Commission on the Doctrine of teh Faith

Faith, Theology and the Magisterium*
by Fr. Ramon García de Haro

A. Faith and theology

Theology is not confused with faith, but it is a knowledge of faith; and, without fidelity to the Magisterium, it cannot remain in the fullness of faith.

Theology is a science, with its own undeniable requirements of rigor, order, and precision distinguishing it from the common knowledge of the Faith proper to all the faithful, made up of those who are endowed with their own gifts of grace. Not all the saints are doctors of the Church. This notwithstanding, theology remains a knowledge of the Faith: it belongs to that knowledge of God, and of creatures in relationship to him, which comes from revelation and which only faith allows one to attain.

Without faith there is no true theology; the vigor of theological science requires that of faith. Where faith is lacking, there is lacking also the very principle of theological knowledge, and a science of revealed truths thus becomes impossible, in the same way that any intellectual theorem is beyond beings who are deprived of reason. The Holy Father has recently emphasized this: theology must "spring from a deep attitude of faith, from an active exercise of faith, which entails communion and colloquy with the very Word of God, the Master who teaches and gives from within ( ab intus)." And Paul VI said that "faith is more indispensable for the theologian than subtlety of mind."

Indeed, theology requires an operative faith, which is reflected in its works. In fact, theology is speculative and practical at the same time. Practical truth, inasmuch as it is the truth of what is to be done (veritas facienda), is in itself inseparable from right action: to know it involves knowing what we must do; if, therefore, one has not chosen to love ordinately, one cannot discover the science of rectified love. Ethics definitely presupposes the experience of freedom, of good and evil, which in moral theology is done under the light of faith, and of a faith operative of itself.

Therefore, the first condition for the renewal of theology is to strengthen one's faith. Certainly, it is important—many note this—to renew biblical and patristic studies, to have increasing rigor in the use of auxiliary disciplines; in a word, there is the obligation to engage in serious scientific work. But one must not forget that, in some way—and radically—the first source of theology is faith itself, understood as a virtue: as the supernatural active principle that makes a man able to understand the content of holy Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium in their proper and revealed meaning, one that surpasses human powers. A renewal of theology that is not based on a revival of faith, therefore, is not possible. "A theology which does not deepen the faith, does not lead to prayer, can be a discourse of words on God, but it can never be a true discourse about God, the living God, the God who is both Being and Love."

B. The scientific method of theology and the Magisterium

Theology has a proper method, rooted in the uniqueness of its principles, which are the articles of faith. Adhesion to the Magisterium is a condition for its rigor as a science.

Among the modern errors about the Magisterium and its relationships with theology, many depend at root on a mistaken notion of science and method. Science is an analogical reality: physics, metaphysics, and theology are not sciences in the same sense. What is essential to every science is that it be a true and rigorous knowledge, which goes back to the causes (those with which each of the sciences is concerned), and that it also be ordered and complete (within its own field). Only when these conditions are met do we have a science.

A necessary manifestation of the scientific character of an intellectual work is that it reaches the truth. Error can never be scientific; it could, at the most, have the appearance of science, but it never has its source in true mental rigor. A reasoning, a study, is rigorous because it proceeds rightly, without leaps into the void, toward the truth. No work of theology which distances itself from the rule of divine truth, i.e., from the deposit of faith, can be said properly to be scientific: whatever obscures or separates from the truth is not science. Only what leads one to the truth, which makes knowledge—scire faciens —is truly scientific.

The scientific method, consequently, is essentially constituted by that way of working that leads to a true, rigorous, ordered, and complete knowledge in the field proper to that science. Therefore, the requirements of method are not the same for all the sciences. They depend on the characteristics of the realities studied and of the way in which human intelligence attains them. The notion of method is analogous, as is that of science. Specifically, there are characteristics of the theological method, proper to the science of Faith: the necessity of a solid and docile union with the Magisterium, in order not to break faith with the principles it receives from faith; the absolute need to base it on a sound metaphysics, as an instrument without which it cannot proceed; finally, respect for all the methodological requirements proper to the sciences theology uses as auxiliaries, to the extent that it has need of them.

