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What is meant by the "ordinary magisterium"?

What is meant by the ‘ordinary magisterium’?

Non-infallible magisterium is referred to also as ordinary magisterium. Immediately, a cautionary word should be sounded about what is “ordinary.” The term has undergone a significant transformation in the last two or so decades, particularly noticeable in the official language of the Holy See, be it in writings, be it in oral statements.

The expression “ordinary magisterium” in the standard theology textbooks published before Vatican Council II used to refer to the manner (modus) in which a point of doctrine was determined as an integral part of our faith not through the rather extraordinary act of a decree by a council, not through the extraordinary event of a papal definition, but through its consistent affirmation as Catholic doctrine by the popes and the bishops (in Vatican II terminology, by the college of bishops). For all practical purposes such an ordinary teaching was equivalent to a formal definition.

Interestingly enough this understanding of “ordinary magisterium” is retained in the new Code of Canon Law:

All that is contained in the word of God, as has been handed over in writing or by tradition, that is, [all] that is in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the church, and is proclaimed either by the solemn magisterium of the church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which becomes manifest in the common assent of the faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium, must be believed with divine and Catholic faith; . . .all are bound, therefore, to reject doctrines contrary to it. (Canon 750). (14)

14. The text of the canon is taken from the Constitution Dei Filius by Vatican Council 1; cf. DS 3011.

The canon clearly implies that there are two ways of teaching infallibly: by solemn magisterium or by ordinary magisterium.

But the expression “ordinary magisterium” is used also in a different way, in particular by Roman authorities:

“The Church does not build its life upon its infallible magisterium alone but on the teaching of its authentic, ordinary magisterium as well. (Sacra Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, ]uly 25, 1986, Re Curran.) (15)

15. See Charles E. Curran, Faithful Dissent, (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1986), p. 268. Cf. also Page, Qui est l’ Église?, vol. 3, p. 547: he warns about the different senses of magistère ordinaire.

On the basis of this text, the suggestion could be made that ordinary and universal teaching is infallible, while ordinary and non-universal is fallible. But the term universal is not precise enough to ground such an important distinction. After all, the ministry of Peter’s successor is certainly universal, his proclamations are, as a rule, addressed to the whole church, hence have a universal character, but without having necessarily the character of infallibility. The same could be said of the college of bishops: Vatican Council II was certainly a universal gathering; its proclamations could not have been more universal; yet, no one has ever asserted that they are infallible in all their parts.

The statement is substantially correct, but undoubtedly it uses the expression “ordinary magisterium” in a sense different from the one in the canon quoted; “ordinary” now is opposed to “infallible”. It refers to something less than the proclamation of a point of belief with full and final apostolic authority (whether in council or otherwise); it means simply the ordinary and usual teaching and preaching activity of the hierarchy, affirming a point of doctrine which (as yet) cannot be said to be part of our Catholic faith because (as yet) the church has not affirmed it with a conclusive judgment.

To call such teaching “ordinary magisterium” is a relatively new use of the term “ordinary.” In theory such an ambivalence in its meaning should cause no serious problem, provided we are aware of it, but in practice conflicts are bound to break out when ecclesiastical authorities begin to demand the same absolute obedience to their usual teaching and preaching as is due only to articles of faith, or when they attempt to impose their views with heavy (or subtle) penalties on all those who see the matter otherwise. (16)

16. In the years after Vatican Council II there has been much talk about “creeping infallibility,” meaning the tendency to regard doctrines not infallibly defined as if they had been so defined. To hold such exaggerations on a purely intellectual level is already bad enough, but when practical sanctions are taken against someone who does not accept them, the situation becomes even worse. Failure in truth may lead to failure in justice... (One more reason to promote sound, loyal and critical theological reflection!)

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

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