The Magisterium is the teaching office of the Church. According the the Catechism (#100), “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” In other words, orthodox teaching is to be found in the official teachings of the pope and the bishops in communion with him.
I understand that many Catholics have trouble with particular teachings, have questions about specific papal decisions, and hope for certain doctrines to change. Some Catholics might even outright reject one or more official Catholic teaching. In most of these cases, the person might express their disagreement by saying, “I wish the Church would change that teaching,” or “I don’t agree with the Church on that.” Many left-of-center Catholics are open and honest about where they dissent. There is a clear sense that “the Church teaches X, but I believe Y.”
In such cases, vigorous dialogue and discussion can take place, but there is clarity about the Church’s official position on the issues. Someone might say, “I think same-sex marriage should be sanctioned by the Church,” or “I think artificial contraception is morally acceptable,” but one rarely hears, “the Church teaches that same sex marriage is morally acceptable,” or “the Church’s position on contraception is that it’s absolutely licit.” People might have different positions on these issues, but there is little debate on where the Church stands.
On the right, dissent is often a much more muddled situation. One can point to an official teaching or practice of the Church that someone clearly rejects, but they will insist that the “new” teaching is wrong, and that what they hold is the true Catholic doctrine. They proudly insist upon their doctrinal orthodoxy, while boldly asserting that official teachings from the Church are not orthodox.
Many of these Catholics seem to believe that there is an objective standard against which the teachings of the papal Magisterium and the official Church must be weighed. Whether it’s questioning the doctrinal soundness of parts of Amoris Laetitia or the orthodoxy of the change to the Catechism’s official teaching on the death penalty, they seem to think they have an obligation to review and (if necessary) critique official Church teachings against this standard.
Rather than listening to the Magisterium and simply assenting to the teachings in the way that the Church instructs us, many Catholics instead adhere to a different authoritative body of teaching, which I’ll call the “imagisterium.”
We’ve discussed this phenomenon many times, beginning with Pedro Gabriel’s landmark essay “Sola Traditio,” and later explored in “Fundamentalist Catholics and Ecclesial Catholics” and “Marcel Lefebvre: Father of Traditionalist Dissent.” More recently, I attempted to lay out in clear terms how rejection of what Pope Francis teaches in Amoris Laetitia is, objectively speaking, dissent from magisterial teaching.
Catholics who adhere to the imagisterium claim they are weighing novel teachings from the Vatican against Church Tradition or the “perennial magisterium,” or that they are attempting to reconcile the official teaching with “doctrinal orthodoxy.” Among the adherents to the imagisterial approach are journalists, canon lawyers, prominent theologians, priests, bishops, and at least one cardinal. The problem with this is that it has absolutely no basis in what the Church teaches about the Magisterium, and threatens to divide the Church.
We’ve repeated many times what the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium states about how and when the faithful are to adhere to official teachings:
Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
With statements like “judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to,” and “according to his manifest mind and will,” there’s really no question about where Catholics should be looking for authoritative and orthodox teachings.
It’s a bizarre juxtaposition. These Catholics, while affirming that they are 100% orthodox, reject official Catholic teachings as heterodox or even heretical. To them, what is promulgated as authentically magisterial (on an official level, to the entire Church, by the pope in his role as supreme pontiff) might not actually be magisterial. According to them, we are supposed to know what is truly magisterial by comparing it to prior magisterial teaching, to see if it lines up. If it doesn’t, we are to reject it, disregard it, or claim to be confused by it.
The problems with this approach should be self-evident. For example, how should a Catholic reply if asked for the Church’s official teaching on the death penalty? From a factual standpoint, the teaching is reflected in Pope Francis’s revision to the Catechism’s paragraph 2267, which states, “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” Canon Law and Tradition clearly state that his authority allows him to change the Catechism. There is no system of canonical checks and balances that hinders the Pope’s ability to develop or revise magisterial documents.
Yet the followers of the imagisterium have a different understanding. RR Reno, in his unfortunate recent screed entitled “A Failing Papacy,” wrote of this change:
Francis seems uninterested in developing a coherent theological justification for his actions. He governs with gestures, slogans, and sentiments.
Pope Francis has also revised the Catechism in a way that suggests a fundamental change in the Church’s teaching. This was done in a peremptory fashion without discussion or explanation. It is as if Francis had meditated on St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which guides one toward galvanizing discernments that come with commanding immediacy, rather than consulting moral theologians. This can’t help but create the impression that everything is up for grabs. Who knows what will come next?
