Paul VI and the New Conception of the Magisterium

December 03, 2018
Pape Paul VI

The Pope of Rupture

It is important always to take a close look at the first act made after a change in life, because it clearly shows the intentions behind this change, and these intentions once again go into hiding once the new state becomes habitual. A thief feels strong remorse only after his first theft, and a good Christian after his first conversion feels a strong attraction to God.

Paul VI was the pope of the rupture with Tradition, and by this very fact he was fully aware of the violence of the change he imposed upon the Church. He put his hand to the rudder, even as he bewailed in his conscience the contradiction he was imposing upon the life of the Church. He was a divided pope.

That is why we have to look at him and his declarations if we wish to understand the true motives behind the conciliar movement and his awareness as to whether he was breaking off from or continuing what the Church had lived up until then.

The “Pastoral” Nature of the Council

In his opening speech, Pope John XXIII wished to change the nature of the Council’s magisterium, calling it “pastoral”, but at first, no one knew just how to do this. The Preparatory Commissions, in their intense work during the two years leading up to this Council, had taken this intention into account, but had done so in a traditional way, drawing up doctrinal drafts in precise but less theological terms. But that was not what the pope wanted, since he gave his permission at the beginning of the first session to throw out all these drafts.

This pastoral nature was marked by two initial dispositions that left the Council Fathers in an unprecedented situation. The first was the silencing of the Curia with the elimination of all the preparatory drafts, in order to give the floor to the new generation of what we might call “the theologians of the Rhine”.  This change was significant: the drafts and the Curia were the voice of the Roman See, whereas these theologians claimed to be the voice of the people of God. The ears of the bishops turned away from Christ, the Supreme Pastor who speaks through His Vicar, and turned to the flock speaking through experts. In fact, it came to be known as the “Council of the Experts”.

John XXIII’s second decision was transparency to the world through the media. The previous councils had kept their doors closed so that no exterior influence would enter, but for Vatican II, a press center was organized, and this not only caused the conciliar discussions to be broadcasted ad extra, but also made the repercussions of the event in the international press felt ad intra. Occurring as it did in the century of communication, the Council wished to adapt. The decree Inter Mirifica on the means of communication begins with the following words: “The Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those [wonderful technological discoveries] which have a most direct relation to men's minds and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views and teachings of every sort… such as the press, movies, radio, television and the like.” Soon enough, the Fathers’ conversations in the hallways with the journalists came to be as important as or more so than the discussions in the council meetings. The bishops did not seek the voice of the Holy Ghost in the silence of their own hearts in the light of the Faith, but in the noise of men throughout the entire world, expressed by the means of communication.

John XXIII died in the interlude after the first session, and Paul VI was elected. The new pope immediately confirmed his intention to continue the Council, insisting upon the pastoral nature intended by his predecessor.

Definition of the New Magisterium

During the second session, from October to December 1963, collegiality was hotly disputed and the drafts on ecumenism caused much debate. The spirit of the new drafts was gaining ground, drawn up as they were by the theologians of the Rhine.

During the second interlude, with the Church in a state of tumult, Paul VI promulgated – most significantly on the feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1964 – his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, in which he minutely defined the new Magisterium that was already being put into practice: “Going, therefore, teach ye all nations," (Mt. 28:19) was Christ's final command to His apostles. The word apostle implies a mission from which there is no escaping. To this internal drive of charity which seeks expression in the external gift of charity, We will apply the word ‘dialogue.’ The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make… It is this kind of dialogue that will characterize Our apostolic ministry.” (§64-67).

