Teaching Authority of the Church (Magisterium)

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The magisterium may be defined as the perennial, authentic, and infallible teaching office committed to the Apostles by Christ and now possessed and exercised by their legitimate successors, the college of bishops in union with the pope. This ministry of the Word must first be situated within its context: the mystery of the Church in the divine plan of salvation. One may then study the nature and functions of this teaching office (first in the apostles and then in their successors); its subjects and their relationship to one another (the bishops, the pope, and others); the ways in which it can be exercised; its twofold object; and, finally, the assent owed to the magisterium.

It is God's sovereignly wise and free plan of salvation to communicate the riches of His divine life to men.

Unity in the Word. This plan, conceived from all eternity, was to be perfectly realized in and through His divine Son, the perfect paternal utterance and self-communication (see word, the; logos), who came in search of His own (Jn 1.11) to gather them to Himself and take them in Him to the Father. Just as all things were created one through the eternal Word, so it is through the Incarnate Word that the disunity caused by sin is destroyed (see incarnation), and the perfect community of the last times is brought into existence. In order to constitute this community, the Word sent by the Father revealed the mystery of the Father's love, and having accomplished His redemptive work, sent the Spirit of truth and love so that all who believe may be saved and come to the perfect knowledge of the truth (1 Tm 2.4). It is, therefore, through this divine action that the community of salvation comes into existence, the community of those who believing in Jesus, the author of man's salvation and God's perfect self-communication, possess this saving Word, not as a treasure to be hoarded, but as a precious gift received to be communicated to others. One sees here the twofold aspect of the mystery of the Church: first, as the community of the redeemed gathered together by God's saving Word, it is the fruit of the divine plan; second, as the efficacious sign or sacrament of God's saving will revealed in the Incarnate Word, it is the instrument through which God gathers all to Himself in perfect unity (1 Cor 15.28; Eph 1.22). In other words, the Church is the community called together and living by faith in the Word and sent to mediate this saving Word to all men. (see church, articles on.)

Communal Faith. To understand this vocation of the Church it is necessary to grasp clearly the communal nature of faith. Men are saved by faith, i.e., by the personal and total commitment and surrender of the individual to the God who reveals Himself as infinite truth and love. But God reveals and hence communicates Himself in and through the historical Christ. Every man, therefore, must come into living personal contact with the Christ of history; and this takes place by coming into contact with and sharing in the faith of that community to which was communicated once and for all and perfectly God's revelation in Christ, and which was sent to mediate that saving Word to all men. (see revelation, theology of.)

It is in this context of the mystery of the Church that one must now seek to understand the authentic and infallible ministry of the Word, or magisterium. Since the revelation of God in Christ has been communicated to the whole Church, each and every member of the community has the responsibility to witness both by word and deed to this saving Word (see witness to the faith), and the Holy Spirit vivifies and guides all the members, who through Baptism into Christ are essentially equal and form only one Body in Christ [Gal 3.28; Vatican II, Lumen gentium 32, 35, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 3839, 4041; see mystical body of christ]. However, in order that this Body might be built up in faith and love and effectively carry out its mission to and in the world, Christ has given various gifts to various members, and among these gifts must be counted the stabile and authoritative ministry of the Word confided by Christ to the Apostles and their successors. This ministry is truly a ministry, or service, to and within the community for the faithful transmission and preservation of the revelation.

As Christ has been sent to reveal the Father, so He in His turn sends the Apostles to witness to the saving Word revealed to them. To these chosen and preordained witnesses He confides this mission, first during His public life (Mt 10.142; Lk 9.110) and then definitively after His Resurrection (Mt 28.1820; Mk 16.1518). They are sent not merely to bear witness to the truth, but to teach this truth with authority in the name of Christ (Mr 10.40; Lk 10.16). This authority given to them in virtue of their mission cannot be simply identified with the authority of the Word proclaimed. Entirely derived from Christ, whose ministers they are, and entirely relative to and in the service of the Word which they proclaim, it has been given to them to bring about obedience to faith among all the nations (Rom 1.5; see office, ecclesiastical).

In carrying out this authoritative ministry of the Word, the Apostles are conscious of the permanent assistance of Christ (Mt 28.20) and of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14.1517, 26; 15.2627; 16.1214) and, hence, of the rectitude of the message that they preach. Sent by Christ to witness to Him even to the ends of the earth (Lk 24.48; Acts 1.8), they gather about them the community of those who, believing in the Word, are baptized into Christ Jesus. For just as Christ was sent by the Father, so they are sent by Him in view of this community and in order to constitute it. And it is to this community, united in faith and love around the teaching of the Apostles (Acts 2.42;4.3233; 5.1213), that they communicate the revelation as a sacred deposit (1 Tm 6.2021; 2 Tm 1.1314).

