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Magisterialism and the Church of Now


There has been a meme making the rounds on Facebook for awhile now. Showing images of the last three pontiffs, it states: Pope John Paul II “This is what we believe”, Pope Benedict XVI “This is why we believe it”, Pope Francis “Now go do it”:


Despite the good intentions of those who made it, I have always found this meme problematic. In only referencing the three most recent popes, we diminish one of the most compelling truths of Catholicism: the Church goes back two thousand years! While it is understandable to be drawn to that which we are most familiar with, our faith offers us so much more depth than that.

That brings us to the meme at the very top of this post. In an obvious response to the other image, this picture presents us with a sixteenth century pope (St. Pius V), a nineteenth century pope (Leo XIII), and an early twentieth century pope (St. Piux X). This then is the Church presented as something which transcends a particular era, something greater than just the Church of now. It also stands as a contradiction to those who would see the Church and the papacy only through a post-conciliar lens.

I am reminded of a brilliant article written by Fr. Chad Ripperger several years ago. In the below excerpt, Father explains how the magisterialism and postivism prevalent among many Catholics can be a serious problem, particularly in a time of ecclesial crisis. Ultimately, Ripperger argues, it is traditionalism that provides the proper lens by which the faithful must view the faith in general, and the Magisterium in particular. From his post:

“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 previous magisterial acts, many have begun ignoring the previous magisterial acts and now listen only to the current Magisterium.


Neoconservatives have fallen into this way of thinking. The only standard by which they judge orthodoxy is whether or not one follows the current Magisterium. As a general rule, traditionalists 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 certain aspects of current magisterial teachings that 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 also Scripture, intrinsic tradition, extrinsic tradition and the current Magisterium as the principles of judgment of correct Catholic thinking. This is what distinguishes traditionalists and neoconservatives.

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 neoconservatives 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 takes as true only 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. What would happen if in a period of crisis, like our own, a non-infallible ordinary magisterial teaching contradicted what was in fact the truth? If one part of the Magisterium contradicts another, both being at the same level, which is to believed?

Unfortunately, what has happened is that many neoconservatives have acted as if non-infallible ordinary magisterial teachings…are, in fact, infallible when the current Magisterium promulgates them. This is a positivist mentality. Many of the things that neoconservatives do are the result of implicitly adopting principles that they have not fully or explicitly considered. Many of them would deny this characterization because they do not intellectually hold to what, in fact, are their operative principles.

“As the positivism and magisterialism grew and the extrinsic tradition no longer remained a norm for judging what should and should not be done, neoconservatives accepted the notion that the Church must adapt to the modern world. Thus rather than helping the modern world to adapt to the teachings of the Church, the reverse process has occurred. This has led to an excessive concern with holding politically correct positions on secular matters. Rather than having a certain distrust of the world – which Christ exhorts us to have – many priests will teach something from the pulpit only as long as it is not going to cause problems…”

30 thoughts on “Magisterialism and the Church of Now”

  1. One of the insults that the current pontiff hurled at those who look to tradition was “Museum Mummy”. The irony is that it is precisely the modernists who treat the church’s past, its tradition, as a museum piece to be safely ignored as irrelevant today. It is the traditionalists who treat it as something that vivifies, inspires and guides.

    • The Pope’s statement in Evangelii Gaudium about Christians becoming ‘mummies in a museum’ had absolutely nothing to do with ‘those who look to tradition.’ The relevant section of the document reads thus:

      “81. At a time when we most need a missionary dynamism which will bring salt and light to the world, many lay people fear that they may be asked to undertake some apostolic work and they seek to avoid any responsibility that may take away from their free time. For example, it has become very difficult today to find trained parish catechists willing to persevere in this work for some years. Something similar is also happening with priests who are obsessed with protecting their free time. This is frequently due to the fact that people feel an overbearing need to guard their personal freedom, as though the task of evangelization was a dangerous poison rather than a joyful response to God’s love which summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive. Some resist giving themselves over completely to mission and thus end up in a state of paralysis and acedia.

      82. The problem is not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable. As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness. Far from a content and happy tiredness, this is a tense, burdensome, dissatisfying and, in the end, unbearable fatigue. This pastoral acedia can be caused by a number of things. Some fall into it because they throw themselves into unrealistic projects and are not satisfied simply to do what they reasonably can. Others, because they lack the patience to allow processes to mature; they want everything to fall from heaven. Others, because they are attached to a few projects or vain dreams of success. Others, because they have lost real contact with people and so depersonalize their work that they are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself. Others fall into acedia because they are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life. Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross.

      83. And so the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness”.[63] A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”.[64] Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization!”

          • The above fragment of writing is extremely suggestive of the Protestant penchant to make evangelizers of all of us — when Scripture does not call for us all to be evangelizers (see Eph. 4:11) . This, I would suggest, stems from the contracepting mentality that precludes large families and hence makes it imperative to continually evangelize in order to realize stable numbers and money.
            I just recently finished the book that Fr. J suggested. I highly recommend it.

      • Thanks for the correction, Therese. My memory of the phrase was obviously lacking. Nevertheless, the point stands insofar as there are innumerable examples of modernists in the church, whether highly placed or low, who believe that the last 50 years has superseded whatever came before and that there is no external or objective measure other than whatever is said right now. I’ve had it spoken directly to me by such men: “We don’t do that anymore. That’s pre-Vatican II.” Of such statements I’m 100% certain, having heard them with my own ears. And if that isn’t treating Tradition like a museum piece, I don’t know what is.
        Thanks again.

