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“The relations between the Magisterium and theology not only ... are of the greatest importance but must also be considered to be of very great contemporary interest today.”1 The following pages are an attempt to clarify the relationship between “the mandate given to the ecclesiastical Magisterium to protect divine revelation and the task given to theologians to investigate and explain the doctrine of the Faith”.2


By “ecclesiastical Magisterium” is meant the task of teaching that by Christ’s institution is proper to the College of Bishops or to individual bishops linked in hierarchical communion with the Supreme Pontiff. By “theologians” are meant those members of the Church who by their studies and life in the community of the Church’s Faith are qualified to pursue, in the scientific manner proper to theology, a deeper understanding of the Word of God and also to teach that Word by virtue of a canonical mission. When the New Testament and the subsequent Tradition discussed the Magisterium of pastors, theologians, or teachers and the relationship between them, they spoke analogously, in terms of both similarity and dissimilarity; along with continuity, there are rather profound modifications. The concrete forms in which they have been related to one another and coordinated have been rather varied in the course of time.



The element common to the tasks of both the Magisterium and theologians, though it is realized in analogous and distinct fashions, is “to preserve the sacred deposit of revelation, to examine it more deeply, to explain, teach, and defend it”,3 for the service of the People of God and for the whole world’s salvation. Above all, this service must defend the certainty of faith; this is a work done differently by the Magisterium and by the ministry of theologians, but it is neither necessary nor possible to establish a hard-and-fast separation between them.


In this common service of the truth, the Magisterium and theologians are both bound by certain obligations:

1. They are bound by the Word of God. For “the Magisterium is not above the Word of God but serves it, teaching only what has been handed down, as ... it listens to this, guards it scrupulously, and expounds it faithfully; and it draws from this one deposit of faith all that it proposes as being divinely revealed.”4 For its part, “sacred theology relies on the written Word of God along with sacred Tradition as on a permanent foundation, and by this Word it is most firmly strengthened and constantly rejuvenated as it searches out, under the light of faith, all the truth stored up in the mystery of Christ.”5

2. They are both bound by the “sensus fidei” (supernatural appreciation of the Faith) of the Church of this and previous times. For the Word of God pervades all time in a living manner through the supernatural appreciation of the Faith (communi sensu fidei) of the whole People of God, in which “the whole body of the faithful, anointed by the Holy One, cannot err in believing”,6 if “in maintaining, practicing, and confessing the Faith that has been handed down, there is a harmony between the bishops and the faithful”.7

3. Both are bound by the documents of the Tradition in which the common Faith of the People of God has been set forth. Although the Magisterium and the theologians have different tasks with regard to these documents, neither of them can neglect these traces of the Faith left in the history of salvation of God’s People.

4. In exercising their tasks, both are bound by pastoral and missionary concern for the world. Although the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff and of the bishops is specifically called “pastoral”, the scientific character of their work does not free theologians from pastoral and missionary responsibility, especially given the publicity that modern communications media so quickly give to even scientific matters. Besides, theology, as a vital function in and for the People of God, must have a pastoral and missionary intent and effect.


Common to both, although also different in each, is the manner, at once collegial and personal, in which the task of both the Magisterium and the theologians is carried out. If the charism of infallibility is promised to “the whole body of the faithful”,8 to the College of Bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter, and to the Supreme Pontiff himself, the head of that College,9 then it should be put into practice in a coresponsible, cooperative, and collegial association of the members of the Magisterium and of individual theologians. And this joint effort should also be realized as much among the members of the Magisterium as among the members of the theological enterprise, and also between the Magisterium on the one hand and the theologians on the other. It should also preserve the personal and indispensable responsibility of individual theologians, without which the science of Faith would make no progress.



Something must first be said about the difference in the functions proper to the Magisterium and to theologians.

1. It is the Magisterium s task authoritatively to defend the Catholic integrity and unity of faith and morals. From this follow specific functions; and, although at first glance they seem particularly to be of a rather negative character, they are, rather, a positive ministry for the life of the Church. These are: “The task of authoritatively interpreting the Word of God, written and handed down”,10 the censuring of opinions that endanger the faith and morals proper to the Church, [and] the proposing of truths that are of particular contemporary relevance. Although it is not the work of the Magisterium to propose theological syntheses, still, because of its concern for unity, it must consider individual truths in the light of the whole, since integrating a particular truth into the whole belongs to the very nature of truth.

