As an integral part of his universal ministry, the Successor of Peter imparts authoritative teaching on faith and morals to the whole Church
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 10 March, the Holy Father continued his weekly catechesis on the mystery of the Church. In the 52nd talk of the series he discussed the Bishop of Rome's doctrinal authority and its importance for the life of the Church. The Pope spoke in Italian.
1. The New Testament passages we have seen several times in the preceding catecheses show that Jesus revealed his intention to give Peter the keys to the kingdom in response to a profession of faith. In it Peter spoke in the name of the Twelve and by virtue of a revelation coming from the Father. He expressed his faith in Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God". This assent of faith in the person of Jesus was not a simple attitude of trust, but clearly included the affirmation of a Christological doctrine. The role of foundation stone conferred on Peter by Jesus thus has a doctrinal aspect (cf. Mt 16:18-19). The mission of "strengthening his brothers" in faith, also entrusted to him by Jesus (cf. Lk 22:32), has the same meaning. Peter is the beneficiary of the Master's special prayer in carrying out this role and helping his brothers to believe. The words "Feed my lambs; tend my sheep" (Jn 21:15- 17) do not express a doctrinal mission explicitly, but rather imply it. Tending the flock means providing it with the solid food of the spiritual life, and in this food there is the imparting of revealed doctrine to nourish the faith.
The Gospel texts demonstrate that the universal pastoral mission of the Roman Pontiff, the Successor of Peter, entails a doctrinal mission. As universal pastor, the Pope has the mission to proclaim revealed doctrine and to promote true faith in Christ throughout the Church. This is the integral meaning of the Petrine ministry.
2. The value of the doctrinal mission entrusted to Peter stems from the fact that, according to the Gospel sources, his is a sharing in Christ's pastoral mission. Peter is the first of those Apostles to whom Jesus said: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (Jn 20:21; cf. 17:18). As universal pastor, Peter must act in Christ's name and in harmony with him throughout the broad human are a in which Jesus wants his Gospel preached and the saving truth brought: the entire world. The Successor of Peter in the mission of universal pastor is thus the heir of a doctrinal munus in which he is closely related, with Peter, to Jesus' mission.
'Father and teacher of all Christians'
This relationship in no way detracts from the pastoral mission of the Bishops, who have among their principal duties that of preaching the Gospel. According to the Second Vatican Council, they are "heralds of the faith ... who preach the faith to the people assigned to them, the faith which is destined to inform their thinking and direct their conduct" (Lumengentium, n. 25).
Nevertheless, the Bishop of Rome, as head of the Episcopal College by the will of Christ, is the first herald of the faith. It is his task to teach revealed truth and to show how it should be applied in human conduct. He has primary responsibility for spreading the faith in the world. This is asserted by the Second Council of Lyons (1274) concerning the Bishop of Rome's primacy and fullness of power, when it stresses that "he has the duty to defend the truth of the faith, and it is his responsibility to resolve all disputed matters in the area of faith" (DS 861). Along the same lines the Council of Florence (1439) acknowledged the Roman Pontiff as the "father and teacher of all Christians" (DS 1307).
3. The Successor of Peter fulfils this doctrinal mission in a continual series of oral and written interventions that represent the ordinary exercise of the Magisterium as the teaching of truths to be believed and put into practice (fidem et mores). The acts expressing this Magisterium can be more or less frequent and take various forms according to the needs of the time, the requirements of concrete situations, the opportunities and means available, the methods and systems of communication: however, given that they derive from an explicit or implicit intention to make pronouncements on matters of faith and morals, they are linked to the mandate received by Peter and enjoy the authority conferred on him by Christ.
The exercise of this Magisterium can also take place in an extraordinary way when the Successor of Peter (alone, or with the College of Bishops as successors of the Apostles) makes an ex cathedra pronouncement on a particular point of doctrine or Christian morals. However, we shall speak of this in future catecheses. Now we must concentrate on the usual, ordinary form of the papal Magisterium, which has a broader extent and an essential importance for the thought and life of the Christian community.
