1. The Sacred Magisterium
a. teaches infallibly
b. these teachings have the charism of certain truth
c. is exercised by the Pope alone or by the body of Bishops led by the Pope
d. is expressed in the solemn definitions of Papal infallibility, in the solemn definitions of Ecumenical Councils and similar gatherings, or in the teachings of the ordinary universal Magisterium
e. the Holy Spirit guarantees that all these teachings are entirely without error
f. the assent required is the full assent of faith, that is, sacred assent, because the teachings are without error
g. dissent from infallible teachings is unfaithful dissent
2. The Ordinary Magisterium
a. teaches non-infallibly, i.e. its teachings are fallible to a limited extent.
b. these teachings have the charism of salvific truth. In other words, these teachings may contain errors, but not to the extent that the errors would lead anyone away from the path of salvation.
c. is exercised by the Pope alone, when not teaching infallibly; by the body of Bishops led by the Pope, when not teaching infallibly; and by Bishops in smaller groups and even individually.
d. is expressed whenever the Pope or the Bishops teach the Faith, other than under infallibly
e. the Holy Spirit guarantees that these teachings will not lead anyone away from the path of salvation
f. the assent required is the religious submission of will and intellect, i.e. ordinary assent, because these teachings, despite occasional errors, cannot lead one away from salvation.
g. some dissent from non-infallible teachings is faithful dissent. Ordinary teachings allow for the possibility of error and so ordinary assent allows for the possibility of dissent. However, this dissent must be limited in extent, just as the fallibility is limited in extent.
3. The general Magisterium
a. seeks the truth fallibly, includes the possibility of significant error, but is guided by the Holy Spirit.
b. this search for truth has the charism of certain fruitfulness. The faithful who seek new insights into the Faith, in accord with the teachings of the Magisterium proper, cannot fail to bear fruit that will last.
c. is exercised by all the faithful by virtue of the Sacraments of baptism, confirmation, or ordination.
d. is expressed in speculative theology, in discussions among the faithful, in sermons by ordained persons, and in non-official writings and discussions of Popes and Bishops.
e. The Holy Spirit guarantees that this search for new insights into the truths found within Tradition, Scripture, and the teachings of the Magisterium proper will bear fruit that will last.
f. assent is not required, except that all the faithful are required to assent to a sincere search for truth within Tradition, Scripture, and the teachings of the Magisterium proper
g. anyone may dissent from particular ideas expressed in speculative theology, but no one may entirely dissent from the sincere search for truth within the Faith
The Magisterium proper is the ability and authority of the Pope and the Bishops to understand and to teach the truths found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. There are two levels to the Magisterium proper: the infallible Sacred Magisterium (papal infallibility, solemn definitions of Ecumenical Councils, the teachings of the ordinary universal Magisterium) and the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium (all other teachings by the Pope, by Ecumenical Councils, and by the Bishops in groups and individually).
But there is also a third level of the Magisterium. I will term this the Magisterium general. The Magisterium general does not teach the truths of the Faith with authority, but rather seeks new insights into the truths of the Faith in accordance with the teachings of Tradition, of Scripture, and of the Magisterium proper. From this search comes the fruit of new insights into the truths of the Faith. The Magisterium proper uses these same fruits in order to make new wine, that is, new teachings of the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium and of the infallible Sacred Magisterium. These new teachings are new in the sense that they express a new and deeper understanding of those truths that have always been present within Divine Revelation, at least implicitly.
The difference between the proper Magisterium (the Sacred Magisterium and the Ordinary Magisterium) and the general Magisterium is analogous to the difference between the priesthood of all ordained persons and the priesthood of all the faithful. There is a sharp and significant difference between the roles given by God to ordained persons and to non-ordained persons. Yet there is also a close connection and dependency between these two, such that the one cannot function without the other. Similarly, there is a sharp and significant difference between the roles given by God to the Magisterium proper and to the Magisterium general. And there is also a close connection and dependency between these two, such that the one cannot function without the other.
The differences are as follows. The Magisterium proper can only be exercised by persons ordained to the Episcopate, i.e. the Pope and the Bishops. The Magisterium proper teaches with authority, even when it is teaching non-infallibly, and its teachings require the assent of the faithful. The Magisterium proper teaches with either the charism of certain truth (for infallible teachings) or the charism of salvific truth, i.e. the guarantee that such teachings will not err to such an extent as to lead one away from the path of salvation (for non-infallible teachings).
