Which doctrines must a Catholic assent to?

At the Easter Vigil Mass last night, the candidates for confirmation made the following profession of faith:

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

Which is admirably concise, but left me more curious about commas than the Second Amendement.  Are they saying they believe that [all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims] is [revealed by God].  Or are they simply stating that they believe and profess all things that [the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims] states are [revealed by God].  Let me unpack the distinction, so you all can tell me if it exists.

It seems like the Church has some precepts that are foundational (Jesus is the Son of God, the two greatest commandments are “Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”, etc). Then it has another set of propositions which are about the applications and implications of these core beliefs.  Since I’m a math nerd, I might label them axioms and theorems.  Axioms must be accepted as true; they’re what gives structure to the entire system.  Theorems can be logically derived from axioms, but it’s possible for someone to be mistaken about whether a theorem is true, so the proofs need to be carefully examined.

The great commandment (or axiom) alone doesn’t tell us how to fulfil it; we need other data in order to learn how to follow it.  For example, Catholics may all assent to Just War theory, and still disagree about whether a particular war makes the cut.  They all share the axiom, but they are generating different theorems when they try to apply the core belief.

I just recently finished reading Peter Brown’s The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity and one of the biggest things I took away is that Christian thinkers have managed to derive a lot of contradictory theorems about proper sexual conduct from some of the shared axioms about respect for human persons.  In the book, Brown cites St. Jerome as teaching that the blood of martyrdom might be sufficient to wipe out the shame of marriage, but better not to marry at all.  This kind of opinion was common enough that St. Augustine wrote a letter to a group of nuns to urge them not to view married women as hopelessly compromised.

Jerome’s vehemence and the widespread desire to be eunuchs for the Kingdom that Brown catalogues in the early church bear little resemblance to the marriage-mindedness of the contemporary Catholic Church.  I assume there have been no new axioms in the intervening centuries, but the theorems the church has derived have changed.  (And reading Augustine’s Confessions, I ran across another theorem-level change: the Church no longer endorses the idea that people should delay baptism because their sins after baptism will be judged more harshly).

So where does that leave a Catholic who agrees with the axioms but thinks certain theorems are wrongly derived or just feels agnostic about some of the stated implications.  I could certainly imagine this coming up with regard to the Church’s view on homosexuality, where the data available to us have changed pretty dramatically in the last fifty years.  Could such a doubting Catholic honestly make the profession of faith that Confirmation demands?

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  • Logan

    There is another way of reading that sentence that you did not list. It could mean “I believe all that the church believes; I believe all that the church preaches; and I believe all things that the church proclaims to be revealed by God”. I’m not sure how this would affect your further analysis, but I bring it up simply because it is another interpretation.

  • Sweet Tea

    I parse this as “I cannot assent unless I believe the Catholic Church teaches truth”. For me, I need to believe the arguments are plausible for the points of Catholic faith I don’t innately believe, and take them on faith to be true arguments; and from a conglomerate of believable arguments and agreement with innate morality actually believe in the arguments and then in the Church.

  • deiseach

    Interesting that you should ask this question, as Pope Benedict’s homily at the Maundy Thursday Chrism Mass touched on the question of obedience (granted, in the particular case of priests):

    “Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord. Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?

    But let us not oversimplify matters. Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God? Indeed he did, so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice. Nor must we forget: he was the Son, possessed of singular authority and responsibility to reveal the authentic will of God, so as to open up the path for God’s word to the world of the nations. And finally: he lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.

    Let us ask again: do not such reflections serve simply to defend inertia, the fossilization of traditions? No. Anyone who considers the history of the post-conciliar era can recognize the process of true renewal, which often took unexpected forms in living movements and made almost tangible the inexhaustible vitality of holy Church, the presence and effectiveness of the Holy Spirit. And if we look at the people from whom these fresh currents of life burst forth and continue to burst forth, then we see that this new fruitfulness requires being filled with the joy of faith, the radicalism of obedience, the dynamic of hope and the power of love.”

    If one cannot in good conscience accept certain theorems, as you say, then one is not alone free to follow your conscience, one is bound to do so – but there are ways of doing this that are acceptable and ways that are not. Take priestly celibacy, for instance; this is a matter of discipline not doctrine or dogma, and in the past the Western Church had married clergy (and in exceptional cases, still does, as when married clergy of other denominations convert to Catholicism and seek the priesthood) and indeed Eastern Catholic clergy (the Maronites, the Melkites and so forth) are permitted to marry; a priest could validly question the necessity of celibacy in the Latin Church by writing articles, putting forth suggestions and addressing questions to his superiors, but the wrong way to do it would be to go out and contract a civil marriage and say “I’m a married priest and you can’t say otherwise!”

