The term magisterium is based on the Latin word for “teacher” (magister). In contemporary Catholic usage, it has several meanings. First, it refers to the teaching authority which Christ has given to the Church. Here the term refers to the authority itself, not those who exercise it. This usage appears in statements like, “The Church exercises its magisterium when it authoritatively proclaims Christ’s teachings.”
Second, the term refers to those who exercise this teaching authority—in other words, to the pope and the bishops teaching in union with him. Collectively, they are referred to as the “Magisterium,” as in “the Magisterium has infallibly taught that God is a Trinity.”
Third, the term can refer to a particular body of teachings that have been authoritatively proclaimed. This usage appears in statements like, “Humanae Vitae belongs to the magisterium of St. Paul VI.”
In addition to these three basic uses, one often encounters related phrases. One of these is “ordinary magisterium.” This refers to the ordinary teaching of the popes and bishops as they conduct their ministry.
However, sometimes they teach in an especially solemn way that is referred to as an act of the extraordinary magisterium. In the case of popes, this term is reserved only for instances when a pope infallibly defines a truth. All other instances of papal teaching are termed “ordinary.”
The term “extraordinary magisterium” is also used for ecumenical councils. However, authors differ in the way they employ it. Some authors use extraordinary magisterium to refer to any teaching of an ecumenical council, while others use it only for instances where an ecumenical council infallibly defines something.
Individual bishops are not capable of exercising the Church’s extraordinary magisterium. All of their teachings, by necessity, belong to its ordinary magisterium.
Recently, magisterial documents have begun to refer to the “ordinary and universal magisterium” of the Church. This is a reference to the bishops of the world teaching in union with the pope outside of an ecumenical council. (The qualifier “universal” is added to indicate that the worldwide episcopate is involved, not just the teaching of individual bishops.)
While individual bishops are not capable of exercising the Church’s infallibility, the ordinary and universal magisterium can do so. Thus, in 1994, St. John Paul II confirmed that the fact women cannot be ordained as priests had already been taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.
A final term that should be mentioned is “authentic magisterium.” This can be misleading to English speakers, because in our language authentic generally means “genuine” as opposed to “fake.” However, the Latin word authenticum here means “authoritative.” A teaching thus belongs to the Church’s authentic magisterium if it has been authoritatively taught.
A biblical basis for the Church’s teaching authority is found in the Great Commission as it was given by Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). It is also reflected in the Church’s mission to be “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” in the world (1 Tim. 3:15).
The Magisterium can exercise its teaching authority in many ways, and it typically does so in its official documents. Interviews with popes and bishops, not being official Church documents, typically do not involve an exercise of the magisterium. Neither do books that popes and bishops publish as private individuals (e.g., Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth series or Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence), though they often contain references to things that the Church has authoritatively taught.
When it does speak officially, the Magisterium can exercise its authority in different degrees. At the low end, the Magisterium may merely propose an idea for the consideration of the faithful without imposing it authoritatively. At the high end, the Magisterium may infallibly teach a truth, binding the faithful to definitively believe or hold it. It can also exercise any degree of authority between these levels.
A particular mistake to be avoided is thinking that, just because something has not been taught infallibly, it is optional. This is not the case, and the degree of authority with which the Magisterium has taught must be recognized.
When considering the authority that statements in magisterial documents have, one must make a careful assessment. The degree of authority “becomes clear from the nature of the documents, the insistence with which a teaching is repeated, and the very way in which it is expressed” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Veritatis 24).