The Deposit of Faith and the Priesthood

Author: Msgr. Eugene Kevane

Rejection of the heresy of Modernism means rejection of its approach to the Deposit of Faith and Morals.


The priesthood in this period since Vatican II, in the English-speaking world at least, is torn by a deep division. It is an incipient schism and more than a schism for it arises from a fundamental heresy with regard to the Deposit of Faith and Morals. This underlying cause of the present suffering of the Church needs to be uncovered and analyzed. Only by identifying and removing this cause can we priests of today help to heal it.

St. Paul uses the Greek word "paratheke," "deposit," meaning something precious entrusted to a depositary for safekeeping. He means by it not an inert object like gold or diamonds or a sum placed in the trust department of a bank, but a living body of doctrine. "O Timothy, guard the 'paratheke,' the deposit" (1 Tim. 6:20). This urgent appeal of the Apostle to his Successor is not only thematic for the "Acts of the Apostles" and their Epistles but also for the Gospels. The reason is the fact that this deposit is the doctrine and the teaching program which Jesus entrusted to his Apostles when he taught them, and mandated them to take it out to all nations (see Matt. 28:16-20). He entrusted it therefore also to their Successors, including the men of Holy Orders as a whole until his Second Coming at the end of the world. This concept of a priceless divine deposit entrusted to the teaching Church belongs to the New Testament as one of its principal themes.

The origin of the deposit, then, is Jesus the Divine Teacher. It originated in his teaching of his Apostles, when he prepared them to carry his program forth to all nations. What is the value of the deposit? Unique and priceless. Jesus himself states it: "My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me" (John 7:16). It is the Word of God, not diffused throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but gathered into a brief teachable synthesis and summary by Jesus himself. It was a stroke of genius, humanly speaking, that Jesus made his revelation of the Three Divine Persons the pattern of this teachable summary of divine revelation. Jesus was preparing teachers in the age-old oral methods of mankind; printing, printed catechisms and printed textbooks were still fifteen centuries in the future.


Instead of textbooks, therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus gave them sets of topics or points to carry in their memories as a guide for their oral teaching. Thus the Trinitarian profession of faith for baptism, with its subordinate topics for each Divine Person, became the Articles of Faith which the early Church called the Symbol and which we of the Latin Rite called the Apostles' Creed from the Latin "Credo." These Articles of Faith formed the first set of topics in the teaching. It formulated Jesus' deposit: it enabled his Apostles and their Successors to hand on the baptismal Profession of Faith by teaching. It was the substance of catechetical instruction then and now. "Catechetics" is not of recent invention: the Apostles used this term in the New Testament as a special name for their unique and priceless teaching. "Catechetics" is simply a Greek word for "oral instruction." It meant the handing on of Jesus' Deposit of Faith and Morals by teaching.

The convert turned in his conversion from the old way of sin to God in the new Christian way of life: personal prayer, sacramental living and Gospel morality. Each had its set of topics for oral teaching: the seven petitions of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the seven Sacraments. The entire teaching centered in the Real Presence of Jesus as the victim offered in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. "Catechesis must necessarily be Christocentric."1 These topics, the "pattern of the teaching," "typos didaches" (Rom. 6:17), emerge into view as the life of the Church unfolds into the future. It stands as the catechetical component of "the immortal Tradition of the Holy Church of God."2 But the substance of the content and the standard or pattern of the teaching were present from the beginning. It is not reasonable to suppose that this program was "created" or "invented" by the "community" later on. This derogates from Jesus the Divine Teacher, the master teacher of the twelve Apostles.

The Apostles were convinced that the teaching they received from Jesus and handed on by their own teaching is the very Word of God. Let one passage of St. Paul stand for the numerous places which bear this witness. "We thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13). It is the Word of God summarized into this teachable form by Jesus and handed on by the apostolic teaching. Nothing could be more important for the self-identity of the priest and his catechists today than this consciousness. It is the primary duty of all men of the cloth, of the parents of the children committed to their care, and of the catechists who help them, to hand on this formative Word of God in all its purity and integrity. It is the Deposit of Faith and Morals. The Church herself has defined this fact: "The teaching of faith, which God has revealed, has not been proposed as a philosophical discovery to be perfected by human ingenuity, but as a divine deposit handed over to the Spouse of Christ to be guarded faithfully and explained infallibly."3

