The word ‘magister’ in Latin may be translated as master (in the sense of a schoolmaster), but this word expresses much deeper meaning than that of a teacher. It had a connotation of authority. Basically it means the position and authority of the person in charge.
In the Church from the beginning we had a teaching authority. The bishops were endowed with the charisma of truth and they were considered to be the authentic teachers. The use of the term magisterium referring to the teaching office of the Church is of a recent origin. The First Vatican Council used in its documents Dei Filius and Pastor Aeternus. Today in the Catholic Church the word magisterium could mean hierarchy also apart from the teaching office.
In the writings of medieval theologians, magisterium came to mean the authority of the one who teaches. The ‘Chair’ was supposed to be the symbol of such teaching authority. Hence St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of two types of magisterium-:
- Of the bishop, his authority comes from being the Presider or Shepherd of the local Church, and
- Of the theologians, because of their knowledge.
Both the bishop and the theologian have their chair to sit and teach. But today in the Catholic Church when we hear the word “Magisterium” often it refers to the teaching authority of the bishops. The teaching authority of the theologians does not get its due importance, even though it is different from the teaching authority of the bishops.