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Aaron PidelApril 20, 2023

My first encounter with the phrase “hierarchy of truths” did little to endear it to me. Early in my Jesuit formation, I once ventured that the well-known doctrinal disagreements among Jesuits—especially in matters sexual—weakened our collective credibility. One of my fellow Jesuits in training dismissed the concern with a remark along the following lines: “Don’t let the culture wars define you; after all, even Vatican II teaches that there’s a hierarchy of truths. We agree on essentials—the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacraments—so let’s just focus on those.”

The remark caught me flat-footed. A don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff approach to doctrine struck me as suspect on the face of it, but I was unprepared at that time to dispute what appeared to be the unassailable authority of the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, the ensuing cognitive dissonance left my mind magnetized for solutions. Twenty years later, with a good amount of theological reading and more than a few lectures on the anatomy of the Catholic magisterium under my belt, I find myself in a better position to do two things: first, to acknowledge the importance of the hierarchical organization of Catholic doctrine; and second, to better articulate my initial skepticism about a minimizing application of this principle.

To foster mutual understanding, ecumenical dialogue should take as its point of departure the mystery of the Incarnation, retracing the path from this foundational mystery to those that lie a little farther down the road.

The term hierarchy of truths entered common theological parlance through “Unitatis Redintegratio,” the “Decree on Ecumenism” from Vatican II. In a paragraph dedicated to the “way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed” in ecumenical dialogue, the council fathers made the following observation:

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 [ordinem seu hierarchiamveritatum], since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith [No. 11].

The statement appears to contain a tension bordering on contradiction. It envisions that Catholic theologians will continue “standing fast by the teaching of the Church,” designating this teaching rather monolithically. Yet it reminds Catholic theologians that this same body of doctrine comprises an ordered hierarchy of truths. Why mention that the truths are hierarchically ordered in the same breath as the requirement that theologians hold fast equally to all?

Recognizing the context

To see why “Unitatis Redintegratio” was not introducing a distinction without a difference, it helps to pay attention to the context. The treatment of a hierarchy of truths appears in a section addressing the “way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed” in ecumenical encounter. It comes after the decree’s warnings against any “false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss,” as well as its insistence that “the Catholic faith must be explained...in such a way and in such terms as our separated brethren can also really understand.”

All this suggests that “Unitatis Redintegratio”is speaking not about a hierarchy of obligation to assent but a hierarchy in the order of intelligibility. Theologians should address Catholic doctrines that are objectionable to non-Catholic sensibilities, in short, only by starting from doctrines closer to Christian origins and more widely held.

This order-of-intelligibility interpretation of “Unitatis Redintegratio”finds confirmation in the history of its magisterial reception. The Secretariat for Christian Unity’s “Reflections and Suggestions Concerning Ecumenical Dialogue” (Aug. 15, 1970) offered the following illustration of how mindfulness of the hierarchy of truths might facilitate ecumenical dialogue:

For example, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which ought not be isolated from what the Council of Ephesus declares about Mary Mother of God, supposes—in order to be grasped correctly, within an authentic path of faith—the dogma of grace to which it is linked and that depends necessarily on the redemptive incarnation of the Word.

Three years later the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s “Mysterium Ecclesiae” (June 24, 1973) elevated this example into a principle, observing, “This hierarchy [of truths] means that some dogmas are founded on other dogmas which are the principal ones, and are illuminated by these latter. But all dogmas, since they are revealed, must be believed with the same divine faith.” To foster mutual understanding, in other words, ecumenical dialogue should take as its point of departure the mystery of the Incarnation, retracing the developmental path from this foundational mystery to those mysteries that lie a little farther down the road.

In extending the hierarchy of truths to the church’s moral teaching and evangelization, Francis invites Catholics to start from the fundamentals on whose basis alone the more controverted teachings can make sense.

In his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (No. 37), Pope Francis affirms this intelligibility interpretation while adding a couple of his own accents:

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.” This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.

The new accents concern principally Francis’ extended application of the hierarchy of truths. It is no longer just for ecumenical dialogue but for evangelization more generally, and no longer just for supernatural mysteries strictly speaking but for the church’s moral teaching as well. Still, he avoids suggesting that any truths are “dispensable” simply because they occupy a lower rank in this hierarchy, recalling that “all divine truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith.”

Starting from the fundamentals

In extending the hierarchy of truths to the church’s moral teaching and evangelization, then, Francis seems to be inviting Catholics to start from the fundamentals on whose basis alone the more controverted teachings can make sense. Tellingly, “Evangelii Gaudium”(No. 38) goes on to cite Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on the hierarchy of the virtues as exemplary in this regard. The analogy is especially apposite because Aquinas—while maintaining the priority of prudence among the cardinal virtues, wisdom among the intellectual virtues and charity among the theological virtues—simultaneously insists on the “unity of the virtues.” That is, we cannot truly possess any virtue unless we possess them all.

