According to Catholic tradition the threefold responsibilities of a bishop are to teach, to sanctify and to govern (Christus Dominus, 11). Recent events have brought new emphasis to the munus docendi, the responsibility of the bishop as authentic teacher of the faith.
Among those events are: catechetical deficiencies of past decades that have resulted in many Catholics’ lack of a solid intellectual foundation in their faith and the inability to recognize that understanding and articulation of the unchanging truths develops; the pervasiveness of the Internet, particularly the social media and blogs that enable the wide dissemination of opinion as fact; and the tendency among some theologians to isolate themselves from the mainstream of Catholic thought or to publish for general circulation theological hypotheses without the benefit of prior review by peers or ecclesiastical authorities.
Catechetical deficiences are being addressed by increased emphasis on proper preparation for catechists, recognizing that enthusiasm alone is not enough. Programs like the School of Ministry at the University of Dallas and certification of catechists are insuring that those teaching children and adults know the faith.
Thanks to the social media and blogs, the Internet is inundated with material that is often presented as fact and is frequently ill informed opinion. The aforementioned catechetical deficiencies have made it impossible for many to distinguish erroneous opinions from truth. There are myriad cyber experts whose creed is “truth is what I say it is.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Chairman of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Doctrine and Archbishop of Washington D.C., addressed the relationship of bishops and theologians in a letter to all bishops published April 18.
In his letter, Cardinal Wuerl noted that in establishing the Church, Christ left behind a Gospel and a teaching organism to protect and proclaim it and that this organism exists in the “uninterrupted tradition, stretching back to the time of the Apostles and continued in their succesors, the bishops,” and that it is only through this tradition that “we can be sure of the integrity and validity of the Christian faith.”
Quoting the Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop, an earlier publication of the Secretariat of Doctrine, the letter notes that “Catholic bishops, in adddition to communicating knowledge of revelaton and exhotation in virtue, ‘are to determine authoritatively the correct interpretation of the Scripture and tradition committed to the Church…and they are to judge for the Church the accuracy of the presentation of this revelation by others.’”
Cardinal Wuerl emphasizes “the ministry of bishops and the service rendered by theologians entail a mutual respect and support” and that “it is the privilege of theologians to delve more profoundly and systematically into the meaning of the faith.” The letter notes however the academic freedom of Catholic theologians has “its own appropriate limits,” and that at times it may conflict with “the pastoral obligation of the bishop to protect the authetiicity of the faith and the spiritual good of the faithful.”
In the letter, the Cardinal writes that a sense of communion with the Church is at the “very heart of a profound harmony between the bishops, the authoitative teachers of the faith and the theologians who have the task of investigating and penetrating more deeply into the meaning of the faith.”
I am well aware of my responsibility in this regard and I take my responsibility very seriously. I shall never forget the charge given me when I was ordained and given the crozier of the shepherd: “Take this staff as a sign of your pastoral office: keep watch over the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit has appointed you to shepherd the Church of God.”