What is Sacred Tradition?
According to the theology of the Catholic Church, doctrinal issues must be interpreted looking to sacred tradition and scripture, under the teaching authority given by Christ to his Apostles and their successors the Pope and Bishops.
God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and His teaching is unchanging. All truth and Catholic teaching must be in continuity with the Church’s teachings throughout time. This does not mean the Church is inflexible or unable to change, but it means that the growth and development of Catholic teaching, can not contradict previously held dogmatic truths and must expand upon already existing concepts. This development grows out of the dialog of the bishops with the Holy Spirit.
What is the Magisterium?
The Magisterium of the Catholic Church is the Church’s authoritative body to give authentic interpretation of the Word of God pulling from sacred scripture and tradition. The Catechism tells us that this authority is given to the Pope and the bishops throughout the ages. When a teaching comes from the Magisterium, we can be sure that it is the true teaching of the faith and not just an interpretation.
What is Papal Infallibility?
Many people take concern with the infallibility of the Pope and his ability to speak “ex cathedra” or from the chair of Peter. They worry that Catholics believe that once someone becomes Pope they no longer can make mistakes - that all things they say and teach are true. This is simply not the case. Throughout history, there have been wonderful, holy Popes and flawed, worldly Popes. Regardless of their spiritual state, the Pope is human - just as St. Peter the Apostle was.
In scripture, Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, saying that what he binds and sets loose on earth shall be bound and set loose in Heaven. He also named Peter the first of the Apostles, calling him the rock upon which he would build his Church. This is despite Peter denying the Lord and being quick to anger. Despite so many other issues, Peter was also the first to name Jesus messiah and was equally quick to leave everything and follow him - going so far as to trust him to walk on water. Peter later went to Rome, becoming the first Pope. Based on Church teaching from these scriptures, it is the Pope’s job to be a bridge among the Apostles and their communities around the world. In fact, Pontiff means bridge. As the authority that holds the keys to Heaven, the Pope has a special function to hold the Church together by settling debates among the bishops or clarifying magisterial teachings.
That said the Pope prefers to let the Bishops settle matters on their own. In the 2,000 years of Church history, the Pope has only spoken ex cathedra on two occasions. Both were to affirm teachings on the Virgin Mary from the sacred tradition of the Church. In 1854, the Pope affirmed Mary’s Immaculate Conception. And, In 1950 the Pope affirmed that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven. Both of these teachings, while not in the Bible, are in documents and practices dating back to the early Christian communities and were held for 2,000 years following. The Pope felt the need to confirm this sacred tradition as the official teaching of the Church.
But, how does the Magisterium work?
The Church long held the theological tradition that the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived. While not directly in scripture beyond the Angel Gabriel calling Mary ‘Full of Grace,’ there was still a belief of the Church that Mary was preserved from original sin at the moment of her conception to enable her to be worthy in body and soul to carry Christ in her womb. In fact, early church documents refer to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Many saints, theologians and philosophers throughout the ages held this belief, the practices of the early Christian communities reinforced this belief and every day Christians could arrive at this conclusion through reason. Belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary was so common that even Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther held the belief. That is to say it was so pervasive in the Church, it wasn’t really up for debate.
That is until the 1800s. Around this time, the Immaculate Conception fell under considerable debate among theologians. As a result, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette, a poor illiterate peasant girl at Lourdes, referring to herself as the “Immaculate Conception” and the Holy Father and the bishops of the Church soon proclaimed this long held teaching of Church history to be dogma. What is important to understand is that they didn’t create a new teaching, they simply affirmed a long held belief of the Church as valid.