UNDERSTANDING YOUR FAITH: MAGISTERIUM
By Vic Scaravilli
What makes the Catholic Church unique among all other churches? Basically, it claims to have an infallible teaching office called the Magisterium. This body consists of the entire group of bishops when they meet in an ecumenical council and the Pope when he speaks about faith and morals. Its function is to define and preserve the true teachings of Christ. Infallibility, or the protection from teaching error under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is a gift that Christ gave to the leaders of the Church.
The history of this office started when Jesus chose his apostles. Over the course of a few years, Jesus taught his disciples what he wanted them to know in order to carry on his message and teachings after his Ascension into heaven. There are many passages in the Bible that show Jesus gave special authority to these men. In Mt. 18:18 Jesus gave all of the apostles the power to bind and loose; Jn. 20: 23 the power to forgive or retain sins; and in the Great Commission, Mt. 28: 19-20, the command to go out and teach and make disciples of all nations.
Although all of the apostles were given authority by Jesus, Peter received a special authority. In Mt. 16:17-19, Jesus gave Peter the keys, promised that church will be built upon him, and he would be the head apostle. Also, Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon to signify his new role in building up God’s family. We see Peter’s predominance in the Bible where he is mentioned 195 times and is always listed first among the apostles. Peter is described in Acts as being the chief leader in the New Testament Church. He is the one responsible for initiating the major events in the growth of the early church. The position of being the head of the apostles, or in later times the bishops, is the Pope.
The very first act that Peter, along with the apostles, did in the new church was to choose a successor for Judas. Acts 1:20 says “Let someone else take his office.” The Greek word used for office is also translated as bishop or overseer. The word office signifies an ongoing position rather than just a person. This is where we get the establishment of bishops as overseers or leaders of the Church.
Once the apostles received authority from Jesus, they had the ability to pass on their authority to others. An example was the replacing of Judas with Matthias. This was accomplished by ordination when authority was passed on by the laying on of hands. This act symbolizes the transfer of authority to another person and was the way in which men were brought into the ministry of Christ’s Church in the New Testament. There are several examples in the Bible that show this transfer of authority to men such as Timothy and Titus. Even before the last apostle died, there was already a second generation of leaders exercising authority in the Church.
When we recite the Nicene Creed and say “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” we are confirming that one of the marks of our church is that it is apostolic. This means that it is built on the foundation of the apostles, keeps and hands on its teachings throughout time, and continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles, until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Pope and the church’s supreme pastor. This means that our Church has a continuous line of successors from the apostles to the present. Through the apostolic succession of bishops, God has provided the Catholic Church an unbroken ministry of teaching, governing, and guidance.
Vatican Council 2 summarizes it this way. “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”