The Magisterium is the teaching authority, or the teaching office, of the Church; the way we use to express the fact that the Church has the right to teach us what is the Truth. It comes from the Latin Magister, “teacher”.
The Magisterium is divided into two:
1. Infallible Magisterium, called Sacred Magisterium and
2. Fallible Magisterium, called Ordinary Magisterium.
The Infallible Magisterium is, in turn, divided as follows:
1.1. extraordinary declarations of the Pope, speaking ex cathedra. This is the typical subject coming out when there is any discussion about “infallibility”. An example is the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
1.2. extraordinary conciliar decrees. This is when not a Pope, but an ecumenical council declares what the entire Church holds as true. An example is the declaration of papal infallibility made by the First Vatican Council.
1.3. ordinary and universal Magisterium. This is what has always been held as true by the Church. Examples: male priesthood, ways of transmitting holy orders, doctrine of war, doctrine of capital punishment, and all the teachings that have been taught in the history of the Church as Christian truth.
2) The (fallible) Ordinary Magisterium is that part of the teaching which is not considered expression of what the Church has always held as true and can, therefore, be fallible. This is not easy to point out to and mainly pertains to all that teaching that is not directly related to 1. above; this kind of teaching is unavoidable in the work of every Pope, as no Pope can only open his mouth, not even in religious matter, to express what the Church has always held true. This is also what happens in the daily works of the bishops speaking individually or (when 1.2 does not recur of course) in groups: in all these cases, the Bishops endeavour to explain Catholic truths, but this doesn’t give to their teaching the character of infallibility.
Please do not confuse 2. with 1.3. The ordinary and universal Magisterium of point 1.3 is infallible, the ordinary Magisterium of point 2. is not. This is important as from what I read around, a lot of perfectly orthodox Catholics write “ordinary Magisterium” when what they mean to say is properly called “ordinary and universal Magisterium”.
1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 are, therefore, all expression of infallibility. Therefore, 1.3 (the ordinary and universal Magisterium) is infallible even when it does not find expression in any of 1.1 or 1.2.
Let us make a couple of examples of (infallible) ordinary and universal magisterium:
1.3.1 when the Church teaches that male priesthood is Catholic truth, she teaches this infallibly and there is no necessity to underpin this with an expression of extraordinary Magisterium, because the fact that male priesthood is a matter of ordinary and universal Magisterium makes it infallible anyway. This is very probably the only reason why Pope JP II did not state infallibly the (new) dogma of male priesthood: male priesthood is – albeit not defined verbatim, as is the case in a dogma – already an infallible teaching. For the sake of completeness, if the Pope had declared such a dogma this would have been an expression of his extraordinary magisterium and would have been an extraordinary declaration under 1.1 above.
1.3.2 when the Church teaches the nullity of Anglican so-called orders, she teaches this infallibly, because the ways of transmission of holy orders are matter or ordinary and universal Magisterium. This is the reason why Anglicanorum Coetibus requires the convert who desire to become Catholic Priests to be ordained instead of conditionally ordained (which the Church would do if there were doubts about the validity of their orders), or not ordained at all (which the Church would do if there was no doubt about their orders being valid). The nullity of Anglican so-called orders being infallibly taught, there is no space for doubts about what is to do.
Coming now to another subdivision, the teachings of the first Group (the ones that I have called 1. Sacred Magisterium, that is: the one that is infallible and that, once again for the sake of completeness, includes not only the extraordinary declarations of 1.1 and 1.2 but also the ordinary teaching of 1.3, the “ordinary and universal Magisterium”) must all be held infallible, but they are divided in two categories of teaching:
1.a.1 teachings de fide credenda
1.a.2 teachings de fide tenenda
1.a.1 is somewhat higher in the hierarchy: this is that part of the infallible teaching which is explicitly and specifically revealed in the deposit of faith: The First Vatican Council put it in this way: “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.” (Dei Filius, Par. 8.)
Here, a direct link with Scripture and Tradition is given, as the teaching is directly therein “contained”.