This authoritative and infallible magisterium was committed to the Apostles as a college (Mt 28.1820). To one of them, however, Simon Peter, as the rock upon which the Church would be built (Mt 16.18) and as the supreme pastor of the flock (Jn 21.1517), is given the special commission of strengthening the faith of his brethren (Lk 22.32), and so of being the organ and center of unity in faith and love of the whole college [Vatican II, Lumen gentium 1819, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 2123; see primacy of the pope].

The Church of all ages must remain apostolic (Eph2.20). This apostolicity of the Church consists essentially in its fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles, the de posit of faith, which, according to Catholic teaching, was fully constituted and closed with the death of the last Apostle (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer 3011, 3020, 3070, 3421), though its articulation in doctrine has developed over time. Thus the revelation committed to the Church by the preaching of the Apostles and to which it adheres by living faith becomes tradition, and it is within and through the Church that this apostolic doctrine is to be transmitted to all subsequent generations. [see tradition (in theology)]. The Church, the "pillar and mainstay of truth" (1 Tm 3.15), against which the gates of hell will not prevail (Mt 16.18), has always preserved and will always preserve uncontaminated this sacred deposit and, hence, always remain indefectible in its belief in and profession of the apostolic doctrine (Enchiridion symbolorum 1501). This indefectibility of the Church is the result of the unfailing action of the Holy Spirit, who animates and guides the Church in each of its members [Vatican II, Lumen gentium 12; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 1617]. However, He animates the Church according to its organic structure as constituted by Christ and so guides and assists in a special way those who succeed the Apostles in their office as authentic teachers (see soul of the church). It is, therefore, the Catholic belief that the proximate organ of the indefectibility of the Church is its living and perennial magisterium. If the essential apostolicity of the Church consists in its fidelity to the apostolic teaching, the efficacious sign or sacrament of this apostolicity consists in the apostolic succession of a body of teachers who authoritatively and infallibly guard the deposit and expose it. Just as the primitive Church was gathered around the Apostles and their teaching, so the Church of all generations remains steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles by faithfully adhering to the teaching of their successors, the guardians and interpreters of the faith of the Church contained objectively in its Scriptures and apostolic traditions (Enchiridion symbolorum 1501).

Traditional Faith about Magisterium. Vatican I taught that the authoritative teaching office confided by Christ to His Apostles was always to remain in the Church in the persons of their successors, not in order to promulgate new revelations, but to faithfully guard, defend, and expose the apostolic teaching (Enchiridion symbolorum 301112, 3018, 3020, 3050, 3070, 3074). It also taught that in the exercise of this office the teaching body of the Church is through the assistance of the Holy Spirit preserved from error, or infallible [Enchiridion symbolorum 3020, 3074; cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium 25, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 2931; see infalli bility]. This conclusive teaching, already maintained by Trent (Enchiridion symbolorum 1501, 1507) against the reformers, who affirmed that the only apostolic authority in the Church is that of the Scriptures, is nothing else than a formal explicitation of the consciousness of the Church of being in infallible possession of the truth and at the same time hierarchically constituted according to the will of Christ. From the very beginning the leaders of the local Churches and, specifically, the monarchical bishops, who by the end of the 2d century were established everywhere and explicitly recognized as the successors of the Apostles, were acknowledged as having a special role to play in guarding and teaching the apostolic doctrine handed down in the Church. [see bishop (in the church).] The traditional teaching of all the Churches, witnessed to and taught authoritatively by the bishops in the apostolic succession, was affirmed to be the ultimate norm of faith, the doctrine to be believed. Among the early witnesses of this faith may be cited Ignatius of Antioch (Eph 3.24.1), Clement of Rome (1 Cor 42, 44), Hegisippus (in Eusebius, Ecclesastical History 4.22), Irenaeus (Adversus haereses 3.3.13), and Tertullian (De praescrip. haer. 20, 32, 36). These writers clearly affirm, especially in opposition to the esoteric teachings of the Gnostics and others who sought to justify their tenets by an appeal to a hidden doctrine or to the speculative teaching of schools, that only that doctrine is to be accepted which is in conformity with the teaching of the bishops, the authoritative witnesses and interpreters of the apostolic faith.