        • The point is correct. However, 99% of “We don’t do that anymore. That’s pre-Vatican II” can be answered with the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, where we can show that the church *does* still do that, *does* still teach that. Works pretty well for whatever THAT is. I recently had my archbishop point this out to me.

      • There actually is quite a bit in the above three paragraphs that is relevant to clerical ministry and lay apostolates. Acedia (Go buy ‘The Noonday Devil’ from Ignatius Press RIGHT NOW!!!), workaholism – amongst priests and everyone, really, and despair at lack of results or tasks made bigger than they need to be or that seem too great to tackle. These really do, at times, crush authentic joy and missionary fervor.

  2. So very true.
    I was dismayed some months ago to hear someone from our diocesan chancery office say, “The Church of Vatican II teaches…” I believe it was “…teaches us to pray for one another.” I was so shocked to hear that the Church I thought I was in was not the Roman Catholic Church but the Church of Vatican II that I missed the rest of the sentence.

    • This person was being honest. He/she recognizes the truth that there is the Church of Vatican II and the Catholic Church-two distinct entities.

  3. Thanks Brian. What you say is a truth we need know. And that truth is that there are no new truths. Nearly everything Pope Francis has become famous for recently is probably in whole or in part incorrect. This is not even to mention his thoughts on ‘climate change’ and economic issues

  4. The papacy was reduced to simply a “brother bishop” with the changes made in Vatican II on the governance of the Church. As it’s primary purpose is not to offend non-Catholics and the enemies of Christ and His Church, the papacy, or primacy of Peter, had to go.

  5. The Magisterium does not contradict itself. Only those looking for contradictions — be they traditionalists or modernists — think it does. Put the Syllabus of Errors next to Gaudium et Spes and you will not find a single contradiction in what is actually taught.

    Time to stop being either/or Catholics. It’s both/and time, friends.

    • “Man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake” (Gaudium et Spes, §24)
      “The Lord hath made all things for Himself” (Prov. 16)

        • Your original comment seems to presuppose that every conciliar document is Magisterial. I think the disputed point is not whether the Magisterium contradicts itself, but whether a conciliar document can contradict the Magisterium, and in so doing, prove itself to be outside of the Magisterium.

          Or do you think that the Fourth Lateran Council’s canons 68 and 69, which forbid Jews to hold any public office, or to appear out of doors without wearing identifying clothing, or even to appear at all “on the days of lamentation and on passion Sunday,” are binding Magisterium that only an “anti-Catholic wishing to discredit the Holy Spirit and the Church” could contest?

          • Disciplinary items regarding conduct (e.g. your items on Jews) are intrinsically non-Magisterial.

            When a Church Council teaches on Faith or Morals, yes, it is automatically Magisterial.

          • Magisterial doesn’t mean infallible. The magisterium can be wrong and it can contradict itself.

  6. I find any attempt to appeal to the long tradition of Catholicism is met by instant appeals to the Catholic Koran: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published, when? Ten years ago? This has become the Little Book Of Answers at places like Little Green Catholics (the noisy guy at Patheos). Like Dr. Spock’s book on baby-raising, it has completely supplanted everything that came before it.

  7. What strikes me in the picture of the three modern popes is the gold papal crosses on JPII and Benedict, and the ugly silver cross on Francis.

  8. Seems to me there’s more than a little bias here in favor of Traditional expressions of Catholic faith. If you can legitimately argue that “modernists” tend to reject anything from BEFORE Vatican II, the “traditionalists” help make the problem worse by rejecting anything from AFTER the Council. If you’re seeing…difficulty…from “orthodox” or “neoconservative” Catholics, perhaps you’re witnessing the struggles of people who’ve been hounded from both sides.
    Benedict XVI spoke about a hermeneutic of continuity on several occasions. I rarely see either “modern” or “traditional” practice that hermeneutic.

  9. Lovely meme. I actually like both of them since I think the ‘recent popes’ one helps people who may not get the connection and continuity of the faith even in the short term. I think it leads to the ‘long view’ mime, which is an excellent reminder of the depth of the Catholic faith.

  10. What point is this meme trying to make? Why the need to denigrate the last 3 popes in favor of 3 earlier ones? The magisterium is the teaching of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. Obviously Pius V, Leo XII, and Pius X were great teachers and their work helps make up the deposit of faith. But we aren’t supposed to ignore our current shepherds, and while they are in authority, they are our pastors. We don’t look to our diocesan bishop and say, “Well everyone says great things about this guy, but no one seems to care that the bishop from 80 years ago was really great!” The same with popes. It should be both/and.

  11. “..Traditionalists tend to take not just the current Magisterium as their norm..” In my area, traditionalists do not really take the current magisterium as anything “normative”. While they “claim” obedience and jurisdiction through the successors of Peter, subconsciously they hold a very schizophrenic and tenuous claim to remaining in the very church whose current magisterium they believe to be heretical. And I don’t think the meme of the 3 most recent Popes is any more problematic than the first, the one showing the post vatican 2 popes doesn’t “diminish” the rich hostory of the church and more than the first meme, showing Pope Leo and the 2 Pope Pius’ The “diminishes” the rich history of the Popes of the first 1,000 years of our history. I think you may just be reading something into it that’s not there. As for: “Many of the things that neoconservatives do are the result of implicitly adopting principles that they have not fully or explicitly considered. Many of them would deny this characterization because they do not intellectually hold to what, in fact, are their operative principles…”, I 100% agree, and I think a great deal of blame is to be laid on last of “historical formation” on the rich history of our church. People cannot be expected to see the errors of modernism if they have not, from a young age, been given a fuller teaching of our 2,000 history!


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