It is common to every science to proceed on the foundation of some first principles that guide it and from which it develops as from starting points: a reality that shows how God has ordered human intelligence from within (ab intrinseco), directing it to discover truth and to make progress in it. In virtue of his own natural inclination, which is customarily called the habit of first principles, every time a man wants to know, he grasps as evident some truth of this kind (the whole is greater than its parts; we must not will for others what we do not will for ourselves)—truths that allow the root constituents of being and of the good to emerge and to show themselves to us, truths that then guide all man's reasonings, whereby he analyzes experiences by knowing their intrinsic truth. It is in this way that man makes progress in his knowledge.

In moral theology, this development of knowledge under the guidance of first principles is realized under the influence of the Spirit, and it relies on the very flourishing of our free action: it is the penetration into the depths of ethical experience under the guidance of faith. Theological knowledge is sustained by the longing for the good nestled in our will and draws nourishment from the direct, intuitive, global, often instantaneous and dynamic grasp of all the elements of action in the original whole that unites them, proper to their originating cause, which we ourselves are. It is to reach the "I" and the reality which surrounds us, the act and its object, in an association always new, where the question of the truth, the good, of happiness, and of the quality of our moral action comes into play.

1. The first requirement of theological method is to receive adequately the proper principles, which are the articles of faith, and to work in conformity with them.

The decisive role that its own principles play in every science holds true for theology, but only in an analogical way. The other sciences, in truth, posit the principles proper to them; theology, on the other hand, receives them from God, because the science of theology is an analogous participation in the very knowledge of God, which in its wondrous simplicity and truth embraces all the truths which the theologian, relying on Revelation, discovers and penetrates little by little. Therefore, it does not pertain to theology to prove its own principles, but to receive them with the obedience of faith (cf. Heb 11:8); it is therefore one of its characteristics to argue on the basis of the authority of the Church about everything referring to the acceptance of revealed truths; and, without obedience to the Magisterium, it destroys itself.

a. The articles of faith, through the infused light which this virtue confers, are per se known to all who have it, just as the first natural principles are evident to the mind.

Theology does not have the power of proving the principles which serve as the starting points from which it proceeds, but only that of defending them from everything which claims to contradict them. The habit of faith is not acquired by means of theology.

This is what "the blessed Apostle Peter teaches us when he says, 'be ever ready,' not to prove, but to give a reason for your hope' (cf. Pet. 3:13), that is, to show with reason that what the Catholic faith professes cannot be false."

The theologian cannot behave as a provisional believer, who first tries to prove his principles in order then to proceed scientifically in his work, because in this case he would no longer be doing theology, the science of the Faith. What is proper to theology is not to prove the Faith, but to penetrate into its inexhaustible riches, and also to show how we have concluded that an article or principle belongs to the deposit of faith. It is not, on the other hand, his task to prove the intrinsic truth of these articles or principles, and not even their very belonging to the deposit of revelation, as if faith were not open to receive in its integrity the revealed deposit as this is taught by the Church in virtue of its divine authority and not by the authority of men.

b. Consequently, it is characteristic of and proper to theology to argue from authority... inasmuch as the principles of this doctrine are held through revelation, and thus it is necessary that the authority of those to whom revelation has been made must be believed.

Nor does this in any way derogate from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority is the weakest when it is based on human authority, nonetheless the argument from the authority which is based on divine revelation is the most efficacious.

The witnesses of revelation—Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium—provide the principal arguments of theology, above any apparent argument of reason, which, if it disagrees with these witnesses, does so only because it has fallen into error.

This does not, however, mean in any way that the work of theology is finished once it has had recourse to authority. It belongs to theology to open up the whole truth contained in the principles received with faith by helping men to enter into divine realities: Theology must teach how one can understand, as far as possible, what it affirms; otherwise, it would be limited to repeating what the authorities say; it would certify that this is the truth, but it would give neither knowledge nor understanding, and the mind of those who listen would remain empty of knowledge and understanding. On the other hand, this means that human intelligence, in penetrating into divine things, must not rely principally on its own powers but on faith, on prayer, on the authority of the Church:

Theology can be authentic only in the Church, the community of faith; ... "the faith delivered once for all to the saints" (Jude 3). This is not a limitation for the theologians, but a liberation, because it preserves them from changing fads and keeps them bound securely to the immutable truth of Christ, the truth which sets them free (cf. Jn 7:3a).

