The old familiar expression, “Children should be seen but not heard,” has finally taken hold in our current culture. Nowadays, whether at the shopping mall, the waiting room at the doctor’s office, the airport or even on long car rides, children are seldom accused of being disruptive, speaking out of turn or interrupting a conversation between adults. Present day technology including iPhones, iPads, and portable DVD-TV’s has taken care of that! But even when children were muzzled unjustly by misdirected adults before sophisticated devices took over, there was never a time when this old saying applied to our relationship with God.
As children of God, the phrase “Children should be seen but not heard,” is meaningless because everything about our relationship to God entails a journey of communicating, interacting or otherwise responding to God, who first spoke to us. Divine Providence always takes the initiative and we in kind respond.
Such is the journey that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council invite us to embark upon in the opening paragraph of the 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, (hereafter referred to as DV) which sets the tone for the 26 paragraphs that comprise this third constitution of the Council.
means Word of God and the first line of the document begins: “Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith…” (DV, 1).
These few words alert us to several rich treasures of truth concerning our Catholic faith. Paramount is that our faith is about relationship: God reveals Himself to us so that we might be in relationship with God. Secondly, the “Word of God” does not refer to sacred Scripture alone. Rather, it refers to both sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition. Thirdly, the Church has the dual role of both “hearing” God’s Word and “proclaiming” it.
Regarding the first point, the Dogmatic Constitution takes its cue from the first letter of St. John which talks about “our common fellowship” (cf. 1 John 1:2-3), and explains that God reveals Himself to us in a loving relationship. “In His goodness and wisdom,” declares Dei Verbum, “it pleased God to reveal Himself … that (we might) have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit and thus become sharers in the divine nature.” Explaining that it is “from the fullness of His love” that God speaks to us, the Council Fathers describe God addressing us “as His friends,” and reassert God’s intention “to share with us divine benefits which entirely surpass the powers of the human mind to understand.” (DV, 2; 6).
Secondly, we learn in article 10 of Dei Verbum that the “Word of God” does not refer to Sacred Scripture alone or sola scriptura, to use the traditional Protestant terminology. Rather, as Catholics, we understand that “the Word of God” comprises “sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture” which form one “sacred deposit of the Word of God.” It belongs to the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) to interpret the Word of God (sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition), both explicitly and implicitly. Dei Verbum explains it this way: “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone” (DV, 10).
Finally, regarding the Church’s dual role of both hearing and proclaiming, it is not difficult to understand the ordinary meaning of this teaching in the context of the Church as Magisterium in its role as hearing and proclaiming the Word of God. Nor is it difficult to understand this teaching in the context of the Church as Magisterium proclaiming the Word of God and the Church as People of God (Mystical Body of Christ) hearing God’s Word.
However, what if the role of hearing and proclaiming the Word of God was the sole responsibility of the Church as People of God? or What if the role of proclaiming the Word of God was the responsibility of the Church as People of God while the role of hearing the Word of God was the responsibility of the Church as Magisterium?
To consider these alternatives to the ordinary trajectory is an exercise in theological gymnastics. What authority could make such a change possible or even acceptable? The answer is always the “Magisterium of the Church.” By definition (cf. Lumen Gentium, 14), and by the consent of the Magisterium, the People of God share in this dual task of hearing and proclaiming. In any case, although the Church as the People of God and the Magisterium both serve the Word of God, the People of God do not have the authority to act alone in these matters without seeking direction from the Magisterium whose authority “is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ … at the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (DV, 10).
further explains: “This Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it … It listens to this devoutly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully” (DV, 10).
Fifteen years earlier, in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII likewise summarized Catholic teaching on this matter as follows: “God has given to His Church a living Teaching Authority to elucidate and explain what is contained in the deposit of faith only obscurely and implicitly” (HG, 21).
The Council Fathers summarize well what is commonly described as the stable and reliable three-legged stool of “Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.” The Church rests upon this stool and if any of the legs is removed the stool will collapse. In Dei Verbum article 10 we are taught: “It is clear, therefore, that sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one cannot stand without the others (and) … each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” To say it another way, nothing is accepted as true on the basis or authority of Tradition alone, Scripture alone, or the Magisterium alone. All three function together, and all are necessary for the life of the Church.
Whether as Magisterium or as People of God, the Church in its dual role of hearing and proclaiming, is understood as a ministry of service. As servant, the Church is to engage the culture, collaborating with others and considering new ideas while simultaneously interpreting the data prayerfully so as to be faithful in its service of hearing God’s Word and proclaiming it.
In short, the Word of God par excellence is the Word of God made flesh; the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. We share in this relationship insofar as we are His brothers and sisters, and together, we are children of God on pilgrimage to the home of our eternal Father. Meanwhile, it is God’s prerogative to enter our lives, relating to us personally, as a parent to a child or as a “friend,” to use the terminology employed by this Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, (article 2).
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit www.diometuchen.org/father-hillier