Hierarchy of Truths and Four Levels of Teaching

by Rev. William G. Most

If a thing is not defined, is it just free matter, so Catholics can take or leave it? Strangely, not only people from the left, but also from the right often say it can be ignored. And in addition, some appeal to the hierarchy of truths spoken of by Vatican II, in the Decree on Ecumenism 11. For example, John P. Meier, Scripture Professor at Catholic University and author of A Marginal Jew, highly praised by Catholics, Protestants and Jews, gave a presidential address to the Catholic Biblical Association, which was printed in Catholic Biblical Quarterly in January 1992, in which he said that perpetual virginity of Our Lady is far from the center of the hierarchy. So we should be able to accept converts without asking them to believe it. On p. 28 of CBQ: ". . . If the criterion of the hierarchy of truths cannot be invoked in a dispute that is so marginal to the witness of Scripture. . . is there any dispute in which the criterion could be effectively applied? " Avery Dulles as reported in Origins of Dec. 26, 1974 suggested we should be able to accept converts without asking them to believe the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption) cf. also his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1976) .

But all the truths mentioned are not free matter. We need to review all levels of the teachings of the Magisterium. For the sake of clarity, we will divide them into four levels:

Four levels of teaching

a) First Level - Solemn definition

LG 25: No special formula of words is required in order to define. Wording should be something solemn, and should make clear that the teaching is definitive. Councils in the past often used the form: 'Si quis dixerit. . . anathema sit." That is: "If someone shall say. . . . let him be anathema." But sometimes they used the formula for disciplinary matters, so that form alone does not prove. Further, they also could define in the capitula, the chapters. Thus Pius XII, in Divino afflante Spiritu (EB 538) spoke of such a passage of Vatican I (DS 3006 -- saying God is the author of Scripture) as a solemn definition.

The Pope can define even without the Bishops. Of his definitions LG 25 said: "His definitions of themselves, and not from consent of the Church, are rightly called unchangeable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised him in blessed Peter. So they need no approval from others, nor is there room for an appeal to any other judgment." So collegiality even in defining is not mandatory. Yet most definitions of the Popes have been taken in collegiality, that is, with consultation of the Bishops. Even the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were such, for the Popes did poll the Bishops by mail.

b) Second level

LG 25: "Although the individual bishops do not have the prerogative of infallibility, they can yet teach Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is true even when they are scattered around the world, provided that, while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves, and with the successor of Peter, they concur in one teaching as the one which must be definitively held." This means: (1) The day to day teaching of the Church throughout the world, when it gives things as definitively part of the faith, (2) If this can be done when scattered, all the more can it be done when assembled in Council. Thus Trent (DS 1520) after "strictly prohibiting anyone from hereafter believing or preaching or teaching differently than what is established and explained in the present decree, " went on to give infallible teaching even in the capitula, outside the canons.

To know whether the Church intends to teach infallibly on this second level, we notice both the language - no set form required - and the intention, which may be seen at times from the nature of the case, at times from the repetition of the doctrine on this second level.

c) Third Level

Pius XII, in Humani generis: "Nor must it be thought that the things contained in Encyclical Letters do not of themselves require assent on the plea that in them the Pontiffs do not exercise the supreme power of their Magisterium. For these things are taught with the ordinary Magisterium, about which it is also true to say, 'He who hears you, hears me.' [Lk 10. 16]. . . If the Supreme Pontiffs, in their acta expressly pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be considered any longer a question open for discussion among theologians."

We notice: (1) These things are protected by the promise of Christ in Lk 10. 16, and so are infallible, for His promise cannot fail. Though that promise was first given to the 72, it is certain that the Apostles were in the group, and as the trajectory advanced, it became clear that the full teaching authority was only for them - the mission given to the 72 was preliminary, and the full meaning was made clear later when the Apostles were given the authority to bind and to loose. This was part of the broader picture: Jesus wanted only a gradual self-revelation. Had He started by saying: "Before Abraham was, I am", He would have been stoned on the spot. (2) Not everything in Encyclicals, and similar documents, is on this level - this is true only when the Popes expressly pass judgment on a previously debated matter, (3) since the Church scattered throughout the world can make a teaching infallible without defining - as we saw on level 2 - then of course the Pope alone, who can speak for and reflect the faith of the whole Church, can do the same even in an Encyclical, under the conditions enumerated by Pius XII. Really, on any level, all that is required to make a thing infallible is that it be given definitively. When a Pope takes a stand on something debated in theology and publishes it in his Acta, that suffices. The fact that as Pius XII said it is removed from debate alone shows it is meant as definitive.

In this connection, we note also that LG 12 says: "The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief." This means: If the whole Church, both people and authorities, have ever believed (accepted as revealed) an item, then that cannot be in error, is infallible. Of course this applies to the more basic items, not to very technical matters of theological debate. But we note this too: If this condition has once been fulfilled in the past, then if people in a later age come to doubt or deny it - that does not make non-infallible what was once established as infallible. Many things come under this, e.g., the existence of angels.

This does not mean, however, that the Pope is to be only the echo of the faithful.

d) Fourth Level

LG 25: "Religious submission of mind and of will must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking."

