Ordinary Magisterium – what is it and why does it matter?

Eamonn Clark, STL

There has been a bundle of contentious theological topics in the past few years erupting into very public and occasionally nasty debates. Some of the contentious character of these debates comes from the subject matter at hand, while others are also resting in part on the issue of the “ordinary magisterium”… Some might think it is obvious what this strange sounding phrase means, while some are completely unaware.

Well, it is not particularly obvious. In fact, there are multiple meanings of the phrase, and this, I suggest has been part of the problem. Before tackling it: what are some of the topics that are at stake in the question of the ordinary magisterium?

Abortion… contraception… women’s ordination… capital punishment… homosexuality and transgenderism… the administration of the sacraments to those in illicit unions… and even usury.

If all these (and more) are on the table, it’s important to get the question of “ordinary magisterium” right.

First, “magisterium.” This means “teaching,” or more specifically a “teaching office/function” plain and simple. The cleric, especially the bishop, is normally called and bound to instruct the faithful in right doctrine. Without right knowledge, how will there be right love? It is not possible to love what is not known. Therefore, the data of revelation are to be delivered, explained, and defended by clergy.

Second, “ordinary.” This means – you guessed it – normal. Ordinary magisterial teaching is the normal kind. This implies that there is also an “abnormal” kind, which we call the “extraordinary magisterium.”

The extraordinary magisterium is the one that is a bit more familiar as a category. It consists of two parts: the canonical teachings of Ecumenical Councils which are accepted and promulgated by the pope, and the rare act of a pope defining some point “ex cathedra,” such as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both of these enjoy the status of infallibility. Note that the subject of extraordinary magisterial teaching is the pope, either alone or together with a Council.

The ordinary magisterium has more than two parts, and it has two kinds of subjects. First, the subjects. The pope certainly has an ordinary magisterium, such as daily homilies, encyclicals, and catechisms he may write, but so too does every bishop, who are also competent to teach in similar ways, viz., daily preaching, pastoral letters, and local catechisms (like the Baltimore Catechism). All the bishops of the Church are also said to exercise this ministry together in a second way, which is a special kind of ordinary magisterial teaching. Under special conditions, the Church Herself (“in se”) is the subject of ordinary magisterial teaching. Thus, when we say “the Church teaches x,” we are frequently appealing to this very thing – yet certain conditions must be met… There must be a broad consensus over time among the bishops, especially the popes. There must be a firm root in Scripture or in liturgy as well, as the Church does not “invent” new teachings, She only articulates what She has already received more clearly. The most notable theologians and saints should also be able to be called on in support of the point – especially St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and other such figures renowned for their learning. If you cannot find one of these four to give direct and explicit support for a moral or dogmatic position on something which they all have spoken about, then you are in big trouble and are very likely just plain wrong.

Also, the Church does not teach that the sky is blue, or that Latin is a cool language. Even if most bishops and popes have taught these things throughout time, we see that neither belongs to the ordinary magisterium because they are not about matters of faith or morals, the proper realm for the Church to teach about, in the magisterial sense. That might seem unimportant, but when you notice that this excludes points of biology, psychology, or sociology, for instance, it becomes much more important – can the Church really teach about issues of life and death, or about criminal justice, or about human sexuality?