The bishops themselves were conscious of their responsibility and authority in guarding and expounding the faith, as is shown from the very early and frequent practice of convoking local synods to discuss and decide matters of faith and morals (e.g., in the middle of the 3d century the synods of Carthage, Antioch, and Rome againstthe Novatian heresy; Elvira in Spain, c. 306; Arles in France, 314). There followed the great general councils of the Church, the first being that of Nicaea in 325, which were conscious of and claimed supreme authority to declare and define the doctrine to be believed by the whole Church (cf. Enchiridion symbolorum 126, 686, 1520, etc.). Although the Church progressed in its understanding of the role of the magisterium (especially with regard to the unique authority of the Roman pontiffs), there can be no doubt that it has always believed that its living and authoritative teaching office is an integral, necessary, and irreplaceable element in its on-going life.

Nature and Functions of Magisterium. In many respects the ministry of the Apostles was a unique and unrepeatable event in the life of the Church. They alone laid the foundation of the Church's faith and life once and for all; the task of their successors would be to guard and build upon this foundation. As Vatican I taught (Enchiridion symbolorum 3020, 3070), this traditional, continuing magisterium has a twofold function: to guard the deposit and infallibly to expose or declare it.

To Guard the Deposit. The primary function of the magisterium of the successors of the Apostles is guarding the deposit of faith. If their teaching is the norm or rule of faith for the members of the Church, it is in its turn ruled by the apostolic teaching. It is a ministry of the Word not directly revealed to them, as was the case with the Apostles, but of the Word fixed and determined forever by the ministry of the first and unique witnesses. This aspect of the magisterial office was most prominent during the first millennium of the Church's history, and hence the reference to the tradition, the doctrine, was always explicit and formal.

To Interpret and Define Infallibly. The mission of guarding the deposit and faithfully witnessing to it in every generation implies and demands the magisterial function of infallibly interpreting and defining the faith. Besides the authority of the revealed Word itself, the Church acknowledges the jurisdictional authority of its divinely appointed teachers to impose this Word for the belief of its members. (see governance, power of.) The nature and extent of this authority has often been badly misunderstood not only by non-Catholics, but by Catholics themselves. The scriptura sola of the reformers was essentially an affirmation of the primacy and sufficiency of the word of god, and they believed that the Catholic Church in affirming its authority to judge the meaning and interpretation of the Scriptures had subordinated the Word of God to the words of men. One may reply that the authority of the magisterium must be seen as essentially a relative authority. Entirely derived from the authoritative mission given by Christ to the Apostles, and for its efficacious exercise dependent upon the perpetual assistance of the Holy Spirit, it is relative to and bound by the authority of the revealed Word itself. When the bishops in council or the pope speaking ex cathedra infallibly declare and define some doctrine, they are not inventing a new revelation but merely expressing in human words the Church's understanding of the Word once revealed. In its "human" pronouncements the Church does not pretend to judge the revealed Word itself; it only interprets it, though judging any interpretation of the Word contrary to its own. Infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit, it cannot teach any interpretation of the Word contrary to the Word since it is one and the same Spirit that revealed the Word, entrusted it to the Apostles, and now assists the Church in interpreting it. These authoritative interpretations must remain inadequate expressions of the faith of the Church and, hence, subject to completion; for, being human, they depend upon the present state of theological development and upon the greater or lesser fidelity of the pastors of the Church to the light and guidance of the Spirit. Taking for granted this human weakness, both intellectual and even moral, one can see that the continual assistance of the Holy Spirit does not absolve the magisterium from a diligent study and meditation on the Word of God, in order that its teaching may be ever more perfectly faithful to, and express ever more adequately, the divine truth.

Stress on Definition. The defining function of the magisterium has been particularly stressed in the more recent history of the Church, especially in the context of various denials of the authority of the Church in matters of doctrine. Reflection upon this function has also resulted from the development of ecclesiology since the Middle Ages with its emphasis on the juridical nature of the Church as a visible society instituted by Christ whose hierarchy has been endowed with power and authority. (see visibility of the church.) This consciousness of the juridical nature of the Church has grown apace with a more acute awareness of the way in which the Church grows in its explicit understanding of the revealed Word.

