Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity
PROFESSION OF FAITH AND OATH OF FIDELITY
Canon 833 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law of the Latin Church requires a profession of faith, "in accord with a formula approved by the Apostolic See," to be made by (1) everyone who has voting rights in an ecumenical or particular council, a synod of bishops, or a diocesan synod; (2) individuals named to the college of cardinals; (3) persons promoted to the episcopacy and those equivalent to a diocesan bishop; (4) diocesan administrators; (5) vicars general, episcopal vicars and vicars judicial; (6) pastors, rectors of seminary, professors of theology and philosophy in seminaries and those promoted to the diaconate; (7) rectors of Catholic universities and university teachers who teach disciplines dealing with faith and morals; and (8) superiors in clerical religious institutes and societies of apostolic life. At the end of February 1989, the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a new formula of the profession in L'Osservatore Romano and at the same time introduced an oath of fidelity to be made by some, but not all, those listed in canon 833 "on assuming an office to be exercised in the name of the Church." Both the profession of faith and the oath of fidelity were to become obligatory four days later, March 1, 1989.
Although the Latin texts printed in L'Osservatore Romano were accompanied by a "note of presentation," the document as a whole had grave canonical defects. In addition to the inadequate interval before it was to go into effect, it lacked signatures and date. Neither did it explain the exceptional use of the newspaper for canonical promulgation, nor did it make mention of the requisite papal approval that is required for a significant innovation. Since 1917 the issuance of a such a general decree (i.e., a law) without papal delegation exceeds the power of the departments of the Roman Curia.
The question of the document's validity, however, became moot in the following October when the official Acta Apostolicae Sedis published a retroactive rescript dated September 19, and signed by the cardinal prefect of the CDF. The rescript stated that in an audience on July 1, 1988, Pope John Paul II had approved the action and ordered the decree promulgated. It also introduced a further norm: the approbation of vernacular versions of the two texts was reserved to the congregation.
Approved Formula. Canon 833 remained unchanged. The innovation lay in the new text itself. Prior to 1967 the approved formula of the profession of faith that was canonically required (and prefixed to the 1917 code) consisted of the creed of the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, augmented by several paragraphs that summed up the teaching of the ecumenical councils of Trent and Vatican I. The additions to the fourth-century creed were removed in 1967 in the wake of Vatican II. Only a simple formula, with obvious references to the three modern ecumenical councils, was to be said at the end of the ancient creed:
I firmly embrace and accept all and everything which has been either defined by the Church's solemn deliberations or affirmed and declared by its ordinary magisterium concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, according as they [the teachings] are proposed by it [the Church], especially those things dealing with the mystery of the Holy Church of Christ [Vatican II], its sacraments and the sacrifice of the Mass [Trent], and the primacy of the Roman pontiff [Vatican I].
The 1989 text replaced this 1967 formula with three new paragraphs. The oblique references to the modern councils were suppressed; more important, the suggestion of the diverse levels or modes of proposal of teachings was lost, although this had evidently been derived from the 1964 dogmatic constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium 24). The purpose of the new text, according to the note of presentation, was to update the profession of faith "as regards style and content" and to bring it "more in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent documents." The paragraph appended to the creed in the 1967 formula was modified "in order to distinguish better the types of truths and the relative assent required."
Commentary and Explanation. (For the text, see accompanying box.) In the new formula the first paragraph simply mentions matters to be believed "with firm faith," namely, matters taught "as divinely revealed and calling for faith." The wording is derived from the teaching of Vatican I, and it corresponds roughly to the norm of canon 750.
The second paragraph requires the firm acceptance and holding of Church teachings that are "definitively proposed." Nothing in the text suggests that this implicates an affirmation of divine and catholic faith. Theologians and canonists showed concern about the very nature of this "acceptance," about the ambiguity of "definitively proposed," about the distinction between truths of Christian faith infallibly defined and other teachings, about the possibility of future development or changes in such "definitive" teachings, and the like. When the text appeared, it was quickly noted that this dimension of Church teaching (unlike the first and third paragraphs) had not been touched upon in the canons of the code promulgated in 1983.
Finally, the third paragraph goes beyond matters of "divine and catholic faith." It is an assertion of adherence to other teachings of the pope and the other bishops. Not unexpectedly this corresponds to the nondefinitive, noninfallible, nonirrevocable teaching similarly characterized by canon 752, namely, teachings enunciated by the Roman pontiff or the college of bishops "when they exercise the authentic magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act." For this, the canon properly requires "not the assent of faith [like the
creed and other revealed truth embraced in the first appended paragraph] but a religious obsequium of intellect and will."
The translation of obsequium is far from certain: it may mean anything from blind obedience or total submission to simple religious respect or docile reflection, even faithful, loyal dissent. The officially approved English text of the new profession of faith chooses "submission."
Oath of Fidelity. The 1989 Oath of Fidelity is distinct from the profession of faith, and different persons are canonically bound to take it "on assuming an office to be exercised in the name of the Church." The text is a promissory oath; by definition it adds to a simple promise the invocation of the name of God and obliges the oath-taker by reason of the virtue of religion. A review of the text (see accompanying box) reveals that it is not, either strictly or conventionally, an "oath of office," namely, an oath to fulfill the responsibilities of a given Church office. (Such oaths of office do exist in the Latin Church for certain officeholders, e.g., officers of tribunals required by canon 1254 to swear "that they will fulfill their function properly and faithfully.") The oath is rather a broad promise to preserve ecclesial communion and to maintain Church doctrine and discipline required of individuals on assuming of certain, but not all, ecclesiastical offices.
