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Theological Notes: Categories of Church Teaching


By Dmitri Garlic, Texas A & M

               I think this has happened to every Catholic who enjoys discussing theology with other Catholics. You are debating some theological issue (to take a non-controversial example I’ll consider the question of whether it is lawful to put pineapple on pizza). You, being a big-brained Thomist, know just the Summa Article to drop (Aquinas, ST VI. Q17. A3 …sed contra, the pineapple, being a demonic fruit in rebellion against the natural order…). However, once you drop the New Advent link, your interlocutor replies with something to this effect:

               On the one hand, the meme is right. Aquinas is not the fount of all dogma (TI mafia, please don’t come for my kneecaps). On the other hand, Aquinas’ ideas seem to represent an important consensus among the great saints of the Church (i.e. that pineapple is an evil fruit) even if they aren’t dogmatic definitions. It seems he deserves more of a response than “not dogma, don’t care”. How to resolve this conundrum?

               To tone down the silliness, this is where the Catholic Church’s tradition of Theological Notes provides an invaluable guide. The Theological Notes are grades of certitude for a teaching. Theological notes are divided into the categories of defined teachings, teachings proximate to the Faith, common teachings, and probable teachings. I will briefly go through and explain these categories and the various subcategories within them.

               The first category is defined teachings. Teachings in this category are those that all Catholic must believe. The highest of these teachings are usually called dogma or, in Latin, De Fide and are those teachings which are explicitly found in Scripture or Tradition and have been defined by the Catholic Church. An example of a De Fide dogma is the Resurrection of Christ. The next subcategory are those teachings which are implicit in Scripture and Tradition and have been defined by the Catholic Church. These teachings are usually called doctrines or De Fide Ecclesiastica in Latin. An example of this kind of teaching is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. In addition to dogmas and doctrines, there are also deductions from dogmas and doctrines. These are teachings that follow from a deduction which has as its premises, one teaching that has been defined by the Church and one teaching that can be known to be true through natural reason. For example, we know it is immoral to kill other people outside of self-defense from defined teaching. We also know through reason that unborn children are human. Therefore, we can deduce that it is immoral to kill unborn children via abortion. To knowingly deny any of these types of teachings is to commit the sin of heresy. If you fall into this category, you had best get to confession before the folks at TI get wind of it.

               The next category contains teachings that are proximate to the Faith. These are teachings which all or nearly all the Saints and Theologians of the Church have agreed are explicit in Scripture and Tradition, but which have not been explicitly defined by the Church. An example would be that the Trinity can only be known of through Revelation and not through natural reason. Knowingly denying these kinds of teachings is to be proximate to heresy. This is also a mortal sin.

               The next category of teachings is composed of those teachings which are implicit in Scripture and Tradition, as agreed by all or almost all the Saints and Theologians, but which have not been defined by the Church. An example of this type of teaching is that sanctifying grace is a participation in the Divine Nature. To knowingly deny this type of truth is the mortal sin of error against the faith.

               The next level of teachings is those teachings which are implicit within Scripture and Tradition and which the Theologians generally, though not unanimously, agree on.  An example of this type of teaching is that Moses or Jonah historically existed. These types of teachings can be denied but only with a good reason (such as archaeological evidence or scientific proof). To knowingly deny these teachings without a good reason is to be guilty of imprudence, which according to Aquinas, is a sin.

               The final and lowest level of teaching is for those teachings which are well founded but open to question, provided those spreading the teaching are acting in obedience to the proper Ecclesiastical authorities. The truth of private mystical revelation would fall under this category. These can be denied, provided legitimate authority be respected (you don’t have to believe in the apparitions at Fatima, but you can’t call the Pope a moron because he does).

               It is clear to me that the Theological Notes provide a helpful way to judge the importance of theological teachings that are not explicit dogmas of the Church. Before I end this blog post though, I would like to encourage the reader to use the Notes in a spirit of charity. As I have tried to make clear, just because a person is unaware of some teachings’ status as proximate to the Faith it does not necessarily mean that they are guilty of mortal sin. Sin must be knowingly committed to be true sin. Thus, jokes aside, don’t remove any body parts because someone gets a non-dogmatic teaching wrong. We are called to charitably correct our brothers and sisters when they err.

Further Reading

“Category: Theological Grades of Certainty.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 June 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Theological_grades_of_certainty.

“Dictionary : THEOLOGICAL NOTES.” Dictionary : THEOLOGICAL NOTES | Catholic Culture, http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=36835.

King, Lawrence Jerome. “The Authoritative Weight of Non-Definitive Magisterial Teaching.” 2016, pp. 47–60.

“Theological Notes.” The Meaning of Catholic, 22 Aug. 2019, http://www.meaningofcatholic.com/2019/08/22/the-meaning-of-catholic-theological-notes/#5.

“Theological Censures.” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Theological Censures, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03532a.htm.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

I’m a junior computer science major at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I enjoy computer programming, spending time with friends, and being with Jesus in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I am very charismatic and long to see the Body of Christ united and the Kingdom of God alive, as all pour out their praises to the One who is their Love.

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