Magisterialism as error

25 03 2009


from Father Chad Ripperger, F.S.S.P., in the essay, Operative Points of View, in reply to this thread:

…in the document of Vatican II on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, there is not a single mention of the two previous documents which deal with the ecumenical movement and other religions, viz. Satis Cognitum by Leo XIII or Mortalium Animos by Pius XI. The approach to ecumenism and other religions is fundamentally different from the approach of the Vatican II document or Ut Unum Sint by Pope John Paul II. Moreover, the problem is not just with respect to magisterium prior to Vatican II but even with the magisterium since the Council.

This type of behaviour coupled with the modern philosophical encroachment into the intellectual life of the Church and the bad theology resulting therefrom has led to a type of “magisterialism”. Magisterialism is a fixation on the teachings that pertain only to the current magisterium. Since extrinsic tradition has been subverted and since the Vatican tends to promulgate documents exhibiting a lack of concern regarding some of the previous magisterial acts, many have begun ignoring the previous magisterial acts and listen only to the current magisterium.

This problem is exacerbated by our current historical conditions. As the theological intellectual community began to unravel before, during and after Vatican II, those who considered themselves orthodox were those who were obedient and intellectually submissive to the magisterium since those who dissent are not orthodox. Therefore, the standard of orthodoxy was shifted from Scripture, intrinsic tradition (of which the magisterium is a part) and extrinsic tradition (which includes magisterial acts of the past, such as Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors), to a psychological state in which only the current magisterium is followed.

Neo-conservatives have fallen into this way of thinking i.e. the only standard by which they judge orthodoxy is whether or not one follows the current magisterium. Traditionalists, as a general rule, tend to be orthodox in the sense that they are obedient to the current magisterium, even though they disagree about matters of discipline and have some reservations about some aspects of current magisterial teachings which seem to contradict the previous magisterium (e.g. the role of the ecumenical movement). Traditionalists tend to take not just the current magisterium as their norm but Scripture, intrinsic tradition, extrinsic tradition and the current magisterium as the principles of judgment of correct Catholic thinking. This is what distinguishes traditionalists and neo-conservatives i.e. their perspectives regarding the role of ecclesiastical tradition and how the current magisterium relates to it.

Inevitably, this magisterialism has led to a form of positivism. Since there are no principles of judgment other than the current magisterium, whatever the current magisterium says is always what is “orthodox.” In other words, psychologically the neo-conservatives have been left in a position in which the extrinsic and intrinsic tradition are no longer included in the norms of judging whether something is orthodox or not. As a result, whatever comes out of the Vatican regardless of its authoritative weight, is to be held, even if it contradicts what was taught with comparable authority in the past. Since non-infallible ordinary acts of the magisterium can be erroneous, this leaves one in a precarious situation if one only takes as true what the current magisterium says. While we are required to give religious assent even to the non-infallible teachings of the Church, what are we to do when a magisterial document contradicts other current or previous teachings and one does not have any more authoritative weight than the other? It is too simplistic merely to say that we are to follow the current teaching.



7 responses

28 03 2009
Michael Liccione

Thanks for that gracious reply!

I think I understand a bit better now your difficulty with the idea of “imperfect communion”: you don’t see sufficiently clear and objective criteria for measuring the degrees. Well, all I can say is what the 12-steppers say: one good step at a time. But the steps are being taken.

E.g., the CDF’s documents on ecclesiology since the Council have made clear that there are such criteria. The Orthodox are a communion of “true, particular churches” because, having true apostolic succession, they have preserved the Faith and valid sacraments. Protestant churches are only “ecclesial communities” because they cannot be said to have done the same. But there is still much of value in many Protestant churches. How much of value is not always an easy question to answer because of the bewildering variety of Protestant sects and denominations. The good in them runs the whole gamut. But I think we can safely say that many of them have a genuine love for Scripture, some holy people, and certain genuine charisms. All those are “forces impelling toward Catholic unity.” That’s why Neuhaus could honestly say that he became the Catholic he was.


28 03 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think what is posted here is more a response to many of the interlocutors that I was engaged with in the comments section rather than your post per se. However, on the doctrinal issues you have raised here, I refer you to this post I did on the idea of “imperfect communion”, and here is an excerpt:

“A lot of this, as I said above, seems to be toying with God in some rather bizarre ways. According to the popular way of formulating the question, the closer you are to the truth, the more “in communion you are”. It’s almost like an imaginary scoreboard: being a monotheist gets you one point, believing in Jesus gets you two points, the Nicene Creed gets you three points, sacraments get you seven, and so on. The only problem is, there are no real rules outlined here. A lot of this scoring, this idea of partial communion, lapses into rhetoric.”

As for the religious liberty issue, I think the main issue is whether the state has the right or obligation to establish the Catholic religion and guarantee its supremacy in the face of others. I think it strange that the Church suddenly started legislating on the right to practice of religion as if it were the same thing as the right to life or to not be enslaved (although the latter is not a moral principle that the Church can legislate on absolutely, for obvious reasons). In any case, I will just point out that Dignitatis Humanae explicitly affirms all of the teachings of the Church that came before it, so on a doctrinal level, it is “safe” from that perspective. Perhaps the most that we can say is that it was very poorly written.

In any event, I would think that many of these issues are still in flux now. To be clear, I think that your essay was orthodox, I was just arguing with some of the rhetoric and methodology, and many of the sentiments expressed by those who commented on it. That I made clear from the start when I chose to comment on it.

