Read ~ Chapter 7: The Magisterium of the Catholic Church
Father Anthony Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)
The teachings contained in this chapter are based on Holy Scriptures, the Tradition of the Catholic Church [especially the First and Second Vatican Councils, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Fathers of the Church (especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine)], the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (especially Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis). All Apostolic Encyclicals and Letters are found on the Vatican Website: Vatican
The definition of the Magisterium
The Magisterium is the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him: The Magisterium is the official, supreme teaching authority of the Church, made up by the Pope alone and or the Pope and all the bishops in communion with him. It is historically established by Christ on St. Peter and the Apostles; it is extended in the Catholic Church through ordination by the Holy Spirit who guarantees the Apostolic Succession. The Second Vatican Council teaches: “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Dei Verbum, 10:2)
The historical Jesus intended the existence of the Magisterium: The Magisterium has been established on the primacy of St. Peter and his successors, the Popes, whose names are provided by historical sources and the tradition of the Church to the present day. Jesus created the Magisterium to avoid errors of the human mind and to extend in space and time a structure that would ensure teaching the one truth about God and the world. As Vatican II teaches: “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of St. Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” (Lumen Gentium, 23)
The Magisterium of the Catholic Church is not an arbitrary result of historical development of the successors of St. Peter. It was God’s plan from the beginning to govern the Church of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict VI affirms “the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.” (Dominus Iesus, 17; see also Vatican I, Pastor aeternus: DS 3053-3064; Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 22)
The historical Peter as leader of the college of Apostles
Peter the first bishop of Rome, the first Pope: There is no doubt that St. Peter served as the first Bishop of Rome (the Pope is the Bishop of Rome), and died as a martyr in 67 AD. Historically, we know that St. Linus (Pope 67-76 AD) was his successor. All the way to our days, we can name every Pope which shows God’s divine providence to shepherd his Church. This shepherding started with Jesus calling Peter to feed his Lamb and protect his sheep (John 21).
Peter has always been mentioned first on all lists providing the names of the Twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6: 14-16; Acts 1:13).
Peter’s presence in crucial moments in the life of Jesus and the early Church: In the most crucial moments of Jesus’ life, Peter was always the first to personally interact with Jesus. He was part of the inner circle of Jesus along with James and John. His primacy, however, comes directly from Christ and is evident throughout the New Testament.
The list of the Apostles was given four times and the New Testament and every time St. Peter is mentioned first on the top of the list (see Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13)
Jesus invited Peter to follow him and becomes ‘fisher of men.’ Peter’s reaction was: “Lord get away from me, I am a sinner.” (Luke 5:8) Peter acknowledges his unworthiness to be a disciple of the Lord.
Peter doubted when Jesus invited him to walk on water. He saw Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the storm but he couldn’t do it.
Peter strongly reacted when many disciples left Jesus after he talked about his body and blood as true food and true drink (John, 6:66). Jesus then asked the Apostles, “Do you want to leave?” Peter answered “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John, 6:68)
Peter was invited to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Jesus did not allow any of the Apostles to go in and witness her resurrection except Peter, James, and John.
Peter was invited to experience the ecstasy of the Jesus’ Transfiguration. Such an experience was so delightful that Peter did not want to leave the scene.
To Peter the Father revealed that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ (Matthew 16;16). As a result, Jesus established Peter as the human rock on which Jesus will build his Church. “Peter you are the Rock and on this Rock I will build my Church…” (Matthew 16:18) Jesus followed through with his plan, even though Peter, right after confessing that Jesus is the Christ, proceeded to tempt Jesus to abandon his redeeming death. Jesus rebuked Satan speaking through Peter (‘get behind me satan’), and invited Peter to see his cross as the only way to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.
At the last supper, Jesus insisted to wash Peter’s feet teaching him humility and service. As the head of the Church, Peter needed to understand that leadership consists of serving (the Pope today is called the servant of the servants of God).
In Gethsemane Jesus invited Peter to stay up one hour with him and pray so he could overcome the temptation. Peter’s flesh was weak, even though he had a very strong personality and resolution to accompany the Lord
Despite witnessing the miracles and signs that Jesus had performed, Peter still denied him 3 times. He promised to follow Jesus even to death but he did not succeed.
