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(Rudolph Ernst. The Lesson. Source)
What is the "Magisterium" of the Catholic Church? And what is a "Magisterium" anyway? And how come some documents of the Magisterium apparently contradict each other?
I will try to answer those questions, but please remember Legal Consideration #6.
Firstly, let's look at what the Magisterium is not. It's not something very weird. Actually, the very word "Magisterium" roughly means "Teacher" in Latin (Hence the joke in the title: "Professor Madjisterioom").
The Magisterium is not a mineral, a vegetable or an animal. It's not a spiritual being either (like our soul, or an angel, or God). On the other hand, it's not just a concept or a word devoid of contact with reality.
The Magisterium is related to something about the Catholic Church. It's not such and such a member of the Church, otherwise the Magisterium would have died when that member passed away. The Magisterium somehow produces paper documents, but the Magisterium isn't the Bible. Catholics kiss the Bible and carry it in procession at each Mass, just before the reading of the Gospel, but they never kiss or carry a document of the Magisterium in a procession.
Metaphors are not reality, but they can often help us understand reality. One possibly useful metaphor for the Magisterium would be a kind of "Magic Bank Vault". This magic bank vault would have a door, but it would be welded shut! You could not open it to add or remove things from it. And on top of that it could talk, if you asked questions to it! But it could only give one of two answers:
Yessir, the Apostles deposited that inside me, after Jesus gave it to them!
(For those not familiar with Latin, "Anathema sit" isn't what you scream to your dog called "Anathema" when you want it to stop running around. It means that a doctrine is heretical.)
Basically, the Magisterium is a "function" of the Church. It's a bit the same thing for you. If you can play tennis, you could say that what actually plays tennis is your "Tennisarium". And what weeds your garden is your "Weedarium"!
The Magisterium is the "someting about the Church's nature" that let's Her teach what Christ taught, without errors, additions or omissions. Let's listen to the Magisterium tell us what it is:
"The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God,
whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to
the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is
exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."
"Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its
servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it."
"But in the use of this extraordinary Magisterium no newly invented matter is
brought in, nor is anything new added to the number of those truths which are
at least implicitly contained in the deposit of Revelation, divinely handed
down to the Church: only those which are made clear which perhaps may still
seem obscure to some, or that which some have previously called into question
is declared to be of Faith."
[Mortalium animos, #9]
How "far" does the teaching of the Magisterium extend? Basically three things: Revelation, things that can't be separated from Revelation, and Natural Law.
"The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ
to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes truths
contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes in a definitive way
truths having a necessary connection with them."
"The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the
natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary
Obviously, we can't walk up to a Magic Bank Vault and start asking it questions! We have to walk up to the sucessors of the Apostles who are in communion with the successor of Peter:
"In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in
the Church, the Apostles left Bishops as their successors. They gave them their
own position of teaching authority."
"The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in
communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to
practice, the beatitude to hope for."
So when can your hear the Magisterium? Basically, when the Magisterium tells you it's speaking:
"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of Bishops, enjoys this infallibility
in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the
faithful, and tasked with confirming his brethren in the Faith, he proclaims by
a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. The infallibility
promised to the Church is also present in the body of Bishops when, together
with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an
"Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the Apostles when,
teaching in communion with the successor of Peter [...], without arriving at an
infallible definition and without pronouncing in a «definitive manner», they
propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to
better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this
ordinary teaching the faithful «are to adhere to it with religious assent»
which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of
[What the Magisterium thinks, and what it wills] "becomes clear from the nature
of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the
very way in which it is expressed."
[Donum veritatis, #24]
You will often come across accusations that "the Magisterium" supposedly made a mistake, etc. Here are some typical examples of cases when the Magisterium cannot be speaking, and therefore cannot be making a mistake:
8.1) Bishops speak, but they are not in communion with the Pope. If you're not in communion with the Pope, you're not even in the Catholic Church! Listening to such Bishops to hear the Magisterium would be just as silly as listening to words coming out of my mouth to hear what you have to say!
8.2) Bishops speak, but they are not speaking as Bishops (or the Pope). Bishops and the Pope can mouth off their own personal opinions, even about faith and morals.