By contrast, the Magisterium general can be exercised by any and all of the faithful: by the baptized, by virtue of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit given in the Sacrament of Baptism; moreover by the confirmed, by virtue of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in the Sacrament of Confirmation; even more so by the ordained, including deacons, priests, and Bishops, by virtue of the Sacrament of Ordination and its corresponding degree. The Magisterium general sincerely seeks a new and deeper understanding of the truths of the Faith found in Tradition, Scripture, and the teachings of the Magisterium proper. This search for truth and its expression (in speculative theology and in other ways) is fallible, and it can err to a much greater extent than non-infallible teachings; yet as long as it does not contradict infallible teachings and is generally in agreement with ordinary teachings on matters essential to salvation, it benefits the whole Church by offering a path to new insights, which may later be taught by the Magisterium proper.
The connection and dependency between the Magisterium proper and the Magisterium general is as follows. The Magisterium general includes those persons who exercise the Magisterium proper (the Pope and Bishops) as well as all the faithful; therefore, the connection is close and necessary. The Magisterium general is exercised when any of the faithful sincerely seek new insights into Tradition and Scripture, so that the teaching of the Magisterium proper, drawing upon insights from the Magisterium general, can grow and increase in wisdom and understanding, instead of remaining stagnant. Without the Magisterium general, the Magisterium proper would lack a pool of insights from which to draw out an ever more profound understanding of the Faith, on which new teachings of the Magisterium are based.
Now when the Pope and the Bishops consider and discuss an open question on the truths of Divine Revelation, a question not previously answered by the Magisterium proper, they are, at that point in time, not yet exercising the Magisterium proper, but rather the Magisterium general. For they are not yet teaching a truth, but are still seeking truth. It is undeniable that the Holy Spirit guides the Magisterium in seeking and understanding the truths of the Faith, prior to any definitive or non-definitive teaching of truth under the Magisterium proper. This search for truth, guided by the Holy Spirit, is not the search of human reason alone, but it is a search of faith and reason guided by a charism of the Holy Spirit which guarantees that such a search will not be fruitless and will not be so impeded by personal or original sin that the truth cannot be found.
But when the Pope and the Bishops seek the truth in this manner, they do not rely on themselves and on the Spirit alone, but also on all the faithful. For all the faithful truly participate in the Magisterium general, by continually seeking new insights into the ineffable truths of the Catholic Christian Faith. Without this search by all the faithful, who are truly enlivened by the Holy Spirit in this search, the Magisterium proper would be unable to function. For the Pope and the Bishops are not the Magisterium; they are the persons who exercise the Magisterium proper; but they must also exercise the Magisterium general, by seeking truth, and they must harvest the fruits of same search for truth among the faithful, who also exercise the Magisterium general.
For example, when the Pope exercised papal infallibility by proclaiming the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, he cited this longstanding belief among the faithful and their practice of meditating on this mystery through the Holy Rosary. This is an example of an exercise of the Magisterium general by the faithful, which eventually led to the Magisterium proper teaching and defining an infallible dogma. Without centuries of searching for new insights into the truths of the Faith about the Virgin Mary by myriads of humble and ignominious faithful, the Magisterium proper would not have had the insight and understanding needed to teach this certain truth of the Faith about the Virgin Mary.
Some have suggested a disconnect between those who exercise the Magisterium proper and the rest of the faithful, such that the faithful should merely believe whatever the Magisterium teaches, without seeking the truths of Tradition and Scripture directly themselves. They hold that inquiry into possible new insights is solely the domain of the Pope and the Bishops, and that when the faithful seek new insights into Tradition and Scripture on their own, they will inevitably go astray from the true faith into heresy. They think that the Holy Spirit only guides the Magisterium proper in understanding Divine Revelation, and not also the faithful in general. This false doctrine is a denial of the existence of the Magisterium general, and it is also a denial of the existence of the priesthood of all believers.
To the contrary, the Magisterium has three levels, which are closely connected and interdependent. The third and lowest of these levels is the Magisterium general, by which all the faithful, including those ordained to the Episcopate, sincerely seek the truths of the Faith, fallibly, yet also under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even though such a search for truth by the baptized, the confirmed, and the ordained is fallible, it is also certain to produce fruits because the Holy Spirit enlivens the whole Church, not merely those who exercise the Magisterium proper. Therefore, the Magisterium general has the charism of certain fruitfulness, i.e. the Holy Spirit guarantees that this search will produce fruits in the Church as a whole as well as in each and every baptized member of the faithful who remains in a state of grace and who sincerely seeks truth in cooperation with the graces of the Holy Spirit.