Among the Fathers, and even much later, little thought was given to the problem of the development of doctrine and, hence, also to the necessary role of the magisterium as the ultimate and final judge of the legitimacy of a particular development, of its conformity with the revealed truth. Even Trent was content to define that the faith, always preserved in the Church, was to be found objectively expressed in its Scriptures and apostolic traditions. But when greater consideration was given to the historical process, that the faith of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a living faith constantly growing in its objective expression, it became imperative to insist upon the role of the magisterium to determine here and now what is to be believed. (see doctrine, development of.) The reference to the traditional doctrine was never denied or lost sight of, but more emphasis was placed on what the Church infallibly teaches today. Too much insistence upon the juridical function of defining, which certainly pertains to the magisterium, brought about the tendency to equate the teaching authority of the Church with the power of jurisdiction. This point of view overlooks the fact that the primary function of the teaching office is the pastoral function of witnessing to the traditional faith of the Church, and that this office is essentially a charismatic gift conferred by episcopal consecration, even though jurisdictional authority is required for its legitimate and efficacious exercise. Thus Vatican II teaches that "the episcopal consecration bestows, together with the function of sanctifying, the functions also of teaching and governing, though these functions of their very nature can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college" [Lumen gentium 21, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 25; see definition, dogmatic].

Teaching Body's Essential Unity. The teaching office in the Church is possessed by many different persons and is exercised in various degrees and ways: individual bishops guiding and teaching their flocks, provincial and national synods, ecumenical councils, the pope defining some doctrine ex cathedra or writing an encyclical letter to his fellow bishops. [see councils, general (ecu menical), theology of.] Yet the teaching body is essentially one, just as the faith that it guards and interprets is one. Theologians are not in agreement in explaining the exact nature of the unity between the pope and the college (the bishops together with the pope, their head), both of which, as Vatican II teaches, are the subject of supreme and full power over the Church [see Lumen gentium 22; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 2527]. This unity, however, can be understood in the following way. The bishops in union with their head, the pope, form but one moral body, the episcopal college, and it is to this body that the mission has been given of proclaiming the gospel to every creature and of guarding and interpreting the faith of the universal Church.

It is in the context of this collegial mission and responsibility that one is to understand the special role of the Roman pontiff, who succeeds to the primatial office given by Christ to Peter. As the head of the college and the visible organ of its unity he possesses personally the full teaching authority of the college and, as such, has the special responsibility of strengthening the faith of his brethren and of acting as their spokesman as occasion demands. He is also by virtue of his primatial office the supreme judge in matters of faith and morals and, hence, infallible when defining solemnly some doctrine to be held by the universal Church (Enchiridion symbolorum 306575). As the ever-active head of the college he is distinct from it but never separated, and he teaches and defines not his own faith but that of the Church. Hence the pope must always remain in close communication and collaboration with his fellow bishops dispersed throughout the world, who with him guard and witness to that faith.

These bishops are ordinarily entrusted with the care of a particular portion of the flock and are authentic doctors and teachers in their own dioceses, teaching authoritatively in the name of Christ. As such they are the representatives of the college or universal magisterium in each local Church and so in the exercise of their office must always be mindful of their responsibility for the faith of the universal Church. They, too, must remain in close contact with the whole episcopate and especially with its head, to whose universal jurisdiction they are always subject [Enchiridion symbolorum 306061; cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium 23, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 2729].

Ordinary Exercise of Teaching Office. As seen above, the first function of the magisterium is to guard the deposit of faith by witnessing to it while authoritatively teaching the faithful. This is the ordinary exercise of the magisterial office of each bishop in his diocese and of the pope for the universal Church. Each bishop is not personally infallible, but when the bishops, dispersed throughout the world yet morally united among themselves in union with the pope, teach some doctrine with moral unanimity and precisely as witnesses to the faith, this teaching is that of the whole college and hence infallible and must be believed by the universal Church [Enchiridion symbolorum 3011; Vatican II, Lumen gentium 25, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 2931]. Such teaching may be found expressed in different ways, e.g., in creeds or catechisms universally approved by the hierarchy, in the liturgical practice of the whole Church, or even in the tacit approval given to some doctrine universally taught by the theologians (cf. Enchiridion symbolorum 2879). However, one must be extremely cautious in determining concretely what is the ordinary and universal teaching of the college on a particular point. It is often extremely difficult, at times even impossible, to ascertain this moral unanimity. Catechisms are a case in point. Customarily in these catechisms no distinction is made between what pertains to the faith and what may be no more than a common teaching of a particular theological school or a generally accepted but not certainly revealed doctrine.

