Good Distinctions
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Addressing the [Papal] Elephant in the Room

Addressing the [Papal] Elephant in the Room

What is Magisterial and What is Not?


It’s Time to Address the Papal Elephant in the Room

Pope Francis is the 266th Pope of the Holy Catholic Church, having been elected to the papacy following the vacancy left by Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. I will be the first to admit that I was beyond upset when Benedict announced his resignation. I entertained all sorts of notions of conspiracy theories and that he must be being forced to resign in some way, though he has maintained that the decision was his and borne from personal prayer and discernment. 

When Pope Francis became Pope, I was watching the news like everyone else in the world. I heard the words “Habemus Papam [we have a pope], Cardinale Bergoglio.” Who?!? Who was this Argentinian Italian Cardinal? What? He’s a Jesuit? He’s chosen the name “Francis”?!? How odd. 

Then, over the last nine years, I have been edified, inspired, and emboldened by Pope Francis to have an ever greater zeal for evangelization and a decreased sense of materialism. His document Evangelii Gaudium (2013) is spectacular. I also enjoyed many of the teaching points of Laudato Si (2015). Gaudete et Exsultate (2018) has some solid moments as well! I also particularly like this line from Fratelli Tutti (2020): “We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity (FT, 33).” That is a fantastic line. The most recent document on the Eucharist is beautiful, though it does not offer anything substantial new in terms of reflection. 

No Shortage of Issues With the Current Pontificate

I know there has been some controversy lately about this document, claiming that the Pope is advancing some sort of Lutheranesque sola fide doctrine, but I unequivocally denounce these criticisms as the bad fruit of uncharity.

What I want to stress here is that I have read every encyclical and exhortation that Pope Francis has published, including those not previously listed. I always try to give him a fair shake and read the documents charitably. 

But I have also been irritated, outraged, scandalized, and befuddled by Pope Francis, especially every time he speaks to reporters on airplanes, gives interviews to atheists who do not take notes, gives talks and sermons that suggest novel interpretations [always bad news when it comes to Church teaching], betrays the Church in China over and over again, allows too much nonsense to continue [in Belgium, Germany, the Amazon, et. al.], says something jesuitically ambiguous, or refuses to clarify matters of doctrine. 

There are plenty of things to be worried about with Pope Francis. However, I wonder if there are elements in the Church that are looking for problems where there are none. It is perfectly appropriate to charitably criticize error and imprudence. It is not okay to invent mountains out of molehills, or, as the case may be, to invent mountains out of level ground.

Pope Francis has done and said many things which are problematic and borderline heretical (many of those in my company would argue that the line has been crossed numerous times into formal or material heresy). His general ambiguity and lack of clarity make it exceptionally difficult to have conversations about the consistency and authority of the Church with radical traditionalists [sedevacantists and those that reject Benedict’s resignation], Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and non-Christians alike. This is especially the case in a climate of many lackluster, cowardly bishops and priests [not all, of course], an immobilized laity, a growing contingent of lapsed Catholics, and the ever-looming sex abuse crisis.

Many in the Church are worried. Many of my friends have reached out to me to have conversations about the shenanigans they are seeing coming out of the Vatican or from Pope Francis himself. What are we, as faithful Catholics, to make of such turbulent times? I thought it might be fruitful to dive into what the Magisterium is and how we can evaluate levels of Magisterial authority.

What is the Magisterium?

Jesus Christ is God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and the Incarnate Word of God. He is also our King, reigning as our sovereign Lord. As the full revelation of God to man, He imparted all that He taught, did, implemented, and is to the Apostles. As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it in Dei Verbum, the sacred constitution on the Word of God:

“... Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth (DV, 4).”

The Church is His Body, of which He is the Head, and He reigns still. In obedience to Him, the faithful here on Earth continue to perpetuate this sacred Deposit of Faith, which is Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scriptures, until He comes again in glory. The council fathers, in the constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, said this:

This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God (LG, 18).”

The Magisterium, simply put, is the teaching authority of Jesus Christ to authentically interpret the Deposit of Faith in the age of the Church passed on to the Apostles and their successors: the Pope and the bishops in union with him. As History progresses, we have new technology, means of communication, and techniques which change the way we interact with one another and how we understand the world around us. As such, in His Wisdom, God gave us the Magisterium to faithfully interpret the perennial and unchanging teachings of the Church on Faith and Morals in contemporary circumstances, from age to age.

