How the Church exercises her Magisterium
What are Catholics Bound to Believe?
Excerpt from Essentials and Non-Essentials of the Catholic Religion
by Rev. Henry George Hughes
What are Catholics Bound to Believe?
The general answer to this question may be put thus: Catholics are bound to believe whatever God has revealed and the Church proposes to them as to be believed. That a man is strictly obliged to assent to anything which he is convinced has been revealed by Almighty God need not be said; it needs no proof for those who believe that there is a God and that He has made a revelation to men. As we have already seen, the Church stands to Catholics in the relation of a divinely-appointed ambassador, bringing to them from God the words of eternal life. It is because we are certain of this fact that we say in our “act of faith”: “I believe whatever God has revealed and the Church proposes to my belief.”
Let us inquire, then, how the Church exercises her office of ambassador from God: how she delivers her message. She speaks to us in several ways, and proposes to us for acceptance different kinds of truths. First and foremost, and as her chief duty, she makes known to us truths that have been revealed by God. This she does (1) by solemnly defining truths as divinely revealed; (2) by her unanimous teaching of similarly revealed truths through the voice of her united pastorate throughout the world in conjunction with the Apostolic See ; (3) by delivering to us the Holy Scriptures with the declaration that they are the written word of God.
All these modes of teaching are of equal authority, but it is worthy of notice that the one mentioned in the second place is prior in time to the others, and is also the normal and ordinary way in which the Church teaches her children. Before a line of the New Testament had been written, and years before she thought of making a solemn definition [*see footnote at end of text], the Church had spread the Gospel over the world by means of the daily teaching of her pastors,––by her “ordinary magisterium” as it is called. There are to be found Catholics, even, who forget this important fact, and are inclined to restrict their obligations to believing those truths only which have been solemnly defined; being under the misapprehension that solemn definitions are the normal and ordinary mode in which the Church teaches truth. This is, in the literal sense of the word, ‘preposterous’. It is putting the cart before the horse. As the Apostles, so soon as they had received the Holy Spirit, began to exercise at once their infallible power of daily oral teaching, so has the Church done ever since, and so will she do to the end of time. Solemn definitions are called for only on special occasions and under extraordinary circumstances; and, had we to wait for them to learn our religion, things would be at a standstill. The Holy Spirit, dwelling in the Church, confers upon her the gift of infallibility, in her universal preaching and belief; so that it is impossible either for her pastorate–– that is, the bishops as a body in union with their head, the Roman Pontiff––to teach false doctrine; or for the faithful as a body, united to their pastors under the same supreme head, to err in belief.
In concluding this part of the present paper I should add that the name “Catholic Faith,” or more fully, “Divine Catholic Faith,” is properly restricted to the act of assent to truths revealed by God and promulgated authoritatively by the Church. So also, in the other sense of the word, “the Catholic Faith” is the body of truths thus taught. Thus the [First] Vatican Council declares that “all those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, whether written (Scripture), or handed down (Tradition), and proposed by the Church either by her solemn judgment or her ordinary and universal magisterium to be believed as divinely revealed.”
We have now to consider another class of truths taught by the Church but not proposed to us as divinely revealed. That the Church is infallible in such teaching is one of those truths taught by her ordinary magisterium, as is clear from her constant and universal practice. We have seen that she is not only the teacher but also the custodian of the deposit of revelation. It is her office, therefore, to protect and keep intact the body of revealed truth. Now, it constantly happens that men put forth, on a multitude of subjects, opinions which are incompatible with some acknowledged truth of revelation. In such a case the Church has the power to condemn the false opinion or to define what is the truth of the matter, even though that truth be not contained in the original revelation delivered to her by the Apostles. Without this power she could not fulfil that most important duty of “keeping the faith,” ––defending and protecting the deposit of revelation. When, therefore, the Church does define a truth, not as revealed but as necessary to the defence of revealed truth; when, too, she proscribes some error incompatible with revealed doctrine, Catholics are bound to assent to her judgment, to accept the truth and reject the error.
