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The Magisterium: A Cheat Sheet

Image: Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library – by Michael Osmanda (CC)

Over the past few days, as I’ve worked on this piece, I’ve learned a lot about the Church’s magisterial office. Perhaps it would be better to say I learned how much I don’t know.

As I mentioned in the article linked above. I’m not a dogmatic theologian. In fact, I’m not even any kind of theologian, whatever my degree says. A BA in Theology is pretty much a ticket to the entry level of inquiry on this stuff. I am, at best, a more-informed-than-average layman.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Michael Sirilla, is a dogmatic theologian. He is also a walking, talking, Catholic encyclopedia. I called him yesterday (and the day before that), and even recovering from a pretty serious health issue, he was still gushing forth information at a speed my flu-addled brain couldn’t hope to keep up with. Whereas the average dutiful Catholic knows that there is a Magisterium, dogmatic theologians spend much of their careers studying all of its many moving parts. It’s sort of like the difference between being a guy who loves a particular sports car, and can tell you what kind of engine it has, and how many liters, etc., and being the guy who can strip that engine down and re-assemble it without having to look at any reference material. Or, as Mike said to me, “It’s sort of like being a surgeon with a particular specialization.” Not even all the other doctors are going to know how to do it, let alone the armchair theologians on the Internet.

The most surprising thing to me was learning that the Church doesn’t have a single repository of knowledge about its own teaching office. There isn’t a document you can read somewhere that breaks down the various levels of the Magisterium and all its moving parts, with categorizations of when and where each thing is authoritative and how it relates to others. Like a giant theological scavenger hunt, you can find pieces of this puzzle in the Catechism, in a couple of instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (like Donum Veritatis and Professio Fidei), in a letter from Bl. Pope Pius IX, in the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius from Vatican I, in dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium from Vatican II, and so on, and so forth.

One thing I learned yesterday is that the ordinary magisterium (which the Church didn’t really start discussing in earnest until the late 19th century) can be infallible but isn’t always so. Another is that the ordinary universal magisterium is usually infallible, but some theologians can point to exceptions. (One example I came across involved the teaching in the Catechism of Trent about delayed animation — the idea that the soul enters the body some time after conception vs. more recent magisterial teachings that say ensoulment happens at conception. Both things having been taught at the level of ordinary universal magisterium.)

I was also given cause to reflect on the difference between a truth that is infallible and one that is without error. As one theologian who wrote to me yesterday made the distinction:

There is indeed a distinction between an infallible statement and an error free statement.

But an infallible statement is precisely a statement that *cannot possibly* be in error.

X *is not* false does not equal infallible.
X *cannot possibly be* false equals infallible.

It’s one thing to read all of this and say, “Sure, that makes sense.” It’s another entirely to have it mapped out so clearly in your head that when you’re having a casual conversation (or worse, a Twitter argument with the guy who doesn’t care much for your rebuttal to his sloppy article saying AL is Magisterial so we all need to just shut up) you never fail to make an important qualification. For my part, I’d certainly prefer to leave this topic to the experts. The headache I ended each day’s writing with for the past two days is not something I’d wish on anyone. (Except maybe Stephen Walford or Austin Ivereigh. But only if they actually learned something.)

Since I’m unlikely to have seen the last of this topic, however much I might wish to move on, last night, Mike Sirilla wrote up a Magisterium “cheat sheet” and sent it to me. It’s a work in progress and subject to revision, but since I thought it might be helpful to all of the theology nerds following along at home, and he graciously gave me permission to publish it and put his name on it. He reminded me that theologians are still hammering out the finer points on this stuff, and there’s a constant process of evaluation of what fits where. “This is really important,” he said, “because Christ gave a share of His teaching office to the bishops and the pope.”

I’ll include the text of his outline below, but here’s a link to a PDF version if you want to download it and/or print it out.


A “Cheat Sheet”/Quick Reference Guide


Magisterium: the teaching office of a pope or a bishop in union with the pope;

Extraordinary magisterium: non-ordinary solemn teaching

Ordinary magisterium: part of the regular teaching duties

Universal magisterium: taught to the entire Church

Infallible (irreformable): unable to be in error due to a special charism from Christ and, therefore, unable to be reformed

Non-infallible (reformable): able to be false (very rare) and, therefore, able to be reformed (which means clarified, corrected – even overturned/contradicted – see e.g.’s below)

* * *

The following outline is drawn from my Fundamental Theology class notes and from the CDF document “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei”:

I. Dogmas of divine and catholic faith:

A. Doctrines that are “divinely and formally revealed”

B. Manner and quality of proposal – infallible in each instance:

1.) Extraordinary Magisterium:

a.) Papal: “ex cathedra” solemn definitions

b.) Solemn definitions of ecumenical councils:

2.) Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

a.) Pope alone: confirmation or re-affirmation of a doctrine

b.) Bishops in communion with the pope teaching something to be held definitively as revealed.

C. Assent: theological faith

D. Censure: Heresy

E. Examples:

1.) The articles of faith of the Creed

2.) Christological and Marian dogmas

3.) Doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace

II. Definitive teachings on faith and morals (or intrinsically connected to faith and morals):

A. Teachings that are not proposed as being formally revealed (i.e., they may or may not be revealed, but they are not proposed by the magisterium as being revealed).

B . Manner and quality of proposal – infallible in each instance

1. ) Extraordinary Magisterium:

a.) Papal: “ex cathedra” solemn definitions

b.) Solemn definitions of ecumenical councils:

2.) Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

a.) Pope alone: confirmation or re-affirmation of a doctrine

b.) Bishops in communion with the pope teaching something to be held definitively as revealed.

C. Assent: firmly to be accepted and held based on “faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church’s Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters”

D. Censure: loss of full communion with the Catholic Church

E. Examples:

1.) Logical connection to divine revelation (by implication, these may be able to be declared as divinely revealed):

a.) The doctrine of papal infallibility before Vatican I

b.) Doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men

c.) The illicitness of euthanasia

d.) Illicitness of prostitution

e.) Illicitness of fornication

2.) Necessary historical connection to divine revelation (not able to be declared as divinely revealed):

a.) The legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff

b.) The legitimacy of the celebration of an ecumenical council

c.) The canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts)

d.) The declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the Apostolic Letter Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations

III. Non-definitive teachings of the magisterium:

A. Teachings on faith and morals (or connected thereto) presented as true (or at least as sure) that have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium

B. Manner of proposal: ordinary and universal Magisterium (the pope alone, or pope and bishops together)

***These teachings are NOT infallible and therefore they are reformable (i.e., able to be modified, clarified, corrected, or contradicted/overturned)

C. Assent: Religious submission of will and intellect

D. Censure: Erroneous or (regarding prudential teachings) rash/dangerous

E. Examples:

a.) The teaching of Florence that the matter of Holy Orders is the handing on of the instruments

           b.) The teaching of the Roman Catechism (Catechism of the Council of Trent) on delayed animation

c.) JPII’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae that capital punishment may only be used for a polis to defend itself (“self-defense”)

d.) Global warming is real and it is caused by man (Laudato Si)

e.) Gaudium et Spes, a. 24, First and greatest commandment is love of God and of neighbor





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