The Magisterium: A Precious Gift

Without an authority able to teach divine truth unerringly, we could never be sure we correctly understood divine revelation.

The Magisterium is one of God’s greatest gifts to his Church. For without an authority able to teach divine truth unerringly, we could never be sure we correctly understood divine revelation. History confirms this, showing the variety of interpretations of God’s word through the ages, even in the most essential matters. Which is not surprising, since we can’t even understand human things without error; and divine things, by definition, must be more difficult still.

Turning to Scripture we find Christ commanding the eleven to make disciples of all nations—“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”1 That this includes preserving his Church from error is clear from the emphasis he places on the importance of truth, assuring us that “the truth will make you free,”2 and even identifying himself with truth itself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” 3 To Pilate he said, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” 4 St Paul describes the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”5

The early Church’s claim to speak authoritatively is shown in a striking way in the settlement, by the apostles and elders, of the question of whether Christians were bound to observe circumcision and other Jewish laws. “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”6 The Holy Spirit guided them; that is the source and guarantee of the Church’s teaching authority.

Widespread confusion

But that teaching authority is under sustained attack by people who profess to be loyal Catholics, and is misunderstood by many Catholics. Errors and ambiguous statements have confused people. So it is important to be clear about this, both for our own understanding and for explaining the doctrine to others.

A woman who had been misled by listening to heterodox ideas suggested to me that the First Vatican Council may have been wrong in defining papal infallibility because many of the bishops had left before the vote was taken, so there may not have been enough remaining to give a definitive answer. Understandably, she was not equipped to see why this opinion was wrong, and because it had been put to her by someone she trusted, she had become uncertain about papal infallibility.

By extension (although I doubt if she saw this), it could be claimed that most reputedly general councils decided nothing infallibly, on the grounds that an insufficient number of the world’s bishops were present. That would mean we couldn’t be sure, on the authority of the early councils, about the Trinity or the divinity of Christ.

One hears the view that the pope is the mouthpiece of the Church, and no more. Or that we can’t be sure a doctrinal decision made by him is true until the Church as a whole accepts it. Again, infallibility is whittled away by the assertion that few infallible decisions have been made. It is even said that the only two such teachings are those of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. In fact, I met a man who claimed there was only one infallible teaching—I’m not sure whether he meant the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption.

Again, one hears this argument: If a teaching is not infallible, it is fallible; but if fallible it could be wrong, and we are not obliged to believe something that could be wrong. So in practice, it is thought, we are free to follow our own judgment—except in the case of the (reputedly rare) infallible pronouncements.

In this article I want to look at the nature and range of the Magisterium, the conditions for infallibility, whether there have been a great many infallible teachings, and our obligation in regard to non-infallible pronouncements. Key sources are the definition of papal infallibility by Vatican I, with the very helpful relatio of Bishop Vincent Gasser, and section 25 of Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium.

The scope of infallibility

Lumen Gentium, n. 25 says that “this infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded.” The last words shouldn’t be overlooked: “which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded.” The authority in question goes beyond simply defining doctrines of faith and morals; it includes defending and explaining them.

For example, the condemnation of error is safeguarded by the charism of infallibility. So the Church is able to infallibly declare ideas in a book to be erroneous. Also, she is infallible in canonizing someone as a saint. She can infallibly declare a council to have been an ecumenical council. These things are not directly revealed, and are not part of the deposit of faith found in Sacred Scripture and tradition, but they pertain to the guarding and expounding of revelation. Clearly, it would be detrimental to the spiritual life of the faithful and unfitting if a person honored as a saint, and declared to be such by the Church, were in fact not a saint.

Pope John Paul II was concerned about a lacuna in the Code of Canon Law, so he wrote a motu proprio in 1998 to remedy this. He ordered an insertion in the code as an extension of canon 750. The addition concerns the things taught definitively by the Magisterium as required “for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith.” The addition states that anyone who rejects these “sets himself against the teaching of the Church.”7

Bishop Vincent Gasser, the peritus who explained to the assembled bishops at Vatican I the proposed definition of papal infallibility, said this concerning truths necessary for the guarding of the deposit of faith: “All Catholic theologians completely agree that the Church, in her authentic proposal and definition of truths of this sort, is infallible, such that to deny this infallibility would be a very grave error.”8

My quotes from this relatio are from the translation by Father James T. O’Connor in his book The Gift of Infallibility, which gives the whole relatio and Father O’Connor’s commentary. In his introduction, O’Connor says: “Central to all the discussions on the meaning of papal infallibility as Vatican I defined it has been the official presentation, the relatio, made by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser to the general congregation of bishops of Vatican I which took place on July 11, 1870.”9 He notes that the relatio has become a theological source, and that it is cited four times by Vatican II in the chapter of Lumen Gentium dealing with the Magisterium.10

