People today have various notions about what it means for a bishop to teach. Very often they understand a bishop's teaching in the same way that a professor teaches, with no further distinctions.
I have had an unusual experience in this regard. A man who is a professor of communications and rhetoric at a university in the United States has taken it as a personal project to analyse my own teaching. He offers many suggestions about how I might improve my teaching, and I am sure he has many helpful things to offer. But his basic criticism is that I present people with a dilemma. In order to deal with the teaching, they must either abandon certain positions or accept and follow the teaching. He considers this to be unproductive and unhelpful. And from the point of view of the academic and intellectual climate in the United States, it is surely unusual.
Teaching in this way can only make sense if one is teaching, not simply from a standpoint of personal conviction, but from a standpoint of a greater truth to which people are called. An invitation to accept God's truth is the basic responsibility of the college of bishops - with the Bishop of Rome as the head of the college and of individual diocesan bishops for the flocks entrusted to them.
The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus), emphasises the importance of preaching the Gospel for the ministry of bishops: "Fortified by the Spirit they should call on men to believe or should strengthen them when they already have a living faith. They should expound to them the whole mystery of Christ, that is, all those truths ignorance of which means ignorance of Christ" (no. 12).
Ours is a faith not generated by human beings. It does not find its origin in human insight and understanding, even though it can be assisted, purified, and strengthened by these. Rather, ours is a faith based on the profound and intimate self- revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is a gift given to us. This revelation, preserved in Sacred Tradition, both written and oral, is to be preserved in the Church at all times. Those truths associated with the "deposit of faith" must also be preserved (cf. Vatican 11, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), nos. 7-10).
All the bishops of the world with the Bishop of Rome as head constitute a college which succeeds the college of apostles. Just as Christ sent the apostles to teach with authority by the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit, so bishops teach according to their office (cf. Catechism, nos 861-62).
The Magisterium of the Church teaches with authority in various ways and at various levels. The Roman Pontiff can himself teach by virtue of his worldwide office. The college of bishops can teach in union with the Pope either when gathered in an ecumenical council or when exercising what is called the ordinary and universal Magisterium. This latter is engaged when the Pope and the bishops of the world teach in unison on a particular point over a long period of time.
Individual bishops teach with authority when they teach by their office and in communion with the episcopal college: "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the Apostles left Bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority. This Sacred Tradition, then, the Sacred Scripture of both Testaments, is like a mirror, in which the Church, during its pilgrim journey here on earth, contemplates God, from whom she receives everything, until such time as she is brought to see Him face to face as he really is (Dei Verbum, no. 7).
Because the Magisterium of the Church teaches with authority from Christ and with the help of the Holy Spirit, members of the Church are not free to treat this teaching as simply another opinion. All have the responsibility to accept official Church teaching according to the mode of that teaching (cf. Vatican ll, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), no. 25; Dei Verbum, nos. 5, 10).
Recently Pope John Paul ll, together with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has underscored this responsibility and made it more precise in the light of the tendency by some in the Church today to minimise or even ignore their responsibility to adhere to the faith as taught by the Magisterium (Ad Tuendam Fidem, 1998).
Individual bishops, especially diocesan bishops for the people entrusted to them, are to present the truths of the faith which are to be believed and help apply these truths in concrete life situations. This responsibility to pass on revealed truth unchanged and uncorrupted is entrusted to the college of bishops and to individual bishops. In fact, the faithful have a right to be instructed in the full faith of the Church (cf. Catechism, no. 2037).
Bishops exercise their responsibility to teach in a variety of ways. Certainly presiding at sacred liturgy and reflecting within that context on the Word of God is a primary way. They are also charged with supervising and supporting the catechetical effort within their particular Churches and also with promoting Catholic schools. Each bishop, as a member of the worldwide college of bishops, also has missionary responsibility. They are to support and participate in evangelisation efforts within the diocese, but also in the broader Church (cf. Vatican ll, Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes), nos. 6, 38).
The primary ways that bishops teach together were pointed out above, namely either in an ecumenical council or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Bishops can also teach together when gathered in councils properly established or even in conferences of bishops. Conferences of bishops, however, do not ordinarily teach with the kind of authority about which we are speaking. Only under certain limited conditions, the Holy Father has made clear, can conferences of bishops teach in a way which is binding on the faithful (Apostolic Letter on the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences, 1998).
Word of God
Bishops and all who preach or teach in the Church necessarily, of course, refer to their own experience and understanding. By remaining in communion with the full faith of the Church, one's individual experience is purified, expanded, and enriched. It is as though the human instrument is a sounding board for the Word of God. Believers and those invited to faith encounter the Word of God clothed in the words and actions of other human beings.
Today, we are addressing that sacred Word to people who are immersed in a secular culture, one that is not truly open to the transcendent and to God. The very notion of "teaching with authority" confuses people. Our age enjoys questions and new ideas and answers often with primary reference to whether a person finds them interesting rather than to whether they represent truth. Clearly, minds which are so immersed must be opened up to the transcendent. Questions must be raised. They must be called beyond where they currently stand if they are to hear the saving Word.
Yet, their own honest questions and concerns must also be addressed. We must respect their genuine dignity as children of God. We must surely respect their freedom. Dialogue properly understood is essential. But it must be honest dialogue which acknowledges the very challenging aspects of Catholic truth.
At all times and in whatever form, preaching and teaching the Word of God is a labour of love. It calls for great human energy and ingenuity and resources. But always the minister must keep in mind that it is Jesus Himself who invites our sisters and brothers to faith in Him, and it is the Holy Spirit which He and the Father send who opens the human heart to that sacred Word and heals the brokenness invariably found there.
The confidence manifested by those who teach the Word of God, therefore, is not an arrogant confidence based on their own knowledge or ability. Rather, it is a confidence based on the faith-inspired knowledge that God Himself is at work in the midst of their proclamation.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:12-13).
Most Rev John J. Myers is the Bishop of Peoria, Illinois, and a member of the episcopal advisory council of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF). The text of his article was made available on the CUF website.