Concerning the Bible, some persons claim that the Bible is only infallible in so far as it teaches what is necessary for salvation. This is not, in fact, infallibility (the charism of certain truth), but rather non-infallibility (the charism of salvific truth). Sacred Scripture is infallible, just as the Sacred Magisterium is infallible. Sacred Scripture is not merely non-infallible, i.e. a reliable source of truths needed for salvation. The same is true for Sacred Tradition; it is infallible, not merely non-infallible. The limited fallibility of non-infallible teachings applies to the Ordinary Magisterium, but not to Tradition and Scripture, which are each entirely infallible.
Concerning the extent of fallibility in the ordinary teachings of the Magisterium, it is not correct to try to extend the concept of 'the truths necessary for salvation' so that all the teachings of the Magisterium would be essential to salvation, and so that no teachings of the Magisterium would contain any error of any significance. There is a real possibility of errors on matters of faith and morals within the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium. Those who attempt, in many various ways, to conclude that the ordinary teachings of the Magisterium are entirely without error, have gone astray from the true Catholic Faith, which teaches that only infallible teachings have the charism of certain truth, and that non-infallible teachings, while reliable as a guide to salvation, are not completely without the possibility of error.
Three Levels of Theology
There are three levels or types of theology, corresponding to the three levels of the Magisterium: dogmatic theology, ordinary theology, and speculative theology.
Now when a theologian (one who is not a Bishop) discusses the infallible teachings of the Sacred Magisterium, even though his discussion is not per se infallible, he engages in dogmatic theology. And when a theologian discusses the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium, even though he is not teaching under the Ordinary Magisterium, he engages in ordinary theology. But when a theologian engages in speculative theology by discussing possible new insights into the truths found in Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium, he is exercising the general Magisterium.
A theologian is not free at all to disagree with an infallible teaching under the Sacred Magisterium. For such teachings have the charism of certain truth, and this charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit. A disagreement with an infallible doctrine is a disagreement with God.
A theologian has limited freedom to disagree with the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium, because these teachings have a limited fallibility. But since these teachings cannot err to such an extent that they would lead anyone away from the path of salvation, a theologian can only disagree to that same extent. He cannot claim that an ordinary teaching contains an error that would lead anyone away from salvation. And his dissent must be based on a teaching of Tradition or Scripture, or on a more authoritative teaching of the Magisterium proper. Also, his dissent must include sacred assent to all infallible teachings and ordinary assent to the ordinary teachings of the Magisterium in general. Whoever dissents from all or most ordinary teachings of the Magisterium does not trust the Holy Spirit to guide the faithful to salvation. Thus a theologian can dissent from an ordinary teaching, but only if the point of dissent is not essential to salvation.
A theologian is free to seek new insights into Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, including truths which are only implicit and have never before been taught explicitly by the Magisterium. The idea that theologians must only teach and defend what the Magisterium teaches, and that they must never seek the truth directly from Tradition and Scripture, is a heresy against the true Catholic Faith. In fact, all the faithful are required by the moral law to continually seek the truth on matters of faith and morals; to refuse to do so is a mortal sin of omission. If anyone says that speculative theology is only the domain of the Bishops, or only of theologians, he sins against the Holy Spirit, who gives the gift of fruitfulness in the search for truth to all the faithful.
Correction of the Ordinary Magisterium by the general Magisterium
The Ordinary Magisterium is fallible, to a limited extent, but this does not mean that falsehoods of any kind or degree, within those limits, must be inevitably and irreformably imbedded within the Faith. The non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium can be corrected in any of three ways.
First, they can be corrected by the Sacred Magisterium. An infallible papal definition may contain a refinement, or an improvement, or an outright correction of a falsehood found within an otherwise true doctrine that was previously taught under the Ordinary Magisterium. An example of this is the infallible papal teaching that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood because the Church lacks this authority. Previous to this definition (which in my opinion falls under papal infallibility), the most common formulation of this truth either held that women could not be ordained at all (not merely to the priesthood), or the formulation at least lacked the statement that the Church does not have the authority to do so. The definition therefore improved upon and refined prior ordinary teaching.
Also under the Sacred Magisterium, a teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium may be refined or improved or corrected by a solemn definition in an Ecumenical Council. Such a definition supercedes prior ordinary teaching and might not be in exact agreement with that prior teaching.