Some theologians, indeed, hold that every truth thus defined is, in fact, contained in the original deposit of faith, inasmuch as such truths come under the revealed general proposition that whatever the Church defines is infallibly true. It seems preferable, however, to consider with others of equal authority that such truths are not strictly revealed. As to the Church’s infallibility in this class of definition there is no question amongst Catholics. The latter theologians speak of the act of assent to such decisions as an act not of divine but of ecclesiastical faith, since we assent to them directly on the authority of the Church, indirectly only on the authority of God, who has included in her teaching office the power of infallibly pronouncing such definitions. Apart, then, from a technical discussion which is not of practical importance, it is the teaching of the Church that Catholics are bound to accept any definition of truth and any condemnation of error that she puts forth in virtue of her position as custodian and defender of revelation.
Nor is this in any way contradictory to the statement I have made above, that the terms of the Church’s commission are defined; that she has not carte blanche to define anything whatever upon any and every subject. It is only when an opinion or statement comes into contact with revealed dogma, as opposed to it, or necessarily following from it, or so bound up with it that the revealed dogma and the non-revealed truth must stand or fall together, ––then, and then only, does it come within the province of the Church to pronounce for or against it. Her concern is with revealed truth: she is not a teacher of science or human philosophy, but she knows her own truths in all their bearings; and she knows, too, that truth can not contradict truth ; so that when a scientist puts forward some theory that is plainly contradictory to revelation, or which denies some truth of the natural order without which revelation could not stand, she has every right, as the keeper of the faith, to lift up her voice.
The following extracts from the solemn definitions of the Vatican Council will at once illustrate what has been said, and show, in the authoritative words of the Church herself, what are the duties of Catholics in regard to her pronouncements:
“All those things are to be believed with divine Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, whether written or delivered by tradition, and are proposed to our belief by the Church as divinely-revealed doctrines, whether by her solemn judgments or by her ordinary and universal magisterium. . . . (Sess. iii, cap. 3.) Moreover, the Church, which received, together with the apostolic office of teaching, the commission to preserve the deposit of faith, has received also from God the light to proscribe science falsely so called, lest any be deceived by philosophy (so-called) and empty fallacies. Wherefore, all the faithful are not only prohibited from defending as legitimate conclusions of science all opinions of this kind which they know to be contrary to the doctrines of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the Church, but are also bound to hold them rather as errors presenting a false appearance of truth.” (Ib., cap. 4.)
“Nor has the doctrine of faith which God has revealed been proposed, like philosophical theories, as capable of being perfected by human understanding; but it has been delivered to the Church as a divine deposit to be by her faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence that interpretation of sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which Holy Mother Church has once declared; nor must that meaning, under the pretence and name of a better understanding, ever be receded from.” (Ib.)
I may add also the words of the English Bishops in their joint Pastoral Letter of December, 1899, approved by a special letter of his late Holiness Pope Leo XIII.:
“It may be well to insist, with the same [Vatican] Council, on the further truth––namely, that Catholics are bound to give their assent also to the decisions of the Church concerning matters appertaining to or affecting revelation, though these matters be not found, strictly speaking, within the deposit of faith. Such matters are, for instance, the interpretation of Scripture, the canonization of saints; the matter and form of sacraments in a given case, in which a dogmatic fact is under consideration; other facts which are called dogmatic and the condemnation of false doctrines by the Holy See.”
Having now inquired into the obligations of Catholics in regard to infallible pronouncements of the Church, there remains to be considered a third class of authoritative decisions which also have a binding force upon the faithful. The Church does not in all her pronouncements intend to exercise in full her supreme prerogative of infallibility. The reason for this we may suppose to be a merciful regard for human weakness, and a desire to give erring souls every opportunity of retractation before the final definitive sentence goes forth which would cast them out of the fold if they remained obdurate. Hence she frequently utters, in the exercise of her authority to teach and govern Christ’s flock, words of warning, exhortation or direction, in virtue not of her infallibility, but of her ordinary ecclesiastical authority. When she thus speaks, it is without doubt the duty of Catholics to listen and to submit their judgment to that of their pastors. This assent is one of religious obedience rather than of faith, though. It does pertain, in a certain degree, to the latter virtue.