8.3) Bishops speak, but they are talking about something outside the scope of the Magisterium. If you go see your local Bishop in communion with the Pope, and ask him for the winning lottery number, his guess will be as good as yours or mine. Christ didn't give His Church any special powers for lotteries (or astronomy, or climatology, or golf, etc.).
In some cases, the Magisterium apparently contradicts itself. Here, you have to be careful. Magisterial documents are like any other documents: you have to know how to read them. Some of the apparent conflicts can be caused by:
9.1) Confusion of terms. For example, if I were the Pope, I would write a scathing condemnation of "values". I would be perfectly right, as long as the word "value" was defined the way I intended, and not using the other meaning that is synonymous with "good". In that second sense, the word "value" is sometimes used in Magisterial documents. Somebody unaware of those two meanings would incorrectly conclude that "the Magisterium is contradicting itself".
Confusion of what is taught, and why it's taught. Imagine the
Magisterium had authority over Geometry, and suppose it taught that: "a
triangle has three angles, because there are three jars of peanut butter in my
refrigerator". The argument would be wrong, but that wouldn't stop the teaching
from being true. What is "covered by the guarantee" is the actual teaching, not
the arguments proposed to support that teaching.
[Donum veritatis, #34]
Confusion between reformable prudential judgments, and irreformable
doctrinal and moral teachings.
"When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order,
it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all
[Donum veritatis, #34]
But, "It is also to be borne in mind that all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that His People walk in the entire truth. For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful."
[Donum veritatis, #17]
These days, the expression "Hermeneutic of Continuity" is becoming popular when talking about documents of the Magisterium. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2005 Christmas message to the Roman Curia, used the expression "hermeneutic of reform and continuity". What does this mean?
Let's start with this strange word "hermeneutic". To understand it, look up "hermeneutic" in the dictionary, then replace the words "correct interpretation of a text" with the word "deer". Voilą! Now "hermeneutic" is what allows you to come back from a hunting trip with a big deer in the back of your pickup truck. Hunters without this "hermeneutic" would come back empty-handed, despite scouring the forest during the whole hunting season, and using up all their ammunition.
OK, throw those deers out and put back "correct interpretation of a text" in that definition. Now, what kind of interpretations are we talking about?
During the history of the Catholic Church, various interpretations have been made (either of the Bible, or of documents of the Magisterium, etc.). Not all these interpretations have been successful:
Now with the advent of all the documents of the Vatican II Council (and those that have come after that Council), more interpretations have occured:
This is where the "Hermeneutic of reform and continuity" comes in to guide us:
Indeed, one of the most important principles required to properly read magisterial documents is to remember that it's a living Magisterium. It's like your own body: your left eye is somehow connected to your right foot, and when you put food in your stomach, somehow your lungs get a good meal, etc. A Magisterial document must always be read in light of all other Magisterial documents, because they are somehow part of "one big living document". In this sense, any "Anathema sit" pronounced by the Council of Trent is intrinsically part of the Vatican II Council, etc.
10.1) I think Father John Hunwicke says the same thing in other words when he speaks about all good Catholics being "faithful to the Popes" (plural), as opposed to being a "papal extremist [who has] no respect for the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Creeds, the Councils, the Tradition, the (plural) Popes". This strange man, "when a pontificate follows a pontificate, [...] clears his mind of the teaching of all the previous Popes [...], so as to have a tabula rasa upon which to inscribe whatever idiosyncrasies and obiter opinions the new Pope turns out to possess."
I also like the way Fr. Hunwicke explains the common origin of two errors: "hyper-papalism" and "sedevacantism":
The Pope is a demigod; Bergoglio is clearly not a demigod; Therefore Bergoglio is not pope. The Pope is a demigod; Bergoglio is pope; Therefore Bergoglio is a demigod. BOTH ARE HERESIES contrary to the teaching of Vatican I about the papal office.
To conclude, we'll now leave the microphone to another, more famous Teacher, so that He might once again tell us:
"Thou art Peter, and on this stone I will build My Church"
"He that heareth you, heareth Me, and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me"
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