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Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman,
Catechists, evangelists, apologists and others today sometimes encounter
the term "hierarchy of truths." Sometimes the term is misused
to imply that some truths of the faith are negotiable or that some truths
are less true than others. In fact, the hierarchy of truths is merely
the principle of ordering the mysteries of faith based on the varying
ways they are related one another as elements of Christian revelation,
as summarized in the Creed.
Because the hierarchy of truths is so often misunderstood, it is important
to examine it. What follows is an examination of the principle itself,
based on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, as well as a discussion
of some implications of the hierarchy of truths for evangelization and
Hierarchy of Truths in Magisterial Texts
The first magisterial use of the expression was at Vatican II, in the
context of ecumenical dialogue: "When comparing doctrines with one
another, they [theologians] should remember that in Catholic doctrine
there exists a hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their
relation to the fundamental Christian faith" (Unitatis Redintegratio,
no. 11). This is closely allied to the axiom that the bond of faith that
unites Christians is greater than the things that divide them.
Here the Church recognizes that the way to agreement regarding disputed
points of doctrine is the way of faith itself, grounded in essential truths
about God and Christ. The hierarchy of truths also has application in
the Churchs catechetical activity: "This hierarchy does not
mean that some truths pertain to faith itself less than others, but rather
that some truths are based on others as of a higher priority, and are
illumined by them. On all levels catechesis should take account of this
hierarchy of the truths of faith."
These truths may be grouped under four basic heads: the mystery of God
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Creator of all things; the mystery
of Christ the incarnate Word, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and who
suffered, died, and rose for our salvation; the mystery of the Holy Spirit,
who is present in the Church, sanctifying and guiding it until the glorious
coming of Christ, our Savior and Judge; and the mystery of the Church,
which is Christs Mystical Body, in which the Virgin Mary holds the
preeminent place" (General Catechetical Directory, no. 43).
This text excludes a misunderstanding, summarized by Cardinal Schönborn:
"the hierarchy of truth does not mean a principle
of subtraction, as if faith could be reduced to some essentials
whereas the rest is left free or even dismissed as not significant.
The hierarchy of truth . . . is a principle of organic structure.
It should not be confused with the degrees of certainty; it simply means
that the different truths of faith are organized around a
to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 42).
of the Catholic Church (CCC) employs the hierarchy of truths,
linking it to the teaching of Vatican I on the mutual connections among
the mysteries or articles of faith (no. 90). Vatican I taught: "If
reason illumined by faith inquires in an earnest, pious and sober manner,
it attains by Gods grace a certain understanding of the mysteries,
which is most fruitful, both from the analogy with the objects of its
natural knowledge and from the connection of these mysteries with one
another and with mans ultimate end" (Dei Filius, Ch.
Following the Churchs Creeds, the CCC identifies the Trinity as
the central mystery of Christian faith and "the source of all the
other mysteries of faith, the light which illumines them" (no. 234).
Finally, the recent General Directory for Catechesis (GDC) states:
"All aspects and dimensions of the Christian message participate
in this hierarchical system" (no. 115). It goes on to mention: the
Christocentric nature of the history of salvation; the Trinitarian structure
of the Creed; the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, and therefore of
the Eucharist, in the sacramental system; the primacy of the two commandments
of love of God and neighbor in Christian moral teaching; the way the Lords
Prayer is a "summary of the Gospel" and sum of all petitions.
For Pope John Paul II, "The truth that God is Love constitutes as
it were the apex of all that has been revealed . . . . This truth illumines
the whole content of divine revelation" (Gen. Audience, Oct. 2, 1985).
God is Himself love (1 Jn 4:8), and this love is fully revealed in Jesus
Theology of the Hierarchy of Truths
Gods ordering wisdom is the foundation for the hierarchy of truths.
God has revealed this order to man, who by faith receives it and expresses
it through propositions (CCC, nos. 156, 170). The use of propositions
corresponds to the human mode of knowing: composing and dividing based
on causal relations. Since the human mind grasps reality through causes,
ordering what God has revealed depends upon the various ways in which
"cause" is understood.
For example, the text of Dei Filius, above, identifies an order
based on the final cause or end of man: All that God has done in the economy
of salvation is directed to our salvation, eternal life with God. This
allows the mind to identify the order of means to end, a distinction with
profound implications, for example, in doctrine pertaining to morals,
sacraments, and the Church. In morals, this is verified in the Lords
teaching about the Sabbath being made for man (Mk 2:27) and the Churchs
understanding of the dominical obligation; in the sacraments, it is seen
in Trents teaching on Baptism of desire; in ecclesiology, its application
yields an understanding of apostolic authority as a divinely instituted
means at the service of holiness. But at the beginning and end of all
is God Himself, the first and final cause of all things. This is often
expressed in Church documents by reference to Gods wisdom and goodness
(or love) as the absolute starting point for all that exists and all that
has been revealed (see Lumen Gentium, no. 2; Dei Verbum,
Since God is Three Consubstantial Persons, the doctrine of the Trinity
is the central truth of faith. A Trinitarian-based hierarchy of truths
must also be Christologically-based. Jesus Christ, Second Person of the
Blessed Trinity, is the fullness and perfection of revelation. He is the
Alpha and Omega and the center of history. He is the instrumental efficient
cause of the fulfillment of Gods plan, as well as the exemplary
and meritorious cause of our salvation. Thus, a "christocentric accent
is not opposed to the trinitarian view; it is through the Incarnation
of the Eternal son, his life, death and Resurrection, that the Father
is revealed and the Spirit is given. Therefore, catechesis, to be trinitarian,
has to be christocentric" (Introduction to the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, pp. 44-45).
