A Warning from History: St Paul VI, the Magisterium, and Theology [In-Depth, Opinion]
As the endless stream of “doctrinal declarations,” “corrections,” and “clarifications” continues to cause confusion and scandal for the Faithful, I feel it is imperative to cast our minds back to the pontificate of Pope St Paul VI, who, like Pope Francis, faced challenges and great criticism from some members of the Church. We may remember that in 1976, he displayed clear frustration and sadness at the anti-papal attitude of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X:
Fast forward four decades, and the situation is far worse. The advent of social media, and the business model of profiteering at the expense of the beauty of the Church, has created a climate of disharmony, division and disloyalty. Obedience to the Pope for some only now applies to popes who lie in the grave, rather than the one who lives and watches over the flock with Christ’s authority here and now. Thankfully, in Pope Francis, we have a Pope with a very good sense of humour, endowed with true charity and mercy; one who it seems is able to deal with these constant dissenters in a way that does not distract him from his unique ministry as successor to St Peter.Unfortunately, the position you have taken is that of an antipope. What can I say? You have not allowed for any measure in your words, your actions, your behaviour … You judged the pope as disloyal to the faith of which he is the supreme guarantor. Perhaps this is the first time in history that this has happened. You told the whole world that the pope lacks the faith, does not believe, that he is a modernist and so on.
Returning to St Paul VI, a decade before his confrontation with Archbishop Lefebvre, he gave a profound and prophetic address to an International Congress on the Theology of Vatican II. His aim was to remind the 1400 theologians present, of their role as a bridge between faith and magisterial authority. I believe this address — in the present climate of artificially constructed confusion by those opposed to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches (cf. Rev 2:7) — can serve to bury once and for all, the rather silly accusation that all who profess total obedience to the teaching authority of the Pope are guilty of papolatry. Instead, the text calls those bishops, priests, theologians and laity who in one way or another dissent from the authentic magisterial teachings of the present Pope, to leave this dead end path and return to fully unity cum Petro et sub Petro.
It is the following passage concerning the magisterium’s function that is of critical importance and relevance to the manufactured confusion of today, especially in the light of Amoris Laetitia, the alteration to the teaching on the death penalty, the doctrine of doctrinal development, and of course, the doctrine of papal authority:
This very clear teaching of St Paul VI is in perfect harmony with the doctrine stating that through the centuries until Christ’s return, the Church will discover in an ever more mature and perfect way, the truth of its own teachings. That is the purpose of doctrinal development, to refine and prune, until the full beauty of the truth is made manifest in the way that God intends it. This is simply the final stage of what God has done throughout salvation history; he teaches us patiently, wanting us to search and yearn for the truth, so that we ultimately discover the full glory of his salvific plan. Mariology is one stellar example of this, the dignity of human life is another.The magisterium on the other hand, has received authority from Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, through which it teaches the People of God. Its official task is, first and foremost, to bear witness to the teaching received from the Apostles and hand it on, so that it might become the possession of the universal Church and of the whole human family; to maintain this doctrine completely free from errors and distortions; in the light of Divine Revelation to pass authoritative judgment on new teachings, and on the considerations proposed by theology as solutions to new questions; and finally, to authoritatively propose new and deeper investigations into Divine Revelation, and new adaptations of this Revelation to our times — which it, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, judges to be in full accord with Christ’s teaching.
So we can see from this most valuable address that there is no wiggle room for theologians, laity or anyone else to be acting as a sort of theological vigilante association. There never was and never will be a counter-magisterium because the Holy Spirit has willed that a teaching authority should exist in, which He would guide in an authoritative and unique way. That explains why all bishops must be in communion with the Pope, and not the other way round. If we remain loyal and obedient to the divine will in this matter, then we can rest assured that we will always walk along the right path; we will stop the devil in his endless pursuit to replace humility with pride and thus lead many souls to ruin. No, what Jesus our Divine Master desires is filial love and devotion to His Vicar on earth.
The present supposed fight for the tradition and soul of the Church against the Pope is doomed to failure because it is a fight against God in reality. Yes, the fight against liberal dissention must continue because that is also opposed to God’s law, and only serves to encourage sin and a lighter carrying of the Cross. The true path to sanctity is through humility, obedience, prayer, and sacrificial love. If obedience to magisterial teaching is lacking, then the door is opened for a disintegration of the kind of spiritual life that leads to living in conformity with the divine will.