The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium of the Church – Chapter I of nineteenth-century work on the magisterium by J.M.A. Vacant16-min read (inc. footnotes)

The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs – J.M.A. Vacant, 1887.

Introduction & Chapter I: The ordinary and universal magisterium in general
Chapter II
: The ministers or organs of the ordinary magisterium
Chapter IIIa: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (explicitly)
Chapter IIIb: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (implicitly and tacitly)
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium

We are pleased to present another section from this study by J.M.A. Vacant, in which he addresses the concept and the authority of the ordinary and universal magisterium. We previously published Chapter VI of this work, on the Pope’s personal exercise of this magisterium.

Fr Vacant was a professor of the Major Seminary of Nancy, and the celebrated Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique was commenced under his direction. His association with this work alone makes Fr Vacant a notable historical figure.

I previously noted that this work is not to be seen as a “final word” on the topic: but even so, it is a significant work and several theologians engage with it in their treatises on the Church. These include Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, Fr Joachim Salaverri SJ, Cardinal Charles Journet and Dom Paul Nau OSB.

Although this study contains some ideas which some may find surprising, this particular chapter consists of a clear and standard presentation of the ordinary and universal magisterium. It is common to hear people say that this magisterium consists of those things believed always, everywhere and by everyone. This presentation begins to show how misleading this can be if pushed too hard.




Master of Theology, Professor at the Major Seminary of Nancy

Printed with the permission of the Bishop of Nancy and the Archbishop of Paris.



Translated via DeepL and amended by the WM Review

Source – Les Amis du Christ Roi du France

The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs – J.M.A. Vacant, 1887.

Introduction & Chapter I: The ordinary and universal magisterium in general
Chapter II
: The ministers or organs of the ordinary magisterium
Chapter IIIa: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (explicitly)
Chapter IIIb: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (implicitly and tacitly)
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium


This study1 is addressed to Catholic readers; it is not written to refute the errors of Protestants, Greek schismatics or Gallicans on the authority of the Church and the infallibility of the episcopal body or of the Sovereign Pontiff. Let no one therefore seek in it the demonstration of the principles admitted today by all the submissive children of the Roman Church! It will simply set forth the doctrine of this Church on its ordinary magisterium, with some clarifications of the difficulties which this doctrine raises.

We shall first try to give a general idea of the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church, which the Vatican Council has declared to be a rule of the divine and Catholic faith; then we shall say what are the organs through which this Magisterium is exercised, in what ways it is expressed, and what obligations it imposes in matters of doctrine; finally we shall study, in particular, the part which belongs to the dispersed bishops in the exercise of this Magisterium and that which belongs to the Supreme Pontiff.

I. General idea of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church

First of all, here is the text in which the Vatican Council speaks to us of this magisterium:

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.2

Vatican I, Dei Filius

In studying the faith, the Holy Council wished to declare which truths must be believed by divine and Catholic faith – that is, on pain of being a heretic in the eyes of the Church and of being excluded from her bosom. Now, as we know, these truths are those which the Church proposes to our faith as revealed. They must therefore fulfil two conditions:

  1. To be revealed or contained in the word of God; and
  2. To be proposed as such to our faith by the Church, which explicitly affirms that they are in divine revelation, and which, consequently, clearly manifests to all her children the obligation to believe them.

The Council indicates these two conditions; this leads it to explain incidentally in what ways these truths can be found in the word of God and in what ways they can be proposed to our faith by the Church.

They can be found in the word of God in two forms:

  1. In the written form, if they are contained in divinely inspired Scripture;
  2. In the form of tradition, if they are sought in the teachings of the Church.

Moreover, Jesus Christ entrusted all His teachings to His Church, so that she might infallibly transmit them to all men until the end of time. It is therefore certain that the Church preserves the deposit of divine teachings in its integrity. If, therefore, not all revealed3 truths have been recorded in our holy books by the inspired writers, nevertheless all of them have their place in the Church’s doctrine. As, moreover, the custody of the Old and New Testaments has been committed to the Church, with the mission of interpreting them infallibly, it is through her hands that the word of God is transmitted to us in all its authorised forms: both under that of inspired Scripture, as well as under that of tradition.

