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Faith is more than Assent: Dei Verbum, Chapter One

By Adam Rasmussen, 11 July 2020
Second Vatican Council by Lothar Wolleh. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Whenever we talk about divine revelation, we must also talk about faith, for faith is the human response required by it (DV 5). As I explained in part 1Dei Verbum shifted the Catholic understanding of revelation away from the words on the page to God’s self. Our understanding of faith must change accordingly, away from one of intellectual assent to propositions to the complete giving of oneself to God.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the predominant theological school of Catholic thought was neo-scholasticism. Rooted in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, by the time of the Council it had degraded into a self-enclosed system that was unmoored from the sources of revelation, which had been reduced to proof texts, often removed from their original context. Whereas Protestant fundamentalists equated the Bible’s words to revelation itself, neo-scholastic Catholic theologians were focused on lists of dogmas and doctrines. These lists, complete with the proof texts, were collated into “manuals.” The most important one is still in use, now in its 43rd edition: Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum (Handbook of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations concerning Matters of Faith and Morals). Originally published by Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger in 1854, it is called “Denzinger” and the manual theology it embodied was pejoratively labeled “Denzinger theology” by the “New Theologians” of Vatican II.[1]

Denzinger theology, at its worst, reduces faith to intellectual agreement with hundreds of carefully-crafted propositions.[2] Whereas the Church’s creed—the most basic verbalization of faith—says, “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe in the Holy Spirit,” propositional faith says, “I believe that God is three and one, I believe that Jesus is the incarnation of the Second Person,” and so forth. But intellectual assent to assertions about God is not itself faith. The scriptures themselves say as much: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas 2:19 RSV).

What is faith? Dei Verbum defines faith as the act of obedience “by which a human being commits their whole self to God” (5).[3] This includes “the full yielding of the intellect and will to the revealing God” (Vatican I, Dei filius 3)[4] as well as “freely assenting to the revelation” (5). Vatican II contextualized and filled out many teachings of Vatican I, which defined faith as the act by which we “believe that the things revealed by [God] are true” (Dei filius 3). This definition aligns with the propositional model. Everything in Catholicism is both/and. Vatican II did not reject belief in dogmas and teachings, but it clarified that faith is first and foremost the adherence of a person’s entire being to God, to trust God, to entrust your life to his grace. Pope Benedict articulated this beautifully at the beginning of his first encyclical: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est 1, emphasis added). From this encounter, one then believes that whatever God has revealed is true.

Anyone who has followed what Pope Francis has said about faith, the centrality of the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, and the dangers of ideology should recognize that this teaching of DV is at its root. He has rejected the substitution of dogmatic assent for faith in Jesus:

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary. (Evangelii Gaudium 35)

He grounds this in Vatican II’s insight that dogmas exist within a “hierarchy” in which some are more important than others (Unitatis Redintegratio 11; EG 36). Those dogmas closest to the “basic core” of the Gospel (e.g., the Trinity and Incarnation) are most important. What is this “basic core”? It is “the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (EG 36).

So what about dogmas? We have all met Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, who say that they do not bother with dogmas but just love our Lord. This is a grave mistake, which does not hold up against logical scrutiny. A dogma is, after all, a teaching about God. If we were to dispense with them, we would have to remain absolutely silent about God. We couldn’t even say God exists, as that is also a proposition to which one either gives or withholds consent. My systematic theology teacher, Fr. Joseph Komonchak, once reminded the class that even saying “God is love” (1 John 4:8) is a proposition! Dogmas teach us about the God in whom we have placed our trust, and about his will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it beautifully: “Dogmas are lights that light up the journey of our faith and make it secure” (89).

May all Catholics defend our dogmas, but also may we not fall into the opposite error (as many have) of exaggerating their importance or putting them ahead of the Gospel’s core! Pope Francis is keenly aware of this danger:

In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others.” (Amoris Laetitia 49)

His reference to throwing stones recalls the example of Jesus. When a woman was caught in adultery, a crowd wanted to stone her, in accord with the words of Scripture: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev 20:10 RSV). Jesus responded: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 RSV). Quoting Scripture to kill was not a problem only with the Old Testament. It is no harder to take passages from the New Testament or church documents and fossilize them, making hard stones with which to kill. Those who do this justify themselves by simply repeating, again and again, whatever biblical verse or dogma they seek to “insistently impose.” Those standing around the woman could just as easily have quoted Leviticus 20:10 to Jesus. As St. Paul says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6 NRSV). The spirit of revelation, according to the Church, is God’s love which became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Any attempt to use the words of the Bible or Catholic doctrine contrary to love is a dead letter that kills.