Nevermind that the change to the Catechism was accompanied by a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explaining and justifying the revision. Nevermind that this document explicitly confirms that “the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” Nevermind that the revision came over 10 months after Pope Francis publicly called for a revision to the Catechism. Nevermind that the new revision doesn’t touch the question of intrinsic evil, which troubled papal critics 10 months earlier, suggesting that there was indeed discussion about a way to revise the teaching that is coherent with Tradition.
Some theologians openly advocate dissent on the grounds that, “assent must be withheld when the teaching in question openly conflicts with the public dogma or definitive doctrine of the Church.” During this papacy, this concept has been applied to both Amoris Laetitia and the death penalty. On the surface, it seems reasonable. After all, it can certainly be jarring for one’s airtight understanding of a particular doctrine to be blown apart by a new magisterial development. A problem with this assertion is that it doesn’t have a basis in Catholic doctrine. Another problem is that it holds an individual’s subjective judgement over authoritative Church teaching. What many Catholics hold to be an objective, authoritative standard is simply a product of their imaginations.
Several years ago, I spent a great deal of time trying to understand exactly what the Church taught regarding the reliability of papal teachings. I had, like so many traditional or conservative Catholics, grown up with the idea that the teachings of the post-Vatican II Church were suspect, or that not everything officially promulgated by the pope as Magisterium was actually magisterial. I bought into George Weigel’s theory that we are to go through encyclicals and mark them up with gold and red pens, separating the wheat from the chaff in everything the Church officially promulgated from 1958 onward.
What really opened my eyes was the 1998 CDF document entitled, “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church,” which not only outlines the roles and responsibilities of the pope, but also explains how he has been promised to the Church to ensure our unity and fidelity. The protection of the Magisterium is not simply a responsibility that the pope can opt to ignore, but the grace to fulfill that mission is intrinsic to the papacy. The document says,
The Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity both of the Bishops and of the multitude of the faithful” and therefore he has a specific ministerial grace for serving that unity of faith and communion which is necessary for the Church to fulfil her saving mission.
This document, promulgated by the CDF under then-Cardinal Ratzinger, is clear in its intention “to recall the essential points of Catholic doctrine on the primacy.” Nowhere in the document is there any hint that a pope can opt to deviate from his responsibility to remain faithful to the Gospel in his teachings. There is no suggestion that the laity, esteemed theologians, or even cardinals can stand up against the pope and proclaim that the pope is promulgating erroneous teachings. That idea is a novelty with no roots in the official Church teaching on papal primacy. It’s a teaching of the imagisterium.
Indeed, the document very strongly asserts the opposite:
The Roman Pontiff – like all the faithful – is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience; in this sense he is servus servorum Dei. He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition; in other words, the episkope of the primacy has limits set by divine law and by the Church’s divine, inviolable constitution found in Revelation. The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence the martyrological nature of his primacy.
During Francis’s pontificate, the body of writing that has given credence to the imagisterium has grown tremendously. Theologian Thomas Pink has even created a theory that separates the Vatican’s (potentially heretical, in his eyes) “official theology” from “true” magisterial teaching. He explains:
The Church may issue magisterial teaching, which invokes the Church’s authority and an obligation on the faithful to believe on the basis of that authority. But the Church at an official level may also make statements that though official are not themselves magisterial teaching. They are statements that are official – made by officeholders in their public role – but they simply explain what the magisterial teaching means, or what the Church’s policies and practices are, without those statements of themselves imposing any obligation on our part to believe them.
Regarding Amoris Laetitia, he writes:
Amoris Laetitia seems to have been written to avoid clear and unambiguous contradiction of earlier magisterial teaching. But it has come with a lot of official theology, often from the highest level in the Church, that claims to explain the content of Amoris Laetitia — and that explains it in a way that clearly does contradict previous magisterial teaching. That’s very problematic. It looks as though we do have to reject that explanatory official theology as erroneous.
There are a number of problematic ideas here, the first of which is that he doesn’t explain how we are supposed to determine which parts of official documents are magisterial and which are “official theology.” On both Amoris and the death penalty, the legitimate magisterial authority — the pope — has asserted clearly that they represent legitimate developments in continuity with tradition, while various critics and theologians (including Pink) insist otherwise. The Pope explicitly promulgated the Buenos Aires bishops’ guidelines on the implementation of Amoris as “Authentic Magisterium.” Are we to view them simply as “official theology” if we find them troubling? Secondly, as the passage above from Lumen Gentium tells us, the meaning of a magisterial act or document should be understood according to the pope’s “manifest mind and will.” In other words, we shouldn’t be peeling back layers of official Church documents so we can find nuggets of teaching that meet with our approval.
