Hierarchy of Truths

Hierarchy of Truths March 27, 2020

Hierarchy of Christian Truths
Image by Philip Barrington from Pixabay

Hierarchy exists among the great solar system of Christian truths, and in ecumenical dialogue, Catholics should not insist on those matters beyond those which are essential.

Hierarchy and prioritization is on our minds these days. Even in deadly matters—prioritizing who gets a ventilator and a hospital bed, for instance. There are things we do or have in our life that at present we can’t imagine not having, or not doing. These we deem essential. Other significant things we do or have are important and we wouldn’t part with them if given the choice, but human life can be without them. Still other things and actions of ours we deem tertiary or marginal, ultimately unnecessary and unimportant.

How do we see the hierarchy of goods in our lives? What is a good metric for weighing how essential something is for our existence? How do we clearly distinguish the hierarchy, know the difference between needs and wants, real goods and apparent goods, wheat and chaff? For our culture, prone to so many addictions, it’s not so easy. For those with many distractions and great material wealth, it is perhaps most difficult of all.

To me, I can think of no better metric for weighing what belongs where in this hierarchy than death. Against the horizon of death, what looks important often melts into being unimportant, and dreams evaporate into waking realities. Against death, what a narcissist admires as the marble of his vanity wall often gets revealed to be a construct of bovine excrement.

This time of the COVID-19 pandemic has us all a little closer to death. With the looming threat of coronavirus and this being Lent, a great season of metanoia in preparation for Easter, a rare spiritual and necessary marriage can happen. We might for once seriously consider the hierarchy, and distinguish essentials, important matters, and the rest.

“I have some BAD NEWS…”

Imagine that a team of medical professionals has just given you the bad news—you are terminally ill. The diagnosis is grim. Sometime between one and three months hence, you will die. The possibility of recovery is so remote, calling it by the word “impossible” would not be hyperbole. What a Lent that could be, huh?

You sit in silence, alone, fellow dying inmate. You swallow or choke it down. What feelings are you experiencing? What memories visit you? When you look over your life against the frigid chill of your impending doom, how do things appear? Are they the same as before your diagnosis? Are they different? Take a moment to think about this. Feel it.

Consider—before you fell ill and caught your death, some things were perhaps central to you? Were these overwhelmingly important things? What happened to these now in light of the grave? Many honest people might find many things becoming trivial in this case. Or is it that they were always trivial, but in your addictive (i.e., sinful) behavior, you had jumbled up the hierarchy? For many with death looming, the authentically important realities suddenly take center stage, while glittery former things just as quickly become recognized for what they always were—irrelevant.

Vatican II & the Hierarchy of Truths

Many Catholics act as if all Christian truths were equally important. Their understanding of the doctrines and practices of our Faith is like a nebula—a massive cloud of beliefs and activities floating without contextual relations. Holy water, blessed palms or ashes, eating fish on Fridays are just as important, if not more so, than loving neighbor as oneself, not being racist, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Don’t try to deny it—it’s on regular display everywhere.

But following two world wars, the second which featured vaporized cities at the mere pushing of a button, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) developed a radically different view. There the Church officially taught that when it comes to the truths behind the aggregate of Catholic doctrines, there exists a hierarchy. In other words, should one compare one doctrine with another, we must keep in mind that they vary in importance. Some are essential—without them we could not be Christian. Some are lesser in importance than the essential truths—we won’t part with them, but Christianity can exist without them. Still others are tertiary or marginal in importance.

How does one make out the difference between elements in the hierarchia veritatum or “hierarchy of truths”? It depends on how far or proximate a given doctrine or practice is from the foundation of Christian faith itself. As the Second Vatican Council’s Decree of Ecumenism puts it—

When comparing doctrines with one another, they [i.e., Catholic theologians] should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith (n. 11).

Ramifications of the Hierarchy of Truths

Obviously, one major ramification of this decree is that we cannot hold all official Church teachings to be equally important. If a teaching deals with the foundation or essence of Christianity, it would have to be essential, as there could be no Christianity without it. But not all truths are foundational or primary elements. Some truths are secondary, although being so does not render them unimportant or insignificant. We cannot discard or dismiss these important secondary truths, but we cannot insist that they are essential either.

