The Sleeping Magisterium?


I give much credit to those remaining hopeful in a moment of history like ours. From one set of disappointing news in the media to another, it would seem as though the foundations of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, are falling apart. Debates over almost every piece of doctrine persist even to this day, whether it is over the Pope, infant baptism, Sabbatrian worship, sovereignty vs free-will, what Gender belongs in the orders of the Priesthood, etc,etc. Tolerable as it all might be, it is least when we see this happening within the edifice of the Catholic Church. Is this not the place that many confused and fragmented Protestants call “home” when they find it, supposing all sweet rest from theological and doctrinal division is to be had therein? If the last 2,000 years did not prove otherwise, then certainly the last 60 years, and particularly the last 5 , Cardinal_Newman_in_Romewould prove beyond all shadow of doubt. I won’t bother going into the details, as so many already, including myself, have spent hours doing so. If you are eager enough, get yourself a copy of NY Times Columnist Ross Douthat’s “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism”. This particular post is inspired by a series of posts done by the witty Fr. Hunwicke from the Liturgical Notes blog (Supense of the Magisterium, Newman on the Suspense of the Magisterium, The Temporary Suspense of the function of the Magisterium ) on the idea that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church can, and has, failed to respond when most needed. The historian which was in Cardinal Newman was able to find historical example for this notion of a “sleeping” or “dormant Magisterium“, or “temporary Suspense of the functions of the Ecclesia docens” (that is, of the Teaching Church) in the Arian crisis. And who can dispute with him? But if it checks out, then the advertisement we commonly see being given out by the apologists of Catholicism should undergo some revision. Here’s why.

We were often told (or at least I was) that, as sort of the primary apologetic, the preference to Catholicism, over and against Anglicanism/Orthodoxy/or Lutheranism (et al), is its perpetual effect of historical orthodoxy, visible unity, and…..infallible Papal support. After all, the “rock” underneath the structure which is Christ’s Church cannot be a “rock” which is “there and gone, and there again”. The old Edward Denny used this point in his “Papalism” to argue that Peter nor his successors could be the “rock” upon which the Church is built, precisely because of the fragility of the human being. The rock must be, as he argued, Christ himself as subject (God) and object of faith (Peter’s confession). Those, in his mind, endure regardless and unconditionally, and so form the only competent quality to be the “rock”. So says this Anglican. His conclusion is not without problems.

One can just smell the room where Luther stood across the floor from Charles V at Luther_(Wislicenus)Worms. Whether it is Council, Pope, Saint, Theologian, Patristic doctor, or any other, they can all err and have erred, and it is solely by written Scripture that we are to be led into infallible truth.

So, how does this “suspended Magisterium” make for a revising of Catholic apologetics? I suggest that we need to realize that the credibility and authenticity of Catholicism does not rest on this pedigree of perpetual machinery outputting the goods of orthodoxy, perfect unity, and Papal support ceaselessly and without break, but rather on the question of whether Christ instituted Catholicism’s structure as of the esse of ekklesia, to which we owe our assent as unto the Lord, even if this entails momentary breaks in the Magisterium’s vocation as Teacher. After all, the Anglicans (at least some in the past) and the Orthodox (from what I’ve gathered) attribute divinity to the establishment of the structure of the Episcopate, but neither of them would say that this entails a perfectly pristine Episcopal track record. With Newman, we might be able to say that 4th-century Arianism was just as much proof that the Church’s credibility does not rest upon either a perfectly ceaseless Papal, nor Episcopal, infallibility. We might tack on Monophysiticm, Monotheletism, and Iconoclasm to that as well.

Are we then left to ourselves?