Yes, but normally only by “skipping ahead” to the conclusions. For example, the Church in fact does not teach, in the full sense of the word “teach,” that human life begins at conception. (Note that there are distinctions to make about “teaching” – one may not simply ignore what comes from various Roman Congregations like the CDF or even a pope’s daily homilies simply because it’s not extraordinary magisterium – but I believe I have addressed that elsewhere on these pages, using this chart as a guide, and Dr. Feser’s short article on the 5 kinds of magisterial teaching is also helpful. For my readers who might be thinking about thesis topics – “theological notes” would be a great area to explore, starting with Fr. Cartechini’s chart, linked to above.) Perplexingly, even though the biology of conception does not seem to be the matter appropriate for magisterial teaching, a biological truth is nonetheless implied by something which is ordinary universal magisterial teaching, namely, the immorality of abortion. It is explicitly revealed, by the Fifth Commandment, that murder is immoral – however, it is not explicitly revealed that direct abortion constitutes murder… Nevertheless, it is taught to be so. It always has been taught to be so, from the earliest days of the Church, by a wide consensus of bishops, including popes. It has extremely firm Scriptural roots. Every major theologian to speak on it has been in basic agreement. And of course, it is an appropriate matter for magisterial teaching, unlike what color the sky is, or even when and how exactly human life begins in biological terms. Indirectly then, we learn from the Church that human life, in the relevant sense, begins prior to the point when what is called “abortion” is possible. Today, we clearly see that moment to be conception (a fact inaccessible to physicians in earlier ages), though it is beside the point, as even if this were to be discovered to be a false understanding of biology, the truth about direct abortion would remain – it is immoral. This is a teaching which enjoys infallibility.

John Paul II appealed to this kind of datum of the “ordinary magisterium of the Church” in his document on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. In explaining the text, then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) said much about the character of the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which was claimed not to be extraordinary magisterial teaching but only a definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Church’s ordinary magisterium. (Interestingly, one might make a good case that, despite the pope’s insistence to the contrary, he actually exercised his extraordinary magisterium based on the content and purpose of the text… but I digress.) See “Lumen Gentium,” paragraph 25 as well for some background.

This brings us to the issues we are facing today – women’s diaconal ordination being among them, but certainly not the only one. Can a pope simply decide, for example, that a point of speculative or moral doctrine taught in the way we have been discussing as constitutive of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, is “not merciful” and therefore be just plain wrong? While it is indeed possible (and obligatory – as I have talked about here) to read the best continuity into everything a pope says, this sort of unjustifiable “development” is what many seem to be seeing with the question of capital punishment – a point reiterated in the Holy Father’s most recent encyclical. If capital punishment’s liceity in principle does not belong to the ordinary magisterium of the Church, one must wonder what does… How many popes, Fathers, saints, doctors, and major catechisms does it take to interpret the already rather clear texts of Scripture on the point? (I recommend here the work of Dr. Feser once again, in many articles on his blog and of course his book, which is now the standard text on the issue and simply must be dealt with for anyone looking to support the idea that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral – which, by the way, is not even precisely what the Holy Father has actually said.)

On the other hand, there is a topic like usury. But we will leave that hornet’s nest alone and save it maybe for another time.

I hope the point is clear enough. Understanding what the Faith contains means knowing the theological history of the Church, including both the “primary sources” for theology itself where we find revealed truths most clearly organically expressed (Scripture and Liturgy) and the way the Faith has actually been preached and taught and even lived throughout the past two millennia. To know the ordinary magisterium of the universal Church can be difficult – there are maybe a few borderline cases (such as Mary as Mediatrix of all Graces, for example), and getting acquainted with the doctrine of the Church in general can be time-consuming – but it probably helps to know that there is such a universal ordinary magisterium at all, distinct from albeit connected with the ordinary magisterium of the pope and all bishops as individuals.

The Trinity Matters: Processions

Eamonn Clark, STL

See the Introduction here.

The argument begins simply: “From God I proceeded.” (John 8:24) Question 27 is the foundation for the Treatise on the Trinity, and this appeal to authority – in this case, Divine Authority – is the point of departure. God has said it, therefore we believe it, as God does not lie and is never confused or ignorant.

It must begin this way, as we will see later in detail; for now it suffices to say that what can be known about God by reason alone does not include real processions of the sort which we are about to discuss. God must in fact tell us there are processions in Himself. With that, let us begin.

Article 1 establishes the presence of procession in God. Article 2 demonstrates that one procession is rightly called “generation” (of the Word, or the Son). Article 3 shows that there is another procession in God, that of the Holy Spirit. Article 4 determines that the procession of the Holy Spirit is not “generation” but “spiration.” Article 5 proves there cannot be more than two processions in God (and thus not more than three Persons).

The “sed contra” of Article 1 has already been laid out – John 8:24 tells us that procession exists in God. We move now to the body of Article 1 (the “respondeo” or “answer”) before looking at the objections (which is the proper way to read the Summa, by the way) and the other Articles.

