Congar: On the Magisterium

In Melbourne General Cemetery, up in Parkville, the dead are separated by denomination. The logic is that burial grounds are often consecrated by the faith, and different denominations of course have their own consecration rituals. You can’t just bury a Catholic in a grave blessed by a Baptist. It’s a funny example, I think particularly striking to younger Protestants today, who I suspect don’t really care that much about denominational distinctions. Personally, I’ve been through three or four different denominations – Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Baptist, as well as a fair bit of time in Taizé services in a high Anglican place. They weren’t highly regulated moves – there was no underlying ideological objection with one place or the other. I didn’t take offence to the Westminster Confession. The driving factors I think are more often cultural, or interpersonal. According to a 2016 Pew report, at least in the States, the most common reason for starting at a new church (33%) is because you’ve moved. Around 11% of people move because they get married or divorced – makes sense – and 11% again because they disagreed with their minister on some point. Regardless of the reason, the report also tells us that around half of those who moved church considered a new denomination. The exceptions were those in historically black Protestant churches, and Catholics.

And these stats feel like they make sense, right. If you’re Protestant, you understand that your denomination is one of many Christian denominations, and that they’re all under the general umbrella of Christianity. You might prefer the one that you’re in, but – I mean, plenty of people are also fine switching it up. And it also makes sense that Catholics are less comfortable with that approach. The centralized nature of authority in the Catholic church – the overarching power of the Magisterium – means that moving to another denomination is a much bigger deal.

The idea of the Magisterium comes up in Yves Congar’s The Meaning of Tradition, a Catholic text that we discussed last week. At first this sort of surprised me – the basic idea with ‘tradition‘ is that the faith is something we inherit from the people who came before us – that we stand in a lineage maintaining values and practices that are directly given by Christ. It focuses on faith as corporate, as the sum of the community rather than something broken up and distributed on an individual level. It ties in with the ideas of social salvation that we discussed with De Lubac. How, then, does such a communal ideal line up against the nature of the Magisterium? Why is the denomination with the strongest sense of communal faith also the most hierarchical? How do those two things fit together? Congar’s text offers us some suggestions, if maybe not the answer outright.

In Chapter Two of his book, ‘The Subject of Tradition’, Congar writes that “the role of the Magisterium is classically defined as keeping faithfully, judging authentically and defining infallibly the content of the deposit.” The ‘deposit’, so-called, is essentially the faith or belief that the church has received. Let’s start from the end, from that ‘defining’ role. I would have thought that our faith would be pretty well-defined by now – not sure how much more defining it needs. Congar sort of agrees, noting that the Magisterium only defines the faith when it’s under threat. It’s an “extraordinary” action, he says, and in some ways almost inappropriate: “We are forced to imprison indescribable things within the weakness of our language.” When the Magisterium does define a doctrine, Congar says, “it endows a simple revealed truth, to which it bears witness, with a legal value.” This ability to make certain doctrines compulsory, with the attendant threat of excommunication, is all part of ‘shepherding’ the flock, a responsibility that Congar believes was handed down to Peter by Christ.

So too the role of making judgements. There’s obviously a lot of writing in the Catholic tradition, and some of it has variable value. “It is necessary to evaluate the material that tradition provides,” Congar says, “and even to judge it, without condemning it. Then only can tradition be of value as a teacher of the present.” He continues: “But it is clear that, without being entirely lacking in judgement, the body of the faithful can neither judge by itself nor reach a judgement that is sufficiently clear, unanimous or capable of imposing itself. The Magisterium alone can do this, since it has a special grace corresponding to the mission entrusted to it.” Again we see the claim about unanimity – the centralized structure of the Catholic church does mean that they can impose expectations across the board, for sure. But the idea that the body of the church can’t make judgements – that seems a little strange to me. There are some red flags going up here. Let’s move back to the first quality, ‘keeping faithfully’ the divine deposit.

Congar writes that the primary duty of bishops is “to remain steadfast in this position of supra-temporal witness to the revelation made to the apostles, supremely in Jesus Christ.” He cites the example of Peter, who “received the title of rock primarily because of his confession of Christ.” This confession therefore sits at the core of the clergy’s mission, along with their governance over the church as a whole. They are believers first and leaders second. Slightly earlier in this chapter, Congar quotes Augustine making the same point: “I am a bishop for you, but first a Christian with you.” Congar explains: “The hierarchic aspect is by no means ignored, but it is seen and presented within the context of the Christian life, which remains first and most important. In short, the hierarchic aspect is advanced as an element of an organic reality, intended as such by the Lord.”

This is really the point where things start to crystallise. The Magisterium are Christian believers first, equal in that sense with the laity, but they also have a second layer on top of that, which allows them to teach and govern. That’s the idea at play. There is still unity, and a focus on the faith as collective, insofar as the bishops are still part of the community, but they also have a specific leadership role within the broader ecosystem. I think some of the specific details could probably be contested – I’m not sure that it’s really worth having such a strict hierarchy, I’m not sure it entirely is God’s design – but I can also see the benefits. The church does need to function in a steady, reliable way, and from a purely administrative point of view, a centralized authority makes sense. We know what the issues are, of course – a religious upper class that inevitably comes to see itself as above the law, above judgement, and impervious to criticism. It’s worth noting that a focus on community can sometimes be just a thinly veiled power play, especially when it comes from the authorities in that given community. It’s less ‘everyone together’ and more ‘everyone together under me’. In Congar’s terms, it’s when the role of the bishop as leader comes to supersede their role as Christian. I tend to think the temptation is too much to trust these people with, but – you know, that’s for the Catholics to sort out. And if they can’t, they can always jump ship and become Protestant. That’s the joy of living in a post-Reformation world.

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