Throughout the Churchs history, controversies have been the occasion
for the Church to define some necessary implications of a doctrine. For
example, the doctrine of Mary as Mother of God defined at the Council
of Ephesus is incomprehensible without prior knowledge of Jesus Christ
as true God and true man. Again, the doctrine on the human and divine
wills of Christ presupposes the doctrine of the two natures of Christ.
These two examples show how the hierarchy of truths is a principle of
the development of doctrine.
Implications for Evangelization
The principle of the hierarchy of truths allows evangelists to build a
solid foundation for the development of faith while focusing on a kerygmatic
central proclamation of the Good News of Gods love revealed in Jesus
Christ Who died to forgive sins. To be effective, the evangelists
message must correspond to the basic questions people have about life,
death, suffering, justice, love and sin. The evangelist knows that Jesus
Christ is Gods answer to all questions (CCC, no. 68), and needs
to be skilled in showing how all questions are reducible to a few fundamental
Christocentric evangelization seeks to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ
who revealed Gods love and died to save us. Once Jesus is loved
for what He has done for us, a person can begin to love Him in Himself,
and becomes interested in all of His message, His relationship with His
Father, with Mary, the apostles, etc. Vatican II affirmed the Christocentric
foundation of Catholic faith when it taught that entering and remaining
in the Church becomes a religious obligation, and therefore determines
ones relationship with God, precisely when one sees that the Church
was made necessary by Christ (LG, no. 14). The task of catechesis is to
make this explicit, but this task is greatly aided by a prior Christocentric
faith. A Christocentric introduction to Mary might go as follows: "St.
Paul taught: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in
me (Gal 2:20); Christ enables us to live in him all that he
himself lived, and he lives it in us (CCC, no. 521). Now Christs
relationship with His mother is an essential element of his human experience.
Therefore, I must also have a relationship with Mary."
The re-evangelization of people who have already heard the Christian message,
including the baptized who have abandoned the practice of their faith,
is a special difficulty. Two issues are involved. The first is a question
of relevance of doctrine which is not perceived because of an erroneous
understanding of one or several elements of Catholic faith. Through dialogue
the evangelist can show that what the Church teaches is Gods answer
the mystery of life.
Second, the Churchs faith can appear as a list of propositions having
no coherent order. The perceived lack of order is itself an obstacle,
since man by nature is made to know order. "If the interrelatedness
of all of the doctrines regarding both faith and morals is not perceived,
one can be left with the impression that it would be possible to accept
one or other doctrine, and leave the rest aside" (Archbishop William
Levada, Origins, vol. 23, p. 739). By showing the connections among
the articles of faith, the evangelist can lead a person to perceive the
integrity and unity of the whole of Catholic faith.
Implications for Apologetics
The minds natural capacity to grasp causal connections and consequent
order is a great asset to the apologist. Sometimes a person does not see
that the denial of one truth leads to the denial of another which he does
not intend to deny. By pointing out the unintended, ancillary denial,
the apologist can lead a person to reconsider his first denial. Often
a persons difficulty is due to an exaggeration of a truth which
conflicts with another.
For example, in response to claims that Catholics elevate Mary to the
level of God, an apologist need simply to refer to Vatican II on the subordinate
role of Mary, on her mediation being totally dependent upon Christs,
and her veneration contributing to, not detracting from, the worship of
God (LG, Ch. 8). Mary can only be understood in the light of Christ, though
it is true that, by better understanding Marys place in Gods
plan, we more fully comprehend the mystery of Christ.
Another apologetic use of the hierarchy of truths is to show how one fundamental
truth sheds light on many others. For example, the truth that in the saving
actions of Jesus Christ Gods love is effective necessitates the
conclusion that grace brings about a real change in the human condition.
This is the foundation for the Catholic understanding of the sacraments
causing grace ex opere operato, and for the insistence that moral
teaching is more than just an ideal at which to aim, but an obligation
we are made capable by grace of fulfilling.
Another example is the relationship between Christ and the Church. Ecclesiologists
point out that the early Christological heresies reappear as errors about
the Church. The mystery of Christ is so closely connected to the mystery
of the Church that errors about Christ implicitly contain errors about
the Church. As a final example, moral theologians following the lead of
Vatican II (esp. Gaudium et Spes, no. 24) and Pope John Paul II
ground Christian anthropology and morality in the mystery of the Trinity
as a communion of Persons. Because God is a mystery of interpersonal communion,
man, who made in His image, is made for communion based on the truth.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of
Catholic Faith magazine.
Douglas Bushman holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the University
of Friebourg. He is Assistant
Director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University,
and author of the adult faith enrichment program, In
His Image, published by Ignatius Press. Professor Bushman and his
wife, JoAnn, home school their six children in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
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