2. The theologians’ function in some way mediates between the Magisterium and the People of God. For “theology has a twofold relation with the Magisterium of the Church and with the universal community of Christians. In the first place, it occupies a sort of midway position between the Faith of the Church and its Magisterium.”11 On the one hand, “in each of the great sociocultural regions, ... theological reflection must submit to a new examination, guided by the Tradition of the universal Church, the facts and words revealed by God, contained in the Scriptures, and explained by the Fathers of the Church and by the Magisterium”.12 For “recent research and discoveries in the sciences, in history and philosophy, bring up new questions that ... require new investigations by theologians”.13 In this way, theology “is to lend its aid to make the Magisterium in its turn the enduring light and norm of the Church”.14

On the other hand, by their work of interpretation, teaching, and translation into contemporary modes of thought, theologians insert the teaching and warnings of the Magisterium into a wider, synthetic context and thus contribute to a better knowledge on the part of the People of God. In this way, “they lend their aid to the task of spreading, clarifying, confirming, and defending the truth that the Magisterium authoritatively propounds”.15


The Magisterium and the theologians also differ in the quality of the authority with which they carry out their tasks.

1. The Magisterium derives its authority from sacramental ordination, which “along with the task of sanctifying confers also the tasks of teaching and ruling”.16 This “formal authority”, as it is called, is at once charismatic and juridical, and it founds the right and the duty of the Magisterium insofar as it is a share in the authority of Christ. Care should be taken that personal authority and the authority that derives from the very matter being proposed also be brought to bear when this ministerial authority is being put into effect.

2. Theologians derive their specifically theological authority from their scientific qualifications; but these cannot be separated from the proper character of this discipline as the science of faith, which cannot be carried through without a living experience and practice of the Faith. For this reason, the authority that belongs to theology in the Church is not merely profane and scientific but is a genuinely ecclesial authority, inserted into the order of authorities that derive from the Word of God and are confirmed by canonical mission.


There is also a certain difference in the way in which the Magisterium and the theologians are connected with the Church. It is obvious that both the Magisterium and the theologians work in and for the Church, but still there is a difference in this ecclesial reference.

1. The Magisterium is an official ecclesial task conferred by the sacrament of Orders. Therefore, as an institutional element of the Church, it can only exist in the Church, so that the individual members of the Magisterium use their authority and sacred power to build up their flocks in truth and holiness.17 This responsibility applies not only to the particular Churches under their charge, but “as members of the episcopal College, ... each of them must by Christ’s institution and command show a care for the universal Church, which ... would be a great benefit for the universal Church”.18

2. Even when it is not exercised in virtue of an explicit “canonical mission”, theology can only be done in a living communion with the Faith of the Church. For this reason, all the baptized, insofar as they both really live the life of the Church and enjoy scientific competence, can carry out the task of the theologian, a task that derives its own force from the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, which is communicated by the sacraments, the preaching of the Word of God, and the communion of love.


The difference between the Magisterium and the theologians takes on a special character when one considers the freedom proper to them and the critical function that follows from it with regard to the faithful, to the world, and even to one another.

1. By its nature and institution, the Magisterium is clearly free in carrying out its task. This freedom carries with it a great responsibility. For that reason, it is often difficult, although necessary, to use it in such a way that it not appear to theologians and to others of the faithful to be arbitrary or excessive. There are some theologians who prize scientific theology too highly, not taking enough account of the fact that respect for the Magisterium is one of the specific elements of the science of theology. Besides, contemporary democratic sentiments often give rise to a movement of solidarity against what the Magisterium does in carrying out its task of protecting the teaching of faith and morals from any harm. Still, it is necessary, though not easy, to find always a mode of procedure that is both free and forceful yet not arbitrary or destructive of communion in the Church.

2. To the freedom of the Magisterium there corresponds in its own way the freedom that derives from the true scientific responsibility of theologians. It is not an unlimited freedom, for, besides being bound to the truth, it is also true of theology that “in the use of any freedom, the moral principle of personal and social responsibility must be observed”.19But the theologians’ task of interpreting the documents of the past and present Magisterium, of putting them in the context of the whole of revealed truth, and of finding a better understanding of them by the use of hermeneutics brings with it a somewhat critical function that obviously should be exercised positively rather than destructively.


