A common mistake that Catholics make is assuming that every Catholic teaching carries equal weight, and that as the faithful, we are equally bound to follow everything that the pope or a bishop says. Related to this is the idea that a politician who goes against Church “teaching” on one issue, like supporting a particular social program, is equal to a politician who goes against another Church teaching, like the right of unborn children to live.
For example, Commonweal’s Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’ described Paul Ryan like this: “sure, like the rest of us he is a Cafeteria Catholic.” In other words , Rep. Ryan proposing a budget that some members of the USCCB criticized is like a Catholic supporting abortion in spite of the teachings of the Magisterium. William McGurn rightly took her to task for this false equivalency, on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, but it seems to me that one of the reasons that O’Brien Steinfels’ argument works is that most of the people talking about this are trying to score partisan points.
So here, from a Catholic (rather than a partisan) perspective, is what the Church actually teaches about when it is, and isn’t, okay for a Catholic to disagree with a Church teaching. Everything I’ll cite to is from a Church Council or pope, who I trust we can agree aren’t going around making Magisterial statements in the hope of winning U.S. presidential elections.
The notion of a hierarchy of truths was explicitly mentioned by the Second Vatican Council, in Unitatis Redintegratio:
Moreover, in ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ.
Now, as the context suggests, this was targeted towards Catholic theologians dealing with non-Catholics in ecumenical dialogue. And the point appears to be that a religious group that denies the Trinity is less Catholic than one that believes in the Trinity, but denies the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Not all Catholic teachings are equally central. Of course, this does not apply directly for Catholics: we must, by definition, believe in both the Trinity and the papacy. But a similar order of truths exists for Catholics, as well.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II referenced this when he added three paragraphs to the Profession of Faith made by those teaching the Catholic faith. He explained that these additions were “intended to better distinguish the order of the truths to which the believer adheres.” Accompanying this was a lengthier explanation of the changes from Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It’s well worth the read.
In it, Ratzinger explains that there are three distinct levels of Magisterial teaching, signified by each of the three paragraphs: (1) those truths which are divinely revealed, (2) those which are definitively proposed, and (3) those which belong to the authentic ordinary Magisterium.
The highest of these three, of course, are those truths which are divinely revealed. Ratzinger summarized what these beliefs were:
To the truths of the first paragraph belong the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacrificial nature of the eucharistic celebration; the foundation of the Church by the will of Christ; the doctrine on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff; the doctrine on the existence of original sin; the doctrine on the immortality of the spiritual soul and on the immediate recompense after death; the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.
Most of these are issues which are strictly theological: that is, politicians are rarely asked to deny their belief in the Trinity, or the sacraments, or original sin. But politicians and voters alike are asked to compromise on the last of these truth, about “the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being.”
Pace O’Brien Steinfels, a Catholic who supports abortion isn’t a “cafeteria Catholic.” Rather, we rightly call that person a “heretic,” as Ratzinger explains:
These doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the Codes of Canon Law.
A similar process can be observed in the more recent teaching regarding the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men. The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. As the prior example illustrates, this does not foreclose the possibility that, in the future, the consciousness of the Church might progress to the point where this teaching could be defined as a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed.
With regard to the nature of the assent owed to the truths set forth by the Church as divinely revealed (those of the first paragraph) or to be held definitively (those of the second paragraph), it is important to emphasize that there is no difference with respect to the full and irrevocable character of the assent which is owed to these teachings. The difference concerns the supernatural virtue of faith: in the case of truths of the first paragraph, the assent is based directly on faith in the authority of the Word of God (doctrines de fide credenda); in the case of the truths of the second paragraph, the assent is based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium (doctrines de fide tenenda).
As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
|Viktor Vasnetsov, Judgement Day (1896)|