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Chapter 1: Faith, Religious Assent, and Reverence for God

Question H: Which Truths Should One Accept with Catholic Faith?

As already explained (in A.1.c–d), faith primarily is in God, not in a set of truths. But because God reveals truths about himself and his plan for humankind, one cannot believe in him without being prepared to accept with faith every one of the truths he reveals.

1. One Should Believe the Truths the Church Proposes as Revealed

Since the Church’s faith is the norm of personal faith, one’s responsibilities with respect to propositional truths of faith are fulfilled by making sure one believes what the Church believes. Vatican I definitively teaches: “By divine and Catholic faith everything must be believed that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, and that is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief either in a solemn decree or in her ordinary, universal teaching” (DS 3011/1792).66

a) One should believe every proposition asserted in Scripture. Although Vatican I and Vatican II teach that the books of the Old and New Testaments in their entirety and in all their parts have been inspired by the Holy Spirit so that God is their author (see DS 3006/1787; DV 11), not every statement in Scripture expresses a revealed truth. Many express thoughts which the writer wishes readers to have in mind, but not necessarily to accept as true. For example, most statements in the book of Job are part of a lengthy dialogue, and the propositions they express clearly are not asserted by the book’s author, whose assertions are limited to a few propositions, such as that the human mind is in no position to judge God’s ways.

Only those propositions which the sacred writers assert—that is, propose for their readers’ acceptance as certainly true—are also asserted by the Holy Spirit, who inspires the human authors and so speaks through them (see DV 11). Thus, of all the propositions in Scripture, the Church proposes as true on God’s word only those which are asserted by the sacred writers.67 In discerning what the sacred writers assert, the Church attends to “the content and unity of the whole of Scripture” and takes into account “the living tradition of the whole Church” along with “the harmony which exists among elements of the faith” (DV 12).68

b) One should believe the truths the Church teaches as revealed. Popes and bishops serve God’s revealed word, which they are commissioned to hand on (see LG 25, DV 10). Their teaching is not their own, but only what they have received, which they must guard as inviolable and expound with fidelity.69 Therefore, revelation itself “demands that, in full obedience of the intellect and will to God who reveals [note omitted], we accept the proclamation of the good news of salvation as it is infallibly taught by the pastors of the Church.”70 The Church teaches infallibly

when the bishops scattered throughout the world but teaching in communion with the Successor of Peter present a doctrine to be held irrevocably. It occurs even more clearly both when the bishops by a collegial act (as in Ecumenical Councils), together with their visible Head, define a doctrine to be held [note omitted], and when the Roman Pontiff “speaks ex cathedra, that is when, exercising the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, through his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church [note omitted].”71
Thus, Catholics not only should believe solemnly defined dogmas, but should accept with faith those teachings on matters of faith and morals which popes and bishops have concurred in proposing as divinely revealed.

2. One Should Accept on Faith Other Truths That Are Infallibly Taught

Faith also extends to truths which the Church finds it necessary to proclaim infallibly in order to safeguard and explain revelation, even if those truths are not, strictly speaking, revealed.72 One obvious example is the Church’s judgment concerning which writings make up the Bible and which do not.

Some theologians refer to the unconditional assent due such truths as ecclesiastical faith. Others reject this expression insofar as it suggests that a Catholic believes some truths with a faith distinct from faith in God revealing. Perhaps the best way of putting the matter is to say that one’s faith in God revealing must extend beyond what, precisely, he has revealed, to include truths which cannot be denied without denying what he has revealed about the Church and his gift to her of infallibility. Faith therefore can extend to truths connected in the relevant ways with revelation insofar as they are guaranteed by the Church’s infallibility.

3. One Should Fulfill the Responsibility of Faith Integrally

Nothing can justify setting limits to one’s responsibility to accept every truth of faith. While doctrine develops and can be reformulated by the Church, legitimate development and reformulation does not call into question anything which Catholics as a whole previously held with faith.

a) One should expect temptations to set aside some truths of faith. In the fallen human condition, it is not uncommon to be misled more or less seriously or even to be betrayed by those one trusts. Hence, direct evidence—seeing for oneself that matters are as they are claimed to be—is important to one’s sense of security. In making the act of faith and living by it, however, one stakes one’s life on the truth one accepts as revealed by God. Direct evidence plainly would be most welcome, yet in many respects it is unavailable. Thus, it is necessary to overcome a considerable psychological obstacle in surrendering oneself to God. Furthermore, the requirements of faith sometimes are at odds with judgments one otherwise would make—especially judgments with practical consequences—and that, too, makes submission to divine authority, although reasonable, a difficult matter.73

b) Absolute submission to God in faith is reasonable. Questions C through E showed both that good reasons point to the credibility of the Catholic faith and that various arguments against it can be answered. Still, the claims of faith might seem excessive, as when St. Paul exclaims: “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10.4–5). If such absolute submission were to a merely human wisdom, it would be servile, but the unqualified obedience of faith is reasonable because the gospel is God’s truth. Rather than enslaving those who accept it, faith in God’s truth frees them from sin and death: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8.32).