The ordinary exercise of the teaching office of the pope as supreme pastor is called universal because it is directed to the whole Church. It is an essential element of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the college but is not to be identified with it, and, hence, it is not necessarily infallible. It is, however, authoritative, and if the pope should make a definite pronouncement on some controverted subject, this could no longer be regarded as a matter of free debate among theologians (Enchiridion symbolorum 3885). Nevertheless, just because the pope should express his opinion or show his approval of something, it is not to be thought that he always wishes to close the debate. Because of the enhanced position of the Roman see consequent upon the ever clearer awareness of the pope's special role in guarding the faith and teaching the Church, recent popes from Pius IX have been able to exercise ever more effectively their magisterial office toward the universal Church, mostly through encyclical letters, addressed to their fellow bishops but intended for the instruction of all the faithful. A particular teaching contained in one of these letters may be infallible either because it reflects the general teaching of the universal episcopate or has become the traditional teaching of the Holy See. In the latter case, the Holy Spirit in His general guidance of the hierarchy and providence over the Church would see to it that the popes do not lead the whole Church into error.

Extraordinary Exercise of Teaching Authority. The function of defining the meaning of the deposit of revelation, i.e., of making a formal and definitive judgment on a precise point in matters of doctrine, is an extraordinary exercise of the teaching authority. It is called extraordinary because it is exercised in extraordinary circumstances and because the teaching office is primarily a ministry of witnessing to revelation rather than of defining in a juridical and solemn way its meaning. The bishops collegially exercise this extraordinary function in ecumenical councils, viz, assemblies of bishops that so represent the entire college that their decisions truly express the collegial consent of the entire episcopate. The definitive teachings of councils other than solemn definitions are an expression of the ordinary and universal teaching authority, and hence to that extent infallible witnesses to the faith of the Church. In interpreting conciliar definitions and teachings, one must clearly ascertain the intention of the bishops [e.g., see the explanations with regard to Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 7275]. Moreover, a clear distinction must always be made between what is positively taught or defined and the arguments and examples from Scripture or tradition that illustrate or confirm the doctrine defined or taught. The latter are not intended as infallible pronouncements, and it is within the competence of scholars to determine their historical or exegetical value.

The pope exercises this extraordinary function of the magisterium when he defines ex cathedra some point concerning faith and morals to be held by the universal Church. Such a solemn pronouncement is infallible and irreformable of itself and so does not need the subsequent juridical assent of the other bishops (Enchiridion symbolorum 3074; cf. Vatican II, Lumen gentium 25).

Participation of Others in Magisterium. In carrying out their mission, the bishops and the pope can and do associate with themselves others who may participate in some way in their authority.

Priests. The closest associates of the bishops in the exercise of their pastoral ministry of the Word, in guiding and teaching the faithful, are those who share with them the sacred office and power of the ministerial priesthood. Although priests do not possess the highest degree of the priesthood, and so are not members of the episcopal college, they are given the office and function of preaching and teaching as an integral part of their sacerdotal ministry [see Vatican II, Lumen gentium 28; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 3336]. And if they are faithful to their ministry, the Holy Spirit will not deny a special guidance and efficacy to their preaching. Those to whom a care of souls has been given have a special duty of faithfully witnessing to the faith of the Church, since in the ordinary course of events it is through their preaching that the faithful are instructed. Religious and laymen appointed by a competent authority to give religious instruction may be compared to the priest in so far as they are given a mandate to teach by those who possess the official magisterium in the Church. [see preaching, iii (theology of).]

Roman Congregations. In the ordinary exercise of his pastoral office the pope associates with himself and delegates authority to the various Roman congregations. (see curia, roman.) The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith especially can and does issue doctrinal decrees in the name of and with the authority of the pope, and these decrees are to be adhered to by the faithful (Enchiridion symbolorum 2880, 3408, 3503). They are usually concerned with settling a question as to whether or not a particular point of doctrine can be safely held or taught considering the state of dogmatic and theological development at the time. They are, therefore, subject to revision at a later date and are not meant to impede further investigation of the matter by Biblical scholars and theologians (Enchiridion symbolorum 3681, 386264).