We note all the qualifications in the underlined part The key is the intention of the Pope. He may be repeating existing definitive teaching from Ordinary Magisterium level - then it is infallible, as on level 2. He may be giving a decision on a previously debated point - as on level 3, then it falls under the promise of Christ in Lk 10. 16, and so is also infallible. Or it may be a still lesser intention - then we have a case like that envisioned in Canon 752 of the New Code of Canon Law: "Not indeed an assent of faith, but yet a religious submission of mind and will must be given to the teaching which either the Supreme Pontiff, or the College of Bishops [of course, with the Pope] pronounce on faith or on morals when they exercise the authentic Magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim it by a definitive act." If they do not mean to make it definitive, then it does not come under the virtue of faith, or the promise of Christ, "He who hears you hears me". Rather, it is a matter of what the Canon and LG 25 call "religious submission of mind and of will." What does this require? Definitely, it forbids public contradiction of the teaching. But it also requires something in the mind, as the wording indicates. This cannot be the absolute assent which faith calls for - for since this teaching is, by definition, not definitive, we gather that it is not absolutely finally certain.

How can anyone give any mental assent when there is not absolute certitude? In normal human affairs, we do it all the time. Suppose we are at table, and someone asks if a dish of food came from a can, and if so, was it sent to a lab to check for Botulism. It is true, routine opening of a can would not detect that deadly poison. Yet it is too much to check every can, and the chances are very remote, so much so that normal people do not bother about it - yet their belief takes into account a real but tiny possibility of a mistake. Similarly with a doctrine on this fourth level. And further, the chances of error on this level are much smaller than they are with a can of food. Similarly, in a criminal trial, the judge will tell the jury they must find the evidence proves guilt beyond reasonable doubt. He does not demand that every tiny doubt be ruled out, even though it may mean life in prison or death.

If one should make a mistake by following the fourth level of Church teaching, when he comes before the Divine Judge, the Judge will not blame him, rather He will praise him. But if a person errs by breaking with the Church on the plea that he knew better - that will not be easily accepted.

So the Magisterium will steer us through the hierarchy of truths, and tell us that no teaching of the Magisterium may be simply ignored, that even those presented as not-definitive require internal assent, and hence prohibit taking to the press to contradict as C. Curran has done.

Some object to the translation given above of canon 752, saying that the Canon Law Society of America uses respect instead of submission. Not everyone in the Church follows the Church today. The whole German hierarchy publicly contradicted the Pope on contraception. And there are numerous other examples. So it is not strange if the Canon Law Society is one to try to back dissent. But the Society did not seem to notice the quote we gave from LG 25 above. Not only does the most generally used translation, that of Flannery, use the word submission, but the rest of the sentence in LG 25 makes fully clear by saying "in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking."

Also, the new Catechism in 892 says , quoting Vatican II, LG 25: "To this ordinary teaching the faithful" 'are to adhere to it with religious assent' which though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it."

Really even Martin Luther did better than some Catholics. He wrote (Works 22. 23) : "Christ our Savior was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb. . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that." And as to the so-called translation, "highly favored" cf. the same Luther (Works 43. 40:"She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin. . . . God's grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil. . . . God is with her, meaning that all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in her. Moreover, God guarded and protected her from all that might be hurtful to her.

There are some who appeal to Canon 212. 2 & 3 which says: The faithful "are at liberty to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, and their wishes to the pastors of the church." 3 adds that they "have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church."-- Does this give blanket permission to contradict on doctrine, in spite of the teaching of the of four levels given above? Of course not. It speaks of needs, having in mind chiefly things practical things, things other than contradicting doctrine. And for certain, where "religious submission of mind and of will" is required, the faithful emphatically do not have the right to publicly , even in the press, contradict the teachings of the Church.

What of the fact that Canon 748.1 says "All are bound to seek the truth in the matters which concern God and his Church; when they have found it, then by divine law they are bound, and they have the right to embrace and keep it."-- We reply: One must never do what conscience forbids, or omit what it says must be done. However, before we reach that point, all have the obligation to align their conscience with the teachings of the Church, as we have just explained, on the four levels.

Suppose for example a tribesman thinks his gods require him to go headhunting - some have thought that - are they obliged by divine law to chop off heads? Or if someone thinks his religion requires him to kill "infidels" he may be subjectively excused. He may even have a subjective obligation, yet objectively he is wrong, very wrong. And if someone does something that is objectively wrong and against the law of God, God requires that when he finds out, he must offer a sacrifice to make up, as we learn from all of chapter 4 of the Book of Leviticus. Our Lord Himself also required this. In Luke 12:47-48: "The slave who knew his master's wishes but did not prepare to fulfill them, will get a severe beating. But the one who did not know them, but did what deserves blows, will get off with fewer blows."

So someone who breaks with the Church, proudly thinking he knows more than the Church, will get at least a some beating from the Lord, even if he was in good faith.

We must also keep in mind the distinction of three things: 1) doctrine; 2) laws; 3) prudence. The doctrine is protected by the promise of Christ, as above. Laws, not from the Holy See, but from Bishops, could contradict the Church, e. g. , by ordering bad textbooks for Catholic schools. But as to the third item, prudence or good judgment: there is no promise of Christ, no claim by the Church, to protection in prudence. Hence it is not wrong to think or even say some things are not done prudently. And if a Pope gives a practical decision on something in which morality is concerned, that is not the same as giving a teaching on a given matter.


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