A Word of Caution

I should point out that the hierarchy of truths does not mean that some truths are more or less true than other truths. It also does not mean that Catholics can negotiate with truths lower on the hierarchy as someone would items at a salad bar. But we would be kidding ourselves if we believed that the concept didn’t imply that some truths are more important than others. This is true even with exceedingly important matters—for Catholics belief in the Ascension of our Blessed Lord and the Assumption of our Blessed Mother are both important, but belief in the Ascension outweighs belief in the Assumption.

Also we must consider teachings and practices that are situated beyond even the secondary level. The Catholic solar system is broad and filled with many elements, my friends! Things orbiting out past Pluto would have to be called tertiary or marginal in relation to the foundation of Christian faith (analogous to the core of the Sun).

All three levels of Christian truths exist and are discernible.

Why Make Distinctions in the Hierarchy of Truths?

The late Jesuit theologian and scholar Richard McBrien explained the important theological reason for developing and teaching “the hierarchy of truths.” It has to do with ecumenism. Ecumenism embraces the “whole world” of Christians. It seeks to reunite and restore (not return people to) the Body of Christ—including Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans (Episcopalians in the U.S.), Protestants, and those Christians belonging to ancient Churches of the East, not only Catholics.

Let’s illustrate a real life situation where this matters. Imagine that you, a Catholic, are sitting at a Starbucks. You get to talking with someone nearby. You hit it off and talking becomes sharing. Say this person is a Christian, but isn’t Catholic. And let’s say the sharing becomes a dialogue about Christianity and your different traditions. The guidance offered by the Second Vatican Council is for you not to demand of your non-Catholic interlocutor anything beyond what is demanded by the Gospel. You can talk about truths beyond the essentials, but you can only insist on essential truths, nothing more.

Getting Concrete

As a Catholic, you accept the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist—excellent. Additionally, you are devotionally committed to the practice of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—good. Please recognize that while related, these two different areas of the hierarchy of truths are not identical. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox believe very strongly in the Real Presence, but they don’t practice Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament—that doesn’t make them any less Christian than you, fellow dying inmate.

Or imagine that, like so many Catholics worldwide, you share an intense devotion to Mary. That can be perfectly fine. What is not fine would be for you to insist that your non-Catholic interlocutor must share your devotional practices and Marian commitment. “You will never be Christian unless you consecrate yourself to the Blessed Mother!” or “Unless she believes that America needs Fatima, there can be no unity!” or “You have to do ’33 Days to Morning Glory!’” would be all unacceptable demands according to Vatican II.

As Richard McBrien explained, there is no justification for making demands to anything beyond the core of the Gospel. That is the common ground we all share as Christians, the foundation, that which is essential to our hierarchy of truths. While this does not make anything beyond that untrue in the hierarchy, to claim that full intercommunion depends on more than agreement of Christian essentials would be wrong.

What is Essential in the Hierarchy of Truths?

Let’s talk about primary or foundational truths. Wouldn’t these be found in Jesus’ own teachings, along with those teachings of the Apostles, and those found within early Symbols and Creeds? Can anything be more essential as far as our hierarchy of truths goes than the Trinity of God and the humanity of Christ (Incarnation)? Could you even have Christianity without belief in the Triune God who lovingly creates and saves us, sustains and guides us, enjoys Existence and wills that we should also? And could there be Christianity without the Divine Son Jesus, God’s Human Word, and the saving gift of his life, death, and resurrection?

And consider that, given the Incarnation and all that it means, what a dignity being human has! With that great dignity in mind, what would racism do to its luster? Or sexism? Or classism? What would using your employees as means and not as ends do to the truth of human dignity? Wouldn’t this be a terrible contradiction in someone who behaves in such a manner but who professes to be Christian and thus believe in these sacred truths? There must be a malfunction in his or her belief and theology and praxis, one at odds with what is essential to Christianity!

