Magisterium Exercises Authority In Christ's Name
by Pope John Paul II
Address to Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
November 24, 1995
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and Priesthood,
1. I would first of all like to express my joy at being able to meet you at the end of
your plenary assembly. This is a fitting occasion to show you my gratitude. Your work,
difficult and demanding in so many respects, is of fundamental importance to the Christian
life. Indeed, it seeks to promote and defend the integrity and purity of the faith, which
are essential conditions so that the men and women of our time can find the light to
embark on the way of salvation.
I thank Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for the sentiments expressed in his address and for
explaining the work you have done during your plenary assembly, which was particularly
devoted to the problem of the reception of the pronouncements made by the ecclesiastical
2. The continual dialogue with Pastors and theologians throughout the world enables you
to be attentive to the demands of understanding and reflecting more deeply on the doctrine
of the faith, which theology interprets, and at the same time, it informs you of the
useful efforts being made to foster and strengthen the unity of the faith and the
Magisterium's guiding role in understanding the truth and in building up ecclesial
communion in charity.
The unity of the faith, for the sake of which the Magisterium has authority and
ultimate deliberative power in interpreting the Word of God written and handed down, is a
primary value, which, if respected, does not involve the stifling of theological research,
but provides it with a stable foundation. Theology, in its task of making explicit the
intelligible content of the faith, expresses the intrinsic orientation of human
intelligence to the truth and the believer's irrepressible need rationally to explore the
To achieve this end, theology can never be reduced to the "private"
reflection of a theologian or group of theologians. The Church is the theologian's vital
environment, and in order to remain faithful to its identity, theology cannot fail to
participate deeply in the fabric of the Church's life, doctrine, holiness and prayer.
Magisterium Is a Service to the Truth
3. This is the context in which the conviction that theology needs the living and
clarifying word of the Magisterium becomes fully understandable and perfectly consistent
with the logic of the Christian faith. The meaning of the Church's Magisterium must be
considered in relation to the truth of Christian doctrine. This is what your Congregation
has carefully explained and spelled out in the Instruction *Donum veritatis* on the
ecclesial vocation of the theologian.
The fact that the dogmatic development which culminated in the solemn definition of the
First Vatican Council has stressed the Magisterium's charism of infallibility and
clarified the conditions of its exercise must not lead to the Magisterium's being
considered only from this standpoint. Its power and its authority are actually the power
and authority of Christian truth, to which it bears witness. The Magisterium, whose
authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (cf. *Dei Verbum*, n. 10), is an organ
of service to the truth and is responsible for seeing that the truth does not cease to be
faithfully handed on throughout human history.
4. Today we must note a widespread misunderstanding of the meaning and role of the
Church's Magisterium. This is at the root of the criticisms and protests regarding its
pronouncements, as you have particularly pointed out with respect to the reactions in not
a few theological and ecclesiastical circles to the most recent documents of the papal
Magisterium: the Encyclicals *Veritatis splendor*, on the principles of moral doctrine and
life, and *Evangelium vitae*, on the value and inviolability of human life; the Apostolic
Letter *Ordinatio sacerdotalis*, on the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on
women; and the *Letter* of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the reception
of Eucharistic Communion by divorced and remarried faithful.
In this regard, it is certainly necessary to distinguish the attitude of theologians
who, in a spirit of cooperation and ecclesial communion, present their difficulties and
questions, and thus positively contribute to the maturing of reflection on the deposit of
faith, form the public stance of opposition to the Magisterium, which is described as
"dissent"; the latter tends to set up a kind of counter-magisterium, presenting
believers with alternative positions and forms of behavior. The plurality of cultures and
of theological approaches and systems themselves has its legitimacy only if the unity of
the faith is presupposed in its objective meaning. The very freedom proper to theological
research is never freedom with regard to the truth, but is justified and realized when the
individual complies with the moral obligation of obeying the truth presented by Revelation
and accepted in faith.
5. At the same time, as you have rightly considered in your assembly, it is necessary
today to foster a climate of positive reception and acceptance of the Magisterium's
documents, calling attention to their style and language, so as to harmonize the solidity
and clarity of the doctrine with the pastoral concern to use forms of communication and
means of expression that are incisive and effective for the consciousness of contemporary
It is not possible, however, to overlook one of the decisive aspects that lies at the
base of the malaise and uneasiness in certain parts of the ecclesiastical world: it is a
question of the way authority is conceived. In the case of the Magisterium, authority is
not exercised only when the charism of infallibility is involved; its exercise has a wider
field, which is required by the appropriate defense of the revealed deposit.
For a community based essentially on shared adherence to the Word of God and on the
resulting certainty of living in the truth, authority for determining the content to be
believed and professed is something that cannot be renounced. That this authority includes
various degrees of teaching has been clearly stated in two recent documents of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: the *Professio Fidei* and the Instruction
*Donum veritatis*. This hierarchy of degrees should not be considered an impediment but a
stimulus to theology.
Authentic Concept of Authority Must Be Recovered
6. However, this does not entitle one to hold that the pronouncements and doctrinal
decisions of the Magisterium call for irrevocable assent only when it states them in a
solemn judgment or definitive act, and that, consequently, in all other cases one need
only consider the arguments or reasons employed.
In the Encyclicals *Veritatis splendor* and *Evangelium vitae*, as well as in the
Apostolic Letter *Ordinatio sacerdotalis*, I wished once again to set forth the constant
doctrine of the Church's faith with an act confirming truths which are clearly witnessed
to by Scripture, the apostolic Tradition and the unanimous teaching of the Pastors. These
declarations, by virtue of the authority handed down to the Successor of Peter to
"confirm the brethren" (Lk 22:32), thus express the common certitude present in
the life and teaching of the Church.
It therefore seems urgently necessary to recover the authentic concept of authority,
not only from the formal juridical standpoint, but more profoundly, as a means of
guaranteeing, safeguarding and guiding the Christian community in fidelity to and
continuity with Tradition, to make it possible for believers to be in contact with the
preaching of the Apostles and with the source of the Christian reality itself.
7. As I rejoice with you, dear Brothers in Christ, over the intense, arduous and
valuable ministry you carry out in service to the Apostolic See and for the benefit of the
entire Church, I offer you my encouragement to continue firmly and confidently in the task
entrusted to you, in order thus to help guide and preserve everyone in the freedom of the
With these sentiments I cordially impart my Blessing to you all, as a pledge of
affection and gratitude.
Reproduced with permission from *L'Osservatore Romano*, English Edition, November 29,
1995, p. 3.