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"Chapter 7. The Magisterium"


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There is a widespread tendency today to ignore or to minimize Magisterium teaching on all subjects, and of course, on our problem as well. Some in a loose way compare Magisterium teachings in general to poetry.1 Others speak of them as so historically conditioned that we may see room for important changes.2 Karl Rahner dismisses many of the statements on the problem we are treating as "marginal and incidental."3 Avery Dulles asserts that "No generation can formulate the abiding content of the faith 'chemically pure', so as to commit all future generations."4 Atkins seems to see a vicious circle: the Magisterium tells us to believe the Magisterium; rather he would have "its [the Magisterium's] own self-interpretation...subject to the theologian's interpretation."5

It is evident that before we take up the Magisterium tests we ought to reflect somewhat on the opinions just mentioned.

First of all, Vatican Council II did insist that the only final interpreter of Scripture and Tradition is the Magisterium: "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the oral form, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."6 Do we have here a case of what Atkins refers to, viz., a vicious circle? By no means. We first validate the general claim of the Church to teach on the basis of the Bible taken as a mere historical document. Not too much is required for this.7 Some writers prefer to use the historical witnessing of the Church to establish points about Jesus,8 not, of course, considering the Church as a divinely protected institution, but solely as a human institution extending back to the time of Jesus. Only after thus validating the teaching claim of the Church (in either of the two ways) do we find it intellectually possible-and inescapably necessary-to believe the Magisterium.

Furthermore, what Vatican II enunciates is nothing new; rather, it is simply a restatement of what the Church has presupposed from the beginning, i.e., that it has been the witness to Christ and His teaching ever since He Himself told the Apostles (Lk 10:16). "He who hears you hears me."

Vatican II distinguished, as did previous Councils, between defined and infallible truths, and non-defined and non-infallible doctrine.9 It insisted upon the obligation of giving true internal belief even to non-infallible teachings. The objection has been made that we cannot believe the Church, since it has so often erred in non-defined matters. However, a check of the actual instances proposed reveals only one case in 2000 years is even close to being an erroneous teaching. Actually, only some theologians in the Holy Office called Galileo's view heretical. The decision of the Holy Office itself called it only "suspect of heresy", and the Pope himself did not officially endorse the decision.10 Other instances that are voiced do not stand up under close examination, e.g., the teaching on usury has not changed. Usury is taking excessive interest. Excessive interest rates remain unjust and sinful. Most states still have specific laws against usury. Society determines the precise amount that is excessive within its economic structures.

A further objection. Once we admit that there is a chance, even a small chance, of error, no one can be asked to give internal assent. We reply: (1) our assent takes into account that possibility, but does so realistically, realizing that it is immensely remote; (2) everyday life does and must depend on non

infallible beliefs, e.g., if I eat food from a can, I have no infallible assurance it does not contain deadly botulism-even a laboratory check is not infallible, and of course, cooks do not everlastingly send their kettles of boiling soup to the laboratory. So most persons, including myself, daily risk their lives on non-infallible cooks. Occasionally indeed the undertaker is the court of last resort.

What of the claim that teachings are historically conditioned? In a way they are-revelation took place in concrete historical circumstances. We should, and do, study those circumstances and cultural settings to better understand the meaning as understood at the time the documents were composed: To refuse this type of study would be foolish fundamentalism. On the other hand, to question or discard all past teachings would be equally simplistic. The realistic course is a middle one, namely, to study the actual situation in which a revelation was given.

In making that study, several distinctions, as usual, are needed. First, only that which is actually the object of judgment in a given text constitutes the divinely inspired message. We are not called on to do mind reading, or to say that in view of conditions at the time the framers of a text may have been thinking of a given point. Of course, as noted, a knowledge of contemporary conditions and of the language employed does help us to see precisely what is actually expressed.