One thing the Apostles knew, and which is has been known always after them (Acts 1:8), is that they were not left to themselves in deliberating on matters of faith. They said “….for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28) when they deliberated on the monumental 1st-century question of Gentile inclusion into the Covenant. The Spirit guided them. But notice, it was not some isolated, individualistic, and purely subjective event which constituted the placement of the Spirit’s guidance. If that were the case, then St. Paul and St. Barnabas, the former being an Apostle appointed by no man but Christ and the author of infallible Scripture, would not have found it necessary to travel together with other men to Jerusalem to resolve the dispute over the salvation of Gentiles. And yet, what does St. Luke record? “Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” (Acts 15:2). This reminds me of some of my own questions when studying the Papacy and Episcopate as agencies of infallibility. I recall asking myself (and we never cease to hear this today), “If the Pope were infallible, then why were Councils held in the first place?!?”. Well, here Paul found sufficient reason to take not only himself, but St. Barnabas and others to Jerusalem to get a firm settlement to the doctrinal mess of the Synaxis_of_the_Twelve_Apostles_02time. Does that mean St. Paul had no capacity of infallible teaching? The assumption behind the question posed above seems to suggest that Paul did not. Otherwise, why would he go to Jerusalem? He should have just sat on a rock before the sunrise and got his answer. Of course, he already knew the answer to the matter. But he still found it pertinent to obey the Church’s Apostolic structure in the propagation of the faith. That should be a lesson for us all, if anything. But it does not stop here. Once St. Paul and St. Barnabas made it to Jerusalem, St. Luke records what happened next: “some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Law of Moses.'” (Acts 15:5). Even in Jerusalem, eh? They had just left a place where men were divided over the matter, and left for Jerusalem for refuge, but little did they know. So then what? “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. ” (Acts 15:6). Say what? Well, if the Apostles were infallible, why did they bother gathering together, with these accompanying elders at that, to “consider this matter”? It was then that St. Peter, St. James, St. Barnabas, and St. Paul all pitched in and the answer became clear enough. But was it not through consensus? And what of St. Peter? He spoke up, sure, but it doesn’t appear at all as if he was the “Big Boss Man”. If anyone was, it was St. James, right? I am not sure how to answer this question simply. What I do know is this – St. Paul tells us that after his journey to Jerusalem (Gal 2), and upon being given the “right hand of fellowship”, the Apostles judged that “He [Christ] who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles” (Gal 2:8). That is Holy Writ telling us that St. Peter was granted the “Apostleship to the Circumcised” and that Christ worked “effectively” to this end. Forgive me if I take this infallible piece and say that while St. James spoke last at the Council, it was St. Peter who was not just *a* missionary to the Jews, or just *another Apostle* to the Jews, but *the Apostle* to the Jews. And if that is true, then before (and after) St. Paul came into the picture “out of due time” (1 Cor 15:8), it was St. Peter that was head and primate of not just the Apostles, but of the whole Jerusalem mission. And then, not just in Jerusalem, but as the Christian mission went onward to Antioch and further, other missions in addition. With all that in mind, I will let you say what you want about St. James. Christian antiquity would have it that the Apostles gave him the Bishopric of Jerusalem, and since the Episcopal office is a Church office, I see no reason why allowing St. James to play the part entails a denial of a prior Apostolic superiority in the twelve, let alone Peter’s. But suit yourself.

With regard to the Orthodox Church, of which I remain keenly interested, we are given a couple of other options. First, we are told that Ecumenical Councils hold the highest authority in the universal Church is an Ecumenical Council, and some go so far as to say they are infallible. The more and more I study, however, and speak with learned members of Orthodoxy, I see a rejection of the idea that Ecumenical Councils are infallible qua Ecumenical Councils. In other words, there is no apriori infallibility to Ecumenical Councils. Rather, if and when Councils are deemed infallible is aposterior, i.e. by a post de facto recognition or acceptance of the “whole Church”. This was popularly described by the 19th-century Russian theologian Aleksey Stepanovich Khomyakov. Some have been critical of his work, not least Stylianos Harkianakis, Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia and Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Cyril_of_Alexandria,_Athanasius_of_Alexandria,_Leontiy_of_RostovAustralia (cf his “Infallibility of the Church in Orthodoxy Theology). Just like Catholics are bombarded with the whole “If the Pope is infallible, why Councils” described above, the Orthodox likewise might fall prey to “If Councils have supreme doctrinal authority, why the need for aposteriori confirmation of it”? And if they are not infallible, but rather only the “whole Church” is, then what were the boundaries of this infallible Church during the split between the Coptics and the Chalcedonians? Or, the Nestorian/Armenians? And how would a reunion with the West look like if a Council of the whole world can be led into error? Even if the East and West were to gather into a Council and re-unite, we would presumably need to wait until “the whole Church” accepted said Council. But then, would both the West and the East, who enacted union via the Council, constitute the boundary, or would only the East? Again, these options are probably not being adequately described by myself, and I continue to listen, with an open ear, to whatever it is I don’t know, and would further help me. Thus far, I see holes for both us Catholics and Orthodox, leaving the perpetually inquiring mind dissatisfied. Perhaps other criteria would need to be mulled through to sift between the two, and I don’t have the space or time to do so here.

Suffice it to say – “we are not alone”, and “the Spirit is with us”. But the Spirit is not with us in the way we want Him to be with us, necessarily. There is an Apostolic structure to abide by, whatever certainties we may possess on the matter (cf St. Paul’s epistles). And I cannot help but believe that Christ did establish a Magisterium, not least for the above 1st century Jerusalem situation. Christ promised the Spirit not only to the Apostles, but to the whole Church “until the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20), and with this Spirit the assistance to fulfill what the Old Testament promised of the world-wide Messianic blessing (Gal 3:14)

But Sola Scriptura? Isn’t that where the Spirit is? It is His word, is it not?

