In the Catholic Church the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church. This authority is understood to be embodied in the episcopacy, which is the aggregation of the current bishop
A bishop is an ordained or consecrated member of the Christian clergy who is generally entrusted with a position of authority and oversight. Within the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches, in the Assyrian Church of the East, in the Independent Catholic Churches, and in the...

s of the Church in union with the Pope, led by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

), who has authority over the bishops, individually and as a body, as well as over each and every Catholic directly. According to Catholic doctrine
Doctrine is a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system...

, the Magisterium is able to teach or interpret the truths of the Faith, and it does so either non-infallibly or infallibly
Infallibility of the Church
The Infallibility of the Church is the belief that the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church to err in its belief or teaching under certain circumstances...

 (see chart below).

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the official text of the teachings of the Catholic Church. A provisional, "reference text" was issued by Pope John Paul II on October 11, 1992 — "the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council" — with his apostolic...

"The task of interpreting the Word of God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

 authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion
Communion (Christian)
The term communion is derived from Latin communio . The corresponding term in Greek is κοινωνία, which is often translated as "fellowship". In Christianity, the basic meaning of the term communion is an especially close relationship of Christians, as individuals or as a Church, with God and with...

 with him."

The word "magisterium" is derived from Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 magister, 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.

Source and criteria

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

Christ is the English term for the Greek meaning "the anointed one". It is a translation of the Hebrew , usually transliterated into English as Messiah or Mashiach...

, "the Logos
' is an important term in philosophy, psychology, rhetoric and religion. Originally a word meaning "a ground", "a plea", "an opinion", "an expectation", "word," "speech," "account," "reason," it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heraclitus ' is an important term in...

 made Flesh" (Gospel of John
Gospel of John
The Gospel According to John , commonly referred to as the Gospel of John or simply John, and often referred to in New Testament scholarship as the Fourth Gospel, is an account of the public ministry of Jesus...

 1:14), is the source of divine revelation. The Catholic Church bases all of its infallible teachings on sacred tradition and sacred scripture
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

. The Magisterium consists of only all the infallible teachings of the Church
Infallibility of the Church
The Infallibility of the Church is the belief that the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church to err in its belief or teaching under certain circumstances...

, "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
First Vatican Council
The First Vatican Council was convoked by Pope Pius IX on 29 June 1868, after a period of planning and preparation that began on 6 December 1864. This twentieth ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, held three centuries after the Council of Trent, opened on 8 December 1869 and adjourned...

, 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
Papal infallibility
Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error when in his official capacity he solemnly declares or promulgates to the universal Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals...

 and ecumenical councils, and the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium.

The Second Vatican Council
Second Vatican Council
The Second Vatican Council addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. It was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church and the second to be held at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. It opened under Pope John XXIII on 11 October 1962 and closed...

 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
Dei Verbum
Dei Verbum was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 18, 1965, following approval by the assembled bishops by a vote of 2,344 to 6.23...

, 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 wouldn't 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
Ex Cathedra
Ex Cathedra is a British choir and early music ensemble based in Birmingham in the West Midlands, England. It performs choral music spanning the 15th to 21st centuries, and regularly commissions new works....


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 on matters of faith and morals Full Assent of Faith
2. Bishops, in union with Pope, defining doctrine at General Council Extraordinary (and universal teaching of the Church) Infallible on matters of faith and morals 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 Authoritative but noninfallible Religious submission of intellect and will
Obsequium religiosum
Obsequium religiosum is a Latin phrase meaning religious submission or religious assent, particularly in the theology of the Catholic Church.-Second Vatican Council:...

5. Bishops Ordinary Authoritative but noninfallible Religious submission of intellect and will
6. Theologians Magisterium cathedrae magistralis (according to Thomas Aquinas) Neither authoritative nor infallible Legitimate Disagreements and Dialectic (according to the long tradition of Quaestiones Disputatae)
7. Priests Ordinary No magisterium authority

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.

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 elaborated 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 2nd 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
Origen , or Origen Adamantius, 184/5–253/4, was an early Christian Alexandrian scholar and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early Church. As early as the fourth century, his orthodoxy was suspect, in part because he believed in the pre-existence of souls...

. 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 alone 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 not authoritative, and condemned Montanism as a heresy. Other times, private revelations were recognized by the Church, but the Church continues to teach that private revelations are altogether separate from the deposit of faith, and that they are not required to be believed by all Catholics.

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 until the Great Schism), 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
Unam sanctam
On 18 November 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued the Papal bull Unam sanctam which historians consider one of the most extreme statements of Papal spiritual supremacy ever made...

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
Domingo Báñez
Domingo Bañez was a Spanish Dominican and Scholastic theologian. The qualifying Mondragonensis, attached to his name, seems to be a patronymic after his father John Bañez of Mondragón, Gipuzkoa....

 attributed to the Pope the “definitive power to declare the truths of the faith," and Thomas Cajetan
Thomas Cajetan
Thomas Cajetan , also known as Gaetanus, commonly Tommaso de Vio , was an Italian cardinal. He is perhaps best known among Protestants for his opposition to the teachings of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation while he was the Pope's Legate in Wittenberg, and perhaps best known among...

, 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

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.

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.

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 encyclical
An encyclical was originally a circular letter sent to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Catholic Church. At that time, the word could be used for a letter sent out by any bishop...

s 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.

In popular culture

The Magisterium is the theocratic
Theocracy is a form of organization in which the official policy is to be governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided, or simply pursuant to the doctrine of a particular religious sect or religion....

 governing body of Europe in a parallel universe
Parallel universe (fiction)
A parallel universe or alternative reality is a hypothetical self-contained separate reality coexisting with one's own. A specific group of parallel universes is called a "multiverse", although this term can also be used to describe the possible parallel universes that constitute reality...

 in Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman CBE, FRSL is an English writer from Norwich. He is the best-selling author of several books, most notably his trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials, and his fictionalised biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ...

's series His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials is a trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman comprising Northern Lights , The Subtle Knife , and The Amber Spyglass...

. 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 Geneva
Geneva In the national languages of Switzerland the city is known as Genf , Ginevra and Genevra is the second-most-populous city in Switzerland and is the most populous city of Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland...

 by Pope
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

 John Calvin. It is unknown whether any secular government exists apart from the Magisterium, but a king is mentioned in Northern Lights
Northern Lights (novel)
Northern Lights, known as The Golden Compass in North America, is the first novel in English novelist Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy...

and it is implied that the theocratic Magisterium has additional authority over the national and secular government.


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


External links

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