How could Christianity exist without the Holy Spirit making us into new creatures, giving us a share in the divine life? And how could we come to know all this without the essential Church—sacramentally the Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit? Can there be Church without Baptism and what many call “the Lord’s Supper”? And without forgiveness of sins, where would Christianity be? Without loving one another, Christianity would die pretty quickly! Can we be Christian without the communion of saints? Can Christianity exist without hope in eternal life? And there are many more essentials beside these!

What about Important yet Secondary Truths?

For two thousand years, our tradition has been handed down, but not statically! There has been evolution in the continuity between the Church today and the Jesus Movement in the 20s CE. Not all teachings are foundational or primary. Some of these cannot be found at the beginning or for a good time afterward. Some lack an explicit or implicit origin in Scripture, our normative and inspired literature as Church.

IMPORTANT—that doesn’t render these truths unimportant or insignificant. We Catholics may never dispense with them. We Catholics cannot parachute away from these immensely important truths. Still, we cannot say they must therefore be essential to any and all Christianity and that Christian unity becomes impossible without them.

The belief in Mary as Mother of God (sans devotional extremes) is an essential, Christological truth for all Christians. While an important truth for Catholics, Mariological belief in her Immaculate Conception or Assumption, however, cannot be essential Christian truths. Therefore we Catholics cannot insist to our non-Catholic Christian dialogue partners that they must accept these doctrines as if Christianity becomes impossible without them. St. Thomas Aquinas himself rejected belief in the Immaculate Conception—does that render him not Christian? St. John Chrysostom had some extremely negative things to say about Mary—does that remove his sainthood or render him un-Christian?

Seeing that there are seven sacraments of the Church, no more, no less, is extremely important for Catholics. But is that essential to Christianity? We Catholics certainly won’t part with this understanding!—nor can we Catholics depart from the diocesan and monoepiscopal structure of the Church. But can we call that structure essential to any and all Christianity and insist that our separated brothers and sisters accept them? Likewise we are not abandoning papal infallibility—but is that important truth essential to Christianity? We ought to note the difference between the Petrine Ministry of the Church and later theological understandings of it. And there are many more important truths besides these.

What about Marginal Truths?

Do you believe in guardian angels? I surely do. In fact, I believe I have one. He is named “Tim.” I think I saw Tim once in a dream, very tall and fiercely strong and protecting my family. That dream afforded me great comfort through a difficult time. While I am grateful to have Tim in my life, I cannot pretend that belief in guardian angels is therefore essential or even very important among the hierarchy of truths for Christians at large.

What else would we find among such tertiary truths? What about belief in limbo (given a closed casket funeral at Vatican II)? Or the necessity of a college of cardinals at all times and ages? How about the rule that all episcopal appointments always and forever belongs to the pope exclusively? Or that only the pope may canonize saints at all ages? What about the discipline of mandating celibacy for priests in the Latin Rite established forever? All of these may be tertiary truths. They seem remote and distant from the core of Christian faith, beyond even those important matters that orbit the Trinity of God and humanity of Christ.

A Word of Caution

Please do not mistake any of this as being a way for Catholics to reject official Church teaching. No such escapes are available here. But because some triumphalistic Catholics are confusing secondary and tertiary matters with primary, essential teachings, we need to clarify matters. The context here is ecumenism. This post is given to prevent this confusion, and any sabotaging of ecumenical dialogue by obfuscating or exaggerating what is essential to Christian faith.

It is sad when so many Catholic apologists and personalities on Catholic social media never make the crucial distinctions provided by Vatican II’s Decree of Ecumenism (11). Fundamentalism is spreading like wildfire in U.S. Christian circles, Catholic fundamentalism also. In the United States it is enabling politicians who claim to be pro-life and Christian but who are gleeful to have millions of Americans perish in order to save their economic interests:

Ignorance for what is essential is spreading everywhere among U.S. Christians. Just plain old ignorance as well.

Without subtracting any truth, if ever we needed awareness of what is essential among all the truths, now is the time.

Later, we will pick this thread up again…


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