What is the ‘ordinary magisterium’? A brief history of a disputed idea

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Raymond Burke in 2015 (CNS)

The term ‘ordinary magisterium’ was first used by Pius IX in the letter Tuas libenter addressed to the archbishop of Munich and Freising on 21 December 1863.

Earlier that year, a meeting of Catholic theologians had taken place in Munich. The pope had been told that in the course of that meeting the opinion had been expressed that Catholic theologians were bound to hold only those truths of faith which had been solemnly declared.

Pius IX replied that “it must not be limited to those things which have been defined by the express decrees of councils or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this Apostolic See, but must also be extended to those things which are handed on by the ordinary magisterium of the whole church dispersed throughout the world as divinely revealed, and therefore are held by the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians to pertain to the faith.”

Pius IX to Vatican II

The teaching of Pius IX on ordinary magisterium was later incorporated in the documents of Vatican I, in particular the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius: “Wherefore, by divine and catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”

It was understood that the addition of ‘universal’ to ‘ordinary magisterium’ was meant to relate the phrase to the teaching of the whole episcopate with the pope, and not the teaching of the pope alone.

Vatican II of course also dealt with the question, and in Lumen gentium 25, the conditions under which the ordinary universal magisterium enjoys the privilege of infallibility are defined.

By choosing the wording “while teaching authoritatively on a matter of faith and morals”, the definition of the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium goes beyond the teachings of Pius IX and Vatican I and allows for the possibility of infallible teaching on a matter of faith or morals that was not revealed, but was instead connected with revelation.

The decree Unitatis redintegratio on Ecumenism (UR 11) further confirms that a hierarchy of truths exists in Catholic doctrine.

Further clarifications

When the Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983, the ordinary and universal magisterium was dealt with in canons 749 and 750, but without the inclusion of the broader understanding of the ordinary universal magisterium by Vatican II.

In other words, the canonical language had not been updated yet.

A first attempt to do so, and to distinguish canonically between the various levels of teaching, was done with the 1989 profession of faith proposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While the first two paragraphs deal with infallible teachings, the 1998 motu proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem would update the Code of Canon Law by modifying the original canon 750.

The original text became the first paragraph of the new canon 750 and a second paragraph was added to the same canon to reflect the teachings of Vatican II.

To offer one example: the teaching on the ordination of women, contained in the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994), belongs to this second category of infallible teaching.

The third proposition of the 1989 profession of faith further elucidates the importance of the levels of magisterial teaching: it contains the promise to adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the college of bishops enunciates when they exercise their authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.

Meant here are all those teachings – on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

Nevertheless, these teachings are an authentic expression of the ordinary magisterium of the Roman pontiff or of the college of bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect.

Their goal is to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or to warn against ideas incompatible with these truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.

Shortly after the promulgation of Ad Tuendam Fidem, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a commentary on the concluding paragraphs of the 1989 profession of faith and the three categories of teachings contained in it.

The Congregation offers great assistance by giving examples of truths in all three categories, without, of course, the intention of providing a complete or exhaustive list.

While the articles of faith of the creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas, to name a few, belong to the first category of infallible teachings, and the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men to the second category of infallible teachings, the Congregation does not give similar examples of doctrines that stem from the exercise of the ordinary magisterium; rather it offers only a general rule of thumb to discover them.

The Congregation states that “one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary magisterium in a non definitive way which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine or by the tenor of the verbal expression.”

Amoris Laetitia and the ordinary magisterium

Strangely enough, it is this statement, not taken from the later commentary, but from the 1990 instruction Donum veritatis on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian that leads a certain professor Salvador Pié-Ninot from Spain to write in L’Osservatore Romano that the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia meets all the criteria for being an example of the ordinary magisterium.

Likewise, the article is rather succinct when it comes to using canon law and canonical principles of interpretation. But is the assumption made by the article a correct assumption? And can one jump to that conclusion based on the reasoning explained in L’Osservatore Romano? The answer is no – some important nuances are necessary.

First of all, in its own assessment, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clearly says that one has to look at the nature of the documents, the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, and the tenor of the verbal expression.

Encyclicals and apostolic exhortations are among the principal teaching documents of the Church and the pope in particular.

However, it is not sufficient to look only at the label of a document.

It is like with a good bottle of wine: while the label may be a first indication, the ultimate test consists of the tasting of its contents.

This is no different with Church documents: the contents and the wording must be studied carefully.

It is not impossible for a document to contain doctrinal elements of different weight.

For instance, while the encyclical Evangelium vitae belongs to the ordinary magisterium, it nevertheless contains some doctrinal statements of an infallible nature (see nn. 57, 62 and 65). These are to receive a higher degree of response than statements of the ordinary magisterium.

Moreover, one also has to look at the intention of the author of the document.

In the case of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has declared several times that he does not change Church teaching, and that his exhortation is merely pastoral in nature.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, likewise emphasised the pastoral nature of the exhortation, and the fact that no doctrine was changed.

But if the intention of the document is not to change any doctrine, yet simply to confirm the doctrine and offer pastoral guidelines, the doctrine that is confirmed belongs to the ordinary magisterium and is to be accepted with a religious submission of will and intellect.

The references to Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio are references to the particular level of the magisterium exercised in those documents.

From that perspective, Father Salvador Pié-Ninot is correct: Amoris Laetitia is indeed a document that partially exercises the ordinary magisterium, in that it repeats the previously proposed teaching of the Church. Amoris Laetitia must therefore be interpreted within the tradition of the Church.

Cardinal Burke’s assessment

Immediately after the publication of the article in L’Osservatore Romano, certain journalists rejoiced on the internet and claimed that Cardinal Burke was wrong in his assessment of Amoris Laetitia being a personal opinion of Pope Francis and not an exercise of the ordinary magisterium.

First of all, Cardinal Burke did not exactly use these words; he said that a post-synodal apostolic exhortation “by its very nature, does not propose new doctrine and discipline, but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time.”

That is something quite different, and entirely correct.

And, of course, the existing doctrine and discipline included in Amoris Laetitia belongs to the ordinary magisterium – or even to a higher level of teaching depending on what it is – and needs to be treated that way.

So, no, Cardinal Burke was not wrong, but one needs to listen to what he has to say, and not assume things he has not said.