Second, are the forms of expression used in the past beyond all improvement! Vatican 11 answers, in the Decree on Ecumenism: "...if...there have been the way that Church teaching has been formulated (to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself), these should be set right at the opportune time."11 The qualification is obvious.

Obvious too is the fact that God Himself is beyond all human definition, i.e., we can never express His being or wisdom fully in human language. Yet we must not for this reason give up, and say all formulations are so deficient as to be unreliable. For it is precisely the divine nature itself that is inexpressible. But when we come, as it were, to derivative truths, these can be expressed and expressed sufficiently well, e.g., the fact that Jesus redeemed us; that He had two natures, divine and human. So we should not fall into nebulous obscurantism; we should carefully distinguish what can and what cannot be adequately expressed in human language.

Even in matters where perfect expression is not possible, some true judgments can be made, and made correctly. For this reason Pope Paul VI, in the document Mysterium fidei, insists: "The norm...of speaking which the Church...under the protection of the Holy Spirit, has established and confirmed by the authority of the Councils...must be religiously preserved. Let no one at his own whim or under the pretext of new knowledge presume to change it.... For by these formulae...concepts are expressed which are not tied to one specific form of human civilization, or to one definite period of scientific progress, or to one school of theological thought, but they present what the human mind...grasps of realities, and they express them in terms that are suitable and accurate.... For this reason, these formulae are adapted to men of all times and all places."12

We need to note too that an important and obvious distinction is needed in regard to infallible definitions. Are we asked to consider as infallible both the conclusion (the teaching itself) and the reasons given for it? The Church has never insisted on the latter. Only the teaching itself (the conclusion), is guaranteed; the reasons are not. However, the reasons do have the status of non-infallible teaching.

We proceed, then, to the magisterial evidence:

1. Pope Vigilius

The Agnoites arose in the aftermath of Nestorianism and charged ignorance in the humanity of Jesus. They were quite logical in doing this, for if there were two persons in Jesus, one a merely human person, that human person might not even know about his relation to the divine person. Against such erroneous thinking Pope Vigilius hurled an anathema in his Constitutum of May 14, 553 A.D., "If anyone says that the one Jesus Christ, true Son of God and true Son of Man, was ignorant of future things, or of the day of the last judgement, and says He could know only as much as the divinity dwelling in Him as in another made known to Him: let him be anathema."13

R. Brown comments: "This error is so tied into the Nestorian theory of two persons or beings in Christ that its condemnation would not really affect the modern non-Nestorian problematic."14

We must, of course, look at the anathema of Pope Vigilius in its historical setting. We must not forget that there was no need to condemn only Nestorianism: a general council had already done that. The Pope intended to add something, a condemnation of the charge of ignorance that had grown out of Nestorianism. And we must recall that the Fathers, as we saw, had studied the question of ignorance independently of Nestorianism for several centuries, and a rather general consensus had emerged against admitting any ignorance for any reason.

So, can we realistically suppose, within the actual setting, that Pope Vigilius meant that if a Nestorian charged Jesus with ignorance, he would fall under the anathema, but that if someone else found a different reason for charging ignorance it would be all right?

Yet, because he wrote and, not or, we cannot strictly prove that intent. For Vigilius joined two ideas grammatically: if a man attributes ignorance to Jesus and says Jesus could know only as much as the divinity residing in Him as in another revealed (a Nestorian picture), let him be anathema. Hence, as we said, we cannot strictly prove Vigilus meant to condemn charges of ignorance made in another framework. Nevertheless, in view of the long Patristic discussion carried on independently of Nestorianism, it borders on the absurd to suppose he would countenance such charges.

2. Pope St. Gregory the Great

Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria, as we noted in chapter 6, strongly attacked those who attributed ignorance to Jesus. Pope Gregory was greatly pleased, and said so in a letter to Eulogius, written probably in August of 600 A.D., " the nature of His humanity He knew the day and hour of the judgment, but not however from this nature of humanity did He know it."15 It is impossible to say what this could mean if it did not say what we today express in different words, namely, that the knowledge of the day registered even in the human consciousness of Jesus-even though it was not from any human resource that He knew it.

