A Question I Was Asked:

What Do Roman Catholics Mean by "Magisterium"?

The Actual Question:

I have always wondered what Roman Catholics are referring to when they mention their "magisterium" - What is this?

UK Apologetics Reply:

This word is originally derived from the Latin magisterium, which meant the office of a president, chief, director, leader, superintendent etc., but in Roman Catholicism, the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. This authority is understood to be embodied in the episcopacy, which is the entire body of the current bishops of the Church, led by the Bishop of Rome (or, the Pope), who has authority over the bishops, individually and as a body, as well as over every Roman Catholic individually. So according to Roman Catholic doctrine, the Magisterium is able to teach or interpret the truths of the Faith, and it does so either non-infallibly or infallibly according to the occasion (we return to this point later).

So the magisterium consists of the authority of the Pope and Bishops. Catholics understand that Christ promised to protect the teaching of the Church : "He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you, rejects me, he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me." (Luke 10. 16). Roman Catholicism sees these words as a promise for their organisation for the entirety of this church age. So Roman Catholicism considers these words as directed toward their magisterium which is divinely-appointed and ongoing. In theory, this means that any who reject Roman Catholicism, also reject Christ, although Catholicism has softened on this position over the last few years.

Catholicism also sees the following promise as entirely for them:

Matt. 16:18-19: And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give the keys of the kingdom of Heaven to you. And whatever you may bind on earth shall occur, having been bound in Heaven, and whatever you may loose on earth shall occur, having been loosed in Heaven.

Roman Catholicism sees these words as giving them complete authority in faith and doctrine since they (erroneously, in my opinion) claim Peter as their first 'pope.' The reasoning is that even where they may err, they still maintain complete authority which is not subject to challenge. The promise of Christ is seen as something which cannot fail: hence when the Church presents some doctrine as definitive or final, it comes under this protection, it cannot be in error; in other words, it is infallible. This is true even if the Church does not use the solemn ceremony of definition. The day to day teaching of the Church throughout the world, when the Bishops are in union with each other and, especially, with the decrees of the Pope, is infallible. (Vatican II, Lumen gentium # 25). Vatican I also declared that the Pope, when speaking as such and making things definitive, is also infallible. This infallibility covers all teaching on morality and doctrine.

Roman Catholicism, therefore, holds no sphere of influence for any theologian who might claim that he has uncovered some new theological nuance, or strain of thought, or understanding, such a person will have no authority whatever before the magisterium, which encompasses the full teaching of the Roman Church. So, the teaching of the Magisterium is the prime, God-given means of finding the truth and leaves no room for any 'loose-canon' new theological theories. This is simply the way that Roman Cathlics view it.

Orthodox Roman theologians would say that one is never properly qualified if he does not use the correct method of working in his particular field, no matter what field that might be. Now in Catholic theology , they would state that the correct method is certainly to study the original sources of revelation, but then it is to willingly grant the final word on doctrine to the Church magisterium. Any theologian who is not prepared to follow that method will never be considered a qualified and faithful Roman Catholic theologian. Vatican II taught (Dei Verbum # 10):

"The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on [Scripture or Tradition], has been entrusted exclusively to the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."

The great problem here is that Roman Catholic orthodoxy insists that it is entirely one with the 'church fathers,' forming an unbroken line of succession from that early point, whereas us Protestants would seriously argue that Roman Catholicism came along much later when increasing arrogance seems to have attached itself to the Roman bishops, and that, in any case, Rome broke the principle of their line of apostolic succession many, many times when practices such as 'simony' came along (that is, buying the office of pope for money).

The doctrine of apostolic succession was certainly argued for by such early 'fathers' as Ignatius of Antioch (among others), but mainly in opposition to the presence of Gnosticism and other sects. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian and Ambrose also show indications of being persuaded on this point at certain points in their writings (but not at other points). But not all went along with this way of thinking, Origen, for instance, appeared to think that it was a bad trend and saw continued teaching authority as something which should be based on theological expertise rather than on apostolic succession, whilst he never entirely rejected the latter concept. However, a very strong case can be made for stating that 'apostolic succession' only proved popular as a defence against the early cults rather than as something which was intrinsic to one's understanding of the Christian Gospel and the organisation of the Church of Jesus Christ!

Unfortunately, much later on, when corruption entered the Romanish clergy (on quite a wide scale) there also developed in their church a particular Roman sense of government, which insisted upon order at any cost, and this quickly led to the rise of the so-called “imperial bishops,” who were men who had to be obeyed by virtue of their position, completely regardless of their personal holiness, behaviour and way of life.

Unfortunately, Roman Catholicism has never explained how their principle of 'apostolic succession' can possibly continue to be seriously held since (as is well-known), the Church of Rome entered and went through many years of terrible corruption and abuses of power. Their official line is that they bitterly regret those years but that their system still holds good and they remain answerable to Christ both for the good and the bad, but Protestants would insist on asking whether a corrupt tree which has brought forth corrupt fruit in the past should ever be trusted again!

Matt 7:15: Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
Matt 7:16: You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?
Matt 7:17: Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit.
Matt 7:18: A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruits, nor can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Matt 7:19: Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matt 7:20: Therefore by their fruits you shall know them.
Matt 7:21: Not everyone who says to Me, Lord! Lord! shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in Heaven. (MKJV).

Robin A. Brace. August 23rd, 2009.