Book III of the Code of Canon Law is particularly concerned with the teaching office of the church — usually called the Magisterium.
The canons in this part of the code refer, among other things, to preaching the Word of God, catechetical formation, missionary activity, and Catholic education. There is also a section on books and other publications which we will examine in our next column. However, today, we could take a look at the last part of Book III, canon 833, which speaks of the Profession of Faith; it could be noted, though, that the canon makes no particular reference to what is being solemnly professed in this act.
Originally, the Profession of faith was made at baptism or when a person was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Generally, it consisted of the Apostles’ creed. However, as time went on, other creeds were drawn up, explaining in more detail the content of belief. Probably the best known of these other creeds is the Nicene creed, approved by the ecumenical council of Nicea in AD 325, and often recited on Sundays and major feast days.
Normally, a creed follows a four part division: reference to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Then follows a reference to the church and its members.
There is, however, a particular type of profession of faith, which is made by certain persons when they assume a special office in the church — such as those who take part in an ecumenical council or a synod, those who are appointed to the dignity of cardinal; newly appointed bishops, diocesan officials, parish priests, professors at Catholic universities who teach subjects related to faith and morals, and superiors in clerical religious institutes.
This special profession of faith consists of the Nicene creed, and of three additional paragraphs.
The first of these paragraphs concerns belief in those teachings contained in the word of God, or handed down by tradition, which the church has solemnly declared to have been divinely revealed. These teachings are usually known as “dogmas”; failure to accept a dogma of faith leads to excommunication (if all the conditions laid down in the law are met).
The second concerns those matters which have been “definitively” proposed by the church regarding teachings on faith and morals. For instance, the teaching on abortion has been definitively declared, although it is not proposed as a dogma of faith. Likewise, Pope John Paul II declared that the teaching on the admissibility of women to ordination to priesthood was in this second category.
The third paragraph is much broader. It refers to a person’s acceptance of those teachings put forward by the Roman pontiff, or by the college of bishops, even though they are not yet definitively proposed. Of course, not every statement of the pope or of the bishops falls into this category. The profession of faith clearly notes that what is implied here are those statements whereby the pope or the college of bishops wish to exercise “their authentic magisterium” or teaching office. In other words, this is not presumed, but the intent must be manifestly demonstrated (see canon 749.1 in relation to infallible statements).
The “oath of fidelity” is a companion piece. The code does not refer directly to the oath to be taken by parish priests; it was added to the legislation by Pope John Paul II. This new oath applies also to professors of theology and superiors in religious institutes.
There are a certain number of oaths of fidelity, depending on the office being assumed. For instance, there is the special oath that cardinals take upon their admission to the College of cardinals, and that bishops take when appointed as bishops.
The new oath of fidelity, taken by parish priests and others, contains four sections. The first is a promise to carry out the duties of the office in observance of the applicable legislation. The second refers to one’s commitment to hold to the faith in its entirety and to hand it on and explain it. The third is a commitment to observe the regulations of the Code of Canon Law, and the last is a commitment to carry out the duties of the office in communion with the church.
The overriding concern of these provisions is to protect the integrity of the faith. The commitment made by individual priests, bishops, professors and superiors is a personal commitment, which obliges in conscience. Canon 747 tells us that the Lord entrusted the deposit of faith to the church; this latter, assisted by the Holy Spirit, conscientiously guards it, seeks to deepen the understanding of the teaching, and faithfully proclaims it. The particular role of theologians is to strive to deepen our understanding of church teachings, insisting on their relevance to contemporary situations.
The faithful have to right to expect that those preaching and teaching on behalf of the church are indeed adhering to the contents of the faith as expressed by the Magisterium.
Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 43rd article in a series.