An Overview of the Magisterium
The three pillars of the teaching of the Church are Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium. The Magisterium is a gift given to the whole Church, including all the faithful. The Magisterium proper is an ability and authority to understand and teach the truths found explicitly and implicitly in Tradition and Scripture. This ability and authority is a charism which can only be exercised by the Pope and the Bishops. But the Magisterium does not belong to the Pope and the Bishops; it is not their possession. The Magisterium is the possession of all the faithful. However, only persons ordained as Bishops, and the Roman Pontiff, who is both a Bishop and the leader of the Bishops, can exercise this charism.
This charism discerns and teaches truth by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is not correct to say that the Holy Spirit guides the Magisterium, for this particular type of guidance by the Holy Spirit is itself the Magisterium. Although the Holy Spirit cannot err, He does not give this gift to such an extent that the Magisterium would be as infallible as God, for He does not want the faithful to worship the Magisterium. Therefore, the Holy Spirit only gives His guidance within the gift of the Magisterium to the extent of infallibility in certain cases, that is, when certain criteria have been met. Thus the gift of the Holy Spirit provides two ways to exercise the Magisterium:
I. Infallibly under the Sacred Magisterium
II. Non-infallibly under the Ordinary Magisterium.
The infallible Sacred Magisterium versus the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium
When the Holy Spirit gives the charism of the Magisterium to its fullest extent, that is, to the extent that whatever is asserted as a truth of the Faith found in Tradition or Scripture is certainly true, this is called infallibility. When the Magisterium teaches infallibly, this is an exercise of the Sacred Magisterium. Everything taught under the Sacred Magisterium has the charism of infallibility. The Magisterium teaches infallible in any of three ways (A, B, and C below).
A. Papal Infallibility
The Pope can exercise the Magisterium by himself, without consultation or agreement from the other Bishops. When he exercises the Magisterium alone, he can do so either infallibly or non-infallibly. When the Pope exercises the Magisterium by himself and infallibly, this is referred to as Papal Infallibility and it is an exercise of the infallible Sacred Magisterium.
The criteria for Papal Infallibility were defined infallibly by the First Vatican Council in Pastor Aeternus, chapter four, as quoted below (with my numbering added). There are five criteria which must be met for a Papal teaching to be infallible:
1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church”
These criteria were reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, n. 25, paragraph 3, using somewhat different language to teach the same truths (again, with my numbering):
1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with”
It is the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church that each and every one these criteria must be met for a teaching to be infallible, if it is taught by the Pope alone. (The Pope can also teach infallibly in union with the other Bishops, as discussed below.) Therefore, whenever the Pope teaches by his own authority, yet without meeting all the criteria for an infallible Papal teaching, his teaching is non-infallible and it falls under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, not the infallible Sacred Magisterium. Historically, the Popes have only occasionally taught under Papal Infallibility; they have most often taught under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium.
B. Solemn Definitions of Ecumenical Councils and similar gatherings
An Ecumenical Council occurs when the Bishops of the world gather, under the authority, leadership, and guidance of the Pope, to exercise the temporal and spiritual authority of the Church.
The temporal authority of the Church concerns practical matters, decisions having to do with organization, the rules of Canon Law, practices within the Church (such as when to sit or stand during Mass), the rules of religious orders, forms of prayer and worship, etc. The exercise of this authority does not teach doctrine, and so such decisions are always non-infallible, and they are never infallible. Some Councils might be wholly concerned with such matters and might not teach any doctrines.
The spiritual or teaching authority of the Church is another name for the Magisterium. An Ecumenical Council can exercise the Magisterium infallibly under the Sacred Magisterium or non-infallibly under the Ordinary Magisterium. Not every teaching on faith or morals by an Ecumenical Council is infallible. The Magisterium itself teaches that only the solemn definitions of Ecumenical Councils are infallible. The criteria for such teachings to be infallible must necessarily be very similar to those for Papal Infallibility, since both are exercises of the same infallible Sacred Magisterium, except that the first criteria is the body of Bishops led by the Pope, not the Pope alone.
Usually the solemn infallible definitions of Councils are expressed as Canons, so they are relatively easy to identify. However, the Second Vatican Council did not issue any Canons, so there is a legitimate discussion among theologians as to whether or not the Council taught infallibly.
No teachings of any Ecumenical Councils are infallible, unless they each have been approved by the Pope. If the Pope dies during an Ecumenical Council, the Council ceases to be a Council, because Councils are by definition a gathering of the body of Bishops with the Pope. No Pope means no Council. But the Bishops need not necessarily gather together with one another and with the Pope in person; the gathering can be, to one extent or another, a communication gathering. Some of the past Councils of the Church did not have the Pope present at the Council, but he communicated with the Council on an on-going basis.