Theologians. Theologians have a special role to play in the exposition and defense of the faith. They do not, however, pertain to the authoritative teaching body of the Church, even when they teach sacred doctrine in seminaries, etc., under the direct vigilance of and by virtue of a mandate from the pope or a competent bishop. Their role is to fulfill in a scientific way the requirement to come to an understanding of the faith. This requirement is imposed by the dynamism of faith itself on all believers; the competence of a theologian is particularly scientific. Generally speaking the doctrinal authority of a particular theologian will be in direct proportion to that competence together with his fidelity to the totality of the faith. Nevertheless, the teaching Church can and does give special approbation to the teachings and methods of certain individual theologians or schools, as in the case of scholastic theology in general (Enchiridion symbolorum 2676, 2814, 388384) and of the method and doctrine of St. Thomas (Enchiridion symbolorum 313540).

Like any other member of the community, theologians receive from the bishops, and owe allegiance to, the Church's credal formulations and official teachings. Yet they also have a vital role to play in doctrinal formulations, as well as in the further understanding and development (including revision) of doctrinal formulas. Though conflict and tensions are apt to persist between bishops and theologians, the ideal to be worked toward is one of mutual respect and cooperation, each seeking to safeguard the other's responsibility and competence.

Consultation. In the exercise of their teaching office the pope and bishops will also make use of and consult other competent and learned men when the need arises, for example, when there is question of ascertaining the relevance and import of a moral teaching of the Church in a concrete situation. Besides, they should also listen to and consult the faithful in general, remembering that the Holy Spirit animates and guides all the members of the Church and is wont to distribute His special gifts of understanding and light to those whom He wills without respect for persons. All believers share in some way in proclaiming and teaching the faith; all are in some way both teachers and taught. [See Vatican II, Lumen gentium 12, 37, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 1617, 4243; see charism.]

Object of Teaching Authority. The definition of Vatican I with regard to the infallibility of the pope affirms that the object of his infallible defining magisterium is coextensive to that with which Christ willed His Church to be endowed. This object is explicitly said to be "doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by the universal Church" (Enchiridion symbolorum 3074). This technical expression (cf. equivalent, Enchiridion symbolorum 1507, 3007) embraces whatever concerns necessarily the truth of the religious relationship of men with God in Christ, or whatever pertains to the promotion of the Christian religion and the eternal salvation of men. In accord with the explanation given by the Relator of the Deputation of Faith at Vatican I, Bishop V. Gasser, theologians divide this general object into what are called the primary and secondary objects of the magisterium.

Primary Object. The former is the deposit of revelation: whatever has been revealed by God either explicitly or implicitly, promulgated by the Apostles, and preserved in the Scriptures and living tradition. It is clear from all that has been seen that the authentic teaching office in the Church is primarily and essentially a ministry. of the Word; and it is a dogma of faith that the teaching Church is infallible when defining the meaning of this revelation.

Secondary Object. Pertaining to the secondary object are other truths not revealed in themselves but so intimately connected with revelation that their profession and, eventually, their definition by the magisterium or the condemnation of errors that contradict them are necessary for the integral conservation of the deposit of faith. Following the teaching of recent popes and the fathers of Vatican I, who vindicated the competence of the magisterium in these matters (Enchiridion symbolorum 2922, 3018, 3042, 3045), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II declares: "This infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed when it defines a doctrine of faith or morals is coextensive with the deposit of divine revelation, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded" (Lumen gentium 25). Thus, although it is not a dogma of faith that the magisterium can infallibly define such truths, it is at least a magisterially taught theological conclusion (theologically certain) that flows from the nature of the Church and its magisterium as realities in history. For the Church does not guard inviolate and faithfully expose the deposit of faith in a vacuum or merely repeat in parrot fashion the Word of God; that Word must be made a living reality for the men of every generation, it must be defended against every sort of error, its relevance must be affirmed in concrete situations, and all this must be done by succeeding generations of living teachers. But these men could not carry out efficaciously this ever actual mission in history unless it lay within the scope of their teaching office to teach authoritatively and even to define infallibly the truth of certain facts or philosophical propositions so intimately linked with the revelation itself or its preservation by the Church that their denial would lead necessarily to the denial of that revelation proposed by the Church here and now.

The question of the secondary object was first explicitly posed when the followers of Cornelius jansen sought to evade the condemnation by Innocent X in 1653 of five propositions taken from Jansen's book, augustinus, by affirming that the doctrine condemned was heretical but that Jansen had never taught it in his book. Alexander VII answered this subterfuge by declaring and defining that the condemned propositions had been taken from the book, and in the sense intended by the author, and demanded an internal assent under oath to this fact (2012,2020). From that time on, the Church reflected more on the nature of the teaching office as a reality in history competent to teach authoritatively and infallibly whatever is intimately connected with the preservation and exposition of the deposit of revelation.

