As a former Protestant who, in part, discovered the Catholic Church out of frustration at the chaos of Evangelicalism, I entered the Church with gratitude for the Magisterium. And for a long time, I used to think the primary function of the Magisterium was to keep people from thinking wrongly about the Faith. That’s certainly an aspect of its job. Now and then, the Magisterium has to definitively condemn some proposition or other as incompatible with the Faith. Even more rarely, the Magisterium says of some proposition, “This is our Faith” (think: “the creed” or some dogmatic definition like the Assumption definition in 1950). But such events are rare in the life of the Church (which is why the last dogmatic definition was in 1950).
But as I get older, I have come to think the primary function of the Magisterium is to keep people from condemning other people.
Think about it. Bishops spend much more time not letting lay Catholics kick people out of the Church than they do kicking people out of the Church. We laity are perpetually making a big deal out of human traditions and excommunicating each other about stupid junk. It was the Donatists, not the Magisterium, who wanted to punish and kick of the Church the imperfect and weak. And any survey of St. Blog’s will show the same impulse is not dead. It doesn’t even have a bad cough. We are inveterate sectarians, forming little groups of Perfecti about everything from the Latin Mass to politics and eternally dubbing ourselves the Real Christians and our brethren CINOs.
That was the real blunder of Protestantism: it didn’t get rid of the papacy. It just transferred it to each Protestant with a new theory.
But the reality is that the Church is capacious. It can hold all kinds. It doesn’t freak out when, say, a Benedict XVI or a Bishop Robert Barron speculates that most people might be saved. It can cope with people (and this also includes Benedict XVI) thinking out loud about whether just war doctrine might be past its sell-by date. It is sectarians, not the Church, who shriek for the expulsion of “heretics” who think outside the sectarian (but not Catholic) ideological box. A Catholic like Benedict can see something good in democratic socialism. A sectarian can do nothing but Pavlovianly shout “Communist!” at mere mention of the term. A Catholic is at ease with immense variety of thought and culture in the Church. A sectarian needs everything to fit into a cramped monoculture.
The Church, in short, really is Catholic. And the Magisterium’s primary task is keeping it so by ignoring the perpetual cries of her members to kick out Them and make it all Us.
And thank God for it!