  • A few minutes of internet searching don’t lead to the Latin text, so I don’t know if it shares the ambiguity.

    The German text, however, is

    Ich glaube und bekenne alles, was die heilige, katholische Kirche als Offenbarung Gottes glaubt, lehrt und verkündet.

    Adding parenthesis to indicate the grammatical binding, that would clearly be

    I believe and profess (everything the holy, Catholic Church ((believes, teaches, and proclaims) as revelation of God)).

    That is also the theologically correct answer, because there are teachings that go beyond revelation.

    On the more general question, there are beliefs one cannot deny without ceasing to be Catholic (dogmata) and others of lesser authority. But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore the rest. There isn’t a simple binary between absolute authority and non-authority, more like a continuum between those poles. Of course working this out in detail can get very complicated very quickly.

    On your example of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality I think a properly obedient Catholic can think it incorrect, but can’t treat it as irrelevancy or deny the Church’s authority to teach and act as it does. A comparable and more standard example would be the loads and loads of college educated Catholics who dissent on contraception without even having read Humanae vitae. They are still Catholic, but they would be clearly failing in their obligation even if they were right. Just disagreeing doesn’t cut it, it should be more like the deference one would give to a solid scientific consensus combined with the advice of all one’s friends. Yes, it can still be wrong, but there is a very strong default assumption of the Church being right. And even someone who thinks that assumption has been overcome can’t just go and disobey or join a propaganda campaign against the magisterium.

    Personally, I’ve had this problem several times, both on “the usual” issues and on more exotic questions. And when I dig as deep as I’m obliged to, I usually find the Church understands something I don’t. To me this sounds a lot like a truth telling thing even though I suspect every atheist reading this sees it as the most extreme example of confirmation bias ever.

    • leahlibresco

      It certainly seems fair to me that a Catholic who finds him or herself in conflict with a ‘theorem’ has a big onus to do homework before they contradict the teaching, and, until then, tie goes to the Church. But I can think of the example of a (non-Catholic) Christian friend from college who has done extensive research on homosexuality and the Bible (and was citing the Greek and various other languages when we talked) and came to the conclusion that romantic same-sex love wasn’t proscribed.

      At what point are honest dissent and questions appropriate? Are they always the same thing as a “propaganda campaign against the magisterium?”

      And if people within the Church can stay in it with these doubts and qualms, is it appropriate for people to enter the Church with misgivings, or should they stay outside til they’ve done their research and either assented or decided to go elsewhere?

      • Joe

        When we say romantic same-sex relationships are we talking about the act of sodomy or love between people of the same gender? For instance St. Paul condemns sodomy pretty clearly but refers to St Luke as the dear and glorious physician, they were probably romantic but not physically. I for one would love to pastor sheep up on Brokeback mountain with Jesus but would certainly leave out the sodomy.

      • Patrick

        “is it appropriate for people to enter the Church with misgivings, or should they stay outside til they’ve done their research and either assented or decided to go elsewhere?”

        And if there’s a standard practice of accepting people into the church without looking too carefully into what misgivings they might have, because investigating might turn up things you’d rather not publicly acknowledge and the church would rather have a member with reservations than no member at all… what does that say about the ethical obligations of people entering the church?

        • Joe

          Misgivings are natural. But at some point I think you have to answer with St. Peter “To whom should we go, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.”

          • Patrick

            Heh, that’s a very Catholic response. A Protestant would read that and see it as a refutation of the point you’re trying to make.

      • deiseach

        Ah, the old “What St. Paul was reallycondemning was exploitative sexual practices where there was an imbalance of power, not loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” together with “Back then, they did not have the same conception of homosexuality as we do nowadays, so they thought that same-sex attracted people were actually straight people having gay sex” which, as someone pointed out, means that the argument as reconstructed runs “St. Paul is saying straight people can’t sleep with their own gender but it’s okay for gay people to do so”, and that doesn’t make sense if you also want to argue that back then they thought everyone was straight.