Extent of Secondary Object. Theologians differ in determining the precise extent of this object of the infallible magisterium. Most would include within this object the following: the fact that propositions opposed to the truths of the faith are contained or not contained in a certain book (the propositions of Jansen); that a council is legitimate and ecumenical or that a pope was legitimately elected (see dogmatic fact); that a particular translation or version of the Scriptures is authentic (e.g., in the question of the Vulgate); the truth or falsity of philosophical truths intimately linked with the revelation itself or its acceptance (e.g., concerning the capacity of the mind to know truth); strictly theological conclusions from the revelation, sometimes called truths virtually revealed (e.g., necessity of jurisdiction to absolve validly; see reve lation, virtual). In the practical sphere may be mentioned the solemn approbation of religious orders (that the rule approved is in accord with the evangelical life); laws promulgated for and binding on the universal Church (that they are in accord with the divine law and apt to promote the sanctity of the Church); the solemn canonization of saints. Of particular importance is the competence of the Church to interpret and apply the natural law, for its prescriptions are "necessary for salvation" to teach men about the natural law is part of the Church's prophetic office, "proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God" [Catechism of the Catholic Church 2036].

Domain of Certitude. The whole problematic concerning the secondary object of the magisterium could perhaps be broadened. When the question of the competence in these matters of the magisterium is posed, it is usually in the context of the infallibility of the magisterium: can the pope or a council infallibly define the truth or falsity of a certain proposition? Yet infallibility is not the only category that can be opposed to falsity. Between it and error there is the whole domain of sufficient cer titude, guaranteed by the divine assistance that accompanies the exercise of spiritual authority without rendering it necessarily and absolutely infallible. The Catholic accepting in faith the competence of the divinely instituted pastoral ministry, can rest assured that these men do not seriously err in carrying out their ministry without demanding that in every instance they must be able to give an infallible and hence irrevocable definition. In insisting too much on the question of infallibility, one runs the risk of demeaning in the eyes of the faithful the ordinary pastoral function of the magisterium.

Assent Owed to Teaching of the Church. Whatever is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief, either in a solemn decree or in its ordinary universal teaching, is, in the words of Vatican I, to be believed by "divine and Catholic faith" (Enchiridion symbolorum 3011). This is nothing more than a necessary conclusion that flows from what has been said about the authoritative and infallible ministry of the Word within the context of the Church as the community of faith possessed by and possessing indefectibly God's definitive and irrevocable Word. The assent given is one of divine faith, i.e., because of the authority of God revealing to the individual this truth. It is called Catholic because it is made within the context of the community of believers and through the mediation of those who have received the divinely assisted ministry of authoritatively witnessing to and eventually defining what is to be believed by the whole Church. Being a surrender in faith to the God who can neither deceive nor be deceived, the assent is irretractable and absolutely certain.

When the Church solemnly defines a dogmatic fact or truth not directly revealed but intimately connected with the revelation, one must also give an irrevocable and unconditional assent, at least because of the infallibility of the Church in defining such matters.

In all other cases when the Holy Father (directly or through the Roman congregations) or the bishops, in the exercise of their ordinary pastoral ministry toward the flock committed to their care, teach authoritatively, the assent owed on the part of the faithful to this teaching is a true internal assent, firm, though not necessarily definitive. Though this assent in its epistemological structure can be compared to that given in the ordinary course of affairs to men scientifically qualified in matters within their competence, it must be stressed that the motive of the assent is the religious motive of obedience due to those who have been given authority in the Church of God.

It also falls to the magisterium to warn the faithful of the dangers of certain opinions that, though not judged definitively to be per se erroneous, can lead to errors. "The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule" (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, 24). The context in which alone this assent can be understood is that of the supernatural community of faith in which a stable and authoritative ministry of the Word has been established by Christ for the building up of the Body in truth and love. Since the Spirit guides and assists those to whom this ministry has been given, the faithful ordinarily can and should give an internal assent free from prudent fear of error (see Vatican Council II, Lumen gentium 25).

See Also: authority, ecclesiastical; doctrine; freedom, intellectual; revelation, fonts of; thinking with the church, rules for.

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[j. r. lerch/eds.]

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Teaching Authority of the Church (Magisterium)

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