After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter is singled out as a receiver par excellence of the good news. The angel told the women: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you.” (Mark 16:7) So Peter is listed separately then the Apostles as the witness of Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-6; Luke 24:34).
In answer to his 3 denials, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him 3 times. Peter’s answer “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you,” places him at the top of the list of those who convert to Christ.
Peter was given the task to strengthen the brethren in the faith (Luke 22:32) and to feed the sheep of Christ (John 21: 15-17).
Peter presided over the election of Matthias to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus. He was the determining factor of who should be numbered among the Apostles who were with Jesus from the beginning (see Acts 1:15-22).
Peter was the first to preach the Gospel of Christ after the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. As a result, 3000 people joined the Church (see Acts 2:14-40).
Peter heals the beggar at the entrance of the temple: “Silver and gold I have not, but what I have I give you in the name of Jesus Christ, walk.
Peter allowed Gentiles to join the Church as he followed the instruction of the Lord in a vision, thus opening the door of the Church to the pagan world (see Acts 10:9-48).
Peter’s leadership was powerful when disciplining Simon the magician, Sapphira, and Ananias. They suffered the consequences of their dishonesty by the prompting of Peter (see Acts 5:1-11).
Facing the Jewish authorities, Peter defends the Apostles and is not afraid of death as he proclaims the good news (see Acts 3:6-7).
Peter the human Rock of the Church
Jesus establishes his Church on Peter, the Rock: The most important biblical chapter about Peter is Matthew, 16. When Jesus took the Apostles far away from the Jewish center to Caesarea Philippi he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” They said, some people say you are John the Baptist, others say you are the prophet, etc… Jesus asked them, “And you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus told Peter that it is by the revelation of the Father that he is confirming Jesus’ identity as the Christ (see Matthew 16). Therefore, Jesus continues, “Peter you are the rock, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and 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)
Peter the human rock and the Holy Spirit of Truth: Christ wanted the church to have an earthly rock and head: Peter. The keys given to St. Peter (earthly dimension) and the Holy Spirit’s assistance from above (divine dimension) will work hand in hand until the end of time. This cooperation ensures that the One Catholic Church Jesus Christ established will be secure on her journey to receive eternal life and glorification from her Lord. St. Paul urges Timothy to be aware of the Church’s identity as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:14)
The Holy Spirit will keep leading the Church into the entire truth about God and the world (see John 14:16). Pope Pius XII strongly states: “Certainly this teaching authority of the Church, not by any merely human effort but under the protection of the Spirit of truth, and absolutely without error, carries out the commission entrusted to it, that of preserving the revealed truths pure and entire throughout every age, in such a way that it presents them undefined adding nothing to them and taking nothing away from them.” (Pope Pius XII, Defining the Dogma of the Assumption, 12)
Jesus appoints Peter as the earthly shepherd: Another chapter about the role of St. Peter is John, 21. Peter denied Jesus three times but Jesus, after his resurrection, asked him three times in answer to his denial: “Peter do you love me?” Peter answered 3 times “yes Lord you know I love you.” Jesus said 3 times to him: “Tend my sheep; feed my lamb; feed my sheep.”
With this Jesus enthroned him as the earthly shepherd of his church. Why does anyone want to be a part of a church that was not established by Jesus on the rock of St. Peter? The actions of Jesus Christ in history have eternal value and must continue forever in the church by the work of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus established Peter as shepherd of the church, do you think that Jesus will stop St. Peter from shepherding the church or would he want this office until the end of time? Of course, St. Peter’s office will continue forever in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Since the beginning of the Church, St. Peter’s office had an uninterrupted, historical succession until today. St. Paul, talking to the elders of the Ephesians, teaches in this regard: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit made you guardians, to feed the Church of the Lord which he obtained with his blood.” (Acts, 20:28)
It is very important to keep in mind that Jesus established a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension of the Magisterium. The vertical dimension is Jesus’ relationship with St. Peter and his successors; the horizontal dimension is the relationship between St. Peter and the Apostles and the successors of St. Peter and the Catholic Bishops. When the Second Vatican Council was opened and commissions were to be elected, it was necessary that the Bishops knew each other in order to elect the right fathers for the right commissions. Pope Benedict noted that such an interaction on the horizontal level demonstrated the Catholicity of the Catholic Church (Pope Benedict, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 22-25)
The Infallibility of the Pope
Infallibility does not mean that the Pope does not sin: Many people today have the wrong idea about the infallibility of the Pope. The dogma of the Pope’s infallibility does not mean that the Pope cannot sin. The Pope is a human being who is capable of sinning like everyone else in our world. Infallibility and impeccability are not the same thing. The Virgin Mary is the only member of the Church who is immune from sin because of her being the Immaculate Conception.
