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Magisterium of the Church

ex cathedra, de fide divina et Catholica




Before embarking on a study of the Magisterium we should pause for a moment lest the present confusion within the Catholic Church tempt us to an attitude of despair. The present confusions have their purpose, even though we with our limited outlook cannot always understand.

As St. Paul explains: 'To them that love God all things work together unto good' (Rom. 8:28) and St. Augustine adds 'etiam peccata, even sins.' In the same sense, in the Exultet, on Holy Saturday, the Church sings: Felix culpa,quae talem ac tantum meruit Redemptorem: 'O happy fault (of our fist parents), that merited so great a Redeemer.' As Augustine says: 'God in His wisdom has deemed it better that good should come out of evil than that evil should never have been.' God has the power and wisdom to turn to His own glory the evil which He permits on earth. Angels and saints can take only joy from the divine wisdom which rules the world so wonderfully(1).

Holy Mother Church, like the loving mother she is, has provided us with the necessary guidelines on how to think and behave in the present circumstances. These are provided for us in what is called her teaching Magisterium. The present essay is dedicated to an understanding of the nature and purpose of the Authentic Magisterium of the Catholic Church (2)

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The Church, which is the 'Body of Christ,' is as it were the presence of Christ in the World.(3) Now Christ combined in Himself and bestowed on His Apostles whom He 'sent forth' the three qualities of Teacher (Prophet), Ruler and Priest - symbolized in his Vicar by the triple crown or papal tiara.

With regard to this Christ told us that 'He who believed in Him would know the truth which gives true liberty (John VIII, 31-31) but he who did not would be condemned' (Matt. X.33; Mark XVI.16) He allowed Himself to be called the Master and even stressed that He was the true Master who not only taught the truth, but was the Truth.(Matt. VIII,19; John III, 17 and Matt. XXIII, 8-10). Now he communicated these truths to his Apostles and sent them forth to teach in His name, telling them that 'just as my Father sent me, so also I send you...,' telling them: 'He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects your words, rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects the Father who sent me' (Matt. X, 40 and Luke X, 16). And so we see that the Apostles were given the charge of continuing Christ's mission as infallible Master. Moreover Christ demanded an absolute obedience to this teaching function - for he who does not believe will be condemned. Of course, He also specified that it must be His teaching and not some other person's teaching - not even the teaching of an angel from heaven if it departed from His teaching. He further promised that 'the Spirit of Truth would always be with them,' provided they accepted this Spirit, and again, He left them free to reject this Spirit or accept some other spirit if they so willed - but then of course they would no longer be participating in His charisms and would loose their infallibility. As He said, 'therefore go ye into all nation and teach them to safeguard all that I have taught you. And I will be with you till the end of the world' (Matt. XII, 18-20).

Perhaps the most important error abroad today relates to the teaching authority of the Church; specifically to the idea that the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not infallible. Lest there be doubt about this, let us listen to Pope Leo XIII: 'Wherefore, as appears from what has been said, Christ instituted in the Church a living authoritative and permanent Magisterium, which by His own power He strengthened, by the Spirit of truth He taught, and by miracles confirmed. He willed and ordered, under the gravest penalties, that its teachings should be received as if they were His own. As often therefore, as it is declared on the authority of this teaching that this or that is contained in the deposit of divine revelation, it must be believed by everyone as true. If it could in any way be false, an evident contradiction follows: for then God Himself would be the author of error in man. The Fathers of the Vatican Council (I) laid down nothing new, but followed divine revelation and the acknowledged and invariable teaching of the Church as to the very nature of faith, when they decreed as follows: 'All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written or unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, either by a solemn definition or in the exercise of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.' ('Satis Cognitum').

Because the Magisterium provides us with the only solid objective criteria by which we may judgewhat is true and false, it is important that we examine its nature in greater detail. 'The Catholic Dictionary' defines the Magisterium as: 'The Church's divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion. 'Going therefore teach ye all nations... teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you' (Matt. XXVIII, 19-20). This teaching, being Christ's, is infallible...' (4).

This Magisterium or 'teaching authority of the Church', exists in two different modes. It is termed 'SOLEMN' or 'EXTRAORDINARY' when it derives from the formal and authentic definitions of a General council, or of the Pope himself: that is to say, dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical councils, or of the Pope's teaching ex cathedra (see below for an explanation of this term). Such truths are de fide divina et Catholica which means that every Catholic must believe them with divine and Catholic Faith.(5)

Included under the category of solemn are 'symbols or professions of the faith', such as the Apostles' Creed, the Tridentine or Pianine Profession and the Oath against Modernism required by Pius X since 1910 (and no longer required by the post-Conciliar Church)(6). Finally included in this category are 'theological censures' or those statements that qualify and condemn propositions as heretical (7).

It is termed 'ORDINARY AND UNIVERSAL' when it manifests itself as those truths which are expressedthrough the daily continuous preaching of the Church and refers to the universal practices of the Church connected with faith and morals as manifested in the 'unanimous consent of the Fathers, the decisions of the Roman Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the consensus of the faithful, in the universal custom or practice associated with dogma (which certainly includes the Roman liturgy or traditional Mass), and in the various historical documents in which the faith is declared.' Included in this category are papal Encyclicals(8). It is termed 'Pontifical' if the source is the Pope, and 'universal' if it derives from the Bishops in union with him(9)Such truths, as Vatican I teaches, are also de fide divina et Catholica. (10)

It is termed 'living' because, being true, it exists and exerts its influence, not only in the past, but in the present and future. As Vatican I explains, it is infallible: 'All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith, which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, [i.e., Scripture or Tradition], and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed'(Vatican I, Session III).

