He pauses neither to investigate the work of theologians who have grappled with these questions over the centuries nor (as may well be guessed by now) to cite supporting evidence from the Magisterium of the Church.

In fact, Ronald Conte never expresses the slightest hesitation or the slightest doubt on any complex issue. Salvation outside the Church? No problem. The proper way for women to behave? Simple and clear. The very specific rule people should follow in determining how frequently to receive Communion? Ronald’s one size fits all. Conte draws his ideas from private revelation, favorite saints, or simply his own dubious spirituality. After all, he has already warned us that the Faith is much bigger than the Magisterium, and that it is actually a heresy to rely overmuch on the Magisterium. And so—on his own sole authority—he blithely explains everything you always wanted to know about Catholicism but were afraid to ask.

Did you hear the penny? Ronald Conte is not a mainstream secularized dissenter; he is simply very fond of private revelation and of his own private ideas. Those who would suggest greater caution and the need for a little authority must be guilty of, well, Magisteriumism.

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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