The charge to see to this purity and integrity in teaching the divine Deposit of Faith is present in the rite of ordination of all men of Holy Orders. It is expressed with emphatic explicitness in the ordination of each bishop: each bishop affirms his resolution "to maintain the content of faith, entire and uncorrupted, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church at all times and places."4

Clearly the Deposit of Faith and Morals exists; it comes down from God himself in Jesus' completion of divine revelation. It constitutes the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church. Its direct depositary is the teaching Church of the Apostles and their Successors.5

A vast movement against the very idea of an abiding deposit of doctrine coming unchanged from Jesus and his Apostles has arisen in the Church. It is the heresy of Modernism. It does not concern the appreciation and use of modern science and technology. We drive cars. The Popes use jets for their pastoral visitations. Rejection of the heresy of Modernism means rejection of its approach to the Deposit of Faith and Morals; just that and no more. Rather than give a personal definition of this heresy, it seems better to let the Church herself do so.

The Church first took note of the heresy of Modernism and defined it on September 26, 1835. The document condemns the approach of certain priests, professors in German universities, who were using the Modern Philosophy of Descartes, Kant and Hegel to reinterpret the Articles of Faith. "They are profaning their teaching office and are adulterating the sacred Deposit of Faith."6 This new heresy of Modernism has not changed its nature and approach to the present day.

Certain priests in German universities, however, continued this project. The Church called the first Vatican Council to meet this effort to set aside the entire Creed at one stroke by this philosophical reinterpretation. The heresy asserts that "the teaching of faith which God revealed has been given as a philosophical discovery, to be perfected by human ingenuity. Hence the meaning of the dogmas which the Church declared in the past is not to be perpetually retained, but must be abandoned when a more profound comprehension is achieved."7 The Church formally condemned this heresy of Modernism: "If anyone should say that with the progress of knowledge it is sometimes possible that dogmas proposed by the Church can be given a meaning different from the one that the Church has understood and still understands, let him be anathema."8


In spite of this, a group of priests in France, Italy and England, again chiefly professors in universities and seminaries, continued this philosophical heresy after Vatican I, under the leadership of Father Alfred Loisy, a professor of biblical exegesis at the Institut Catholique of Paris. His teachings, condemned by the Church, offer further definitions of the heresy of Modernism. "Truth is not any more immutable than man himself, for it evolves with him, in mind and by him."9 Here Father Loisy states his Hegelian philosophy. "Christ did not teach a definite body of doctrine applicable to men of all times and places. Rather he launched a kind of religious movement adapted or to be adapted to various times and places."10 Here Father Loisy states a fundamental aberration in biblical exegesis. "The chief Articles of the Apostles' Creed did not have the same meaning for the early Christians as they have for Christians of our time."11 By this Father Loisy suppresses the catechism by removing the Creed: he opens the way to a new religious education devoid of the Deposit of Faith and Morals.

St. Pius X in "Pascendi" defines this heresy of Modernism briefly as "the synthesis of all the heresies." This includes of course the heresy of Gnosticism.


The heresy of Modernism has risen to new life in the present period since Vatican II. In his discourse closing the Council, Pope Paul VI called it simply "Relativism." It makes the truths of the Deposit of Faith and Morals relative to history and its cultural changes. Since Vatican II it has become ruinous in the external life of the Church and devastating for the interior life of souls by its popularization of applications in Church government, in the liturgy and in the religious education of Catholic children. The cutting edge of this heresy is the wrong approach of the atheistic philosopher Spinoza, of Father Alfred Loisy, and of their followers, in interpreting knowledge about the human authorship of the Bible. The key word is hermeneutics: interpretation used to undermine and at least by implication to deny the divine authorship instead of making it more visible. We priests must never forget the divine authorship of the Bible is an Article of Faith contained in the Deposit. Every Sunday we profess this in the Nicene Creed: "We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who spoke through the Prophets."12

The cumulative effect of all this causes a deepening of religious ignorance of the divine Deposit of Faith and Morals in the People of God, an ignorance which has come to affect even many priests and therefore even some bishops, if one can judge by publicly-known permissiveness and published discourse. Like a poison gas, or better like a Black Death plague of the soul, this heresy infiltrates minds and hearts. They become opposed or at least indifferent to the reality of the divine Deposit of Faith and Morals which comes to us from Jesus and his Apostles. Thus it provides the key for an understanding of the present suffering of the Church and for positive action regarding the Deposit to alleviate it.

