For other uses, see Magisterium (disambiguation).

The magisterium of the Catholic Church is the church's authority or office to establish its own authentic teachings.[1][2] That authority is vested uniquely by the pope and by the bishops, under the premise that they are in communion with the correct and true teachings of the faith.[3] Sacred scripture and sacred tradition "make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church",[4] and the magisterium is not independent of this, since "all that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is derived from this single deposit of faith."[5]

Solemn and ordinary

The exercise of the Catholic Church's magisterium is sometimes, but only rarely, expressed in the solemn form of an ex cathedra papal declaration, "when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, [the Bishop of Rome] defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church",[6] or of a similar declaration by an ecumenical council. Such solemn declarations of the church's teaching involve the infallibility of the Church.

Pope Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and Pope Pius XII's definition of the Assumption of Mary are examples of such solemn papal pronouncements, but are the only two to ever have been granted. Most dogmas have been promulgated at ecumenical councils. Examples of solemn declarations by ecumenical councils are the Council of Trent's decree on justification and the First Vatican Council's definition of papal infallibility.

The Catholic Church's magisterium is exercised without this solemnity in statements by popes and bishops, whether collectively (as by an episcopal conference) or singly, in written documents such as catechisms, encyclicals and pastoral letters, or orally, as in homilies. These statements are part of the ordinary magisterium of the church.

The First Vatican Council declared that "all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal teaching magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed".[7] Not everything contained in the statements of the ordinary magisterium is infallible, but the Catholic Church holds that the Church's infallibility is invested in the statements of its universal ordinary magisterium: "Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith or morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely."[8]

Such teachings of the ordinary and universal magisterium are obviously not given in a single specific document. They are teachings upheld as authoritative, generally for a long time, by the entire body of bishops. Examples given are the teaching on the reservation of ordination to males,[9] and on the immorality of procured abortion.[2] Neither of these has been the object of a solemn definition.

Even public statements by popes or bishops on questions of faith or morals that do not qualify as "ordinary and universal magisterium" have an authority that Catholics are not free to merely dismiss. They are required to give that teaching religious submission: "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. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."[8]


The word "magisterium" is derived from Latin magister, which means "teacher" in ecclesiastical Latin. (It originally had a more general meaning, and could designate president, chief, director, superintendent, etc., and was only rarely a tutor or instructor of youth.[10]) The noun magisterium refers to the office of a magister. Thus the relationship between magister and magisterium is the same as the relationship in English between "president" and "presidency".

Since the time of Pope Pius XII, the word "magisterium" has also been used to refer to the persons who hold this office.

Source and criteria

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ, "the Logos made Flesh" (Gospel of John 1:14), is the source of divine revelation. The Roman Catholic Church bases all of its infallible teachings on sacred tradition and sacred scripture. The Magisterium consists of only all the infallible teachings of the Church, "Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal Magisterium." (First Vatican Council, Dei Filius, 8.) However, the criteria for the infallibility of these two functions of the sacred Magisterium are different. The sacred magisterium consist of both the Extraordinary and dogmatic decrees of the Pope and ecumenical councils, and the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium.

The Second Vatican Council states, "For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth." (Dei verbum, 4). The content of Christ's divine revelation, as faithfully passed on by the Apostles, is called the Deposit of Faith, and consists of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (as John 21:25 states, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world wouldn't have room for the books that would be written.").

The infallible teachings of the ecumenical councils consist of the solemn dogmatic, theological or moral definitions as contained in declarations, decrees, doctrines and condemnations (traditionally expressed in conciliar canons and decrees) of councils consisting of the pope and the bishops from all over the world.

A teaching of ordinary and universal magisterium is a teaching of which all bishops (including the Pope) universally agree on and is also considered infallible.



Teacher: Level of magisterium: Degree of certitude: Assent required:
1. Pope ex cathedra Extraordinary (and universal teaching of the Church) Infallible on matters of faith and morals Full assent of faith
2. Bishops, in union with Pope, defining doctrine at General Council Extraordinary (and universal teaching of the Church) Infallible on matters of faith and morals Full assent of faith
3. Bishops proposing definitively, dispersed, but in unison, in union with Pope Ordinary and universal teaching of the Church Infallible on matters of faith and morals Assent of faith
4. Pope Ordinary Authoritative but non-infallible Religious submission of intellect and will
5. Bishops in communion with the Pope Ordinary Authoritative but non-infallible Religious submission of intellect and will
6. Theologians Magisterium cathedrae magistralis (according to Thomas Aquinas)[14] Neither authoritative nor infallible Legitimate disagreements and dialectic (according to the long tradition of Quaestiones Disputatae)[15]