This type of infallibility is usually expressed in an Ecumenical Council. However, other types of gatherings of the body of Bishops with the Pope can also teach infallibly. The gathering need not be a gathering in place, but can be rather a communication gathering, or a combination of a gathering in place and a communication gathering. Evangelium Vitae offers three infallible definitions based, not on papal infallibility, and not solely on the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, but on the type of infallibility usually found in Ecumenical Councils. First, the Pope met with the Cardinals from around the world (who are representative of the body of Bishops); then he communicated with the Bishops of every diocese. The result of this gathering in place with the Cardinals and of the subsequent gathering by communication with the other Bishops, was the three infallible definitions of Evangelium Vitae.
Whenever an Ecumenical Council or similar gathering exercises the Magisterium by teaching truths found within Tradition and Scripture, but without meeting all of the criteria for infallibility, then the Council teaches non-infallibly under the Ordinary Magisterium. Councils often teach non-infallibly when teaching at length on a doctrine before expressing the essential and required beliefs of that doctrine in an infallible solemn definition.
C. The Ordinary Universal Magisterium (or simply, the Universal Magisterium)
The body of Bishops led by the Pope can teach infallibly when gathered together in an Ecumenical Council. But they can also teach infallibly while dispersed in time and place. The ordinary and universal Magisterium, despite the name, is an exercise of the infallible Sacred Magisterium, not the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium. The name uses the word 'ordinary' because such infallible teachings begin to be taught, at first, under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium. But when the Pope and the Bishops throughout the world have taught the same doctrine of faith and morals, definitively to be held by the faithful, over the course of some length of time. It is then, when that ordinary teaching has been taught universally by the Pope and the Bishops, that it no longer falls under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, but now falls under the infallible Sacred Magisterium. At that point, it is called a teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium.
Ordinary teachings are non-infallible. Ordinary teachings that have been taught universally are infallible. The Ordinary Magisterium is non-infallible; the Ordinary Universal Magisterium is infallible.
The Pope can teach infallibly under the Sacred Magisterium or non-infallibly under the Ordinary Magisterium. An Ecumenical Council can teach infallibly under the Sacred Magisterium or non-infallibly under the Ordinary Magisterium. But teachings under the ordinary universal Magisterium begin under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium and reach their fulfillment, perhaps after some refinement of doctrine, by being taught under the infallible ordinary universal Magisterium. The ordinary universal Magisterium is the most common way that the Magisterium teaches infallibly.
The Ordinary Magisterium and the Individual Bishops
The Magisterium is most often exercised under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium. The Pope teaches under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, whenever he is not teaching infallibly. Ecumenical Councils teach under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, whenever they are not teaching infallibly.
Now the individual Bishops of the world do not have the prerogative to teach infallibly alone (as the Pope can do under Papal Infallibility), nor in any gathering or group whatsoever apart from the Pope [Lumen Gentium, n. 25]. Therefore, the Bishops necessarily teach under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, when they are not teaching infallibly in an Ecumenical Council, or infallibly under the ordinary universal Magisterium.
The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church is the most common way that the spiritual teaching authority of the Church is expressed. Each Bishop has the ability and authority to teach under the Ordinary Magisterium, by virtue of his ordination to the Episcopate, even if he is not the head of a diocese. The Episcopal degree of Ordination of necessity and by its very nature confers on each and every Bishop the right and duty to teach the faithful from the truths of Tradition and Scripture, in fellowship with the other Bishops and under the authority, leadership, and guidance of the Pope. When any Bishops teaches the Faith by himself, that is, under his own proper authority as a Bishop (yet while not participating in a Council or the Universal Magisterium), his teachings fall under the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium, unless they directly contradict the infallible teachings of the Magisterium, or unless the Bishop is no longer in communion with the other Bishops and the Pope.
Some claim that a Bishop cannot teach under the Magisterium at all, except when teaching one and the same doctrine in union with all the Bishops of the world and the Pope. This claim is heretical. The Bishops are the successors of the Apostles, just as the Pope is the successor of Peter, the leader of the Apostles. In this modern age of easy worldwide communication, the faithful can easily know what numerous Bishops teach throughout the world. And this has led some Catholics to all but abandon the teaching authority of individual Bishops. Yet throughout most of the history of the Church, this was not the case. The faithful then relied on the local Bishop in authority over their diocese as a reliable source of truth and for guidance in the Faith. Those who reject the teaching authority of local individual Bishops are rejecting true Apostles, who have been sent by Christ, and about whom Scripture says: “Whoever receives you, receives me. And whoever receives me, receives him who sent me.” (Mt 10:40).
