Keeping Track of Truths: Why Catechism Doesn’t Equal ‘Magisterium’

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Mistaking Catechism for Magisterium

Have you read Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Laudato Si”? As a product of the papal magisterium, are we Catholics obligated out of obedience to agree with every opinion, assertion, or conclusion contained in the encyclical? I think most Catholics know that, regarding non-doctrinal content, the answer is clearly no.

In the wake of this fresh realization regarding this papal encyclical, it’s probably a good time to remember a similar truth about another product of the papal magisterium—the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Surprised? Wondering why I’d seemingly assert that not everything found in the Catechism can be said to require our assent?

Before risking raising your blood pressure, dear reader, let me explain why, on some rare occasions, we encounter content in the Catechism that is neither “magisterial” (teaching originating with the pope and bishops) nor demanding of our assent.

Common Teaching: No Longer Commonly Understood

First, how many of us remember how we used to determine what the Church really taught before the Catechism was published some two decades ago? That’s right; much of the time we went directly to the primary source for a particular teaching—a document of Vatican II, a papal encyclical, or some other official magisterial text promulgated directly by the Pope and bishops.

Today, however, we’ve got the Catechism, which is a good thing. Most of the time. Unless we’ve gotten lazy and forgotten that the Catechism doesn’t contain only magisterial teaching. Rather, while the Catechism obviously does not contain a single word that is erroneous, it contains an often-thorough mixture of both magisterial and non-magisterial texts. This includes the non-magisterial writings of the saints and the Church Fathers, as well as certain texts that count as “common teaching” arising from the work of Catholic theologians.

Since the Catechism, we Catholics have largely forgotten about “common teaching” and the fact that it’s not of magisterial origin. Common teaching has in places found its way into the Catechism, particularly in areas in which the Magisterium has not taught something definitively. With common teaching, it’s entirely a “safe” decision to accept its substance, yet when we do so we also must understand that the Church continues to permit other views on the subject, since the Magisterium itself has not settled the subject once and for all.

Some people might mistakenly conclude that, if a common teaching appears in a universal catechism (like the Catechism of the Catholic Church), the teaching in question must now be “settled.” But that’s not the purpose of a catechism—a catechism only repeats existing teaching. It doesn’t “settle” previously “unsettled” or common teaching.

Just Follow the Footnotes

Here are two quick examples. First, a teaching on “faith”—the destination of babies who die before being baptized. The Catechism entrusts them to the mercy of God. Period (CCC 1261). It says nothing at all about the past common teaching on this subject speculating about the “limbo of the infants” (unbaptized babies not in Heaven, yet not suffering any pain in an eternity on the very “edge” of hell). Yet, the Church still permits a faithful Catholic to believe in the limbo of the infants. What was once the “common teaching” (limbo) has given way to a different common teaching: merely trusting in God’s mercy, which leaves open the possibility that unbaptized babies indeed may experience the Beatific Vision in heaven, not end up on the edge of hell.

The second example is more controversial and in the realm of morals: the common teaching on the intrinsic evil of lying (CCC 2483). The catechism repeats the centuries-old common teaching on lying—the more rigorous opinion of Augustine and Aquinas that lying is always sinful. This is a “safe” view to hold, to be sure. But it’s not the only view a faithful Catholic is permitted to hold. Why? Because the question of what counts as the intrinsic evil of lying has been debated by theologians for centuries, and the Magisterium has never settled the question. A faithful Catholic may embrace a less rigorous theological opinion that would permit spoken falsehoods in special cases (e.g., speaking falsehoods to the Nazi at the door seeking the Jews hidden in your attic).

When in doubt regarding whether something in the Catechism counts as an official “magisterial” teaching, or not, just do the very simple thing of “following the footnotes.” If a particular teaching found in the Catechism has a magisterial source, it will be in the footnote.

So, here in the wake of “Laudato Si,” it seems good to take a moment to make sure we’re not mistakenly concluding that the Catechism is entirely made up of magisterial teaching, since, like the Pope’s new encyclical, it’s not. In both cases, we’re free to accept the entirety of what is to be found in each text, but, for similar reasons, we’re not obliged to accept the complete text without reservation.

As Catholics, it’s up to us. We must be able to know the difference between prudential judgment, common teaching, and the magisterial teaching of the pope and bishops.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Deacon Jim Russell is a lifelong St. Louis resident, "cradle" Catholic, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the Diaconate in 2002, Deacon Russell serves as Family Life Coordinator for the Office of Laity and Family Life in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, Missouri. He previously worked in full-time parish ministry for the last fourteen years. He remains an active supporter of Catholic radio and the Catholic blogosphere (some of his posts can be found at the “Virtual Vestibule,” the official blog of the Archdiocese of St. Louis (http://blog.stlouisreview.com/). Deacon Russell’s theological interests include the sanctity of marriage, the work of Pope St. John Paul II, and Catholic teaching on same-sex attraction. Follow Deacon Russell on Twitter at @MarriageSTL.

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