If a man wishes to exercise perfectly the virtue of temperance, he must not only avoid downright excess, but must put a general restraint upon himself in regard to all things which might endanger temperance. So, too, a Catholic, in order to keep thoroughly sound and whole the virtue of faith which God has given him, must not be content with avoiding out-and-out heresy, but must be prepared to steer clear of everything which approaches in the slightest degree thereto. It is to direct us in avoiding such things that the Church speaks from time to time warning words, which, though they are not in the nature of infallible pronouncements, demand, nevertheless, our ready attention and complete acceptance. Speaking of this assent, the English Bishops in the important Pastoral already referred to, say (p. 13):
“The second kind of assent is that elicited by virtue of ‘religious obedience.’ It is given to that teaching of the Church which does not fall under the head of revealed truth nor even under the endowment of her infallibility, but under the exercise of her ordinary authority to feed, teach, and govern the flock of Christ. To think as the Church thinks, to be of one mind with her, to obey her voice, is not a matter of duty in those cases only in which the subject-matter is one of divine revelation or is connected therewith. It is an obligation also whenever the subject-matter of the Church’s teaching falls within the range of her authority. And that range, as we have said, comprises all that is necessary for feeding, teaching, and governing the flock. Under this ordinary authority …. come the pastoral letters of bishops, diocesan and provincial decrees; and (though standing respectively on higher ground, as being of a superior order and covering the whole Church), many acts of the Supreme Pontiff, and all the decisions of the Roman Congregations. It is by virtue of ordinary ecclesiastical authority, not of infallibility, that the larger number of the hortative, directive and preceptive acts of the Church are issued.
“As points of discipline may be decreed at one time and modified or set aside at another, so may novel theories and opinions, advanced even by learned men, be at one time censured by the Roman Congregations and at a later time tolerated and even accepted. For instance, the Holy Office in a case of a disputed text of Scripture or any similar point, after careful consideration––customary in matters of this importance,–– may declare that the arguments brought forward do not warrant the conclusion claimed for them by certain students. Such a decision is not immutable, and does not prevent Catholic students continuing their research, and respectfully laying before the Holy See any fresh or more convincing arguments they may discover against the authority of the text. And thus it becomes possible that, in time, the tribunals of the Holy See may decide in the sense which the earlier students had suggested, but could not at first establish by satisfactory arguments as a safe conclusion. In such a case loyal Catholics should accept her decision, by virtue of ‘religious obedience’ as the one to be followed for the present. But while they gratefully accept such guidance in a matter that concerns religion, they will be careful to distinguish between this guidance and the Church’s definitions of faith.”
The Pastoral then goes on to quote the following weighty words of Leo XIII. on this subject (Sapientiae Christianae, Jan. 10, 1890):
“In settling how far the limits of obedience extend, let no one imagine that the authority of the sacred pastors, and above all of the Roman Pontiff, need be obeyed only in so far as it is concerned with dogmas, the obstinate denial of which entails the guilt of heresy. Again, it is not enough even to give a frank and firm assent to doctrines which are put forth in the ordinary and universal teaching of the Church as divinely revealed, although they have never been solemnly defined. Another point still must be reckoned amongst the duties of Christian men, and that is, they must be willing to be ruled and governed by the authority and direction of their bishops, and, in the first place, of the Apostolic See.”
After all, when the Church speaks, even when she does not speak with all the weight of her infallible utterance, she does invariably give us safe guidance; for, though the speculative truth or falsity of some matter which she treats in this particular way may be, for a time, a matter of question, there can be no question at all that a Catholic is practically secure in listening to the voice of those whom God has set as bishops and pastors to rule the Church.
Besides the various pronouncements of the Church of which we have treated, there is a special class of doctrinal statements known as “theological conclusions.” By a theological conclusion is signified a statement of doctrine deduced from two antecedent statements, one of which is revealed, but the other known by reason only. An instance is the statement that the Son proceeds from the Father by way of an act of the intelligence of the Father contemplating His divine essence; this divine act resulting in the procession of the Word as a Divine Person. This conclusion––namely, that the Son proceeds by way of Intelligence––is deduced partly from revealed truth, partly from the teachings of reason.
As to whether such conclusions are to be believed with divine faith, theologians differ. If a conclusion of that kind be adopted and defined by the Church, though not promulgated as a revealed truth, it would come under those matters which must be held with “ecclesiastical faith.” Otherwise, whatever the differences among theologians as to the duty of Catholics in regard to such doctrinal statements, this much is certain, and universally held,––namely, that a Catholic who should venture upon denial of a certain conclusion of that kind, would be convicted at least of disloyalty, and of a failure to keep intact the virtue of faith, which demands that we should avoid not only downright heresy but also everything approaching to unbelief.
