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Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Question C: What is meant by the “magisterium” of the Church?

1. Catholic faith teaches that the bishops are the successors of the apostles in respect to those apostolic functions which in the nature of the case could be handed on.19

2. Vatican I solemnly and definitively teaches that by the institution of Jesus himself the pope is the successor of Peter as head of the Church (see DS 3058/1825; S.t., 2–2, q. 1, a. 10; q. 11, a. 2, ad 3). Vatican II confirms this teaching (see LG 18) and adds to it: “Just as the role that the Lord gave individually to Peter, the first among the apostles, is permanent and was meant to be transmitted to his successors, so also the apostles’ office of nurturing the Church is permanent, and was meant to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Therefore, this sacred Synod teaches that by divine institution bishops have succeeded to the place of the apostles as shepherds of the Church, and that he who hears them, hears Christ, while he who rejects them, rejects Christ and him who sent Christ (cf. Lk 10.16)” (LG 20). As men in a special way empowered to exercise Jesus’ prophetic office in the Church, bishops succeed the apostles as leaders of the Church and authorized spokesmen for the Lord Jesus.

3. In communion with one another, the pope and other bishops together exercise this prophetic role, which many documents of the Church refer to by the word “magisterium.” Although this word has been given its technical sense only in modern times,20 the reality to which it refers, according to the teaching of Vatican I and Vatican II, has existed in the Church since the apostles.21 “Magisterium” is translated by both “teaching office” and “teaching authority.” The teaching of the magisterium is said to be “authentic” and “authoritative,” both expressions meaning essentially the same thing.

4. The intent in what follows is to clarify what “authority” means in this context and why our Lord Jesus establishes the bishops as a teaching authority within his Church, whose faith is infallible, as question A explained.

5. The revelation of God in Jesus is expressed and witnessed in Scripture and in the tradition of the Church—that is, in the whole life and reality of the Church who extends herself from generation to generation (see DV 8). Nevertheless, members of the Church as individuals are not infallible. In interpreting revelation they can err in belief, mistaking what belongs to revelation for what does not and vice versa.

6. Evidently, then, the infallibility of the Church as a whole needs an organ, an instrument by which it can be exercised. Vatican II teaches: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (DV 10).

7. Plainly, the magisterium has a great deal more to do than just ascertaining and expressing a consensus. The magisterium has authority to decide—not in the sense of choosing but in the sense of judging—what belongs to revelation. It is not above the word of God; revelation is complete in Jesus. But what is revealed must be unfolded and effectively communicated in each age. For this work to be accomplished without deviation from divine truth, the magisterium exists to receive, guard, and explain that truth which the Church as a whole infallibly believes.

8. Inasmuch as the bishops share in divine authority, communicated to them by Jesus (see Mt 28.18–20), it is this—not scholarly competence and expertise nor administrative power—which qualifies them for their magisterial function. Their doctrinal decisions, judgments in matters of faith and morals, have the authority of truth, the personal truth revealed in Jesus. (Like the office of the bishops, the office of theologians and the charisms of the faithful at large do not stand above this truth, but must accept it with faith and serve it.)22

9. In sum, the foundation of the teaching authority of the bishops is twofold: first, the divine truth which they receive in faith and share as members of the Church; second, their special office of leadership, in which they carry out that part of the apostolic responsibility—to act sacramentally in Jesus’ person—which belongs to the Church’s permanent constitution.

One can imagine that Jesus might have initiated a redemptive community without providing any leadership role. However, no human society exists without leaders, whose activities unify the group. The authority of leaders derives from the fact that their official acts are directed to the common good; in them the interests of all members of the group make their demands upon each member. Had Jesus not provided leadership for the Church, leaders would have emerged, but their right to lead would always have been open to question. The Church herself could not establish this right, since the Church is not simply a voluntary human community, but a communion in Jesus with God.

For this reason it was fitting that Jesus created the apostolic office and the role of bishops as successors to the apostles. By means of the college of bishops, Jesus provided his Church, which is infallible in believing and proclaiming him, with a single, recognizable voice. Thus when the bishops speak with one voice, their preaching is not only teaching within the Church, but teaching of the Church. It is—and the whole Church can be sure it is—the word of God himself.

One can imagine a Church in which every member participated equally in the magisterium. However, if all exercised this office responsibly, all other goods would remain unattended, because the communication required for this single task (especially if everyone were involved) would absorb the whole of one’s Christian life. One also can imagine a Church in which only theologically competent persons were ordained as bishops. However, scholars have their biases; in any society they form an elite more or less removed from the people at large: They “live in an ivory tower.”

Furthermore, one always must bear in mind that the truth with which the bishops are concerned primarily is the personal truth of God revealed in Jesus. This truth includes but is not limited to true propositions. The methods of scholarship are not well adapted for discerning such truth; indeed, their habitual use tends to obscure it with an interesting but not always relevant pluralism of theories and arguments. To some extent, the truth of Catholic faith is contained in the lived reality of the Church, not yet articulated intellectually, but handed on (see DV 8). For managing the task of handing on a personal truth which in part has not yet been articulated, a man like Peter perhaps is a better choice than someone more learned and clever—even than one like Paul.