Thomas again begins with Scripture. The Bible uses Names for God which imply procession (like “Son”) but it is not immediately clear what kind of procession this is. A procession, in general, is a kind of “issuing forth” of one thing from another – the way a son proceeds from a father… But now we see the two great errors which are possible: Arianism and Sabellianism.

Arianism sees the Son as a creature of the Father, and the Holy Spirit as a creature of both – this would be procession indeed, but this position empties the Son and the Holy Spirit of Divinity. (Thomas again appeals to Scripture to explain why Arius was wrong, specifically 1 John 5:20 for the Son, and 1 Corinthians 6:19 for the Holy Spirit… I hope it is sufficiently clear by now that Thomas’s theology is deeply Biblical; we are not even half-way through Article 1.)

Sabellianism (also Modalism) sees the Son and the Holy Spirit not as creatures but simply Names predicated of God the Father acting in certain ways. When the Father is Incarnate, He is called “Son.” When He sanctifies human souls, He is called “Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Son and the Holy Spirit are only logical distinctions – they are not really distinct from the Father. Thomas appeals to John 5:19 and “many other passages” to rebut this… This simply is not what we get from Christ’s teaching in Scripture.

The common error is to see procession as “outward” – something existing in creation. With Arius, it is the beings themselves which are processed outwardly, while with Sabellius the outward effect which proceeds from Divine operation in creation indicates the Name to use.

This is not the kind of procession which allows for the Trinity of Catholic Faith. The processions of the Trinity are interior processions.

The most evident analogy is with our own mind (an analogy developed at length by St. Augustine in his book on the Trinity frequently called the “psychological analogy”). We think of a thing by conjuring an idea – but the idea remains within our mind until we speak it by the word, the concept, by which we are understanding it. In God, procession is like this – it is not procession as according to bodies, such as a son proceeding from a father, or heat proceeding from fire.

You can look at Objections 1 and 3 on your own. Objection 2 is worth a look here, as it really touches the heart of the major obstacle to making sense of the Trinity, namely, Divine Simplicity. After all, what proceeds from a thing is distinct from that whence it proceeds – but God is perfectly simple. How? Well, in an intellectual procession, the more perfect the procession is the more closely united is the concept with the mind. In other words, the better a thing is known, the more it is one with the intellect. God knows perfectly – so what He conceives of must be perfectly united with Him by Essence. (We will see a similar argument about power later – the more power a cause has, the more the cause will be replicated in the effect… the better the teacher, the more able the students will be to teach what they are learning. Coincidentally, this is part of why Jesus did not write a book. But we are getting sidetracked…) The point is that the Word is perfectly understood by the Father and is therefore perfectly One with Him.

So much for Article 1. There are processions in God which remain within God, the most easily grasped being the intellectual procession of the Word, Who is perfectly united with the Father because the Father perfectly understands the Word. On to Article 2: is any procession in God called “generation”?

The “sed contra” is Psalm 2:7 – “This day I have begotten Thee.” (To “beget” and to “generate” are the same.) So, at least one procession in God is called “generation.” But why?

There are two kinds of generation – the kind which makes something new (fire making more fire) which brings something into existence out of non-existence, and a kind which is proper to living things which generate other living things which have the same specific nature (unlike a man producing a hair on his head – but like a man producing a man). The latter normally includes the “making” of the first kind of generation; a horse generates a horse, a man generates a man, and so on. But maybe there could be something which lacks the aspect of “making” and has only this latter kind of generation… This is the Father-Son relationship. This generation is from a living principle (the Father, Whose operation of understanding is the “force” of this generation), it is a generation of similitude (due to how understanding works, as explained above), and that which is being understood is God Himself, the Divine Essence (the same nature as the Generator). So this is living generation but without creation. (Nerds may look at Question 14 for more details.)

Objections 2 and 3 are very important and very helpful.