1.a.2 is somewhat lower in the hierarchy, but still expression of infallibility: this is the sum of all those infallible truths which are (Wikipedia) “proposed not as being explicitly in the deposit of faith, but nevertheless implied by it or intrinsically connected to it logically or historically”.
Here, a strong logical or historical link to Scripture and Tradition is given, but this link cannot – often for mere factual and historical reasons – be a direct one. An example of this is – always citing Wikipedia – Pope Leo XIII’s declaration of Anglican orders as null and void with Apostolicae Curae. Wikipedia calls these “dogmatic facts”, making clear that whilst the circumstances which cause the declaration to arise were not mentioned in the Bible, the declaration is founded on universally held Truth and is therefore infallible. Another example is to be found in the canonisations, with the relevant declaration not being – for obvious, purely historical reasons – contained in the Scripture or the Tradition, but being infallible nevertheless.
1) Not everything which the Pope – or the bishops, come to that – teaches is infallible;
2) Infallible is not only what the Pope proclaims ex cathedra in matter of faith and morals, or what ecumenical councils have infallibly declared: ordinary and universal Magisterium is also infallible.
3) both teachings de fide credenda and de fide tenenda are infallible, be they expression of ordinary or of extraordinary Magisterium.
I hope that this helps to clarify the extent of the Church’s infallibility and the way it works. I have used as basis for this short exposition the relevant wikipedia entry, which I have found both better organised and more concise than the information found on the “Catholic Encyclopedia”, or browsing around.
If any Catholic should have misgivings about this, it might be reassuring to them to know that the Vatican has a troop of skilled theologians taking care that all Wikipedia entries pertaining to Catholic doctrine properly reflect what the Catholic Church teaches on the matter; it is, therefore, not likely (though always possible) that such an important entry contains imprecisions – from the Catholic point of view – that have not yet been corrected, and you can judge for yourselves the probability that it may contain theological errors. Note, though, that this means neither that Wikipedia is infallible, nor that the Vatican can ban Wikipedia entries from non-Catholic contaminations (the above mentioned entry is, actually, a good example of that). Nevertheless, you will be easily able to discern what is the Catholic statement from what is the Protestant dissent.
Therefore, if any non-Catholic – and I am thinking here particularly of those masters of self-delusion, the so-called Anglo-Catholics – should be of the opinion that Church doctrine is not what the Church says it is, I kindly invite them to submit their own “truth” to Wikipedia instead of abandoning themselves to their childish, angering, and extremely time-consuming whining and quibbling on this blog, and good luck to them.
On the upper list of links of this page, under “Catholic vademecum”, you will find a more detailed explanation of Faith in the traditional understanding of the Church.
In times of discussion about “aggressive secularisation”, it is perhaps fitting to repeat a concept or two in reduced form.
The Faith required of every Christian is not a feeling. No atheist can excuse himself by saying that he is very sorry, but he just doesn’t feel the existence of any God; nor can he say that if an omnipotent God existed he could cause him to believe and that would be that, but alas…..
Faith is something we are expected to work towards. To do this, two things are necessary: will and intellect. Without the will to believe we’ll go along believing what we find comfortable to believe; without the intellect we will not be able to grasp the Truth.
God can be “known with certainty by the natural light of human reason” (Vatican I). By reason we discover 1) the historical truth of the existence of Jesus; 2) that this Jesus is, by a great number of prophecies realised in Him, beyond doubt the Messiah the Jews were waiting for; 3) that therefore his claim to be God must perforce be as authentic as His authentically being the Messiah.
The fundamental concept here is twofold:
1) God can be known with certainty, if one cares to do his homework;
2) no one is excused from doing this homework.
“Not believing” is neither here nor there. It is not about “believing” as in “feeling that there is a God”, it is about working on the historical and theological sources, reading the prophesies about the Messiah and register as a matter of pure facts the astonishing number of correspondences between what the Messiah was supposed to be, and what Jesus came to be. Faith is about realising 1) that the Christian Messiah was, uniquely, announced; 2) that when he came he showed that he was the One who had been announced, and that he was God.
Jesus is the only one who proved His identity, who proved that he was the one whom the world was waiting for. No amount of uninformed “but I do not believe in God, so I do not care” can ever go beyond this simple fact.
