Categories: Ave Maria Press1334 words5.2 min readBy Published On: June 8, 2024

Can the Ordinary Magisterium Err? – Part 1

The Fatima Center

What Is the Magisterium?

The word “Magisterium” is often used in Catholic texts. Yet nowadays it is often left undefined. This is symptomatic of our era when so few Catholics are taught the fullness of the Faith due to poor catechesis and modern novelties. Father John Hardon (1914-2000), a trustworthy Jesuit, defined “Magisterium” as follows:

“The Church’s teaching authority, vested in the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, under the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St. Peter. Also vested in the Pope, as Vicar of Christ and visible head of the Catholic Church. (Etym. Latin magister, master.)”

So, the Magisterium refers to the teaching authority of Christ exercised by the Church.

Ultimately, all authority belongs to Christ the King as the only one Who truly knows the Father, Jesus Christ alone can reveal God. As our Creator, Redeemer, and Judge, only Jesus Christ has the right to teach all men in God’s Name. However, since Christ established a visible Church with a hierarchy on earth, He has allowed His chosen Apostles, and their successors (the bishops), to participate in His authority. The Catholic hierarchy exercises Christ’s teaching authority, for example, when it decrees formal teachings.

The Magisterium has been in existence since the very foundation of the Church. The New Testament witnesses to it, as do the writings of the Church Fathers, like St. Ignatius of Antioch. From St. Paul to St. Polycarp to St. Ambrose to St. Antoninus to Cardinal Merry del Val, every bishop of the Catholic Church has participated in this magisterial teaching authority.

Extraordinary vs. Ordinary Magisterium Defined

Within the magisterium, however, there are various distinctions. One of the most important, and frequently referenced, is the distinction of ordinary and extraordinary. Father Hardon, in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, provides a definition of each:

Extraordinary Magisterium: The Church’s teaching office exercised in a solemn way, as in formal declarations of the Pope or of ecumenical councils of bishops approved by the Pope. When the extraordinary magisterium takes the form of papal definitions or conciliar decisions binding on the consciences of all the faithful in matters of faith and morals, it is infallible.

Ordinary Magisterium: The teaching office of the hierarchy under the Pope, exercised normally, that is, through the regular means of instructing the faithful. These means are all the usual channels of communication, whether written, spoken, or practical. When the ordinary magisterium is also universal, that is, collectively intended for all the faithful, it is also infallible.

How the Church Exercises Authority in Each

The Extraordinary Magisterium refers to the solemn and definitive exercise of the Church’s teaching authority. This occurs in two specific situations:

Ecumenical Councils: These are gatherings of bishops from around the world, convened by the Pope, to discuss and define matters of faith and morals. Formal definitions given at Ecumenical Councils are considered infallible when they are promulgated in union with the Pope. There have been 21 Ecumenical Councils in the history of the Church, starting with Nicea.

Papal Infallibility: This is a specific instance of the Pope exercising his authority in a definitive manner. According to the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair) of St. Peter, meaning he uses his supreme teaching authority to define a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.

Two notable examples are the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950, as well as the definition of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which was infallibly declared in 1854 by Pope Pius IX. See “Is There Basis for Papal Infallibility in the Early Church?” and “What Does Papal Infallibility Really Mean?

The Ordinary Magisterium refers to the regular and ongoing teaching of the Pope and bishops in union with him. This is not necessarily infallible but is considered authoritative and binding for Catholics. It includes:

Papal Encyclicals and Apostolic Letters: These are documents written by the Pope to provide guidance on issues of doctrine, morals, and pastoral care. Encyclicals, apostolic constitutions, motu proprios, and other papal documents are not ipso facto infallible. Their authority varies based on the level of teaching and the manner in which they are promulgated.

Bishops’ Teachings: Individual bishops or conferences of bishops also teach on matters of faith and morals. Dr. Ludwig Ott summarizes: “The totality of the bishops is infallible, when they, either assembled in general council or scattered over the earth, propose a teaching of faith or morals as one to be held by all the faithful.”

When bishops worldwide teach in unison with the Pope on a particular doctrine, this is also considered part of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium and is seen as authoritative and requiring assent from the faithful. This is not the same as one particular bishop – or group of bishops – teaching on any one matter.

The Daily Teaching of the Church: This includes homilies, catechesis, and other forms of regular instruction by bishops and priests. While this form of teaching is more localized and pastoral, it contributes to the overall exercise of the Magisterium. But since any individual priest or bishop can teach error, as shown through countless examples, not all teachings of any one individual are true and require the assent of the faithful.

As a reminder, not all personal teachings of the Pope are true either – as seen, among various examples, of the personal errors of Pope John XXII on the Beatific Vision.

Must a Catholic Obey the Ordinary Magisterium?

A fundamental teaching of the Natural Law is that man can never be morally obligated to perform evil or to accept error as truth. The most fundamental moral law, after all, is: “Do good. Avoid evil.” This comes to us directly from God and is Divine Law as well. Therefore, no authority on earth can ever exempt or change this law.

Every man can exercise his free will to obey or disobey God, to love or reject God, to embrace truth or to accept error. This is also true of every bishop, including the Pope, even in light of the grace God provides at their episcopal ordination. Thus, every bishop and every Pope can fall into error and may teach error. (Church history is full of many examples. Regarding the Popes, see “Can Popes Personally Err” and “Examples of Popes Who Have Erred.”)

Thus, when any bishop exercises his ordinary magisterial authority to teach error or command evil, the faithful are not obligated to obey him.

The First Vatican Council taught what must be believed:

“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.”

Of primary importance, not every homily, interview, or letter of every bishop, even the Pope, is part of the Magisterium. For more information on the kinds of Magisterial statements, see “The Three Levels of Magisterial Teachings.”


We can summarize Catholic teaching thus. Catholics are called to be obedient. They should obey their legitimate superiors, which first and foremost includes the Pope and their bishop. However, the Ordinary Magisterium is capable of erring. When the rightful authority commands something evil or teaches error, then the Catholic is not obligated to obey in that particular case. Rather, the Catholic should always give his obedience first to God, Who is Truth and Goodness.

In Part 2, I will look specifically at the question of obedience to the Pope in all things.


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