The Magisterium of the Catholic Church

Our group in the Catholicism 101 class is struggling with understanding the Magisterium. Could you please explain what it is and what it does?

Jeff Cavins Kelly Wahlquist magisteriumDeriving from the Latin magester meaning "teacher", the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is the living teaching office of the Church. The Magisterium, comprised of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him and guided by the Holy Spirit, has been entrusted with the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition. (Dei Verbum, n.10; CCC 85) This authority is given to the apostles by Jesus Christ, guarded from error by the Holy Spirit and guaranteed today by apostolic succession which is the unbroken succession of bishops going back lineally to the apostles.

Before Christ left this earth, he entrusted to his apostles the authority to teach, sanctify and govern in his name. This he communicated to them when he said: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Mt: 28:19) Jesus didn't leave this responsibility to the apostles to accomplish on their own; he promised special guidance to teach about and define truths contained in divine Revelation and on matters of faith and morals without error. "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (John 16:13) Here, Jesus announces the sending of "another Paraclete" (Advocate), the Holy Spirit who will now be with and in the disciples, to teach them and guide them into all truth. (CCC 243)

Jesus also assured the apostles that they would be exercising their authority in his name: "Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." (Luke 10:16) And, he gave them authority to judge and teach upon matters of faith and morals: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 18:15-18) St. Paul reiterates this authority in his address to the Thessalonians: "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us." (2 Thess 3:6, see also CCC 892) This authority of the Church to teach is emphasized in the Vatican II document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium no. 25. The document states: "Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent." Therefore, when the Magisterium teaches, it is Christ who is teaching us through it.

In order that the full and living Gospel would be passed down after the deaths of the apostles and therefore always preserved in the Church, the apostles left bishops as their successors. "They gave them their own position of teaching authority" (CCC 77). St. Paul told Timothy, "and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. " (2 Tim 2:2) Here we see the first three generations of apostolic succession: Paul's generation, Timothy's generation and the generation to follow to whom Timothy will teach. The apostles transmitted all they received from Christ and learned from the Holy Spirit to their successors, the bishops, and through them to all generations until the end of the world. (CCC 98)

To preserve the faithful from deviations and defections and ensure that the People of God abides in the truth, "Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matter of faith and morals." (CCC 890) The college of bishops possesses infallibility in teaching when the bishops gathered together in an ecumenical council exercise the magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals who declare for the universal Church that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively; or when dispersed throughout the world but preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter and teaching authentically together with the Roman Pontiff matters of faith or morals, they agree that a particular proposition is to be held definitively. (Code of Canon Law: Can. 749 §2.) It is the responsibility of the faithful to follow completely the teaching of the Magisterium; for along with accepting the sacraments and submitting to the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops in communion with him, holding to the Catholic faith as taught by the Magisterium is at the very core of what it means to be Catholic. It is important to understand that there are not multiple magisteriums. The academic community and all others are at the service of the Magisterium and must remain faithful to the authority established by Christ.

There are two ways by which the faithful receive the truths that God has revealed: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Together, "Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church." (DV n. 10) To safeguard the Word of God and to prevent the faithful from straying from the truth, Christ established the Magisterium. Pope John Paul the Great captures this beautifully in his address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith: "The Magisterium, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (DV n. 10), is an organ of service to the truth and is responsible for seeing that the truth does not cease to be faithfully handed on throughout human history." (Pope John Paul II, Magisterium Exercises Authority In Christ's Name, 24 Nov. 1995)

Dei Verbum

Lumen Gentium

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Code of Canon Law

New Advent /Catholic Encyclopedia

Catholic Online

Kelly Wahlquist assists Jeff in the Twin City bible studies and edited the Catholicism 101 workbook.