St. Paul commands people to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthians 13:5). As a Protestant, I always thought that the test for faithfulness was how much I agreed with whatever doctrines I was taught – that faithfulness came in degrees, so to speak. I figured if I was somewhere in the 90th percentile, I would “pass” St. Paul’s test. Then I read Thomas Aquinas who said that faith is not simply agreement with a set of teachings – even if it is all of them. Rather, faith depends on why one agrees.
That is because faith is a willful trust in a religious authority – to agree with a teaching for any other reason is not faith, but rather knowledge or opinion (Summa Theologiae II-II Q.2, A.1). Aquinas explains this by looking at the “faith” of heretics and demons. He points out that although demons believe true things about God, they will suffer forever in Hell (James 2:19). Demons have knowledge, but they do not have faith. What about a heretic – someone who believes many truths of faith, but disagrees on a couple (or even just one!)? Doesn’t that person at least have faith in the parts he does agree with? Aquinas says, no – for if someone disagrees with a religious authority, it must (by definition) be for a reason other than faith (maybe personal preference or some alleged knowledge). And this shows that the person’s other beliefs weren’t based on faith either.
Catechumens coming into the Church are asked to profess faith in everything the Church sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed even though they don’t know what all those teachings are yet. But that’s legitimate if faith is not simply an agreement (or partial agreement) with a list of teachings. If we choose to trust in the Church, that is an exercise of faith – but if we only believe with the Church when we agree on other grounds, we do not have faith. To paraphrase my friend, Dr. Bryan Cross: “If I only submit when I agree, I am really only submitting to me.”
The Church’s Profession of Faith describes faithfulness with fine distinctions which (for good reason) are not always easy to differentiate. This is because the Church does not place all of her teachings on the same level, and does not require the same “level of assent” across all of them. These are explained in detail in Joseph Ratzinger’s (yes, that Joseph Ratzinger) Doctrinal Commentary On The Concluding Formula Of The Professio Fidei. To summarize:
- Dogmatic: Teachings taught infallibly by the Church’s Magisterium which are divinely revealed. These require firm faith. Denying a dogma is the sin of heresy. Examples include the Creeds, the Trinity, or that Jesus Christ is one divine person in two natures.
- Doctrinal: Teachings also taught infallibly by the Church’s Magisterium, but are not said to be divinely revealed. They are to be firmly accepted and held because they are closely associated with divine revelation. Denying a doctrine would remove someone from full communion with the Catholic Church. Examples include the books in the biblical canon, that euthanasia is a grave sin, or male-only ordination.
- Magisterial: Teachings not taught infallibly by the Magisterium but which require a religious submission of intellect and will. Denying a magisterial teaching is serious and potentially dangerous doctrinal error. Most teachings of the Church have not been infallibly defined 9there being no need), yet are part of the faith nonetheless. Examples include Jesus’ impeccability, the possibility of proving God’s existence rationally, or Mary’s sinless life.
- Opinion: Theological positions presented simply for consideration. Faithful Catholics are free to respectfully disagree. Examples include the nature of Purgatory, the existence of Limbo, or the definition of speaking in tongues.
- Pastoral: Non-theological teachings which do not require assent by faithful Catholics. Example: positions on the death penalty or immigration laws.
For all practical purposes, the real line in the sand is drawn between Magisterial teachings and opinion/pastoral. For even at the third level – where doctrines are potentially reformable, the faithful are to “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”
Being a faithful Catholic means far more than simply agreeing with a doctrinal statement. Knowing the mind of the Church requires recognizing both what she teaches, and with what level of authority a given teaching falls so that the faithful Catholic can offer proper levels of to those teachings.