        I may be unfair to your friend, because there is a lot of disagreement over how exactly to translate the Greek, but I think we can fairly well assume from the other Epistles that St. Paul was not in favour of extra-marital sexual activity (and indeed there have been accusations of misogyny about his strictures on marriage), and unless there is evidence that same-sex marriages were common (or took place at all) in the early Church, then we’re pretty much stuck with “No same-sex sexual intercourse”, even if we admit romantic relationships.

        Also, since we’ve spoken on another post about the default assumption of society being that all persons are engaged in romantic relationships, or wish to be, and that therefore “Virgins need not apply”, I would like to register a protest that the only expressions of love worth the name are those of parent-child love and romantic/erotic love. Friendship comes in a poor second-best, and if the friendship is warm or intense, it seems to be classed as “Well, X and Y were actually romantically involved, even if they never got around to sex.”

        Yet writers from the Classical period on down all seem to value friendship over sexual relationships as an expression of love. If I see one more invocation of St. Aelred as a gay icon based on nothing more than his “De spiritali amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship)”, I will scream and kick the cat, I swear it (and I don’t even have a cat to kick, so I’ll have to go out and get one especially for the purpose).

        Doubtless in the past, many romantic same-sex relationships were cloaked under the guise of passionate friendship, but I don’t see how we do any better by swinging to the opposite extreme and classing the only form of affection and love possible between two persons as being erotic.

  • As far as I’m aware, the Catholic church considers everything it teaches to be an axiom. The New Advent article on infallibility says that “all who refuse to assent to [the church’s] teaching are threatened with eternal damnation”. And they state that this even applies to the fallible teachings, as well as the infallible stuff: “Nor does such a sanction lose its significance in this connection because the same penalty is threatened for disobedience to fallible disciplinary laws or even in some cases for refusing to assent to doctrinal teaching that is admittedly fallible.”

    The only loophole the article puts forward is that, if something isn’t taught infallibly and your conscience mitigates against it, a Catholic can withhold belief “provided that in doing so he observe[s] with thorough loyalty all the conditions involved in the duty of external obedience”. If it’s taught infallibly, however, even that option is taken away, and Catholics aren’t even permitted to doubt it privately.

    • leahlibresco

      Very few things are taught infallibly and it’s my impression they tend to be more abstract things like the Immaculate Conception but not specific actions to take in daily life. But I’m going to try to rope in some Catholic friends on facebook to respond to your comment.

      • BijanAboutorabi

        “Very few things are taught infallibly…”

        This isn’t quite right, Leah. If you’re thinking strictly of papal infallibility, then true, very few things (possibly as few as two, if I recall rightly) have been infallibly proclaimed by a pope. But the Church itself teaches infallibly in matters of faith and morals. The Trinity is an infallible teaching. That the deuterocanonical books are properly part of Scripture is an infallible teaching. The categorical wrongness of abortion—likewise. The status of infallibility is quite properly applied to a whole host of theological and moral propositions.

        There are also, as the Catholic Encyclopedia article Adam linked to alludes, fallible “teachings”—stuff like Catholic social teaching falls into this category, where the Church decides to form and publicize judgments on a subject outside the strict confines of faith and morals. In such cases, only the fundamental principles (e.g., in social teaching, that justice should be sought) should be regarded as “infallible”; whereas elaborations thereof (theorems; e.g., substantive views on what justice demands or constitutes, such as the moral status of the death penalty regarded intrinsically or circumstantially) are the judgment of Church leaders—to be taken seriously but not revealed by God through the Holy Spirit.

        A third category are disciplinary statutes, which are also mentioned in Adam’s citation from the CathEn. These are ways in which the Church decides to organize herself and are not doctrinal, and hence, not infallible. Clerical celibacy is an important example of this type of “teaching” (to use the term loosely). There’s nothing intrinsic about Holy Orders that excludes married men; see Fr. Longenecker and the other ex-Anglican-priests, see Orthodox clergy, see (for that matter) St. Peter. At the same time, for as long as said directives are kept in place by the relevant Church authorities, they have the force of law and to transgress them is grossly disobedient.