Also under the Sacred Magisterium, a teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium may be refined or improved or corrected as it progresses from a non-infallible ordinary teaching to an infallible teaching under the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
Second, a teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium can be corrected by the Ordinary Magisterium, for the teaching office of the Church is alive and growing, not dead or stagnant. The Magisterium does not merely teach and re-teach the same teaching in the same words, but it continually seeks a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the Faith, which can never be fully understood by the human mind, nor be fully expressed by human language. Teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium progress and improve and deepen in wisdom, just as the Christ-child himself grew in wisdom and in stature and in grace before God and men.
Third, a teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium can be corrected by the general Magisterium.
Faithful dissent is disagreement on particular points within the ordinary teaching of the Church. This dissent must be based on faithfulness to all the teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Sacred Magisterium, as well as to the vast majority of the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium. Faithful dissent cannot reject any teachings of even the Ordinary Magisterium that are essential to salvation, for the Holy Spirit protects the non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium from leading the faithful off of the path to salvation. The goal of faithful dissent is to correct those few errors found within the ordinary teachings of the Magisterium. This goal must be pursued in a manner that is selfless and self-effacing, and in a manner which does not usurp the role of the Magisterium proper in guiding the faithful to salvation.
The general Magisterium has the guidance of the Holy Spirit such that its search for truth within the Deposit of Faith (Tradition and Scripture) cannot fail to bear fruit that will last. The Magisterium proper draws from this fruit, not only to increase the depth and breadth of its teaching, but also to correct possible errors within the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium. Therefore, one of the tasks of the general Magisterium is to correct the Ordinary Magisterium, so that the teaching of the Magisterium proper improves over time.
There are three ways that an erroneous teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium might err and be corrected. First, it may contain a false assertion; and it may be corrected by the faithful who find and offer the true assertion on that point of doctrine. Second, it may contain the omission of a truth that is integral to a particular doctrine; and it may then be corrected by the faithful who find and offer that missing truth. Third, it may contain an imperfect assertion of a doctrine that is otherwise true; and it may be corrected by the faithful who meditate on that doctrine and so reach a fuller understanding of that truth.
Development of Doctrine
The teaching of the Church is the truths of Divine Revelation found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. But the teaching of the Church is not stagnant. The Magisterium is able to teach both truths that are explicit in Tradition and Scripture, and those truths that are present in Tradition and Scripture implicitly. The depth and breadth of implicit truth in Tradition and Scripture is immense. Tradition and Scripture are like a huge ocean of truth, like a deep forest of wisdom. The Magisterium continually increases the depth and breadth of its teachings, by drawing upon new insights into this Deposit of Faith.
The development of doctrine is a process by which new insights into the truths, found explicitly or implicitly within Tradition and Scripture, are brought to light, examined, purified of misunderstandings, meditated upon, increased in depth and breadth, judged as worthy by the faithful (including the Pope, Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, men, women, and children), and finally taught by the Magisterium proper, either infallibly or non-infallibly. This development of doctrine begins within, and for the most part occurs under, the Magisterium general.
This process is complex. The path that an insight takes may be long and circuitous, or it may be short and quick. An insight might start with a Pope, or a Bishop, or a Saint; or it might start even among the ordinary laity, among persons who have significant sin, but also significant faith, in their lives. The insight may be pruned of incorrect ideas by the faithful, as it develops. The Magisterium proper may intervene during development, perhaps not yet to teach the insight, but to frame the discussion within certain limits. The Magisterium proper might forbid one or another version of this insight, or it might express a limit, or point out a direction, for the development of that idea.
Eventually, the development of that doctrine matures and it is taught by the Magisterium. Typically, the idea is taught first under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium. Later it might progress to the point where it has been taught so widely and for so long under the Ordinary Magisterium, that it has now been taught universally, so that the teaching then moves from the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium to the Sacred Magisterium, under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which is infallible. It may even progress to the point where it is taught in a solemn definition under Papal Infallibility or under the infallibility given to Ecumenical Councils and similar gatherings of the body of Bishops with the Pope.
The Magisterium consists not only of the Magisterium proper, exercised by the Pope and the Bishops, but also of the Magisterium general, exercised by the priesthood of all the faithful (who have been baptized, confirmed, or ordained). The Magisterium proper teaches the Faith with authority and certitude; the degree of authority and of certitude depends upon whether the teaching is infallible or non-infallible. The Magisterium general does not teach with authority or certitude, but rather provides a search for new insights into the truths of the Faith, which keeps the Magisterium proper from becoming stagnant, and which corrects the occasional limited errors found within the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium.
The Magisterium general has the charism of the Holy Spirit so that its search for truth within Divine Revelation cannot fail to bear fruit that will last.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
September 24, 2006
updated with a section on the development of doctrine
on October 1, 2006