The new dignity that man has attained with modern culture calls for a new way of bringing him to the truth: “It seems to Us that the sort of relationship for the Church to establish with the world should be more in the nature of a dialogue, though theoretically other methods are not excluded…. This method of approach is demanded nowadays by the maturity man has reached in this day and age. Be he religious or not, his secular education has enabled him to think and speak and conduct a dialogue with dignity.” (§78) “In our desire to respect a man's freedom and dignity, his conversion to the true faith is not the immediate object of our dialogue with him.” (§79) The hierarchy will no longer seek to impose its teaching in the name of its authority: “What gives [dialogue] its authority is the fact that it affirms the truth, shares with others the gifts of charity, is itself an example of virtue, avoids peremptory language, makes no demands.” (§81). Henceforth the Pope and the bishops will be there to listen: “It will be a slow process of thought, but it will result in the discovery of elements of truth in the opinion of others and make us want to express our teaching with great fairness. It will be set to our credit that we expound our doctrine in such a way that others can respond to it, if they will, and assimilate it gradually.” (§83)

The popes who came after him made it clear that dialogue had become the habitual and normal way of exercising their magisterium, but Paul VI was well aware that he was imposing a major upheaval in going from the magisterium of authority exercised until then to the dialogue instituted by the Council.

The New Magisterium in Its Strictest Sense

He who participates in a dialogue does not exercise any magisterium if this word is understood in its proper sense. Dialogue seeks the truth by comparing the understanding of the participants; whether the dialogue is according to reason or according to the Faith, the criterion is a common agreement; whereas someone who exercise a magisterium in the proper sense of the word enlightens his disciples, and the criterion of truth is decisive, based on a superior knowledge. Taken in the proper sense of both words, magisterium and dialogue are antonyms.

The ecclesiastical Magisterium is based on the divine knowledge of Jesus Christ, and it proposes its own decisions, called definitions, as the rule and criterion of truth. When expressed with the greatest authority and according to the conditions laid down by Vatican Council I for a magisterium ex cathedra, it is infallible. That is why, when Rome has spoken (ex cathedra), dialogue and discussion are over: Roma locuta, causa finita. However, the pope is free to implicate the help he receives from Christ to a greater or lesser degree, as his prudence dictates, and to express himself often based on his own understanding in the light of reason and of the Faith.

For various motives, Paul VI deemed fit that from the Council on, the Church hierarchy would no longer intervene as before with a true magisterium of authority, but simply on a footing of equality with believers and non-believers, in the form of a dialogue. Well-formed Catholics may have thought that this new way of presenting things would be seen as a sign of humility and draw souls more surely to the truth amply exposed by the previous ecclesiastical magisterium. But the promoters of the new theology, under their Modernist trappings, maintained that dialogue was not optional, it was necessary, since the Holy Ghost assisted not only the hierarchy but all men without exception. The conclusion drawn was that the Pope and the bishops had a lot to learn from the simple faithful and also from non-believers.

A Contested Magisterium

Paul VI was not clear in his motives; sometimes he spoke as a well-intentioned Catholic disillusioned by events, and at other times as if he was influenced by the new theologies. But it is quite certain that he introduced dialogue, not only in the exercise of his own personal pontificate, but also in the very institutions of the Holy See, by founding the International Theological Commission for dialogue among the Churches, and a thousand other commissions for dialogue with non-Catholic groups.

The consequence was that, in the face of the grave controversies raised by Vatican Council II, the definitive voice of Jesus Christ was no longer heard coming from the Chair of Peter. Rome no longer defines, she dialogues, and the discussions are endless. Paul VI was the first to reap what he had sown when, three years after the end of the Council, he promulgated the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he opposed the practice of birth control that was spreading like wildfire throughout the entire Church; he himself had renounced the imposing force of the pontifical word, and his teaching was openly contested on all sides. The magisterium of dialogue has the misfortune of being a constantly contradicted magisterium.

Paul VI was the Pope who introduced contradiction. The unprecedented dialogue on family morality, like so many others, continued with an extraordinary perseverance under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, leading up to Amoris Laetitia under Francis. The hierarchy and theologians have grown used to having heated discussions, the former tries not to be too explicit and the latter tries to keep up sufficiently respectful appearances.

Paul VI took upon his own shoulders all the weight of the rupture with Tradition, which makes the incongruity of his canonization all the more striking.

- Fr. Álvaro Calderón