Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Ministry of the Word

The last two decades have witnessed the proliferation of so-called evangelical groups in the Philippines. Many of these are well-meaning Christians who want to share the Gospel—the Word of God—with their listeners; a few are self-proclaimed prophets who use the Gospel to attack the Catholic Church or other Christian sects. While theology is quite clear as regards the authority to proclaim the Word of God being invested on the sacred ministers—especially the bishops—I was wondering whether juridically that same authority is protected. In other words, does Canon Law establish anything as regards the teaching authority of the Church?

The aim of the munus docendi, which is incumbent upon the whole People of God but each one according to his own state and charism, is to spread the Gospel truth. But this task cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of a body of truths, like an ossified deposit of faith, but should rather be a true education in the living faith of the Church.
A concrete form of doing this is the so-called ministerium verbi—i.e., a technical expression that basically includes preaching and catechesis, although it may also be used in a wider sense to include any type of Christian instruction.

The Ministry of the Divine Word

The ministry of the Word—as a technical expression—refers to the work that strives to interpret the present in the light of those salvific “words and deeds” contained in the Gospel. Its aim is to shed light and give meaning to all the situations and all the problems that a person meets with in his personal and family life, as well as in his environment, social, political and professional, in order that he may listen to, understand and live according to the teaching of Christ.
The ministry of the word can take many forms, according to the different conditions under which it is practiced and the ends that it strives to achieve. Nevertheless, the Code specifically deals with basically two forms of exercising the ministerium verbi: preaching (cc.762-772) and catechesis (cc.773-780).

The ministry of the word affects all the faithful—bishops, priests, religious and laymen—and all of them have the duty of spreading the good news of salvation. Thus, every member of the Church should employ all the means available to him to carry out this mission, according to the grace (charism) he has received, putting the latter at the service of the others.

Proper subjects of the Ministerium Verbi

The teaching office is exercised by those who are authorized by divine or ecclesiastical Law to publicly teach—with the potestas docendi—in the name of the Church. Both the function and the power of magisterium entailed would differ depending on the office and the act being exercised. Thus, the following are the proper subjects of the ministerium verbi:

1) Roman Pontiff and College of Bishops: As regards the universal Church the duty of proclaiming the gospel has been especially entrusted to the Roman Pontiff and to the college of bishops (c.756, §1).
Not only the existence but the primacy of this duty has deeply evangelical roots. Thus, faced with the temporal needs of the early Christian community, “the Twelve called together the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should forsake the Word of God and serve at tables […] we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Act 6, 2-4).

2) Local Ordinary—in whose case the following distinctions can be made:
a) Right-duty - As regards the particular church entrusted to them the individual bishops exercise this responsibility since within it they are the moderators of the entire ministry of the word; sometimes, several bishops simultaneously fulfill this office jointly for various churches at once in accord with the norm of law (c.756, §2; cf. c.763).
The local Ordinary is the proper teacher of his flock and the authoritative preaching of the Word constitutes his primordial function. Thus, it is neither valid nor licit for him to transfer this function and responsibility to another person or body (e.g., to the Episcopal Conference, to an episcopal or diocesan commission), beyond certain narrow limits established by the law.
b) Right - Furthermore, since every bishop—together with all bishops and in communion with the Pope—is co-responsible for the whole Church, he has the right to preach the word of God everywhere, including churches and oratories of religious institutes of pontifical right, unless the local bishop has expressly refused this in particular cases (c.763).

3) Presbyters: It is proper of presbyters who are co-workers with the bishops to proclaim the gospel of God (c.757, in principio). Nevertheless, we can make the following distinctions:
a) Right-duty for pastor of souls: Pastors and others entrusted with the care of souls are especially bound to this office as regards the people entrusted to them (c.757, in principio). They exercise their duty towards the ministerium verbi by being especially responsible in explaining the word of God in a public way to those faithful entrusted to them.
b) Faculty for all priests: Presbyters and deacons possess the faculty to preach everywhere, to be exercised with at least the presumed consent of the rector of the church, unless that faculty has been restricted or taken away by the competent ordinary or unless express permission is required by law (c.764).

4) Deacons: Deacons also are to serve the people of God in the ministry of the word in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate (c.757, in fine; cf. c.764). Together with ordinary presbyters (i.e. not pastor of souls), deacons possess the faculty to preach everywhere, subject to the same limitations as the former (cf. c.764 supra).

Cooperators in the ministerium verbi

1) Non-ordained can be invited (admitti possunt). Since this function is not inseparably united to Sacred Orders, in collaboration with the proper subjects of the office of magisterium the following can also exercise the ministerium verbi in a suppletory way:
a) Religious: In virtue of their consecration to God, members of institutes of consecrated life give testimony to the gospel in a special manner, and they are appropriately enlisted by the bishop to assist in proclaiming the gospel (c.758).
b) Lay persons: In virtue of their baptism and confirmation, lay members of the Christian faithful are witnesses to the gospel message by word and by example of a Christian life; they can be called upon to cooperate with the bishop and presbyters in the exercise of the ministry of the word (c.759).
An Instruction, co-authored by no less than eight dicasteries, explains this point: “The non-ordained faithful, according to their proper character, participate in the prophetic function of Christ, are constituted as his witnesses and afforded the sensus fidei and the grace of the Word…Therefore, the faithful, especially members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life can be invited to collaborate, in lawful ways, in the exercise of the ministry of the Word.”[1]

2) This is neither a right nor a faculty. It must be pointed out that religious and lay persons cannot be grouped with the previous proper subjects of the ministerium verbi, since even if they are exercising a public function, the relation of superior-subject and of teacher-disciple that characterizes the magisterium does not arise, among other things because they do not have the sacra potestas, the possession of which implies sacred ordination (except of course in the case of members of clerical institutes). In any case, it is up to the Episcopal Conference, with the recognitio of the Holy See, to provide for this possibility.[2]

[1] VV.Sacred Congregations, Instruction Ecclesia de Mysteriis (15.VIII.1997), Art.2, §2.
[2] Ibid., Art.2, §3; cf. c.766. For example, the bishops of the U.S. recently approved amendments to Canon Law —first proposed in 1999—outlining when laymen can preach in church. Obviously such revisions need the approval of the Holy See before they can be implemented.

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