This is their bond to the truth, which remains solid precisely by means of the effective practice of the virtue of faith.

c.  Finally, the Magisterium is the proximate norm of theology, since it is the proximate norm of faith.

The proximate and obligatory norm in the teaching of the faith belongs to the hierarchical Magisterium. We will, then, see how theology must collaborate with the Magisterium, and the way in which it guides faith, in the continuity of the 20 centuries of the life of the Church, in the diversity of its documents. Here we are only interested in showing that without a firm adherence to the totality of what the Church teaches, theology disappears, because faith itself disappears, the "obedience" of faith.

Whoever does not adhere to the teaching of the Church, which comes from the truth first set forth in Scripture, as to an infallible and divine rule, does not have the habit of faith. ... On the other hand, whoever adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule assents to everything that the Church teaches. Otherwise, if he holds what he wants to hold of those things which the Church teaches and does not hold what he does not want to hold, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will.

2. One cannot maintain a scientific rigor in theology without the proper scientific use of one's own mind, that is, with a metaphysics of being.

Theology necessarily serves reason, because faith presupposes, heals, and elevates intelligence. One cannot grasp the truths proper to theology without the help of analogous concepts drawn from natural reason, which God himself has used in revealing himself. This scientific use of reason is nothing else than metaphysics. A late medieval author said: "The doctor of Catholic truth begins his road there where metaphysics ends; one who is not versed in metaphysics can in no way be called a true theologian. Precisely because the one who mistakes the door, how can he not make errors when he goes inside?"

This is an argument that merits emphasis: Only the principle of creation and metaphysical transcendence fully saves the historicity of man without falling into contradiction and the heresy (the denial of creation) of identifying being with pure becoming. Without metaphysics, neither the historicity of man nor the Incarnation of God in the history of mankind can be saved: the words of Revelation remain perennially present as a guide for men only if the concepts used by God have a universal value; when metaphysical truth is reduced to pure becoming, revealed truth is likewise equally reduced.

A metaphysics is valid to the precise extent to which it opens itself to reality.

The Holy Father emphasizes this in pointing to the services presented in theology by Thomistic metaphysics: The philosophy of St. Thomas merits attentive study and hearty acceptance by the youth of our day, because of its spirit of openness and its universalism, characteristics which are difficult to find in many currents of contemporary thought. I mean an openness to the whole of reality, in all its parts and dimensions, without reductions or particularisms (without absolutizing individual points). Just as openness is required of the mind in the name of objective and integral truth about reality.

3. Finally, to the extent to which it serves them, theology must respect the methods proper to the human sciences it uses in an auxiliary way, without, however, forgetting that it can never abandon its own method and that its perspective is different.

It uses the sciences of law, history, psychology, hermeneutics, etc., but as external authorities that are only probable; it never forgets that it is not based on human authority, but on God's. In theology, human authorities are such only to the extent that their natural knowledge of the truth is always and inevitably in agreement with faith, since both natural truth and revealed truth equally have God as their author. If they are not in agreement with it, this signifies that they have fallen into the possibility, so human, of error.

Moral science "considers human acts from the point of view of the dynamic interiority of man, and by way of its manifestation in them; on the other hand, the positive sciences contemplate the same acts, but from outside and according to that method of observation which is proper to each...

The human sciences have need of moral science because of themselves they are not able to go beyond the external and visible aspect of human actions. The richest and most decisive human acts, such as love and hatred, intention and free choice, one's endurance of sufferings and evil, truth and duty, escape these sciences, as does faith; that is, all the movements of human interiority without which there can be neither an authentic understanding nor true explanation of our acts is removed from them. And, therefore, never can they reach satisfactory practical conclusions for application in guiding actions. Every day it is more clearly recognized that the positive sciences do not suffice to know man and to reply to the great issues and questions which he poses for himself."

