The Authoritative Weight of Non-Definitive Magisterial Teaching
Catholic theologians have written extensively about infallible and definitive magisterial teaching, but much less so about the non-definitive teaching of popes and councils, even though many of the doctrines taught in papal encyclicals and by the Second Vatican Council fall into this category. Important questions arise regarding doctrines in this category: How are the Catholic faithful expected to respond to such teachings? As these doctrines have not been taught infallibly, what can be said about the possibility of error? Given that doctrines in this category do not all possess identical authority, how can the weight of a specific non-definitive teaching be determined? Official answers to these questions have been rare, brief, and often vague. As a result, the task of addressing these matters and developing a more comprehensive theology of the magisterium has fallen to theologians.This dissertation addresses these questions. Ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day, the first three chapters survey theological and hierarchical evaluations of non-definitive magisterial teaching. These evaluations exhibit a considerable consensus on many points.The fourth chapter of this dissertation constructs a concise method of measuring the authoritative weight of non-definitive doctrines. This construction begins by presenting the consensus among the theologians surveyed in preceding chapters, and then builds on that foundation by adjudicating the points on which these theologians disagree.The usefulness of this method is then demonstrated in the fifth chapter, using the topic of religious liberty as a test case. A prima facie contradiction exists between the teaching on religious liberty found in the nineteenth-century papal encyclicals and that found in Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom. The method elaborated in the fourth chapter is used to measure the authoritative weight of each of these teachings. These weights are then compared to one another; the result of this assessment indicates that the teaching of Vatican II has slightly more weight than the nineteenth-century teachings do. The implications of this result are then explained. The dissertation concludes by indicating potential applications of this method to additional topics.
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