Objection 2 notes that our own thoughts are not called “generation.” So, why should God’s thought in this case be called “generation”? Well, our act of understanding is not the same as our own substance – this is not the case with God. We produce thoughts that are not ourselves; but for God, anything in Him is Him.

Objection 3 argues that what derives its existence from another will exist in a subject, meaning, it is not self-subsistent – for example, a horse generated from a horse will exist in the physical universe, as part of that universe. So, since God is self-subsistent, there can be no generation in Him. Well, the created universe is Thomas’ counter-example: it does not exist in a subject. Creation exists in itself, due to the power of God. So, the Word, Who derives or receives His existence from another (the Father) by interior procession, does not need to subsist in another, just like creation does not need to.

Article 3 is relatively simple. The “sed contra” points to Scripture for the grounds for arguing that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God but is not the Word (John 15:26 and John 14:16 respectively).

The intellect has an interior procession, and so does the will. In the will, the object of desire moves us towards that object by a kind of impulsion. In God, the intellectual procession generates the Word; the procession of the Will of God gives us the Holy Spirit. This is the procession of love.

Objections 1 and 3 are good to look at.

Objection 1 states that, if we admit of more than one procession in God, we could be setting ourselves up to say that there are infinite processions in God, which is unreasonable. Thomas’ response is very important (and essentially constitutes the argument of Article 5)… Only the intellect and the will can have interior processions, so there cannot be more than two.

Objection 3 is possibly the strongest counter-argument yet. The claim is that intellect and will are the same in God, due to Divine Simplicity. Therefore, there cannot be a difference in the procession from the Divine Intellect and Will… So, there can be only one procession. Thomas admits that the Will and Intellect of God are the same, but Thomas says that there is a priority between intellect and will, with intellection preceding willing, logically even if not really; in God, this priority can only be logical – one must know what one loves, but since God is not doing this “step by step” it is in a single moment… and yet, there really is this logical priority, so there can be distinct processions. (Nerds might like to recall the insistence of Thomas on the priority of the intellect in human acts, over and against Bonaventure and later Scotus, Ockham, and then the long line of nominalists and voluntarists… Interesting how this connects, no?)

Article 4 gives us the first appeal to something other than Scripture – rather, it is an appeal to St. Athanasius, who says that the Holy Spirit is not begotten (or generated).

The intellect has an interior procession because some similitude exists in the intellect (I think of the apple, and something like an apple is in my mind – I think of myself, and something like myself is in my mind – and the better the conception in my mind is, the more like the thing itself that it is a conception of will it be… in God, as we saw, this conception is perfect, and therefore is God Himself, God the Word). Well, with the will it is a bit different. Instead of similitude, we speak of inclination, or a kind of wanting (or loving). When we have an object in our will, we are inclined towards it – we want it, we desire it, we love it. God, by loving Himself, has an interior procession in His Will. What thus proceeds is the Holy Spirit, so called because “spirit” implies a kind of living impulse. The procession is therefore called “spiration” rather than generation (see Objection 3).

We’ll leave the Objections alone.

Article 5 is within our grasp, as we’ve already indicated the argument. The “sed contra” is particularly blunt at this point – Thomas simply says there are only two Persons Who proceed, and thus there are only two processions.

As we have said, the intellect and the will are the only faculties which can have interior processions. Other faculties or operations will have exterior processions or no processions at all – sensation, for instance, requires activity outside the intellectual nature. Thus, there can only be three Persons in God, in accord with the Intellect and Will and unproceeded Principle, the Father.

The Objections concern the following claims: 1, that power has procession; 2, that goodness involves procession; and 3, that fecundity of operations would multiply the processions of Word and Love.

As for 1, power is exercised on another, so it is an external operation. As for 2, the goodness of God belongs to His Essence and is not an operation like understanding or willing, and so the Goodness of God is simply involved in the processions of the Word and Love. As for 3, God understands all and loves all by one simple act – therefore, there is no possibility of multiplying the processions of Word and Love.

We made it! Question 27, done! Believe it or not, we have already pretty much laid out the entirety of Trinitarian theology in seed form. The rest is largely just unpacking what we have just done.

Next up, Question 28: relations of origin…