The organs and instruments of the ordinary magisterium – Chapter II of Fr J.M.A. Vacant’s nineteenth-century work on the magisterium11-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

The WM Review continues our translation and publication of this nineteenth work on the ordinary magisterium. As we already noted, the author J.M.A. Vacant was the initial director of the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique and was a seminary professor. This short work was awarded the prize for the theological competition in La Controverese, judged by members of the theological faculty of Lyon. Several theologians of the twentieth century engage with his ideas.

This is Chapter II of six. It contains some beautiful and sublime descriptions of the teaching authority of the Church. Let those who dismiss the theological work of this period as “dry neo-scholasticism” take note of the chaleur, the great warmth of Vacant’s description of the ordinary magisterium.

We have already published our exclusive translations of Chapters I and VI. We look forward to making the rest of this important work available in the coming weeks.

Picture: Von Klever, Christ Walking on Water (Source)




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 by the WM Review

Source – Les Amis du Christ Roi du France

Chapter II – The Ministers who serve as the organs and instruments of the ordinary magisterium

We have just given a general and still somewhat superficial overview of the Church’s ordinary magisterium; we must now study it more thoroughly, considering successively the main aspects from which it can be viewed.

First of all, we shall show how not only the pope and the bishops, but also the lower ministers of the Church, the simple faithful and almost all men lend their voice to this ordinary magisterium and become its instruments.

But before entering into this subject, it will not be useless to recall in what the Church’s life consists; for it is necessary to understand this life, in order to understand how everything in the Church and even in the world contributes to the exercise of the ordinary magisterium which we are studying.

According to the profound doctrine of St. Paul, the Church is the mystical body of Jesus Christ, made up of multiple living members and organs. In this Church, the Saviour has established a head and a college of pastors, charged with continuing the work He began on earth and communicating His life to His mystical body, in all its forms and manifestations. Assisted in this work by the Holy Ghost, these ministers of Christ are the light of the world to whom they give supernatural life, and they are the salt of the earth in which they prevent this life from being corrupted. I shall say nothing of the exercise of their power of order, in virtue of which they offer the Holy Sacrifice and confer the Sacraments: I shall only deal here with their jurisdiction or the mission which they have received to govern and teach the Church.

Now, as the reader knows, it is the exercise of papal and episcopal jurisdiction which guards and maintains the doctrine of the Gospel in the Church, and it does so by infallible teaching; it does the same for Christian morality and perfection by the maintenance of divine laws and the establishment of ecclesiastical laws; and for worship by the various forms of the liturgy.

All the divine gifts come to us, therefore, from the hands of the episcopate. If the Church is the mystical body of Jesus Christ, the bishops united to the Pope are like the soul and the substantial form which vivifies this body, by the virtue of Jesus Christ whose place they hold here below. This explains the principle which we established earlier: that the exercise of the ordinary magisterium of the Church belongs to the college of bishops, in its own right and by divine right.

But what these bishops who form the Church Teaching have in their own right, they can communicate, in a certain measure, to the members of the Church Taught;1 just as the soul puts something of its life into the organs of our senses.

To leave these metaphors: Jesus Christ, having transmitted his mission to living men, gave them the faculty of fulfilling it as such; that is to say, by the acts of living men, acts of their own initiative. He undoubtedly assists them and thus ensures the accomplishment of their ministry; but this assistance does not take away from them the choice of the means they judge appropriate to help themselves. This assistance even leaves them free to use these means, not only in the supernatural order, but also in the natural order; for everything is done for the elect and for Jesus Christ.

And indeed, since the divinely-constituted pastors have made use (as we shall see later) of the data of human sciences for the development of Christian doctrine, why should they not have sought co-operators in the members of the Church Taught, who are their children? They have done so. They have given themselves helpers by entrusting priests and clerics with ecclesiastical functions; they accept auxiliaries who offer themselves from the ranks of the laity.

Jesus Christ has made them His ministers, and they are pastors of the Church by virtue of a divine institution. They form a clergy and give themselves lieutenants, who are also pastors in the Church – but by virtue of an ecclesiastical institution. These inferior ministers receive a share of the authority of the Pope and the bishops; but, however large this share may be, they always remain instruments of the episcopal body and do not exercise a ministry instituted directly by Jesus Christ. The result is that they teach, but in the name and place of the bishops, without being part of the Church Teaching and without possessing in themselves the infallibility promised to the Pontiff and the successors of the apostles.

This participation in the power or assignment of the Holy See and the Apostolic College is granted in various ways and by various institutions.

We know that these powers are multiple: that they are doctrinal, legislative, and judicial. Now, the Pope and the bishops can communicate them all, to a marked extent, to the same person, while limiting their exercise to a restricted territory. It is in this way that the authority of the Supreme Pontiff has been shared between patriarchs and metropolitans, and that of the bishops of each diocese is transmitted to the parish priests.

It also happens that the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops communicate only one or other of their powers – for example, that of judging a certain kind of case – but without limiting the exercise of this partial jurisdiction to a restricted territory. It is in this second way that the successor of St. Peter divides his many offices among the Roman congregations whose authority extends over the whole world. The mission of studying and helping to study true doctrine, which the Catholic universities receive from the Supreme Pontiff, can also, I believe, be included in the same category.

