By MSGR. AL SCHIFANO, VG/MC
Special to The New Vision
I recently took an amazing cruise to Alaska. One day we entered the Tracy Arm Fjord: a beautiful set of narrow waterways that wind their way through the towering snow-capped mountains around the Sawyer Glacier and cascading waterfalls. Watching the floating chunks of glacier ice here and there, with birds of the air and creatures of the sea so close, it is nature at its very finest. One passenger rightly stated: “No one can see this and not believe in God.” Indeed, the MASTER ARTIST was there!
Before our huge cruise ship entered the fjord, a small boat pulled up alongside, and a ship’s pilot, experienced in navigating the fjord, boarded our ship to guide it. We passengers were free to simply be awed by what we saw rather than worry over whether or not the ship’s captain knew how to navigate the tricky waters.
The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is the pilot of our ship, the Church, instituted by Christ to guide His Church and the faithful along the right path.
Msgr. Jeremiah J. McCarthy, esteemed Professor of Theology, priest of our Diocese and current Executive Director of the National Catholic Educational Association’s Seminary Department, offers a clear and inspiring explanation of the Magisterium and the distinction between the “ordinary” and “extraordinary” Magisterium.
“The Magisterium is a gift to help us form our consciences so that we can truly discern what is truly best for us to do in living our faith with integrity and holiness. We freely grant religious assent of our minds and hearts to the ordinary, day to day, teaching of the Magisterium and the formal assent of faith to the divinely revealed truths that are protected by the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops of the Church.
The ordinary Magisterium refers to the bulk of Catholic teaching, it is the day to day lived practice of the faith, wisdom gleaned from generations of faithful Catholics discerning the authentic character of the Catholic life and faith.
The extraordinary Magisterium is the solemn proclamation of the central doctrines of faith that bind us together as a Catholic, Christian family-the Nicene Creed for example that we pray at Mass or the solemn declaration of the long-standing tradition of the Church that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven by Pius XII in 1951.
The word Magisterium comes from the Latin for “teacher” (magister). A good teacher educates, that is leads students to understand and appropriate, internalize the truth, wherever it may lead us. So, for Catholics all truth comes from God, so there is no conflict between faith and reason. Faith opens us to the treasure of divine revelation, which sheds light on all of our human experience and our moral striving.”
What the Magisterium teaches is not always popular, but the Magisterium seeks the truth, not what is popular. It does not seek to be heavy-handed, but strives to be constant and reliable while also being compassionate to those who struggle with its teachings. Modern society and individualism often promote their own views of the “truth” that stand in stark contrast with the Magisterium. They provide powerful temptation because of their contemporary popularity and the current state of societal norms.
As priests, we often observe the faithful rise up and cheer when Church teaching conforms to their own personal view. Sometimes we hear comments such as: “the Church got that one right.”
On the other hand, we also have observed the very same faithful turn around, jeer and walk away when the Church’s teachings do not follow their views. Then we might hear mutterings of “the Church needs to keep its nose out of politics”.
We priests experience sadness in such instances because these are good, well-intentioned people who have decided to pilot their own cruise ship, at risk of putting their souls in peril. We have often said and sincerely mean “We do not care about your politics, we care about your soul.”
God in His infinite wisdom has given us free will. God has also gone to extreme lengths to ensure our eternal salvation. He taught us, died and rose again to show us the way to eternal life. He chose those who would lead his Church, and gave us the Magisterium to provide us with a reliable path to eternal happiness.
My point? It is vitally important that we strive to understand and be guided by Church teachings. There are many other dimensions to the notion of the Magisterium and this article is only a beginning of a fuller discussion. These are general observations and not exhaustive. Further study is recommended. A good starting point is your pastor. Church documents such as Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 Encyclical Letter, “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) provide timely guidance on issues facing the world today. They can be found at the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va.
No one on that Alaskan cruise would even think of trying to take over the helm of that ship navigating the Tracy Arm Fjord. Why would anyone choose to be their own pilot on the most important voyage of their life?