Rev. William G. Most
The Hierarchy of Truths and the Truth
"It is reasonable to ask whether the hierarchy of truths leads us toward a
particular practical decision, namely, that this disputed question is not
an insuperable roadblock on the path to unity.... if the criterion of the
hierarchy of truths cannot be invoked in a dispute that is so marginal...
realistically is there any dispute in which the criterion could be
The words come from the Rev. John. P. Meier, Professor of Scripture at the
Catholic University of America. He gave them in his address as president of
the Catholic Biblical Association in August 1991. His address was printed
in Catholic Biblical Quarterly of January 1992. The topic: the perpetual
virginity of Mary, or, the Brothers and Sisters of Jesus. In his more
recent book, A Marginal Jew -- guess who it is - Meier devotes many pages
to trying to show that Jesus had four blood brothers and at least two
sisters besides. This book has been praised lavishly by Jews, Protestants
and Catholics. Joseph Fitzmyer S. J. , Professor Emeritus of Catholic
University said that Meier asks all the right questions, and gets all the
He says that this truth of Our Lady's perpetual virginity is not a central
truth, and so if the hierarchy of truths lets us do anything at all, we
should be able to drop it in accepting Protestants into the Church.
Of course, Fr. Meier is not alone. Avery Dulles S.J. is a distinguished
voice to say the same sort of thing. In his presidential address to the
Catholic Theological Society of America in 1976 he said: "The Council
worked powerfully to undermine the authoritarian theory and to legitimate
dissent." In 1974 at a convocation in honor of a retiring Episcopalian
bishop he suggested that the Church need not insist that converts accept
the definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption."(Origens
Dec. 26, 1974).
So we do need to find a way out of this mess. Where will we find it?. The
new catechism will help. It did mention this hierarchy of truths, but it
nowhere hinted at what Meier and Dulles proposed. Rather, it insisted that
there is more than one level of Church teaching.
There was an actual plot in the Theological Commission at Vatican II to cut
down the power of the Pope. For that purpose, the plotters had designed
several lines to work into chapter 3 of Lumen gentium. Naturally, one of
the plotters had written out what he wanted to do. But not naturally - it
was the Holy Spirit protecting the Church - the plotter lost the paper, and
it was picked up by a sound Bishop, who took it to Pope Paul VI. He
literally wept when he read it. As a result, we now have what is marked
"Preliminary Explanatory Note" at the end, rather than at the start of
Lumen gentium. It carefully counters, point by point, the very things the
plotters had tried to put over.
At times we hear screams today saying that the Pope has gone against
Vatican II by not consulting the Bishops on something. Normally he does
consult. But even if he does not, the new catechism, in #880, says: "The
Roman Pontiff, in virtue of his role as Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the
whole Church, has full power, supreme and universal, which he can always
exercise freely." That is without consulting anyone. It applies both to
teaching and to commands. He could even issue a solemn definition entirely
on his own. Actually, He does consult. The last two definitions, which
Dulles wanted to be able to set aside for Protestants, in spite of
appearances , were done in a collegial way. Before giving the definition of
the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and of the Assumption in 1950, the Popes
in each case consulted the bishops by mail. But even if he had omitted
that, the definitions would be fully valid.
Sadly, not a few Catholics who consider themselves orthodox, fall into the
error of saying that if a thing is not defined, it is free matter: we can
take it or leave it as we will. Not so, says the new catechism, echoing
Vatican II. in # 891 we read: "The Roman Pontiff chief of the college [of
Bishops] actually enjoys this infallibility when, as supreme shepherd and
teacher of all the faithful, in charge of confirming his brothers in the
faith, proclaims by a definitive act, a point of doctrine on faith or
Before continuing, let us note that word definitive. It means a teaching
that is presented as final, with no change possible. But there is nothing
in Scripture or Tradition that specifies what wording the Pope must use in
order to make a teaching definitive. All that is needed is that in some
way, whatever way he may choose, he makes clear that a teaching is
definitive. So this section of the new catechism does not add the words "ex
cathedra". Rather, it refers to LG #25.
Now Vatican II in that #25 provides us with a very large example of when
things can be infallible without the use of the special form of a
definition: "Although individual bishops do not have the prerogative of
infallibility, they can yet teach Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is
true even when they are scattered around the world, provided that, while
maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with the successor of
Peter, they concur in a teaching as the one which must be definitively
held." Again the key word is definitive. No special way need be chosen to
make that clear, provided that in some way it is made clear.
