Development of doctrine makes explicit in faith what was previously implicit – The Irish Times


In her reflections on the synodal process (The Irish Times, August 1), Ursula Halligan expresses views that are also contained in the recently published position paper on the diocesan stage of the synodal process.

In her opinion piece, she criticizes Bishop Eamonn Martin for asserting that “synodality should not diminish the teaching authority of the pope and bishops.” The summary document also laments the reality that “decision-making and authority are exercised only by priests and bishops.” However, defending the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops is not to deny the importance of using the gifts and wisdom of the laity in the exercise of this authority.

There seems to be a misunderstanding that authority in this context means the ability to dictate the content of faith and morals and that only the hierarchy enjoys this privilege. Now, however, the prospect of this privilege being shared with the laity looms on the horizon. As a result, we can expect a future of unprecedented creativity, especially in the areas of sexuality, gender, and the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Properly understood, however, the authority of the pope and the bishops does not mean the authority to dictate the content of the faith. No member of the church, the Body of Christ, has that kind of authority. Rather, all believers are subject to the rule of faith. In this respect, there is absolute equality.

The role of the pope and the bishops is to receive this faith in the fullness of its integrity and to transmit it intact. With ordination comes the responsibility to teach the true faith, a responsibility shared by all priests, whose duty it is to assist bishops.

Priest, prophet and king

Vatican II declares that the ordained priest “by the sacred power which he enjoys, teaches and governs the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes the Eucharistic sacrifice present and offers it to God in the name of all the people” (Lumen gentium ten). In short, ordination confers a triple office: priest, prophet and king.

All the faithful, by virtue of their baptism, equally participate in this triple office. Vatican II is, however, explicit about the great difference between the common priesthood of the faithful, on the one hand, and the ordained priesthood, on the other: they differ not only in degree but in essence (Lumen gentium ten).

The teaching of the church concerning this triple office is, curiously, a relatively late development. It is an example of true doctrinal development, a notion that Halligan discusses in his opinion piece.

The development of doctrine, properly understood, does not mean a change in the content of the faith. To say that the resurrection is only a metaphor would be a clear example of change and as such must be rejected. Rather, development means making explicit what was previously implicit in that content.

Nothing new, however, is introduced into the faith. Divine revelation in its fullness ended with the last of the apostles. The true development of doctrine transmits to succeeding generations the faith of the apostles, although this faith is made more explicit in various respects.

sacred tradition

This development takes place within sacred tradition which, together with sacred Scripture, “forms a sacred deposit of the word of God, entrusted to the Church”, such as the Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbumtaught.

Sacred Scripture is of course the Word of God as expressed in writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Sacred tradition, on the other hand, takes the Word of God, first entrusted to the apostles, and “transmits it to their successors in all its purity” (Dei Verbum 9).

A little further, Dei Verbum 10 states that “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or transmitted, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus -Christ”. The authentic interpretation of the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ is thus assured by apostolic succession.

Dei Verbum also underlines a point already made in this article: the magisterium, or teaching office of the church, is not above the Word of God. Its function is rather to serve the Word. He teaches “only what has been transmitted” (10).

Finally, it should be noted that the teaching of the Church concerning the diaconate, the priesthood and the episcopate belongs to the deposit of faith. One could object that it is not proclaimed in any dogma.

Dogmas, however, are often proclaimed in order to affirm the true teaching in the face of widespread misconceptions regarding an article of belief. In this regard, erroneous thinking regarding Holy Orders has never been a problem until recently.

Father Kevin E O’Reilly, OP, teaches moral theology at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Rome


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