Question: "What is the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church?"
Answer: The magisterium of Roman Catholicism is the special teaching authority of the Church itself. According to Catholic doctrines, this teaching authority resides only within the Pope and Catholic bishops. This implies that only those doctrinal statements that proceed from the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) can be true. It also means that, at times, the teaching authority of the RCC is uniquely free from error, a property called “infallibility.”
The Catholic magisterium operates at different levels. The general opinions of the Pope and bishops are considered authoritative but not infallible. Catholics are obligated to agree with and obey these kinds of statements, but the RCC does not guarantee them free from error. When bishops and the Pope are in agreement on a doctrinal issue, when there is an official council, or when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, such pronouncements are considered both authoritative and infallible. Ex cathedra declarations are mandatory beliefs for all Catholics and are claimed to be completely free from any mistake, error, or misunderstanding.
Catholicism claims this magisterium is necessary because, without it, humanity cannot correctly understand God’s revelation. Without an error-free magisterium, we would be dependent on fallible, limited human interpretation. Catholicism also claims scriptural support for their view, citing 1 Timothy 3:15 and Jesus’ comments to Peter. This is a thin defense, at best, so the primary argument for the magisterium comes from the Catholic concept of church tradition.
The necessity of the magisterium should be questioned. Claiming the need for a magisterium suggests that God chose to reveal Himself incompletely and in a manner humanity could not understand without further, human-dependent revelation. But Catholicism cannot provide infallible evidence for the infallible magisterium, so a person must trust his own fallible reasoning to believe it. In that case, why not trust our reasoning to interpret God’s Word directly? If reason, evidence, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead a person to a particular truth, why would God restrict that to only a few people regarding the most important subject of all?
Further, the Catholic concept of the magisterium contradicts the Bible, which claims God has revealed enough of Himself that we ought to seek Him; that those who do not are without excuse (Romans 1:18–20). Their rejection cannot be blamed on “misinterpretation,” but on a refusal to accept what God has revealed (1 Corinthians 2:14).
The idea of relying on the bare authority of men, rather than on reason and the evidence of nature and Scripture, also contradicts biblical principles. Repeatedly, mankind is told to follow evidence and the written Word (John 10:35; Acts 17:11; 1 Timothy 2:15). We’re admonished to test spirits (1 John 4:1), confront false teachings (1 Timothy 6:3–4), and avoid bad reasoning (Colossians 2:8). At no time are we told to accept teaching simply because “the church” said so. In fact, we’re explicitly warned that even the most pious-seeming messengers can carry lies (2 Corinthians 11:13–14; Galatians 1:8). This means we need to be cautious and we are personally responsible for our beliefs (Hebrews 5:13; Romans 14:5).
In application, the concept of the magisterium also runs into trouble. Within Catholicism, there is often debate about exactly which statements are and are not infallible, and under what circumstances new statements should be considered infallible. The strongest assurance of infallibility is that of a Pope speaking ex cathedra, yet this very concept wasn’t formally defined by Catholicism until 1870. And, this power of the pope has only been used once since then, in 1950, to declare that Mary was bodily resurrected and ascended to heaven. If such pronouncements are rare, don’t typically deal with fundamental issues, and are disputed even within Catholicism, what’s the point in claiming an infallible magisterium at all?
The ability to excuse errors in the magisterium also makes the doctrine problematic. Numerous decrees of the Catholic Church have been changed, modified, or outright repealed in the centuries since Christ. In all cases, there are reasons—of varying strength—given for why the altered pronouncements were not really meant to be infallible. But this, again, raises the question of whether the doctrine is meaningful at all. If it’s rarely used, rarely defensible in practice, and easily dismissed when errors are found, then it’s impractical to believe in the first place.
There is a more reasonable, scriptural, and practical approach to truth than the Catholic magisterium. This is the renewal of each individual believer’s mind (Romans 12:2) under submission to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–17), coupled with an honest pursuit of the truth (John 8:32; Matthew 7:7). God has revealed what we need to know through His creation (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:19–20) and in His Word (John 20:31; 2 Timothy 3:15-16), not in the authority of fallible men.