Hence the catechism adds, repeating the same thought: "The infallibility
promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops when it
exercises its supreme Magisterium in union with the successor of Peter,
especially during a general Council." We note the word "especially." For
even things not done in a general council can be infallible, under the
conditions we have just seen in the quotations above, namely, when the
Bishops remain united with each other and with the Pope and then, even when
scattered around the world, they present to the people truths as
definitive, that is, flatly, as part of the belief of the Church.
A very special case of definitive teaching was pointed out by Pius XII in
his Encyclical Humani generis of 1950: "Nor should one think that the
things taught in encyclical letters do not demand assent, on the plea that
in them the Popes do not use the supreme teaching authority. These things
are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, in regard to which it is
also correct to say: "He who hears you, hears me." Now of course, that
promise of Christ cannot fail. So such things are infallible, even when not
given in the solemn ceremony of a definition. Such things can be found even
in Encyclicals . Of course, not everything in an Encyclical meets these
requirements. Hence Pius XII went on to clarify: "If the supreme pontiffs
in their acta expressly pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is
obvious to all that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same
pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a matter open for discussion
among theologians." If it is not open to discussion, it is of course
definitive, and then it falls under the promise of Christ, "He who hears
you hears me."
Someone will ask: How can this be? The answer is that all that is required
for something to be infallible is that it be taught definitively. But the
things described by Pius XII are taught definitively. So what he said was
not any new teaching; it was a repetition of what the Church has always
done and believed.
Some have thought that a Council would have to use the formula: "Si quis
dixerit... anathema sit," in order to make something infallible. The same
persons thought then that only things in the Canons, the Si quis dixerit
sections would be infallible, while the capitula, the bordering sections
could not be. But Pius XII in his great Scriptural Encyclical, Divino
afflante Spiritu, of 1943, spoke of a statement from Vatican I as a solemn
definition, even though not given in a Canon: "In our day Vatican Council
I... declared that these same books of Scripture must be considered 'as
sacred and canonical' by the Church' not only because they contain
revelation without error, but because... they have God as their author. '
But when Catholic authors, contrary to this solemn definition of Catholic
doctrine... had dared to restrict the truth of Holy Scripture to matters of
faith and morals... our predecessor... Leo XIII... rightly and properly
refuted those errors" (EB 538. Cf. DS 3006).
What emerges here? Vatican I had taught that God is the Author of
Scripture, and that hence all of Scripture is free of error. Pius XII told
us that this teaching of Vatican I was a solemn definition, even though not
put in the usual wording for such a definition. All that was needed was
what we have been speaking of, namely, that it make clear that a teaching
is presented as definitive. So any wording that will make that fact clear,
that a teaching is definitive, suffices for an infallible teaching.
Incidentally, when something is taught repeatedly on the ordinary
magisterium level, that very repetition makes clear that it is intended as
In passing, let us notice the remarkable error of the New Jerome Biblical
Commentary on p. 1169, which thinks that the Church had as it were turned
the corner at Vatican II, so as to let us think that Scripture could
contain errors of all kinds: in science, in history, even in religion. Only
things necessary for salvation would be infallible The writer of that
passage was strangely dull. He did not see that Vatican II itself in the
very passage to which he appealed, that is DV #11, had given a footnote
sending us to that solemn definition of Vatican I. The same author insisted
elsewhere that Job 14:13 ff. raised the possibility of an afterlife, then
denied it. He even added that for someone to try to explain away his claim
would be an "unmitigated disaster."
To sum up what we have achieved thus far. The Pope can even define acting
all alone. He can do it also with a Council. What is required is no set
form of wording - all that is required is that in some way he makes clear
that the teaching is definitive. Then it is infallible.
But there is still more: The catechism explains in # 889: "To maintain the
Church in the purity of the faith transmitted by the Apostles, Christ
willed to confer on His Church a participation in His own infallibility,
that of Him who is the Truth. By the 'supernatural sense of the faith' the
People of God, adheres indefectibly to the faith' under the guidance of the
living Magisterium of the Church." This repeats what Vatican II said in LG
#12: "The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy
One, cannot err in matters of belief." In other words, if the whole Church,
people as well as Pastors, has ever accepted something as revealed, that
cannot be in error. This is often called passive infallibility. Imagine how
many things it covers, e.g., the whole Church from the start has believed
there are angels. So those who deny or doubt their existence, deny not just
some ordinary teaching, but one that is infallible.