But let it be well remembered that the Church is not an automatic instrument which repeats down the centuries the formulas used by the Saviour and His apostles; she is like a living teacher who knows what she is saying. She therefore adapts her teachings, or rather those of God, to the intelligence and needs of each generation, without adding or subtracting anything, but varying the form she gives them. She presents successively her multiple aspects, enlightening and expressly proposing to the belief of the faithful points which had previously remained in the shadows, hidden, as it were, in the midst of other points, from which no thought had been given to distinguishing them before.

Let us understand that this explicit proposal is nothing more than a manner of affirming, with greater clarity, precision, certainty and insistence, the revealed truths which had always been believed, at least implicitly. It is simply a new form of the same teaching, which is immutable in its substance. Now, according to the doctrine expressed by the Vatican Council in the text before us, this explicit proposal is the second of the conditions required for a truth to be of Catholic faith [“and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed”], and it can be made in two ways. The Church has, in fact, two ways of affirming that a particular point is revealed and must be believed as such: her solemn judgments and her ordinary and universal magisterium.

As all our readers know, a solemn judgment of the Church is a definition issued by a Supreme Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council, in forms which show its authenticity. But what is to be understood by the ordinary and universal magisterium? This is the question which we have to resolve. Let us first see whether our text will lead us to the solution.

The Fathers of the Holy Council have already made it clear that this magisterium is a way of teaching; but we can draw further information from their words. They place this magisterium on the same footing as the solemn definitions of popes or universal councils, and attribute to it full authority; for they give it as a rule of the Catholic faith. It is, therefore, a mode of teaching employed by the sovereign authority of the teaching Church, by the pope and by the episcopal body: it has the same infallibility and binding force as the solemn definitions – from which, nevertheless, it differs. The qualifications by which our text characterises either the solemn judgement or the ordinary and universal magisterium (‘sive solemni judicio sive ordinario et universali magisterio’) in order to distinguish one from the other, show us, moreover, that the ordinary magisterium has nothing of the solemnity of the decrees of councils or popes; and that it is not, like them, an extraordinary event – but that it is exercised habitually and is manifested by the whole Church. But let us see if these characteristics are found in a mode of teaching employed by the Church: have the Fathers and theologians invoked the authority of this magisterium? Is it exercised, does it exist, among us?

Yes, it exists.

This ordinary magisterium is nothing other than that, of which the whole Church continually offers us the spectacle, when we see her speaking unceasingly through the mouth of the Pope and all the Catholic bishops; placing herself throughout the universe, at the disposal and within the reach of all men, infidels and Christians, ignorant and learned; and teaching them to regulate, not only their faith, but also their sentiments, their worship and their whole conduct, according to divine revelation. It is easy to show that this mode of teaching, which is exercised today everywhere and on all things, has always been exercised in the same way and that its infallible authority has always been recognised.

In fact, it is this mode of teaching which by itself most fully responds to the mission with which Jesus Christ charged His apostles; for He ordered them to disperse throughout all nations, in order to teach all His doctrine every day. His words are clear:

Going therefore, teach ye all nations: [baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.] Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.4

Matthew 28.19-20

It was by this teaching that the Church was established and the doctrine of Jesus Christ was made known to the world; and this was before the solemn definitions of the Councils and the Holy See; and it is the first rule of faith whose authority the holy Fathers invoked.

