Vocabulary: 'Tradition' vs. 'Magisterium'

Two words that are often unintelligible to many Catholics are “Tradition” and “Magisterium.” Each term describes a tenet of the Catholic faith, which is indispensable in its importance on both the doctrinal and spiritual level. However, both terms have also lost much of their effective force by continual misuse and misapprehension. While the current work of the Holy Father on everything from life issues to media communications has been a great example of the implementation of magisterial teaching in accord with Tradition, perhaps what we first need is a look at the actual relationship between the two.

A primary distinction can be made thus: Tradition is concerned with the activity of the Church and its faith through the ages (viz. the depositum fidei we receive from the Apostles and the sensus fidei we see in individual Catholics since that time); Magisterium refers to the body of bishops, in union with the pope, which exercise the teaching authority of the Church (i.e. the office, not the activity). In other words, the Magisterium has as its responsibility the transmission and interpretation of the Church’s living Tradition. To be sure, the two terms cannot be equivocated; rather they must be viewed as in an intimate relationship with one another, but with clear distinctions.

The confusion often ensues when one considers the fact that the Magisterium is actually a product of the Tradition itself. In a similar manner, Sacred Scripture is also a product of apostolic Tradition (since the New Testament was written after the Tradition of Christianity had already begun), but distinguishing Scripture from Tradition does not seem such a nebulous task. To aid us, perhaps the relationship of Magisterium with Tradition can be better understood by the positive analogy of Christ’s mystical union with his Body, the Church: although Jesus Christ is fully alive and fully distinct from the Church—he is able to direct the Church as the head does its body—he nevertheless manifests his life through the same Church. In a similar fashion, while the Magisterium is responsible for guiding and teaching the Church the definitive truths of the faith, it still relies on the Tradition for its own life. A body cannot be separated from its head, nor a head from its body. What’s more, our understanding of the Magisterium has grown considerably since the time of Peter and the Apostles—the first pope and bishops. Whereas in the first apostolic times (e.g. the Last Supper, Calvary, Pentecost, etc.) the Tradition and Magisterium resided in the same locale, namely the Apostles themselves, the two must now be seen quite separately in ontological terms, while still integrated in deep spiritual union.

Nevertheless, despite all the analogy and technical, theological language we can muster, maybe the best way to understand this relationship of Tradition and Magisterium is simply to experience it. Just as I mentioned in my post on ecumenical dialogue, the mysteries of Christ are enough in themselves; if we simply approach them with a prayerful and seeking heart, they will undoubtedly speak volumes to us where all other words fail. By looking to the Holy Father in his role as Successor of Peter—especially now, with all the turmoil between Church and state raging in the Vatican—we can learn to understand first-hand this beautiful reality of the Catholic faith, which we are blessed to participate in and which provides for us a sure path toward the Lord, our true Teacher and Life.