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Shooting the Messenger: What the Church teaches about her own authority

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 26, 2011

Phil Lawler and I have had some very negative responses to our commentaries on Monday’s recommendation by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to establish a new stratum of world government to regulate certain aspects of the global economy (see PL, Spare us from Vatican economic analysts and JM, The PCJP’s Vision of Polity: The Ideal vs. the Real).

Perhaps it was something in our tone which gave offense, but some people objected to the strict distinction we drew between the authority of the Magisterium of the Church on the one hand, and the utter lack of authority in any concrete social, political or economic solutions any Churchmen, including those at the Vatican, might propose on the other. Some people simply did not like this stark dichotomy.

For those in that group, I would counsel you not to shoot the messenger. We were not stating our preferences on this, or being cafeteria Catholics, or selective dissenters. We were upholding the Church’s own magisterial teaching about the nature of her authority, and using that teaching as a basis for criticism of what appeared to us to be a potentially-damaging foray into technical economic and political solutions on the part of one of the Church’s agencies.

The Church’s Position and Some Related Dangers

The Church has magisterially stated, again and again throughout history, that she does not and cannot offer particular, concrete solutions to political, social or economic problems. Instead, she teaches the truth about man, basic principles drawn from Revelation and the Natural Law which should guide the laity in addressing such problems themselves. To prescribe specific solutions is beyond the Church’s competence. Typically when individual churchmen, groups of bishops, Vatican offices, or even popes themselves have deviated from their charism and competence in this matter, it has only served to alienate and confuse the faithful.

This is because in offering specific solutions, those who represent the Church are as subject to human error, and at least potentially as culture bound, as anyone else. Their advice may be impractical, poorly conceived, or worse; they may advocate a particular solution because it is familiar and comfortable, without seeing new things that must be addressed; they may fail to discern significant new conditions, or they may fail to acknowledge existing conditions which it is unfashionable to admit. In stating what appears to them obvious, they may really be drawing what seems obvious from their own ignorance or their own prejudices. Their advice will almost always appear partisan to those who disagree with it, and this invariably reduces the ability of the Church to minister effectively to all. Finally, to expend ecclesiastical authority on matters in which the Church has no special competence inevitably serves to undermine the trust of the faithful in the Church’s teachings on faith and morals, where she is competent to the point of infallibility.

I would wager that the Church has formally clarified the limits of her teaching authority hundreds of times in history, including very often in modern times. This has been especially true when formulating her social teaching, because in this area the Church’s competence must be clarified in order to avoid precisely the kinds of misunderstandings which I have enumerated. To prove this claim, let us look at what three recent popes have stipulated in their respective social encyclicals:

Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 1967:

…the Church, without attempting to interfere in any way in the politics of States, “seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ Himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served”. (#13)

If the role of the Hierarchy is to teach and to interpret authentically the norms of morality to be followed in this matter, it belongs to the laymen, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live. (#81)

Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987:

The Church does not have technical solutions to offer for the problem of underdevelopment as such, as Pope Paul VI already affirmed in his Encyclical. For the Church does not propose economic and political systems or programs, nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her ministry in the world. (#41)

It is worth pointing out that this encyclical is entitled On the Social Teaching of the Church, and that this passage is footnoted precisely to the two paragraphs from Paul VI quoted above, in case there is any doubt over what those passages mean.

Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009:

The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.” She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation. (#9)

Here Pope Benedict deliberately refers to the statements of both Paul VI and John Paul II. To conclude, then, it is the Church’s mission to build the Kingdom of God among men, forming them in faith, hope and love, and teaching them the principles of right understanding and right conduct that are found in the Gospel and the Natural Law. Thus formed and vivified, the laity, who are to live in the world, assume the office of implementing and transforming all human activities, goals, policies and structures, using their energy and expertise to address the manifold problems of ordinary life in the light of Christ.

Back to Our Commentaries

Now it is certainly possible for a reader to believe we were wrong to suggest that the recent advice of the PCJP was bad advice. That is a matter for legitimate discussion and debate among those who are well versed in the problems cited. It is also possible to recognize that some priests, bishops, and Vatican agencies, especially those which enlist the services of many lay experts, may have useful concrete proposals to offer in political, social or economic affairs. Our point here is simply that such discourse under the auspices of “the Church” always carries with it, at least potentially, the problems I itemized earlier.

But it is not possible, as a believing Catholic, to disagree with the one pivotal point of our commentaries, namely, that such concrete proposals, no matter what their source within the Church, are necessarily lacking in authority. To utilize them effectively, you must first separate out any illusion of intrinsic spiritual weight, and then evaluate them absolutely on their human merits.

Moreover, you must retain the agility of mind to distinguish sharply between such statements and other kinds of statements, from similar sources, which embody the Church’s absolute and unconditional authority over faith and morals. More still, you must promise yourself that your annoyance at deficiencies in the first realm will never tempt you to suppose there are equal deficiencies in the second. And even more than all this, you must avoid the temptation of thinking that because you accept the proposals in the first realm while rejecting the teachings in the second, you are therefore as good a Catholic as those who reject the proposals in the first realm while accepting the teachings in the second.

Now I ask you: Why is it not possible to disagree about this? Because that’s what the Church, through her Magisterium, teaches. The Church herself unequivocally asserts, with her full competence to discern the truth, that she has no authority, no competence, to speak in these matters: “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer.”

So please do not shoot the messenger: We do not make this stuff up.

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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  • Posted by: EiLL - Oct. 30, 2011 8:50 AM ET USA

    Thank you for a clear explanation. Christ made the point succinctly when he said “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Mk. 12:17. He refused to prescribe an answer to a volatile tax and social policy debate, but put it to the questioner to correctly apply God's teaching in individual circumstances. Interestingly, Christ was quite precise in his response to the next question, about the resurrection from the dead. Mk. 12:24-27.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 27, 2011 8:14 AM ET USA

    Good point. The charism of infallibility is a supernatural one and a rare one. At the conference on Bioethics at Christendom College 2011, Cardinal Arinze interjected at one point during a particularly passionate exchange on a very complicated and controversial topic to exclaim that the Church rarely speaks infallibly on anything. Her competency with regard to this extraordinary charism of infallibility is quite limited. Regulation of the global economy is not included. That much is a slam dunk.

  • Posted by: gop - Oct. 26, 2011 8:19 PM ET USA

    Thanks for a very clear explanation. Would that many people understand this!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 26, 2011 8:03 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, in the wake of Vatican II (for whatever reason) Catholics have been forced to choose between tradition (not Tradition) and authority in general terms: because authority often abandoned much of tradition--we threw our culture away. In choosing authority, some Catholics electively came to view the Church as authoritarian rather than authoritative--although that's not the Church's view. You have encountered that problem.