Of particular significance to these debates is the fact that the Church teaches that the pope has the final say on disputed matters. Theologians who want to continue to hammer away at the teaching on the death penalty or on Amoris Laetitia chapter 8, even though the official teachings have already been promulgated, are perpetuating dissent from the magisterium. In his Encyclical Humanae Generis, Pope Pius XII wrote,
If the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.
Other theologians seem to realize the problems with this approach and employ the imagisterium in other ways, such as inventing solutions to what they perceive as problems. Prominent Dominican Aidan Nichols, in a speech that has not been released in full, suggested that in response to Francis’s “perpetrating doctrinal howlers,” that Canon Law should be revised to include “a procedure for calling to order a pope who teaches error.” In other words, Nichols understands that Francis acts within his authority, and that there is no precedent for a process to correct a sitting pope, but he would like there to be. Apparently he is calling for a repeal to Canon 1404, which says, “The First See is judged by no one.”
Msgr. Nicola Bux, a leading liturgical expert during the papacy of Benedict XVI, argued that the best course of action might “be to examine the ‘juridical validity’ of Pope Benedict’s XVI’s resignation and ‘whether it is full or partial.’ … Such an ‘in-depth study’ of the resignation, he said, could help to ‘overcome problems that today seem insurmountable to us.’” In other words, in order to undo Pope Francis’s teachings, it might be best for the Church to act as if he has never been a valid pope in the first place.
The most famous adherent to today’s imagisterium is the American Cardinal Raymond L Burke. As one of the two surviving signers of the infamous dubia, which questioned the doctrinal validity of Amoris Laetitia, he has taken his message on the road, making public appearances around the world and granting interviews in friendly venues. When not lecturing on the “limits of papal power” or asking for the re-consecration of Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, he’s been outspoken about performing a “formal act of correction” of Pope Francis if the pontiff refuses to change the contents of Amoris Laetitia (or clarify it to his liking). Such an act has no basis in Church law or magisterial teaching. It’s pure fantasy. The Church teaches that the authority of the pope is “not only supreme, full and universal, but also immediate, over all pastors and other faithful.” There is no asterisk or footnote suggesting that this is subject to the approval of all of the Cardinals, much less one or two of them.
The imagisterium is not new. I wrote a piece months ago about the dialogue in the 1970s between St. Paul VI and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, leader of the SSPX movement. The issue is fundamentally identical to today’s, but the players and the specific issues have changed. Where Lefebvre challenged Church authority on a council, his modern counterparts challenge a footnote in an exhortation and a paragraph in the Catechism. Where Lefebvre’s movement was small in comparison and drowned out by the wider Church’s acceptance of the Council, the rebellion against Francis has a global stage thanks to social media and international Catholic mass media.
In 1976, St. Paul VI described Lefebvre’s position as “an ecclesiology that is warped in essential points.” Paul emphasized that Lefebvre did not have “the faculty of deciding in general what the rule of faith is or of determining what tradition is.” He went on to admonish, “In practice you are claiming that you alone are the judge of what tradition embraces.” Pope Paul went on to explain– with sensitivity to the difficulties many Catholics had with the teachings of the council — what was expected from them as members of the faithful:
But how can an interior personal difficulty—a spiritual drama which We respect—permit you to set yourself up publicly as a judge of what has been legitimately adopted, practically with unanimity, and knowingly to lead a portion of the faithful into your refusal? If justifications are useful in order to facilitate intellectual acceptance—and We hope that the troubled or reticent faithful will have the wisdom, honesty and humanity to accept those justifications that are widely placed at their disposal—they are not in themselves necessary for the assent of obedience that is due to the Ecumenical Council and to the decisions of the pope. It is the ecclesial sense that is at issue.
St. Paul VI pulled no punches in telling Lefebvre what he was defying and who he was rejecting. Pope Francis has not yet come forth with statements nearly as bold to today’s traditionalist dissenters, but I fear that the time will come when he or his successor will be compelled to make a similar rebuke. As it stands, Paul VI’s words are as relevant in today’s context as they were in his:
“In effect you and those who are following you are endeavoring to come to a standstill at a given moment in the life of the Church. By the same token you refuse to accept the living Church, which is the Church that has always been: you break with the Church’s legitimate pastors and scorn the legitimate exercise of their charge. And so you claim not even to be affected by the orders of the pope, or by the suspension a divinis, as you lament ‘subversion’ in the Church.”
Catholicism is a received faith, passed down through the centuries by an unbroken line of successors to the apostles. We don’t see the Magisterium as a static collection of doctrines, but we understand and accept that the teachings given to us today come from the same source of authority as those promulgated decades or millennia ago. Don’t fall for the lie that says, “Listen to me, not Pope Francis.” The imagisterium is a fantasy.
Where Peter is, there is the Church.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.