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A Succinct History of the Magisterium in Ecclesiology

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When looking at a complete understanding of ecclesiology, or the study of church, I want to focus on the magisterium. Most people identify the Catholic Church with the pope, the Vatican, and the hierarchy of the church as a unit. Being instituted by Christ, abused during the Middle Ages, and facing reform in a post Vatican II church, there is a lot that goes into identifying the magisterium. I want to make it my goal to unpack the highlights and how we as the laity, the body of Christ, is to interact and understand the magisterium today.

The term magisterium comes from the latin word “magister” which means teacher. Above all else, the magisterium, using the marriage of scripture and tradition, is the official teaching of the Church. This authority to bring the Word of God to the faithful was given by Christ to his apostles. Our Lord says in Matthew’s gospel, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18–19 NABRE) Jesus has given to the apostle Peter, and thus appropriately to all of the apostles, a foundation. This group of men were going to be the building blocks our Lord uses to build his church, and given divine authority to bind and loosen. Better said, to make firm or not things regarding the teaching of our Lord. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord addresses the apostles again this time saying ““All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20 NABRE) Here we see the use of teaching, our Lord making the apostles teachers. More importantly are the last few words, “I am with you always.” Although our Lord is giving these humans authority to teach what they have learned and observed, this church will in no way be only of man. Christ continues to dwell in his church, He is establishing a teaching authority that will always be divinely influenced.

It is clear these chosen twelve were given authority to teach, but how did that translate to the modern day? We see Peter in the first chapter of Acts stand up in front of his brothers and address the situation of Judas. Saying “He was numbered among us and was allotted a share in this ministry.” (Acts 1:17 NABRE) Then referencing the Psalm, states “May another take his office.” Even in the beginning, the apostles recognized the importance of finding replacements to continue on the teaching authority. It was already being referred to as a ministry and an office, something official. Saint Paul makes multiple references to appointing presbyters to lead the local churches being established. This group of men even went so far as to conjure a meeting to ensure they were all teaching the same sound doctrine. We read: “The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter. After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them…” (Acts 15:6–7 NABRE) We again see Peter acting as a leader of this group—but still equal. It is not his word over all, but rather he is the one who echoes the unified voice of the men. We are beginning to see the magisterium take form.

As the Church begins to take shape and Christianity spreads across the globe, we begin to see a greater need for a unified magisterium. From 325 to 787, we saw seven Ecumenical Councils convened. From these councils we saw doctrine defined that was essential to the contemporary Christian of the time and to combat heresy and organizations looking to teach something other than the authentic truth. Nicea gave us the creed, our statement of belief we still profess every Sunday at Mass. These labors of love produced by the magisterium were an attempt to give to the faithful the most authentic teaching of Christ in order to direct our lives in the direction of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch declared “the see of Peter presides over the assembly of love” This quote encapsulates these early members of the magisterium. They were servants to the assembly of God, one which is love. We will expand upon this idea in Vatican II, but it feels appropriate now.

As we progress into the Middle Ages, we see the birth of the Protestant Reformation, corrupt bishops, and a true lack of understanding. An increase in the sciences brought about questions regarding religion and philosophy. Education was vastly more accessible and the Church for the first time was truly tested with what to do when people question faith. Not only when we refer to the magisterium are we referring to the Bishops collectively, we can refer to a papal decree and the question of papal infallibility arises. “In the Decretum of Gratian, by a 12th-century canon lawyer, the pope is attributed the legal right to pass judgment in theological disputes, but he was certainly not guaranteed freedom from error. The pope’s role was to establish limits within which theologians, who were often better suited for the full expression of truth, could work. Thus, the pope’s authority was as a judge, not an infallible teacher.” (Glenn W. Olsen, Of Sodomites, Effeminates, Hermaphrodites, and Androgynes: Sodomy in the Age of Peter Damian.) We are now seeing a shift in the magisterium from the ideas and teachings of solely the Bishops to the introduction of theologians and consultants to assist the magisterium. This shift is a shift in the overall ecclesiology of the Church.

In 1868, Pope Pius IX opened the First Vatican Council. Best known for the publication of the document “Pastor Aeternus”, or “Eternal Shepherd.” This document focuses on the papacy, including: papal primacy, papal supremacy, and papal infallibility. “If anyone, therefore, shall say that Blessed Peter the Apostle was not appointed the Prince of all the Apostles and the visible Head of the whole Church Militant; or that the same, directly and immediately, received from the same, Our Lord Jesus Christ, a primacy of honor only, and not of true and proper jurisdiction; let him be anathema. Thus, whosoever succeeds Peter in this Chair, obtains, by the institution of Christ Himself, the Primacy of Peter over the whole Church. Therefore, the disposition of truth remains, and Blessed Peter, persevering in the fortitude of the Rock that he accepted, has not relinquished the governance of the Church that he received.” (Pastor aeternus) The Pope is given delegated authority over the entire Church because of the above statement. This brought into question, of everything he says, what is teaching and what is not? We see the development of ex cathedra emerge. The authors of the First Vatican Council stated: “We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.” (Pastor Aeternus) This was faced with backlash and the loss of some Churches from the fold but confirmed once and for all the importance of the office of pope. The people of God, who makeup the living body of Christ, who bring the Church and her teachings into the world, who are tasked with evangelizing, now know exactly where to turn for truth, truth that has not been broken because of the apostolic succession of the chair of Peter.

Less than 100 years on, we see Pope Saint John XXIII open the Second Vatican Council. In Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the church, the council fathers again address the role of the magisterium in the church. In paragraph 20 they refer to the bishops as shepherds, divine instituted. So whoever follows them follows Christ and vice versa. The responsibility of the magisterium to authentically preach the Gospel of Christ as teacher is of first priority. They continue on in paragraph 21 to say that episcopal ordination is the fulness of sacred orders. “Can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” The council stresses the necessity of unity. The Church is not individuals but a collective body. The magisterium, through its teaching and guidance, is the glue.

To conclude with the words from Pope Benedict XVI, “It is the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium that sets us free.” The institution of the hierarchy and magisterium of the Church by our Lord was above all to safeguard the truth of the Word of God. This essential role is what allows us to live free. For a life ordered to the will of God is true freedom. In the fulfillment of freedom, man has the ability to be Christ to others, to make the world a better place. Thomas Merton says, “Faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.” (Zen and the Birds of Appetite) So what is church? For me, Church is the Spirit of Christ alive today, held together and governed by the magisterium.


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