On the Modes of Exercise of the Magisterium – Part I

Editor’s note: As we continue our exploration of the Church’s magisterium in light of some more recently troubling papal documents, we are pleased to introduce this work from Dr. des. John P. Joy. Joy wrote his doctoral dissertation in dogmatic theology “On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council” (SThD diss., University of Fribourg, Switzerland, 2017). He is also the Co-Founder and President of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies and resides in Madison, Wisconsin.

(Part I of a two-part series. Read Part II here.)


The State of the Question

The Chair of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

If one consults books, internet articles, etc., on the various modes of operation of the Church’s magisterium, one is likely to find a bewildering array of differing descriptions of the matter with different theologians using the terms ‘extraordinary magisterium’, ‘ordinary magisterium,’ and ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ in different ways to mean different things.

Most theologians agree that the ‘extraordinary magisterium’ refers to the solemn and infallible judgments or definitions of popes and ecumenical councils. But they disagree about what counts as a solemn judgment or definition.

  1. Some would include any proposition of a matter of faith or morals that is set forth in a definitive way, that is, with the manifest intention of obliging the faithful to hold or believe it.
  2. Others would include only the definitive proposition of dogmas, that is, matters of faith or morals set forth specifically as divinely revealed truths.
  3. Still others would restrict this category still further to include only the definitive proposition of new dogmas, that is, matters of faith or morals set forth as divinely revealed truths which up until then had been open to legitimate dispute.

(I am convinced that the first position can be shown to be the correct one, but that is an essay for another day.)

Then regarding the ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’, most theologians agree that this is exercised by the college of bishops in union with the pope in their state of dispersion throughout the world.

  1. Some, taking the term ‘universal’ to refer to this universal dispersion of the bishops, extend their use of the term ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ no further than this.
  2. But others, taking the term ‘universal’ to refer instead to the universality of the episcopal college itself, also apply the term ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ to the non-solemn teaching of ecumenical councils.
  3. Still others, taking the term ‘universal’ to refer to the extension of authority over the universal Church, also apply the term ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ to the magisterium of the pope when he is teaching the universal Church without speaking ex cathedra.

I will argue in this essay that the first position is the correct one.

Finally, there is the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ without the addition of ‘universal’. Most theologians agree that this category includes whatever is left over from the other two categories, though the details of what exactly is included here will vary greatly depending on how broadly or restrictively one understands those other two categories.

 

The Question of Infallibility

As if all this weren’t enough, there is also the question of infallibility. Most theologians agree that the extraordinary magisterium is always infallible and that the ordinary and universal magisterium at least can be infallible (some hold that it is always infallible). And most agree that the ordinary magisterium (non-universal) is not infallible.

The most significant diversity of opinion turns on how one deals with the fact that the Church teaches (e.g. in Lumen gentium 25): that the pope and ecumenical councils are infallible when they define doctrine (extraordinary magisterium); and that the bishops dispersed throughout the world are infallible when they propose a doctrine as definitively to be held (ordinary and universal magisterium). Why do the bishops appear to have two modes of infallible teaching while the pope has only one?

1.) Most theologians hold that the proposition of a doctrine as definitively to be held by a pope or a council is not enough to constitute a definition of the extraordinary magisterium.

a.) Some of these, arguing that the pope’s infallibility cannot be more limited than the bishops’ and that the bishops gathered in council cannot have less authority than the same bishops dispersed throughout the world, conclude that when a pope or a council proposes a doctrine as definitively to be held, they do so infallibly in virtue of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

b.) Others argue that the ‘dissymmetry’ in the Church’s teaching between papal and episcopal infallibility is deliberate and that there is no such thing as an infallible ordinary magisterium of the pope or an infallible papal exercise of the ordinary and universal magisterium, so that a pope who proposes a doctrine as definitively to be held does not do so infallibly whereas the bishops dispersed throughout the world (and perhaps also the bishops gathered in council?) are infallible when they propose a doctrine as definitively to be held.

c.) Another option, however, which is mostly overlooked on account of the confusion about the nature of the extraordinary magisterium, is to deny the presupposition of both the above positions and hold instead that the proposition of a doctrine as definitively to be held by a pope or an ecumenical council simply is a definition and that the bishops’ unique mode of teaching definitively without defining is due to the state of dispersion in which it occurs. (I hold that this last position is the correct one.)

The degree of confusion in these matters can be seen especially clearly in the case of Pope John Paul II’s declaration in Ordinatio sacerdotalis regarding the reservation of the priesthood to males alone.

1.) Some regard this declaration as an infallible definition of the extraordinary magisterium because in it the pope, acting as supreme head of the Church, proposes a doctrine of faith or morals as definitively to be held.