With its usual sharpness of insight in matters affecting the Deposit, the Holy See has risen to the new and more widespread threat from the heresy of Modernism in the time after the recent Council. An example is the document "Petrum et Paulum apostolos" (February 22, 1967) of Pope Paul VI a year after the closing of Vatican II. "While man's religious sense today is in a decline," he writes, "new opinions in exegesis and theology, often borrowed from bold but blind secular philosophies, have in places found a way into the realm of Catholic teaching. They question or distort the objective sense of truths taught with authority by the Church. Under pretext of adapting religious thought to the contemporary outlook they prescind from the guidance of the Church's teaching. . . . They dare to rob Holy Scripture's testimony of its sacred and historical character, and try to introduce a so-called 'postconciliar' mentality among the People of God.... They spread about the illusion of giving Christianity a new interpretation, which is arbitrary and barren. What would remain of our Faith, or the theological virtue which professes it, if these attempts were destined to prevail?" It would be impossible to improve upon this definition of the heresy of Modernism in its present phase, now known as "The New Hermeneutics," using the media and techniques of popularization to create that new "post-conciliar mentality among the People of God."

These "new opinions in exegesis and theology" have generated a widespread corruption and collapse of much theology since Vatican II, resulting in the fact that it frequently is no longer an authentic form of ministry of the Word.13 From Sacred Theology it falls to the level of mere naturalistic philosophy of religion. It is important at the present time to recognize that there are these two quite different and directly opposed kinds of theology. This lies under the schism within the priesthood and causes two different kinds of seminaries which prepare men for the priesthood.

"The People of God," writes St. Thomas Aquinas, "has a science of those things which can be concluded from the Articles of Faith."14 This is Sacred Theology. He returns to this point frequently in his works.15


Father George Tyrrell, colleague of Father Loisy in the leadership of Modernism at the turn of the century, gave the name "The New Theology" to this new, different and opposed kind of theology. It has lost its sacred character because it does not take its point of departure and the light of its discourse from the Articles of Faith. It takes its principles, point of departure and the light of its discourse from the many forms of historical and cultural relativism. The ambient culture is the source. It results that this kind of theologizing arrives at teachings which are quite different from the meaning of the Articles of Faith as taught by the Church since the Apostles. It subordinates the Articles of Faith, the Deposit of Faith and Morals, to the succession of historical cultures and to progress in the human sciences.

Since Vatican II this way of thinking has been transferred to catechetics and the formation of the coming generation of Catholics. The children are raised systematically in religious ignorance of the divine Deposit of Faith and Morals, including especially an ignorance of the doctrine of the Faith regarding the Holy Eucharist.

Whatever be the inner situation of belief and unbelief, is there a human factor in this transfer? There is indeed: it is the power of the academic degree. Priests, especially pastors and bishops, often withdraw from the handing on of the Deposit, leaving religious education to persons with professional degrees obtained from colleges and universities imbued with the philosophy which is blind to the transcendent character of the Deposit. Priests feel inferior in what is actually their own field of teaching and do not act on behalf of their own doctrine. This leads quickly to a new kind of religious education which omits and suppresses the sacred Deposit of Faith and Morals. By definition, this approach leaves young Catholics in religious ignorance.


An astute tactic ensues which reveals the malign intelligence which opposes us priests and our Church. A set of political slogans which arose in the French Revolution is brought into play. This politicizes the Catholic religion, reducing it to the level of merely human political and social life. The Modernists call themselves "Liberals." They put themselves forth attractively as forward-looking, personable and in touch with the pastoral needs as they see them of the People of God in these times. Those who hold fast to the Deposit have simply made a different and unfortunate political option. They are dubbed "Conservatives," "Right Wingers" or even "Fanatics." "Jones, you are too conservative for this seminary." "Father, you are too conservative to have that parish." Everything proceeds as if the Christian Revelation never took place; as if that doctrine of Jesus was only his own merely human words, and not the teaching of him who is the transcendent Almighty God. St. Pius X said it accurately in "Pascendi:" they reduce Jesus Christ to the status of an ordinary and mere man. The nature of the Deposit as a set of divine truths standing above all dichotomies of the earthly political arena is never mentioned. Thus those who hold to the Deposit, including the priests, are marginated, pushed out of the mainstream of Catholic life, as it is called, and held out of positions of authority and influence. Humanly speaking the prognosis of the true Faith becomes poor indeed.

