The New Vatican Richter Scale of Teaching Authority

This is my summary of the levels of Vatican teaching authority, using the metaphor of the Richter scale (because I live in California).  “Shaking” occurs when doctrine develops in one of these areas.  For example, the pope talking to a reporter about condoms is an insignificant 0-1, while the Second Vatican council allowing religious freedom is an enormous 8-9 on the scale, causing some groups to divide from the Church.

This list is meant to be a semi-humorous expansion of my previous post on this subject (and borrows liberally from it) concerning when, during a papal interview, the Pope mentioned condoms and the media had a feeding frenzy over a very small crumb.  And my list is, of course, unofficial.  I am not the pope or even a council of bishops.  Really.

In any case, the next time the media reports a church teaching, you can figure out the magnitude of its importance.  And if you have ideas or critiques for my list, comment them here!  I like revising things.

Each entry gives the magnitude, meaning, and an example.

0: Meaningless, business as usual. Somebody at the Vatican (not the Pope or his representative) says something about something.

0-1: Barely noticeable (yet likely to be exaggerated). Papal interview. For example, the Pope is overheard mentioning his favorite flavor of ice cream (just imagine the headlines!).

2-3: Barely noticeable (most likely noticed by “doctrinal seismologists,” a.k.a. theologians, professional or amateur), though vulnerable to media exaggeration. Papal commission studies, for example  “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” by the International Theological Commission.  This is just an advisory document to the pope, not official teaching of the church.  Also compendium documents (tend to be aftershocks; the authority of compendium documents are in the documents that are cited, not the compendium itself), for example the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

4: Can be felt over short distances, may be a fore-shock (i.e. portend something bigger). Easily rationalized away by those in disagreement. Prime example: a papal allocution, that is, a papal speech.  Papal allocutions abound and form the basic building block of church authority.  Pope John Paul II has about five library shelves of allocutions bound into volumes.  Allocutions are important because they tend to appear again as bits in documents of higher authority.

5-6: Very noticeable. From those in disagreement, displeasure results, though still can be rationalized away.  Teaching instruction: this is a specific teaching instruction from the Church, for example the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1987 Donum Vitae, which answered specific questions on bioethical issues pertinent to the time.  These are often clarifying documents, based on what the Church already teaches, simply extended into more contemporary ethical debates. Also papal letters below encyclical level: for example an apostolic letter like Pope John Paul II’s 1988 Mulieris Dignitatem.

7: Significant, damaging if disagreement occurs. Papal encyclical: the encyclical is the highest authority level among kinds of papal letters, and is typically the most commonly referenced type of authoritative document.  For example, if someone wants to know what the Church teaches on labor, one goes to the social encyclicals like Rerum Novarum or Laborem Exercens.

8-9: Very important, potentially devastating, may cause schisms from those in disagreement. Conciliar documents: these are documents from the ecumenical councils like Vatican I or II.  Because they are approved by all the bishops together they have a still higher level of authority than an encyclical.  An example would be Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II.

10: Enormous, earth-shattering, Church-destroying. Ordinary and extraordinary infallible teachings.  Ordinary infallible teaching are things that have been taught from the beginning of the Church, such as that Jesus is both human and God.  These teachings are simply not up for debate, they are core to the faith itself.  A lot of these teachings are straight from the Bible, as understood through the tradition.  Extraordinary infallibility is the least used of all types of authority, having been used, for example, to define in 1950 the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven.

There. Now, the next time a papal document makes a kerfuffle, you can easily cut through the hype and figure out whether anything important has actually been said or not.

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