The slow decline of the Ordinary Magisterium

I think many in the Church have been slipping into associating the noun “Magisterium” with the adjective “infallible” and assuming that, if some papal/episcopal assertion is not “infallible” then it is not “magisterial”.

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church, the teaching authority left by Jesus Christ to his Church and principally exercised by popes and the college of bishops, proceeds in two ways: ordinarily, the Magisterium proceeds ‘ordinarily’; extraordinarily, the Magisterium proceeds ‘extraordinarily’. Bear with me.

Ex cathedra pontifical pronouncements and solemn decrees of ecumenical councils—the two great expressions of the extraordinary Magisterium—get the headlines, but such statements are, well, extraordinary and hence relatively rare. In contrast, the day-in day-out, oft-repeated, variously-phrased and then re-phrased teachings put out (principally) by popes and bishops engaged in the public exercise of their offices constitute the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. The occasions of and vehicles used to express these ordinary teachings are far too many to list and, in contrast to the rather few expressions of the extraordinary Magisterium (which typically come out in short, precise quotables), the multitudinous expressions of the ordinary Magisterium tend to be diffuse, prolix, and mixed in with all sorts of other assertions that do not carry magisterial import.

Identifying and appreciating the teachings offered by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church is tedious work requiring more-than-average theological research skills while spotting assertions of the extraordinary Magisterium, in contrast, is much easier, though not simple. But make no mistake: the Church’s Magisterium proceeds both “ordinarily” (usually) and “extraordinarily” (on occasion), and even infallible doctrines to be believed or truths to be held can be articulated “extraordinarily” or “ordinarily”.

Looking over the last couple of decades*, I think many in the Church have been slipping into associating the noun “Magisterium” with the adjective “infallible” and assuming that, if some papal/episcopal assertion is not “infallible” then it is not “magisterial”. Such a confusion, however, which effectively limits “magisterium” to the level of “infallible”, dulls appreciation of just how wide and rich and important is the Church’s ordinary magisterium and blurs the responsibility of those who directly participate in the Magisterium, even its ordinary expression, to be accurate and clear in their public teaching.

I have discussed elsewhere, and so won’t repeat here, the questionable practice—one that did not originate with, but which has grown under, Francis’ papacy—of some in positions of ecclesiastical authority trying to ‘turn magisterium on and off’ in accord not with traditional markers of magisterial utterances (e.g., the sacramental order and the office of the speaker, the content of the communication, the envisioned audience of the message, or the public character of the expression) but rather according to the “intention” of the speaker—as if, instead of having objective criteria for knowing pretty well when ecclesiastical magisterium is engaged, and when it is not, we need instead to read a speaker’s mind and continually divine his personal intentions to know what’s what. If that approach can damage even exercises of the extraordinary Magisterium (and it can do that), I think it threatens even more the more vulnerable exercises of the ordinary Magisterium.

If Amoris laetitia is not magisterial, it is not because Amoris is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, else, Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio could not be cited in magisterial contrast to several of Amoris’ ambiguous assertions. If Amoris is not magisterial, it is not because Francis often adopts a conversational tone, else, Denzinger’s Enchiridion should not be citing as magisterial Pope Pius XII’s talks with Catholic doctors, and Pope Paul VI should not have cited as magisterial, in his own quintessential magisterial document, Humanae vitae, Pius’ talks to Italian midwives. Fifty-thousand word documents written and published by popes acting as popes, intended for the whole Catholic world and addressing Scripture, tradition, and sacraments, etc., are magisterial (specifically, they are expressions of the ordinary, papal magisterium) when, albeit only when, they express, without error (a rare, complex situation to be handled separately), propositions on faith or morals that admit of being believed, held, taught, and so on. In Amoris, Francis has made numerous such ordinary, papal, magisterial statements—whether he “intended” that or not.

Francis has, for example, offered Greek and Hebrew exegesis of numerous Scriptural passages and commented frequently about what Jesus meant when He said X, Y, and Z. These interpretations are not infallible, of course, but Magisterium is more than simply infallibility, and Francis’ views hereon are now a small part of the ordinary papal magisterium on Holy Writ. Or again, Francis makes many interesting comments on what the sacrament of marriage is, comments that are not merely quotations from others—although even Francis’ quoting of earlier magisterial expressions increases, in a small way, the magisterial weight to be accorded such assertions in virtue of their being repeated by a pope—but which represent instead his ideas on marriage and thus, in a small measure, contribute to the ordinary papal magisterium on marriage.

But, that said, most of “what’s in” Amoris, or at least most of the controversial passages of Amoris, are not ‘magisterial’ because most of those of Amoris, and most of ‘those passages’, seem to address (if sometimes ambiguously) pastoral practices (not propositional points), or they indicate how the pope perceives (accurately or otherwise) pastors coming across to people in irregular unions (and so at most are empirical surmises), or they urge a given demeanor with persons as Christ would relate to them, and so on. In other words, while Amoris is quite capable of contributing to the ordinary papal magisterium based on its authorship, audience, and circumstances, and while it does contribute to that magisterium in some respects, most of Amoris is, in fact, not ‘magisterial’ in content. Just as most utterances that popes and bishops use to contribute to the ordinary magisterium are mixed in with many non-magisterial comments having no teaching value, so Amoris mixes several, rather minor, uncontroversial ‘magisterial’ comments on Scripture and marriage with a few controversial, but not magisterial (because they are not propositional, and are instead exhortatory) comments on pastoral approaches. And, no, I do not think that this is to read Amoris the way I would prefer to read it; I think it is to read Amoris the way the Church reads her teaching documents.

Anyway, to return to my main concern here, conferring or withholding ‘magisterial status’ on papal/episcopal utterances based almost entirely on the intention of utterer contributes, I think, to the slow decline of (especially) the ordinary magisterium in Church life and does not encourage those who participate most directly in the magisterium of the Church to pay better attention to what they say and how they say it.

That problem deserves closer attention.

(*Misuse of the word “Magisterium” probably goes back further and this misuse of the word in one context might have made it easier to misuse in another. I think, for example, of all those comments about the Magisterium ‘ordering this’ or ‘directing that’, as if “Magisterium” were just another word for “ecclesiastical governing authority”. As popes and bishops exercise Magisterium and governing authority, I suppose confusion between the two activities is understandable, but we should be clear: the objects of Magisterium are principally propositions to be believed or held; the objects of governing authority are behavioral choices and external conduct.)

[This essay originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” blog and is reprinted here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.] 

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.