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How Students Should Learn, and How Teachers Should Teach

The term “Magisterium” is a relatively new term that became prevalent in the past few generations of Church history. Before this, there was a distinction made within the Church Militant between the Ecclesia Docens (“Teaching Church”) and the Ecclesia Discens (“Learning Church”). The Baltimore Catechism:

How may the members of the Church on earth be divided?

The members of the Church on earth may be divided into those who teach and those who are taught. Those who teach, namely, the Pope, bishops and priests, are called the Teaching Church, or simply the Church. Those who are taught are called the Believing Church, or simply the faithful.

What is the duty of the Teaching Church?

The duty of the Teaching Church is to continue the work Our Lord began upon earth, namely, to teach revealed truth, to administer the Sacraments and to labor for the salvation of souls.

What is the duty of the faithful?

The duty of the faithful is to learn the revealed truths taught; to receive the Sacraments, and to aid in saving souls by their prayers, good works and alms. [1]

This dichotomy creates a simple picture of the classroom with the Magisterium as the teacher and the faithful as the students. We see also in this explanation that both parties have duties to one another and to God. The Magisterium must teach and the faithful must learn. We may define the duty of “teaching” as “helping the faithful come to a clear understanding about the necessary truths for the salvation of souls.” We may define “learning” as “humbly accepting the faith passed down by the Magisterium, seeking to understand it and thereby saving one’s soul.” This picture is easy enough.

But what happens if there is a failure of duty? The history of heresies presents another picture in the classroom. A heretic is a student who refuses to learn from the teacher. He is consumed with his own pride and exalts himself to be a teacher instead of the rightful possessor of that office. He is justly disciplined by the real teacher and, if necessary, thrown out of the classroom to protect the other students from error. This is how the Church has dealt with heretics in the past — thus the failure of the duty on the students’ side.

What about a failure of duty on the teacher’s side? By way of example, let us suppose that in the morning, the teacher taught the class that “2 + 2 = 4.” The class did not fail in their duty and duly learned this mathematical truth and the arithmetic behind it. They went to lunch and recess and thought they had an understanding of this math problem. Then when they returned from lunchtime and sat back down in their seats, the teacher had written on the board, “2 + 2 = 5.” How would the students feel? A bit confused, probably. Then let us suppose that the teacher proceeds to teach the class that five is the sum of two added to two. What would be the result? The good student who does not fail in his duty would undoubtedly raise his hand and say “Magister, I don’t understand. I thought 2 + 2 = 4.”

Given the teacher’s duty to teach the students, what would a good teacher do? Explain the contradiction. A good teacher would fail in his duty to teach if he were to assert two contradictory things to the classroom and fail to explain how they can both be true. But this stark mathematical contradiction is the way that children perceive a contradiction. As anyone with children will observe, young children have difficulty grasping nuance.

Let us put the example another way, more plausible: suppose the morning lesson was on the Ten Commandments, the Fifth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Easy enough for a child to understand. But then suppose the afternoon lesson after lunch was on the Crusades. Let us say that the teacher rightly extolled the glory of the Crusaders and the saints who fought or preached the Crusade. Would not the children again raise their hands and ask about the morning lesson? “Magister, you said killing is against the law of God. Why are you praising these crusaders who killed people?” It is the duty of the student to learn, so he must ask questions.

What, then, becomes the teacher’s duty here? He must explain why the Fifth Commandment and the Crusades do not contradict each other. This requires some explanation, but it is easily explained. In other words, the duty of the teacher is to clarify the doubts of the students. His job is to help them learn and answer their questions. The teacher would be failing in his duty were he to simply teach in the morning that the Fifth Commandment is the law of God and in the afternoon that the Crusades were willed by God. He would also fail in his duty if he were to say to the students, as we sometimes say to small children, “Why do they not contradict? Because I said so, that’s why.” This would be a mere appeal to the will of the teacher, not the reasoning behind it. This may work for toddlers (sometimes), but not for children who have reached the age of reason. They can tell that there must be some rational explanation instead of a mere appeal to voluntarism. What man would not shun such a teacher who failed to explain such difficulties? This is the normal duty of a teacher.