The Extent of the Fallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium
The Ordinary Magisterium is not infallible. (Recall that the 'ordinary universal Magisterium' actually falls under the Sacred Magisterium, because it teaches infallibly.) But then neither is the Ordinary Magisterium fallible to such an extent that any number of teachings might be in error, to any extent. These two truths, that the Ordinary Magisterium is not infallible, and that it is nevertheless not fallible in an unlimited way, have seemed to be irreconcilably in conflict with one another to many persons.
Some persons have solved this conflict by holding that the Ordinary Magisterium is either infallible, or that, when it is not infallible, no errors of any significance could occur. They expand the number of infallible teachings of the Magisterium so that few if any teachings are left which are not certainly true. In effect, they have made the Ordinary Magisterium to be infallible (though the terminology they use varies). But this solution contradicts the teaching of the Magisterium itself which has clearly limited infallibility to teachings that meet specific criteria.
Others have suggested that the Ordinary Magisterium is not limited in the extent of its possible errors. But such persons have quickly gone away from the true Faith, because very many of the teachings of the Church fall under the Ordinary Magisterium. They also have tended to narrow the number of teachings that fall under the infallible Sacred Magisterium, which further harms their understanding of the Truth.
The correct solution to this apparent conflict is that there are three levels of fallibility concerning the teachings of the Faith. The first level is infallibility, which is the charism of certain truth. All teachings of the Sacred Magisterium are certainly true in all that is asserted as true. This level of certain truth is one and the same as that possessed by Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, from which the Sacred Magisterium draws its teachings.
The second level of fallibility is called non-infallible. (Now I am using this term with a more specific definition that it has generally been used in the past.) The Ordinary Magisterium teaches non-infallibly, that is, with a limited possibility of error. Such teachings can contain errors, even on matters of faith and morals, even on matters which pertain to salvation, because the charism given to the Ordinary Magisterium is not that of certain truth, but rather that of a certain (sure) path to salvation. However, the possibility of error is limited because even the teachings of the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium are guided by the Holy Spirit. The limit to the possibility of error is that these teachings cannot possibly lead the faithful off of the path to salvation. So while the Spirit does not guarantee that all that is asserted as true is certainly true, our Holy Advocate does guarantee that, by following such teachings, we will certainly not be led away from salvation. In fact, by following both the infallible and non-infallible teachings of the Church, any sincere and willing soul will certainly be led to salvation. Therefore, the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium have the charism of certain salvation.
The Church has the authority to require the faithful to believe even the non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium because those teachings have the charism of certain salvation. These non-infallible teachings can contain errors, but no single error, nor set of errors, nor even all the errors put together, can ever reach to such an extent as to lead the faithful away from salvation. The Church has the responsibility and authority to require the faithful to believe and to do those things that are necessary to their eternal salvation. This is the reason that the Church can require the faithful to believe a set of non-infallible teachings, which may contain some errors on particular points.
On the other hand, the possibility of error is the reason that the faithful can occasionally disagree with the Ordinary Magisterium, on points that are not essential to salvation. But the basis for dissent must be a more authoritative teaching in Tradition, or Scripture, or Magisterium.
Now the errors that are possible under the Ordinary Magisterium are not merely trivial or inconsequential errors. The history of the Church has made it clear that errors can be taught under the Ordinary Magisterium which pertain to salvation, errors on important matters of faith and morals. The limit is not that all such errors will be small or inconsequential or trivial, but rather that they will not reach to such an extent that a soul would be led away salvation. And ordinary teachings that are essential to salvation cannot be erroneous in their fundamental points, but these teachings can still contain some lesser errors within a fundamental doctrine. There can be a blurring or lack of distinction between one concept and another. There can be a need for further development within a doctrine that is still true as presented, but does not answer every question. There can be outright errors on matters of faith, morals, and salvation, but not to such an extent that it would endanger our salvation if we follow all of the other teachings of the Church as well.
The third level of fallibility is found in those ideas among the faithful, and in those teachings or proposals made by theologians and teachers of the faith. These ideas or proposals or teachings are fallible. They are not teachings of the Magisterium proper. They are not taught with the authority that the Christ gave to Peter and the Apostles and their successors. However, such ideas are guided by the Holy Spirit and are based on possible new insights into the truths of Tradition and Scripture, so they are not the mere musings of madmen. They are much more likely to bear fruit than the reasonings of unbelievers, whose ideas often go quickly astray from the true path of reason due to original and personal sin. Now the Holy Spirit permits even substantial errors among the faithful and among theologians. However, He generously guarantees that the faithful, sincerely pursuing the truths of Faith found in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, will not fail to bear fruit in their own lives and more generally in the life of the Church. Therefore, this third level of the Magisterium has the charism of certain fruitfulness. This level is called the Magisterium general, as opposed to the Magisterium proper (the Sacred Magisterium and the Ordinary Magisterium).
