Perhaps the most important traditional Catholic teaching that received new life at the Second Vatican Council was that of the hierarchy of truths. The Decree on Ecumenism, no. 11, presented the notion that some truths are more central than others.
Being aware of the hierarchy of truths can help us see more clearly the communion in faith that we already have with non-Catholic Christians.
There has long been a “maximalist tendency” among Catholics that leads us to assert that either one holds as true everything the Church teaches or one is totally estranged from the Church. Indeed, this maximalism can be a good thing since one should earnestly desire to be of one mind and heart with the Church. Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation says, “By faith one freely commits oneself entirely to God” (n. 5).
However, maximalism can also prevent us from seeing the forest for the trees. We may end up with a faith distorted by an over-emphasis on peripheral truths and an under-emphasis on that which ought to be central.
Most central in the hierarchy of truths is the divinity of Jesus.
As well, maximalism can lead to an emphasis on our differences with non-Catholic Christians rather than seeing that Christians are essentially united in believing the most important revealed truths – the divinity of Christ, that God is a Trinity and Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Indeed, the ancient Apostles’ and Nicene creeds bear witness to the hierarchy of truths. They do not contain everything the Church teaches – only the most fundamental beliefs. In fact, there is a hierarchy among the sacraments – the Eucharist and Baptism are most central – and even a hierarchy among the books of the Bible – the Gospels have pride of place.
What establishes the hierarchy of truths? According to the Decree on Ecumenism, it is “their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith” (n. 11). And, what is the foundation? “The foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3.11).
In his commentary on the decree, Vatican II theologian Johannes Feiner wrote, “The picture of the Catholic Church as seen by non-Catholic Christians is largely determined by ‘secondary’ or ‘tertiary’ features of Catholic doctrine and similarly of Catholic practice.”
That is, others may view our faith more in terms of the practice of indulgences and the veneration of Mary and the saints than in terms of our fidelity to Jesus and our walking the way of the Beatitudes.
Likewise, the same type of distortion may occur when Catholics look at the faith of other Christians. What we see as central to their faith may not be what is in fact central.
Understanding the truths revealed by Jesus and the apostles in terms of hierarchy, then, enables us to see that all Christians are already united in truth to a great degree. Our core beliefs are shared to a much greater degree with, say Lutherans, Mennonites and Pentecostals than with those who do not believe in Jesus.
If we find something different – that we have more in common with avowed secularists – then perhaps we ought to re-examine what beliefs are in fact central in our lives. Is Jesus truly the centre of my life, or is something else my focus?
Feiner advises us to perform this sort of self-examination. If we become consciously aware of the hierarchy of truths, our thoughts and lives may be transformed by a renewed focus on the core of Christian faith. Through such a focus, our awareness of our mutual links with non-Catholic Christians will grow.
It was Vatican II’s emphasis on the Church as communion, more than as an institution, that made possible the Decree on Ecumenism’s emphasis on the hierarchy of truths.
The pre-conciliar understanding of the Church as a law-making institution was still prevalent among many council fathers. That led Auxiliary Bishop S.A. Leven of San Antonio, Texas, to remark, “There are fathers who speak as though the sole text in Holy Scripture was verse 18 of chapter 16 of the Gospel of Matthew: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.’”
In such an outlook, there would be little room for a hierarchy of truths; being a true Christian could only mean complete obedience to the pope.
However, understanding the Church as communion allows for degrees of communion (Decree on Ecumenism, 3). One is in communion to the extent to which one accepts the doctrine, discipline and structure of the Church.
Perfect communion and full unity of the Church will always be the goal. But when there is dissension and communion is imperfect, that does not mean communion is totally absent. The notion of the hierarchy of truths provides a framework in which to strive toward a unity that grows ever-more perfect.
(Information for this article came from Johannes Feiner’s commentary on the Decree on Ecumenism in Herbert Vorgrimler [editor] Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Volume Two, and from Keys to the Council by Richard Gaillardetz and Catherine Clifford.)