One aspect of the authority of the magisterium is shared by every member of the Church. Jesus amazed his listeners, because he taught with authority, unlike the scribes (see Mt 7.29; Mk 1.22; Lk 4.32). The scribes functioned as theologians; they dealt in scholarly opinions about the meaning of the law, which they studied as a given object. Jesus did not talk about divine revelation; he personally revealed the Father. His preaching was not reflection upon truth as an object, but direct communication of the personal truth of God to human persons.

One who accepts the revelation of God in Jesus enjoys a wisdom which surpasses that of scholarship: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Lk 10.21). When a Christian mother tells her children of God, of Jesus, and of the following of Jesus, she shares in the authority of Jesus, for she hands on his personal truth. Insofar as her belief is one with the belief of the Church, Jesus speaks in and through her; her instruction is the word of Jesus, and it is received by her children with the light of the Spirit of divine truth.

In recent years, some have argued that authority is of two sorts: some authorities are qualified (to determine what is true) by their experience or scholarly competence, while other authorities are qualified (to decide what will be done) by their social status. The former must be respected because they are in a position to know better; the latter must be obeyed because of their official power to decide. To which of these categories does the teaching authority of the bishops belong? If to the former, their judgment depends on expertise, and can be challenged by theologians, who in general are more able scholars than most bishops. If to the latter, their decisions have only the force of law, not the force of truth; laws can bind in conscience only as long as one does not have a sufficiently good reason for setting them aside.

The authority of Jesus in revealing fits neither of these two categories. The division is inadequate. It leaves out of account the authority enjoyed by one who communicates personal truth to be accepted with personal faith. The teaching authority of the bishops derives from that of Jesus, and belongs to the same category as his authority.23

19. For a historical consideration of this point, with reference to the Fathers of the Church, see Louis Bouyer, The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1982), 318–26.

20. See Yves Congar, O.P., “Pour une Histoire Sémantique du Terme ‘Magisterium,’ ” Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques, 60 (1976), 85–98; “Bref Historique des Formes du ‘Magistère’ et de ses Relations avec les Docteurs,” same journal, 99–112. The first of these articles clarifies the semantic point, the second the diverse modes in which the magisterium has functioned, particularly in relation to theologians. In regard to the latter, one should bear in mind that almost all the responsibility of bishops to teach is fulfilled by delegation to others. Nothing Congar shows indicates that theologians enjoy any teaching authority in the Church—that is, authority to which the faithful as such ought to submit their personal judgments—except by the bishops’ delegation of it to them. Sometimes it will be delegated to theologians to such an extent that they, rather than the bishops themselves, appear to function collegially as the voice of the Church’s faith. Then too, theologians as scholars can have the authority of their competence in matters which go beyond the boundaries of the teaching of the Church. Moreover, as Congar shows (104), certain theologians of earlier times, such as Godfrey of Fontaines, arrogated to themselves the right to judge episcopal and papal teaching. None of the foregoing facts falsifies what I say about the magisterium. The authority theologians exercise (usually as priests) by delegation is not theirs as theologians; the authority proper to them as scholars cannot judge the sacramental teaching authority of bishops which theology must presuppose; and the claim of theologians to authority superior to that of bishops (including popes) is not self-justifying and lacks grounds in any of the witnesses of faith.

21. See Grelot, op. cit., 58–61, for a concise but telling review of the New Testament data on the transition from the apostolic charism to that of the perennial ecclesial magisterium. Also see International Theological Commission, op. cit., 197–98; Bouyer, op. cit., 346–65.

22. For a helpful clarification of the role of the magisterium and theology’s relationship to it, see Juan Alfaro, “Theology and the Magisterium,” in Problems and Perspective of Fundamental Theology, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, ed. René Latourelle and Gerald O’Collins (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 340–56. Rejection of legalism is coupled with affirmation of revelation and the indispensable role of the hierarchy by Philippe Delhaye, “La collaboration de la Hiérarchie et de tous les chrétiens dans la formulation des normes morales,” L’Année canonique, 22 (1978), 43–60.

23. For the authentic meaning of teaching authority in the New Testament and early Church, see David M. Stanley, S.J., “Authority in the Church: A New Testament Reality,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 29 (1967), 555–72; J. N. Bakhuizen van den Brink, “Tradition and Authority in the Early Church,” Studia Patristica, 7 (1963), Texte und Untersuchungen, 92, ed. F. L. Cross (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1966), 3–22. The uniqueness of the authority with which the Church teaches often is overlooked, and it is usually simply assumed that this authority, if concerned with truth, must be that of expertise. However, sometimes this reduction is expressly (although gratuitously) asserted. See, for example, Bruno Schüller, S.J., “Remarks on the Authentic Teaching of the Magisterium of the Church,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3: The Magisterium and Morality, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 16–20 and 31–32, n. 4.