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The Magisterium is the "teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church". The word is derived from Latin magisterium, which originally meant the office of a president, chief, director, superintendent, etc. (in particular, though rarely, the office of tutor or instructor of youth, tutorship, guardianship) or teaching, instruction, advice.

In the Roman Catholic Church the word "Magisterium" refers to the teaching authority of the church. This authority is understood to be embodied in the episcopacy, which is the aggregation of the current bishops of the Church, led by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), who has authority over the bishops, individually and as a body, as well as over each and every Catholic directly. According to Catholic doctrine, the Magisterium is able to teach or interpret the truths of the Faith, and it does so either non-infallibly or infallibly (see chart below).

"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 bishops in communion with him."

Source and criteria

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ, "the Word made Flesh" (Gospel of John 1:14), is the source of divine revelation. The 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 solemn 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 would not have room for the books that would be written.").

The teachings of popes are believed by Catholics to be infallible when - and only when - they are speaking ex cathedra.

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) Infallible Full Assent of Faith
2. Bishops, in union with Pope, defining doctrine at General Council Extraordinary (and universal teaching of the Church) Infallible Full Assent of Faith
3. Bishops proposing definitively, dispersed, but in unison, in union with Pope Ordinary and universal teaching of the Church Infallible Full Assent of Faith
4. Pope Ordinary Fallible Religious submission of intellect and will
5. Bishops Ordinary Fallible Religious submission of intellect and will

Historical development

While the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is well-defined today, it has not always been so clear a doctrine. Until the formal pronouncements in the 19th century, the subject of teaching authority in the Church was a matter of disagreement and confusion, and indeed, the concept of papal infallibility still remains controversial in some Catholic circles.

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 developed 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 second century AD was universally accepted by the bishops.

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.”

However, this understanding was not universally accepted. One of the most famous critics of the episcopal corruption was the influential theologian Origen. Throughout his life, many of Origen’s writings were considered to be questionably orthodox, and he seemed to espouse the idea of a teaching authority based on theological expertise rather than, or at least along with, apostolic succession.

Other early disagreements

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 false and not authoritative, and condemned Montanism as a heresy.

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 in the Western Church), 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.

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 Cardinal 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.

Papal infallibility

It is important to note that the acceptance of papal authority did not include an acceptance of the doctrine of papal infallibility, a later development. In fact, there was a certain amount of resistance to this doctrine during the medieval period. 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.

Other opponents of the doctrine include Pope John XXII (1316–1334), who rejected the doctrine because he did not want to be bound to the teachings of previous popes , and St. Thomas More, who pronounced that church councils were the only authoritative and inerrant means of settling disputes. 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.


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.

Either way, 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.

Council of Constance (1414–1418)

Another 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. 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.

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.”

Pius XII and Paul VI

Later, Pope Pius XII 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. 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 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..

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 been torn by 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.

Magisterium in popular culture

The Magisterium is the theocratic governing body of Europe in a parallel universe in Philip Pullman's series His Dark Materials. It consists of several boards, courts, and societies that work together (and often compete for dominance) to fulfill the job of the papacy, which is said to have been abolished following the moving of the seat of the papacy to Genevamarker by Pope John Calvin. It is unknown whether any secular government exists apart from the Magisterium, but a King is mentioned in Northern Lights .

Non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA)

In his book Rocks of Ages (1999), Stephen Jay Gould put forward what he described as "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to ... the supposed conflict between science and religion." He defines the term magisterium as "a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution" and the NOMA principle is "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

In his view, "Science and religion do not glower at each other...[but] interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity." He suggests, with examples, that "NOMA enjoys strong and fully explicit support, even from the primary cultural stereotypes of hard-line traditionalism" and that it is "a sound position of general consensus, established by long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisteria."

Also in 1999, the National Academy of Sciencesmarker adopted a similar stance. Its publication Science and Creationism stated that "Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each."

See also



  • Gerard Mannion, Richard Gaillardetz, Jan Kerkhofs, Kenneth Wilson (eds.), Readings in Church Authority - Gifts and Challenges for Contemporary Catholicism, Ashgate Press, 2003; 572pp


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