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What Every Catholic Should Know About the Magisterium

Just what is Magisterial teaching? It is teaching that comes from the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. Magisterium is a Latin term meaning “teaching”. The Magisterium has three levels: 1) papal, 2) ecumenical councils, and 3) various synods of bishops. These three are the official interpreters of Sacred Scripture (writings) and of Apostolic Tradition (the handing on of something).

However, these groups are not the possessors of Divine Revelation (what God has revealed). The entire Church is in possession of the Word of God. To use an analogy (of sorts), our Federal government in divided into three branches – Executive (the President), Legislative (Congress) and the Supreme Court. While the U.S. is in possession of the Constitution, its official interpretation belongs to the Supreme Court.

Papal Teaching

The Pope has the “divine right” to pronounce dogmatic definitions as often as he deems necessary – both by way of what we call an infallible teaching, when he speaks ex cathedra and by way of non-infallible teachings.

An infallible teaching is a doctrine of the faith that is solemnly defined/proclaimed and must be believed by the faithful. An example of this (and the last time the Pope spoke in ex cathedra) was when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in 1950. Proclaiming something ex cathedra rarely happens; the pronouncement is irreversible and irreformable.

An example of a non-infallible teaching is that embryonic stem-cell research is wrong. It must be obeyed, but it has not been solemnly defined. Non-infallible teachings are the more frequent way that Popes teach.

Ecumenical Councils

In addition to the Pope acting alone, Church councils also teaching infallibly. Read about the very first Church council of the Church in AD 53 – it is the entire chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles whereby it was decided in council that Gentiles coming into the Christian community did not first have to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses by living as a Jew for a while. This decision was binding on the Church, and from AD 53 till now that decision has been held. This chapter in Acts is all that is needed to prove that Church councils are indeed biblical.

Synods of Bishops

The next “level” of Magisterial teaching can come from various groups of bishops. Nationally, the U.S.C.C.B. is working on documentation about the issue/debacle of immigration in the U.S. Locally, a cardinal can also issue decrees that must be followed within the arch-diocese if there is need.

However, what is officially defined must already have been a part of Church teaching and pertain to faith and morals. They cannot proclaim anything new – such as deciding to add Mary and Joseph into the Trinity. What is defined must be done with the intention of binding the faithful.

Our Response

What should be our response to the teachings of the Church? There are three appropriate responses: (1) Credenda, (2) Tenenda and (3) Obsequium Religiosum.

1. Credenda: the assent of Divine Faith – “I believe,” which is self-explanatory.

2. Tenenda: firm holding or assent – speaks to an issue that has been settled for the sake of unity. In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared that the matter of all-male priesthood is closed. Because the Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests, it cannot ever be brought forward to someday be reconsidered.

3. Obsequium Religiosum: a religious submission of mind and will to teaching as presented. A person may not like the teaching (such as that of embryonic stem-cell harvesting) but the person is still bound to assent to it.

Why do we need a Magisterium to begin with? St. Peter insists in his second letter (ch. 2, v. 20) that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation,” because “…untaught and unstable people twist [Scriptures] to their own destruction.” (2 Pet 3:16) The Magisterium is the official interpreter and guardian of the Word of God which gives the Church its unity.


Cindy is working on a Masters in Ministry (MAM) Program for the Laity at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, MA. She is a member of St. anna Parish in Leominster, MA, and coordinates the R.C.I.A. program for two parishes in Gardner, MA. She writes homilies and commentaries for Faith Catholic and blogs at The Carmelite
  • Rick DeLano

    Bravo, excellent and simple exposition of the three levels of assent.

    But what are we to do when a teaching has the character of “credenda” at one time, and is contradicted by a teaching which has the character of “tenenda” or “obsequium” at another?

    This is the SSPX’s whole point, and it seems to me to be a very relevant one.