Faith (in this meaning) is not about angels visiting one and giving him assured proof of the existence of God, nor is it about explosive inner voices shouting until reason gets the message.
Faith is an assent to a truth believed because known from a source one has examined intellectually and has considered beyond doubt. If someone tells me that the Earth rotates around the sun, or that water is made out of hydrogen and oxygen, I believe this pretty much in the same way: I believe the authority on which the assertion rests, because this authority stands the exam of my intellect.
Faith is about doing one’s own homework. As it has to do with eternal salvation, there’s no work more important than this.
I have examined here the traditional understanding of the theological virtue of faith as based on the intellect.
This has changed after Vatican II, when faith started to be presented more and more as something:
1) emotional; pertaining to our world of feelings rather than asking us for serious intellectual work, and
2) consisting in a process rather than in a result, or to use Amerio’s words in a tending rather than a knowing.
Please read what the French Bishops published in 1968 because what they have to say is indicative of so much that has been taught afterwards:
“For a long time faith has been presented as an adherence of the intellect, enlightened by grace and supported by the word of God. Today […] faith is presented as an adherence of one’s whole being to the person of Jesus Christ. It is an act of life and not only simply intellectual, an act addressed to a person and not only to a theoretical truth”
Note here that the Bishops start with a brilliant definition of faith as it has traditionally been taught; but then, they proceed to say that… henceforward they’ll do it better! What follows is an emotional flight which is not faith anymore, but rather the fruit of a confusion of faith with hope and charity.
When the Bishops say that faith is an “act of life”, they are confusing it with hope. When they talk of adherence to the person of Jesus, they are confusing it with charity. When they say that it is not simply intellectual, they ignore what faith as a theological virtue is. When they say that something is “simply a theoretical truth”, they ignore what Truth is and launch themselves into a sugary, emotional flight with no intellectual content instead. Truth is truth and is not less true because it is an intellectual one; to downplay it as “simply a theoretical truth” is an emotionally charged and, I dare say, effeminate view of things.
Or take the words of Cardinal Garrone in 1968:
In the last century theologians had been led to affirm the capacity of human reason to prove the existence of God. [..] Theologians have abandoned God in the hands of the philosophers. […] We must recognise that we made a mistake, because we have asked of philosophy what it could not give…
Again, look at the mentality clearly emerging here. Faith as an intellectual process leading to intellectual certainties is not even downplayed, but even discarded. “We have made a mistake”, says the chap happily pretending to forget that what he calls “mistake” is traditional Church teaching and has been solemnly proclaimed by the First Vatican Council. He simply discards the role of the intellect in giving proof of the existence of God.
With what does Cardinal Garrone then substitute the intellectual work of getting to God, attaining the Truth? With the usual sugary, sentimental, emotional and frankly not all too meaning series of slogans:
We must discover the attributes of God, not the abstract ideas of philosophy but the names, the true names of God. Our mission is to preach the faith, not ideas.
Intellectual truths are dismissed as “abstract ideas of philosophy”. Faith is now considered some very vague “discovering” (again: a process, a tending) rather than getting to the truth and staying solidly rooted in it.
Notice the strongly emotional language which doesn’t mean much in itself (“discover the attributes of God” is a vaguely blasphemous soundbite, as if the Church wouldn’t possess the truth about God already) but does sound oh so pure and piously striving. Let us say it once again: Cardinal Garrone was here so enamoured with his own “discovering” that he was evidently willing to discard traditional Catholic teaching – and the clear statements of the First Vatican Council – and to feed the masses with an emotional and very sugary soup instead; “we want to preach the faith, not ideas” very well describes this brainless but good sounding emotionalism.
In the following years, things didn’t get better. Who was the last priest telling you that faith as a theological virtue is based on the intellect? Who was the last priest telling you that God can be reached already on an intellectual plane? How often have you heard, instead, a mishmash of concepts mixing faith, hope and charity and rather discarding the intellectual knowing in order to privilege the searching, the tending, the process, the “feeling”?