Enough has been now said, I hope, to show in general what are the obligations of Catholics in matters of faith and in those things which pertain in any way to the doctrines of faith. And to a Catholic there is nothing burdensome in all this. He knows that the Church is his divinely-given teacher and guide in all that concerns his eternal salvation; he is ready, whenever and however she speaks, to listen and to obey. He has the same trust in her that a child has in his mother. When she speaks to him he does not require to know, before he obeys her, precisely what grade of her authority she is acting upon. Sometimes, indeed, she does speak in strong terms, making it quite clear that any who withhold their assent will thereby make shipwreck of the faith and be cast out of the fold; but she does not always choose to speak thus, nor is it needed. A good mother will not always accompany her commands, firm though they be, with threats of punishment. So it is with the Church. She knows well that her faithful children will render willing submission to her slightest word, and she reserves the thunders of anathema for great crises that must be sharply dealt with.
No good Catholic will take advantage of this to allow himself any freedom of opinion short of downright heresy. A Catholic knows that, short of heresy, he may yet sin gravely against the virtue of faith, by failure to think and believe with the Church. And in thus assenting to the Church’s teaching, he in no way abdicates his reason; for his assent is not a blind and unreasoning one. On the contrary, it is eminently reasonable. What should we say of one who, himself ignorant of science, should persistently adhere to his own notions in the face of the well-established teaching of scientific men? There is nothing unreasonable, but the contrary, in believing those of whose claim to speak with authority we are fully convinced, and who speak on a subject specially their own. The opposite course would be the unreasonable one. The Church comes to us with proven claims to be the messenger of God, who is omniscient and the very Truth itself; moreover, God has given to her as her special and proper province all that concerns salvation. On that subject, then, she is to be heard and obeyed; and to hear and obey her is the highest reasonableness.
“But,” a non-Catholic may say, “what if the Church tells me to believe something that is altogether contrary to reason?” I reply, that is impossible. She can not: that is, she can not ask me to assent, with the assent of faith, to anything contrary to a proved truth of reason, ––to a truth of science established beyond doubt. She may warn me off some theory as yet merely a theory, and that with good reason; but she can not contradict a known truth. Truth is one as God is one, and is consistent with itself. In reply to this very objection the Vatican Council has uttered these pregnant words:
“But although faith is above reason there can never be any real dissension between them; since the same God who reveals mysteries, and pours into our minds the light of faith, also gave the human soul the light of reason. But God can not contradict Himself, nor can the truth ever contradict the truth. An appearance, indeed, of such contradiction arises chiefly from this cause: either the dogmas of faith are not understood and expounded according to the mind of the Church, or mere opinions are put forth as the pronouncements of reason.”
The Church, therefore, will never ask us to believe as of faith what is absurd or clearly contradicted by reason or fact. She proposes, indeed, mysteries to a complete fathoming of which reason can not attain; but her enemies have never been able––and never will be able––to prove that any of her dogmas are contradicted by the light of reason, which, like faith, comes from God.
It may now be remarked: “You have given a general answer to the question, ‘What are Catholics bound to believe?’ But what an inquirer will naturally ask is: ‘What is the Creed to which I am expected to subscribe? What in detail are the several articles of faith to which I shall find myself committed when I am a Catholic?”
This is a most reasonable question, and demands an answer. I reply, then, in the first place, that when you have once grasped the truth that the Catholic Church is the one religious teacher sent by God to make known to men the full and complete revelation of the Christian religion, the perplexity you naturally feel when contemplating a possible multitude of dogmas which you may be expected to believe will to a great extent soon disappear. The fear that you may be suddenly called upon to profess some new dogma that you did not bargain for, and for which you had been totally unprepared, will disappear altogether. You will know that, being the teacher of truth, the Church can never bring forward and impose upon her children anything contradicting reason. To be the bearer of a divine message and at the same time to contradict the truth of reason is an impossibility. There is no need, therefore, to examine singly every Catholic dogma, to look up every decision of Popes and councils since the Church began, in order to find out whether you can bring yourself to give adhesion to them. If you are certain that the Church speaks in God’s name you can rest assured also that no dogma of hers will cause you uneasiness. You know she can not teach anything that is false; you trust her, therefore, in matters which may not as yet have come to your own knowledge, or been submitted to your personal investigation.