The note of presentation compares the new oath of fidelity to the oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See taken by bishops-elect (c.380), but the wording of the two oaths bear very little resemblance and have very different purposes. Even "fidelity" or faithfulness is not a common element: the new oath does not mention fidelity to the Roman See, and most of the promises seem concerned with the existing duties of all the Christian faithful, now to be confirmed by oath. Overall the text is a kind of pastiche of obligations, unexceptionable in themselves but without direct reference to the duties assumed by individuals appointed to Church offices.
Each of the five paragraphs deserves a word of explanation. (There are minor variants of the last two paragraphs for "superiors in clerical religious institutes and societies of apostolic life.")
Paragraph 1. The one taking the oath promises both in words and conduct always "to preserve communion with the Catholic Church." This is partially based on canon 209, §1, and binds all the Christian faithful alike. The context demands only that this obligation be sworn to and seems to imply that officeholders have a greater obligation of communion than the rest of the faithful.
Paragraph 2. This section (alone) does have aspects of an oath of office, since one promises to carry out carefully and faithfully "the duties incumbent on me toward the universal Church and the particular church in which… I have been called to exercise my service." The language, however, is derived from canon 209, §2, again a description of duties incumbent on all the Christian faithful. The ultimate source of the language is in Lumen gentium 30 and the conciliar decree on the laity, Apostolicam actuositatem 10, although both passages refer to lay, nonordained members of the Church without reference to any Church office.
Paragraph 3. The paragraph begins, "In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church," a phrase that explicitly confirms the interpretation that the positions in question are true ecclesiastical offices to which appointments are made by Church authority, which acts officially "in the name of the Church."
The substance of the paragraph refers to doctrine; it is a promise to "hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety," faithfully to "hand it [the deposit of faith] on and explain it," and finally to "avoid teachings opposed to that faith." The mention of handing on the faith appears to apply to those officials who exercise the ministry of the word through preaching, catechetical formation, and other means. More important, it is the deposit of faith in the strict sense (as referred to in the profession of faith, both the credal text and the first added paragraph) that is at issue. The text is a digest of canon 750, concerning what must be believed with divine and catholic faith; the canon also requires the believer to avoid contrary doctrines and adds that revealed truth "is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium."
Paragraph 4. As in the preceding paragraphs, it is the common duties of the faithful that are specified, with a mention of "fostering" as well as following "the common discipline of the whole Church"—presumably the greater duty for Church officials. The second clause bears no relation to Church office: "I shall observe all ecclesiastical laws, especially those which are contained in the Code of Canon Law [of the Latin Church, since the Eastern Catholics are not bound by the oath]." The oath to observe all ecclesiastical laws involves one in the graver transgression of the virtue of religion when one does not observe the canon law.
Paragraph 5. The final paragraph of the promise is somewhat repetitive and has two parts. First there is a promise "in Christian obedience" to unite oneself with the bishops, both as teachers of the faith and as those responsible for Church governance. The reference is to both doctrine and Church order. It is clearly adapted from canon 212, §1, although in that context the duties are those of the Christian faithful in general rather than those of officeholders. Second, there is a promise faithfully "to assist the diocesan bishops" in carrying out apostolic activity. While this is surely both proper and desirable, the language is somewhat ambiguous in its reference to diocesan bishops; either the local bishop or diocesan bishops in general may be meant.
Such a commentary or critique of the text of the oath of fidelity reveals no responsibilities that are unacceptable, but it does raise the grave question of binding oneself so broadly with the invocation of the Name of God in support of the oath-taker's promise.
Persons Obliged to Take the Oath. The principal question asked by canonists and especially teaching theologians is, who are obliged to take the oath of fidelity? The document specifies many named in the latter part of canon 833 (numbers 5–8), but not all the officeholders listed in the second half of the canon are included. As the title of the oath indicates, it is to be taken by individuals "on assuming an office to be exercised in the name of the Church." It is an important qualification for some of those enumerated in canon 833 do not hold Church office at all, much less one to be exercised in the name of or on behalf of the Church.
Perhaps the principal category of those simply unaffected by the new norm are teachers in colleges and universities "who teach disciplines which deal with faith or morals." Such teachers do not receive an appointment to any ecclesiastical office, unless in some exceptional case. To take another example, the president (rector) of a Catholic university may or may not be appointed to a duly established Church office; if not, he or she is bound by canon 833, no. 7 to make the profession of faith, but not bound to take the oath of fidelity.
Bibliography: f. r. mcmanus, "Report on a Study of the Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity," Proceedings (1991): Canon Law Society of America (Washington 1992) 190–220; "Preliminary Report of the CTS [College Theology Society] Committee on Profession of Faith/Oath of Fidelity," Horizons 17 (1990) 103–27; Report of the Catholic Theological Society of America Committee on the Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity (1990). l. Örsy The Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity: A Theological and Canonical Analysis (Wilmington, Del. 1990). h. schmitz "'Professio fidei' und 'Iusiurandum fidelitatis.' Glaubenbekennis und Treueid. Widerbelebung des Antimodernisteneides?," Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht 157 (1988) 353–429.
[f. r. mcmanus]