This is the teaching to which St. Ignatius of Antioch wants the faithful and priests to conform their beliefs, when he writes:

“I have recommended to you that you unanimously keep the doctrine of God. For Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the doctrine of God, just as the bishops constituted to the ends of the earth are in the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is fitting that you unite in the doctrine of your bishop, and this is what you do… It is clear, then, that one should regard one’s bishop as the Lord Himself…”5

St Ignatius of Antioch

This is the same teaching of which St. Irenaeus said:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times… Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who […] assemble in unauthorized meetings;

[We do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. [For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority. Ed. This is not included in Vacant, but immediately follows the passage which he gives.]6

St Irenaeus of Lyons

Finally, this teaching has been regarded as infallible by all the holy Fathers and all theologians. To be convinced of this, it suffices to go through the testimonies that Cardinal Franzelin has accumulated in his masterly work on Tradition.

Particular councils began to be held from the second century onwards, and then ecumenical councils were convened, which passed solemn judgements. These judgements were respected as the authentic and certain expression of the doctrine of the bishops, assembled from all parts of Christendom, under the presidency of the successor of St. Peter; but they did not diminish the authority of the daily teaching of the scattered bishops.

The same was true of the solemn definitions which the Pontiffs promulgated over the centuries, whenever they deemed it necessary; for, remarkably, the supporters and opponents of papal infallibility always admired the infallibility of the dispersed Church. It was, in fact, from the assent of the bishops scattered in the dioceses, and from their agreement with the Pope, that the Gallicans wished to derive the authority which they were forced to accord, in practice, to the papal definitions; and, while the defenders of true doctrine maintained that these definitions are infallible in themselves, they proclaimed at the same time that the body of scattered bishops cannot fall into error.

Moreover, the Pontiffs as well as the Ecumenical Councils had repeatedly affirmed this truth. A few years before the Vatican Council, on December 21, 1863, Pius IX echoed these centuries-old testimonies in Tuas Libenter, a letter he wrote to the Archbishop of Munich. In this letter, he reminded the theologians of Germany of their duties with regard to all the doctrinal decisions of the Church – and, in particular, with regard to the teachings of her ordinary Magisterium. It is worth pausing for a moment to study this document.

The illustrious Pontiff begins by saying that it is not enough for theologians to accept the dogmas which are of the Catholic faith by virtue of the solemn decrees of the Church; then, developing his thought, he distinguishes between revealed truths and those which are not revealed. Now, he declares that revealed truths require an act of divine faith not only when they are taught by express definitions, but also when they are taught by the daily magisterium of the Church throughout the world. As for the points of doctrine which are not revealed, they will not be the object of an act of divine faith; but they may become obligatory and be imposed on the assent of theologians, as a result of decrees of the Roman congregations or in virtue of the common and constant consent of Catholics. Such are the statements of Pius IX in his letter to the Archbishop of Munich.

Here is the part of this document which concerns the faith due to the revealed truths which the ordinary magisterium of the dispersed Church presents as such:

If it were a question of that obedience which is concretely due to divine faith, this obedience should not be limited to truths expressly defined by decrees of ecumenical Councils or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this Apostolic See, but must extend also to truths which, by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church spread throughout the world, are transmitted as divinely revealed, and therefore by the common and universal consent of Catholic theologians are held to be matters of faith.7

Pope Pius IX, Tuas Libenter

This letter of Pius IX prepared the declaration which was to be made seven years later by the Vatican Council; for it is clear that the “ordinary magisterium of the Church spread throughout the world” in the papal letter is the same as that which the Council calls “the ordinary and universal magisterium” in the passage we examined at the beginning.

Thus the theologians who have been writing on this subject for fifteen years have brought these two texts together. They have also recognised, in the ordinary magisterium which the Vatican Fathers and Pope Pius IX declare to be a rule of faith, the same daily teaching which had been regarded throughout the centuries as the infallible interpreter of tradition. It will suffice to read Fr. Hurter8 or Cardinal Mazzella to be convinced of this.9

We can therefore apply to this magisterium, which the Vatican Council calls “ordinary”, that which the ancient theologians said about the authority of the dispersed Church, which they considered equal to that of the Councils and the Supreme Pontiff.