It is important to emphasize this last point: Church teaching on Faith and Morals cannot, does not, and will not change. As the Second Vatican Council clearly teaches: 

The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (DV, 4).”

The Church’s Magisterium, therefore, does not give us new teachings that contradict old ones, nor does it give us new revelations or pretend to alter the foundational doctrines and dogmas of the Holy Faith. The Magisterium, at any given time, is beholden to the preceding Magisterium. We faithfully echo on the words, life, and teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church without substantial change. 

A Religion of the Word - The Supreme Rule of Faith

The Word of God is the supreme rule of faith - the standard by which the Divine and infallible faith can be tested. The rule of faith and the Faith itself are from the same divine wellspring. This rule of faith is not extrinsic to the faith nor is it an add-on to the faith. Truly, the Word of God is not a collection of writings or even teachings. The Word of God is Jesus Christ Himself. We are not a religion of the book of God, but rather a religion of the Word of God.

The Word of God flows into Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Sacred Scripture is the driving force of doctrine. The written word of God is inerrant and faithfully transmitted and guarded from error by Holy Mother Church. Sacred Tradition is not primarily a collection of doctrines, but, as the Directory for Catechesis teaches: “is a life of faith that is renewed every day (Dir. 26).” As St. Vincent of Larens taught, Sacred Tradition advances, “consolidated with the years, developed with time, deepened with age (ibid.).”

How then can we arrive at the true interpretation of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition? This is where the Magisterium comes in. The Directory for Catechesis puts the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium well:

The Church’s Magisterium, supported by the Holy Spirit and endowed with the charism of truth, exercises its ministry of authentically interpreting the word of God, which it serves. The Magisterium therefore performs the ministry of safeguarding the integrity of Revelation, the word of God contained in Tradition and in Sacred Scripture, and its continual transmission. It is this living Magisterium that interprets it in a consistent manner and is subject to it (cf. DV 10) (Dir. 26).” 

The living Magisterium interprets Scripture and Tradition in a consistent manner. And the key phrase for today’s discussion is that the Magisterium is “subject to” the Word of God. Remember, the supreme rule of faith is the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Church cannot and will not contradict Jesus on Faith and Morals because the Church is divinely guarded by the charism of infallibility.


How Do We Weigh Magisterial Teachings?

Doctrine does not change, but it can develop, in a certain sense. Therefore, it is important to understand what is set dogma, what is developed doctrine, what is merely a discipline, and so on. We need to be able to weigh magisterial authority. 

Not everything the Church teaches is marked by infallibility. For example, let’s look at the 1998 profession of faith that used to be used when someone assumed a certain office in the Church. Following the public profession of the Nicene Creed, they would say:

I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals. Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”

So, some things are definitively proposed on faith and morals; to these, we firmly accept and hold. We give “religious submission of intellect and will” to the teachings of the Pope or college of Bishops when they speak together, even on matters other than faith and morals, even in the ordinary magisterium. Clearly from this, we see a distinction in level of authority and level of adherence to this spectrum of Church teachings.

The main categories, in order of importance are: 1) dogmas, 2) other infallible statements, 3) doctrines that have not been taught infallibly, 4) theological opinions, 5) other non-doctrinal statements.

  1. Dogma

Dogmas of the Church are truths that the Magisterium teaches infallibly as being divinely revealed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. These can be taught by the Pope, an ecumenical council, or by the Church’s ordinary and universal Magisterium. Dogmas require the theological assent of faith by all members of the faithful. We are not free to dissent from them in any way. To obstinately place them in doubt or deny them is to fall under the censure of heresy. 


As an aside, a lot of people speak about this priest or that, or bishop, pope, or lay person, being a heretic. We have to understand the difference between the crime of heresy and sin of heresy. Formal heresy (the crime of heresy) is “the wilful and persistent adherence to an error in matters of faith” on the part of a baptized person; the persistence in error comes from having been formally corrected but continuing in error. Heresy is a grave sin as well, even if it is committed privately. 

The important note here is that heresy is the crime and sin of corrupting dogmas of the Church. Heresy is thrown around a lot today as a term, but most of the time the issues would better be described as either theological error or imprudence. For example, if the pope or a bishop phrases something in an unfortunate way, they could have misspoken or made a theological error without it rising to the grave sin and crime of heresy. We have to proceed in love of the truth but also in charity for the individual speaking or writing. 