R. Brown says weakly that Gregory,16 "tended to interpret Mk 13:32 as an accommodation of God's Son to human speech" and adds, "it is scarcely a de Fide pronouncement." Our rebuttal: first, Gregory did not merely tend to say Jesus knew even humanly-Gregory quite flatly and insistently said Jesus did know even in His humanity (of course, Gregory thinks Jesus used "accommodation" in the sense of what the Greek Fathers called oikonoma). Further, Brown is quite out of order in saying that this is "scarcely" de fide, implying that whatever is not de fide can be disregarded at will. He forgets the force of non-deemed statements, as taught by Vatican II.

Pope St. Gregory also wrote: "The matter however is very evident: whoever is not a Nestorian cannot be an Agnoite. For he who admits that the Wisdom of God is incarnate, in what way can he say that there is anything that the Wisdom of God does not know?"17 Gregory continues, and mentions that when Jesus asked where Lazarus was buried, He was acting in the same way as the Father had done in Genesis when He said: "Adam, where are you?" or to Cain: "Where is Abel your brother?" The Fathers, as already shown in chapter 6, made the same observation many times over. Brown however reveals a strange lack of perception in commenting that Gregory "would seem to have ruled out even acquired human knowledge"18 in saying that Jesus knew where Lazarus was. Brown fails to recognize that the very same things can be known via more than one channel. On a TV broadcast I may see the identical event about which I previously had heard on the radio. Or, a closer parallel: I may go and see for myself something I already knew by other means.

Should we say that the teaching of Pope Gregory is so tied to the Nestorian framework that it does not apply outside it? By no means. Gregory does add a comment, in our second citation, on the Nestorian situation. It means that one cannot say Jesus did not know unless he holds there was a second person, a human person, in Jesus. For to say a divine Person could be ignorant is most obvious heresy. But Gregory clearly went beyond the Nestorian framework, as we can see from the distinction he made that Jesus knew the day in, but not from His humanity. No such distinction is used in discussing Nestorian ideas. Rather, that distinction is at least approximately equivalent to our modern distinction inquiring whether something registered in his human mind. In Gregory, that distinction is actually the long sought completion of the Patristic discussion which had gone on for so many centuries largely independently of Nestorianism. Hence, Gregory's remarks are not at all confined to the Nestorian problematic.

3. Decrees of the Holy Office of 1907 and 1918

Only July 3, 1907, the Holy Office, in the Decree Lamentabili directed against the Modernists, a document approved by Pope St. Pius X, rejected the following propositions:19

The natural sense of the Gospel texts cannot be reconciled with what our theologians teach about the consciousness and infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.

A critic cannot assert that the knowledge of Christ was without limit except on the supposition-which historically cannot be conceived, and which is repugnant to moral sense-namely, that Christ as man had the knowledge of God, and nevertheless was unwilling to communicate the knowledge of so many things to the disciples and posterity.

Christ did not always have a consciousness of His messianic dignity.

It is pointed out, and we agree, that it is difficult to determine the precise theological note to be attached to these rejections.20 Yet we must note that when we read them in context, i.e., in view of previous Magisterium statements, and also of those to follow shortly, they do seem to reject the notion of even human ignorance in Jesus.

On June 5, 1918, the Holy Office issued a Decree, approved by Pope Benedict XV, in which it answered several questions: "Can the following propositions be safely taught? 1. It is not evident that there was in the soul of Christ living among men the knowledge which the blessed who have attained [God] have. 2. Nor can that opinion be called certain which states that the soul of Christ was ignorant of nothing, but that from the beginning He knew in the Word all things, past, present, and future, that is, all things which God knows by the knowledge of vision. 3. The view of certain recent persons about the limited knowledge of the soul of Christ is not to be less accepted in Catholic schools than the view of former [theologians] about [His] universal knowledge.-Response (confirmed by the Holy Father on June 6): Negative."21

This decree does formulate the problem in the more recent terminology, for it refers to the human soul of Christ. Yet the resolution is that the positions described may not be safely taught.

