‘Magisterium’! Now that’s a mouthful! The word represents something that is a very important part of our Church that is both misunderstood and unheeded. It signifies the accumulated tradition of the Church, including Holy Scripture. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Deposit of Faith’ that the Pope and bishops are supposed to guard and pass on intact for future generations.
Let’s look at the history of this concept.
We must begin with the Revelation of God to the Chosen People: The Hebrew Scriptures, or what Christians call the Old Testament.
In those books (45 of them in the Catholic Bible), the Lord God revealed to Abraham and then the people descended from him Who God is. With Abraham, then with Moses, and finally King David, God made covenants or agreements which can be summarized as: “I am your God, the only God, and you are My people.” As you know, God expanded that initial Covenant into a New Agreement or Testament with anyone in the world who wishes to be part of the people of God. That New Testament is codified in 27 books and, together with the Old Testament, comprise what is known as the Bible.
The Bible is the product of a long Tradition that must be interpreted by the Church and its Saints and Scholars to make sure nothing is changed, added, or thrown out. This accumulated wisdom of the Church over its 2,000-year history is the Magisterium of the Church. Its teaching is binding on every Catholic Christian in the world. No exceptions.
While this teaching does develop over time, it doesn’t change. St. Vincent of Lerins compared it to a human being. As a child, the human being is still in formation; but by the time it is grown, there has been development, but it is the same person.
Thus, over the course of the centuries, there has been much development in the teaching of the Church, but never anything that fundamentally changes that teaching. It is still the same person so to speak.
Therefore, you may disagree with a teaching, but it is not an option to disregard the teaching or to try to fundamentally change it. If a teaching has been part of the Magisterium of the Church for 2,000 years, though I disagree with it, I am still bound to observe it.
New problems and uncertainties have evolved due to, for instance, scientific changes. In this case, science has to be applied to the teaching so as to develop it but not change it.
Nor does the Magisterium of the Church change by democratic vote no matter what the polls may say about the number of Catholics who agree or disagree. Historically, there were times when it seemed the whole Catholic world was moving in a contrary direction to the Magisterium; but the correct teaching eventually stood this test of time.
For instance, in the fourth century, it seemed that the majority of the Bishops of the world had become convinced that the heretical teachings of the priest Arius were correct. They were not. He taught that Christ was only human and not also divine. The Church held her ground and the orthodox and catholic faith finally won out.
What is of great value in making sure we are professing the Catholic Faith is the great gift of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued by Pope Saint John Paul II. In a single volume, the scope and extent of Catholic Teaching are available to everyone throughout the world, provided that the individual Catholic has an obedient nature. Obedience comes from the word ‘to hear’ which indicates an openness to respond in humility to the teaching of the Church. It does not work if we are closed to the teaching of the Church due to past hurts or other unfortunate circumstances and are interested in proving that our own opinion is the truth. We must be docile. This is another important word which means ‘able and willing to learn’. If we are closed, no input will make its mark for we are not docile. The most common error in approaching the Magisterium of the Church is pride and the unwillingness to learn and therefore accept the teaching of the Church, which springs from Scripture, which comes directly from God.
In the end, it is a matter of trust: trust that the Holy Spirit would never lead the Church into error. Perhaps because of the general distrust of institutions in our culture, this seems to be a tall order. But with God’s grace, all is possible.
The teaching of the Church is based on God’s Revelation and is not a product to be accepted or ignored by us. It is a gift that we must freely accept in trust and in obedience. This is not easy for us living in a consumerist age. But it is the Truth and it is what God is asking of each one of us.