Historical development

Early Church

Bishops as authority

The most basic foundation of the Magisterium, the apostolic succession of bishops and their authority as protectors of the faith, was one of the few points that was rarely debated by the Church Fathers. The doctrine was elaborated by Ignatius of Antioch (and others) in the face of Gnosticism, expounded by others such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, and by the end of the 2nd century AD was universally accepted by the bishops. [16]

Some of the first problems began to arise, however, with the increasing worldliness of the clergy. Criticism arose against the bishops, and an attempt was made to have all bishops drawn from the ranks of monastic communities, whose men were seen as the holiest possible leaders. However, there had also developed in the Church a Roman sense of government, which insisted upon order at any cost, and this led to the phenomenon of the “imperial bishops,” men who had to be obeyed by virtue of their position, regardless of their personal holiness, and the distinction between “man” and “office.” [17]

Early disagreements

This understanding was not universally accepted. According to Robert B. Eno, Origen was one of the most famous critics of the episcopal corruption. He says that throughout Origen's life, many of his writings were considered to be questionably orthodox, and he seemed to espouse the idea of a teaching authority based on theological expertise alone rather than, or at least along with, apostolic succession. [18]

Another early disagreement in the Church surrounding the issue of authority manifested itself in Montanism, which began as a movement promoting the charism of prophecy. Montanism claimed, among other things, that prophecies like those found in the Old Testament were continuing in the Church, and that new prophecies had the same authority as apostolic teaching. The Church, however, ruled that these new prophecies were not authoritative, and condemned Montanism as a heresy.[19] Other times, private revelations were recognized by the Church, but the Church continues to teach that private revelations are altogether separate from the deposit of faith, and that they are not required to be believed by all Catholics.

Medieval period

Perceptions of teaching authority in the Middle Ages are hard to characterize because they were so varied. While there arose a keener understanding and acceptance of papal primacy (at least until the Great Schism), there was also an increased emphasis placed on the theologian as well as numerous dissenters from both views.

Papal primacy and teaching authority

Throughout the Middle Ages, support for the primacy of the pope (spiritually and temporally) and his ability to speak authoritatively on matters of doctrine grew significantly. Two popes, Innocent III (1198–1216) and Boniface VIII (1294–1303), were especially influential in advancing the power of the papacy. Innocent asserted that the pope’s power was a right bestowed by God, and developed the idea of the pope not only as a teacher and spiritual leader but also a secular ruler. Boniface, in the papal bull Unam Sanctam asserted that the spiritual world, headed on earth by the pope, has authority over the temporal world, and that all must submit themselves to the authority of the pope to be saved.[20]

In the medieval period, statements of this papal power were common in the works of theologians as well. In the late Middle Ages, Domingo Bañez attributed to the Pope the “definitive power to declare the truths of the faith," and Thomas Cajetan, in keeping with the distinction made by St. Thomas Aquinas, drew a line between personal faith manifested in theologians and the authoritative faith presented as a matter of judgment by the pope.[21]

Papal infallibility

In the Decretum of Gratian, a 12th-century canon lawyer, the pope is attributed the legal right to pass judgment in theological disputes, but he was certainly not guaranteed freedom from error. The pope’s role was to establish limits within which theologians, who were often better suited for the full expression of truth, could work. Thus, the pope’s authority was as a judge, not an infallible teacher.[22]

The doctrine began to visibly develop during the Reformation, leading to a formal statement of the doctrine by St. Robert Bellarmine in the early 17th century, but it did not come to widespread acceptance until the 19th century and the First Vatican Council.[20]


Other concepts of teaching authority gained prominence in the Middle Ages, as well, however, including the concept of the authority of the learned expert, an idea which began with Origen (or even earlier) and still today has proponents. Some allowed for the participation of theologians in the teaching life of the church, but still drew distinctions between the powers of the theologian and the pope or bishop; one example of this view is in the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas, who spoke of the “Magisterium cathedrae pastoralis/pontificalis” (Magisterium of the pastoral or pontifical chair) and the “Magisterium cathedrae magistralis” (Magisterium of a master’s chair). Others held more extreme views, such as Godefroid of Fontaines, who insisted that the theologian had a right to maintain his own opinions in the face of episcopal and even papal rulings.

Council of Constance (1414–1418)

A significant development in the teaching authority of the Church occurred from 1414 to 1418 with the Council of Constance, which effectively ran the Church during the Great Schism, during which there were three men claiming to be the pope. An early decree of this council, Haec Sancta, challenged the primacy of the pope, saying that councils represent the church, are imbued with their power directly by Christ, and are binding even for the pope in matters of faith.[23] This declaration was later declared void by the Church because the early sessions of the council had not been confirmed by a pope, but it demonstrates that there were still conciliar currents in the church running against the doctrine of papal primacy, likely influenced by the corruption seen in the papacy during this time period.

