The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

AD. Tanquerey, A Manual of Dogmatic Theology, transl. by Rev. Msgr. John J. Byrnes, Desclee, New York, 1959, pp. 176-182. All emphasis in the original.

Tract V, The Sources Of Revelation, Tradition, The Organs of Tradition.

B The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium of the Church.1

The ordinary and universal magisterium is that which is carried on daily through the continuous preaching of the Church among all peoples. It includes:

1. The preaching and proclamations of the Corporate Body of Bishops,
2. universal custom or practice associated with dogma,
3. the consensus or agreement of the Fathers and of the Theologians,
4. the common or general understanding of the faithful. 2

1. The Morally Unanimous Preaching (Teaching) of the Bishops

290 Bishops teach the flock entrusted and subject to them by means of catechisms, by synodal directives, mandates, and in public sermons. If it is evident from these documents that some doctrine is being set forth universally as an object of faith, then nothing else is required for this doctrine to be accepted de fide. Bishops spread throughout the world, but with the Roman Pontiff forming one Corporate Body, are infallible when declaring a teaching on faith or morals.

2. Practice of the Church Associated with Dogma

291 Among the customs and practices which have been closely joined to dogma we mention especially the public rites used in the solemn celebration of the sacrifice, or in the administration of the sacraments; also the formulas of prayers and various feasts or offices instituted by the Church; or sacred practices which have been associated with doctrine.

For a practice of the Church to become a criterion of faith there are two requirements:

a. that the practice be necessarily connected with the dogmatic truth; for in imposing a practice or custom, the Church by that very fact orders that dogmas connected with this practice must be adhered to;

b. that a custom of this kind be universal or approved at least tacitly by infallible authority; for only the universal Church enjoys infallibility. Therefore, a custom or practice of one particular Church produces only a probable argument for revealed truth. The Roman Liturgy, approved in a special manner by the Supreme Pontiffs, cannot contain errors in dogma. Historical mistakes can creep in, and, as a matter of fact, they have slipped into the legends in the Breviary, as the best critics admit. But this fact is easily understood because the special lessons of the Second Nocturns were written at a time when apocryphal works were being spread abroad. Nevertheless, these lessons should not be despised because many points contained in them are true and are suitable for fostering piety and goodness.

3. The Agreement of the Fathers and of the Theologians

a. The Authority of the Fathers

292 1. Who are the Fathers? The Fathers are those men, distinguished for their sanctity and their doctrine, who in the first centuries made the Church renowned by their writings, and who received full approbation from the Church, at least in an implicit manner. In order to recognize these men, we should look for four marks or signs: renowned and orthodox teaching, holiness of life, antiquity, and the approbation of the Church. Among the ecclesiastical writers some have been adorned with the title, Doctor of the Church, because they have surpassed others with their superior knowledge. Of these eight are the major Doctors of the Church, the others are called the minor Doctors.

293 2. Rules concerning the Authority of the Fathers.

a. Introductory notes. In order to make a study of the teaching of the Fathers, we must pay attention to the laws of historical criticism. We may consider the Fathers either as private doctors or as witnesses to the Church or to the faith.

1) They are regarded as private doctors when they reason and present their arguments in the manner of the philosophers, when they make use of analogies or comparisons, or propose their own opinion in such a way that they do not exclude the contrary opinion.

2) They speak as witnesses to the Church when they teach that a doctrine has been revealed, or has been accepted by the universal Church, or that a doctrine must be so held that it cannot be denied without the loss of faith or cannot be called into doubt. Similarly they speak as witnesses to the faith when they assert that a contrary opinion is heretical or opposed to the word of God.

If they speak as private doctors, their authority is only as great as is their knowledge or as is the force of their arguments; but if they speak as witnesses for the Church, they manifest not their own mind, but the faith of the infallible Church.

b. Rules to be followed:

1) The morally unanimous agreement of the Fathers declaring that a doctrine is de fide is a certain argument of divine Tradition. Three conditions are necessary that an argument be considered certain: that it relate to a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals; that the testimony be free of doubt, that it be firm and that the Fathers declare positively that the doctrine is a doctrine of the Church; that the agreement of the Fathers be not mathematically but morally unanimous. For in this way the faith or belief of the universal Church can be certainly known. With these conditions posited, it can be said that the Fathers record the teaching of the universal Church. But the Church is infallible in teaching Christ’s doctrine.