This, then, is the fundamental question for all inquirers: “Is the Catholic Church the one authorized teacher of divine truth? Is she, as she claims to be, a messenger from God?” “But,” you will say, “I am still perplexed about the number of articles of faith. Surely, if I am to be a good Catholic, I must know what they are, and believe them all.” Yes, you must certainly believe them all; but in order to do this it is not necessary that you should know them all in detail. This may appear at first sight contradictory, but it is not so in reality. A man, out of boundless trust in a political leader, may commit himself unreservedly to his programme, though at the same time he is acquainted with its main outlines only, and has not a detailed knowledge of its every point. Such a one would perfectly satisfy the requirements of party loyalty; though it would, of course, be to his advantage to make himself more thoroughly acquainted with the whole contents of the programme he supports. He accepts all, though he does not know all. Nevertheless, he knows enough to justify him in this course of action; and, if his trust in the capacity and wisdom of his leader is well founded, there is nothing at all foolish in such a course. It may, indeed, be the only one possible for him, on account of incapacity or lack of opportunity to gain more extensive knowledge.
Now, the greater part of Catholics are in a similar position with regard to some of the Church’s dogmas; with this difference, that their trust in their teacher is entirely safe: she can not deceive them, whereas political leaders are not always worthy of the confidence reposed in them. Catholics have, to begin with, the most certain assurance that what the Church teaches is infallibly true. They have, too, and are required to have as a condition of salvation, a knowledge, greater or less according to the capacity of each, of the main points of her teaching. She herself takes care that all her children shall be well instructed in the great truths of salvation, such as the doctrines of the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation and Redemption, the Church, the Sacraments, and other articles of faith of primary importance. Moreover, by every means in her power she encourages all Catholics to enter as deeply as they can into her doctrines. She hides nothing, she reserves nothing of her authorized teaching for any special class: her catechisms, her creeds, her books of theology are open to all who are capable of studying them.
But, obviously, all have not the same capacity. There must, of necessity, be details which do not come to the knowledge of the many; intricate points of doctrine which she has had to decide in settling the disputes of the learned; old, long-forgotten errors which she has had to condemn in past days; decisions of questions having a temporary interest only. A detailed knowledge of all these is not necessary either to salvation or to the perfect integrity of the faith. When we say, “I believe in all that the Church has proposed to my belief,” we thereby accept “implicitly,” as theologians say, the whole of the Church’s teaching. Nevertheless, she does require of us an explicit knowledge of and belief in the great truths which concern salvation. These we must learn and study according to our gifts, or they will not have that practical effect upon our lives which will enable us to save our souls, and for the sake of producing which they have been revealed.
There are also points of doctrine of some intricacy which it is necessary we should explicitly believe and profess as a protest and safeguard against certain great heresies by which they have at one time or another been denied. Thus, for instance, in view of modern errors, Catholic children even are taught to confess their belief not merely in the Real Presence of our Blessed Lord in the Holy Eucharist, but the true mode of His Presence under the name of Transubstantiation; and the Catechism of the Council of Trent gives particular directions to parish priests to explain this dogma to their people as well as the capacity of the latter will allow. Again, the wonderful harmony of Catholic theology is such that every point of the Church’s teaching, however minute, may be brought under one of the great heads of Christian doctrine, in which, indeed, they are essentially involved.
Hence in another way those who profess belief in the Catholic Creed hold “implicitly”––that is, equivalently––every further doctrine that can be legitimately derived therefrom. The body of Christian truth is not a collection of miscellaneous and unconnected dicta upon faith and morals. It is a structure of marvellous unity, part dependent upon part, so that he who denies one dogma makes shipwreck of the whole faith. Hence it is that the Church is able to sum up with admirable conciseness in her creeds the whole of Christian truth. Hence also it is that her longer creeds––and the longest is by no means interminable––are but fuller expositions of the ancient Apostles’ Creed familiar to every Catholic child.
To find out, then, what a Catholic is bound to believe, it is sufficient to go to the authorized statement of the teaching of the Church as found in her creeds and catechisms. Therein is to be seen, in explicit terms, all that she demands as a condition of entering her fold. How much it is to be regretted that inquirers do not always take this simple course, which would satisfy them once for all that they will not be called upon to accept as dogmas of faith, pious legends or traditions which are in reality not connected with faith at all! In those creeds is to be found the deposit of faith which the Church herself can never add to or take from; there are to be seen the terms of her divine commission as the teacher of truth. And any one who feels that he can accept what is there laid down need have no fear that anything unexpected will be suddenly sprung upon him.