4. Pius XI: Miserentissimus Redemptor, May 8, 1928

"Now if the soul of Christ [in Gethsemani] was made sorrowful even to death on account of our sins, which were yet to come, but which were foreseen, there is no doubt that He received some consolation from our reparation, likewise foreseen."22

It is obvious that Pius XI teaches that the human soul of Jesus in Gethsemani knew both our future sins, and our future reparation.

5. Pius XII: Mystici Corporis, June 29, 1943

But the most loving knowledge of this kind, with which the divine Redeemer pursued us from the first moment of the Incarnation, surpasses the diligent grasp of any human mind; for by that blessed vision which He enjoyed when just received in the womb of the Mother of God, He has all the members of the Mystical Body continuously and perpetually present to Himself, and embraces them with salvific love.... In the manger, on the Cross, in the eternal glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church before Him [conspecta] and joined to Him far more clearly and far more lovingly than a mother has a son of her lap, or than each one knows and loves himself.23

Here is a perfectly clear teaching that the human soul of Jesus did enjoy the beatific vision, even from the moment of conception. The particular body of knowledge mentioned here is the knowledge of each member of the Mystical Body-surely, an immense block of information. Of special importance is the fact that this statement was made not within the Nestorian framework, but in a strictly modern framework. By the time Mystici Corporis appeared, in 1943, Galtier's book of 193924 had already stimulated modern discussion. Within that framework Pius XII spoke strongly and clearly, all in harmony with previous Magisterium teachings and the conclusions of the Fathers.

6. Pius XII, Sempiternus Rex, September 8, 1951

Just a year earlier, in 1950, Pius XII had issued Humani generis in which he proscribed a goodly number of errors. In Sempiternus Rex he specifically treated the question, then already raging, concerning the consciousness of Jesus: "There are those who...misuse the authority and definition of the Council of Chalcedon.... They so insist on the state and condition of the humanity of Christ that it seems to be considered as a subject, as it were, in itself [sui iuris], as if it did not subsist in the person of the Word. But Chalcedon...forbids putting two individuals in Christ so that some 'assumed man,' having full autonomy, is placed with the Word."25 This document is quite clearly aimed at the loose statements of those theologians who were-and still are-saying, "He did not know...." We presume they really mean only to say that a given fact, such as the knowledge of the date of the parousia, did not register on the human consciousness of Jesus, without saying that the Person, a divine Person, the divine He, did not know. Pius XII saw the need to rebuke this error-though with little result, for such loose language still abounds today.

It is well known that in an early version of this document the words "saltem psychologice" (at least psychologically) were present, but were omitted in the final text. Why? A good reason for omitting the words would have been this: if they were present, someone might think the Pope was forbidding the notion of a separate human consciousness in Jesus. Surely, he did not want to forbid that; it would have been false doctrine to forbid it. For the Council of Chalcedon had already taught that there was a real human nature in Jesus. That of course includes a human mind, and a human mind includes a human consciousness. Pius XII, then, wanted to be careful not to even appear to contradict Chalcedon. Did he also, as some claim, mean to leave the door open for saying that many things, including the divine Sonship, did not register on His human consciousness? Definitely not. For the same Pius XII, as we have observed, also taught clearly that the human soul of Jesus enjoyed the beatific vision even from the first moment of His conception.

