Different understandings of ‘magisterium’ spark arguments in the Church

The very strong intervention by former president, Mary McAleese, on the subject of Catholic teaching on homosexuality has certainly caused a stir. Along with initiating very necessary discussion on Catholic Church teaching and attitudes towards gay people, the succeeding days since her intervention have clearly highlighted some of the difficulties surrounding any form of dialogue between the differing views in the Church. Pope Francis has signalled that he wants this dialogue and discussion to take place; he talks about “an open Church where everyone can share”. But for any benefit to accrue, this dialogue has to be tolerant and respectful, with more listening than talking, and devoid of any attempt to brow-beat alternative views into submission. Those of us on “one side” have to try to see things from the perspective of the “other side”.

In this article I would like to outline three main barriers to this open dialogue. Within the Church what we call ‘The Magisterium’ is the body that defines, clarifies and has the final say on what the Church teaches on any given subject. But there are two views on precisely what this Magisterium is. Under the last two popes, as the Church became increasingly centralised, the Magisterium was understood as the Vatican, or, more specifically, the Curia, and in particular the pre-eminent body within the Curia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But an older understanding, which was central to the Vatican Council in the last century, has a more complex, wider view of what constitutes the Magisterium. According to this perspective, it consists of the Vatican, the bishops of the universal Church, the body of theologians, and, most significantly of all, the ‘sensus fidelium’, the good sense of the ordinary Catholic faithful. The Council goes so far as to say that unless a teaching is accepted by the consensus of the faithful it cannot be considered a defined teaching. Clearly there are two very different understandings here. In the first one, all we need in order to know Church teaching is a decree from the Vatican; the second understanding involves a whole process of dialogue and discussion going on right across the Church, out of which Church teaching grows and develops and can never be seen as static.

Mary McAleese recounted how she went to the Papal Nuncio to discuss her concerns about a possible link between Church teaching on homosexuality and young male suicide. She says that he responded by asking her if she wanted him to change Church tradition, and that she replied: “Yes, if it is wrong”. This highlights the second big area of difficulty—the meaning of Church tradition? For some, tradition is a body of knowledge passed down through the ages from the great teachers of old. It is fixed and unchangeable. For others tradition is a living thing, which dialogues with each generation, absorbing new knowledge, discoveries and understanding, and adapting the teaching and approach of the Church accordingly, – reading the signs of the times, as the Vatican Council said. It would appear that in the exchange between Mary McAleese and the Nuncio, the two different understandings of tradition were in conflict.

The third stumbling block is our different interpretations of the Bible. During the current debate I listened to some speakers who quoted sentences from the Bible, mostly the Old Testament, condemning homosexuality. They seemed to work out of a belief that every word in the Bible comes directly from God and must be interpreted literally. This is what is usually called the fundamentalist approach to scripture. On the other hand there are those in the Catholic community who learned from some of the great Scripture scholars of the last century that the text of the Bible needs to be interpreted within the social and cultural milieu of its time, and that its core teaching needs to be mediated and understood through the very different circumstances of each age. It is obvious that these two approaches to the sacred book can lead to very different conclusions.

These three issues underlie all debates, discussions and arguments in the Church in recent times, and explain why, so often, attempts at dialogue quickly develop into conflict and division. Among clergy, if I can be allowed to generalise a little, the younger generation, those trained roughly in the last twenty years, are more likely to lean towards the first understanding; the older ones, who date back to John XXIII and the Vatican Council, mainly support the second approach. Although it is probably too early to be certain, it would appear that Pope Francis wants to restore the Church to that period of openness, decentralisation and dialogue and that will challenge all of us to be more tolerant of differing viewpoints. Most of all he wants the Church to be open to all, regardless of status, marital state, sexual orientation, but with a special care and concern for the poor.