The Ordinary Magisterium versus the Universal Magisterium
The terminology used for these two expressions of the teaching authority of the Church is confusing. The Ordinary Magisterium is non-infallible and its teachings may contain errors, but not to such an extent as to lead the faithful away from the path of salvation. It is called ordinary because it is the usual and most common way that the Church teaches the Faith.
The Universal Magisterium is also called the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, or the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium. The Universal Magisterium is infallible and all that it asserts as true is certainly true. These assertions have the charism of certain truth because they have been asserted by the Universal Magisterium. They are not merely grouped under the Universal Magisterium because they are certainly true. Therefore, the faithful can be certain that they are true by knowing if they fall under the Universal Magisterium. We do not first determine if a teaching is certainly true, and then place it under the Universal Magisterium.
The Universal Magisterium is called ordinary, even though its teaching is infallible and ordinary teachings are non-infallible, because the teachings of the Universal Magisterium are first taught non-infallibly under the Ordinary Magisterium. As a teaching is taught in many places, at various times, by various Bishops and by the Pope (or by successive Popes), it tends to develop and change. The teaching grows in depth and breadth. Its intrinsic connection to the other teachings of the Church is explored further. The teaching is pruned of incorrect or inaccurate ideas. The teaching is taught more definitively because it is better understood and because it has been purified of incorrect ideas. Disagreements about the correct form of the doctrine and its full extent are ironed out. Then, over the course of time, when the Pope (or successive Popes) and the Bishops, “authentically teaching matters of faith and morals … are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held” the teaching then moves from the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium to the infallible Universal Magisterium (quotation from Lumen Gentium, n. 25).
Sacred Assent and Ordinary Assent
The assent of faith, also called theological assent or sacred assent, is the full belief and trust in the certainty of a truth taught infallibly by the Church, that is: by Tradition, Scripture, or the Sacred Magisterium. This assent is required because these teachings are certainly true, and they are the teachings of God, not merely the teachings of men, and they generally pertain to faith, morals, and salvation in a fundamental and necessary way.
Now there may be some truths which are infallibly taught by the Church, but which are not essential to faith, morals, or salvation. For example, Scripture clearly teaches that Christ taught the doctrine of the Eucharist at Capernaum (Jn 6:60). But if a Christian were to believe the essential doctrine of the Eucharist, while doubting that it was taught in that place, he would err by contradicting Sacred Scripture, but he might not lose his salvation. Therefore, although the assent of faith applies every infallible teaching in Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium, it is not strictly required for salvation on those points where the Magisterium has not bound the faithful of necessity, or on those points which are not essential to faith, morals, or salvation in Tradition or Scripture.
The religious submission of will and intellect, also called ordinary assent, applies to non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium. Some of these teachings may be on fundamental points of faith, morals, or salvation; in such essential points, the ordinary non-infallible Magisterium cannot err. But even on matters that are not essential, the ordinary teachings are still a sure path to salvation. The Church has a right, a duty, and the authority to require ordinary assent to ordinary teachings because the errors that are possible cannot lead the faithful away from the path of salvation, and because non-infallible teachings, when joined with the infallible teachings, cannot fail to lead anyone who sincerely follows them to certain salvation.
Some faithful dissent from ordinary non-infallible teachings is possible, but only to the extent that errors are possible. So faithful dissent cannot include dissent from points of doctrine that are essential to salvation, even within the non-infallible ordinary teachings. Also, faithful dissent must be based on Tradition or Scripture or a more certain teaching of the Magisterium.
Faithful dissent can lead the Magisterium to remove errors from its non-infallible teachings. Faithful dissent can assist the Magisterium in the development of a doctrine that is generally correct, but which lacks certain distinctions. It can also encourage and refresh those members of the faithful who understand on some level that a certain teaching is lacking, making them uneasy with certain aspects of the Faith, though they cannot express their understanding theologically. For sometime the lay faithful understand a truth implicit in Divine Revelation before the Bishops understand it. Faithful dissent must be developed and expressed in a fitting manner, in a spirit of charity and devotion to God, and still affirming all infallible and the vast majority of non-infallible teachings, and without deprecating the role of those who properly exercise the Magisterium.
