Summoned by Pope Francis, bishops from around the world will hold a summit at the Vatican from February 21-24, 2019. The bishops, under the leadership of the pope, make up the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
It is the Magisterium that makes Catholicism different from every other religion. Yet many Catholics do not understand the term or the meaning of Magisterium. This might be an especially good time for a brief summary of the role of the Magisterium in practicing the Catholic Faith.
Jesus Christ, Our Lord, had many followers; but Jesus Himself chose some of His disciples to be the leaders of the rest, as we see in Matthew 10:1-4, Mark 3:13-19, and Luke 6:12-16. Those leaders were the Twelve Apostles. All of the Apostles were disciples, but not all of the disciples were Apostles.
Key examples of Jesus sharing His authority with the Twelve Apostles can be found in the Gospels: Matthew 10:1-15, 19:28, 28:16-20; Mark 6:7-13, 16:15-16, 19-20; Luke 9:1-5, 24:46-49; and Acts 1:8, 2:37-43. Jesus ate the Last Supper only with the Twelve Apostles (Matthew 26:20, Mark 14:17, Luke 22:14). Revelation 21:14 shows the Twelve Apostles as the foundation of the New Jerusalem (the Kingdom of God). The Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the mission Jesus gave the Twelve Apostles in paragraphs 857-860.
The eleven Apostles who remained faithful to Jesus knew Him better than anyone else in history, with the exception of His holy mother, Mary. With their firsthand knowledge of Jesus and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Twelve Apostles (with Matthias replacing Judas) chose men to be their successors and continue their work. The successors of the Twelve Apostles are the bishops. Every current bishop was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, who was ordained in the line back through history to the Twelve Apostles. This process is called the Apostolic Succession.
Apostolic Succession is documented by Clement in 96 AD, Ignatius of Antioch in 107 AD, Hegesippus in 180 AD, Irenaeus in 189 AD, Tertullian in 200 AD, Cyprian of Carthage in 253 AD, Jerome in 396 AD, and Augustine in 397 AD. The Catechism covers Apostolic Succession in paragraphs 85, 860-862, and 880.
Jesus also chose one of His Apostles to be the leader of the group of Twelve, and that was St. Peter. He is the rock on which Jesus built His church (Matthew 16:18). The Twelve Apostles were the leaders of the disciples, and St. Peter was the leader of the leaders.
In many Scripture passages, Peter is the one who speaks for the Twelve Apostles. Jesus gave Peter the “keys of the Kingdom” (Matthew 16:19), just as the kings of ancient Israel gave the keys of their kingdom to their second-in-command. Peter often took action when the other Apostles did not, as in Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 1:36, and John 18:10. Peter was the first of the Twelve Apostles to see Jesus’ empty tomb on the day of the Resurrection (Luke 24:34, John 20:1-8, and 1 Corinthians 15:5). In Luke 22:31-32, it was only to Peter that Jesus gave the job of strengthening the other Apostles. In John 21:15-17, Jesus, the Risen Lord, made Peter alone the shepherd of His flock. The disciple whose name is mentioned in the Gospels more frequently than any other disciple is Peter.
St. Linus succeeded St. Peter, and the ongoing succession of Bishops of Rome eventually came to be known as “popes,” a term of endearment meaning “father”’ or “papa” in Latin/Italian. Just as St. Peter was one of the Twelve Apostles, the pope is one of the bishops. Some years after the Ascension, St. Peter left Jerusalem and ended up in Rome. He was the first Bishop of Rome and was eventually put to death there by the Roman emperor Nero on the hill called Vatican Hill. Every pope is the Bishop of Rome. St. Peter’s tomb is directly under the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Just as St. Peter was the leader of the Twelve Apostles, the pope is the leader of the Bishops, a doctrine called Papal Primacy.
Papal Primacy is documented by Hermas in 80 AD, Clement in 96 AD, Dionysius of Corinth in 170 AD, Irenaeus in 189 AD, Tertullian in 200 AD, Cyprian of Carthage in 251 AD, Firmilian in 253 AD, Eusebius of Caesarea in 312 AD, Pope Julius I in 341 AD, the Council of Sardica in 342 AD, Optatus in 367 AD, Epiphanius of Salamis in 375 AD, Jerome in 396 AD, Ambrose of Milan in 388 AD, Augustine in 412 AD, the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, Peter Chrysologus in 449 AD, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. The Catechism covers it in paragraphs 85, 862, and 881-885.
The Power of the Magisterium
In the Catholic Church, all power comes from Christ. The Church is not a democracy (Catechism, 864, 874). As we see in paragraph 553 of the Catechism, Jesus has given St. Peter and the popes who succeed him the spiritual power to be the final authority in both doctrine and discipline.
