The Limits of Magisterial Authority
There’s a lot of confusion and ignorance and false statements about the extent to which Roman Catholic bishops have teaching authority, so it’s difficult for many people, including Catholics, to understand when a bishop is speaking authoritatively and when he’s giving his opinion in an authoritative fashion. The bishops speak on everything from the dignity of human life to the political meaning of “pro-life,” from the right to health care to the nuts and bolts of the Affordable Care Act, from stewardship of the environment to the EPA’s proposed standards for hazardous emissions. Add to this array of issues the different kinds of teaching authority exercised in the church, debates over fallibility and infallibility, credibility problems, and different bishops saying contrary things, and you’ve got a recipe for widespread uncertainty.
When interpreting a statement, letter or other text from a bishop or the bishops, we need to keep in mind three different acts the bishop or bishops may be performing: 1) the teaching on matters of faith and morals, 2) the interpretation of the situation on the ground to which this teaching may be applied, and 3) the application of the teaching on faith and morals to the concrete situation. The bishops have the authority (assuming they have teaching authority) to speak on the principles of faith and morals, but they do not possess some special authority or ability to accurately assess the concrete realities to which those principles would be applied. As a result, they really don’t have a strong authoritative ground to stand on when speaking of the application of those principles.
For example, in a statement about immigration, the bishops could speak authoritatively about the justice due to immigrants, but they could, in the same statement, be wrong about the actual status of immigration at a particular location, wrong in their interpretation of civil legislation concerning immigration policy, or wrong about the particulars of that policy. Therefore, they could erroneously apply the principles on which they are able to speak with teaching authority.
I trust I make myself obscure.