7. Pius XII, Haurietis aquas, May 15, 1956

In his important encyclical on the theology of the Sacred Heart, Pius XII repeated the teaching of Mystici Corporis, with some additions: "It [the Sacred Heart of Jesus] is also a symbol of that most burning love which, infused into His soul, enriches the human will of Christ, and whose activity is illumined and directed by a twofold knowledge, that is, beatific and infused."26 Here Pius XII reaffirmed the teaching that the human soul of Jesus had the beatific vision. And he added a confirmation of the view of many previous theologians that His soul also enjoyed infused knowledge. Father Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., makes an important comment: "It seems to us that, in contrast to the knowledge of vision and infused knowledge, the infused knowledge of Jesus is the effect of the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit to the Messiah from the first instant of the inhumanation of the Word."27 And he continues, citing from Mystici Corporis: "The Holy Spirit took His delight in dwelling in the soul of the Redeemer as in His well beloved temple; He dwelt in the Christ with such a fulness of graces that one cannot conceive of anything greater."

8. Congregation for the Teaching of the Faith, July 24, 1966

Many theologians had noted the omission of the words "at least psychologically" from the final text of Sempiternus Rex, and were using that omission to claim they were free to deny that the divine Sonship, and many other facts, registered on the human consciousness of Jesus. In the context of that situation, the Congregation for the Teaching of the Faith, successor to the Holy Office, spoke quite bluntly:

It is regrettable that bad news from various places has arrived, of abuses prevailing in interpreting the teaching of the Council, and of strange and bold opinions arising here and there which greatly disturb the souls of many of the faithful...dogmatic formulae are said to be so subject to historical evolution that even their objective sense is open to change.... There creeps forth a certain Christological humanism in which Christ is reduced to the condition of a mere man, who gradually acquired consciousness of His divine Sonship.28

The Sacred Congregation begins by rejecting the notion that older formulations are so time-conditioned as to be almost or entirely useless. In Mysterium fidei Paul VI had said the same even more forcefully the previous year. But the Congregation for the Teaching of the Faith specifically condemned the idea that the human consciousness of Jesus only gradually acquired awareness of His divine Sonship. In so doing, it was reaffirming the teachings of Pius XII in Mystici Corporis and Haurietis aquas, which insist upon the fact that the human soul of Jesus had the beatific vision from the very first instant of His human conception.

9. Conclusions from the Magisterium

1) We must never say that He did not know some things. For the He is a divine Person.

2) The human soul, and so the human consciousness of Jesus, did enjoy the beatific vision from the first moment of human conception. That vision made known to Him all the members of His Mystical Body, of all centuries. It made known also His divine Sonship. It also made known to Him the day and hour of the parousia. In itself, the beatific vision contains all knowledge. Yet any created soul, human or angelic, even the human soul of Jesus, is finite. Hence, at any given moment, it will not contain infinite knowledge. So, in itself, that vision could omit a given point such as the parousaic day and hour. Mk 13:32 tells us that such is the case with the angels. However, the Magisterium insists that Jesus, even as man, did know the day and the hour.

3) Since, in the context, Pope Gregory the Great was speaking of the human knowledge of Jesus, we must take his statement, "Is there anything that the Wisdom of God does not know?" as meaning that Jesus, while not having infinite knowledge in His human soul, yet at all times knew all things as the Word, and that whatever pertained in any way to the matter on hand always registered in His human consciousness.

4) The human soul of Jesus enjoyed infused knowledge.

The doctrinal weight of the above statements was treated in the introductory part of this chapter. These teachings are theologically certain, and, according to Vatican II, require true internal assent.29


