Book Review: Dulles’s “Magisterium”

January 13, 2009

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith. Introductions to Catholic Doctrine. Naples, FL.: Sapientia Press, 2007.  Pp. x + 209. $21.95

by Glenn B. Siniscalchi, Duquesne University

Avery Dulles’s Magisterium is perhaps the most clear, concise, and comprehensive introductory book to date on the teaching authority and function of the Catholic Church.  Written primarily for Catholics, it covers various aspects of the Magisterium with the theologies of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in mind.  So important are these sources for a new theology of the Magisterium that older works that do not include them “would be in serious need of updating” (viii).  Nine appendices provide the most pertinent sections of the most recent papal documents on the Church’s teaching authority.

Although Dulles’s book is not apologetical in focus (6), his explanation and description of the Magisterium unknowingly, if not indirectly, defends the Catholic claim throughout his book.  “It is logical,” he declares, “to suppose that if God deems it important to give a revelation, he will make provision to assure its conservation” (4).  Utilizing New Testament data and Church history, Dulles forcefully argues that the Magisterium is both biblically sound and well established throughout church history.  This is most welcome given the scarcity of published works on the historical development of the papacy.  He then outlines the role of the members of the Magisterium.  This section spells out the distinction between the Church’s official teachers and how their authority is related to Church Fathers, Doctors of the Church, saints, and theologians.  He then explains how and when there can be disagreements between bishops.  For example, the entire college of bishops can teach, govern, and sanctify in union with the pope, but the pope does not have to perform these functions with the approval of his brother bishops (51, 52).  An important point to remember is that the multifaceted, authoritative teachings of the Church are not always infallible.  Encyclicals are not examples of infallible teaching (70).

Elucidating the competence of pastoral authorities, Dulles conveys the circumstances in which the pope teaches infallibly (70, 71).  With this he draws attention to questions on whether infallible pronouncements are ever defective and therefore in need of correction or updating.  Despite the opposition of some theologians on the subject, Dulles is clear that Vatican II did not diminish the role of Vatican I’s definition of papal primacy and infallibility.  The biggest difficulty for today, it seems to me, is not whether the church can err in matters of belief, but how the pope can exercise infallible teaching without consulting his brother bishops or the faithful in the process.  Dulles’s exposition on this issue is wholly faithful to Catholic theology, but it would have been interesting to see his justification for it.  Dulles also covers the issue of the obligatory force of the different levels and types of magisterial teaching.  Considering the immediate confusion after Vatican II “as to what doctrines were binding, on what grounds, and in what measure,” this was essential to include in a book like this given the previous delineation he makes between infallible and authoritative teaching (84).  For it is well known that not every teaching in the Catholic Church is equally binding.  After this he goes over the delicate subject on whether it is ever acceptable to dissent from Magisterial teaching and remain in good standing within the Church.  This is a perfect way to introduce the reader to these sensitive issues.

For all of the book’s strengths, there are still notable weaknesses.  In a text that only briefly skims the surface of major aspects of teaching authority, it would have been profitable for Dulles to offer more bibliographic resources at the end of each chapter for the reader to pursue if he or she wishes to research the topic more in detail.  The chapter on infallibility, the “much debated issue,” is perhaps the best example of a topic that deserved much more detail and attention (vi).  Lastly, there is hardly a shred of ecumenical theology informing Magisterium.  Even though his work is primarily written for Catholics, it is troubling that Dulles does not clarify the Catholic position in light of the difficulties that Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant Christianities pose to the infallibility of the Church.

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