There has been much attention given to the recently published doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious (LCWR). The document, produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), identifies several problems, including dissent from Church teaching (e.g., concerning the reservation of priestly orders to men), the inviting of speakers who ignore or contradict the teaching of the Church, and the justification, by some speakers, of dissent against the Magisterium as a “prophetic office.”
There are two common responses to this document, both of which focus on authority. Some who oppose the assessment see it as an oppressive action by a male hierarchy, a reactionary effort to deal with the perceived threat of progressive women religious. Some who support it, on the other hand, cheer it on, thinking that the Vatican has finally dropped the hammer on these wayward sisters. Both of these responses are unsatisfactory.
Instead, let us consider the following: “The truth which sets us free is a gift of Jesus Christ.” This statement, from the opening of an earlier CDF document, Donum Veritatis, on “the ecclesial vocation of the theologian,” can provide the foundation for a more fruitful discussion.
Why should we spin our discussion around the axis of “truth” rather than “authority?” The short answer, contained in Donum Veritatis, is that when God freely reveals Himself, He “open[s] the way to intimacy with Himself so that man . . . [can] find there, superabundantly, full truth and authentic freedom.” The truth draws us into unity and communion with each other and God.
Revealed truth is the subject of another important document, Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation. It teaches that the fullness of divine revelation has come in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Who “perfected revelation by fulfilling it through His whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself,” and that “He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.”
The teaching of Dei Verbum is that this revelation, made perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ, is transmitted in its totality in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Together they form “one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.” It further teaches that the “living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church” by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But the Second Vatican Council also adds a third and essential element: the “task of authentically interpreting the word of God . . . has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church.” This living teaching office, the Magisterium, is the servant of revelation. Thus,
“sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”
What does any of this have to do with theology? Essentially, the work of the theologian is to investigate the truth of revelation in a disciplined and rigorous way, expressed so well by the classic formula, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).
What, then, is the relationship of the Magisterium to theology? Often, the temptation is to see the interventions of the Magisterium merely as authority, and a problem arises when its authority seems external and arbitrary. What right does an external authority have to impose itself on a body of knowledge with its own methods and integrity? If this is our frame of mind, then we will see interventions by the Magisterium as power plays driven by self-interest.
But, remembering that the very object of theology’s investigation is revealed truth, we can see its relationship to the Magisterium more deeply. The Magisterium’s role is the safeguarding and transmission of revealed truth. Its relationship to theology, then, is intrinsic: as the living and teaching voice of the Church, it secures the very object of theology’s investigation. It is not an external authority set over against theology, but safeguards the very principles of theology’s authentic working.
From this perspective, we see that the Magisterium and the work of theology have complementary tasks and gifts: they converge on one and the same goal in service to the Church, namely, “preserving the People of God in the truth which sets free and thereby making them ‘a light to the nations.'”
To consider the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR only from the perspective of authority obscures the intelligibility of the ordered plan which God has for His Church. Instead, considered more carefully, the doctrinal assessment emerges as something aimed at truth and communion. Consequently, interpretations which are either triumphalist or dismissive are inadequate. We are all brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, meant to rejoice with one another forever in the vision of God.