Could we then deny the perpetual virginity of Mary as Meier proposes? Of
course not. Besides more solemn things, the Church has taught and believed
it for centuries, already in some of the earliest creeds, which speak of
her as "ever Virgin" aei parthenos.
In passing, Meier shows strange dullness. The Acts of the Apostles in
chapter 15 shows that James "the brother of the Lord" was still alive and
taking part in the council of Apostles held in 49 A.D. That was about 20
years after the death of Jesus. Why then did Jesus not entrust His Mother
to the care of this living son, if he were such? And the ancient Rabbis had
a strong tradition, starting with Philo, that Moses, after his first
encounter with God, never again had sex with his wife. Would they then say
that she who had carried God in her womb for 9 months would be less than
Moses? Or that Joseph the just man would be less? Meier seems happy to say
that even though Hebrew ah, which we translate brother, covered many kinds
of relatives, since Hebrew was very poor in such words, yet Greek in which
the New Testament is written, does have the words. Therefore, says Meier:
Greek Adelphos must mean blood brother. But Meier has missed so many
things. So often various parts of the NT cannot be understood unless we ask
what is the Hebrew in the mind of the writer. Thus when Jesus tells us we
must hate our parents (Lk 14:26; contrast wording of Mt 10:37), we have to
think of the Hebrew usage - which, lacking degrees of comparison, would
speak of hate vs love instead of loving more or less. St. Paul often uses
the Greek word for justice or righteousness, but it never has the pagan
Greek meaning of the virtue that gets one to give all what is coming, no
more or less - no, it has the meaning of the Hebrew sedaqah - and even that
requires further study of the OT Hebrew usage to avoid the sad mistake of
Luther about its meaning.
We have been speaking of things that are definitive. Even more surprising,
in a way, is this statement from the # 892 in the new catechism - which
really is not new, just echoing things from previous teaching, such as LG
#25: "Divine assistance is still given to the successors of the Apostles,
teaching in communion with the successor of Peter when, without arriving at
an infallible definition, and without pronouncing in a definitive manner,
it [the council] proposes in the exercise of the ordinary magisterium a
teaching which helps to better understand revelation on faith and morals.
The faithful are obliged to 'give a religious assent of their spirit'
which, while different from the assent of faith, yet extends it."
We hope Charles Curran is listening. Not only things taught as definitive,
but even things not taught that way require even internal assent of the
mind. With infallible statements, the assent is based on the virtue of
faith; with noninfallible things it is based on the virtue of religion. But
how can one be required to give any kind of internal assent to something
that is explicitly noninfallible? Very simply. Human life is necessarily
structured that way. Suppose we come to the table for the next meal, and
note some food which came from a can. Someone asks: Did they send that food
to a lab to have it checked for Botulism, a very deadly form of food
poisoning? Someone says No. Then: Do you expect me to stake my life on the
noninfallible assurance that this is safe to eat? He would be right, but a
bit odd, to say the least. We cannot send every can at each meal to a lab.
Or again, in a criminal court, the judge usually gives the jury final
instructions that include this: To find the defendant guilty, you must see
that that is proved beyond reasonable doubt. - But it need not exclude
every tiny doubt. Historically, to adhere to nondefinitive statements of
the Church will result in less errors per lifetime than will be found in
cans of food or in a criminal court.
Another most basic statement also comes from the new catechism, which shows
us the very basis for believing the magisterium. It tell us as early as
#108 that Catholicism is not a "religion of the book." Protestantism is:
they claim to depend on Scripture alone, with the incomprehensible weakness
that they have no means at all of proving which books are inspired and part
of Scripture. Therefore, logically, although they want to be a religion of
the book, they cannot be sure what things belong to the book!. Even less
solid is Islam, which also depends on a book. But they say Mohammed went
into a cave, had revelations, wrote them down -- including some
contradictions. But there is no checking at all on whether he really did
have revelations. And for certain, he never even claimed to work any
miracle at all.
But Catholicism, in contrast, is not a religion of the book. Why? Because
we depend not on the Bible alone, but more basically, on the ongoing
teaching of the Church. Protestantism logically would presuppose that Jesus
told His Apostles: Write some books - get copies made - pass them out -
tell people to figure them out for themselves. Of course that was
unworkable. And they have to claim that Scripture is entirely clear -- a
belief that contradicts Scripture, for the Second Epistle of St. Peter, in
3: 16, speaking of the Epistles of St. Paul, the very place Luther claimed
to find his doctrine, are "hard to understand, which the unlearned and the
unstable twist to their own destruction". Anyone who has wrestled with St.
