When bishops instruct the faithful
NICHOLAS LASH | DECEMBER 13, 2010
When the Second Vatican Council ended, several of the
bishops who took part told me that the most important
lesson they had learned through the conciliar process had
been a renewed recognition that the church exists to be, for all its
members, a lifelong school of holiness and wisdom, a lifelong school of
friendship (a better rendering of caritas than “charity” would be). It
follows that the most fundamental truth about the structure of
Christian teaching cannot lie in distinctions between teachers and
pupils—although such distinctions are not unimportant—but in the
recognition that all Christians are called to lifelong learning in the
Spirit, and all of us are called to embody, communicate and protect
what we have learned. Much of what is said about the office of
“teachership” or magisterium seems dangerously forgetful of this fact.

Aspects of Instruction
The concept of instruction is ambiguous. If I am “instructing” someone, I may be teaching or I may be
issuing a command. Someone who is “under instruction” is being educated, but “I instructed him to
stop” reports a command. “Instructions for use,” however, provide information and hence would seem
to be educational. There may be cases in which it is not easy to decide the sense. It is, however,
important not to confuse the two senses and even more important not to subordinate instruction as
education to instruction as command.
I have long maintained that the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism lies in just such
subordination of education to governance, the effect of which has too often been to substitute for
teaching proclamation construed as command. As Yves Congar said, it is impossible to make the
function of teaching an integral element of jurisdiction because it is one thing to accept a teaching, quite
another to obey an order: “Autre chose est agréer une doctrine, autre chose obéir à un ordre.”
Dissent and Disagreement
I have said that Catholic Christianity is a lifelong school of friendship, holiness and wisdom. Yet the
tasks of those exercising the pastoral teaching office seem not, in fact, primarily to be teaching, at least
as this activity is understood in most schools.
In 1975 a plenary session of the International Theological Commission issued a series of theses on the
relationship between the magisterium and theology. In 1966 Paul VI had addressed an international
congress on “The Theology of Vatican II” on the same topic, and the commission introduced its theses
with two brief quotations from that address. The commission defined ecclesiastical magisterium as “the
office of teaching which, by Christ’s institution, is proper to the college of bishops or to individual
bishops joined in hierarchical communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”
What terminology might be appropriate to describe what someone is doing when, for whatever reason,
he or she seeks to take issue with some particular instance of magisterial teaching? “Disagreeing” is the
term that comes to mind. But because teaching is, in current ecclesiastical usage, usually construed as
governance, as command, such taking issue is described in the recent literature not as disagreement but10/11/2012 America Magazine - Teaching or Commanding? as “dissent.”
Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., reminded readers of his 1983 book Magisterium that Pius XII, in “Humani
Generis,” announced that “when a pope, in an encyclical, expresses his judgement on an issue that was
previously controverted, this can no longer be seen as a question for free discussion by theologians”;
Father Sullivan goes on to point out, however, that “there is no such statement in any of the documents
that were approved by the Council.” The silence of the Second Vatican Council notwithstanding, John
Paul II, addressing the American bishops in Los Angeles in 1987, said without qualification: “It is
sometimes said that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and
poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching
office of the bishops in the United States and elsewhere.”
If Father Sullivan’s study seemed content to work with the terminology of “dissent,” Ladislas Orsy, S.J.,
is more troubled by the notion. “Dissent has become,” says Father Orsy, “one of the dominant themes in
Catholic theology in the United States,” but “is mentioned less in European writings.” Dissent, he says,
“is an imperfect term under several aspects”: It is purely negative; it implies “deep-lying internal
antagonism”; it is historically loaded; and so on. “It follows that if we abandoned the word ‘dissent’
altogether, we would lose little and gain much.” I agree. Yet, “All these arguments notwithstanding,”
Father Orsy concludes, “it appears that for the time being at least” we must “live with an unsuitable
word.” For goodness’ sake, why?
Here is a very simple model: The teacher looks for understanding, the commander for obedience.
Where teaching in most ordinary senses of the term is concerned, if a pupil’s response to a piece of
teaching is yes, the student is saying something like “I see” or “I understand.” If the response is no, the
pupil is saying “I don’t see” or “I don’t understand.” When subordinates say yes to a command, they
obey; when they say no, they disobey. Dissent is disobedience. The entire discussion about the
circumstances in which it may be permissible or appropriate to dissent from magisterial utterances
makes clear that what is at issue is when and in what circumstances it may be virtuous, and not sinful,
to disobey. There could, in my opinion, be no clearer evidence that what we call “official teaching” in the
church is, for the most part, not teaching but governance.
I am not in the least denying that governance, the issuing of instructions and commands, has its place in
the life of the church, as of any other society. That is not what is at issue. The point at issue is that
commands direct; they do not educate. It is one thing to accept a doctrine, quite another to obey an
order.