Council of Basle (1439)

The theologian began to play a more prominent role in the teaching life of the church, as “doctors” were called upon more and more to help bishops form doctrinal opinions. Illustrating this, at the Council of Basle in 1439, bishops and other clergy were greatly outnumbered by doctors of theology.

Despite this growth in influence, popes still asserted their power to crack down on those perceived as “rogue” theologians, through councils (for example, in the cases of Peter Abelard and Beranger) and commissions (as with Nicolas of Autrecourt, Ockham, and Eckhart). With the coming of the Reformation in 1517, this assertion of papal power came to its head and the primacy and authority of the papacy over theologians was vigorously re-established. However, the Council of Trent re-introduced the collaboration between theologians and council Fathers, and the next centuries leading up to the First and Second Vatican Councils were generally accepting of a broader role for the learned in the Church, although the popes still kept a close eye on theologians and intervened occasionally.[24]

Vatican Councils and their Popes

Pius IX and Vatican I

The groundwork for papal primacy was laid in the medieval period, and in the late Middle Ages, the idea of papal infallibility was introduced, but a definitive statement and explanation of these doctrines did not occur until the 19th century, with Pope Pius IX and the First Vatican Council (1869–1870). Pius IX was the first pope to use the term “Magisterium” in the sense that it is understood today, and the concept of the “ordinary and universal Magisterium” was officially established during Vatican I. In addition, this council defined the doctrine of papal infallibility, the ability of the pope to speak without error “when, acting in his capacity as pastor and teacher of all Christians, he commits his supreme authority in the universal Church on a question of faith or morals.”[25]

Pius XII and Paul VI

Later, Pope Pius XII (reigned 1939-1958) took the concept of the newly defined Magisterium even further, stating that the faithful must be obedient to even the ordinary Magisterium of the Pope, and that “there can no longer be any question of free discussion between theologians” once the Pope has spoken on a given issue.[26] Additionally, he proposed the understanding of the theologian as a justifier of the Magisterium, who ought not be concerned with the formulation of new doctrine but with the explanation of what has been set forth by the Church.

Pope Paul VI (reigned 1963-1978) agreed with this view, and in a speech to the International Congress on the Theology of Vatican II, he described the theologian as a sort of middleman between the Church and the faithful, entrusted with the task of explaining to the laity why the Church teaches what she does.[27]

Postconciliar era

The debate concerning the Magisterium, papal primacy and infallibility, and the authority to teach in general has not lessened since the official declaration of the doctrines. Instead, the Church has faced contrary arguments; at one end there are those with the tendency to regard even technically non-binding papal encyclicals as infallible statements and, at the other, are those who refuse to accept in any sense controversial encyclicals such as Humanae Vitae and who consider the dogma of papal infallibility to be itself a fallible pronouncement. The situation is complicated by changing attitudes toward authority in an increasingly democratic world, the new importance placed on academic freedom, and new means of knowledge and communication. In addition, the authority of theologians is being revisited, with theologians pushing past the structures laid out for them by Pius XII and Paul VI and regarding themselves purely as academics, not in the service of any institution.[28]

See also


  1. Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary
  2. 1 2 Thomas Stork, "What Is the Magisterium?"
  3. "The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the college of bishops in communion with Him" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 100)
  4. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei verbum, 10
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86
  6. First Vatican Council, "First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church", chapter 4, 9
  7. Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius, chapter III
  8. 1 2 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium, 25
  9. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Responsum ad propositum dubium concerning the teaching contained in Ordinatio sacerdotalis"
  10. Lewis and Short
  11. Archbishop Michael Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, revised by Fr. Peter Joseph ISBN 1-901157-14-8, Saint Austin Press, 2001
  12. Code of Canon Law, can. 749–754
  13. Lumen Gentium n. 25
  14. Thomas Aquinas, IV Sent. D. 19 q. 2, a. 2. qa 2 ad 4; Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibet III, 9 ad 3
  15. C.f.,
  16. Congar, Yves. "A Brief History of the Forms of the Magisterium and Its Relations with Scholars." in Curran & McCormick, Readings in Moral Theology: The Magisterium and Morality, p. 315.
  17. Olsen, Glenn W. "The theologian and the Magisterium: the ancient and medieval background of a contemporary controversy." Communio 7.4 (1980): p. 310.
  18. Eno, Robert B. "Authority and Conflict in the Early Church." Église et Théologie 7.1 (1976): 49.
  19. Eno, Robert B: p. 47.
  20. 1 2 Collins, Paul: p. 26.
  21. Congar, Yves: p. 321.
  22. Olsen, Glenn W: pp. 313–136.
  23. Collins, Paul: p. 34.
  24. Congar, Yves: pp. 318–322.
  25. Congar, Yves: p. 324
  26. Congar, Yves: p. 325.
  27. Congar, Yves: p. 327.
  28. Congar, Yves: pp. 326–328.



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