The infallibility of this magisterium extends not only to the truths of the Catholic faith, as defined by the Vatican Council; not only to those truths which, without being of the Catholic faith, belong to tradition, as Pius IX teaches in his letter to the Archbishop of Munich; but also to all points which have some connection with revelation. It extends, therefore, to theological conclusions, to dogmatic facts, to discipline, to the canonisation of saints.

General laws established by legitimate custom cannot, therefore, be in contradiction with divine law and revealed doctrine; and when the whole Church, in the early centuries, agreed in honouring a person as a saint, the judgement which it made in this way, with the at least tacit consent of the Holy See, was no less infallible than the decrees of canonisation which the Supreme Pontiff makes today.10

Moreover, since infallibility in teaching belongs only to the episcopal body and the Pope, it is to the episcopal body and the Pope that the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church owes its sovereign and infallible authority.

  • But, it will be asked, when do the Pope and the bishops give this magisterium the benefit of their infallibility?
  • It is, I shall reply with tradition, when, speaking by common agreement, they impose on the whole Church one of the points of doctrine just mentioned.

These conclusions are accepted by all Catholic theologians; they follow from the principle that the ordinary magisterium has the same authority as the solemn judgments of the teaching Church, and that it differs from them only in the form it takes.

The Ordinary Magisterium of the Church and its Organs – J.M.A. Vacant, 1887.

Introduction & Chapter I: The ordinary and universal magisterium in general
Chapter II
: The ministers or organs of the ordinary magisterium
Chapter IIIa: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (explicitly)
Chapter IIIb: How the ordinary magisterium expresses itself (implicitly and tacitly)
Chapter VI and Conclusion: The Pope’s personal exercise of the ordinary magisterium

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  1. Vacant: The substance of the present work is a dissertation sent to the theological competition which M. l’abbé J.-B. Jaugey, director of La Controverse, had opened in this review. The judges, composed of several professors of the Faculty of Theology of Lyon, were kind enough to award the prize to this dissertation.
  2. Fide divina et catholica ea omnia credenda sunt quæ in verbo Dei scripto vel tradito continentur et ab Ecclesia sive solemni judicio sive ordinario et universali magisterio tanquam divinitas credenda proponuntur. (Const. Dei Filius, c. 3 de Fide).
  3. I do not mean in this study to speak of private revelations which are not addressed to all men; but only of Christian Revelation, such as it has been given to us from Adam until the death of the apostles.
  4. Euntes docete omnes gentes, docentes eos servare omnia quæcumque mandavi vobis. Ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus usque ad consummationem sœculi.
  5. St Ignatius of Antioch, Epist. ad Ephes., n. 3, 4 and 6
  6. St Ireneus of Lyons, Adversus haereses, lib. III, c. 3
  7. « Etiamsi ageretur de illa subjectione quæ fidei divinæ actu est præstanda, limitanda tamen non esset ad ea quæ expressis œcumenicorum conciliorum aut Romanorum Pontificum, hujusque Apostolicæ Sedis decretis definita sunt, sed ad ea quoque extendenda quæ ordinario totius Ecclesiæ per orbem dispersæ magisterio tanquam divinitas revelata traduntur, ideoque universali et constanti consensu a catholicis theologis ad fidem pertinere retinentur. » (Litteræ apost. 21 déc. 1863, ad archiep. Monacensem ; ap. Denzinger, n. 1683).

    I [Vacant] have followed the interpretation of Hurter (Compend. de Ecclesia, n. 382) and of most theologians who do not think that theological conclusions should be included among the points which Pius IX says must be believed by an act of divine faith. Another is the sentiment of the learned Cardinal Franzelin (De Tradit., p. 449); but his interpretation does not seem to me to be in conformity with the pontifical text. Moreover, it is in no way opposed to what is said of the ordinary magisterium in this study.
  8. De Ecclesia, no. 667
  9. De Ecclesia, no. 793, and De Virtutibus infusis, nos. 423, 432 and 528
  10. Benedictus XIV, De serv. Dei beatificat. et B. canonizat., lib. I, c. 39, n. 3.

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