For, be it observed, the Church can never impose a new doctrine as to be believed with divine faith. In the solemn definition of any doctrine––as, for instance, that of the Immaculate Conception, or of the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff in his ex cathedra utterances, ––she says nothing new. It is beyond her power to teach any new doctrine. What she does is simply to declare, in cases where, for some reason or another, doubt has arisen, what has been her teaching from the beginning, ––what, in short, was delivered to her as the truth by the Apostles of her Lord. She may, indeed, and she does from time to time, state old doctrines in more clear, explicit and definite language than she had used before, making clear some aspect of truth which perhaps had been for a time more or less obscured; but she adds nothing to the substance of the revelation once made, the deposit which contains in the germ all that can ever be made an article of faith to the end of time.
It is true that, while any revealed truth is in that condition of temporary obscurity, and until the Church has dispelled the clouds by her infallible definition, such a truth is not binding upon all, ––is not, that is to say, a dogma of faith ; whereas after the definition it becomes a dogma of faith. But this is not teaching anything new: it is merely the declaration of a truth already possessed, and its presentation under a higher sanction than it had before. Any defined dogma has been from the beginning true, though either the Christian consciousness––in other words, the mind of the Church––has not hitherto recognized it with such clearness as to impose it upon all; or, having been once more clearly held, it has fallen into obscurity. The infallibility of the Church may be explained as the power to look into her own mind and to recognize there and draw thence the sacred truths delivered to her by the Apostles. Hence comes that continuous development of doctrine which is a characteristic of the Church as a living organic body.
“The Church,” say the English Bishops in the Pastoral Letter already quoted,
“is continuous and indefectible in her existence and constitution; so also in her doctrine. But her continuity and indefectibility is that of a living organic being, animated by the Holy Ghost. It is not the changeless continuity of the dead letter of a book, or the indefectibility of a lifeless statue, giving beings are never stationary: they grow, while they maintain their identity. The Church also grows. She has a progress, an evolution of her own. Not only do the faithful grow in the faith, but faith itself may be said to grow, as a child grows in its own form and character, or as a tree in its own unmistakable properties. Such development implies no essential change. Essential change is not development, progress or evolution, but the destruction of what was, and substitution for it of something else. As St. Vincent of Lerins wrote fifteen centuries ago: ‘It is the property of progress that a thing be developed in itself: it is the property of change that a thing be altered from what it was into something else.’ It was thus that a Father of the Church in the fifth century understood the unity of doctrine which constitutes the internal and substantial continuity of the Church, ––a unity always fixed and determinate in its principles, and in harmony with its original in the deposit of truth; but, at the same time, progressive in the inferences, definitions, and applications to which the original doctrine is rightly and logically extended.”
Again the Pastoral quotes the same Father to the following effect:
“The Church of Christ, being a vigilant and careful guardian of the doctrines committed to her, makes no change in these at any time, –– subtracts nothing, adds nothing, does not curtail what is essential nor add on what is not needed. She does not let slip what is her own, she does not pilfer what is another’s; her whole endeavor, her one aim by the treatment, at once faithful and wise, of all questions, is to bring out into clearness what was once vague and incomplete, to strengthen and secure what is already developed and distinct, to keep watch and ward over doctrine already established and defined.”
Then the Bishops go on to say:
“Truths, therefore, at one time held implicitly, by degrees become explicitly realized and defined, as one or other of those truths becomes a more special object of attention on the part of theologians or the Holy See, in the face of existing controversies or of attacks upon her teaching from those who are hostile to her.”
Not new truths, then, but truths which she has always possessed from the beginning, are the subject-matter of the Church’s definitions of faith. Even in the case of the second class of defined truths––those, that is, which are not, strictly speaking, revealed, –– there is nothing really new, nothing which was not true before. By such declarations the Church merely brings out what has been true from the beginning. For the relation of revealed doctrines to other truths not revealed has always been the same, since truth is one––and truth cannot contradict truth. Thus, though the Church may condemn to-day for the first time some scientific theory as incompatible with revelation (I speak here of pronouncements in which the Church exercises her prerogative of infallibility), it is, nevertheless, a fact that, in the nature of things, such a theory has always been thus incompatible; so that, had it chanced to be formulated in the first centuries, it would equally have been condemned, had attention been drawn to it.