2.) Others regard it as an exercise of the ordinary magisterium because it defined nothing new but only confirmed what had always been held and taught in the Church.

a.) But some among these regard it as an infallible act of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

b.) Others argue that it the ordinary and universal magisterium can only be exercised by the universal episcopate and not by the pope alone and so this declaration can only belong to the non-infallible ordinary papal magisterium.

(I believe that the first position can be shown to be the correct one, but again, that is an essay for another day.)

 

A Question of Context

I am convinced that the root of the confusion surrounding these issues is the assumption that the terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium refers to just one distinction, whereas in fact it applies to two separate but overlapping distinctions in two separate but overlapping contexts. The result is that the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ in particular is highly ambiguous (it means different things in different contexts) and thus arguments involving the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ easily fall into the fallacy of equivocation.

Let me begin by setting out these two different contexts in which the terminology of ordinary and extraordinary arises. The original context is that of the rule of faith (regula fidei) within the field of fundamental theology. The focus here is on the nature of divine revelation, the virtue of faith as man’s response to divine revelation, the relationship between faith and reason, Scripture and Tradition as the sources of divine revelation, and the role of the Church in safeguarding and transmitting divine revelation. At Vatican I, this was treated in Dei Filius, the dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith; at Vatican II, this was treated in Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation.

The second context in which the same terminology arises is the nature of the Church within the field of ecclesiology. The focus here is on the nature of the Church, the members of the Church, the hierarchical structure of the Church, authority and jurisdiction in the Church, the Church’s mission of teaching, governing, and sanctifying, etc. At Vatican I, this was treated in Pastor Aeternus, the first dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ (a second constitution was intended but never completed); at Vatican II, this was treated in Lumen gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church.

 

The Origins of the Terminology

The terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium was invented by the German Jesuit neo-scholastic theologian Joseph Kleutgen in the middle of the 19th century in the context of his treatise on the rule of faith. The first question he set out to answer in his massive and highly influential work Die Theologie der Vorzeit verteidigt (a defense of scholastic theology) was: what are Catholics obliged to believe? And his principal concern in answering this question was to oppose the dogmatic minimalism, especially prevalent in contemporary German theology, according to which Catholics are only obliged to believe what has been formally and infallibly defined by the Church. Against this idea, he asserts that the Church exercises a double magisterium: the one is “ordinary and perpetual” (ordentlich und immerwährend) and it consists in all those ongoing apostolates of the Church by which the faith is handed down through the living tradition; the other is “extraordinary” (außerordentlich) and is used only at special times when false teachers disturb the Church (Kleutgen, Die Theologie, 1st ed., 47).

What did he mean by these terms and what exactly was the nature of the distinction between them? In Kleutgen’s works, the term ‘extraordinary magisterium’ refers to the explicit definitions of the Church in matters of faith and morals (see especially Die Theologie, 40–46). Let us look at each part of this definition in turn:

  • The object of the extraordinary magisterium is ‘matters of faith and morals’, whether contained directly in the deposit of faith (primary object) or intrinsically connected to the deposit of faith (secondary object).
  • The subject of the extraordinary magisterium is ‘the Church’, which means that it can be exercised only by those who bear supreme authority in the Church, namely the pope and the college of bishops (which includes the pope).
  • The act of the extraordinary magisterium is the act of ‘definition’, which means that the doctrine in question is proposed to the Church in a ‘definitive’ or ‘conclusive’ way as something that must be firmly believed or definitively held.
  • The distinguishing feature of the extraordinary magisterium as compared with the ordinary magisterium lies in the fact that its definitive teaching is ‘explicit’, which means that it is visibly and tangibly enshrined in a public document of the magisterium.

What, then, does Kleutgen intend by the term ‘ordinary magisterium’? The term ‘ordinary magisterium’ refers to the organic transmission of the contents of divine revelation through the living tradition of the Church (see especially Die Theologie, 46–53). Let us again look at each part of this definition:

  • The object of the ordinary magisterium is ‘the contents of divine revelation’, which is the same as saying ‘matters of faith and morals’.
  • The subject of the ordinary magisterium is ‘the Church’, which Kleutgen specifies as meaning the body of bishops in union with their head the pope (Die Theologie, 42).
  • The activity of the ordinary magisterium is the ‘organic transmission’ of divine revelation, which refers to the daily teaching, preaching, and handing on of the faith that occurs within the Church through her ‘living tradition’.
  • The distinguishing feature of the ordinary magisterium as compared with the extraordinary magisterium lies in its relative intangibility; it is the infallible teaching of the Church that occurs apart from the formal and visible documents of the Church’s magisterium.

