On The Patrick Madrid Show, listener George called in to ask a basic but very important question that a lot of Catholics get tripped up on: What is the Magisterium? From the sound of it, it could be a book or a group of papal documents or a place, or even a specific clerical item.
“You came to the right place,” said Patrick. The word “Magisterium” comes from the Latin magister, which means teacher, master, or director. And the Magisterium is the teaching body of bishops who teach in communion with the Church and her head, the Pope.
“So whereas scripture is the objective data of the gospel that’s in black and white, that objective data requires interpretation, just like if you went into a restaurant and you saw something on the menu.” Something that is very basic like a cheeseburger or lasagna might require no further explanation or interpretation at all. But if you saw something very ambiguous like “Italian pasta dish”, you might ask the restaurant staff for clarification. That could be taken to mean very many things.
In other words, you can look at scripture and see the words on the page, but that doesn’t mean you will understand what they mean in the context of the Catholic Faith. We require guidance.
“The sacred tradition of the Church is one means of ascertaining [interpretation] because sacred tradition is, among other ways of describing it, the Church’s lived understanding of the meaning of what we read in the Bible,” said Patrick. He referenced the Bread of Life Discourse where Jesus said that His flesh is the bread of eternal life and whoever eats it will never die. What did He mean? Many people understood that they would become cannibals and they left Him.
St. Paul warns against reading scripture without the guidance of the Church in 2 Thessalonians, saying, “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) Sola scriptura, pursuing salvation by the Bible alone, is not biblical. We need the Church to act as the interpretive key for all time. As the institution imbued with Christ’s authority from the beginning, the Church and its Magisterium are the only sources capable of interpreting the truth.
Protestant churches have made the unfortunate mistake of leaving scripture up to anybody with a Bible so you can read into anything you want. However, by cherry-picking passages from here and there, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to. And further, by leaving teachings up to the interpretations of the congregation, there arises dissent and disagreement, which is why there are now so many Protestant churches.
So, in conclusion, the Magisterium is the teaching office of the Church that consists of all bishops in union with the Pope. And they are tasked with disseminating the correct interpretations and teachings of scripture.
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