Magisterium

“By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” Mt 12:37.

The Latin word magister means “teacher.” The Magisterium is the Church’s authority, given by Rabbi Yeshua himself Jn 21:1517, to teach infallibly Mt 16:18 on matters of faith (how we love God) and morals (how we love one another) Mt 22:3740.

We can see the Church’s living Magisterium summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its four parts: The Profession of FaithThe Christian MysteryLife in Christ, and Christian Prayer. For a wider perspective we can visit the Church Documents.

Cardinal Avery Dulles

In the nineteenth century, the term magisterium took on a more precise meaning. Where previously it had meant simply the office or function of teaching (and thus applied as much to theology professors as to bishops), the term came to mean the public teaching authority of the Church. Magisterium became a collective noun meaning the class of people who are institutionally empowered to put the Church as such on record as standing for this or that position. The ­theologians, by contrast, came to be regarded as private persons in the Church. Unlike popes and bishops, they could not speak for the Church as an institution or oblige anyone to accept their views. As a result of this clarification, the term magisterium was used almost exclusively for the hierarchical authorities. It is rarely taken in our day to mean the teaching function of ­theologians.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a further clarification of the terminology occurred. Until that time, the teaching power of the hierarchy was not clearly distinguished from its power of jurisdiction or government. Thanks to the labors of theologians such as Yves Congar, that distinction has been clarified and even canonized, so to speak, in the documents of Vatican II. Even when the teachers are the same persons as the rulers, the magisterial role is different from the power to govern. To teach is not simply to command or to forbid a course of action. Teaching is addressed to the intellect and calls for internal assent. Commands are addressed to the will and call for external obedience.

This clarification has had some practical effects. The popes and bishops no longer confine themselves, as they generally did in the Middle Ages, to passing judgment on positions held by theologians. They are increasingly disposed to originate or develop doctrine on their own initiative, especially doctrine that is ­closely connected with the worship and pastoral ­government of the community. This kind of teaching is ­illustrated by the dogmatic definitions of Pius IX and Pius XII and their doctrinal encyclicals. The proliferation of binding decrees could be seen as burdening the conscience of the faithful. Perhaps for that reason, StJohn XXIII instructed the Second Vatican Council to conduct its magisterium in a pastoral manner and refrain from issuing new doctrinal condemnations. While avoiding anathemas, the council nevertheless produced an abundance of pastoral teaching.

Some might question whether there is any need for a continuing magisterium. After all, the revelation by which Christians live was completed long ago, and it has, in substance, been committed to writing in the canonical Scriptures. Scripture alone, however, has not proved to be a sufficient rule of faith. From the early centuries, it has been supplemented by creeds and doctrinal declarations. Popes and councils were called on to decide doctrinal questions that arose as the faith became rooted in Hellenistic soil and interacted with the culture and philosophy of the ancient world. For the same reason, a living magisterium continues to be needed in every century. The message of Christ must be proclaimed in new situations. The ecclesiastical leadership must decide whether new hypotheses and ­formulations are acceptable in the light of Christian faith. On occasion, the Holy Spirit may enable popes and councils to speak with full assurance in the name of Christ and to settle some grave question definitively.

The Catechism

§ 85 “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. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.”

§ 86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”

§ 890 “The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism has several forms.”

§ 891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful — who confirms his brethren in the faith — he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals … The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine for belief as being divinely revealed, and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions must be adhered to with the obedience of faith. This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

§ 892 “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a definitive manner, they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful are to adhere to it with religious assent which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

§ 2033 “The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the deposit of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity.Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men.”

§ 2036 “The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God.”

The Extraordinary Magisterium

§ 891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful — who confirms his brethren in the faith — he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals … The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine for belief as being divinely revealed, and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions must be adhered to with the obedience of faith. This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

The precise meaning of “extraordinary” is: “out of the ordinary.” When a pope teaches by a conciliar or ex cathedra decree the matter is extraordinarily important.

Ecumenical Council

Ecumenical means universal. An Ecumenical Council is a gathering by the pope of all the world’s bishops and cardinals who are able to travel and attend. A smaller council, say a regional council, does not have the authority of an Ecumenical Council within its region.

Sometimes priests, deacons, and laity are invited to observe, but only bishops and the pope can discuss and vote. There have been 21 Ecumenical Councils. These councils always produce a written letter that explains the faith, interprets Scripture, or settles disputed topics of faith and morals. For instance, First Nicaea defined Rabbi Yeshua’s divinity, Chalcedon defined Rabbi Yeshua’s hypostatic unionLateran IV defined transubstantiationTrent defined the Seven SacramentsSacred ScriptureSacred Tradition, and other responses to the Reformation. Vatican I defined papal infallibility. Vatican II produced four Constitutions, three Declarations, and nine decrees.

Ecumenical Council documents are authoritative only if they are signed or approved by a pope. Thus signed, the documents represent the teaching of the pope and all the world’s bishops, and therefore carry the Church’s highest authority. A pope alone could sign the same documents and they would still be part of the extraordinary Magisterium, but the Council’s presence adds gravitas. Without the pope’s signature, a Council’s documents would not be part of the extraordinary Magisterium and would carry no authority, but would simply be the opinions of a gathering of bishops.

Ex Cathedra

The Latin word cathedra means “chair.” An ex cathedra teaching is one given “from the Chair,” in particular the “Chair of Peter.” In all of the Church’s two thousand year history, only two documents are ex cathedraPope Pius IX’s 1854 Ineffabilis Deus, which defined the dogma of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Munificentissimus Deus, which defined the dogma of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Glorious Assumption into heaven.

The Ordinary Magisterium

§ 892 “Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a definitive manner, they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful are to adhere to it with religious assent which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

The ordinary Magisterium is the Church’s day-to-day teaching of doctrines that it has taught ubique, semper et ab omnibus (Latin: everywhere, always and by all). For instance, papal encyclicals, letters addressed to the world applying these universal teachings to contemporary issues and concerns, are part of the ordinary Magisterium. Within its area of responsibility, the ordinary Magisterium and the extraordinary Magisterium are equally infallible.

The Bread of Heaven