Someone may say: “What you say is new-fangled, politically-correct modernism. True Catholicism is the dogmas!” But the principle I just stated—which comes from Paul and is itself scriptural—was articulated by St. Augustine in one of his greatest works, On Christian Doctrine:

Whoever thinks they have understood the divine scriptures or any part of them in such a way that they do not, by their interpretation, build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, does not yet understand.[5]

Yet fundamentalists see only the words on the page, which tell us that the woman caught in adultery ought to have been killed. Traditionalists see only the dogmas, all neat and tidy, safely classified, and sealed off from the vicissitudes of humanity and the “God of surprises.”[6]

When faith is reduced to doctrines detached from the Gospel and ready at hand to wage war, it becomes ideology. Pope Francis has said this more times than I can count! On September 19, for instance, he was asked about the danger of schism and responded, “A schism is always an elitist state, from ideology detached from doctrine. […] Ideologies enter in the doctrine, and when doctrine slides into ideology there is the possibility of a schism.”[7] This is the source of the current crisis in the Church. Francis’s opponents are ideologues, whose vision of the Church is not Francis’s “field hospital,”[8] but a rigid ideology of dogmas centered on the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. They want nothing less than to overturn the Second Vatican Council, as Archbishop Viganò has now said openly. By rejecting the Council and the teachings of the postconciliar popes, they have invented their own “pseudo-schismatic Christian ways.”[9]

In his daily sermon at Santa Marta’s on October 18, 2018, Pope Francis preached:

Be careful around Christians – be they laity, priests, bishops – who present themselves as so “perfect,” rigid. Be careful. There’s no Spirit of God there. They lack the spirit of liberty [cf. 2 Cor 3:17]. And let us be careful with ourselves, because this should lead us to consider our own life.[10]

Each time he gives this pastoral warning, some Catholics out themselves by saying they are offended! “The pope is attacking faithful Catholics!” But the pope is performing a work of mercy: to instruct the ignorant. He is recalling the “elder brother” (cf. Luke 15:11-32) – and all of us! – to authentic faith.

Dei Verbum teaches us that authentic faith is much more than mere assent to dogmas, important though they be. Faith is the complete giving up of one’s life and self to God, who has revealed himself to us. Prior to being a matter of the intellect, it is a matter of the heart. It is trust in Jesus.

In my next post, I will examine how DV sets forth the dynamic nature of sacred tradition.

[1] Both scholars and Church documents cite it as Denzinger-Schönmetzer (DS). Adolf Schönmetzer, SJ, revised its numbering system in 1963.

[2] There are varying levels of assent, as a system of “notes” evolved to label the various propositions. The highest note was “de fide” (of faith, i.e., a defined dogma), and the lowest “sententia probabilis” (proveable opinion).

[3] On the Vatican website, the first quotation mark for the later Vatican I quotation is misplaced, giving the impression that it was actually Vatican I, not Vatican II, that gave this definition! Translations of Vatican I and II are my own from the Latin. All other Church documents are quoted in their official English translation.

[4] “Yielding” is my translation of obsequium. It is often translated “submission,” but that derives from a different Latin word with a stronger connotation in English than obsequium may suggest. Obsequium derives from sequor, to follow. Another possible translation of obsequium would be “compliance.”

[5] De doctrina Christiana 1,36,40 (my translation): Quisquis igitur Scripturas divinas vel quamlibet earum partem intellexisse sibi videtur, ita ut eo intellectu non aedificet istam geminam caritatem Dei et proximi, nondum intellexit.

[6] Pope Francis, Morning Meditation in the Chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae (5/8/17).

[7] Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis on plane: ‘I am not afraid of schisms. I pray they do not happen.’” America (9/10/19).

[8] Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God: An interview with Pope Francis,” America (9/30/13).

[9] O’Connell, “Francis on Plane,” op. cit.

[10] Adriana Masotti, “Pope at Mass: Be careful around rigid Christians,” Vatican News (10/16/18)

Dr. Rasmussen is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. His research focuses on St. Basil, Origen, and the interface between theology and science in their writings. His current research focuses on Basil and the human body, physiology, and medicine. He blogs at https://chrysologus.blogspot.com/.
With thanks to Where Peter Is where this article originally appeared.

 

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