Manuals and Rule Books
Commenting on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Splendor of Truth” (1993), Herbert McCabe, O.P.,
contrasted manuals and rule books. A manual helps one to acquire some skill: as a football player or a
piano-tuner or, if we extend the range of skills to those habits we call the virtues, as a just or generous
person. A manual is an instrument of education. In addition to manuals there are rule books, which tell
you what, in some particular context, you are and are not allowed to do. Father McCabe writes: “The
rule book does not tell you anything about acquiring skills in football; it simply tells you the rules and
the kinds of action that would break them.” The rule book is an instrument of governance. What
worried Father McCabe about “The Splendor of Truth” was that it is, he said, “in great part, an attack on
those who want to read the rule book as a manual by those who want to read the manual as though it
were a rule book.”
Nowhere in “The Splendor of Truth” does John Paul II discuss disagreement in the church or the duty
of episcopal authority to monitor and guide it. Indeed, near the end of the encyclical, in a passage
denouncing “dissent” and “opposition to the teaching of the Church’s pastors,” the pope comes close to
claiming that there is simply no place for disagreement on moral questions in the church: “While
exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative
democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for such a process.” It “cannot
depend simply” upon “exchanges and conflicts of opinion”—fair enough. But might Catholics not have
expected him to say something about the part such “exchanges” should play?
‘Teachership’10/11/2012 America Magazine - Teaching or Commanding?
“It is for ecclesiology,” said Robert Murray, S.J., an English Jesuit, “that [the term] magisterium till
about the mid-nineteenth century referred to the activity of authorized teaching in the Church. The use
with a capital ‘M’ to denote episcopal and especially papal authority was developed mainly in the antiModernist documents.”
The 19th-century shift from the name of a function, that of teaching, to the name of a group of officers
or “functionaries” was for two reasons most unfortunate. First, it was unfortunate because it created the
impression that in the church only bishops bear responsibility for witnessing to the Gospel. (We should
never forget that most bishops were first catechized by their mothers.) Second, it was unfortunate
because bishops seldom do much teaching in the ordinary sense, being preoccupied with the cares of
middle management. As a result, the contraction of the range of reference of magisterium to the
episcopate alone served only to deepen the subordination of education to governance that I have
deplored.
There are, of course, exceptions to the claim that most bishops seldom do much teaching in the ordinary
sense. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, when he was archbishop of Milan, could fill his cathedral with
people who came to hear him interpret the Scriptures. And an encyclical like Pope Benedict XVI’s
“Caritas in Veritate” (2009) is surely a quite straightforward exercise in teaching.
I have referred to the contraction of the range of “official teachers” to the episcopate. In fact, during the
20th century the magisterium contracted even further. John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” is
addressed “to all the bishops of the Catholic Church.” Near the end of it, the pope says: “This is the first
time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this
teaching,” thereby contracting the range of reference still further—to himself.
According to the church historian Eamon Duffy, John Paul II, like Pius XII before him, “saw the pope as
first and foremost a teacher, an oracle.” However accurate the image of particular popes as “oracles” may
be as a description, it remains the case that any pope who behaves within the church as an oracle
misunderstands his office. The image of the oracle is of one who brings fresh messages from God. This
no pope can do, for the church he serves as its chief bishop has already heard the Word and lives by that
faith, which is its God-given response. It is the duty of those who hold teaching office in the church to
articulate, to express, to clarify the faith by which we live.
Reception
Hence the importance of the doctrine of “reception.” In one of St. Augustine’s sermons (No. 272) he
says: “When I hold up the host before communion, I say ‘Corpus Christi,’ and you reply ‘Amen,’ which
means: ‘Yes, we are.’” The response of the faithful to sound teaching in the church is to say, “Yes, that’s
it.” Where this response is lacking, the teaching is called into question.
Securus judicat orbis terrarum (“The judgment of the whole world is secure”). In the months leading up
to the first Vatican Council, Cardinal John Henry Newman insisted that he “put the validity of the
Council upon its reception by the orbis terrarum” (whole world). And when, after the council, he
hesitated before accepting the definition of papal infallibility, Lord Acton remarked, “He was waiting for
the echo.”
“Human community,” says Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., “is sustained by conversation.” That he regards this
axiom as an ecclesiological and not merely an anthropological principle is clear from his later remark
that “sharing our faith is always more than stating our convictions: it is finding our place in that
conversation which has continued ever since Jesus began to talk with anyone whom he met in Galilee,
and which is the life of the Church.” Disagreement is an unavoidable feature of serious conversation
about the things that matter most. David Woodard, a brilliantly effective but somewhat eccentric parish
priest with whom I had the privilege of working in the early 1960s, came back one day after visiting a
neighboring parish and exclaimed: “Those people are completely lacking in Christian charity; they can’t
even disagree with one another!”
In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (“Unity in essentials, liberty in open
questions, in all things charity”). Pope John XXIII quoted this 16th-century motto in his first encyclical.
It seems to me that where the relationships between governance and education and between the
episcopate and teachers of theology are concerned, there are few more important tasks for the bishops America Magazine - Teaching or Commanding?
to undertake than to act as moderators of disagreement, educators in Christian conversation.
From the archives, Nicholas Lash reports on contintent-wide meeting of European theologians.
Nicholas Lash was for 20 years the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. This
article is adapted from his talk honoring the theological achievement of Michael Buckley, S.J., delivered
at Boston College in 2009

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