The Magisterium general
The Magisterium proper consists solely of the Sacred Magisterium and the Ordinary Magisterium. The Magisterium proper has the ability and authority to teach the truths of Divine Revelation. But the faithful in general also have a rule to play in the work of the Magisterium. In fact, the faithful exercise the Magisterium in a general and non-authoritative manner, when they continually seek truth within Divine Revelation. Their meditations on the truths of Tradition and Scripture often give rise to new insights into the Faith, which eventually make their way into the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium, or even of the Sacred Magisterium. But the role of the faithful in the Magisterium is not a role of teaching with authority, but of seeking new insights. All the faithful can exercise this role of the Magisterium general.
The Magisterium general is fallible; it does not have the charism of certain truth (infallible), nor does it have the charism of certain salvation (non-infallible). However, the Magisterium general does have the charism of certain fruitfulness, such that its search for truth cannot fail to bear fruit.
The Magisterium general seeks truths and is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to bear much fruit by finding truth. However, the ability to teach truth authoritatively and to require its belief is still reserved solely to the Pope, and to the body of Bishops led by the Pope. The Magisterium general is exercised by all the faithful, including the Pope and the Bishops. For the Pope and the Bishops participate in the spiritual life of the Church not solely as leaders and teachers, but also as fellow disciples and worshipers. Even so, the Magisterium general does not teach with authority, for the Pope and the Bishops only teach with authority when they are exercising their respective roles as teachers and leaders of the body of the faithful. When they exercise their roles as members of the faithful, they lack authority entirely.
There are three levels to the Magisterium: Sacred, Ordinary, general. So there must be three levels of assent. The assent to the infallible teachings of the Sacred Magisterium is called sacred assent (or theological assent, or the assent of faith). The assent to the non-infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium is called ordinary assent (or the religious submission of will and intellect).
The third type of assent is a general assent to truths that the individual member of the faithful understands to be a part of Tradition or Scripture, but which is not yet a teaching of the Church. The Magisterium general seeks truth in the Deposit of Faith, even truths not yet taught by the Magisterium proper. And when such truths are found, the faithful have a limited obligation to adhere to such truths, in so far as they are not contradicted by a teaching of greater certainty. For all the faithful are required to seek, to love, and to believe all that is true. The requirement to give a general assent to truths that a member of the faithful understands either on his/her own, or through discussion with other members of the faithful, or by studying speculative theology, is a requirement out of love for all truth. Now this assent is necessary for salvation only in so far as all the faithful are required to love truth; anyone who rejects truth in general, rejects Christ who is the Truth. But if ever an insight from personal ideas, or from discussions, or from speculative theology, is loved and believed as truth by a member of the faithful, and it later turns out that the Magisterium proper corrects this idea, the faithful should usually accept the correction of the Magisterium proper, which has the charisms of certain truth for its infallible teachings and of certain salvation for its non-infallible teachings. Faithful dissent applies on matters which are not essential to salvation, which have not been infallibly taught, and when the dissent is based on a more certain teaching of Tradition, Scripture, or Magisterium.
An example of a such a teaching of speculative theology is the proposed doctrine of the Virgin Mary's role as co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocatrix. There is one particular widespread view of this proposed doctrine, which, in my understanding, has numerous serious theological errors and which is nevertheless very widely promoted to millions of Catholics. When the Church eventually defines this doctrine in its proper form, many of the adherents to the erroneous form of the doctrine will be left with a decision, whether to abandon their long-held errors, or to retain them. If they are faithful, they will abandon the erroneous version of this doctrine, but inevitably in such cases some persons will refuse. Persons who adhere to a proposed doctrine, because they believe that it is a truth implicit in Tradition and Scripture, are exercising general assent in accord with an insight proposed under the Magisterium general. But substantial errors can exist in ideas that flow from the Magisterium general. Therefore, the requirement to believe is limited, and the greater requirement is to accept the teachings of the Magisterium proper.
The Church has been given the gift of infallible Sacred Tradition and infallible Sacred Scripture. The Magisterium proper must guard that gift and must teach from it. However, the ordinary teaching of the Magisterium is non-infallible and may contain some errors, to a limited extent. Those who claim that the Magisterium never errs on matters of faith or morals are contradicting the teaching of the Magisterium itself, which limits infallibility to very specific criteria under Papal Infallibility, the solemn definitions of Ecumenical Councils, and the Ordinary Universal Magisterium. All other teachings of the Magisterium proper fall under its ordinary non-infallible teaching authority. The most common way that the successors of Peter and the successors of other Apostles teach is under the Ordinary Magisterium.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
October 12, 2006