Again, the Church may to-day define as true, and to be believed with the faith called “ecclesiastical faith,” some philosophical truth the denial of which would involve the repudiation of a revealed dogma. But here again she states nothing that is in itself new. That philosophical truth which she enunciates has always been true, has always stood in the same relation to the truth of revelation with which it is connected. From the time when revelation was first made that connection was always open to recognition ; and what the Church does in defining it, is to recognize and promulgate that connection which has, in fact, existed from the beginning. So, then, even in definitions of this class of truths, issued in virtue of her office as infallible custodian of the Faith, which goes together with her other office of infallible teacher, she promulgates nothing that is really new in itself, ––nothing that was not true from the first, although the subject-matter be something not contained in the original deposit of revelation.
One class of definition only can be said to state anything new, ––definitions, namely, of facts which are called “dogmatic”: as, for instance, the fact that some book, or certain expressions in a book, contain false doctrine; the fact of the reliability of this or that version of Holy Scripture; the suitability of a theological formula to express some revealed truth; the legitimate celebration of an ecumenical council, or the validity of the election of a Pope. It will be easily seen that such things come under the head of matters necessary for the due promulgation and for the conservation in all their purity of revealed doctrines, and that the Church is consequently infallible in their definition, in virtue of her office of indefectible custodian of the Faith. But such things involve directly a question of facts rather than of dogmas, so that in defining them the Church is in no way adding to the deposit of truth which she possesses.
I have already referred in this paper to an important characteristic of revealed doctrines that they do not stand apart: there is an intimate connection among them all. Hence comes that wonderful harmony of the system of Catholic Theology which unites its interdependent parts into one consistent whole. Hence, too, as we have seen, the Church is able, in her creeds or “symbols,” to sum up the whole of her teaching under a few heads. That great Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, in his famous work, the Summa of Theology, treats of the whole of Catholic doctrine according to a threefold division. First, he treats of God as the Author of all things; secondly, of the same God as the one Object for whom all things were made, and to the possession of whom all intelligent beings must tend, by means which the saint develops in detail; while in the third part he treats of the God-Man, who is the Way to God, through whose mediation we are reconciled to the Father, and who has given us in the Church the appointed means of grace and salvation.
So, again, the Apostles’ Creed––which, as its name implies, goes back so far into the distance of history as to be with great reason ascribed, even as to its form, to the Apostles themselves, ––presents us, in its short, succinct articles, with a complete summary of Catholic doctrine. Other and fuller creeds are but more fully developed statements of the doctrines therein contained. The most detailed of these is that of Pope Pius IV., issued after the conclusion of the Council of Trent, with a brief addition made after the Vatican Council. This creed is the one most frequently recited by converts when, on their reception into the Church, they make their confession of faith.
I will conclude this paper by repeating that any one who wishes to become a Catholic may with ease find out what he has to believe. There is no ground whatever for fearing that any unexpected dogmas will be thrust upon him for acceptance after he has made his submission to the Church. The depth of his understanding of the sublime teachings of faith, in so far as our created and therefore limited intellects can penetrate them, must, of course, depend partly upon his capacity and partly upon the light he receives from God. That understanding will increase more and more as long as he lives, if he faithfully and reverently studies his religion; but he will never in this process discover anything that he will not see to have been involved in what he accepted when he first became a Catholic, ––unless either he or his instructor were guilty of great negligence during the important time of preparation. This, however, is a thing most unlikely to happen, since the Church herself guards against the danger by including in the ceremony of the reception of converts a profession of faith in which the Catholic doctrines are most clearly set forth.
* The decision of the Apostles at Jerusalem on the question of the binding force of the Jewish Law on converts was, it is true, a solemn definition ; but, occurring in Apostolic times, and being promulgated by the Apostles themselves, it is not reckoned amongst those definitions which the Church has put forth in virtue of her office as teacher and custodian of the deposit of faith delivered to her by the Apostles. The truth taught by that decree is part of the “deposit of faith.”
Source: The Rev. H. G. Hughes, Essentials and Non-Essentials of the Catholic Religion (Notre Dame, IN: The Ave Maria Press, 1906), pp. 18-51. Italics in original. The above text consists of Chapters II and III in their entirety.
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