Certainly a first step is to exercise discernment regarding the two kinds of theology. One can and should avoid the philosophy of religion as a poison of the mind, above all when giving doctrine to the People of God. The same discernment can be exercised when counseling men on study for the priesthood.

It seems imperative, furthermore, to reject the slogans of politicization. We priests should refuse to accept the terms "liberal," "conservative" and all the rest as inappropriate. Such terms do not apply to the transcendent Deposit of Faith and Morals. It belongs to the higher order of divine truth standing above the entire human scene. Its truth is not relative to the human flux and flow. "My doctrine is not mine but his who sent me." Priests are called upon to explain patiently and charitably, in all good humor, the origin and nature of the divine Deposit which Jesus entrusted to his Apostles and to the priesthood of his Church. The dichotomy of the New Testament is solely that between the "orthodox," persons sound in doctrine, and the "heterodox," those unsound in doctrine. This is the nomenclature on which we need to insist today. "I find it necessary to write to you," says one of those Apostles, "appealing to you to contend for the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude, verse 3). This appeal is perhaps more valid today than anytime in the past life of the Church. If we let them get by with this maneuver of politicization and margination, would we not deserve our fate?

Do we want a litmus test for orthodoxy, soundness in doctrine? Turn to the Holy Eucharist: is the "defined" doctrine of the Catholic Church being professed and practiced? Or turn to Our Lady, the one who overcomes all heresies: is she honored in the distinctive Catholic way? Or turn to communion with the Holy See of St. Peter: is the "Inaestimabile Donum" (April 17, 1980), "Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery," of John Paul II, for example, the norm for the liturgical life here?

There is another positive step, one which calls for courage and leadership. It is the correction of a serious mistake in the pastoral care of souls which has been a corollary of the heresy of Modernism. "It was an initial and grave error," Cardinal Ratzinger writes, speaking for the Holy See, "to suppress the catechism and to declare obsolete the whole idea of catechisms."16 All Catholics need to ponder this position of the Holy See: "The greatest importance must be attached to catechisms published by ecclesiastical authority."17 Why is this? The reason derives from the fact that these catechisms contain the divine Deposit of Faith and Morals in its initial, official and elementary explanation: all four of its components, the Faith in itself and the triple response to it in way of life.


A future-oriented step being taken currently at Rome should be mentioned. It is a conscious effort on the part of a group of younger scholars at the Holy See to recover the approach to the Sacred Scripture which characterized the Fathers of the Church. The Fathers read and studied and used the Bible from within the Church and its Rule of Faith, concentrating primarily on the divine authorship of the Bible and only secondarily on the ministerial human authorship.18

Finally, it may be in order to draw attention to a promising positive step which is being planned at Holy Apostles Seminary. It is a program which will offer the doctorate in catechetics to priests and the laity.19 This will counter that feeling of inferiority for lack of academic degree mentioned above which blocks action on behalf of the Deposit. If even a few priests emerge with such a doctorate, all other priests will be encouraged greatly to stand forth with renewed authority on behalf of what is rightfully theirs, the handing on the divine Deposit by teaching to the Catholic children of the People of God.

Suppose, one may ask, such positive measures prove unsuccessful, at least in our lifetimes? Earthly success is not the determinant, even when it is the life of the Church that is concerned. The Deposit of Faith and Morals brings their holy Redeemer and divine Savior to immortal souls, for eternal life, not earthly life. This Deposit witnesses to Jesus. "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem . . . and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). He was speaking to his Apostles whom he had mandated to teach his Deposit to all nations. Their teaching was to be their witnessing. It is the same today. The Deposit has come into our hands. It witnesses to Jesus in his Lordship when we teach it today. It contains him, furthermore, because it lets the People of God know how to find him really present in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Loyalty to him is the first loyalty to us men of Holy Orders.


1. "The General Catechetical Directory" par. 40. It is reasonable to suppose that this essential structure of the catechetical teaching program came from Jesus himself as mankind's preeminent teacher, and for two reasons. First, great movements in history do not come forth from "committees" and "communities," but from powerful personalities. Secondly, the New Testament offers clear indications. He gave them the Trinitarian form of the baptismal faith (Matt. 28:16-20). It is "de fide definita," DS 1601, and supported by the Gospels, that Jesus himself gave all seven sacraments to his Apostles. He gave them the Our Father with its seven petitions (Matt. 6:9-13); Luke 11:2-4). Finally, he confirmed and fulfilled to them Moses' Ten Commandments (Luke 18:18-20).

