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The meaning of ‘magisterium’

30 November, 1999

Cambridge University historian Eamon Duffy examines the meaning of the word ‘magisterium’ as it applies to the teaching authorities of the Church.

The Church and the world await a new encyclical which, it is rumoured, will be an uncompromising reaffirmation of traditional moral teaching. There have been varying degrees of delight or dismay at this prospect, but most people will think of the encyclical as an exercise of something called the ‘Magisterium’.

This odd Latin word means, literally, ‘Mastery’ or ‘the status of Master’. For centuries it was used of the role of anyone who had the right to teach, with authority – for example, teachers in universities, and especially theologians. It is now used as shorthand for the official pronouncements of the hierarchy, in particular, the Pope, and is virtually identified with the teaching of the Catholic Church. This very narrow use of the word is also very recent – it appeared in the early 19th century. It is a word with all sorts of problems, and there is a case for dropping it altogether.

Misleading term
It is misleading, in the first place, because it suggests that the basic form which the teaching of the Catholic Church takes is an encyclical or a conciliar or papal definition. Behind this assumption is often the idea that to ‘teach’ something is to lay down the law, to tell a submissive listener exactly how things are, and that they’d better shut up and believe it.

But a minute’s reflection will show this is actually a very poor model of what it is to teach, and any teacher who operated like this in a school or university would soon be in trouble. Good teaching usually involves not a one-sided monologue, but an exchange of ideas, discussion, shared reflection.

Different forms of teaching
In fact, Catholic teaching takes many different forms a mother teaching her children their prayers, a catechist preparing young people for the sacraments, a parish bible-study group discussing the Gospels, sermons, lectures or discussions in a seminary, university or adult education class, religious books or articles, pastoral letters, conciliar docments, papal encyclicals.

Some of this is more, and some less important, but all constitutes Catholic teaching, and all involved in such activities are teachers, sharing the prophetic work of Christ. At any given moment, much of this teaching will be good and wholesome, and some will be second-rate and destined for the scrap heap. But neither the good, nor the second-rate are confined to any one type of teaching.

Of course, the Pope and the bishops do have a special responsibility for Catholic teaching, but that doesn’t mean they alone are the only authoritative teachers. To be responsible for Catholic teaching generally means ensuring good teaching gets done usually by other people. Most papal encyclicals and many pastoral letters are ‘ghost-written’; the Church is not split into teachers and those who learn. When a Pope or bishop takes advice from experts, he himself is a learner, like the rest of us.

Quasi-mystical title
It is unhelpful to single out a particular area of teaching and give it a quasi-mystical title like ‘The Magisterium’. To do so suggests such teaching is above debate, that we should not ask whether it is wise or foolish. Yet these notions are just as applicable to an encyclical or conciliar statement as they are to a theological lecture or a sermon.

This doesn’t mean we can pick and choose what to believe. Occasionally, the Church feels the need to clarify its shared faith, and a Council or a Pope may exercise their responsibilities as judges of Catholic truth in a solemn definition. Catholics believe such definitions are made with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to reject them puts oneself outside the faith of the Church. Such moments are rare, and to lay too much emphasis on infallibility devalues more routine but equally vital forms of teaching.

Respect, humility, intelligence
When the Pope or the bishops are not exercising infallible judgement  most of the time  they still teach with authority, but they are quite simply, not infallible, and should not be treated as if they were. Routine papal encyclicals (if one can use such a phrase) are not nearly or partly infallible. If the Pope is wise or well-advised, his teaching is likely to be good; if not, we should receive such teaching much as we receive a Sunday sermon – with respect to the speaker’s office, with humble willingness to be taught, and with all the critical faculties God has given us.


This article first appeared in The Universe (05.09.1993) and is reprinted here from its reproduction in Pastoral Renewal Exchange (PRE), 1 Swinston Hill Road, Dinnington, Sheffield S25 7RX (contact: Rev. Brian Green).

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