c) One should believe each and every truth of faith. Some truths of faith are less central than others, as Vatican II teaches: “There exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths of Catholic doctrine, since they vary in their relationship with the foundation of Christian faith” (UR 11). This hierarchy must be taken into account in catechesis and ecumenical dialogue, because the more basic and important truths clarify the meaning of less central ones.74 Nevertheless, even the least important truth of faith has the same warrant as the most important, and so “all dogmas, since they are revealed, must be believed with the same divine faith.”75

Someone picking and choosing among dogmas must be using some principle to sort them out other than the evidence that they are indeed revealed. Such a person might, for example, be accepting those which seem plausible to a circle of friends or fellow theologians. If consistent, however, he or she accepts nothing precisely as revealed—accepts nothing with faith—and so does not have faith at all (see S.t., 2–2, q. 5, a. 3).76 Therefore, one should believe with the same faith all the truths which the Church teaches infallibly, because God guarantees the truth of them all.77

d) One should believe what Catholics formerly held with faith. Catholics in the past always took what they believed on God’s word, especially his word in Jesus witnessed by the apostles. Faith today has the same source. Today, therefore, there can be no reason consistent with faith for calling into question anything which Catholics as a whole held with faith in earlier times.78

Someone might object: If that is so, religious knowledge does not progress like other kinds of knowledge, where mistakes in observation, errors in reasoning, and cultural limits are gradually overcome. The answer is: Doctrine does develop, but not in the same way as knowledge in other fields. Divine revelation and faith are unique. They do not originate in human observation and reasoning, and their truth transcends the cultural forms in which it was first expressed.

e) Development never falsifies what was believed in the past. The linguistic expressions used by the Church in her dogmatic formulations do not exhaustively encapsulate the revealed truth.79 Therefore, while individuals on their own authority may not set aside the language the Church uses, the Church from time to time improves on it. Such improvements can even become necessary to defend the faith against errors and to expound it in fresh social and cultural contexts.80

Moreover, Christians today are in a position to articulate revealed truths in ways not available to the apostles, for the Church not only faithfully safeguards and hands on all that God revealed, but infallibly interprets it. So, as both Vatican I and Vatican II teach, the Church grows in her understanding of the realities and words which have been handed down (see DS 3020/1800; DV 8).

But the Church never can contradict the truth she has received from God. So, as Vatican I definitively teaches, the Church’s dogmatic formulae should never be taken in a meaning different from the one the Church understood and understands in using them (see DS 3043/1818; cf. GS 62). It follows that legitimate and necessary development and reformulation of doctrine can never call into question anything which Catholics as a whole once have held with faith.81

4. One Should Not Accept Theological Explanations with Faith

To clarify the truths of faith and draw out their implications, theological reflection often joins them with other propositions which seem true. Reflection of this kind naturally leads to commonly accepted positions, which are handed on in the Church as a theological tradition. If not taught infallibly by the Church, such positions can be called theological explanations. Examples include the theory of the sacraments as signs, the theology of the condition of humankind’s first parents insofar as it goes beyond what faith teaches in attributing perfections to them, and the explanation by analogy with human spiritual acts of the processions of the Word and the Spirit.

a) One should not overvalue any theological explanation. Inasmuch as they depend in part on propositions which are not divinely guaranteed, theological explanations should not be accepted with faith. Theological reflection is carried on not only by professional theologians, but by all thoughtful believers, including popes and other bishops as they preach and teach, and so the Church’s teaching authority sometimes develops (or accepts and uses) theological explanations. But even such theological explanations as these could be mistaken, as has happened repeatedly, leading to doctrinal conflicts which divided some bishops from others.

b) One should never believe professional theologians. Reserve about a theological explanation should be all the greater if it has recently been developed and, even though accepted by many theologians, is not accepted by the Church’s teaching authority. Such an explanation has not yet stood the test of criticism by Christians of diverse times, places, and conditions, and so is likely to be culture-bound by theology’s contemporary situation. Moreover, while theological explanations proposed by the Church’s teaching authority often call for religious assent, as will be explained, the views of theologians, considered simply as such, deserve acceptance only insofar as they are supported by cogent reasons and evidence drawn from faith, Church teaching, and truths which are self-evident.

