We hear a great deal today about the magisterium of the Church, and those who have a position of authority in the Church are even required to take an oath of loyalty and make a solemn profession of faith in the teachings of the magisterium. It is important, therefore, to understand exactly what is meant by this word magisterium.
Most people today think that the magisterium consists of the pope and the Roman curia, but this is mistaken. “Magisterium” comes from the Latin magister, a master, and signifies authority to teach. Strictly speaking there is only one such authority in the Church and that is the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to his disciples to “lead men into all truth”. The apostles, as St Paul says, were commissioned by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel in the name of Christ, and it is generally believed that the apostles commissioned others named presbyters (elders) and bishops (overseers) to succeed them. This it is generally recognised today that the bishops who derive this authority from Christ through the apostles constitute the magisterium of the Church.
But there are in fact four organs of the magisterium. The first is the pope and the Roman Curia, which is concerned with the day-to-day administration of the Church. But that is subordinate to the authority of the bishops in communion with the pope who constitute the magisterium properly speaking. This was made clear at the Second Vatican Council.
But it is here that a third organ of the magisterium came into play. The bishops were accompanied by periti, or expert theologians, who advised the bishops and were actually responsible for developing the understanding of the Church which emerged at the Council. In a sense it is to the theologians that the word is magisterium properly applies, since a theologian is a magister sacrae doctrinae, a master of sacred doctrine, who has been commissioned to teach theology in the name of the Church. The theologian, of course, does not speak or act on his own, but as a member of the Church in co-operation with fellow theologians.
There is still another organ of the magisterium, perhaps the most important of all, and that is the laity. The laity consists of the people (laos) of God. Each of them receives in his or her baptism the gift of the Holy Spirit and is given authority to teach, to govern and to offer sacrifice in the name of the Church, sharing in the authority of Christ, the supreme master, as prophet, priest and king. The laity, therefore, through the gift of the Spirit in baptism and its confirmation in the sacrament of confirmation, all alike share in the magisterium, or the teaching authority of the Church.
Strictly speak, it is the laity, the people of God, who constitute the Church, while popes, bishops and priests are ‘ministers’ chosen from among the laity and commissioned by the Holy Spirit to act in the name of the Church.
In the course of the centuries the Roman Church has developed a structure by which all authority is seen to come from above, from the pope and the bishops, but this is not the ideal of the Church as found in the New Testament. It is of the whole Church that it is said, “You are a holy nation, a royal priesthood”, and all members of the Church share equally in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In an authoritarian structure of society – what is the Soviet Union is called a ‘command structure’ – all authority is seen to belong to the rulers who have the right of command, while the rest of the people are required to obey. It is this system which has been overthrown in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the right of the people to share in the government of the country has been admitted. The Catholic Church today still retains what is basically a command structure but the place of the laity and the people of God with authority to share in the government of the Church is coming to be recognised.
The authority of popes and bishops need not be denied, but it has to be recognised that they are responsible to the laity, the people of God, for their teaching and their actions. Just as the pope has no authority apart from the bishops, so the pope and the bishops have no authority apart from the people from whom they are chosen to whom they represent.
The Church forms the body of Christ and all alike share in the gift of the Spirit and in the authority of Christ the head. One may hope that as the secular world more and more discovers the value of freedom and democracy, the Roman Church also may come to recognise the unity of the Church, including all baptised Christians, as the body of Christ, and the right of the layman and laywoman to speak and act under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the name of the Church as a whole.
This article was first published in The Tablet 11 August 1990