This is where things get difficult for me. In short sum – The Scripture itself (1 Tim 3:15) testifies to the Church as “pillar”, “foundation”, and “bulwark” of “the truth” ( τῆς ἀληθείας). God’s word itself says “Tradition” is to be respected on equal weight as the Written Word (2 Th 2:15). Thus, the Holy Bible tells us we must include a human and oral conduit through which the content of Apostolic teaching is disseminated. Whatever one might say about this heresy here or there, this is not something relegated purely to the written word. “Church” does not mean “Writ”, even if the latter is “living and powerful”. And if we were to try and go the route of the Protestant argument which says that “Church” here, notwithstanding objective ecclesial visibility, is the human element of the Messiah’s community which rightly interprets Scripture (at least on its essentials for salvation), then we haven’t moved at all much farther than what Catholicism itself is claiming (since the Magisterium is, in the words of Dei Verbum, “not above” the Word, but ” but serves it”). And yet, in the words of Cardinal Newman via Fr. Hunwicke we have this “dormant Magisterium”?

Perhaps the manifestation of this bulwark can either be present and active in the Magisterium normally, but if not, in the members and laity of the Church, as well as the Hierarchy (though the latter diminished). I think Newman himself might have said something to this effect, if I recall correctly. And so, this perpetual orthodoxy and visible unity might exist in more ways than is commonly thought. It is well worth the time to be familiarized with the different agencies of infallibility. The Catholic Church, after all, does not teach that the charism of infallibility is proper to any man absolutely, and so any and all infallible teachings would therefore be made accessible to human beings in agencies established by God, and the Pope is only one of those agencies. It would also be well worth the time to figuring out how to cease from attributing to the Pope absolute and timeless hermeneutical control over our epistemology.  After, all St. Athanasius the Great had less than the Pope in support of his belief in Christ as of “the same substance” as the Father. Even so, there are some Catholics out Ikone_Athanasius_von_Alexandriathere are helplessly attached to this epistemic problem. It goes like this – What if the Pope were to come out and say “Christ did not die bodily on the cross”? Here, there are two options. First, either he is never permitted to teach such a thing in any capacity, or second, he can teach such a thing and be respectfully challenged and resisted. But since challenging and resisting the Pope, in the mind of some, completely throws off the Catholic epistemological authority-paradigm of its axis, some answer that the first option is the only viable one. This, my friends, is not just an overblown Papolatry, but an error which can ruin one’s spiritual life. The Catholic teaching is that while the Pope is divinely protected from error on certain specified conditions, he is otherwise generally not so protected, and there cannot be no consequence in the case of an out-in-out error. We are growing more and more aware of this today, but many are taking their time with it. I won’t here offer any satisfying solutions other than to say that there must be ample defense for a religious epistemology which includes the allowance, on certain extreme conditions, for dissent to an erring Pope.

But then, forgive me, how does that not, ipso facto, furnish the supportive grounds for modern day Protestantism? The only answer I now have is that this “bulwark”, either existing eminently in the Magisterium of the Catholic hierarchy, or in some of that hierarchy and eminently in some small portion of the laity, must find its manifestation in and throughout all of Christian history in one way or the other, and not to something which sprung up from neither prior Magisterium or laity, i.e. something altogether new. Ironically, my old Baptist pastor used to say “If it is new, it’s not true. If it is old, its gold”. How well Catholicism or its alternatives live up to this will be for each to decide.


4 thoughts on “The Sleeping Magisterium?

  1. As now what I would say is a sort of “sleeping” Feeneyite, I remember vividly all the online discussions years ago which I engaged in about infallibility and the supposed Feeneyite errors in regard to limiting it to the solemn Magisterium. Seems like the Feeneyite “error” in this regard wasn’t so erroneous after all. Seems to me like many of those 19th and 20th Century theologians and prelates, with their inflated view of the Ordinary Magisterium and the indefectibility of the teaching Church (even when not invoking the charism it possesses when speaking with its solemn authority), opened the Church to a form of spiritual pride that ended up leading us into first Vatican II and then, some of us, into Sedevacantism. The last 60 or so years have been a divine punishment and corrective to preceding errors of spiritual pride and a fail-safe mentality that took too much for granted methinks.

    The Church is Israel under the New Covenant. St. Paul’s warnings in Romans 11 seem to be coming home to the “Gentiles,” as did the warnings of Moses and the Prophets to the Jews. And it appears our hierarchy is overrun with similar ecumenical and other errors that invaded the priestly and governing ranks of the Jews. And yet there is within the Church, as there was in Israel, “a remnant, set aside by grace.” Romans 11:5.

    But there will be no new covenant this time. The Church will always possess the sacraments of grace and possess the means of sanctifying mankind, thus fulfilling its function of providing the means of redemption to the elect of every age. Always.
    All we need to believe for our salvation, and the Bread of life we need to eat, is affirmed and provided in every Mass.

    The only question seems to be whether we are, as a corporate people, approaching our 70 A.D., which will be the world’s 70 A.D.

    • I couldn’t have said it better.

      I believe there is a massive over-inflated view of the Ordinary Magisterium. And sometimes the Extraordinary Magisterium. And looking at how things went under the Old Covenant is, I think, the right way to assess how things are currently going under the New Covenant.


      • Leo,

        Thanks. Glad there are some brothers out there who agree with me. Much appreciated.


  2. BTW, my Scripture professor said that James added pastoral considerations to the decision–as was appropriate to his position.

    This was a good article!

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