I have trouble with the duty to assent as
it pertains to infallibility.
Related to this issue, I recently came across the phrase demand a conscientious
in the paper by Bishop Joseph
First, on ones duty to believe:
Nevertheless, these seem distinguishable from believing,
as a function of our consciousness — perhaps
a function of our heart, mind, and spirit. This
meaning of belief does not seem subject
to my will — rather it seems mostly involuntary.
This meaning of belief may well often entail understanding which
again is not normally thought of as a function
of the will.
It is for this reason that a duty to assent or duty
to believe are puzzling to me.
Thus, I have wondered if Catholic doctrine means
by this a euphemism for some pretense of
the heart — a willed suppression of content of
one's awareness — when (conscience or one's
internal light) may yet give little discernible
signal or indication.
The rubber hits the road with respect to infallibility
— if it might be taken to imply a moral duty
to believe (for all the reasons above).
The rubber hits the road also with respect to
a few doctrines that I have not yet studied.
For example, I have wondered whether the Immaculate
Conception — even if true — may not need be counted
as dogma or might not need be counted as essential.
Thus, the notion of duty to believe does
embody for me this dilemma.
- Do you have any opinion on this issue?
Can you clarify the duty
to assent versus the duty
to believe as it pertains to papal infallibility? }
Your e-mail touches on an important point:
The Church's infallibility
calls upon us not only to obey the commandments of morality, but also to
believe certain doctrines which the Church teaches.
This is only possible
through faith, so you're right to be exploring the nuances of what faith
At the heart of the matter, we believe various doctrines.
- Some doctrines
can be known by human reason
- other doctrines God has revealed
- yet other doctrines God has revealed directly (formally in
The Church thinks of Divine Revelation as a completed
event which God accomplished in Jesus Christ: it is a deposit of
revelation that is entrusted to the Church to present and explain,
but to which nothing new can be added.
Church teaching includes doctrines of all those three categories. For
example, God exists can be defended on purely philosophical,
rational grounds, without depending on divine revelation. On the other
hand, Jesus Christ is consubstantial with the Father is a doctrine
that we can only know because God has revealed it. The Church has authority
to teach in all of these areas, but the Church's gift of infallibility
applies only to some of them.
We believe doctrines that are revealed by God because God cannot lie or
err. Generally, these are matters that we could not know by unaided human
reason. Even the natural [philosophical/ rational] faith we have is not adequate
to enable us to receive these truths, so we need divine assistance.
This is what we speak of when we say that Faith is a gift. God gives this Faith,
a theological virtue, to us: it is a supernatural power to accept and hold
these divinely Revealed Truths.
We ask for it prior to our Baptism and He
gives this to us in Baptism, along with the virtues of Hope and Charity so we hold the doctrines that God has revealed, with the power of Faith
which He gives us and we hold them entirely because we believe Him. To
willfully reject such a doctrine is to harm our personal relationship with
In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, section 25, the
Council teaches about the response that believers owe to the various types
of doctrine, which can be distinguished by how they are taught:
- when the bishops in an ecumenical council or the Pope invoking his
charism of infallibility present definitions to settle disputed
matters of faith and morals, these definitions must be adhered
to with the submission of faith. Notice that the highest authority
and the supernatural gift of faith are both invoked here.
- when the bishops, as a group, united with the Pope, are in agreement
on one position as definitively to be held, they proclaim
Christ's doctrine infallibly. Here we are dealing with doctrines
that are not necessarily divinely revealed themselves, but that are implied
by revealed doctrines.
- when the bishops individually teach doctrine in communion with the
Pope, they are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and
Catholic truth and the faithful are to accept their teaching
and adhere to it with a religious assent. Notice that a less formal
level of authority is invoked, and the response of the faithful is something
called religious assent; the Church does not invoke the supernatural
virtue of divine faith here, and does not say that infallibility is involved
in an individual bishop's teaching.
When one becomes a Catholic as an adult, one expressly takes on the commitment
to hold all the doctrines which, the Church teaches, are divinely revealed.
(If you attended an Easter Vigil service where converts were received,
you may have heard this question addressed to the candidates for Confirmation.)
In writing this, I referred to a helpful article in the 1913 Catholic
Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of
the Second Vatican Council,
is online at the Vatican or EWTN web site:
This whole explanation of mine is a bit off the cuff, so:
- I hope this
- I hope I've got it correct, because this is subtle stuff!
Anyway, I'm sure my colleagues will add more info.
Yours in Christ,
— Richard Chonak
This is very generous, thoughtful, and helpful but I must add a clarification.
It has to do whether the Church purports that there is a duty to
believe cognitively, where believe would mean (more
than trust) but to hold a proposition firmly and supportively in mind.
The problem for me is that I have never (in my recollection) experienced
this type of belief as volitional, that is, strictly subject to my will.
I don't think anyone has, except perhaps Saints,
but that is another question.
That is, I usually don't decide what to believe; my discernment (consciousness) decides for me. This type of believing (cognitional) seems
a function of some things beyond my volition (beyond my will), such as
time and discernment (where discernment I regard as a special gift from
I don't think I can decide what to believe in the same way as I decide
to cheat, or not, on my taxes, something clearly subject to my will.
I fear that the Church — or my Catholic peers or future spouse — will
(or think they should) count what I describe: asking for time for discernment,
In other words, I fear Church people may count as sinful this
"I don't know for sure what I believe (yet), but I honor Church
wisdom, and seek to know more."
I send my heartfelt thanks for your patience and interest. I hope my questions
are not offensive in any way.
Hi, Andy —
Thanks for your note.
As a convert myself, I appreciate the position you
find yourself in, It's a classic problem in which we experience the gap
between the neutral stance of a cautious truth-seeking inquirer and the
stance of the believer in a revealed dogma.
Personally speaking, I am confident
that the living, eternal God loves your desire for reality and for truth,
since they show that you love Him already. He is patient with us, so you
be patient with yourself.
Here's what helped me while I was on the journey toward the
Catholic faith. There were times when I would hear about some point of doctrine,
and occasionally I'd think that the teaching was rather abstruse. I didn't
have reason to reject it, but didn't perceive any obvious reason to embrace
it. I thought it was unconnected to anything important.
- Why would the Church
care about it so much as to make it mandatory for all believers?
- And what
reason could the Church possibly have for even adopting this teaching formally
in the first place?
Often, I would have to say simply:
"Well, I can't really settle this
for myself intellectually at present, but this is part of the Catholic
package. If I take the step of accepting the teaching authority of the
Catholic Church as Jesus Christ's presence in the world, then this lesser
point will come along with it."
Over time, I continued my study, reading, and pondering, and started to
have joyful discoveries in which I realized the implications of various
- Sometimes I would recognize how various points of doctrine
were related to each other, and really indispensable to each other.
I read about the implications of a teaching and recognized that it was
telling us something simply glorious about God or man or both.
yet embracing these teachings as True, but I came to experience them as
the Good and the Beautiful.
It means a lot to me.