What does it mean to assent based on faith?

While I was still undergoing the conversion process I had a lot of questions about particular doctrines, which I wasn’t sure I agreed with because I wasn’t sure I understood. So I would make appointments with the local pastor to hash them out.

One day I made an appointment and said, “You know I’m pretty much convinced that the Church is the true one. The only thing still holding me back is the Marian doctrines. [I had a Protestant roommate at the time, who you might say was pulling me in another direction.] Now if you could just explain this and this to my satisfaction I might be ready to join …”

The pastor interrupted me and said basically, “You know, I could spend weeks trying to answer all your difficulties. But the decision to become a Catholic isn’t based on the Church’s having satisfactory answers to a thousand individual questions. The decision is based on a single, core belief: That the Catholic Church was founded by Christ to preach the Gospel and to administer the sacraments in his name. Once you believe that, you have satisfactory grounds for believing everything that it teaches: You believe based on its authority, which in turn is based on your faith in Christ.

“You are trying to find a way to believe in the Church’s doctrines before assenting to the authority of the Church that teaches them, as if belief in the Church’s teachings came before belief in its authority. This is backwards: We believe because we are taught by God (through the Church), who can neither deceive nor be deceived; we don’t believe the Church’s doctrines apart from faith in its authority to teach. If you were to enter the Church with that attitude, your beliefs would never be settled because they would be based not on faith but on your own reason.”

Or as St. Augustine said, we don’t understand that we may believe, we believe that we may understand.

It was on this understanding that I made the decision to become Catholic. So yes, there have been teachings of the Church that didn’t make sense to me at one time. And even now, if left to my own devices, I might not draw the conclusion that birth control, for example, is immoral. But since I made the act of the will by which I placed my faith in the Church’s authority to teach in Christ’s name, I have not had any difficulty giving my full assent to the Church’s formal magisterial teachings.

Here is a passage of Cardinal Newman’s that I think is apropos:

[A] child’s mother might teach him to repeat a passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the meaning of a particular line, such as ‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’ or ‘Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,’ she might answer him, that he was too young to understand it yet, but that it had a beautiful meaning, as he would one day know: and he, in faith on her word, might give his assent to such a proposition,-not, that is, to the line itself which he had got by heart, and which would be beyond him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good [based on his mother's telling him so].

[U]nless he did assent without any reserve to the proposition [told him by his mother] that lucern was food for cattle, or to the accuracy of the botanical name and description of it, he would not be giving an unreserved assent to his mother’s word ….

It is indeed plain, that, though the child assents to his mother’s veracity, without perhaps being conscious of his own act, nevertheless that particular assent of his has a force and life in it which the other assents have not, insomuch as he apprehends the proposition, which is the subject of it, with greater keenness and energy than belongs to his apprehension of the others. Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings.

Grammar of Assent, Chapter 2

So: Is the Church your mother, or not?

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7 thoughts on “What does it mean to assent based on faith?

  1. Yet Newman himself was under suspicion in Rome for some 20 years….Yet he remained faithful and became a Cardinal. Again, my question about the Church teaching that the earth was the center of the universe…The Church taught geocentrism. Pius V had stated in four separate places of
    his 1566 Tridentine catechism that geocentrism was true. The Church Fathers were in consensus on the truth of geocentrism. Thomas Aquinas and all the medieval theologians taught geocentrism. Scripture was replete with references to a moving sun and a stationary earth. Assent was required of a falsehood. Physical fact proved tradition to be erronious. Galileo was on to something. I won’t jump on the bandwagon of poor persecuted Galileo, because that is much overblown. I also agree that it was not “infallible teaching”. The fact remains, the Church was in error. The question would be, how would one handle this correctly. Does one publicly assent to something one knows is untrue, or does one denounce the untruth?
    The example of Newman, as well as Congar, Karl Rahner,John Courtney Murray and others suggest that one gives what could be called a conditional assent to the authority of the Church while continuing to prayerfully discern and explore the idea in disagreement.

  2. Brian:

    I don’t know about Newman being “under suspicion” for 20 years, nor what that has to do with my argument.

    Regarding geocentrism, that’s a different animal. It was an issue of science, in other words, of discovering things that were not previously known. The Fathers universally interpreted the earth as being in the center of the universe, not because they had weighed the evidence on both sides and found heliocentrism wanting, but because the authors of the scriptures (like everyone else at the time) interpreted it that way; and as far as they knew there was no reason to doubt it. They were not insisting on geocentrism as opposed to heliocentrism, as if they were matters in controversy which they had carefully weighed. There simply was no controversy about it in their day.

    In order for the Church’s teaching on geocentrism to be analogous to its teaching on priestly ordination, what you would have to argue is something like this: “The Church at one time made the mistake of assuming that scientific matters could be decided by reference to the scriptures, as if the scriptures were a scientific treatise. Due to the Galileo controversy (among other things), we now know that that was a mistake. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to priestly ordinations. This time let’s make sure we have all the data before committing ourselves to a position on the matter.”

    But priestly ordination is not a question of science. It’s not a matter where we’re making the mistake of judging scientific matters based on scripture. We already know what a man is and what a woman is and what a priest is, and have known it since the Church was founded. We do not now possess new knowledge which forces us to reconsider the Church’s teaching.