        It’s not, then, that every Church teaching is an axiom; some are obviously theorems. But there are fallible theorems and infallible theorems. What Catholics should do with fallible theorems they aren’t inclined to believe (a situation I find myself in with some of the corpus of social teaching) is a question I really haven’t studied as much as I ought to. However, the only thing for a Catholic to do with an infallible theorem—which, it should be noted, includes every politically volatile “social issue”—is accept it and believe it as true. Even if the underlying reasoning seems opaque, that’s not the point. If it falls within the Church’s sphere of infallibility, and the Church as a body teaches it authoritatively, then it’s infallible. The Catholic’s faith in Church teaching doesn’t depend on understanding every logical connection; it depends on trust that the Holy Spirit preserves the Church from error in faith and morals

      • Have you heard of this “ordinary and universal magisterium” concept? In my best understanding, it says that if all bishops in the world, at any given moment, agree on a particular teaching, it becomes an infallible article of faith that’s binding on all future Catholics. John Paul II, for instance, said that the prohibition on women priests was a permanent and infallible part of Catholic belief because of this doctrine. It could be the case that quite a large number of beliefs are considered infallible teaching because of this.

    • Maiki

      Luckily, the Catholic Encyclopedia is not in itself infallible, and contains many misrepresentations and anachronisms on occasion. As with any encyclopedia, it is a secondary source liable to the follies of the compilers. Have not read this particular article to dissect it, but there are likely many even “well intentioned” nuances that someone reading in the 21st century as a freethinker might miss vs someone reading it in the early 20th century as a Catholic would assume.

      The Catholic Church does not consider everything it teaches an “axiom” (direct divine revelation or direct historical fact). There are many teachings that are derived from other teachings. E.g. Mary is Theotokos because Christ is God.

      There are also many levels to teachings, some that refusing to believe constitutes heresy, and some where refusing to believe is not heresy, but refusing to obey is a moral transgression, as well as those where refusing to believe/obey is a issue of disobedience, not an issue of heresy or direct moral transgression. And there are many teachings that fall into none of these groups.

  • Joe

    I think your example of homosexuality is a good one. All catholics most believe that homosexual acts are sinful, but how does a homosexual live out his faith in a healthy way? The theorem part is what I would think of as pastoral judgement. For instance could homosexuals sort of team up in a kind of romantic partnership and just avoid the physical intimacy? How would the Church handle a “married” gay couple with children if they should convert and decided to live according to the axioms(or doctrines) of the Church. The doctrine of the Church is not debatable but the pastoral judgement, the way the Doctrines are put in to practice, are open to a lot of debate not to mention trial and error.

    • leahlibresco

      Joe, what’s the source of the claim that all Catholics must believe homosexual acts are sinful? I’ve heard a lot of conflicting citations, and I’m curious about your read on this.

    • deiseach

      To take your hypothetical situation, a married gay couple with children who convert and wish to live in accordance with the teaching of the Church – it might fall under the same broad scope of couples who are not (by the standards of the Church) married sacramentally (e.g. one partner divorced, or a previous marriage in another denomination before conversion, or married before conversion), and while waiting for an annulment or regularisation of their marriage, they are asked to live together “as brother and sister” – that is, maintain their household but not engage in sexual relations.

      There is also the element of “giving scandal”, in other words, would people assume that they were living in sin, as it were, if both stayed in the same household? It would depend on circumstances and the individual case, I should imagine; where a couple have a family of young children or where one partner is the caretaker of the other due to illness or some other reason, there might be more harm done by insisting they split up than there would be by continuing to live as a family.

      I can’t speak authoratively, just as your average ignorant pew-potato 🙂

  • Long day and I’m tired, but I’ll give it a shot.

    There are degrees of teaching, and a previous message outlined in some detail. Dogma is “Divinely Revealed”. It is an infallible teaching stated by either the pope when speaking specifically ex cathedra, or by ecumenical councils (eg, any aspect of the Creed). It must be held and may not be changed. To dispute a dogma is the highest form of heresy.

    Doctrine is equally binding on the faithful, but is of a somewhat lesser category, called “Definitively Proposed” (eg, the male-only priesthood). This may not be rejected either, but rejection may simply place the person outside of communion and not in the company of full-blown heretics. It’s heresy-lite.

    All dogma is doctrine, but not all doctrine is dogma.

    Below this, there is the “authentic ordinary magisterium”, which is a teaching that is presented as true even if it has not been solemnly defined to the level of doctrine or dogma. This requires assent, but again: of a lesser degree than doctrine or dogma. (I can’t think of an uncontroversial example at the moment.)

    Finally, “discipline”(“ordinary prudential discipline”) is a binding practice of the Church, but one that might be changed based on further debate or need (eg, mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite).

    For example, the specific 7 elements of the just war theory are doctrine and thus binding. The interpretation of those elements, however, is open for debate without any fear of breaking communion.

