The majority of serious Catholics are familiar with Vatican I's criteria for recognizing ex cathedra pronouncments; but what about the Council's further teaching that Catholics are bound to believe "all those things" taught through the Church's "ordinary and universal magisterium," since they, too, are proposed infallibly (De Filius, 3)? When is the pope exercising his "ordinary magisterium," and what level of authority is attached to it? Many of today's arguments are heightened by disputes regarding what level of authority must be accorded to various papal and ecclesial statements.
In Teaching with Authority: How to Cut Through Doctrinal Confusion and Understand What the Church Really Says, Jimmy Akin goes to great lengths to bring clarity to these murky waters. I have other books on this topic (H.G. Hughes' What Catholics are Free to Believe or Not, Sullivan's Creative Fidelity, and Gaillardetz's By What Authority?), but I did not find any to be as helpful as Akin's. At 400 pages, his book is double, if not triple, the size of other treatments. (This shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with his work at Catholic Answers.)
My overall impressions: I finished the book with the almost paradoxical sense that (1) Catholic faith and morals are exactly what I have always understood them to be; and (2) I need to devote a great deal of time and research to ascertain what exactly has been taught infallibly and what has not. Jimmy Akin is careful in coming to conclusions. As much as we, the faithful, may wish the Church's pronouncements on a given matter to be more definitive, Akin has the integrity to refuse to go beyond what has been definitively stated.
Teaching with Authority is divided into four sections: (I) The Church as Teacher; (II) Where Church Teaching is Found; (III) Understanding Church Teaching; and (IV) How Doctrine Can Develop - and How It Can't. The first section lays the theological foundation for the Church's teaching magisterium, showing how Christ made it intrinsic to her very nature and the various ways it is expressed through the bishops' individual teaching ministries, bishops conferences, ecumenical councils, and the papacy. It is informative, and I came away with a better knowledge of the Roman Curia.The second section begins with Scripture and Tradition as sources of divine revelation, before turning to the various documents in which the Church offers instruction to the faithful. A few examples of the type of information you'll find:
- The only time documents written by national bishops' conferences "constitute authentic magisterium" is when they are doctrinal in nature and either (a) unanimously approved by the full body of bishops, or (b) approved by 2/3 of the bishops and granted the recognitio of the Holy See.
- At Vatican II, the "constitutions are the most authoritative documents, and the dogmatic constitutions - Dei Verbum (on revelation) and Lumen Gentium (on the Church) - are the most authoritative of all" (p.110-11).
- The names and nature of papal documents have changed over time and are not always consistent.
- Apostolic constitutions are considered the most authoritative papal documents (examples: Ineffablis Deus infallibly defining the Immaculate Conception and Muntificientissimus Deus, defining the Assumption of Mary).
- Pope have used papal encyclicals to reaffirm infallible teachings but no propose new ones.
- Curial documents, even those issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, must carry express papal approval to be considered acts of the Magisterium.
- Simply because a teaching is included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), does not mean it is infallible. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted, the Catechism's teachings "receive no other weight than that which they already possess," meaning that one must look at earlier and later documents of the Magisterium to determine a teachings level of authority.
Akin's third and fourth sections, which constitute the majority of the book, were of greatest interest to me. Akin goes into great depth, exploring the skills needed to correctly interpret magisterial documents: checking the original Latin, a knowledge of technical vocabulary and what it meant in a given century versus today, the need to respect intentional ambiguity in Church teaching and not going further in drawing conclusions than an author intends, etc. They are much-needed reminders for the armchair theologian. He also unpacks the technical meanings of "heresy" and "schism," showing how they are frequently misused. theologian.
Chapter 12, "The Spectrum of Authority,"and its analysis of Cardinals Ratinger and Bertone's CDF document, Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, clarified the three levels of authority attached to Church teaching better than anything else I have read. Akin spells out what the Church means by "theological" (or "divine and catholic faith"), "firm and definitive assent," and "religious submission of the mind and will" and the distinctions between them.
Akin's Teaching with Authority is not an "easy" read. He is a gifted communicator, and he writes very clearly; but this is a complicated topic. For anyone, however, who wants to enter into this crucial area of study; I have not seen a more thorough or even-handed introduction to the topic. I call it an introduction, though, since I can't imagine a reader finishing the book without coming to the humbling realization that, however much he has already studied the Faith, a lifetime of work still lies before him.