2. Paul VI, "Creed of the People of God," par. 3. The Apostles in their New Testament writings make many references to the program of teaching which they were carrying on from Jesus. Space does not permit a study of them here. See F. Prat, S.J., "The Theology of Saint Paul" (Westminster: Newman, 1927), Vol. II, pp. 28-35, "The Apostolic Catechesis."

3. Vatican I, Constitution "Dei Filius," Chapter 4; Denziger-Schonmetzer, no. 3020. See DS 3015 which defines that "there is a twofold order of knowledge," natural and divine revelation. Catechetics is located in this second and higher order.

4. Rite of Episcopal Ordination. That the "Deposit of Faith" is explicitly concerned is even more visible in the official Latin: "Vultis depositum fidei, secundum traditionem inde ab Apostolis in Ecclesia semper et ubique servatam, purum et integrum custodire?" The answer of the ordinand: "Volo." The Vincentian Canon is clear in this Latin, the same Canon which Pope John XXIII cited in his discourse which opened Vatican II.

5. See Vatican II, Constitution on the Church, esp. par. 25.

6. DS 2738.

7. See DS 3020.

8. DS 3043.

9. DS 3458.

10. DS 3459.

11. DS 3462.

12. We priests of the Deposit of Faith and Morals, including the many professors of Scripture among us, are not a pack of "conservatives," the outmoded portion of the priesthood. Our position witnesses to Jesus, Truth Incarnate. It abides. The mind of the Church in these matters, which we make our own, is stated in a series of documents centering on our approach to the Holy Bible. There is the "Providentissimus Deus" of Leo XIII (1893), the "Spiritus Paraclitus" of Benedict XV (1920) and the "Divino Afflante Spiritu" of Pius XII (1943). These contain the positive teaching of the Church on the divine authorship of the Bible and the ministerial relationship to it of the human authorship. For these and related documents see the convenient collection, "Rome and the Study of Scripture," published by the Abbey Press, St. Meinrad, Indiana 47577. Then for study of the specific aberration in this area, helpful for recognizing the problem, there is all the documentation on Father Alfred Loisy and his followers to the present day: the "Pascendi" (1908), the "Lamentabili" (1908) and the Bishop's Oath (1910), all from Pius X. Added to them is the fact of the canonization of St. Pius X (1952), with the homily of Pius XII; and especially the closely-related Encyclical of Pius XII, "Humani generis" (1950).

13. See the Ceneral Catechetical Directory, par. 17, for the four chief forms of this ministry: "the form called evangelization, . . . the catechetical form. . .. the liturgical form . . . and the theological form, that is, the systematic treatment and scientific investigation of the truths of faith."

14. "De Veritate," Q. 14, art. 9, third objection.

15. See S.T., Part 1, Q. 1, art. 3, where he says that "this science of theology does not receive its principles from other sciences; it receives them immediately from God by revelation." In the same place, art. 5, St. Thomas teaches: "Theology does not prove its principles by its own argumentation, because they are the Articles of Faith."

16. Joseph Ratzinger, "Sources and Transmission of the Faith," "Communio" (Spring 1983), p. 18.

17. "The General Catechetical Directory," par. 119.

18. This explicit action is under the leadership of an American priest attached to the Holy See, Msgr. John F. McCarthy. The group publishes an important newsletter, "Living Tradition." To subscribe, and also to obtain back issues, for example, no. 4, "Patristic Exegesis" and no. 9, "The Task of Living Tradition," address: Rev. Msgr. John F. McCarthy, Director; Sedes Sapientiae Study Center; Via Concordia, 1; 00183 Rome, Italy. This recovery of the Patristic approach to the Bible is strongly implied and supported by two recent articles of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: "Sources and Transmission of the Faith," "Communio" (Spring, 1983), pp. 17-34; and "Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis", "Origins" (Feb. 11, 1988) pp. 594-602. One can perhaps discern a sea change beginning in the Church: younger scholars in ever greater numbers will take up research along these lines.

19. For information, address: Very Rev. Francis J. Lescoe, Ph.D., Rector, Holy Apostles Seminary, Cromwell, CT 06146. A set of doctorates is being planned in several of the ministries which have come to the fore in the life of the Church, such as medical ethics and others, including catechetics.