This statement is important because there are many theologians who proclaim that the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium are not binding. Some attempt to mitigate the authority of the ordinary magisterium by claiming that it can at times contain error(11). Others claim on their own authority that 'only those doctrines in the ordinary and universal Magisterium that have been taught everywhere and always are covered by the guarantee of infallibility(12). Still othersattack this teaching by limiting the contents of the Ordinary Magisterium - removing from it anything not couched in absolutist or solemn terminology. Finally there are those who claim that the magisterium can change - that it can teach differently today than in the past because doctrine and truth evolve. Before dealing with these secondary errors, it is necessary to understand why the Magisterium is infallible.


(1) Lines taken from Georges Panneton's Heaven or Hell, Newman Press, Westminster Maryland, 1965. Consider the Jews in Egypt. They had saved the land from famine, but had subsequently been enslaved. How cruel and unjust the God of Abraham must have appeared to them. But would they have followed Moses into the wilderness in any other circumstance? One may be permitted to doubt it.

(2) In discussing the layman Eusebius' attack on the heretic Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Dom Gueranger wrote: 'When the shepherd turns into a wolf the first duty of the flock is to defend itself. As a general rule, doctrine comes from the bishops to the faithful, and it is not for the faithful, who are subjects in the order of Faith, to pass judgment on their superiors. But every Christian by virtue of this title to the name Christian, has not only the necessary knowledge of the essentials of the treasure of Revelation, but also the duty of safeguarding them. The principle is the same, whether it is a matter of belief or conduct, that is of dogma or morals.'

(3) 'God showed me the very great delight that He has in all men and women who accept, firmly and humbly and reverently, the preaching and teaching of Holy Church, for he is Holy Church. For He is the foundation, He is the substance, He is the teaching, He is the teacher, He is the end, He is the reward.' Julian of Norwich, Showings, Chapter xvi.

(4) Donald Attwater, Catholic Dictionary, Macmillan: N.Y.,1952

(5) 'Must', that is, if he wishes to call himself Catholic.

(6) The Church could never require its members to take an Oath which violated the infallible truth. These specifics are drawn from Tanquerey's Manual of Dogmatic Theology, Desclee: N.Y., 1959.

(7) According to Tanquerey, 'The Church is infallible when it condemns a certain proposition with some doctrinal censure. A doctrinal censure is 'a qualification or restriction which indicates that a proposition is opposed, in some way, to faith or morals'. It is de fide that the Church is infallible when she specifies that a doctrine is heretical; it is certain that the Church is infallible when she states that a doctrine approaches heresy or that a doctrine errs.

(8) Etienne Gilson, Introduction to The Church Speaks to the Modern World, Doubleday: N.Y. 'These letters are the highest expression of the ordinary teaching of the Church. To the extent that they restate the infallible teachings of the Church, the pronouncements of the Encyclical letters are themselves infallible. Moreover, while explaining and developing such infallible teachings, or while using them as a sure criterion in the condemnation of errors, or even while striving to solve the social, economic and political problems of the day in the light of these infallible teachings, the popes enjoy the special assistance of the Holy Spirit.' (...)

(9) Also from Tanquerey, op. cit. Other classifications can be found, but the essential principles remain the same. Melchior Cano (or Canus), one of the principal theologians of the Council of Trent, taught that there are ten theological 'loci' or places where the 'teaching imparted by Christ and the Apostles could be found.' They are the following: 1) The Scriptures; 2) The divine and Apostolic Traditions; 3) The universal Church; 4) The Councils, and above all the General (Ecumenical) Councils; 5) The Roman Church; 6) The Holy Fathers; 7) The Scholastic theologians; 8) Natural reason; 9) the philosophers and jurors [of Canon law]; and 10) human history. According to him the first seven belong to the realm of theology, while the last three relate to the other sciences. (Quoted in Rohrbacher, Histoire Universelle de L'Eglise Catholique, Letouzey et Ane, Editeurs, Paris, Vol. X, p. 118).

(10) The infallibility of Council teachings is dependent upon the Pope's approbation. The pseud-Council of Pistoia never received this and was never recognized as a Council.

(11) Michael Davies claims that the Declaration on Religious Liberty made by Vatican IIis 'only a document of the ordinary magisterium of the Church, and that the possibility of error occurs or can occur in such documents where it is a matter of some novel teaching The magisterium can eventually correct such an error without compromising itself... It will therefore be the eventual task of the magisterium to evaluate the objections made to the Declaration and then to explain how it is compatible with previous teaching, or to admit that it is not compatible and proceed to correct it' (Archbishop Lefebvre and Religious Liberty, TAN: III., 1980 and The Remnant, June 15, 1982.). Suffice it to say - the matter will be discussed in detail later - that not only this Declaration, but also Michael Davies's opinion are contrary to innumerable Magisterial statements of the traditional Church. For proof that the post-Conciliar Church considers Vatican II to be magisterial, see footnote 58 below.

(12) According to this view, the ordinary and universal Magisterium consists in some manner, of the sum total of bishops in every place and throughout the course of history from the time the Church was founded down to the present day; while at the same time the community of bishops (with the Pope) at any given period during the course of history, is in no way infallible in its ordinary teaching. This is essentially the position of Archbishop Lefebvre

Virtual Vandée's Editorial Note
We preserved the integrity of the text which we received as computer files from Doctor Coomaraswamy in 2000. This edition of the book, second one, doesn't differ from the first one in the sphere of conclusions , however, the book was practically rewritten from the beginning. In January 2002 Doctor informed us that he works on the next edition, which will be published on his own internet page.

magisterium, church, infallibility, Satis Cognitum, Pope Leo XIII, ex cathedra, de fide divina et Catholica

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