Applying the idea of the hierarchy of truths to the church’s teaching on sexual matters might thus mean showing the organic connection between certain neuralgic positions—on divorce, pornography, contraception, homosexual acts and so on—and more intuitive virtues, like justice and temperance. I myself once took this approach while teaching an undergraduate course on the Christian vision of the family. Practically, it meant first elaborating the classical virtue of friendship—a virtue everyone spontaneously admired—and only later inviting students to consider what kind of sexual arrangements would be compatible with pursuing Aristotle’s “friendship in the good.”

Even though “Unitatis Redintegratio” does not equate the hierarchy of truths to a hierarchy of doctrinal importance, the church does in fact have a graded approach to teaching authority.

Does this mean that everything taught by the church enjoys the same (absolute) level of authority? Not exactly. Even though “Unitatis Redintegratio” does not equate the hierarchy of truths to a hierarchy of doctrinal importance, the church does in fact have a graded approach to teaching authority, or a hierarchy of authority. Traditionally in seminaries, teachers used to initiate their students into the subtle—some would say oversubtle—art of assigning labels, or “notes,” to church teachings. Students were instructed that there were as many as 10 grades of teaching authority ranging from “dogma of faith” (e.g., the Immaculate Conception) down to “more probable theological opinion.” The different notes of authority called, in turn, for different levels of assent, ranging from the absoluteness of divine faith down to complete freedom to disagree.

How is this terraced approach compatible with the insistence of “Evangelii Gaudium” that all “divine truths” are to be believed “with the same divine faith”? The simple answer is that not every Catholic teaching is a “divine truth”—that is, a dogma requiring faith’s absolute assent. The virtue of faith is doubly supernatural. Not only does it reach conclusions beyond the scope of human reason; it also assents to them on the authority of God the revealer. It is reliance on divine authority that distinguishes the virtue of faith from the habit of theology. Theology also assents to certain theological conclusions, but does so on the authority of human reason—because it sees these conclusions as logically implied in other things God has revealed.

The Immaculate Conception, to return to a familiar example, began its long history as a widely held theological conclusion. It finally became a dogma of faith when in 1854 the church’s supreme teaching authority solemnly declared it to be contained in the apostolic tradition. Because the church participates in God’s own authority, the reasoning goes, those who assent to the Immaculate Conception after its definition no longer assent to it by their own lights—that is, as a rational deduction from other revealed truths—but by a supernatural light refracted through the church.

Though the church’s derivative authority may require the absolute assent of faith, as in the case of the Immaculate Conception, it does not always do so. This is because the church participates in the divine light in a way proper to her human and historical nature. She must often form her judgment gradually, propose teachings with differing levels of authority, and move to definition on different grounds.

Authoritative but not infallible

John Paul II’s “Ad Tuendam Fidem” (1998), the last significant magisterial statement on this topic, drew on “Lumen Gentium” to offer a simplified set of notes, distinguishing between those truths to be “believed with divine faith” (de fide tenenda), to be “definitively held” (definitive tenenda) and to be embraced with “religious submission” (obsequium religiosum) of intellect and will. Opposing teachings in the first two categories might amount to heresy and/or result in loss of full communion with the church. The presence of the third category, however, shows that the church acknowledges a grade of doctrine that is authoritative but not infallible. Hence, though my confrère was probably mistaken when he invoked the hierarchy of truths as he did, it remains true that a hierarchy of authority governs both doctrinal and moral teachings.

In faith no less than ecology, everything is connected.

Much of the current debate, in fact, turns not on the hierarchy of truths but on this hierarchy of authority, the notes to be assigned to certain teachings such as the reservation of ordination to men or the prohibition of contraception. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “Nota Doctrinalis” accompanying “Ad Tuendam Fidem.” This offered examples of teachings in each of the three categories, placing the male-only priesthood, for example, in the second category. But because the C.D.F. did not claim any special magisterial authority for these classifications, its judgments remain debatable.

So was my Jesuit confrère’s only mistake terminological, appealing to the hierarchy of truths when he should have been appealing to the hierarchy of authority? I think there is still something more—a failure to consider the interplay between the two hierarchies. For whereas the hierarchy of authority means that not all teachings are infallible, the hierarchy of truths means that all are nevertheless organically related. Hence dissent even from non-infallible-but-still-authoritative teachings will tend to have broader repercussions on the life of faith, complicating the disposition of childlike trust. In faith no less than ecology, everything is connected.

It is perhaps for this reason that the theological tradition has often compared faith to a living organism, to the supernatural vitality of the soul. When the 16th-century Dominican Melchor Cano offered his own very influential version of the notes regarding levels of authority, for instance, he did not speak, as we might today, of dissenting from teachings de fide credenda and dissenting from teachings requiring only obsequiumreligiosum. He preferred to speak of error that “destroys faith” and error in which “faith grows sick but does not die.”

The medical analogy brings out something that the juridical categories obscure. By recalling that error even in non-infallible matters typically leaves faith infirm, it implies that widespread disagreement on such matters cannot be of little account—especially to a church aiming to be a “field hospital.” Though contemporary evangelizers need not always lead with the bitterest doctrinal pills, they ought never give up on the goal of restoring us to full health.

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