  1. Other Infallible Statements

A step below dogma is “opinions to be held definitively” and these are taught infallibly but are not directly “divinely revealed.” The fact that only men can priests is infallible doctrine but not dogma because it is an open question, theologically, whether it is connected to divine revelation or is itself an example of divine revelation. There is a related discipline to this of clerical celibacy in the Latin Church and episcopal celibacy in the Eastern Churches. So, we see the dogma pertaining to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the infallible doctrine and reality that only baptized men can validly receive this Sacrament, and the discipline of clerical celibacy. All three: dogma, doctrine, and discipline are important but in various weights and with different magisterial weight.

According to St. John Paul II in Ad Tuendam Fidem, in such cases of infallible statements the faithful are “required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Church's magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church.”

So, these statements still pack a lot of weight and are guarded by the charism of infallibility. Other examples of such infallible statements include:

  • When the Pope speaks ex cathedra with the authority of Peter. This is extraordinary magisterium.

  • When the bishops, in communion with the Pope, define doctrine at a General Council. This is also called extraordinary magisterium.

  • When the bishops, in communion with the Pope, together with the Pope, propose definitively in agreement, though they are dispersed. This is the ordinary and universal magisterium.

  1. Doctrines That Have Not Been Taught Infallibly

When the Pope speaks in an ordinary, but authoritative way, we are required to submit our mind, intellect, and will, but it is not guaranteed to be infallible. Likewise, it is the case with bishops in communion with the Pope who teach authoritatively in their diocese. Just because these doctrines have not been infallibly declared does not make them unimportant. They are also part of the Deposit of Faith. Sometimes, in the history of the Church there has arisen solid reasons to take the time to define certain doctrines to protect against error or heresy.

  1. Theological Opinions

Theological opinions are the next rung on the ladder. They are not infallible nor are they authoritative. The opinions of theologians can be in legitimate disagreement and ongoing dialogue.

  1. Other Non-Doctrinal Statements

There are some teachings of the magisterium that are not universal and to be held always. They are more or less circumstantial to time, customs, and culture. For example, if a Church document describes the state of a society, makes suggestions or exhortations, these are to be received with respect and a grateful heart, but do not require strict intellectual assent.

Important Sources of Authoritative Catholic Teaching (Non-Papal)

There is a hierarchy, not just of dogma, doctrines, and disciplines, but also of magisterial texts. 

The Church Fathers

The writings of the Church Fathers, the writers of the first eight centuries of the Church, are accepted as true and authoritative when they speak “in unison” on a matter over those eight centuries. Repetition through the ages does matter. 

Doctors of the Church

The Doctors of the Church are those ecclesial writers who have been given this title for the great advantage given to the whole Church derived from their doctrine. There are now 23 Doctors of the Church who are held in very high esteem for their faithful teaching. The other Saints as well contribute to the great tradition of the Church in varying degrees through their lives and works.

Rules of Life

These rules govern communal life for certain communities and they have to be approved by the Pope. For example, the Benedictine Rule of Life is the ordered way of living as a Benedictine monk in a monastery.

Code of Canon Law

The Code of Canon Law was first compiled from various sources in 1917 and was revised in 1982. The 1982 version is our current Church law which governs all Catholics of the Latin Rite. There is also a Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches. These canons are authoritative and binding on the faithful. 

Papal Documents

Papal documents all carry various magisterial weight. The five main sources of these are (in order of importance): Wednesday audiences, Apostolic exhortations, encyclical letters, papal bulls, and the motu proprio.

Wednesday audiences

Every Wednesday normatively, when the Pope is in Rome, he gives an audience and a talk to those gathered in St. Peter’s square. These audiences are authoritative when they involve teachings on faith and morals, but not infallible. For example, much of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was taken from his weekly Wednesday addresses.


The lowest authority of a Papal document is an apostolic exhortation. This is a document in which the Pope exhorts the faithful on a certain matter. An exhortation does not define doctrine, by design. It is higher in authority than a normal ecclesial letter. Exhortations usually follow a meeting of a synod of bishops to outline their deliberations.


A Papal encyclical or letter is a letter from the Pope to the entire Church. The first Encyclical was the first letter of St. Peter. The next recorded example after Peter is a letter from Pope Clement I to the Christians in Corinth. An encyclical seeks to clarify a certain doctrine. Therefore, it is part of the ordinary magisterium of the Pope and requires us to submit our mind and will on matters of faith and morals. Encyclicals have a high level of magisterial authority.

