The Magical Mystery Magisterium and the Hermeneutic of Hermeneutics

Within the pope's response to the recent dubia there is a statement that threatens to undermine the Church's ability to make definitive definitions about doctrine.

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Five intrepid churchmen recently posed a round of questions (“dubia”) to the Holy See. Remarkably, Pope Francis answered their queries. His replies evince a characteristic mixture of plainspoken expressions of orthodoxy and subtle insinuations of novelty. An apparent concession that pastors may bless same-sex relationships in certain circumstances has garnered widespread attention—unsurprisingly, given the zeitgeist of our age. However, the document inadvertently discloses an issue that is (or should be) more concerning for serious Catholics: namely, the twofold crisis of interpretation and meaning afflicting our doctrinal discourse.

This predicament is perhaps not immediately obvious, so we must remove some brush before examining it straightforwardly. 

In the fourth dubium, the cardinals ask whether the essential distinction between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood still obtains, and whether 

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the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is still valid, which teaches as a truth to be held definitively the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women, so that this teaching is no longer subject to change or free discussion by pastors or theologians.  

Responding, Francis affirms the essential difference, albeit in a manner that gratuitously denigrates the ministerial priesthood. (One remembers the quip by Albert Camus to an audience of Dominicans: “The other day at the Sorbonne, speaking to a Marxist lecturer, a Catholic priest said in public that he too was anticlerical. Well, I don’t like priests that are anticlerical….”) Francis then acknowledges that St. John Paul II indeed “taught that we must affirm ‘definitively’ the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women,” while taking pains to assert the significant role for women “in the leadership of the Church.”

So far, so normal (by the standards of this papacy). However, Francis closes his answer to the fourth dubium with a curious statement: 

On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a “definitive statement” has not yet been fully developed. It is not a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be adhered to by all. No one can publicly contradict it and yet it can be a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.

It is difficult to know exactly what to make of this formulation, which does not display the hasty and convoluted quality of Francis’ airplanisms but seems carefully crafted to achieve a maximum of suggestion with a minimum of certainty, at once revealing and concealing its import.

We can, at least, venture a couple of tentative observations.  

First, according to Francis, St. John Paul II’s teaching (i.e., the Church’s perennial teaching) does not amount to a “dogmatic definition.” One of two conclusions follows: (1) the reservation of the ministerial priesthood to baptized men is not among the truths of divine Revelation or the truths necessarily connected therewith, or (2) the reservation of the ministerial priesthood to baptized men is among the truths of divine Revelation or the truths necessarily connected therewith, but the Magisterium has not bindingly proposed one or the other to be the case (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 88). 

So, the teaching remains “subject to study,” though, strangely, given its provisionality, “it must be adhered to by all” and cannot be “publicly contradict[ed]” (publicly!). Either way, Francis has substantially diminished the force of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which was intended to banish “all doubt” regarding a matter that “pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself” (4).  

Second, this ambiguous tension exists because, says Francis, “a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a ‘definitive statement’ has not yet been fully developed.” Evidently, we need an authoritative doctrine of definitive statements. One might be tempted to dismiss this notion as so much sophistry. Which, of course, it is. Yet it is more than that.  

And here we find the crisis referenced at the start of this article. Since the era of the Second Vatican Council, and maybe well before that era dawned, the Church has been pathetically entangled in a web of arcane disputes about the interpretation of Magisterial texts: their relative weight, priority, and so on. These debates gradually produced an array of competing interpretive paradigms, accessible only to scholars and “sophisticated” laymen (quite possibly, one such layman will use this piece as another occasion for absurd hairsplitting and intellectual gymnastics).  

With Francis’ response, we see just how far down the hermeneutical rabbit hole we have really gone. Exhibit A: We do not even enjoy a sure grasp of the meaning of “definitive statement!” Forget the hermeneutic of continuity and its competitors. We now require a hermeneutic of hermeneutics, a sort of decoder ring for the magical mystery Magisterium that has emerged in the midst of the See once admired for its noble perspicuity and economical language. Forget the hermeneutic of continuity and its competitors. We now require a hermeneutic of hermeneutics, a sort of decoder ring for the magical mystery Magisterium.Tweet This

Sadly, this situation brings to mind the old charge that the Magisterium cannot in principle settle contentions and resolve perplexities, for, logically, its authoritative declarations stand in need of subsequent authoritative expositions, and so on, ad infinitum. Can any honest Catholic deny that this argument has some heft? 

One increasingly needs an advanced degree—not to say heroic patience—to process and synthesize the endless flood of verbiage that pours forth from the heights and depths of the Holy See: bulls, constitutions, encyclicals, declarations, decrees, exhortations, instructions, instruments, letters, motu proprio, press releases, recognitio, rescripts; to say nothing of audiences, homilies, meditations, messages, speeches, and various and sundry casual comments, some in the air and some on the earth. Hardly a shock, given that the monumental Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, O.P., comes in at 1060 pages. And that represents just the beginning of the late torrent. Granted, Rome has long been loquacious, but once it was grave, lucid, intelligible.    

Someone will say, “Who cares? It is all above your paygrade. Just be quiet and pray. The bishops will sort it out.” Put aside the fact that the average bishop (or priest or deacon) is probably as befuddled as Joe Pewsitter, grace of Orders notwithstanding. Put that quite aside. The author’s salvation—the reader’s salvation—depends upon receiving and accepting the unadulterated truth communicated by Christ to the apostles and entrusted by the apostles to their successors (allowances being made for ability and circumstance).  

Further, every faithful (?) man, woman, and child with half a working brain is currently summoned to “participate” in ecclesial life, to “be Church.” The universal call to involvement—not to be confused with the universal call to holiness—is the very premise of the not-at-all narcissistic and self-involved Synod on Synodality, a happening that would not merit reflection except that it explicitly purports to reinvent the way we “do Church,” thus inviting ample reflection and ample prayer. 

Bottom line: we have arrived at a point where the well-catechized Catholic is compelled to contemplate the mystery of a “definitive statement.” We will only comprehend this sublime secret once we receive a “clear and authoritative doctrine” as to the “exact nature” of the same, to be developed. And when questions invariably arise with respect to this “clear and authoritative doctrine,” we will, alas, await further illumination…

If the reader expects the author to solve this quandary—apologies; bewilderment abounds. Everything is mist and quicksand. But we cannot ignore the crisis because the solution is not readily at hand. We are caught in a terrible trap. Perhaps only God Himself can deliver us.  

Meanwhile, pray to St. Thomas that the Holy Spirit would kindly shed clarity abroad.  

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media/CNA]


  • Philip Primeau

    Philip Primeau is a layman of the Diocese of Providence. His writing has appeared in Catholic World Report, Aleteia, Catholic Exchange, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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