The last point requires further explanation. The teaching of the extraordinary magisterium is found by looking within the documents of the magisterium; the teaching of the ordinary magisterium, by contrast, is found by looking outside the formal teaching documents of the magisterium to all the other sources of the living tradition, and in the first place to Scripture itself. Since the Church proposes all of Scripture as the divinely revealed word of God, as soon as one sees that a truth is clearly proposed in Scripture, one can also see that it is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed truth and so one must accept and believe it as a dogma of faith (i.e. taught by the ordinary magisterium). It would be heresy to deny, for example, that Christ was transfigured on the mount, that the holy family fled to Egypt, or that Christians have a moral duty to love their enemies, even though none of these things have been formally defined by the Church. And then together with Sacred Scripture one looks to the writings of the Church Fathers, who are the privileged witnesses of Sacred Tradition, and then also to the Doctors of the Church and other eminent Catholic theologians, to the customs, liturgies, and laws of the Church, to the monuments of antiquity, the consensus of the faithful, and the statements of individual bishops and local councils.

Kleutgen’s main purpose in speaking at all about an ‘ordinary magisterium’ was to re-assert against the dogmatic minimalists of his time (who are still with us today) the binding authority of the living tradition of the Church; he wanted to re-direct our attention away from an obsessive fixation on the formal teaching documents of the Church toward the broader horizons and greater depths of the entire living tradition. At the same time, however, he was also wary of asserting the authority of Scripture and Tradition apart from the explicit judgments of the Church without linking them in some way to the magisterium in order to maintain (against the Protestant principle of private interpretation) the Catholic principle of ecclesiastical mediation according to which Catholics believe all that and only that which God has revealed and which has been proposed as such by the Church. Hence his reinterpretation of the living tradition of the Church, by which Scripture and the oral Tradition are perpetually handed down in the Church, as an exercise of the magisterium of the Church.

There are two concluding points worth emphasizing about Kleutgen’s understanding of the ordinary magisterium.

First, the ordinary magisterium is exercised only by the whole Church in its state of being dispersed throughout the world for the quite simple and obvious reason that the teaching of popes and ecumenical councils are necessarily formal and explicit acts of teaching formulated in public documents of the supreme magisterium (which is exactly what the teaching of the ordinary magisterium is not). Hence, for Kleutgen it would be quite absurd to talk about an ecumenical council or a pope exercising the ordinary magisterium as is commonly done today.

Second, in Kleutgen’s writings there is no distinction between an ‘ordinary magisterium’ and an ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’. There is only one ordinary magisterium and it is always infallible. Because he is writing in the context of the rule of faith, only the infallible teaching of the Church comes into view, for only infallible teaching can oblige the faithful to give an assent of faith. Non-infallible teaching does not constitute part of the rule of faith because the response due to the non-infallible but still authoritative teaching of the Church is a religious submission (obsequium religiosum) rather than the submission of faith (obsequium fidei). The distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary magisterium occurs for Kleutgen within the context of the Church’s infallible teaching as a distinction between doctrines that have been defined as of faith (de fide definita) and doctrines that are of faith (de fide) even without having been defined as such (de fide non definita).

 

Pope Pius IX and Vatican I

The substance of Kleutgen’s teaching on the ordinary magisterium was taken up and confirmed by Pope Pius IX in the apostolic letter Tuas libenter and by the First Vatican Council in the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius. In each of these documents the same distinction (between the explicit judgments or definitions of the Church and the ordinary magisterium of the Church) is introduced in the same context (the rule of faith) in order to oppose the same problem (dogmatic minimalism):

Pope Pius IX: “For even if it were a matter of that submission which must be manifested by an act of divine faith, nevertheless, this would not have to be limited to those matters that have been defined by explicit decrees of ecumenical councils or by the Roman pontiffs and by this Apostolic See, but would also have to be extended to those matters transmitted as divinely revealed by the ordinary magisterium of the whole Church dispersed throughout the world and, for that reason, held by the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians as belonging to the faith” (Tuas libenter, Denz. 2879).

Vatican I: “All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith that are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which by the Church, either in solemn judgment or through her ordinary and universal magisterium, are proposed for belief as having been divinely revealed” (Dei Filius, Denz. 3011).

The discussions that took place among the fathers of the First Vatican Council and the official explanations and clarifications of the intended meaning of the text that can be found in the conciliar acta make it clear that the intended sense of this distinction in the conciliar text corresponds closely to the way in which Kleutgen understood it. An important point is that the word ‘universal’ was added to the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ specifically in order to express the same thing that Pius IX had expressed in speaking of the “ordinary magisterium dispersed throughout the world” and in order to make it clear that the text did not speak about a papal exercise of the magisterium (Mansi 51:322).

There is still no distinction between an ‘ordinary magisterium’ and an ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’. The ordinary magisterium simply is universal in the sense that it is exercised by the Church dispersed throughout the world (as opposed to by the pope or an ecumenical council). No explanation of this is given in the magisterial texts themselves, but if we understand that the ordinary magisterium refers to the transmission of Scripture and Tradition through the living tradition outside the documents of the magisterium, then it makes perfect sense why this must be the case.