In fact, these sciences generate new and very, serious problems, unless they let themselves be guided by ethics: "Scientific truth", the Holy Father has noted, "can be used, precisely in the name of human liberty, for objectives opposed to the good of man himself, or the good which is the proper object of ethics. Therefore, when science is separated from morality, man runs grave risks." This must not, however, make us forget that "in its turn morality, has need of the positive sciences for a better knowledge of many factors of the social, psychological, historical, and cultural orders, etc., which are in fact integrated in concrete action and must be taken into account, to the full extent possible, for elaborating an adequate moral judgment."

B.  The Magisterium:

Guardian of the Truth of Salvation

1. The Magisterium is the guardian of the unique truth of salvation.

Since theology is the science of Faith, adherence to the Magisterium appears as a condition of its authenticity.

Moreover, inasmuch as the Magisterium guards the truth of Christ, this adherence is shown in its transcendent value for the good of humanity. Only Christ has the full truth about man. This is one of the most basic points of Vatican II, which overcomes the impasse of certain school of theologies and an apologetic elaborated, as it were, exclusively in the name of reason: "In the light of Christ the Council intends to speak to all men in order to illumine the mystery of man and to cooperate in the search for a solution to the principal problems of our time." This is a truth which the Holy Father has put at the basis of all his teachings, beginning with the homily at the beginning of his pontificate continuing with his first encyclical Redemptor hominis and through the great later documents up to Familiaris consortio. This is a truth that needs to be repeated because men can freely turn themselves away from it.

History is not simply a fixed progression towards what is better, but rather an event of freedom, and even a struggle between freedoms that are in mutual conflict, that is, according to the well-known expression of St. Augustine, a conflict between two loves: the love of God to the point of disregarding self, and the love of self to the point of disregarding God.

2. The obedience due to the Magisterium, according to the degree of the obligation owed to its proper authority, in its different teachings

In its infallible teachings, the Magisterium binds the believer with the obedience of faith. The remaining teachings of the Magisterium require a "religious submission of will and mind".

In the economy of revelation, the Church, which continues the mission of Christ, acts like him in a way that is at once visible and invisible. The interior action of grace on the soul accompanies the Church's Magisterium which is visible and external. This means that where adherence to the Magisterium is lacking there is no longer the dynamism of the Christian conscience. The power of the Magisterium, in fact, is directed to faith.

Vatican Council II, following Vatican I, has made the characteristics of this obedience precise, according to the different modalities of the teaching of the Church on faith and morals and the extent to which she intends to bind with her wills her magisterial power. Without answering into a detailed analysis, we will note the essential points.

1. A full internal and external adherence must be given to the infallible Magisterium, whether extraordinary or "ordinary and universal".

Our concern here is with the same obedience of faith given to God who reveals, since Christ himself has willed this infallibility for the Church when, speaking in his name (cf. Lk 10:16; Mt 16:19), she defines a doctrine of faith or morals. This infallibility belongs to the Roman Pontiff when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brothers in the faith (cf. Lk . 31:32)—he proclaims a doctrine on faith or morals by a definitive act." It belongs to the college of bishops when, either united in a Council or "even dispersed throughout the world, but preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with the Successor of Peter, in their authentic teaching on matters of faith and morals, they agree that a particular reaching is to be held definitively.

It is fitting to note also that almost all infallible teachings in the field of morality are contained not in solemn definitions but precisely in the teachings of the ordinary universal Magisterium. This has led some to think that there are no infallible teachings in the field of morality, inasmuch as in fact, there are no texts in which such infallibility is explicitly claimed. This assertion fails to recognize, however that the ordinary and universal Magisterium, which by nature does not adopt such solemn expressions is precisely the normal way in which the infallibility of the Church is exercised. Practically all concrete moral norms that are today under debate (on abortion contraception, homosexual acts, premarital relations, euthanasia, divorce. masturbation) have been taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium and are hence infallible.

2. A religious submission ('obsequium') of will and mind is due to the rest of the authoritative teaching of the Roman Pontiff and to the ordinary Magisterium of bishops.