Further, in order that an argument may be regarded as completely certain, the moral unanimity of the Fathers of one age is required and is sufficient.3 The Church at all times is indefectible and so in no age can it be guilty of error.

2) The testimony of one Father or of many Fathers in matters of faith and of morals is a probable argument, the force of which increases as the number and authority of the Fathers increase.

3) When the Fathers disagree, then their authority offers no firm argument; rather it proves that the matter on hand has not been explicitly defined; for if a matter had been clearly defined, then the Fathers could not have defended the contrary opinion without being condemned by the Church as heretics. If the disagreement is manifest, we must confess that certain Fathers have erred: for as individuals they are fallible. But if their words are doubtful, they must be explained by referring to subject matter which is clearer. In every case their words must be treated with respect; we must not attribute error to them because they have had no knowledge of the more explicit definitions of a following age.

b. The Authority of Theologians

294 After the Patristic age Theologians arranged in logical order the doctrines contained in Scripture and in Tradition and they explained these doctrines with the help of philosophical reasoning. These theologians can be considered as witnesses to the faith or as private doctors. They should not be esteemed lightly no matter what the Protestants, Modernists or other adversaries alleged against them.

In regard to their authority the following rules should he admitted:

1. When theologians unanimously teach that something is not only true but also that it must be accepted in Catholic faith, such consensus on their part presents a certain argument;

2. If all proclaim some doctrine in regard to faith and morals as true or certain, it is rash to reject this doctrine;

3. If there is a division of opinion among the different schools, even if the theologians of one school hold their opinion as certain or as very close to faith, no obligation exists of accepting such an opinion.

4. The Common Understanding of the Faithful

295 Revealed doctrine can be discovered not only among the Pastors and other leaders who teach with the Pastors, but also among the faithful who with a common or general understanding profess a unanimous faith.

In order that this common understanding be a criterion of revelation, it must be:
a. certain and clear,
b. unanimous,
c. concerned with important matters of faith and of morals.

The fact that the general agreement of the faithful is then a criterion of revelation is proved:

a. From the indefectibility of the Church. We have already stated that the Church cannot fail. But the Church would be failing in essentials if she were a society of erring souls. Therefore.

b. From the Fathers. For example, St. Augustine, in refuting the Pelagians, proved the existence of original sin in little children and the need, therefore, of baptism for these, from the common understanding of the faithful. This he regarded as a very strong argument of faith.

296 Other pertinent notes on this subject are these:

a. This infallibility in believing is often-times called passive infallibility; it depends on active infallibility (in teaching) which should always direct it.

b. We should avoid the error of those who think that the Church teaching merely confirms the opinions of the Church learning.4 For the Church teaching must pass judgment on these opinions, approve them or condemn them, and in this way direct the faith of her subjects and turn them from error.

c. Therefore, the faithful in the Church are in no way the teachers, they do not define authoritatively, but they give their belief. The Teachers impart and define the truth which all believe. But God is able to employ the faithful to promote some devotion, for example, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; but even in such an instance all proceeds under the authority of the Bishops — they alone are the authoritative judges and proclaimers of the faith.

1. VACANT, La magistére ordinaire de l’Eglise et ses organes.
2. We should note that the words: Fathers, theologians, and the faithful refer to the Church Hearing, not to the Church Teaching.
3. In this case the argument has force only for Catholics who admit the infallibility of the Church; but when the Fathers of different times and from different places agree on some dogma, then we have an apologetical argument for non-Catholics since it is evident from this argument that our faith is the same as the faith of the Apostles.
4. In the decree Lamentabili proposition 6a is condemned “The Church learning and the Church teaching collaborate in such a way in defining truths that it remains for the Church teaching only to sanction the Opinions of the Church learning”. D.B., 2006.