The Magisterium consists of the pope and bishops; they are the authentic teachers, having apostolic succession from the apostles. The notion, urged by some dissident theologians, that there is a “parallel magisterium” of theologians is a novelty with no foundation in tradition. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, issued in 1973, praised the work of theologians in giving a more exact understanding of doctrinal formulas, in which work “they are of considerable assistance to the living Magisterium of the Church, to which they remain subordinated.”11

It is also asserted at times that the Catholic people as a whole share in the teaching authority, and that this is expressed in the sensus fidelium. So we find the condemnation of contraception rejected on the grounds that a multitude of ordinary Catholics don’t accept it. Well, if that were a valid argument it would lead logically to calling into question a large percentage of what the pope and bishops teach, because surveys of the views of Catholics show widespread disagreement with official teaching over a whole range of beliefs.

The sensus fidelium is important; the faithful who are in tune with authentic teaching will tend instinctively, as it were, to agree with orthodox doctrine and reject falsity. This happens through their possession of the virtue of faith and the help of the Holy Spirit. But, as St. John warns, we must test the spirits to see if they are of God.12 Any number of spirits vie for our allegiance, and most Catholics are very confused.

Ordinary and extraordinary

Let us look at the ways in which infallibility is exercised. Lumen Gentium, n. 25 states that although the bishops are not infallible individually, they do speak infallibly when they are in agreement that a position on faith or morals is to be held definitively. But a condition is that they maintain “the bond of union among themselves and with the Successor of Peter.”

If this occurs when they are scattered throughout the world, it is an instance of the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium. But their authority is still more clearly verified, as Lumen Gentium continues, “when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.”

Lumen Gentium goes on to speak of the pope’s infallibility, which he exercises “when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Luke 22:32), by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” This is an expression of the dogma defined by Vatican I that the pope “possesses through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining a doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, not from the consent of the Church.”13

Note that this infallible teaching of Vatican I excludes the idea that the Church’s consent is required before the pope’s pronouncement can be seen as definitive. Therefore the notion of the pope as a mere mouthpiece of the Church is wrong. On the contrary, the gift of infallibility pertains to him personally as Vicar of Christ.

So, firstly, the bishops as a body, united with the Supreme Pontiff, are infallible when they agree that a doctrine is to be held definitively, even though they do not solemnly define this. That is the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium.

Secondly, when the bishops and the pope, united in an ecumenical council, solemnly declare that a doctrine is to be held definitively, they are infallible. This is an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium.

Thirdly, when the pope alone declares that a doctrine is to be held definitively, this too is an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium, and is infallible. (Normally he will consult the Church first, but that is not essential to the infallibility of his teaching.)

What, then, are the conditions for a teaching to be infallible? In regard to the subject matter, it must be about faith or morals—either directly or as necessary for their explanation or defense. In regard to the proclaimers, they must be either the pope and bishops together or the pope alone. In regard to those addressed, this must be the universal Church. In regard to its manner, it must be taught as definitive.

Non-infallible teachings

Now we come to non-infallible teachings. Must we accept them? I noted earlier that some people say we should follow our own judgment, because a non-infallible teaching, by definition, could be wrong. But Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani Generis, points out that even when the popes, writing encyclicals, do not exercise their teaching authority to the full, “such statements come under the day-to-day teaching of the Church, which is covered by the promise, ‘He who listens to you listens to me’ (Luke 10:16).”14 This, too, is dealt with in n. 25 of Lumen Gentium, which speaks of the “religious submission of mind and will” to be accorded the bishops’ teaching, and especially that of the pope, “even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.”

Note that it is not a matter of “respectful silence,” but of submitting mind and will to the teaching; that is, of really accepting what is taught. Although it is not infallible we can be confident it is true because of the divine assistance given, in accordance with Christ’s promise. Even in everyday matters we accept things on human authority without wondering whether they are wrong. I may judge that my doctor or my accountant or my next-door neighbor can be relied on when they tell me something that they can be fully expected to know; in such a case I won’t worry myself about whether they have made a mistake, because I have sufficient grounds for accepting their statements as true.

But what if an expert in theology or Scripture finds himself unable to assent to a non-infallible magisterial teaching? When Lumen Gentium was being discussed at Vatican II, three bishops raised the question of what a person should do if, for well-founded reasons, he is unable to give interior assent to a non-infallible teaching. The Theological Commission replied that in these cases the “approved theological treatises should be consulted.”