5. One Should Not Accept Private Revelations with Faith

Throughout Christian history, some individuals have claimed to receive messages from God, the Virgin Mary, or other heavenly sources. In very many cases, such reports seem to be false. The pastors of the Church have accepted some as genuine, however, and in certain cases have themselves acted on such messages and commended their exhortations to the faithful. Theologians have called such accepted messages private revelations.82

However, such messages do not present any new doctrines, and the Church never proposes as a revealed truth any proposition contained only in them. Moreover, the Church’s approval and implementation of such a message—for example, by establishing a new place of pilgrimage or a new feast—does not guarantee that everything contained in the recipient’s report of the message is true. Therefore, no one should accept any private revelation with divine faith.83 Rather, following the leaders of the Church, faithful Catholics take the word of the recipients of approved messages on human faith. Of course, in accepting and acting on these approved messages, one should subordinate whatever one does to the Church’s teaching, liturgy, and law.

6. Apostasy and Heresy Are Sins against Faith Itself

Despite having heard the gospel and recognized its credibility, willful unbelievers sin against faith by refusing to assent to revelation because they do not wish to submit themselves and their lives to God. But even those who have received the gift of faith and personally committed themselves to it can sin directly against it; indeed, only they can commit the sins of apostasy from the faith and heresy.

a) Apostasy—renunciation of the faith—is a very grave sin. The sin of apostasy is committed by completely withdrawing one’s commitment of faith and abandoning the Christian religion.84 There is no more radical and total sin against faith. Other things being equal, those who commit it are more alienated from God than those who willfully rejected faith from the start (see 2 Pt 2.20–22).

b) However, some fallen away Catholics are not apostates. Apostates know they should keep the faith yet freely choose no longer to be Christians, whereas some fallen away Catholics have not withdrawn their commitment of faith but only ceased trying to fulfill it. Others were baptized in childhood but never sufficiently formed in the faith to make a personal commitment to it; if they are willful unbelievers, their moral condition is like that of similar people who were never baptized. Others wish to be Christians, and are, but deny some truths which the Catholic Church proposes as divinely revealed; they are heretics, not apostates.

c) Heresy is sinful inconsistency with respect to the truth of faith. Catholics who have received the gift of faith in baptism and have personally made the commitment of faith can commit the sin of heresy. This they do by willfully denying or calling into question some proposition or propositions which they know are among those the Catholic Church believes and teaches—whether by solemn definition or by universal, ordinary teaching—to be divinely revealed.85

Those who commit the sin of heresy do not withdraw their commitment of faith. They believe in Jesus and wish to remain in covenantal communion with God. However, their action is not entirely consistent with their commitment of faith. For, although perhaps not holding any false theory of revelation and faith, heretics act as if they somehow had personal access to revelation, contrary to the truth: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10.17). Although they were taught and accepted Catholic faith as God’s revelation in Jesus, they no longer accept the Church’s faith as the norm for deciding what propositions are divinely revealed, precisely because they do not care to accept as true all that the Church holds to be divinely revealed. Therefore, heretics assent to some truths of faith but deny others: “I find this acceptable, but I am not prepared to accept that” (see S.t., 2–2, q. 5, a. 3).

d) One can commit heresy in one’s heart by a single choice. Canon law limits heresy to the “obstinate” denial or calling into question of a truth which is to be believed with divine and Catholic faith. It might be supposed that “obstinate” implies prolonged persistence in a heretical opinion despite an admonition to give it up. Like any other sin, however, heresy can be committed without any outward act to provoke a challenge and without obduracy, that is, persistence in sin over time. Obstinate signifies that the sin of heresy is in purposely refusing to accept what one knows the Church holds to be divinely revealed.86

e) Heresy is a very grave sin against faith. To see the seriousness of heresy, it is essential to remember that propositions of faith are not mere sets of words, but are truths which the words express and which bring one into touch with divine reality. The heretic really rejects part of the reality which God wished to share with humankind in revealing himself. Moreover, that reality should be accepted inasmuch as God reveals it; thus, the heretic implicitly spurns God himself.87

Those who commit heresy sin even more gravely if they propagate their heretical opinion—that is, assert it in order to obtain other believers’ assent—for doing that is a sin of scandal which also divides the Church.

f) Nobody with Catholic faith simply loses it. Because faith is God’s gift and the believer’s commitment, which of itself lasts if not withdrawn, nobody who has received the gift of Catholic faith loses it without grave sin. As Vatican I teaches, God “strengthens with his grace those whom he has brought out of darkness into his marvelous light (see 1 Pt 2.9), so that they may remain in this light”; thus, those who once accept faith under the Church’s teaching authority “can never have any just reason for changing that faith or calling it into doubt” (DS 3014/1794, translation supplied; cf. DS 3036/1815). To deny this is to reject not only Vatican I but the Council’s premise: that God is faithful and never abandons those who do not abandon him (see DS 3014/1794; cf. DS 1537/804).