    Again, I may be making a hash of this at the moment. Too much ham and cake…

    • Since you’re asking about degrees of assent, I should point out that doctrine and dogma must be held with a “firm faith,” while non-magisterial teachings must merely be held with “religious submission of will and intellect.” (See Ad Tuendam Fidem, by JPII.) This lesser degree of assent allows for the limited possibility of error to be found in non-magisterial teachings.

      However, you must understand the actual way in which much of these teachings are written often allow for a high degree of flexibility in interpretation. For example, you can’t ever make the trinity into a quadernity, but you can certainly debate the nature of generation and spiration in the trinity.

  • Maiki

    Haven’t read the comments. I would interpret the sentence as you assent to everything the Church claims is revealed by God and is taught by the Church. Not to believe everything the Church teaches OR that everything taught by the Church is revealed by God. Under here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_dogma#Theological_certainties I’d say they are referring to De Fide, Fides Ecclesiastica, primarily and maybe Sententia Fide Proxima, but normally not explicitly so.

    • Maiki

      “So where does that leave a Catholic who agrees with the axioms but thinks certain theorems are wrongly derived or just feels agnostic about some of the stated implications. ”

      It depends what you mean by this. You can’t disagree with “Mary, mother of God” doctrine (de fide) because you think it is an incorrect deviation/implication of the “Christ is fully God and Fully man” doctrine (de fide) — the conclusion was made as part of a solemn Ecumenical council, no questions asked. You can’t disagree that Mary was assumed into heaven — that is de fide. You can disagree on whether she died before that happened (a theological conclusion from that axiom, and a commonly held belief in the east and west, but not required).

      “I could certainly imagine this coming up with regard to the Church’s view on homosexuality, where the data available to us have changed pretty dramatically in the last fifty years. Could such a doubting Catholic honestly make the profession of faith that Confirmation demands?”

      It depends what you mean by this. Certainly, the Church puts forth that Homosexuality is a innate condition (But not as doctrine or moral teaching, just as a guide to treat people with compassion), if you think it more fluid, have different ideas about gender and sexuality theory and how it all fits in with theology — have at it. You definitely don’t need to agree with “Theology of the Body” and JPIIs treatise on how gender relates to us as the image of God. As to the statement “deliberately consummated homosexual sex is sinful”. I’m going out on a limb here. since I have not read enough on this. I’m certain, that this being a constant teaching of the bishops in concert in the church is irreformable and you are obliged to abide by the teaching on pain of mortal sin, and speaking in favor of homosexual sex indubitably constitutes the sin of scandal. I’m almost 100% certain it is at *least* “Sententia Certa” because of that. I’m 100% it is *not* a “de fide” doctrine. I’m pretty sure, but can’t say 100%, that it is not “fides ecclesiastica”. I have no notion of what constitutes “Sententia Fide Proxima”, so it is either this or “Sententia Certa”. As such, I think disagreeing with it bears no penalty of heresy, and thus one could have mental reservations on the teaching (while not engaging in the behavior or promoting it) and still assent to the Profession of Faith.

      I found a list of De fide teachings here from Dr. Ott’s “Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine”. http://jloughnan.tripod.com/dogma.htm

      • Maiki

        For comparison, I’m listing some “sententia certa” from that list:
        # The Sacrament of Holy Orders can be validly received by a baptised person of the male sex only.
        # The primary purpose of Marriage is the generation and bringing-up of offspring. The secondary purpose is mutual help and the morally regulated satisfaction of the sex urge.
        #The essential properties of Marriage are unity (monogamy) and indissolubility.

        I would think the teachings on homosexuality fall here. The idea that “In purely civil law, homosexuals should not marry” — this is not Sententia Certa or anything close in my opinion (might still not be prudent, encourage scandal, place faithful in difficult situations to receive sacraments, like divorce and remarriage has done, etc, and thus discouraged. But definitely not heresy to disagree ).

  • Original question about the grammar of the statement.

    Yes, it is ambiguous, but no, not because of commas. The trouble is that its unclear whether “believes” and “teaches” are qualifed by “to be revealed by God.”

