Hierarchy of truths

Question: I am a Catholic and accept that Mary was born sinless and assumed into heaven. But I have difficulty with the Church’s position that Catholics who do not believe these teachings are considered “anathema” or spiritually dead. Is not belief in the saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection the most important aspect of Catholic belief? 

— Michael, Kalamazoo, Mich. 

Answer: You are certainly correct in saying that belief in the saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most important aspect of Catholic faith. The Second Vatican Council spoke about a “hierarchy of truths,” by which it meant that the various Catholic doctrines and beliefs are not all of the same standing, but that there is a kind of layering of what Catholics believe, so that the person and ministry of Christ stand at the center and everything else radiates out from there. 

The Marian doctrines of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception are essential to Catholic belief, but they depend, for their meaning and significance, on faith in Christ, salvation and the Church. When Vatican II wrote about Mary, it did so by constant reference to Christ’s saving power and the way this is mediated to us through the Church, Christ’s living Body. 

If a Catholic were to take a stand against the doctrines on Mary, he or she could not claim to be in perfect communion with the Church. And if he or she were to push it far enough (by writing or lecturing on the matter) it is likely that Church authority would intervene. 

However, it is unlikely today that a proponent of positions contrary to Catholic faith would be declared “anathema” (cut off from the communion of the Church) or excommunicated. In recent times, Church authority has not acted in this manner, but has publicly challenged contrary theological positions or stated that the proponents of such positions cannot teach in Catholic institutions. 

Declaring someone “spiritually dead” is certainly beyond the competence of Church authority. The fundamental condition of someone’s soul is a matter between God and the individual. Catholics who do not believe in the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception generally have no malicious motivations. They are more likely to lack sufficient knowledge on the matter.  

I advise any Catholic who has difficulty with the Marian doctrines to read the little book by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI —titled “Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief” (Ignatius Press, $9.95). 

Answering questions 

Question: What criteria do you have for answering questions you receive? Do you ever edit or change questions? 

Composite question 

Answer: The criteria by which I choose which queries to answer are the following: the question must be substantial, not one about what might be considered ecclesiastical trivia (who is the patron saint of clowns?); the matter of the question must be one likely to interest a large number of readers; the question must be one to which I know the answer (I don’t know everything, believe it or not; I often have to do research), and some questions (especially on complex medical-moral matters) are a little outside my competence, and they are difficult to summarize. Do I edit questions? Frequently, for clarity and brevity. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.