- Doctrine is a specific teaching that makes both Revelation and Faith clearer and is true for all times and places. After Jesus’ time on earth, He most directly reveals Himself in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church. Jesus entrusted the authority to interpret Revelation only to the Magisterium. These interpretations are expressed in doctrine.
- Discipline consists of the laws and rules of the Catholic Church that should be followed in order for one to be fully a disciple of Christ. In the context of the Church, discipline is not a synonym for punishment, as it tends to be in everyday language. An important source of discipline is the Code of Canon Law, although discipline is set forth in many other documents, such as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which lays out liturgical discipline.
An important difference between doctrine and discipline is that doctrines cannot change because they define the Catholic Faith, but disciplines can change because they are applications of the Faith to specific situations of the Church. Some examples might help. It is a doctrine that the consecrated bread and wine are really the Body and Blood of Christ, whereas the language used at Mass, e.g., Latin or English, is a discipline. It is a doctrine that only men can be ordained as deacons, priests, or bishops, whereas it is a discipline that priests cannot get married (in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, as opposed to its Eastern Rite). The date on which Easter is celebrated is a discipline, but the Resurrection is a doctrine.
Infallibility is the charism of remaining free from doctrinal error. Under certain conditions, both the pope and the bishops united with him are infallible (Catechism, 889-892). Pope and bishops can be infallible when they teach any doctrine that is definitive and necessary for keeping true to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (which together are called the Deposit of Faith). The pope alone can teach doctrine infallibly under certain conditions, called ex cathedra (that is, “from the chair” of his papal authority), although very few doctrines have been declared as infallible ex cathedra. The body of bishops can also teach doctrines infallibly in an ecumenical council that is in union with the pope.
No other gathering of bishops is infallible. Since Vatican II, bishops have regularly met in two ways: (1) national conferences in their own countries, and (2) summits in Rome convened by the pope and attended by representatives of the bishops’ conferences. The decisions of these assemblies – and of the bishops’ summit in February – have no authority over an individual bishop in his own diocese unless the pope adds his authority to it.
Neither the pope nor a bishop has the authority to contradict doctrine, even what may be called non-infallible doctrine. Vatican I decreed: “[T]he Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles” (emphasis added).
The pope and bishops are not infallible in any other way. They are not infallible when they make decisions about discipline. The charism of infallibility applies only to matters of faith and morals and does not make the pope and bishops more intelligent or knowledgeable than they were before they received their offices. The charism of infallibility does not make the pope and bishops unable to commit personal sins. The process for selecting bishops is not infallible, and the conclave that elects the pope is not infallible, which is why there have been bad bishops and bad popes in the long history of the Catholic Church.
Must we always agree with the Magisterium?
In order to be a good Catholic, one must agree with all doctrine defined by the Magisterium because it is nothing less than the teaching of Christ. Doctrine is a great gift from God given so that we might know Him more clearly.
In order to be a good Catholic, one should also agree with all discipline given by the Magisterium. Discipline, too, is a great gift from God. Even when the Magisterium makes a mistake about discipline, good Catholics do their best to cooperate as constructively as possible.
Likewise, to be a good Catholic, one does not have to agree with a pope or bishop’s social analysis, prudential judgment, spirituality, or personal theological opinion. For example, the Catechism (2691) suggests that every Catholic household have a “prayer corner” dedicated to prayer with spiritual items like a Bible, religious art, etc. While this is a helpful suggestion, it is just that – a suggestion, not doctrine nor a discipline. Every Catholic household is not required to have a prayer corner.
Keep the Faith!
We should have absolute faith only in God and His Revelation, not in men. Knowing so helps us to maintain our faith – the Faith – when we become aware of corruption or incompetence within the hierarchy of the Church. We should respect the divine offices of bishop and pope while realizing that the men holding those offices have and may continue to fall with respect to human judgments and the moral life. Sin, including sin committed by clergy, confirms the truth of Catholic moral doctrine; namely, when Catholic moral doctrine is obeyed, there is no sin.
The indications are that the February summit of bishops will address the Church’s sex abuse scandal in the Church. It remains to be seen whether the summit will also deal with other scandals:
- The cover-up by current bishops of abuses committed by other bishops;
- The failure to acknowledge that the great majority of the abuse has been male-to-male, and therefore homosexual in nature;
- Ephebophilia—the most widespread form of sexual abuse, which is the sexual abuse of post-pubescent minors, the great majority of whom were adolescent boys in the stages of puberty while they were still minors, including seminarians;
- Clergy who are sexually active with consenting adults, especially the promiscuity among the clergy;
- Clergy who publicly contradict Catholic sexual doctrine.
If the summit fails to address any of these scandals, we can still have faith in Jesus Christ, His Father, and their Holy Spirit, the essence of the Church, and the office of the Magisterium. Let us pray for conversion to doctrine and correct discipline wherever it is needed, including in our own souls.