    I would have, off the top of my head, said that [believes], [teaches], and [proclaims to be revealed by God] to be different items in the list because [teaches to be revealed by God] and [proclaims to be revealed by God] are redundant, whereas [teaches] and [proclaims to be revealed by God] are not. The trouble with that is that teaches and proclaims might be different enough if they’re being used in a jargon sense that I’m unfamiliar with. (Also, strictly speaking, it would be more parallel if all three verbs were qualified with the phrase, “to be revealed by God,” but I doubt that the Church would sacrifice sense for stricter parallelism.)

    However, the German translation assessment above seems pretty convincing. My only trouble with the translation thing is that there’s no particular reason to suppose that the German is translated from the original Latin any better than the English has been (particularly if the ambiguity originates in the Latin). This problem of translation, however, throws into question our entire ability to determine the intention.

    What a hypothetical initiate could always do, I suppose, is privately mean whichever version they prefer. If it were me, I would prefer the version where all three verbs are qualified by “to be revealed by God.”

    • Maiki

      I’ve been trying to find the latin, to no avail. Did someone go to latin easter vigil and has a missalette and is willing to help out? The text of RCIA or the GIRM in latin is not on the Vatican website. (or at least, my google fu fails me).

      • deiseach

        Maiki, there is never anything on the Vatican website. I had to laugh when I heard about the hacking of the website by Anonymous because really, how could anyone tell the difference?

        • Maiki

          That website is so, so, so poorly designed. The fake parchment background is just laughably cute. But, you can get encyclicals in like five languages, which I appreciate when people are having debates on the nuances of one word or another.

        • ds

          It was probably hacked 2 and half years ago, and somebody found out when anonymous got tired of waiting and just announced they hacked it.

  • Maiki

    Ha! found the latin: http://dir.groups.yahoo.com/group/liturgy-l/message/15640

    “Credo et profiteor omnia quae ut a Deo revelata credit, docet et annuntiat sancta Ecclesia catholica.”

    From that post: “I think the problem arises from not translating the particle “ut”. The profession simply does NOT say that everything believed by the church
    is revealed– that would have to be “credo… omnia a Deo revelata
    esse quae credit… ecclesia”.

    “But the formula doesn’t say that– it says rather, “Credo… omnia quæ
    ut a Deo revelata credit… ecclesia”, “All that the church
    believes… as revealed by God, I believe [too]”.”

  • Maiki

    Sorry for spamming your blog so (hopefully some percentage of what I’m saying is helpful), but I had a horribly stressful couple of days and thinking about theology is oddly calming.

    So some additional thoughts: Quoting the Church Fathers, especially in matters sexual. Oy. I haven’t read the book you described. Is the scholarship actually any good? Are quotations from the original source material provided that provide adequate context for the statement? Did the author read the passages in context himself, and has relevant historical scholarship credentials from the period?

    It is easy to play fast and loose with Church fathers. Not everything they said was correct, or even to be taken as gospel, some are not even saints, but considered heretics. At the same time, one can say: if such a range of theological opinion was tolerated, should it not be tolerated now? Well, yes and no. The Church has “solidified” more of its theorems now than then. Also, the Church does allow discussion, but there is always the peril that you’ll say something grossly wrong that needs correction.

    In general, what the Church fathers said needs to be taken in concert with that other church fathers were saying. The idea that marriage is in any way sinful has been anathemized for ages, even if a handful of “monastic obsessed” Church fathers occasionally stated otherwise. At the same time, virginity and celibacy have always, and still are, regarded as higher callings than marriage — even if in our current culture even rescuing the idea of a natural marriage is difficult to sell at times, nevermind supernatural callings of celibacy and virginity.

    I should read “Confessions” and report back. I’ve read plenty of Augustine (“On Christian Doctrine” and “City of God”, and some shorter excerpts of things), and I’m more shocked with how much things stay the same rather than what is different. At the same time, with no context, in this very “post Christian” culture where “Catholic” children are often baptized at all but not catechized and raised by unbelieving parents, maybe there is some sense to delay baptism to when they are willing to receive or be offered catechesis. I would say that the baptized in general share more responsibility for sins than those not, though — but it is nothing that confession doesn’t have the power to heal. Public penances were more customary then than now, though, so that might factor into Augustine’s statements in confessions.

    • leahlibresco

      Maiki, I want to respond to some of your posts in more detail a little later, I just wanted to jump in now to say how much I’m appreciating them. (Though I hope your offline life becomes less stressful!)

