A Quibble with Father McBrien

by Michael Sean Winters

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While I am scratching my conservative itch today, I found a sentence in Father Richard McBrien's essay on the teaching authority of the bishops somewhat troubling. He writes: "In the past, the term Ecclesia docens was limited to the hierarchy, while the rest of the faithful, including theologians, were considered the Ecclesia discens -- 'the learning Church.' With Vatican II, that distinction disappeared."
I am not sure "disappeared" is the right word. Certainly, Vatican II, in its sustained focus on baptism, brought the specifically ecclesial role of the laity into sharper focus. But, the distinctions between bishops, theologians and lay folk did not disappear.
There is another way at coming at this issue. Here is a quote from a learned theologian about how a Council is received: "While the Council formulated its pronouncements with the fullness of power that resides in it, its historical significance will be determined by the process of clarification and elimination that takes place subsequently in the life of the Church. In this way, the whole Church participates in the Council; it does not come to an end in the assembly of bishops.” The author? Josef Ratzinger in his 1987 book "Principles of Catholic Theology." So, the role are distinct and the differences remain: Bishops, working with theologians, drafted the conciliar texts, but the whole Church receives the Council. The laity have a role, to be sure, but I do not think it is the same role as the bishops have.

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