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What is the Magisterium

Thomas Storck

The crisis that has afflicted the Catholic Church since the middle of the 1960s has been a crisis of both faith and morals, that is, a crisis that has made many Catholics no longer know what to believe or what kind of conduct God expects of us. What is needed as a remedy for this is a firm standard, a reliable guide or teacher who can tell us both what we must believe and what we must do. And, of course, in Christ's true Church we do have such a reliable standard and guide. But even Catholics of good will can sometimes be confused about exactly which voices within the Church they are to follow.

In the past the average Catholic could depend on the word of his parish priest if he had any doubts about correct Catholic belief or conduct, or even on the example of the many good Catholics about him. But today one can no longer trust everything that is said by just any priest or theologian, and our fellow parishioners are likely to be totally confused about what the Church proclaims to have been revealed by God. And so it behooves us to understand a word and concept that is apt to be unfamiliar or confusing. This word is Magisterium. Now the Latin word magisterium originally meant the duty or office of a teacher, tutor, master, etc. And in the case of the Church it means simply the teaching authority or office of the Church. The Magisterium is the teaching office of the Church, accomplished by the Holy Father and the bishops teaching in union with him.

The rule of what we must believe as Catholics was defined by the First Vatican Council (1870) thus:

…Further, all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching [magisterium], proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed. [1]

This quotation brings up several points that must be explained. In the first place, the decree speaks of the "Word of God, written or handed down," that is, recorded either in Sacred Scripture or in Sacred Tradition. Now at first it might seem as if Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are two separate sources of divine revelation. But the Second Vatican Council explained that in fact, "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church." [2] In other words, the truths which God has revealed to his Church come to us through two modes, but they constitute one body of truth, the Word of God. Therefore the Protestant practice of equating the Word of God with only the written Bible is an error. Moreover, as should be obvious from a little reflection and historical knowledge, Sacred Scripture is itself a product of the Church's thought and activity, and in this sense a product of Sacred Tradition. This is true even though Scripture has God for its author and is itself a mode of revelation, for the human authors of the New Testament wrote from within the Church and took for granted the Church's teaching and worship as they wrote.

The second point raised by the statement from the First Vatican Council is the distinction between the Church's extraordinary Magisterium and her ordinary and universal Magisterium, that is between what is taught "by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching." Thus the Magisterium operates via two methods. The solemn or extraordinary Magisterium is seen in solemn definitions either by a pope, as for example, the definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in 1950, or by one of the Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church ratified by the pope, as the definitions made by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to reaffirm the Catholic faith against the Protestants or the definition of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

The ordinary and universal Magisterium, on the other hand, is the ordinary teaching of the Church, accomplished via papal pronouncements, statements of bishops, catechisms, homilies, etc. This is not to say that everything that any pope, bishop or priest has ever said on any occasion is part of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, but that it is via such means that this teaching is generally made known to the faithful. Note that the First Vatican Council speaks of it as both "ordinary and universal." "Ordinary" means that it is accomplished via the ordinary means of teaching that the Church uses, but "universal" means that it is taught by the entire body of bishops, and usually over a period of time. For generally when a doctrine has been taught as authoritative over time and by many popes and bishops, this indicates that it is a teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium and must be received and believed as faithfully as teaching that is solemnly defined by pope or council. [3]

Much of the moral teaching of the Church is taught only by this ordinary and universal Magisterium. For example, abortion. There can obviously be no room for any legitimate dispute among Catholics about the moral evil of abortion. Yet there has never been a solemn definition accompanied by anathemas against this heinous practice. But there is no need for one, since abortion has been condemned in numerous documents of the Church, starting with the Didache, a very early Catholic writing probably dating from between 80 to 90 A.D., and continuing on to the numerous documents and sermons of John Paul II and of many other contemporary bishops throughout the world. And whether or not the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI (1968) was infallible of itself, as some have argued, its teaching clearly was, for the doctrine that contraceptive acts violate the natural law has always been taught in the Church. Thus Catholics must reject any minimalist understanding of doctrine that would reduce it to only those pronouncements that have been solemnly made.

Moreover, we must distinguish the "ordinary and universal Magisterium" from simply "the ordinary Magisterium." This latter is authoritatively discussed in the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII (1950) and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, of the Second Vatican Council (1964). Pope Pius XII wrote,

… Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such . . . not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority [Magisterium]. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority [Magisterio enim ordinario haec docentur], of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, … heareth me" … [4]

And Lumen Gentium teaches:

Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be revered by all as witnesses of divine and Catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops' decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated. [5]

In this case the Magisterium is ordinary but not universal. Even so, it demands a "loyal submission of the will and intellect" on the part of the whole Church. It must be emphasized, though, that when this passage refers to bishops, it is speaking only about those bishops "who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff."