  • I have a post on teaching authority, as related to documentation (for those citing things), so it is structured a bit differently, but still might be of help: http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/the-new-vatican-richter-scale-of-teaching-authority/
    If I were to revise my categories to better approach your ideas here, I would say you can ignore magnitude 0-1, use mag 2-3 as useful thinking and learning opportunities, take mag 4 as important but not yet binding, but magnitude 5 and up have to be taken pretty seriously, with steeply ascending demands on respect. And if you must reject the infallible stuff (mag 10) then one should seriously consider if one wants to be Catholic or not. Conciliar documents are pretty darn binding too, as are encyclicals (contra the commenter above regarding social teachings, they are encyclical level for the most part and therefore quite demanding on one’s interest).

    Because your quote directly concerns what the “Church” teaches, then that would strictly speaking be conciliar level and up; but the pope, as spokesman of the Church, (and also anything he authorizes, like a CDF instruction) needs to be seriously considered as well, since he’s the one who specifies the larger-scale teachings into more temporal circumstances.

    This is a terribly complex and controversial subject which can be approached from numerous angles, so now I’ll turn to a personal anecdote. When I converted from atheist to Christian I became a “generic” Christian first. I accepted the large-scale Christian teachings, but not those specific to Catholicism. Later I specified into Catholicism because the evidence continued to point there and I followed it. At some point I still had incomplete understandings but no longer doubts so severe that they warranted my rejection of Catholicism. I would say that was when I assented to the magnitude 8 or 9 and up teachings. After that I have just been completing my understanding and things have become more clear – nothing has unraveled my faith (despite my continuous interest in atheism and its arguments – keep trying folks!)

  • I like your analogy to axioms and theorems, and I think it does a good job of highlighting the difference between actual doctrines and the arguably true but not definitive conclusions one might well draw from doctrines.

    However, the trick is, of course, then distinguishing correctly between axioms and theorems. In reference to the specific issue you mention (homosexuality) it strikes me that it’s important to keep in mind that the Church claims to be able to speak authoritatively on faith and morals. So while I’d very much agree that specific applications of moral principles cannot be taught definitively, it seems to me that it’s fairly core to the mission of the Church (as understood by Catholics) to correctly define what, at the moral action level, is an is not a sin. As such, while it seems to me that the Church might well have a lot of incorrect “theorems” in regards to various psychological and genetic questions in regards to sexuality, we’d have to see it as being authoritative on basic moral questions like “Is adultery a sin?”, “Is pre-marital sex a sin?”, “Is having sex with someone of the same sex a sin?” or else it would be impossible for the Church to carry out its basic mission on earth.

    I think someone might, even so, join the Church in good faith while disagreeing with the Church on one of these issues at an intellectual level, but it seems to me like that person would have to, at a minimum, be prepared to give the Church the benefit of the doubt on such issues to the extent of living as if it were correct. (So, for example, one might find the Church’s teaching on contraception unconvincing, but still enter the Church if one was willing to abide by it by authority even while unconvinced.)

    • I think someone might, even so, join the Church in good faith while disagreeing with the Church on one of these issues at an intellectual level, but it seems to me like that person would have to, at a minimum, be prepared to give the Church the benefit of the doubt on such issues to the extent of living as if it were correct.

      That sounds like what the New Advent encyclopedia I quoted upthread says: if it’s not labeled an infallible teaching, Catholics can disagree with it, but only if they keep their doubts private and act outwardly as if they believe everything the church says.

  • Jacqueline Y.

    IMHO, John Henry Newman said it best: “Be convinced in your reason that the Catholic Church is a teacher sent to you from God, and it is enough. I do not wish you to join her till you are. If you are half convinced pray for a full conviction, and wait until you have it…” – Discourse to Mixed Congregations, Discourse 11. Faith and Doubt http://newmanreader.org

  • Jacqueline Y.

    I’m sorry for the typo in the link. It should be http://www.newmanreader.org

  • ds

    I think the church is wrong about some things. And as far as “you can’t disagree with the church and be a member,” I think they are wrong about that too.

    • @b

      Demonstrably so, ds.

      Evidently to become Catholic you needn’t believe that all the Church’s (infallible) teachings are factually correct.

      Professing your belief in the Church -upon becoming Catholic- is more akin to an Amen (I believe or So be it) to the overall truthiness of Biblical teachings. And that Christian teachings are good to teach.

      Nobody can mandate a belief. You form beliefs that aren’t based on any teaching. You can’t absorb a belief if that teaching is literally unbelievable to you. Why try. Unless there’s a consequence for disbelief.