Wednesday, August 21, 2013

And When I Know Precisely What Is Meant by “Magisterium”

Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” has weaknesses enough when considered solely on the basis of his presentation of it. When one considers it in light of the original ecclesiastical meaning and use of the term “magisterium,” it appears positively grotesque.

A while back, I posted three entries on Stephen Jay Gould’s view of the relation between science and religion, a conception that he sums up as the principle of “non-overlapping magisteria” or “NOMA” (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion,” “More on Gould on Science and Religion,” and “A Dilemma for NOMA”). By “magisterium”—a bit of ecclesiastical Latin derived from magister, “teacher”—Gould says that he means “a domain of authority in teaching,” or, more specifically, “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (see note at end for source). He explains further:
Each domain of inquiry frames its own rules and admissible questions, and sets its own criteria for judgment and resolution. These accepted standards, and the procedures developed for debating and resolving legitimate issues, define the magisterium—or teaching authority—of any given realm.
According to Gould, science and religion are two “non-overlapping magisteria.” The magisterium of science comprises “the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” while that of religion “extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” No question belongs within both magisteria: hence their “non-overlapping” character.

The idea that religion has or is a magisterium in Gould’s sense, and the idea that questions of ethical value and existential meaning belong within that magisterium, both invite strong objections, some of which I presented in my previous entries on this topic. Right now, though, I want to consider simply what the term “magisterium” means. I have presented Gould’s account of what he means by it. But it remains to consider what it means in the discourse from which he takes it, that of the Catholic Church. In what follows, I shall do my best to interpret accurately the passages that I have found, though I very much doubt that I shall avoid errors, not only because of my lack of familiarity with Catholic doctrine but because of my lack of comfort with it. Still, I believe that the evidence of the quotations will suffice to show how ill-suited the term “magisterium” is to the use to which Gould wants to put it.

The earliest occurrence of the word “magisterium” in Catholic ecclesiastical discourse that I have been able to find comes from a document of the First Vatican Council (1869–1870):
Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium. (First Vatican Council, session 3, chapter 3, article 8)
The terms “solemn,” “ordinary,” and “universal” here are all technical terms. Definitive decrees made by the Pope and his councils belong to the “solemn” or “extraordinary” magisterium of the church, while all other teachings of the Pope and the bishops belong to the “ordinary” and “universal” magisterium of the church (source). The main point here is that the Bible and the traditions of the Catholic Church contain a body of teaching that is divinely revealed and therefore authoritative.

A passage from an encyclical by Pius IX, the Pope who presided over the First Vatican Council, lays stress on the point that it is solely the Pope and the bishops who bear the divinely conferred authority to determine revealed truth, not the laity (and, presumably, not the lower priesthood either):
For these writings attack and pervert the true power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, who are the successors of blessed Peter and the apostles; they transfer it instead to the people, or, as they say, to the community. They obstinately reject and oppose the infallible magisterium both of the Roman Pontiff and of the whole Church in teaching matters. (On the Church of Italy, Germany, and Switzerland (1871), “Further Heresies”; source)
The same point was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council (1965), over which Pope Paul VI presided:
But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church [soli vivo Ecclesiae Magisterio concreditum est], whose authority [auctoritas] is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office [Magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church [Ecclesiae Magisterium], in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Dei Verbum, chapter two, article 10; English text; Latin text)

The gist of this passage is that the magisterium of the Church is an authority divinely vested in the Pope and the bishops to teach the members of the Church what is divinely revealed in scripture and tradition. (The alternation in the last-quoted passage between the two translations “teaching office” and “teaching authority” does not reflect a difference of meaning but rather a wish to avoid repetition in the sentence in which the word “authority” (auctoritas) also occurs.)

The ecclesiastical use of the term “magisterium” differs from Gould’s appropriation of it on several points. First, in ecclesiastical usage, a magisterium is not a “domain” of teaching authority: it simply is teaching authority. There are, of course, discussions of the range of matters in which the Church has this authority; but the word “magisterium” signifies the authority itself and not the subject matter to which it pertains. Hence, in ecclesiastical usage, it would be plain nonsense to speak, as Gould sometimes does, of the magisterium of this or that subject matter (e.g., natural fact, ethical values, etc.). The magisterium is the magisterium of the Church. Second, the pertinent sense of “authority” is not merely epistemological but also institutional: the magisterium of the Church is the authority that a certain body, the Catholic episcopacy, has over the faithful in matters of faith and morals. Third, the term “teaching” here is not a byword for “inquiry” or “discovery” but signifies the handing-down of conclusions by those in authority to those who are obliged to accept them. The magisterium of the Church has nothing to do with procedures for posing questions and resolving disputes. The Church may have these, but they are not what the word “magisterium” signifies. Rather, it signifies the status of the upper priesthood’s conclusions as divinely revealed truth. Fourth, the term occurs (so far as I have found) only in the singular form, never in the plural: there is no ecclesiastical talk of “magisteria,” but only of the magisterium of the Church (Magisterium Ecclesiae). Thus the term does not serve to demarcate one subject matter from another or one way of answering questions from another, but only to identify who or what bears teaching authority in matters of revealed truth.

In my previous entries on Gould’s thesis, I argued that there is no compelling reason to believe that religion has teaching authority with respect to any subject matter whatever. Specific religious institutions may have sectarian authority over their adherents, but there is no “form of teaching [that] holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” characteristic of religion as such.

As questionable as it is to speak of the “magisterium of religion,” to speak of the “magisterium of science” is even worse. In fact, it is positively grotesque. There are, of course, creationists who try to smear evolutionary biology with the tu-quoque claim that it is a religion (example 1; example 2). But even they do not hold that science has the authority structure of a religion: rather, their claim is that the theory of evolution is not science. Anyway, regardless of what such ideologues may say, there can be no question that in its original import, the term “magisterium” has no application to scientific inquiry.

Certainly science can be taught and is taught. Many of its practitioners are among its teachers. But the practice of science is not in any serious sense a “form of teaching,” in Gould’s phrase; much less is it a handing-down of dogmata from those in authority to those who must obey. There is, in fact, almost nothing in the notion of Ecclesiae Magisterium that applies to science. The mismatch between the original meaning of the term and the use to which Gould tries to put it is so stark that one has to wonder how Gould could profess to “find the term so beautifully appropriate for the central concept of this book that I venture to impose this novelty upon the vocabulary of many readers.” Whatever made the term seem that way to him, I suspect that it had very little to do with what the Vatican actually meant by it.


Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999). The indented quotation is from pp. 52–53; the rest are from pp. 5–6

Gould presents his thesis more briefly in his essay “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997).

My title is derived from a verse of the patter song of Major-General Stanley, “And when I know precisely what is meant by ‘commissariat.’” Gould was a great admirer of the work of Gilbert and Sullivan: see his essay “The True Embodiment of Everything That’s Excellent: The Strange Adventure of Gilbert and Sullivan,” The American Scholar, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Spring 2000), pp. 35–49.

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