What Does It Mean To Give “Religious Assent”?

What Does It Mean To Give “Religious Assent”? March 7, 2017

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

Lumen Gentium; the Catechism of the Catholic Church; the Profession of Faith; and Canon Law: All tell us that Catholics owe their assent to the teachings of the authentic Magisterium, even when they are not technically infallible. Here, for example, is LG 25:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.

I put up a post about all this on March 4; and that prompted a few readers to ask: What does “religious assent” mean?

The Church develops the concept in Donum Veritatis (here), as well as the Doctrinal Commentary on the Profession of Faith. The Profession refers to it as a “religious submission of will and intellect”; which implies that Catholics must obey (will) as well as believe (intellect) the teachings of the authentic Magisterium. They must do so whether those teachings are “infallible” or not. This means that a Catholic must think with the mind of the Church; he must conform his intellect with what the Church proposes as true. One obeys Christ (for to obey the Church is to obey Christ her bridegroom) with the will, and also with the mind.

The CDF expands on this in Donum Veritatis 23:

When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.

A Catholic must believe all that the Magisterium teaches (whether infallible or not) “within the logic of faith” and “under the impulse of obedience to the faith.” It is not the same as an “assent of faith,” the Catechism says, but it is still “an extension of it.” A Catholic can not separate it from the faith he professes. If you try to put it in some other category of belief, your faith itself is rent in twain.

In §17 of Donum Veritatis, the CDF explains the rationale.

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a “definitive” pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching.

Stop there. Mark that. All that the Magisterium teaches is under the protection of the Holy Spirit. All of it; whether infallible or no. Thus to reject anything that a pope or bishop teaches is to reject the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Church. It is to reject Christ. That’s a serious matter.

Whoever hears you hears me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me (Luke 10:16).

The CDF continues:

One must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged. It is also to be borne in mind that all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that His People walk in the entire truth.

In other words, if a Catholic were to withdraw his assent of will and intellect from a papal teaching, he would be withdrawing it from Christ. All papal teachings come from Christ.

The CDF continues:

For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.

Bottom line: “Religious assent” is no different from any other assent you would give to Christ Himself.

But is there any room for any kind of dissent? Is there any corner in the mind that one may reserve for “non serviam”?

The CDF says no.

The freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent. [There is no such right for a Catholic.] In fact this freedom does not indicate at all freedom with regard to the truth but signifies the free self-determination of the person in conformity with his moral obligation to accept the truth.

In other words, “religious assent” flows out of a Catholic’s “moral obligation to accept the truth.” There is no freedom to say “I accept x but not y.” Nor is there a freedom to “accept with reservation.” Religious assent does not mean a Catholic may say, “Maybe, but I attach an asterisk to it.” No. Catholics are morally obligated to it.

Here is another way to put it. The Church affirms that “religious assent” is different than an “assent of faith.” But how so, if there is no room for dissent of any kind?

Simply this. A Catholic must give an “assent of the faith” to all that is divinely revealed. What is divinely revealed is infallible; it is the content of the faith itself.

A Catholic must give “religious assent” to those truths that are not the content of the faith itself, but nevertheless flow from it. This is why the Church says that, though “religious assent” is not an “assent of faith,” it is an “extension” of it.

What differs is not the degree of assent, but the object of the assent.

Anyone who says, “Okay, I only owe this religious assent; I am therefore going to maintain some doubts; I won’t be too vocal about it; on Facebook I may say, “Whatever” or “Pfft”; privately I might say, “That pope can go buzz off”: That person is doing “religious assent” wrong.


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