Interpreting Scripture and Tradition without error: The Magisterium of the Catholic Church guarantees a true interpretation of the Word of God and of the Church’s Sacred Tradition: This Magisterium comprise the Pope (St. Peter’s successor) and the Bishops in communion with him (the Apostles’ successors). Thus St. Paul calls himself “an apostle of Jesus Christ to bring those whom God has chosen to faith and to the knowledge of the truth that leads to true religion.” (Titus 1:1)
Infallibility of the Pope in faith and moral teachings: The infallibility of the Pope means when he, in virtue of his office as the successor of St. Peter (ex cathedra) teaches faith and morals, his teachings are infallible. No Pope so far in the history of the Church came up with a brand new teaching that is totally contradictory to the Tradition of the Catholic Church and the Bible (Deposit of faith). For example, we have never experienced a Pope denying that the Eucharist is the body of Christ, or Mary is not Virgin, etc…
Infallibility of the Pope and Bishops in faith and moral teachings: Not only the Pope but also the Bishops in union with him, are infallible in matters of faith and morals. The letter to the Hebrews summarizes this when it states: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God…Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.” (Heb 13:7 and 9) This is true especially when dogmas of faith are proclaimed as revealed truths and as a part of the Deposit of Faith binding all faithful to accept and believe in them (i.e. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, The Immaculate Conception)
The three conditions of infallibility:
- When the Pope, by a definitive act and in his office as supreme teacher, announces that a certain teaching is infallible.
- When the Pope and all Bishops in communion with him, as the Magisterium, exercise their power over the Church, especially in an Ecumenical Council.
- When the Pope and all the Bishops clarify certain teachings related to faith and morals in order to foster the Church’s understanding of the Deposit of Faith and God’s Divine Revelation.
High esteem to other teachings: How about political, economical, and social issues? We always highly respect the teaching and the position of the Magisterium in those matters. In fact, as Pope Paul VI states, the Church is “expert in humanity.” (Address to the General Assembly of the United Nation (October 4, 1965),1: AAS 57 (1965), 878). But the infallibility is restricted to matters of faith and morals.
Obedience to the Magisterium
The Magisterium comes directly from Christ: To guarantee a sound understanding of the Word of God, to live a Catholic life in conformity with what Jesus wanted us to believe, we must obey the Magisterium. The authority of the Magisterium is not a man made institution; it comes directly from Christ. Vatican II teaches: “In virtue of his office, that is as vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.” (Lumen Gentium, 22)
Seeking to do the will of Christ: We are invited to be humble and obey as the history of many saints show. Obedience to the Pope and Bishops is a criteria and a determining factor whether you are truly seeking to do the will of God in your life. It is the most secure way of following the true teachings of Christ and of keeping evil away from our spiritual journey. We can all sail in this boat called the Catholic Church on a very safe journey; just let Jesus who is walking on the water lead the boat. Allow yourself to follow the Pope and Bishops appointed by Jesus to lead you to eternal life. St. Peter talks to the community leaders saying: “Be the shepherds of the flock of God that is entrusted to you: watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, because God wants it.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)
The sinfulness of the Magisterium should not stop our obedience: Peter and his successors are sinners but they never contradicted the Faith and Moral of the Church’s Tradition: St. Peter denied Jesus; St. Peter was a sinful man; St. Peter doubted Jesus and started to drown. But Jesus still appointed him to be the Pope. We had many Popes in the history of the church who were not a good moral example. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church, however, never denied the faith and moral teachings of the Church transmitted to us from the beginning of her life. The Pope can be a sinner just like St. Peter but the most important aspect is the office of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Its main task is to interpret and teach the Word of God, to maintain intact the true faith of the Catholic Church, to hold the Gospel position on moral issues, and to continue to extend in space and time the Tradition of the Catholic Church: Pope and bishops have the responsibility of teaching about contemporary issues that are not in the Bible. At the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium will help the church live the Word of God in all cultures of human history.
By Fr. Antoine (Anthony) Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)