This religious submission means more than the usual obedience required for the legitimate commands of the hierarchical authority of the Church. Specifically, it means the following:

a. The ordinary response will be a sincere adherence not only of the will but also of the intelligence. In an exceptional case, a teaching might not be intellectually convincing. Then, the first duty is to doubt oneself giving credibility to the Magisterium. Almost always, this attitude of faith and common sense will be enough to resolve the doubt and will lead to a full intellectual assent. But it can happen that at times in an absolutely extraordinary way and for serious reasons, a person thinks that there is a defect in the expression of a specific teaching, which does not allow him to give his full assent. Even then one must give an internal acceptance, which is not mere silence; this does not mean that one must stop working on research and presenting to the authorities, in a private way, one's own reasons and the possible formulations that one might suggest as being better suited for expressing the truth.

b. In any case, religious submission implies the obligation to avoid every dissent; the only thing admissible is to suspend or withhold assent. If dissent is made publicly and obstinately, opportune sanctions would be in order (Code of Canon Law, cc. 1371, par. 1 and 753). Even in its non-infallible teachings, the Magisterium is directed to the Faith and requires a religious obedience. The teaching of the Magisterium is not like an ecclesiastical law, which emanates from the power of jurisdiction, and about which a respectful public dissent is lawful. The Magisterium is excluded from every public criticism of the faithful, especially of those who have received a munus docendi.

3. The possibility of an erroneous conscience in good faith regarding matters taught by the Magisterium, and its binding force.

We have been concerned up to now with the proper attitude of the believer with respect to the teaching of the Magisterium. Let us now pose a further problem: whether one can have an erroneous conscience in good faith regarding matters taught by the Magisterium and whether in such a case one is bound in conscience. We can begin by answering the second question, which is simpler.

a. The judgment of a right conscience, that is, one based on a will truly desirous of doing God's will, or in good faith, always obliges.

St. Thomas is clear: "Some say that conscience can err either in matters that are per se evil or in matters that are indifferent. A conscience erring in matters which are per se evil does not [they say] bind, but one erring in indifferent matters does bind. But those who say this do not seem to understand what it means to say that conscience binds. For conscience is said to bind because someone incurs sin if he does not do as his conscience bids; but this does not mean that one who does as conscience bids acts rightly... Therefore, conscience is not said to bind to something because if one acts in accord with conscience one's act becomes good because of one's conscience, but because one incurs sin if one does not do what conscience bids. It does not indeed seem possible that any one can avoid sin if he is disposed to act contrary to what conscience, however much it errs, should declare as a precept of God, whether it be an act indifferent in itself or per se evil. For in this case, insofar as it depends on himself, a man shows that he does not have the will to obey God's law; whence he would sin mortally."

b. The possibility of having an invincibly ignorant or inculpably erroneous conscience on matters already explicitly judged by the Magisterium is difficult to find.

In fact, with respect to the infallible teachings of the Magisterium, this can only happen if one is inculpably ignorant of the existence of or the infallibility of such teaching. In any event, it will not last long, since the desire to know the will of God leads one to know what God really wills, sooner or later, but without too much delay.

We want to close this section by noting that the dilemma of an erroneous conscience most not be confused with two similar situations. The first, already known by the apostolic Church (cf. Rom . 14; 1 Cor. 8), appears when someone, convinced of the liceity of an action because he grasps its effective moral goodness, finds himself nonetheless in a situation in which competent authority prohibits this way of behaving. The Christian must then adapt himself to the decision taken by the hierarchy and cannot appeal, in this case, to the contrary judgment—not erroneous but true of his conscience. Now while negative moral norms (e.g. 'do not do evil') oblige always and in every case, it is not true that one is obliged to perform an action simply because it is morally good. Indeed, factors may arise that oblige one to abstain from performing it. One of those factors may be precisely the indication, coming from those in the Church charged with the good of the community, that abstention from the action is required for that good.

This second is the case of a simple doubt, its which it will be necessary for the person to evaluate the foundation for his knowledge through deeper re-examination and dialogue with competent persons and to ascertain the level of authoritativenes with which the Magisterium proposes the norm in question.

* Abridged excerpts from Fr. Ramon García de Haro, Marriage and the Family in the Documents of the Magisterium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp.35-45/48-52. Quotation marks and footnotes have been omitted for brevity, and subheadings added to facilitate reading. Likewise, italics—extensive in the original due to long quotations from magisterial texts—have also been reduced to a minimum to streamline the layout.


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