28 03 2009
Michael Liccione


I don’t quite understand what the fuss is about here. There’s nothing in my article, or in my writings generally, claiming that only “the current magisterium” is criterial for orthodoxy. So if you’re suggesting otherwise by quoting Rippenger, you’re flailing at a strawman. I affirm what Dei Verbum §10 does, i.e. that “Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church are so linked and joined together that none can stand without the others.” That includes the past magisterium as well as the current. That is why, e.g., not even the pope may abrogate what was solemnly defined in the past, or even what’s been infallibly set forth by the ordinary and universal magisterium, such as the teaching on women’s ordination. And I’ve argued that the same goes for contraception.

Of course, that leaves us with two questions: (1) Which past teachings have not been infallibly set forth, so that “the current magisterium” is free to reverse them, and (2) are the reversals also improvements? It’s clear to me that, in certain specific cases such as ecclesiology, ecumenism and religious freedom, your answer to (2) is no. But of course that doesn’t warrant saying that the reversed teachings were infallible, and I’ve never seen you argue that they were. And if the current representatives of the magisterium thought that the reversed teachings were infallible, they would never have reversed them. So the debate really boils down to that over the question which teachings are true: the past ones, which Vatican II reversed, or the present ones?

Once again, I’ve never quite understood what the fuss is about on that score. Vatican II taught that non-Catholic Christians, as such, enjoy an “imperfect” degree of communion with the Church. It also taught that, merely as such, they should not be blamed for what impedes their full communion. Finally, it taught that religious freedom, understood in a certain way, is a basic human right. Now if you want to treat such points as matters of opinion, by all means produce your arguments against such teachings without appeal to authority. In other words, argue that there is no such thing as imperfect communion with the Church, that it’s either all or nothing; that non-Catholic Christians, merely as such, should be blamed for being “outside the Church”; and that religious freedom is only a right for orthodox Catholics. If, on the other hand, you believe that the views reversed by Vatican II are binding irrespective of the arguments, then produce your arguments for claiming that they are irreformable—in other words, that they were infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium, according to stated criteria that are themselves binding.

So far, I haven’t really seen either from you. I’ve seen such arguments from other trads, but I’ve never found them convincing. Which is why I’m not a trad.


26 03 2009


Why don’t you re-visit Phil. Per. and examine Edward de Vita’s own comments on the matter which seem very much like mine.

This is what he has to say:

Edward De Vita, on March 25th, 2009 at 9:20 pm Said:
I read Fr. Ripperger’s essay on your website and found it somewhat problematic. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Fr. Ripperger’s ideas are Protestant or consistent with Protestantism. On the other hand, I fail to see how his views can be reconciled with the acceptance of even past magisterial doctrine let alone current magisterial doctrine. As an example, consider the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. One could make a good argument, I think, that it was either unheard of or denied by the vast majority of Fathers and Doctors of the Church of the past. St. Bernard of Clairvaux thought it an innovation, St. Thomas Aquinas denied it and it certainly seems clear that St. Augustine did not explicitly teach it. In the Fathers, at best, we only have a doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness, and even this is denied by some of the Fathers (e.g., St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom). Now Father Ripperger could argue that it was eventually defined by the magisterium. But does this not beg the question? Clearly, any Catholic living at the time of the definition could have argued that the papal teaching was contrary to Tradition, just as Fr. Ripperger argues w.r.t. some current teaching. And, I might add, such an individual could have drawn a lot of support for his thesis. Why then, according to Fr. Ripperger’s views, ought we to accept the IC doctrine? The same could be said about the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, the inclusion of the Filioque in the creed, and many other teachings that Fr. Ripperger himself would acknowledge as Catholic orthodoxy.

25 03 2009
Arturo Vasquez


Once again, you are very good of making straw men in your own imagination and beating them to your heart’s content. If the following is Protestant, I don’t know what is Catholic:

“Traditionalists tend to take not just the current magisterium as their norm but Scripture, intrinsic tradition, extrinsic tradition and the current magisterium as the principles of judgment of correct Catholic thinking.”

Notice it is not a question of “either/or”, but “both/and”. That is just what the text says. If you are convinced that it says otherwise, then I really can’t help you. I always thought the genius of “romanitas” was a balance of all of these, but if you see otherwise, then there is really no point in arguing anymore.

25 03 2009


“[W]hat are we to do when a magisterial document contradicts other current or previous teachings and one does not have any more authoritative weight than the other? It is too simplistic merely to say that we are to follow the current teaching.”

This does not address the original post at Philosophia Perennis and, in fact, yet again, only further justifies the seeming superiority of Protestantism over Catholicism.

That is, if [a magisterial document contradicts other current or previous teachings], how can Catholics like yourselves continue to claim that the Church itself remains uncorrupted even when it comes to its dogmatic teachings?

Again, read Tyndale, read Luther —

For goodness sakes, they were decrying what they considered modern developments of the Catholic Church during their days in very similar fashion.

Thus, how can you even claim that those which you have accepted as orthodox teachings of the genuine Catholicism are not, in fact, merely manufactured teachings of the mediaeval church then?

In other words, you still have not refuted Protestantism by any means by appealing to such arguments as the ones in your entry here [at least, I am taking it as such based on your previous responses in the subject thread at Philosophia Perennis] but, rather, have only constantly provided further support for the likes of Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism.

25 03 2009
Lord Peter

Excellent excerpt. The notion that the living are somehow more knowledgeable than the dead is true hubris. We ignore the voice of the dead at our own, grave peril.

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