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What does magisterium, teaching authority's, mean?

What does magisterium, ‘teaching authority’, mean?

Today the common name for the teaching authority of the episcopate is magisterium. The term comes to us from the ancient Romans (1); in subsequent ages its various meanings have been preserved in new cultural and religious contexts.

It could mean either civil or ecclesiastical jurisdiction (cf. the English “magistrate”) or an authority to teach (cf. the academic degree which traditionally empowered a person to teach, Magister Artium).(2)

2. It is interesting to note that modern canon law has eliminated the venerable and ancient title of Magister from its academic hierarchy. Ignatius of Loyola, M.A. (Paris, earned), used it throughout his life; in fact, it was his preferred title. In his correspondence with Francis Xavier, M.A. (Paris, earned), who was on his apostolic journeys in India and beyond, they addressed each other by the title Magister.

However, a restrictive and exclusive usage of it, signifying “the teaching authority of the hierarchy” began to develop among German theologians and canonists in the 18th century and became widely accepted in the 19th. Its first appearance in a papal document was probably in 1835, in an encyclical by Gregory XVI to the Swiss clergy. (3) It was used amply in the schemata of Vatican 1, and from then on it became a household term in Catholic theology.

3. See Yves Congar, Droit ancien et structures ecclesiales, (London: Variorum Reprints, 1982), Vll: 85-98.

In particular, the new term, magisterium, was soon applied to a new way of exercising the teaching power: the popes began to instruct the universal church through “circular letters”, that is, encyclicals. It was Gregory XVI ( 1831-46) who initiated the frequent use of such letters as teaching instruments; his successors followed him. Papal pronouncements on virtually everything of interest to the church kept multiplying ever since; sometimes instructing the faithful in the fundamentals of our faith, sometimes deciding highly technical theological issues debated among theologians. Pius IX (1846-78) published 33 encyclicals, Leo Xlll (1878-1903) 48, and Pius Xll (1939-58) 41— although not all of them of doctrinal interest. (4)

4. See H. Bacht, “Enzyklika” in LTK 3910-911. The increase in papal teaching may have been due also to the decline in vitality of the traditional schools of theology.

Behind the increasing number of encyclicals, there was a deeper change there was a shift in the popes’ own perception of their magisterium. Traditionally, they conceived their role either as called to exhort the faithful, using the common expressions of faith (the writings of Gregory the Great would be a good example of this); or, as called to decide an issue about which the church was divided (of which an example is the Tomus I Leonis, a clarification given by Leo the Great concerning the two natures of Christ against the heresies of Eutyches, cf. DS 296-299).

This development in the conception of the teaching office brought with it the problem of how to determine the authority of particular papal pronouncements. Since they have become so numerous and kept covering so many issues, all of them could not be of “supreme apostolic authority.” Side by side with the proclamation of the evangelical message, the private opinions and personal intuitions of each pope were bound to play a much greater role than they did in earlier times when papal declarations were rare.

That was not all, however. The increased intensity of the teaching office necessitated increased help; the popes turned for assistance to individual theologians perhaps more than ever before. Not surprisingly (especially if one takes into account the difficulties in travel and communications) the popes sought help from the professors of the Roman schools of theology, and from their own curial officials who (mostly) were educated in those schools. It was only natural that the advisers tended to identify their own theological opinions with Catholic doctrine, (5) with the result that the pronouncements of the popes began to reflect the views of Roman theologians to the exclusion of others. Examples of this can be found in the talks and writings of Pins XII, who relied very heavily on some professors from the Gregorian University. (Pius’s doctrine on the Mystical Body reflected that of Sebastian Tromp; many of his moral instructions can be found in the books of Franz Hürth, etc.). Such a reliance on local advisers, who inevitably represented a limited portion of Catholic thinking, raised again the questions of how far a given papal pronouncement was the proclamation of Catholic doctrine universally held, and how far it reflected the opinion of a theological school.

5. This excessive use of local theologians marked the preparatory phase of both Vatican Councils.

Vatican Council I: The Preparatory Commission was composed of five cardinals; four Italians from the curia and one Bavarian. They were helped by 96 other members and consultors, 61 of them domiciled in Rome. The first schema on Catholic faith was prepared by Johannes Franzelin, professor at the Gregorian; it was often described as a no doubt well meant attempt by a teacher to have his textbook canonized by the Council. It underwent radical revision by Joseph Kleutgen, the theologian of the Bishop of Paderborn.

Vatican Council II: Although the membership of the preparatory commissions was more international, the Roman schools of thought marked strongly the 73 documents prepared for approval, except the one on liturgy. Indeed the reform of liturgy was accepted without substantial changes; but the conflict surfaced during the debate on the second schema submitted to the Fathers on the “Sources of Revelation.” It was mostly the work of Sebastian Tromp, reflecting his lectures at the Gregorian. For all practical purposes it was rejected, as were another 70, or (a few of them) modified so radically that the original could not be recognized. (The only one apart from Liturgy that was approved without serious modifications was the schema on the media of communications; it happened at a critical juncture.

In more technical terms: as a virtually new source of theological data, locus theologicus has emerged in recent papal pronouncements; a sound set of rules for the use of this source had to be worked out.

Historical precedents were not of much help they carried an ambivalent message. In the course of ancient history, some solemn declarations by popes were obviously proclamations of Catholic belief, such as the condemnation of crude conciliarism (appeal from the pope to a general moment when the Council was not in the mood to give much time or attention to it.)