These various communications of the authority of the Holy See and of the episcopate have been given stability when the needs of the Church have required it; they have thus been transformed, often enough, into permanent institutions. The episcopal body has thus given itself organized and living instruments for the accomplishment of its mission; or why should I not say, according to the explanations we have just given, that it has created for itself organs which participate in its life?

Besides these permanent organs, there are also transitory ones which owe their ephemeral existence to various delegations of spiritual power. Finally, in addition to the instruments which the bishops create for themselves, there are auxiliaries who help them to fulfil their mission, while remaining duly dependent upon their authority and without having received any ministry from them. Such are the writers who submit their works to ecclesiastical approval; such are the laymen who, without being charged with instructing their brethren in the truths of religion, do so with the express or legitimately presumed approval of the pastors; such are the parents who bring up their children in the principles of the Catholic faith, and the teachers who contribute to the Christian education of youth.

All these aids contribute to the work of the teaching Church, all of them are more or less authorized instruments of her daily magisterium. Each of them, in fact, expresses in its own way the doctrine of the Church, and the multitude of these instruments means that one hears this doctrine, as it were, echoing everywhere.

The Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium, although it is entirely under the action of the episcopal body, is thus formed by this concert of an infinite number of voices, rising endlessly from one end of the universe to the other. It is like the sound of the vast ocean, where the murmurings of the smallest waves mingle with the crashing of the great. But while nothing but a confused bellowing emerges from the bosom of the sea, all the voices we hear in the Church are instruments of the magisterium of the episcopate: they are like living echoes, or, according to the beautiful comparison of St. Ignatius of Antioch, like the strings of a lyre which harmonise unceasingly with the voice of the Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops; for bodily organs exercise no function except under the influence of the body’s principle of life, and an instrument acts only under the impulse of the one who employs it.2

The foregoing considerations would be incomplete if we did not add that this harmony is guaranteed not only by the excellent dispositions of priests and faithful, but also by the promises of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, the Saviour did not content himself to assure infallibility to the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles alone, but He is also engaged in maintaining a perpetual and indissoluble unity in the bosom of His Church, and to preserving her members’ faith from all alteration. This Church, therefore, will always remain united to the successor of Peter, on whom she rests like a building on its foundations; and the efforts of Hell will not be able to destroy her or to shake her belief. Super hanc petram ædificabo Ecclesiam meam et portæ inferi non prævalebunt adversus eam. By virtue of these repeatedly renewed promises, the faith of the faithful is as infallible as the teaching of the pastors, and there is no need to fear the slightest disagreement between this faith and this teaching. It is therefore also an accepted principle of theology that the faith of the whole Christian people is always in conformity with the doctrine of the episcopate, which is that of Jesus Christ.

It is God Himself, therefore, who guards the faith of the faithful, keeping it in accord with the teaching of the first pastors: it is He who guarantees the docility of the instruments which the ordinary magisterium gives itself and the fidelity of the echoes which it finds in the members of the Church who do not belong to the episcopal college.

Therefore, in order to know the teachings of the ordinary magisterium, it is not necessary to listen to all the voices which serve as its organs or which echo it; it is sufficient to be aware either of the doctrine of the dispersed body of bishops, or of the faith of all the faithful; it is often enough to study them in just one of their manifestations.

Indeed, all the limbs and organs of a living being harmonise so perfectly, that even just one can make it possible for an experienced naturalist to reconstruct the whole, if it is sufficiently important. The same is true of the ordinary magisterium of the Church.

Thus, even just the constant and universal doctrine of the Holy Fathers or theologians, to which we shall return, makes it possible to know the teachings of this magisterium, as Pius IX made clear in Tuas Libenter, the letter to the Archbishop of Munich, which we have already quoted.3

The words of the martyrs recounted in their deeds, the inscriptions placed on their tombs, the various monuments in which the faith of the Christian people is expressed: these may also manifest the beliefs of the universal Church.

But they will be found even more surely in the symbols of faith accepted by the whole of catholicité4 by which I mean the Apostles’s Creed, the Nicaean Creed and that of St. Athanasius; in the professions of faith imposed on all those who are to exercise an ecclesiastical ministry; and finally in the Catechism of the Council of Trent and in the whole body of diocesan catechisms, drawn up for the guidance of the clergy of the parishes in the day-to-day instruction of the believers. These are in fact documents in which the Apostles and their successors formulated rules of faith for the faithful, and rules of teaching for pastors, by means of which the unity of doctrine is maintained. We shall see more clearly the role of these doctrinal formulae when we study how the ordinary magisterium expresses itself.

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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Always read the footnotes – sometimes containing hidden gems. See here for the full WM Review Reading List.

  1. The theologians give the name “the Church Teaching” to the pope and the bishops, the successors of the apostles – and “the Church taught” to all of the other members of the Church.
  2. Ad Eph.
  3. “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 Dec. 1863, ad archiep. Monacensem;. Denzinger, n. 1536). “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 consensus of Catholic theologians are held to be matters of fait
  4. WM Review: I have left this word untranslated, as “catholicity” sounds strange, and “Catholicism” does not really carry the sense.

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