Paul knows how true that is. Some of the major commentators on St. Paul
simply admit they cannot make sense of some things in Paul. Others try to
make sense, but actually fail.
The new technique of Form and Redaction Criticism helps us to see that we
are not a religion of the book. It builds on the belief - a true one - that
the Gospels developed in three stages: 1)the words and actions of Jesus -
which He would of course adapt to the current audience; 2)the way the
Apostles and others at first preached what He did and said - again, we
would expect them to adapt the wording, while being entirely faithful to
the ideas; 3)some individuals within the Church, moved by the Holy Spirit,
wrote down not all, but some part of this original preaching. That became
the Gospels. It is evident, the Church has something more basic than the
Gospels, namely, its own ongoing teaching. So we see why we are not a
religion of the book.
Even radical critics will admit nearly all of what we have just said. The
place they will balk is at step two. They do not like to speak of the
Apostles. They rather dream of a headless community, and further, one that
cares little for the truth. R. Bultmann, that prince of eisegesis, said
that what he called the Controversy Dialogues were creations of the Church.
That is, one group in the Church wanted to hold a position, but had no text
of Jesus to support it. Another had a different position, and they too had
no text to support it. But no problem: each side just made up something. So
they were firing imaginary bullets at each other.
John P. Meier over and over again in his book, A Marginal Jew, insists that
the first community was "creative", just made things up. Although he is
meticulous in his demand for evidence for things in general, when he came
to this point, all care went to the winds: never once does he offer a shred
of evidence for that alleged creativity.
The easiest answer to him is to get a copy of the Letter of St. Ignatius of
Antioch to the Romans. He was the third Bishop of Antioch, Peter the first.
Ignatius was shipped to Rome to be eaten by the animals - he was eaten,
around 107 A.D. In that letter he tells the Christians in Rome: in case
some of you might have influence with the authorities and could get me off
- please do not. I want to die for Christ. - So now, let us get a xerox of
that letter and head for the zoo and go to the lions' den, and read it
there, asking ourselves: How much is this man just making up?
We not only are not a religion of the book, we are not a religion that
rests firmly on Cloud 9. Bultmann boasted that St. Paul had taken away all
security from us by teaching justification by faith, without any merits.
Bultmann wanted to go Paul one better: he said we should have no support at
all for our faith. We just decide to believe, and then leap up onto Cloud
No, the same St. Peter who warned us about the difficulty of the Epistles
of St. Paul also told us in I Peter 3:15: "Always be ready to give an
account of the faith that is in you.
That is something no other church or sect, whether or not it be a religion
of the book, can do. We can do it, but sadly, most Catholics do not know
how to do it.
To explain it fully would take a semester's course. But let us spend about
10 minutes on a thumb-nail sketch of the process.
We begin with the Gospels. Of course, we do not yet think of them as sacred
or inspired. They are, but that still needs to be proved. So for the
present, we look on them simply as documents from ancient times. No one
could doubt that.
We need to know only three things about the writers of the Gospels. We need
not know their names, though we think we do. But only three things matter:
1)Whoever they were, they were highly intent on getting the truth about
Jesus - for the obvious reason they knew their eternal fate depended on it.
2)They had ample chance to get the facts. It will not do so say that
Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Perhaps they were. But there was an
unfortunate habit in vogue then: a man might write a book and for a pen-
name choose the name of some famous person. So they might have chosen
Matthew or John, less likely they would pick Mark or Luke.
John P. Meir, again, insists that the first Gospel, which he thinks was
Mark, was written about 40 years after the death of Jesus. He implies that
we cannot be sure the writer could get the facts at so late a date. But
Meier did not do his homework. There were plenty of sources around. First,
Pope Clement I, elected probably either in 88 or 92 - though some would
push the date even earlier - wrote a letter to Corinth c. 95, which we
have. In it, he says that Peter and Paul were of our own generation. Now if
we do our numbers, this is obvious. Clement as we said, was elected in 88
or 92. Peter and Paul probably died in 66 or 67. So Clement must have heard
Peter and Paul preach. What prime sources for information about Jesus!.
We already mentioned St. Ignatius of Antioch. As we said, he came from
Antioch where Peter had been Bishop not long before, where Paul returned so
many times in between his mission expeditions. Traditions about Christ were
plentiful and strong in Antioch. And we get a lot of data about Jesus from
the seven letters of Ignatius.
