We sometimes hear the magisterium referenced in the media, usually at times when new teachings or updated writings related to the Church are coming out. When the magisterium or the Papacy are referenced we also often hear the term infallible thrown about. But, do we really understand the role of the magisterium or what it means to be infallible?
A simple Google search of the term magisterium will provide you with many sites and sources of the magisterium’s role. Wikipedia defines the magisterium as “the teaching authority of the Catholic Church” or “the teaching office of the Catholic Church.” It then goes a little deeper in saying the magisterium is divided into two parts: the infallible sacred magisterium and the fallible ordinary magisterium. Now we have introduced that often thrown about term infallible, which is Wikipedia defines as teachings made by this person can be relied on to be certainly true.
I might be biased, but I have to admit I prefer the explanation of the magisterium that is given to us by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 85). "Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 86).
But, what does all of that really mean?
Let’s take one step back to see where the magisterium and her authority came from. The Apostles were given teaching authority so that they might heal, forgive sins, and share the Good News. This authority of Peter and the Apostles was handed on to all the Popes and Bishops that have come after the first Apostles. "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority." Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 77). “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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 100). The Holy Spirit continues to guide and inspire the writings and preaching of these bishops with the goal of “preserving God's people from deviations and defections” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 890).
Okay, now that we understand why they have authority, what authority do they have (i.e. how are they both fallible and infallible)? In order to ensure that the magisterium professes the faith without error, “Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 890). The Pope “enjoys his infallibility” when he proclaims a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals. The infallibility promised to the Church is also present when the bishops, together with the Pope, make declarations that are revealed through an Ecumenical Council (i.e. The Council of Trent, Vatican I, or Vatican II). Declarations that are made infallibly require a “full assent of faith” from all followers of the Catholic Church. In other words, there is no room for disagreement, as this is now Church doctrine. Failure to faithfully follow and adhere is not permissible. Contrary to common beliefs or statements made by the media, the Pope and the bishops are not infallible in every statement they make. The issue of infallibility is frequently brought up pertaining to matters of Church functioning or improper handling of issues. The Pope and the bishops are still human, and sinful, and are therefore not infallible or without flaw in every statement and action that they take. Ordinary statements by the Pope and bishops are considered authoritative, because of their position in the hierarchy of the Church, but are not considered infallible.
So in summary, the key points are this:
· The magisterium of the Catholic Church is comprised of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him
· The purpose of the magisterium is to be the teaching authority of the Church
· Catholics believe that the magisterium was established by Christ, given His authority, and continues to be guided by the Holy Spirit
· The Pope is infallible, that is, we know with certainty that the teaching is correct, when he proclaims a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals, or when the bishops, together with the Pope, make declarations that are revealed through an Ecumenical Council