Rorate Caeli

“Tradition Devoured by the Magisterium”

This essay appeared at the Spanish site Caminante Wanderer on August 14, under the title “La Tradición devorada por el Magisterio.” This translation has been prepared for Rorate Caeli.—PAK

Tradition Devoured by the Magisterium

(from the Spanish blog Caminante Wanderer)

I would like to propose a thesis: in the course of the centuries, and especially after the Council of Trent, there has been a shift from an objective notion of Tradition as a revealed deposit to a subjective notion, which insists above all on the organ that proposes the truth—that is, the Magisterium. In scholastic terms, there has been a transition from quod to quo.

Whoever studies the Summa theologiae will see that the theological method St. Thomas applies is not the one that, according to modern manuals, must be followed to prove a theological proposition. This would consist rather of proof by the Magisterium, proof by Scripture, and proof by Tradition. In St. Thomas, however, there is no proof by the Magisterium; for him the auctoritates are Scripture and the Fathers. Quotations from popes or councils are scarce.

If we take up Denzinger, we will see that the first thirteen centuries of the Church—that is, up to the death of St. Thomas—cover only a fifth of the total of the interventions of the Magisterium. And we could continue to add significant data: the word “magisterium” does not appear at the Council of Trent, but the notion begins to take shape from Stapleton at the end of the sixteenth century, and especially in the theological treatises of the eighteenth century such as those of Mayr, Gotti, and Billuart.

All this does not mean—and it is important to clarify this—that the primacy of the Roman See is in doubt; it is simply to note that before modern times this See did not exercise the active magisterium of dogmatic definitions and constant formulation of Catholic doctrine that it has exercised since the pontificates of Gregory XVI and, above all, of Pius IX. In antiquity, the Roman See functioned more like a supreme court of last appeal, acting only once the question under dispute had been studied and broken down by doctors, theological schools, universities, and local councils.

We can say roughly that in the first centuries and until well into the second millennium, the Regula fidei was objective, that is, it was the same doctrine received from the Apostles, and that the popes, councils, and bishops fulfilled a function of conservation and of testifying to the fact that a doctrine had always been maintained—that it went back to the origins and therefore belonged to the aforesaid Regula fidei.

What can be observed is that a kind of reduction of Tradition to the Magisterium has been slowly taking place since the beginning of the second millennium and more rapidly in the last few centuries. There was a transition from conceiving Tradition as the content of the Apostolic Deposit to conceiving Tradition from the vantage of the transmitting organ, considered as residing in the Church’s Magisterium. The next step was to speak, probably beginning in the nineteenth century, of Tradition and Scripture as “remote rules” of faith, while the Magisterium would be the “proximate rule.” Theologians of the early twentieth century already speak of the Magisterium as having a formal function in relation to the objective deposit. Finally, the notion of remote rule is criticized, and the conclusion is reached of attributing the quality of rule of faith exclusively to the “living Magisterium.” With this process, the Magisterium has been introduced into the very definition of Tradition. To put it in an exaggerated way, Catholics today believe in Tradition because the Magisterium commands it. And for this reason, the faithful today wait for the Pope to pronounce on this or that matter, in order to know what to believe. And they obey slavishly in absolutely everything that the pope of the day comes up with, even his gestures or personal tastes.

This is not what happened during the first fifteen centuries of the Church. When a pope (or a council with the pope) spoke, it was because the situation was truly critical—for example, the Arian crisis, or Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Protestantism, Jansenism, Modernism, etc.

The most ultramontane positions could argue that the First Vatican Council defined, as a matter de fide, that the Roman Pontiff possesses universal, supreme, and immediate power even in jurisdictional and disciplinary matters, and whoever does not wish to accept it, anathema sit (Denzinger 1821–1831); therefore, the foregoing thesis could be seen as an attack against this dogma of faith.

It is definitely not so, because what is questioned is not the pope’s universal power but the papal absolutism of the second millennium. Supreme power is not equivalent to absolutism, which is the same power taken to excess.

On the other hand, it is necessary to be precise about what is understood by “supreme and universal power,” since many consider that it empowers the Roman Pontiff to do whatever he wants. This is not so. There are many things the pope cannot do. He cannot suppress institutions of divine right. He cannot suppress the episcopal order. He cannot abrogate sacraments. He cannot modify or annul the commandments. He cannot admit someone in mortal sin to sacramental communion. He cannot bless morally evil acts.

And above all, there is a general principle of natural law that applies to any authority: commands must be rational. If a command is not ordered by reason, it is not law but force and violence. And while the pope cannot be judged by anyone on earth, his manifestly irrational laws or commands can be resisted. For example, even if the pope did not like people of color, he could not suppress the African dioceses; nor could he ordain all the males of his family bishops to give luster to the Bergoglios. If he does not like kibbeh and sfiha, he could not suppress the Maronite rite; and we could give other examples of irrationalities that a pope could not do—in regard to which, were he to do them, it would be licit, if not obligatory, to resist him.

Finally, an argument from authority. When Benedict XVI took office as Bishop of Rome in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, he said in his homily: “The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and wills are law.” And while still prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he wrote: “The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law. He is rather the guardian of authentic Tradition and thus the first guarantor of obedience. He cannot do whatever comes into his head and is thus able to oppose those people who, for their part, want to do whatever comes into their heads. Its rules are not those of arbitrary power, but those of obedience in faith” (Prologue to Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, p. 18).

In the light of the above thesis and the words of Pope Benedict XVI, it is worth asking, once again, to what extent the despotic act with which Francis has suffocated the traditional liturgy through Traditiones Custodes should be obeyed—thus ceasing to be the “guardian of authentic tradition” and becoming its executioner.