Roman Pontiff personally expresses rule of faith
4. In this regard the first point to be stressed is the positive value of this mission to proclaim and spread the Christian message, to make the authentic teaching of the Gospel known, to respond to old and new human questions about the basic problems of life with the eternal words of Revelation. To think that the papal Magisterium consists merely in condemning errors against the faith would be reductive and erroneous. This somewhat negative aspect is doubtless part of his responsibility for spreading the faith, since it is also necessary to defend it against error and deviation. However, the essential task of the papal Magisterium is to explain the doctrine of the faith, promote knowledge of the mystery of God and the work of salvation, bringing out all the aspects of the divine plan as it unfolds in human history under the action of the Holy Spirit. This is the service to the truth that has been primarily entrusted to Peter's Successor, who in the ordinary exercise of his Magisterium is already acting, not as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, according to the precise statement of Vatican II regarding definitions ex cathedra (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 25).
In carrying out this task, the Successor of Peter expresses in a personal way, but with institutional authority, the "rule of faith" to which the members of the universal Church (the ordinary faithful, catechists, religion teachers, theologians) must adhere in investigating the meaning of the permanent content of the Christian faith also in relation to the discussions arising within and outside the ecclesial community on various points or on the whole of doctrine. It is true that everyone in the Church, especially the theologians, are called to perform this task of continually making it clear and explicit. However, the mission of Peter and his Successors is to establish and authoritatively confirm what the Church has received and believed from the beginning, what the Apostles taught, what Sacred Scripture and Christian Tradition have determined as the object of faith and the Christian norm of life. The Church's other pastors, the Bishops as successors of the Apostles, are "strengthened" by the Successor of Peter in their communion of faith with Christ and in properly fulfilling their mission. In this way the Bishop of Rome's Magisterium indicates to everyone the way of clarity and unity, which seems indispensable especially in times of great communication and discussion such as ours.
5. The mission of Peter's Successor is exercised in three basic ways: first of all, by word. As universal Pastor, the Bishop of Rome addresses all Christians and the whole world, carrying out in a full and supreme way the mission Christ conferred on the Apostles: "Make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19). Since today the communications media allow his words to reach all nations, he fulfils that divine mandate in a way never before possible. And because the means of transportation allow him personally to visit the most distant regions, he can bring Christ's message to the people of every country, thus carrying out the divine command to "go" in a new and previously unimagined way: "Go... and make disciples of all nations ...".
Successor of Peter's teaching witnesses to Christ
The Successor of Peter thus fulfils his mission by writing: beginning with his addresses that are published so that his teaching is known and documented, up to all the documents issued directly— and here the Encyclicals, which formally have the value of universal teaching, should be mentioned first—or those issued indirectly by the departments of the Roman Curia which operate under his mandate.
Lastly, the Pope carries out his task as Pastor with authoritative initiatives and institutions of a scholarly and pastoral nature: for example, by initiating or fostering activities of study, sanctification, evangelization, charity and assistance, etc. throughout the Church; by promoting authorized and accredited institutes for teaching the faith (seminaries, faculties of theology and religious studies, theological associations, academies, etc.). It is all a broad range of initiatives for formation and action under the auspices of Peter's Successor.
6. In conclusion, we can say that the teaching of Peter's Successor (as that of the other Bishops) contains, in its essence, a witness to Christ, to the Event of the incarnation and the redemption, to the Holy Spirit's presence and action in the Church and in history. In its form of expression it can vary according to the person who exercises it, his interpretation of the needs of the time, his style of thought and communication. However, its relationship to the living Truth, Christ, has been, is and will always be its vital force.
Precisely this relationship to Christ definitively explains the difficulties and opposition that the Church's Magisterium has always encountered from Peter's day to our own. For all the Bishops and pastors of the Church, and especially for the Successor of Peter, Jesus' words are valid: "No disciple is above his teacher" (Mt 10:24, Lk 6:40). Jesus himself exercised his Magisterium amidst the struggle between darkness and the light, which was the context for the incarnation of the Word (cf. Jn 1:1-14). That struggle was intense during the apostolic period, as the Master had warned: "If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (Jn 15:20). Unfortunately, it took place too in some Christian communities, so much so that St Paul felt it necessary to urge Timothy, his disciple: "Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.... (even) when people will not tolerate sound doctrine" (2 Tm 4:2-3).
What Paul recommended to Timothy also applies to Bishops today, and especially to the Roman Pontiff, who has the mission of protecting the Christian people from errors in faith and morals, and the duty of guarding the deposit of faith (cf. 2 Tm 4:7). Woe to him if he should be frightened by criticism and misunderstanding. His charge is to give witness to Christ, to his word, his law, his love. However, in addition to being aware of his responsibility for doctrine and morals, the Roman Pontiff must, like Jesus, be committed to being "meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29). Pray that he may be so and will become ever more so.
L'Osservatore Romano March 17, 1993