The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

Although many sects of Christianity consider their own beliefs to be infallible, Catholicism has a formal, bureaucratic process for adding new inerrant teachings to its canon. When the pope speaks “ex cathedra“, officially defining a new dogma, it’s becomes something that all Catholics are required to profess. (I like to think he has a special “infallible hat” hanging in his wardrobe.) As the church thoughtfully explains, an ex cathedra statement must be true “independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result”.

Now, admittedly, it’s true that the pope doesn’t claim to be infallible about everything he says. (I know, what a humble guy, right?) Although he can theoretically decide to issue an ex cathedra proclamation about anything at any time, it’s true that the claim of papal infallibility has only been formally invoked on rare occasions. The last time it was used was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven was an article of dogmatic belief for Catholics.

However, what’s less well known is that an official proclamation from the Pope isn’t the only way for the Catholic church to issue an infallible teaching. If all bishops throughout the world at any given time agree on a particular belief, then that belief is considered to automatically be infallibly true and dogmatically binding on all Catholics present and future. The church calls this the “ordinary and universal magisterium”. Pope John Paul II, for example, explicitly stated that the prohibition on women priests is a permanent and infallible part of Catholic faith because of this doctrine.

The ordinary and universal magisterium is probably also why Pope Paul VI overruled his own handpicked commission when they recommended that the church permit contraception: because even though the pope has never made an ex cathedra statement about birth control, the unanimous agreement of bishops up till that point made it an infallible matter of morals, and therefore, according to the church, impossible for them to ever change their position.

Now, I’ve got a question: Under the doctrine of the ordinary and universal magisterium, is it an infallible teaching of the Roman Catholic church that priests who rape children should be sheltered and protected from the law?

If I understand the principle, the dissent of even one bishop would render this null and void as a church doctrine. But, as far as I’m aware, this has never happened. As far as I’m aware, no Catholic bishop anywhere has ever informed the police voluntarily when a priest was accused of molestation, as opposed to turning over said priest because his proclivities were already known or as part of a legal settlement in which that disclosure was compelled.

It seems absurd that the Catholic hierarchy should hold as an infallible truth of faith that the church should protect pedophiles. And yet, the church’s officials have consistently acted as if this is the case. They’ve consistently acted as if avoiding the embarrassment of a sex predator being discovered among the clergy is more important than preventing that person from preying upon children in his pastoral care. Whether they’ve explicitly said so or not, they certainly seem to think that shielding child molesters from the law is an essential part of Catholic morals.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    I wonder if they had the internet back in 1950, what the email would look like from the Vatican?

    From: The Pope
    Subject: Believe this or get excommunicated.

    Dear Catholic,

    I have decided to be infallible today, and writing you that you MUST believe that the Virgin Mary ascended directly to heaven. Believe it or you will burn for eternity.

    Hugs and kisses,

    Pope Pius XII

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Summary of Catholicism:

    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. (#_#)

  • HP

    special “infallible hat”

    AFAIK, it’s a special infallible chair, not a hat. Wikipedia has a picture of the “portable” version he uses when he’s at St. Peters.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “an infallible teaching of the Roman Catholic church that priests who rape children should be sheltered and protected from the law?

    Fixed it for you. It’s not that they want to preserve the right to molest children; it’s that they want to preserve the principle that they are above any human law or morality.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Wikipedia has a picture of the “portable” version he uses when he’s at St. Peters.

    Now I’m picturing the pope being followed everywhere he goes by a guy who has a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, inside which is the portable throne. Just in case he suddenly needs to issue an emergency infallible decree about something.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    @Comment#3:

    That’s supposed to be “portable”? Wow.

  • Neil

    That’s supposed to be “portable”? Wow.

    We all know that faith can’t really move mountains…but being able to rake in 10% of the incomes of millions of people completely tax-free sure does go a long way toward making up for the failings of faith.

  • lpetrich

    There’s a certain problem with this approach. Where would the bishops be allowed to disagree on important issues? The Vatican is not exactly fond of disagreement with its teachings.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    I was not aware that a consensus of bishops was considered infallible. This reminds me of the ijma concept in Islam, which ironically at least with the majority Sunni is a highly decentralized religion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ijma

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    “The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium” sounds like something out of a satirical fantasy novel. It would be funny if it wasn’t being used in the real world to do such horrible things.

    @kagerato (#2):

    Summary of Catholicism:
    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. (#_#)

    That made me smile.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    “The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium” sounds like something out of a satirical fantasy novel. It would be funny if it wasn’t being used in the real world to do such horrible things.

    In the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, the theocratic government of Europe (an alternate universe Catholicism) is called the Church and the Magisterium (its teaching authority).

  • paradoctor

    Going by the empirical evidence, protecting paedophilia was in fact the consensus of the bishops. But I suspect that the bishops will argue that the Magisterium is defined by convention and revelation, not empiricism.

    ****

    Please forgive the following as off topic, but I think you might find this of interest, so I post it here to you: Insurance and Condensed Religion. Enjoy.

    ****

    Consider the insurance-agent’s term of art, “act of God”. It manages to offend both atheist and theist, for opposite reasons but to a common end. To an atheist, the phrase “act of God” superstitiously blames a natural disaster on an imaginary sky wizard. To a theist, that same phrase blasphemously accuses the Heavenly Father of malice or incompetence. The insurance agent who says “act of God” is neither atheist nor theist, but strategist. His intent is to weasel out of paying on a claim.

    Thus the insurance-agent catchphrase ‘act of God’ is a perfect gem; it condenses all religious thought; for it combines superstition with blasphemy to attain larceny!

    ****

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Not larceny, just a reason not to pay out. Anyway, if the religious do not want us to blame our natural disasters on God, then who else could be responsible? They cannot have it both ways. A catch-22 for them.

  • David Hart

    Hang on; I think I haven’t quite got the full picture. If all the bishops agree on something at any one time, does it then become binding on all (future) bishops as well as all lay catholics, or can one dissenting bishop come along later and break the spell?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    My understanding is that once all the bishops in the world agree on something at any given time, it becomes permanently binding on all future Catholics.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    @Michael (#11):

    In the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, the theocratic government of Europe (an alternate universe Catholicism) is called the Church and the Magisterium (its teaching authority).

    I thought of that, too, when I saw the word “Magisterium” in the title.

  • Owlmirror

    Plagiarizing myself:

    A man in a dress,
    elected as Top Man in a Dress,
    by other men wearing dresses,
    who declares that he cannot possibly be wrong,
    cannot possibly be wrong.

    But I was previously unaware of the codicil that:
    A whole bunch of men wearing dresses,
    who declare that whatever they happen to all agree on cannot possibly be wrong,
    cannot possibly be wrong.

  • David Hart

    My understanding is that once all the bishops in the world agree on something at any given time, it becomes permanently binding on all future Catholics.

    That’s excellent. That means that there must be infallible teachings of the Catholic Church which the Catholic Church itself is unaware of, simply because it hasn’t surveyed all its bishops.

    For instance, if all the bishops at one time happened to think that The Beatles were a better band than The Rolling Stones, or that (to pick a famous literary example) you should cut open your boiled eggs at the little end rather than the big end, then presumably these would constitute undiscovered dogmas (dogmata?) that you will go to Hell for not believing, but that the church cannot tell you about simply because it hasn’t got around to asking itself…?


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