The exercise of their tasks by the Magisterium and theologians often gives rise to a certain tension. But this is not surprising, nor should one expect that such tension will ever be fully resolved here on earth. On the contrary, wherever there is genuine life, tension also exists. Such tension need not be interpreted as hostility or real opposition, but can be seen as a vital force and an incentive to a common carrying out of the respective tasks by way of dialogue.



The basis and condition for the possibility of this dialogue between theologians and the Magisterium are community in the Faith of the Church and service in building up the Church. They embrace the diverse functions of the Magisterium and theologians. On the one hand, this unity in the communication and participation in the truth is a habitual association that is antecedent to every concrete dialogue; on the other, it is itself strengthened and enlivened by the various relations dialogue entails. Thus dialogue provides excellent reciprocal assistance: the Magisterium can gain a greater understanding as it defends and preaches the truth of faith and morals, and the theological understanding of faith and morals gains in certainty from corroboration by the Magisterium.


The dialogue between the Magisterium and theologians is limited only by the truth of faith, which must be served and explained. For this reason, the whole vast field of truth lies open to such dialogue. But this truth is not something uncertain and utterly unknown, always having to be sought; it has been revealed and handed on to the Church to be faithfully kept. Therefore, the dialogue reaches its limits when the limits of the Faith are reached.

This goal of the dialogue, the service of the truth, is often endangered. The following types of behavior especially limit the possibility of dialogue: wherever the dialogue becomes an “instrument” for gaining some end “politically”, that is, by applying pressure and ultimately abstracting from the question of truth, the effort is bound to fail; if a person “unilaterally” claims the whole field of the dialogue, he violates the rules of discussion; the dialogue between the Magisterium and theologians is especially violated if the level of argument and discussion is prematurely abandoned and means of coercion, threat, and sanction are immediately brought to bear; the same thing holds when the discussion between theologians and the Magisterium is carried out by means of publicity, whether within or outside the Church, that is not sufficiently expert in the matter, and thus “pressures” from without have a great deal of influence, e.g., the mass media.


Before opening an official examination of a theologians writings, the competent authority should exhaust all the ordinary possibilities of reaching agreement through dialogue on a doubtful opinion (e.g., personal conversation or inquiries and replies in correspondence). If by these forms of dialogue no real consensus can be reached, the Magisterium should employ a full and flexible stock of responses, beginning with various forms of warning, “verbal sanctions”, etc. In a very serious case, the Magisterium – after consulting theologians of various schools and having exhausted the means of dialogue – for its part must necessarily clarify the compromised truth and safeguard the faith of the believers.

According to the classical rules, the fact of one’s professing “heresy” can only be definitively established if the accused theologian has demonstrated “obstinacy”, that is, if he closes himself off from all discussion meant to clarify an opinion contrary to the Faith and, in effect, refuses the dialogue. The fact of heresy can be established only after all the rules of the hermeneutics of dogmas and all the theological qualifications have been applied. In this way, even in decisions that cannot be avoided, the true “ethos” of the dialogue procedure can be preserved.

* This document was approved by the Commission “in forma specified”.

1 Pope Paul VI, Address to the International Congress on Theology of Vatican II, 1 October 1966, AAS 58 (1966) 890.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 891.

4 Dei Verbum, n. 10. 

5 Dei Verbum, n. 24.

6 Lumen Gentium, n. 12.

7 Dei Verbum, n. 10.

8 Lumen Gentium, n. 12.

9 Lumen Gentium, n. 25.

10 Dei Verbum, n. 10. 

11 Pope Paul VI, Address on Theology of Vatican II, 892.

12 Ad Gentes, n. 22.

13 Gaudium et Spes, n. 62.

14 Pope Paul VI, Address on Theology of Vatican II, 892.

15 Ibid., 891.

16 Lumen Gentium, n. 21.

17 Lumen Gentium, n. 27.

18 Lumen Gentium, n. 23.

19 Dignitatis Humanae, n. 7.