We might mention, among others, also Quadratus, the first Greek apologist.
He wrote his apology around 123. In it he said that in his day there were
still some alive who had been cured or raised from the dead by Jesus. Now
we would not have to push the time to 123. But it would easily cover the
period 80-90, the years in which most leftists think Matthew and Luke
But even without the sources we have just mentioned, consider this: we
think of teenagers who were present at the public preaching of Jesus. Give
them another 50 years, and they will be age 65. Not so many lived to that
age then as now, yet a good number did. At age 65 they would be at the year
80, the very time the leftists think Matthew and Luke wrote.
So we have seen two of the three things needed in the Evangelists, namely,
a desire to get the truth about Jesus, for the sake of their eternal fate,
and the many places they could find the truth. The third need is
objectivity. There is a saying: There is no such a thing as an
uninterpreted report. There is much truth in this, it is true in many
cases. But it does not apply to everything. There are some things so simple
in their structure that there is simply no room for subjectivity to enter
in. For example, we think of the time a leper stood before Jesus asking to
be healed. He said: I will it. Be healed. - Now the structure of this
event, as we said, leaves no room for subjectivity or distortion.
These are then the chief points needed to show us that it is possible to
get from the Gospels at least a few very simple truths about Jesus.
With this basis, we go to phase two, in which we look for and find just six
very simple facts about Jesus.
First, there was a man named Jesus. It is evident all over the Gospels. We
get it also from the pagan historian Tacitus, who in his Annals says Jesus
was executed under Pontius Pilate in the time of Emperor Tiberius.
Second, we see -- it is obvious all over the Gospels - that He claimed to
be sent from God. We did not use the word prophet , for that is a complex
word in Scripture. But in any culture people will understand if we speak of
someone sent from God.
Thirdly, He did enough to prove He was that, by way of miracles. But
miracles alone are not enough: there needs to be a tie between a miracle
and the claim, such as there was when the paralytic was let down through
the roof, and Jesus forgave the man's sins. The Scribes growled, saying
only God can forgive sins. Jesus read their minds, and called them on it:
What is easier to say: Sins are forgiven, or: Take up your bed and go. He
cured the man to prove He had forgiven sins. This requirement of faith in
Him for a miracle shows all over the Gospels. Yes, some foolish writers
such as the NJBC say He consistently refused to appeal to a miracle to
prove His claims. But then they give 6 references. Many will look at the
list and think they have it proved. But we need to go through the list and
see for ourselves. They are all vain and foolish. For example He refused to
work a miracle to amuse Herod; He refused to come down from the cross. They
other passages referred to are equally empty. So if that is the best the
opposition can do, it is not worth a look.
Fourth and fifth are things we would naturally expect, namely, in the
crowds He had a smaller group, namely the Twelve. He spoke to them more,
and told them to continue His teaching. Obviously a messenger from God
would do that, and the Gospels describe Him doing it.
Sixth and finally, He promised God would protect their teaching, e.g., He
said: "He who hears you hears me". He said the same thing several times in
various words. This is not hard to suppose, once we know what sort of
person He was, a messenger from God with such credentials that He could
even forgive sins and work countless miracles.
So now, after seeing these six simple facts, what have we before us? We see
a group or church, commissioned to teach by a man God sent, and promised
protection on their teaching. Then it is not only intellectually possible,
but inescapable to believe what they tell us, even if later recipients of
the commission might not be all they should be.
This group or church can tell us that the documents we used are inspired -
this is the only possible way to know that. It can tell us that this
messenger is divine. To find it this way is easier than fighting our way
through the maze of texts which both sides threw at each other in the 50
years of the Arian debates.
We still did not mention a Pope. We could argue our way through Matthew 16,
and would even find Protestant allies in doing so. But it is much easier to
just ask this group or Church: Is there a Pope? Yes. What powers does he
have? They can tell us. Early church history is replete with cases where
this authority was recognized.
In addition, with our simple process, we have a bypass around the quibbles
of the leftists, who put their finger down on so many spots in Scripture
and ask how we can prove it really happened. We need only the 6 very simple
things to establish the teaching commission of the Church. Then we have a
means of getting the answers we need.
So we have proved there is a magisterium. And that Magisterium can tell us
so many things. Among others, it can tell us that even though some truths
are closer to the center of the hierarchy of truths than others, yet all
those presented to us by a divinely protected Magisterium must be believed.
So yes, there is a hierarchy of truths -- but it can never lead us to go
against the hierarchy of the Church.