 

A Shift in Meaning and Application

An important shift occurred in the understanding and use of these terms after Vatican I. After the definition of papal infallibility, it was generally understood that the pope exercised the extraordinary magisterium in his solemn definitions ex cathedra; but many of the magisterial acts of the popes clearly fell short of being solemn definitions ex cathedra; thus they were attributed to an ordinary magisterium exercised by the pope. The concept of an ordinary papal magisterium was thus born and this had several effects.

The first effect was a distortion in the original meaning of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’. Since this ‘ordinary’ teaching of the popes (for example, in their encyclical letters) was quite explicit and documented, Kleutgen’s emphasis on the ordinary magisterium as a means of transmitting the faith apart from the explicit documents of the hierarchy faded from view. The concept of an ordinary magisterium, which had been intended to move beyond a narrow focus on the statements of the hierarchy toward a broader view of the rule of faith grounded in Scripture, Tradition, the liturgy, etc., was reinterpreted as just another kind of magisterial document.

A further result of this distortion was a new application of the same terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium to a different distinction. The same terminology that had been used within the context of the rule of faith to distinguish between defined and undefined doctrines of faith, now began to be applied within the context of the evaluation of individual acts of magisterial teaching to distinguish between definitive and non-definitive acts of explicitly documented magisterial teaching. And this new distinction has been superimposed upon the original distinction, as illustrated below:

The root of the difficulty is this: if the extraordinary magisterium is the organ of Church teaching that is at once both explicit and definitive, then two very different kinds of teaching can be contrasted against it, and both will appear to be ‘ordinary’ by comparison. One is the teaching of the Church that is definitive but not explicit, and this is what Kleutgen had in mind, and what was intended by the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ as it was used by Pius IX and by Vatican I. The other is the teaching of the Church that is explicit but not definitive, and this appears to be what Pius XII, for example, has in mind in Humani generis when he calls for a religious assent (but not an assent of faith) to the teaching contained in papal encyclical letters. The former ‘ordinary magisterium’ is the infallible living tradition itself; the latter ‘ordinary magisterium’ is the authentic but not infallible magisterium of the pope and bishops. These are completely opposite forms of teaching, sharing in common only the fact that neither is a third thing, namely the extraordinary magisterium. Calling them both by the same name is a little bit like calling angels and apes by the same name simply because neither are men.

Let me repeat that point. I am convinced that the most important thing to understand, in order to gain some clarity regarding the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium, is that this terminology covers not one distinction but two. One usage refers to the distinction between defined and undefined doctrines taught infallibly by the Church; another usage refers to the distinction between infallible and merely authentic acts of teaching. And whereas the meaning of the term ‘extraordinary’ is the same in both cases, the two meanings of ‘ordinary’ are very different. It is this ambiguity of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ that breeds constant confusion and derails so many arguments.

 

Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council completely avoided the use of the terminology of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium in its constitution on the Church Lumen gentium, which outlines three basic forms of magisterial teaching: (1) the authentic (i.e. authoritative) but not infallible teaching of the pope and bishops; (2) the infallible definitions of popes and ecumenical councils; and (3) the infallible teaching of the bishops dispersed throughout the world (a footnote referring to Tuas libenter and Dei Filius makes it clear that this is a reference to the ordinary and universal magisterium).

I believe that much confusion could be avoided if we were to follow the example of Lumen gentium in speaking consistently of the ‘authentic magisterium’ of popes and bishops when it is a question of their non-infallible teaching, while reserving the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ for the infallible teaching of the Church dispersed throughout the world.

And we would do well to pay closer attention to employing the right distinction in the right context. When it is a question of evaluating the degree of authority exercised in an individual act of teaching and the response owed to that particular act of teaching, the relevant distinction is between definitive and non-definitive acts of teaching; that is, between the exercise of the ‘infallible magisterium’ or the ‘merely authentic magisterium’ (following Lumen gentium, where the context is the magisterium).

When it is a question of evaluating the status of a given doctrine and the source of our obligation to believe or hold that doctrine, then the relevant distinction is between defined and undefined doctrines taught by the Church; that is, between the ‘extraordinary magisterium’ and the ‘ordinary magisterium’ (following Dei Filius, where the context is the rule of faith).

The ambiguity of the term ‘ordinary magisterium’ makes this topic unnecessarily complex. If we would only resolve the ambiguity by substituting the term ‘authentic magisterium’ for ‘ordinary magisterium’ whenever we are dealing with magisterial documents that do not contain solemn definitions, the whole question would immediately become much clearer and simpler, which would be a good thing if our goal is clarity and truth rather than confusion and obfuscation.

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