The point in saying all this is that the excessive influence of Roman theologians has been resisted by the councils; but when there was no council their influence was often unhindered.

council) by Pius II (Bull Execrabilis, 1460); but some others promulgated with similar solemnity either had to be radically reinterpreted, such as the statement by Boniface VIII “We declare, affirm, and define that for salvation it is necessary for all human creatures to be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Bull Unam sanctam, 1302); or even abandoned as totally erroneous such as the order of Innocent VIII to persecute witches, female and male, in southern Germany (Bull Summis desiderantes, 1484). Whatever the rules for weighing the authority of papal documents were in the past, for the age of modern encyclicals new hermeneutics were needed.

To build up such new hermeneutics was a gigantic task in itself (it is still far from being completed), and yet it was not enough. Theologians had to grapple also with instructions, decrees, declarations and many kinds of communications by the increasingly numerous and active offices and commissions of the Holy See. There, even recent history could not provide much guidance while some documents issued by them proved to be of permanent doctrinal value, some others, such as the early decrees of the Biblical Commission, had to be quietly rescinded as mistaken in their content and method.

Besides, there was this principle to be held firmly the charism of infallibility granted to the successors of Peter could not be delegated. It follows that the organs of the Holy See, that is the “dicasteria” of the Roman curia, could not speak “in the Spirit” as ecumenical councils could, (6) nor could they appeal to the gift of infallibility because that gift was personal to the pope and not transferable. Hence, whatever came from such offices on their own authority, (7) needed again to be evaluated according to a new set of rules—the hermeneutics applicable to the documents of the agencies of the Roman See. (8)

6. A Roman Congregation could never say placuit Spiritui sancto et nobis, “it pleased the Holy Spirit and us”; an ancient formula used by great ecumenical councils.

7. The approval by the pope of a document issued by a Roman Congregation does not necessarily indicate that the pope made the content of the document his own. There are two kinds of papal approvals, in common form and in special form. An approval in common form means that the pope agrees to the publication of the document but does not make its content his own; an approval in special form means that the pope gives his own authority to the content of the document. The former is not papal teaching, the latter is. The special character of the approval must be explicitly stated in the document itself; it must never be presumed. Thus to know the form of approval is crucial for the interpretation ot the document; also for determining the type of response that is due to it.

8. I do not know of any thorough study from a theological point of view of the power of the Roman curia. In general it is said that it is the arm of the pope in governing the church, which of course is true. An ambivalence that would deserve serious study is in the situation that the pope cannot hand over to anyone his charism of infallibility (fidelity to the message) but he can let others participate in his power to govern (jurisdiction).

The Curia has no more power than what the pope gives to it. An episcopal synod is different because there is an inherent power in every single bishop (through his ordination) participating in it; also because it is a partial but real manifestation of collegiality.

Even such a brief survey shows that the word magisterium, when used loosely, can cover several distinct realities. Let me list them without claiming to be exhaustive ( a) infallible teaching by the pope (rare, its core not subject to revision); (b) non-infallible pronouncement by the pope (can be the proclamation of truth; can be an evolving theological opinion); (c declaration by an office of the Roman See, approved specially by the pope (he made it his own); (d) declaration by an office, with routine approval (by which the pope does not lend his authority to the core of the teaching, hence its critical assessment is warranted); (e) a great variety of pronouncements which may come from episcopal synods, conferences, or individual bishops (all to be weighed and measured according to their content and circumstances). (9)

9. As a rule, in the United States there is little awareness of these subtle distinctions among the reporters and commentators of religious events. Whenever a document arrives from Rome, it matters little if it is a private letter from a cardinal made public, or a decree by the authority of a congregation, or an apostolic constitution by the authority of the pope; they all are described as “Vatican documents,” and they are attributed to (falsely) pretty much the same authority. At times not even the Catholic press displays a knowledge of these vital distinctions. To attribute more authority to a document than was given to it by its source is to falsify its meaning and intent, and consequently, to mislead the people.


early this intrinsic value of episcopal synods; there is recorded evidence of them from about 170. They were held quite frequently and they played an immense role in developing the doctrine and discipline of the church; long before a strong central government arose.

The synodal tradition is still strong in the Orthodox church. (See P. Joannou, “Synods, Early Church” NCE 13:885-886)

To sum it up since the exercise of the teaching office of the popes underwent a significant change, it became increasingly difficult to determine the weight of their pronouncements. (No theologian has ever succeeded in determining the specific weight of condemnation for each individual item in the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX.) In particular, the enormous output of the popes, covering a very broad spectrum, made it difficult to separate what was affirmed with full apostolic authority and what represented the personal thought of a pope. Moreover, the newly established curial offices or commissions frequently took on themselves the task of deciding disputed doctrinal issues on their authority, which did not (could not) include any participation in the charism of infallibility. Quite naturally, the weight of their pronouncements became a matter of debate.

The inevitable conclusion is that, when the question arises as to how far a point of doctrine proclaimed by the magisterium is binding, the only way of finding it out is not by invoking a precise definition of the type of magisterium which appears to be operational in the case (since such definitions are hardly available) but by referring its content to our ancient traditions, by examining critically the source of that pronouncement and weighing carefully the authority behind it.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 2. Read the whole chapter here.

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