If sound teaching is discarded it is no surprise that unorthodox ideas and currents start to pervade the life of the Church. If approximation and superficiality take the place of sound reasoning it is no surprise that all kind of nonsense is confused with correct teaching. If emotions are allowed to shut down the intellectual process it is no surprise that these emotions lead to the most extraordinary consequences.
It is high time to recover sound teaching on the matter of the theological virtues, explaining what they are and keeping them well separated. Without this there will be no proper understanding and without proper understanding there will be no orthodoxy.
One of the poisoned fruits of Vatican II is the watering down of the faith. This has happened because after Vatican II the Church has stopped teaching what faith is in the correct but technical way used in the past, and has started talking of faith in more “emotional” terms instead. This entry deals with the correct understanding of the theological virtue of faith as adherence of the intellect to revealed truth. A separate entry will be devoted to the purely emotional, “searching” approach all too often taught after Vatican II.
Faith as a theological virtue is nothing to do with emotions. It is not something you attain by crying hysterically and waving your arms in the air. Faith as theological virtue is a process taking place exclusively in your intellect.
We can see it as a process by which the will is the starter. To acquire faith, one must want it. This is where agnostics and atheists already stop.
If one is willing to acquire faith, then a purely intellectual process starts. By this process a man will know and recognise that his intellect is limited; he will then proceed to use the limited means he has at his disposal and will examine the objective, historic truth of the existence of Jesus; he will examine and persuade himself intellectually of the historical truth that the Old Testament announced and promised the arrival of the Messiah and provided a great number of ways to recognise Him when he would come; he will – always rationally, no waving of arms in sight 😉 – acknowledge that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament and is, beyond doubt, the Messiah who was announced; continuing, he will grasp the very simple truth that this Messiah claimed to be God and will therefore conclude that if it is true that He was the Messiah announced by the Old Testament (which he undoubtedly is, according to pure historically recorded facts) than he must, rationally, be God as He says he is.
Here, the faithful arrives to the first great finishing post: he has grasped the existence of God (and of the God of the Scriptures, not of any other system of belief) due to the work of his intellect, supported by his will. But what is paramount here is the intellect, the will is merely what persuades a man to use his god-given intellect in the first place.
This is a traditional mainstay of Catholic teaching, which the First Vatican Council has beautifully and solemnly expressed with these words:
The one true God, Creator and Lord, can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason
Notice the words: Known with certainty, not felt with certainty.
This is obviously not the end of the journey yet. The intellect has now reached the knowledge of the existence of the One True God of the Scriptures. It has learnt, understood, drawn the conclusions, attained the relevant knowledge. But this intellectual knowledge can never grasp supernatural truths. It cannot grasp the Trinity, it cannot truly understand a God who is All Divine and All Human, it cannot reach an intellectual proof of the existence of the Real Presence, and so on.
To grasp supernatural truths something additional is necessary: a supernatural virtue (also called faith) given by the grace of God. Through the God-given grace of faith, man is given a powerful tool to go beyond his own intellect and, building on the certainties he has acquired intellectually, believe in supernatural truths beyond his intellect’s grasp.
Still, even the supernatural grace of faith is not an emotional process. It is given by God, but it is always firmly rooted in reason, not in emotions or feelings. Faith is based in the intellectual process, because through the intellect I know that the supernatural truths are not in contrast with reason.
Seek, and you shall find. Exercise your will to activate your intellect to attain the Truth, and the supernatural grace of Faith will carry you even in those supernatural regions where your intellect alone cannot carry you anymore.
This is the traditional way to understand faith. No emotionalism. You take a fundamental decision that you want to attain faith; you do your homework, learn the facts, persuade yourself of the existence of God purely in light of your reason; then God’s grace intervenes and after your will has started your intellectual engine and your intellectual engine has caused your car to drive as fast as it can, faith gives your car a pair of wings and allows you to fly. At this point your faith is very strong; it is, as St. Paul says, “evidence of things not seen”.
The contrast with today’s shallow teaching (when there is a teaching in the first place) is striking, but the exam of post-Vatican II approximations and emotionalism is for another entry.