But this is the situation we find ourselves in. Since at least Benedict XIV’s condemnation of usury in Vix Pervenit in 1745 through the death of Pius XII in 1958, the Pian Magisterium has condemned the intrigues of modern liberalism, communism, and feminism as it has affected philosophy, science, theology, politics, social order, and morals. The Pian Teaching Church has instead presented in dozens of encyclicals and teachings the contrary position: Christian social order and the fundamental principles of that order. This, according to our analogy, is the lesson the Church taught in the morning.

But because of certain excesses under this Magisterium (perhaps Benigni’s Monarchism mixing with the Solidatium Pianum as O’Malley asserts, or perhaps the ahistorical nature of neo-Thomism as Nichols asserts, or even the False Spirit of Vatican I), a revolution was effected at the Second Vatican Council. This was the time that the teacher asserted something that reversed many of the assertions of the Pian Magisterium regarding politics, social order, and even morals. Even the defenders of Vatican II can admit that there is at least an appearance of contradiction. So this was the afternoon lesson that appeared to contradict the morning lesson.

Benedict XVI famously attempted to explain what happened:

The problems in [Vatican II’s] implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

First of all, there should be nothing controversial about these words. This is simply the difference between a good student and the bad student (the heretic). The good student has a duty to learn, so he assumes that the lesson from the morning does not contradict the lesson from the afternoon. Let’s be fair here: there are such instances in history. The Arians asserted that Nicaea contradicted the Scripture and the ante-Nicene Fathers, and they could make a rational case (although in error). The Conciliarists and Gallicanists could assert that Florence contradicted Constance, and they could make a rational case (although in error). But what did the Church do? What is the duty of the teacher in these times? To explain the apparent contradiction — to distinguish terms and explain nuances.

The hermeneutic of continuity is the normal way of Catholic understanding. But for difficulties, a student must raise his hand and ask a question. This is precisely what the students have done since Benedict gave this famous address in 2005. In 2009, the appeal of Italian theologians was submitted to Pope Benedict in which it was said by the organizer, Msgr. Gherardini:

For the good of the Church … after decades of liberal exegetical, theological, historiographical and “pastoral” creativity in the name of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, it seemed urgent to me that some clarity be created by answering authoritatively the question about the continuity of this council with the other councils (this time not simply by declaring it so but by proposing a genuine demonstration), the question about its fidelity to the Tradition of the Church.

The petition then outlined 13 unofficial dubia about specific aspects of Vatican II that the theologians asked Benedict to clarify. The petition gained 50 prominent Italian theologians. This was a perfect opportunity to explain how the hermeneutic of continuity should be understood on specific points, and an authoritative answer could be given. Benedict made no reply.

Another example came in 2010, when the Synod of Bishops asked Benedict to clarify Dei Verbum 11, which seemed to contradict the Pian Magisterium on this point:

The synod proposes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarify the concepts of “inspiration” and “truth” in the Bible, along with their reciprocal relationship, in order to better understand the teaching of Dei Verbum 11. In particular, it’s necessary to emphasize the specific character of Catholic Biblical hermeneutics in this area. [2]

But in Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation Verbum Domini, he refused to authoritatively confirm and explain the hermeneutic of continuity:

A deeper study of the process of inspiration will doubtless lead to a greater understanding of the truth contained in the sacred books[.]…One must acknowledge the need today for a fuller and more adequate study of these realities, in order better to respond to the need to interpret the sacred texts in accordance with their nature. Here I would express my fervent hope that research in this field will progress and bear fruit both for biblical science and for the spiritual life of the faithful. [3]

If the Magisterium wishes to assert that Vatican II is in full continuity with the Pian Magisterium and the Tradition, it is the duty of the teacher to explain this. The teacher’s duty is to teach. Why are the students who raise their hands being shouted down by their brethren as schismatics? Is it not the duty of the teacher to answer questions and clarify doubts?

The only way out of this crisis is for the Magisterium to authoritatively define the doctrines that have been thrown into doubt since Vatican II. An excellent document for this purpose has already been provided by certain bishops in the Declaration of Truths. The Magisterium could simply authoritatively define these forty points and bind the faithful, and it would be the beginning of the end of this crisis. The student is not unfaithful who pleads with his teacher to teach. Let us be faithful sons of the Church and pray that the successor of St. Peter hears the same words of the Lord: I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren (Lk. 22:32).

[1] Baltimore Catechism #3, Questions 490-492.

[2] “Synod: Final Propositions of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible,” by John Allen Proposition 12

[3] Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (2010), 19

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