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Magisterium of the Theologians? That's twice now....

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 31, 2013

Are we in the midst of a Modernist surprise attack? (But no, “surprise” and “Modernist” can hardly be used in the same sentence.) Anyway, twice recently people have emailed me to make fun of something on, and when I’ve replied with some citation or other from the Magisterium, they have responded by reminding me that there are really three magisteria (the plural of magisterium ends in “a”—you know, like hysteria).

But if there is any, ahem, hysterium here, it isn’t on my part. What are these three alleged magisteria? They are: (1) The magisterium of the bishops; (2) The magisterium of the faithful, called the consensus fidelium; and, wait for it, (3) The magisterium of the theologians.

This, of course, is pure Modernism, and here’s why: (a) It depends on the concept that truth is relative to the shifting consciousness of human groups and cultures; and (b) It puts the Modernists in charge (they dominated the theological academy when the hysteria, oops, magisteria theory was developed). Perhaps some clarification is in order:

Magisterium means “teaching authority”. In the most complete sense, such authority means that one can convey knowledge in a way that the recipient is certain of its accuracy. Now, in what sense do each of these three alleged magisteria have the authority to teach such that we may be certain their teaching is true?

  1. Magisterium of the bishops: In union with Peter, to whom Christ gave the keys (Mt 16:19) and for whom He prayed that his faith might not fail so that he might strengthen his brethren (Lk 22:32), the bishops can teach infallibly on questions of faith and morals.
  2. Magisterium of the faithful: This is not a magisterium at all but a rough indicator of the authentic faith of the Church. Clearly, Christ’s promise to be with the Church would be meaningless if all the faithful could fall into error (and that, incidentally, is why the Pope is protected by the Holy Spirit from binding the entire Church to error by teaching falsely). Hence when the faithful universally believe something about faith and morals, it must be true rather than false.

    But manifestly, there is never a truly universal belief, so when is there enough for what we call a “consensus of the faithful”? Clue: We must consider all places and times, unlike the Modernists who consider only people like themselves, in the contemporary West. A careful sifting of the cross-cultural evidence for a consensus is important input for theologians reflecting on the Faith, and even for the Pope in studying a question before deciding it. But without an authoritative conclusion, assertions about the consensus fidelium are necessarily provisional.
  3. Magisterium of the theologians: The term “magisterium” is not a proper descriptor for theologians, whose job is to explore the data of faith in order to increase understanding. But being human, they may or may not succeed. For theologians have no guarantees; they place their findings before the Pope and bishops for reflection and judgment. Popes and bishops are wise to to seek theological input before they teach, but remember that they have the grace of office to assist them in detecting error as well as more fully grasping the truth.

Now who would have thought there was only one Magisterium after all? We should also notice that this Magisterium resides fully in exactly one person, the successor of Peter. A moment’s reflection ought to reveal that this is the only workable system.

As soon as you introduce multiple persons, you introduce the possibility of disunity concerning the Truth. Disunity is a good cover for alternative claims, like the alternative claims made by Modernists, who thrive on reluctance in the Church’s exercise of her teaching authority. But they become irrelevant immediately once they are clearly and authoritatively identified as heretics and removed from whatever ecclesiastical preferment or Catholic teaching posts they have unscrupulously enjoyed.

You might say they have a conflict of  interest when it comes to magisterial theory.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 31, 2013 8:41 PM ET USA

    The bishops in communion with the Pope form the Teaching Church, the laity in communion with the Teaching Church form the Believing Church, and the dissenting theologians out of communion with the Teaching Church join with the National Catholic Reporter.

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Jan. 31, 2013 8:30 PM ET USA

    Indeed, as B16 recently remarked in an address to the ITC, "it is unthinkable to mention (the sensus fidei) in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium." In other words, if it contradicts the Magisterium, it's actually only the sense of the UNfaithful.