Q: I attended the Chrism Mass last year. The bishop at beginning of his homily said that he was preaching “ex cathedra.” Can a bishop say that he is preaching “ex cathedra”? — W.M., Antigua and Barbuda
A: The correct answer, I think, is yes, and no. In other words, it depends on what is meant by speaking “ex cathedra.”
The Chrism Mass, like most major celebrations in a diocese, is usually held in the cathedral. The name attributed to a diocese’s principal church derives from the fact that it is where the bishop has his seat and from which he teaches as bishop and chief shepherd of the diocesan flock. The word cathedra comes to English from the Greek word for seat, having first passed through Latin and French.
The bishop’s cathedra, or throne, is a symbol of the bishop’s teaching authority. From early times the use of the chair as a real or symbolic image of authority has been widely used. Even Jesus, in Matthew 23:2, speaks of the scribes and Pharisees occupying the seat (cathedra in Greek) of Moses to signify their authority in interpreting the Law. Certainly he also cautioned about not following their personal example but did not deny their authority within the Jewish society of the time.
A similar derivation is also found in some Romance languages stemming from the fact that in medieval universities lectures were imparted from raised seats. Thus in Spanish someone who is a catedrático would be the full, named or ordinary professor of a university.
Because of this association with authoritative teaching it could be said, in general terms, that when a diocesan bishop preaches the faith from his episcopal throne, he is speaking “ex cathedra.”
However, there is another, more technical and yet more common, use of the term “ex cathedra” which is the exclusive prerogative of the Pope.
In 1870 the First Vatican Council defined this particular prerogative, which of course had already existed since the beginning of the Church, in its constitution “Pastor Aeternus.” The document states:
“We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”
<p>In this case the “ex cathedra” is related to the specific teaching role of the Bishop of Rome as universal shepherd and applies only in some relatively rare cases when he teaches or defines something to be held by the universal Church in matters of faith and morals.
Because of this very precise meaning of the expression “ex cathedra,” most bishops would avoid applying it to themselves except in a somewhat general or even jocular way. Indeed, our reader’s bishop may have used it at the beginning of his homily in order to successfully win his listeners attention and with no intention of usurping papal prerogatives.
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