What is a Magisterium? (Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church Episode 3)

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“Magisterium this. Magisterium that.” I’m honestly astonished by how frequently I hear Catholics throwing that word around without properly understanding what it means. Let’s break it down.”

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director


“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, magisters and magicians welcome to another episode of Clarifying Catholicism! You’re watching part three of a series on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Most of this information is from Francis Sullivan’s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. So, if you’d like an in-depth dive into these topics, make sure to pick up a copy of his book. To see the rest of the videos in this series, click the playlist in the description. Without further ado, onto the show!”

In the last couple of episodes, we talked about the basis for the Church’s indefectibility as a community of Faithful, taught by the successors of the Apostles, all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Then we talked about the Church’s indefectibility in matters of belief and action, or, as the first Vatican Council describes, faith and morals, since someone needs to set the record straight regarding what is legitimately an Apostolic teaching and what is a valid way to interpret or apply an Apostolic teaching to a new historical situation. We talked about how the Church’s indefectibility means it cannot err in its teachings, but that doesn’t mean they are phrased or expressed optimally. And, finally, we arrived at the question of who exactly represents the Church when it teaches. Let’s dive in.

“Magisterium this. Magisterium that.” I’m honestly astonished by how frequently I hear Catholics throwing that word around without properly understanding what it means. Let’s break it down.”

So, for all you non-Latin speakers, myself included, “magisterium” is derived from “magister” meaning master. And that’s in the most general sense possible. It could mean master of a ship, master of a skill, master of a slave, or even a Pokemon master! Now, though the term started off in a very general sense, it came to be synonymous with a school master or teacher. And in the Catholic Church, it referred to teachers of theology, the science of God! According to Thomas Aquinas, the master of distinctions, the word refers to two types of people: bishops and theologians. This may come as a surprise to modern magisterium-word-users, since today the word is most commonly identified with bishops alone. This series will only focus on bishops, though Sullivan dedicates his final chapter to the role theologians play in the life of the Church.

In chapter two of his book, Sullivan likens the Church’s role in teaching to the role of hearers who relay messages effectively and accurately to more people. Think of it like a game of telephone in which you have different strands of people coming from one person. Which strand of people would you trust? I’d probably trust the one which was promised with indefectibility and guidance from the source, himself. But this is not just a game of telephone, though. As Sullivan states, the Word of God may be preserved and echoed by bishops, but it demands a response in action from the laity to God almighty. This is why it is so important that bishops are understood clearly by their flock; their job is to teach Christians not for the sake of passing AP Church History but for the sake of informing every action they make. No pressure, right?

As I mentioned last episode, it’s not enough for bishops to repeat the same teachings over and over again, though. That would be like the Surgeon General of the United States repeating the same thing his or her predecessor said and ignoring modern diseases. Likewise, when new historical problems arise, most Catholics don’t have the time or resources to study thousands of pages of scripture to come up with solutions. That is the role of bishops. Think of bishops as the chief scientists of theology, which is, indeed, the science of God. This means that bishops, as our chief theological scientists, advise us how we ought to respond to modern problems, like nuclear weapons, stem cell research, and jaywalking.

Okay, so the bishops are the teachers here. But can they teach just anything they want? Nope! Recall that the very authority of bishops is rooted in revealed teachings from Christ, and their teachings are for the sake of preserving His teachings. This means that the teachings of bishops must be consistent with those of Christ; by contradicting Christ, the very source that gives them authority, they would delegitimize their status as protectors of His Word.

As the Second Vatican Council states, “this Magisterium is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it conscientiously, and explaining it, faithfully, by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit. From this one deposit of faith it draws everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” Let’s break that long sentence down.

“The magisterium is not above the Word of God but serves it.” We basically covered this with how bishops cannot teach their own ideas but only the good news of Christ.

“The magisterium teaches only what has been handed on.” This is part of the Church’s indefectible Apostolicity. It can only teach authoritatively on matters that it derives from the Apostles.

“The magisterium listens to the Word of God devoutly.” Before bishops can teach the Word of God, they must hear it, themselves, first. This is why we not only require priests to have higher degrees in theology but make sure they get plenty of pastoral training in, today, and are men of prayer.

“The magisterium guards it conscientiously.” Again, the Church doesn’t make its rules on a whim. It does so for the sole purpose of preserving Christ’s teachings. Last episode, I drew an analogy to the American Congress’s ability to do everything necessary and proper to preserve the Constitution, the very source of Congressional authority.

“The magisterium must explain the Word of God faithfully.” Again, this isn’t to prepare the laity for the GRE, the God’s Religion Exam, but so they can live holy lives.

“The magisterium teaches via divine commission.” This refers to the sacrament of Holy Orders, which originated with the early Christian ritual of Laying on of Hands, which was and still is the way bishops and priests are validly ordained. Only bishops and priests who had undergone this ritual, which was led by descendants of the Apostles, could be recognized as legitimate teachers.

“The magisterium teaches with the help of the Holy Spirit.” This harkens back to one of the first points I made in this series. Christ sent His Spirit to dwell in the Church, and that Spirit shall never leave Her but will guide her into the fullness of truth.

“Finally, the magisterium draws from the deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” Basically, all teaching and teaching authority come from truths revealed by Christ to His Apostles. Every now and then, the notion of the teaching authority of bishops has come under attack. Specifically, some people claim that there is little to no historical basis for accepting the teaching authority of bishops or that Jesus never established a hierarchical Church. Next episode, I’ll go a little more in-depth regarding justifications for the authority of bishops back at the foundation of the Church. Until then, have a great day and God bless you.

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