Of course, only God can judge the responsibility of anyone whose faith appears to be lost. An apparent loss of faith may not reflect a free choice to abandon it, and, due to lack of sufficient reflection, a person may have mitigated responsibility even for a choice to reject the faith.

g) Not all who deny revealed truths are heretics. Those ready to believe whatever the Church clearly teaches to be revealed are not heretics even if they deny some revealed truth or call it into question. For example, suppose some nondefined moral teachings, such as the sinfulness of fornication, have been taught by the Church to be revealed. Then, someone who denied those teachings, not thinking that the Church has taught them to be revealed, would be in the situation described, provided he or she were prepared to submit to the Church’s definitive judgment if and when it comes.88 What of those who through an honest mistake deny what the Church does clearly teach to be revealed? They are not heretics, though they may be guilty of some other sin which led to their mistake. (Such people often are called material heretics, but this expression is easily misunderstood and best avoided.) Finally, those who continue to believe in their hearts while outwardly denying the faith—for example, to avoid martyrdom or to get a job from which believers are excluded—are not heretics. They commit the sin of outwardly denying the faith, which is a grave matter (see K.3.b, below), but not heresy.

h) Not all willful rejection of a truth proposed infallibly is heresy. Some truths closely connected with revelation, such as the proposition that certain books make up the canon of sacred Scripture, are infallibly taught by the Church. If such truths are not themselves revealed, their denial is not strictly speaking heresy. However, it is a serious sin against Catholic faith.89

66. To Vatican I’s formulation, CIC, c. 750, adds: “It is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore, all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatever which are contrary to these truths.”

67. See DV 11; cf. Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, AAS 35 (1943) 299–300, PE, 226.3–4; CMP, 35.B.

68. On Catholic hermeneutic of Scripture, see Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., “Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the Spirit in Which It Was Written (Dei Verbum 12c),” in Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives Twenty-five Years After (1962–1987), ed. René Latourelle, 3 vols. (New York: Paulist Press, 1988–89), 1:220–66.

69. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 19, AAS 71 (1979) 306, PE, 278.72, explains that, just as Jesus proposed not a personal teaching but the Father’s word (see Jn 14.24), so “it is required, when the Church professes and teaches the faith, that she should adhere strictly to divine truth.”

70. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mysterium ecclesiae, AAS 65 (1973) 402, Flannery, 2:432.

71. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mysterium ecclesiae, AAS 65 (1973) 400–401, Flannery, 2:431–32. The first sentence closely follows LG 25. The internal quotation in the second sentence is from Vatican I’s definition of the conditions under which popes teach infallibly (see DS 3074/1839). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also refers to Vatican II, LG 22 and 25.

72. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mysterium ecclesiae, AAS 65 (1973) 401, Flannery, 2:432: “According to Catholic doctrine, the infallibility of the Church’s Magisterium extends not only to the deposit of faith but also to those matters without which that deposit cannot be rightly preserved and expounded [note refers to LG 25].” See CMP, 35.D–E; Grisez, “Infallibility and Specific Moral Norms,” 256–58.

73. Leo XIII, Tametsi futura prospicientibus, ASS 33 (1900–1901) 282, PE, 153.10, clearly explains why difficulty in submitting to divine authority is to be expected by those wishing to live an authentic Christian life: “It must therefore be clearly admitted that, in the life of a Christian, the intellect must be entirely subject to God’s authority. And if, in this submission of reason to authority, our self-love, which is so strong, is restrained and made to suffer, this only proves the necessity to a Christian of long-suffering not only in will but also in intellect. We would remind those persons of this truth who desire a kind of Christianity such as they themselves have devised, whose precepts should be very mild, much more indulgent towards human nature, and requiring little if any hardships to be borne. They do not properly understand the meaning of faith and Christian precepts. They do not see that the Cross meets us everywhere, the model of our life, the eternal standard of all who wish to follow Christ in reality and not merely in name.”

74. See New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “hierarchy of truths,” especially the quotation from Archbishop Andrea Pangrazio’s Vatican II intervention proposing and explaining the notion of hierarchy of truths; Congregation for the Clergy, General Catechetical Directory, 43, AAS 64 (1972) 123, Flannery, 2:553–54; Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians, “Reflections and Suggestions concerning Ecumenical Dialogue,” 4.4.b, EV 3 (1968–70) 1626–27, Flannery, 1:545.

75. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mysterium ecclesiae, AAS 65 (1973) 402, Flannery, 2:433, which on this point repeats the definitive teaching of Vatican I (DS 3011/1792).

76. Leo XIII, Satis cognitum, ASS 28 (1895–96) 721–23, PE, 138.9, clearly explains this point: nobody can reject any one dogma without falling into heresy and in principle rejecting the whole of revelation.

77. See Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, ASS 22 (1889–90) 393–95, PE, 111.22–24; Pius XI, Mortalium animos, AAS 20 (1928) 12–14, PE, 201.9; Pius XII, Orientalis ecclesiae, AAS 36 (1944) 134, PE, 227.16.

78. Paul VI, Petrum et Paulum, AAS 59 (1967) 198, The Pope Speaks 12 (1967): 141, points out the seriousness of this temptation today: “Among our contemporaries, the religious sense which provides faith with a kind of natural foundation is growing weaker. But Catholic belief, too, is being contaminated. Ideas are appearing in the fields of exegesis and theology which have their origin in certain bold but misleading philosophical theories and which cast doubt upon or narrow down the full meaning of the truths which the Church has taught with her rightful authority. There is a pretense that religion must be adapted to the contemporary mind; the directive wisdom of the Church’s teaching authority is scorned; theological inquiry is remodeled to suit the principles of ‘historicism’; the divine inspiration and historical truth of Sacred Scripture are boldly denied: in short, God’s People are being encouraged to adopt a new, so-called ‘post-conciliar’ attitude of mind.”

79. See Paul VI, Mysterium fidei, AAS 57 (1965) 757–58, PE, 273.23–25; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mysterium ecclesiae, AAS 65 (1973) 402–4, Flannery, 2:433–35.

80. In a famous passage in John XXIII’s address at the opening of Vatican II, he distinguished between the truths of faith and the manner in which they are enunciated (see CMP, 20.2), but by no means condoned the questioning of anything the Church believed in times past. On precisely what Pope John said and what it meant, see the series of letters to the editor by John Finnis, The Tablet (London), 14 Dec. 1991, 1544–45; 4 Jan. 1992, 14; 18 Jan. 1992, 70–71; 1 Feb. 1992, 140; 8 Feb. 1992, 170.

81. For the criteria of authentic development of doctrine: John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1968), 169–206. A general summary of the theology of development, with bibliography: New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “doctrine, development of.” See also Germain Grisez, “On Interpreting Dogmas: A Preliminary Analysis,” Communio 17 (Spring 1990): 120–26.

82. See New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “revelations, private.”

83. What about the case of someone convinced that God has personally communicated something to himself or herself? That case is not under consideration here, since such people, convinced willy-nilly, need no help from moral theology.

84. See CIC, c. 751; S.t., 2–2, q. 12, a. 1.

85. See S.t., 2–2, q. 11, aa. 1–2. CIC, cc. 750–51, provides a definition of heresy which corresponds precisely to Vatican I’s definitive teaching about what must be believed: DS 3011/1792.

86. See CIC, c. 751; cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 11, a. 2, ad 3. James A. Coriden, “Commentary: Book III: The Teaching Office of the Church,” in The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, ed. James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschel (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 548, offers no support for his reading of “obstinate,” summarized and rejected in the text. Against it, see standard commentaries on the corresponding canon of the 1917 code (1325, §2), which did not differ significantly on this point: Charles Augustine Bachofen, O.S.B., A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law, vol. 6, Administrative Law (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1921), 335; Udalricus Beste, Introductio in Codicem, ed. 4 (Naples: M. d’Auria, 1956), 711–12. Of course, the canonical crime of heresy involves more than the sin of heresy; the Church cannot deal with heresy except when it is expressed, and does not treat anyone as a heretic without an appropriate process.

87. A sign of the gravity of the sin of heresy is that one who commits it (or the even graver sin of apostasy) is automatically excommunicated: CIC, c. 1364, §1.

88. To say that such a person is not a heretic is not to say that he or she is blameless. Those who deny that the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of fornication pertains to faith should admit that it deserves religious assent, which will be treated in question I.

89. This is the common view among sound modern moralists. However, medieval theologians used heresy with a broader reference. St. Thomas, for example, considers it heresy willfully to hold any position once the Church makes it plain that the position has implications in conflict with divinely revealed truth (S.t., 1, q. 32, a. 4; 2–2, q. 11, a. 2). In any case, this sin is very grave, for it is inconsistent with one’s commitment of faith.