Professor William May writes, “If these ‘approved theological treatises’ are examined, one discovers, as Germain C. Grisez has shown in detail, that no approved manual of theology ever authorized dissent from authoritative magisterial teaching. Some of them treated the question of withholding interior assent by a competent person who has serious reasons for doing so. The manuals taught that such a person ought to maintain silence and communicate the difficulty he experienced in assenting to the teaching in question to the magisterial teacher (pope or bishop) concerned.”15

Withholding interior assent is not the same as positively dissenting; nor is there any justification in the approved treatises for the blatant public dissent so common today. Further, the Church’s “track record” regarding non-infallible teachings justifies great confidence. Dissenters within the Church and critics without are always looking for errors through the course of history, and they claim to find them in official doctrine of the past concerning slavery, usury, religious liberty. The Church, they say, has reversed her position on all of these issues.

But on examination it turns out that there has been development but no contradiction of past official doctrine on any of these matters. Verified instances of errors by the Magisterium, even in cases falling well short of infallibility, are almost as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. The Holy Spirit does not limit his help to definitive pronouncements.

Some misunderstandings

I mentioned early in this article that some people think there are very few infallible teachings. I heard a talk by a priest who clearly gave that impression, largely by concentrating on ex cathedra pronouncements of the pope as though they were the only infallible statements. During discussion time I stated that Ludwig Ott, in his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, lists more than two hundred points of infallible doctrine. This brought an audible gasp of surprise from the audience of parishioners—and the priest made no comment.

In the course of the Church’s long and turbulent history, and especially in ecumenical councils, infallible teachings have been given concerning God’s existence and nature, the Blessed Trinity, the work of creation, sin and redemption, the divinity and humanity of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, grace, the Church, the sacraments, and the Last Things.

The widespread notion, found even among orthodox Catholics, that infallible definitions are few is due in part to focusing on ex cathedra teachings given by the pope alone and to overlooking those teachings from pope and bishops together.

Confusion exists, too, regarding the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium (as distinct from the extraordinary Magisterium). This is found, as Lumen Gentium, n. 25 says, when the bishops, “even though dispersed throughout the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the Successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals…are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.”

This is the way infallibility operates most of the time, with extraordinary exercises of the charism—by popes speaking ex cathedra or ecumenical councils giving solemn definitions—being comparatively rare events. When asked about the status of the teaching that the Church has no power to ordain women, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith replied that it is infallible by the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.16 Likewise, then-Cardinal Ratzinger and then-Archbishop Bertone, in an article in L’Osservatore Romano, gave as an example of this form of infallibility: “the teaching on the illicitness of prostitution and of fornication.”17

This is relevant to the objection, mentioned in the early paragraphs of this article, that maybe the definition of papal infallibility is wrong because so many of the bishops at Vatican I had left before the vote was taken. A sufficient answer, although not the only one, is that the world’s bishops accepted the definition. Their acceptance is an instance of the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium.

The same applies to decisions of ecumenical councils where a large percentage of the world’s bishops are absent—and that means most of the councils. Councils, including Nicaea, had only a minority of the total bishops when they defined dogmas vital to the very essence of Christianity. Their subsequent acceptance by the world’s episcopate constituted an infallible act of the ordinary universal Magisterium.

There is another guarantee: the endorsement of the decisions by the pope. It is when he approves a council’s decisions that they become definitive. As Gasser says, “even decrees about faith put forth by a general council are not infallible and firm unless they have been confirmed by the pope.”18 An example is the declaration by the Councils of Constance and Basle that a general council is superior to the pope. Ludwig Ott points out that “the resolutions referring to this did not receive the papal ratification and were consequently legally invalid.” 19

Effort is required to clarify our understanding of how the Magisterium functions, but it is effort well spent.

  1. Matt. 28:20. 
  2. John 8:32. 
  3. John 14:6. 
  4. John 18:37. 
  5. 1 Tim. 3:15. 
  6. Acts 15:28. 
  7. John Paul II, Ad tuendam fidem, n. 4. 
  8. Gasser, The Official Relatio on Infallibility, in The Gift of Infallibility, by James T. O’Connor, (St. Paul Editions, Boston, 1986), p.76. 
  9. O’Connor, p. 1. 
  10. Ibid., p. 2. 
  11. Mysterium Ecclesiae, n. 5. My italics. 
  12. 1 John 4:1. 
  13. Vatican I: Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4; DS 3074. 
  14. Humani Generis, n. 20; DS 3885. 
  15. William May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1991),
    p. 216. Original italics. 
  16. CDF, reply to dubium, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 22 November, 1995. 
  17. L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 15 July, 1998. 
  18. O’Connor, p. 49. 
  19. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Mercier Press, Cork, 1960), p. 289. 
John Young About John Young

Mr. John Young, B.Th. is associated with the Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre in Merrylands, N.S.W., Australia. He has taught philosophy in four seminaries and published many articles. He is the author of Reasoning Things Out (Stella Maris Books, Fort Worth, Texas), an introduction to philosophy. His latest book is The Natural Economy (Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York).