1 Anselm Atkins, "Transcendence and the Expressions of the Magisterium" in CTSA Proceedings 23 (1968) 85-95 esp. 92.
2 R.E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, Paulist, New York, 1973, 7-14.
3 Karl Rahner, "Dogmatic Reflections on the Knowledge and Self-Consciousness of Christ" in Theological Investigations, tr. K.H. Kruger, Helicon, Baltimore, 1966, V. 213-14. The German original has "randhaften beilaufigen" Vol. V, 243. Rahner professes to adhere to the Magisterium on our question (199, 213). See chapter 8 on whether or not he really does.
4 Avery Dulles, "Contemporary Understanding of the Irreformability of Dogma" in CTSA Proceedings 25 (1970) 136.
5 Atkins, art. cit., 94 (italics his).
6 Vatican II, Constitution on Divine Revelation #10.
7 Cf. Introduction.
8 Avery Dulles, Apologetics and the Biblical Christ, Woodstock Papers 6, Newman, Westminster, Maryland, 1963.
9 Vatican II, Constitution on the Church #25.
10 Cf. J. Mirus, "Galileo and the Magisterium: A Second Look" in Faith & Reason 3.2 (1977) 65-69, and further references there.
11 Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism #6.
12 Paul VI, Mysterium fidei, September 3, 1965. AAS 57 (1965) 758.
13 DS 419.
14 JGM 77, n. 59.
15 DS 475.
16 JGM 77, n. 59 (emphasis added).
17 DS 476.
18 JGM 40-41, n. 4.
19 DS 3432, 3434, 3435.
20 R. Brown, JGM 82, n. 64.
21 DS 3645-47.
22 20. 174.
23 DS 3812. K. Rahner, art. cit., 214, n. 13 cites this text (using the old DB number 2289) as an example of a "marginal and incidental" text. Yet the teaching is not incidental and marginal. In that section Pius XII develops the idea that Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, loved us with infinite knowledge and love before the world began, in His divine nature. To give visible expression to that love, He assumed human nature, and at once, even in the womb of His Mother, He knew and loved each one of us, thanks to the beatific vision. Rahner, as we shall see in chapter 8, wants to make the vision non-beatific, a vague charism that had to grow, and basically the same as the self-knowledge an ordinary person has (in Christ, the self-knowledge would include knowledge of His divine sonship vaguely, and so that He had to learn to express it!).

Such a vision is not what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church understand by beatific vision. Nor would so vague an awareness include all the members of His Mystical Body. Pius XII, in the same argument, says Christ had all members of the Church present in a much clearer and more loving manner than that of a mother who clasps her child. Rahner adds, in the same note, "It must always be remembered that the presence of a loved person in consciousness can be conceived in many different ways." He seems to mean a mere affective presence—which is not what a vision provides, and surely is far less than that of a child being clasped directly by its mother (to which Pius XII compares this presence). Still further, Rahner ignores altogether the teaching of Haurietis aquas of Pius XII, which also describes the human knowledge and love of Jesus, and does so as an integral part of the solidly theological discussion of the triple love and triple knowledge of Jesus.

Rahner also argues, in note 10 on p. 203 of the same article, that the word "beatific" can be taken loosely in this text since "...the fact that Jesus was not simply as blessed on earth as the Saints in heaven cannot really be denied. " Of course not; but that does not preclude a true beatific vision, for there are various levels of soul, as will be explained in chapter 8. Rahner dismisses these levels as "artificial layer psychology" (p. 203), in spite of repeated experiences of saints and the resultant findings of mystical theology (see chapter 8).

24 P. Galtier, L'unite du Christ—Etre. Personne, Conscience, 3rd ed. Beauchesne, Paris, 1939.
25 DS 3905. The first publication of this Encyclical in Osservatore Romano carried the words "saltem psychologice," but the phrase was omitted in the final, official text of AAS 43 (1951) 638. On the expression, cf. P. Galtier, "La conscience humaine du Christ" in Gregorianum 32 (1951) 562, n. 68 and K. Rahner, "Current Problems in Christology" in Theological Investigations, tr. C. Ernst, Helicon, Baltimore, 1961 I, 159.
26 DS 3924.
27 Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., "De la Science du Christ—Science, prescience et conscience, meme prepascales du Christ Redempteur" in Espirit et Vie, 89 (1977) 380 (no. 47).
28 AAS 58 (1966) 659-60.
29 Constitution on the Church #25 (discussed above, pp 135-36).

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