    There is no plausible reason for worrying that someday the Church might make a discovery about men or women or ordination that will make its previous teaching obviously false, and make us all slap our foreheads and realize that priestly ordination was Galileo all over again.

    What advocates of female ordination are hoping for, is not that the Church will learn something new. What they’re hoping is that the Church’s *attitudes* will change. In other words, seeing what was previously considered false as true, MERELY BY THE CHANGING OF ATTITUDES. That is *not* what occurred with regard to geocentrism. What overthrew geocentrism was new facts that were discovered due to the invention of the telescope, among other things, which eventually became irrefutable. There is no reason to expect that new facts will be forthcoming which will affect the issue of priestly ordination.

    I submit that when doctrine changes merely because attitudes have changed — not information but merely how we *feel* about the information we possess — then we will truly have a mess on our hands.

  3. I’m sorry, my hastily written comments led to a comparison I wasn’t making. i wasn’t suggesting that women’s ordination is somehow analagous, as you note one has to do with science, the other does not. However, the Church did teach that geocentrism was Truth, and it condemned heliocentrism. It expected people as a matter of faith, to accept it’s teaching, which was proven wrong. The explanation being the fount of revelation and Truth, because of limitations inherent to them because of their humanity, they did not have the correct understanding or knowledge at the time, and it took someone dissenting (Galileo) to show them the error of what they proclaimed as “Truth”. Thie understanding was broadened.

    “I submit that when doctrine changes merely because attitudes have changed — not information but merely how we *feel* about the information we possess — then we will truly have a mess on our hands.” ABSOLUTELY! It isn’t about popular opinion. I hold that God through the Holy Spirit could someday show the Church that they are not correct in their understanding of the role of women. It wouldn’t have to be something new, it would be a deepening or broadening of understanding. But it will not be because a bunch of women a a few rogue priests in the US hold bogus ordinations.

    My reference to Newman and the others has to do with dissent. All were seen as dissenting, or were under the cloud of suspicion, and were investigated by the Church, and were accused/suspected of being not “orthodox” but all were ultimately found to be correct and orthodox after all.

  4. Brian:

    You write, “I’m sorry, my hastily written comments led to a comparison I wasn’t making. i wasn’t suggesting that women’s ordination is somehow analagous, as you note one has to do with science, the other does not.”

    I realize that wasn’t the comparison you were making. But you brought up geocentrism to prove a point: The Church taught something that was later proven wrong, therefore it could later be proven wrong on other issues.

    But the Church was proven wrong **based on later discoveries**. The Church acquired **additional data** which forced it to modify its prior teaching. Right? Thus, if you’re going to use the geocentrism issue as a basis for your argument, then your argument has to be that later data could be discovered which might force the Church to change its teaching on priestly ordination.

    The lesson of the geocentrism issue is that the Church ventured into the field of the physical sciences, in which conclusions are properly drawn based on observed data — yet instead of basing its conclusions on observed data, it based them on the scriptures. This was the precise nature of the Church’s mistake regarding geocentrism: It went outside its purview and drew conclusions in an inappropriate manner.

    Now as regards female ordination, do you contend that the Church is going outside its purview? Is it basing its teachings on scripture and tradition, when it should be basing them instead on observed data?

    I submit that as long as the Church stays within its proper purview, then its teachings may be trusted. If you can’t trust the Church within its own proper purview, then when can you trust it?

    You write, “I hold that God through the Holy Spirit could someday show the Church that they are not correct in their understanding of the role of women. It wouldn’t have to be something new, it would be a deepening or broadening of understanding.”

    The problem with your theory is that, while doctrine can develop in the sense of gaining new insight, all new developments in doctrine must be homogeneous and not heterogeneous — a new insight, to be a valid development, cannot contradict prior teaching. Since the Church has formally taught, not only that women cannot be ordained, but that the Church has no authority to ordain women, any future teaching that women *can* be ordained, or that the Church *does* have authority to ordain women, would directly contradict prior Church teaching. It would be not a development but a reversal. Thus you couldn’t claim that it’s not “something new”, because if it contradicts what came before, then it is entirely new.

    It would be like saying that the Eucharist is not Christ’s Body after all: That could never be a valid “development” of our understanding of the Eucharist, but a rejection of current teaching in favor of a new one.

    You write, “My reference to Newman and the others has to do with dissent. All were seen as dissenting, or were under the cloud of suspicion, and were investigated by the Church, and were accused/suspected of being not “orthodox” but all were ultimately found to be correct and orthodox after all.”

    I don’t understand your point here. Some people have been mistakenly accused of heterodoxy. What does that have to do with whether you or I, as faithful Catholics, should place our faith in the Church’s teaching?

  5. Now as regards female ordination, do you contend that the Church is going outside its purview? Is it basing its teachings on scripture and tradition, when it should be basing them instead on observed data? Absolutely not. as far as the rest of it, you are probably right..as I read what I wrote, and you comments, my “logic” seems to be lacking in logic. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: What it means to assent based on faith, part 2 « Agellius's Blog

  7. Pingback: St. Thomas Aquinas on faith and doubt « Agellius's Blog

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