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.