Papal Bulls

A papal bull is a public decree or charter issued by the Pope. These are authoritative and binding. A Bull may treat statutes, appointment of bishops, dispensations, excommunications, Apostolic constitutions, canonizations, and convocations.

Motu Proprio

A motu proprio is technically a type of rescript, which is an official edict or announcement. A motu proprio is an official legal act taken by the Pope on his own power and volition and personally signed by him. It has full legal effect for Canon Law. Motu Proprio literally means “by his own hand.” 

Council Documents

Next, let’s take a look at three types of documents that come from General Councils: Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations


An Apostolic Constitution is the most solemn form of legislation issued by the Pope. They are either doctrinal or pastoral. They are issued as Papal bulls because of their solemn and public form.


A decree is an order or law given by the council and the Pope to the rest of the world or a specific group of people. These are legislative acts of the pope. These decrees have the full power of the Pope in making laws.


Declarations are more specific and usually address a specific topic. However, they still carry the same weight as other documents of a general council of bishops in communion with the Pope. So, they are authoritative and infallible on matters of faith and morals.


Throughout the Church’s history, there have also been various written systematic presentations of the Faith. These are called Catechisms. Some are universal and others are for a particular locale. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was promulgated in 1992 originally and in English in 1997. This document was a game-changer. It was the first truly universal Catechism and was so beautifully compiled. It is the go-to standard in terms of understanding what the Church is and what she believes. The Baltimore Catechism was a question/answer Catechism which arose from a local council in Baltimore, Maryland in 1885. It is based on St. Robert Bellarmine’s 1614 Small Catechism.

The important thing to keep in mind about Catechisms is that they are compilations. They contain dogma, doctrine, and discipline. They contain prudential applications of principles and law. The doctrines contained in Catechism are thus magisterial, but they bear no more weight than before they were compiled in the Catechism.

Judging the nature of a teaching…

First, we can look at the nature of the document that teaches a doctrine. Some are more authoritative than others. For example, A papal encyclical is more authoritative than the weekly general audiences a pope gives, and the dogmatic constitutions of Vatican II are more authoritative than the council’s decrees.

The second test is the frequency with which the magisterium repeats a doctrine. If it is something mentioned only occasionally, or has not been mentioned in centuries, it will have a lower level of authority attached to it. But if it is something that the magisterium repeats with great regularity, it is more authoritative.

The third test is the tone of the words used to express the teaching. If it is proposed briefly and tentatively, it will have less authority. If it is expounded at length or emphatically, it will have more authority.


What To Do If the Pope Seems to Be In Error?

So, what do we do when we think that Pope Francis is in error or is holding heretical positions? First, we pray for him. Second, we recognize that God alone judges the Pope… and I mean this juridically. Only the college of cardinals can formally correct the Pope in any sort of authoritative way. Further, no one can be found to be a manifest and formal heretic without a trial. In general, stop calling other people “heretics.” It is unhelpful and often uncharitable. 

We also need to remember that we must not be guilty of the sin of rash judgment in regards to the Pope (or anyone else, for that matter). The Fourth Council of Constantinople in Canon 10 says: “As divine scripture clearly proclaims, Do not find fault before you investigate, and understand first and then find fault, and does our law judge a person without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”

I do not claim to have the answers. How do you solve a problem like Pope Francis? No clue. But I do know and believe that the Holy Spirit guides and guards the Church. I know and believe that the Church is the Body of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Savior, and King. And I know and believe that the entire apostolic action of the Church is directed always to the glory of the Father. 

I propose that we dive deep into the study and love of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The perennial truths of the Faith will not and cannot pass away. When the Pope is truly in error, he ought to be charitably and fraternally corrected. But, if you are reading this (or listening to the podcast), then you are not likely to be the one to correct the Holy Father. Do not trust everything you hear from the armchair theologians and gossipers of the Church on YouTube and other podcasts. Theirs is a poison which does just as much, if not more, harm to the Church as anything we are seeing from the hierarchy. 

I know this was a much longer article/podcast than normal, but I did not want to shortchange any of the explanations. With much more left to say, I will opt to wait until another occasion. I will end with the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians:

“... test everything; hold fast to what is good (1 Thess. 5:21).”

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