Finally, in its definition that I quoted above, the First Vatican Council is looking at the Magisterium chiefly in its historical working, that is, over the centuries the Church has proposed certain things which must be held as of faith. But another aspect of the Magisterium was further highlighted by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, namely its function of giving ongoing guidance and interpretation of doctrine to the faithful. "But 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." [6] In other words, the Magisterium can be looked at as both the accumulated tradition of its acts and decrees through the ages as well as a living voice, capable of responding to new issues that arise and deciding definitively about points of doctrine, as necessary for the welfare of the people of God. But in doing so, the Magisterium does not invent new doctrines, for "this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it." [7]

Moreover, as we saw, the teaching of the Magisterium extends to matters of both faith and morals. "The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for" (CCC 2034). Thus the Church's Magisterium guides our conduct and even the conduct of society as a whole.

To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls (CCC 2032).

Some Catholics object when the Church makes statements which they think tend to interfere with their conduct in society, especially on economic matters. But, in fact, the Church has always done this,not indeed in technical matters, for which she has neither the equipment nor the mission, but in all those that have a bearing on moral conduct. For the deposit of truth entrusted to Us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within Our supreme jurisdiction, in so far as they refer to moral issues.

For, though economic activity and moral discipline are guided each by its own principles in its own sphere, it is false that the two orders are so distinct and alien that the former in no way depends on the latter. [8]

It is only on the moral aspects of economic activity that the Church pronounces, but when she does so, Catholics are as bound to obey her voice as on matters pertaining to the truths of faith or to purely individual moral conduct.

There remain two additional matters to take up in this discussion of the Magisterium of the Church. The first is the question of private revelations. Private revelations, real or spurious, have a more important place in Catholic life today than formerly. On one hand, we have private revelations, such as Lourdes or Fátima, which have been approved by the Church and which offer to the faithful both concrete physical help (such as the many healings at Lourdes) and beneficial spiritual guidance (such as the many directions for our spiritual life given at Fátima). This is all to the good. Genuine private revelations always point in some way toward the central truths of the Faith. But the multiplication of private revelations that have not been approved by the Church, and especially those that have been condemned by her, can distract from the message of the Gospel. And even at their best, private revelations "do not belong…to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history" (CCC 67). As long as we keep to those private revelations only on which the Church has bestowed her approval and cultivate our devotion according to the mind of the Church, then these revelations can have a good effect on our Christian life and foster our piety, especially our love for the Blessed Mother of God.

One reason spurious private revelations have become so common in the Church is the doctrinal confusion following the Second Vatican Council. Many of the faithful who are not well instructed are attracted to anything which seems holy and traditional in the face of the widespread dissent among the clergy. This leads to my last topic, for sometimes this dissent and disobedience have been justified by the assertion that there is a magisterium of theologians parallel to the Magisterium of the pope and bishops, and that this magisterium of the theologians may rightly teach things contrary to what is taught by the hierarchical Magisterium. But this is not true. Although theologians have a very important place in the Church, and although great freedom of discussion must be allotted to anyone seeking to probe faithfully the mysteries of the Faith, this freedom must always be within the bounds of revealed doctrine as defined by the official Magisterium. There is no right of dissent from Catholic doctrine, including the teaching of the ordinary Magisterium. [9] Catholicism is not a religion in which a cadre of select initiates passes on secret doctrines while the majority of the faithful adheres to the public revelation of the Church. Although obviously one versed in theology and philosophy will have a deeper understanding of the truths of the Faith than other Catholics, all Catholics, whether clergy or lay, scholar or peasant, must believe the same things and observe the same commandments, if they hope to reach Heaven. [10]

The importance of the Magisterium is in fact the importance of our life as Christians. What is the good news which Jesus Christ has entrusted to His Church for our salvation? What is the saving faith which we need in order to attain eternal life? It is only because of the Magisterium, the teaching office and authority of the Church, that Catholics can know what they must believe and do, and thus live a life pleasing to Almighty God, in order to obtain eternal salvation.


[1] Dogmatic Constitution, De Fide, chap. 3.

[2] Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum, 10.

[3] The Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, no. 25, taught, "Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith or morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely."

[4] No. 20.

[5] No. 25.

[6] Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 10.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Pius XI, encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, 41, 42 (Paulist translation).

[9] See the Apostolic Letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem, of Pope John Paul II (May 28, 1998) and the Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the 'Professio Fidei' issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (June 29, 1998). In addition to making clear that there is no right of dissent, both these documents discuss the different ways the Church exercises her teaching authority, such as the extraordinary Magisterium, the ordinary and universal Magisterium and "the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act."

[10] Although usually a greater academic knowledge of theology and philosophy will result in a more profound grasp of the Faith, this is not always the case. God is able to illuminate the mind of one who has little academic knowledge with a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the Faith than can be gained by study alone.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Catholic Faith magazine.

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