A very important motto for Catholics in our age is the phrase in essentiis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas (“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, freedom; in all things, charity”). It is crucial that Catholics seize upon this and practice it during this crisis. The distinction between “essentials” and “doubtful matters,” however, is by degrees. The Church distinguishes these degrees by the Theological Notes of doctrine. The highest degree Note represents the highest degree of certainty and thus the greatest obligation for assent, while the lowest is the least certain and the least obligatory for belief:
- De Fide – of the faith – explicit in Scripture, Tradition, explicitly defined by highest Church authority
- Example: all who die in mortal sin will suffer hell for eternity
- Denial of any of these truths is the mortal sin of heresy.
- De Fide Ecclesiastica – ecclesiastical faith – explicitly defined by Church authority, implicit in Scripture and Tradition.
- Example: the Assumption of Mary
- Denial of any of these truths is the mortal sin of heresy.
- Sententia Fidei Proxima – proximate to the faith – teaching is generally understood by the Theologians as explicit in Scripture and Tradition but not explicitly defined by the Church
- Example: The Blessed Trinity can only be known through revelation
- Denial of any of these truths is the mortal sin of error proximate to heresy
- Sententia Certa – theologically certain – implicit in Scripture and Tradition, not explicitly defined by the Church
- Example: the primary purpose of Matrimony is the generation of children. The secondary purpose is mutual help and regulation of lust.
- Denial of any of these truths is the mortal sin of error against the faith
- Sententia Communis – common teaching – this teaching is implicit in Tradition and is generally accepted by the Theologians
- Example: willful sins against the sixth commandment are always mortal sins
- It is licit to object to these teachings if and only if there is good reason. To object to any without good reason is the mortal sin of temerity
- Sententia Probabilis – probable teaching – a teaching that is well founded on good authority yet is open to question. Pious beliefs and tolerated opinions also fall under this note and have the lowest degree of certainty.
- Example: Judas received Holy Communion at the last supper
- Denial of any of these teachings is licit provided piety is given to legitimate authority
Thus we may see that in actual fact, Notes 1-4 are essentials to the faith, while 5 is technically “doubtful” (in the sense mentioned above) but only with good reason, whereas 6 is entirely doubtful matter, provided piety is observed. Thus no man can call himself Catholic and deny anything above Communis, and can only question Communis with good reason. A Sententia Probabilis alone is completely open for discussion.
Let us apply this further to current controversies. So, for example, Lumen Gentium explicitly states that the documents of Vatican II are not binding unless explicitly stated, indicating that unless they are quoting prior teachings, the documents must be held to be Sententia Probabilis or Communis. Whereas Ordinatio Sacerdotalis spoke of the male-only sacramental ordination as binding on all Catholics “This Sententia must be held definitively by all the faithful of the Church.” The former teachings have some room for discussion, whereas the latter is completely closed (including any notion of a female, sacramental deacon).
But in all things, a grave piety must be observed regarding the Magisterium: “The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.” Even if a man sees an issue with Vatican II, he is not permitted, through piety, to dismiss the council as a whole. Nevertheless, if the matter is not closed, reasonable and pious inquiry can be made. As Ott explains: “By way of exception, the obligation of inner agreement [to magisterial documents] may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive conviction that the decision [of the Magisterium] rests on an error.” At its best, the traditionalist movement represents such a scientific investigation. At worst, the traditionalists are sinning against charity and piety while causing scandal and schism in the Church.
Timothy S. Flanders
See Ott, p. 9-10
This term Theologians (capital “T”) is understood to mean the “scholastics” or the “schoolmen” referring to the eminent saints and scholars from 1100-1700, particularly St. Thomas, whom the Church has received as authoritative. In general, a proposition which they unanimously agree upon is infallible. See Ripperger, Magisterial Authority on the Resources page.
St. Alphonsus, Theologia Moralis, vol. II (Mediatrix Press, 2017, Ryan Grant trans.), 466ff. See also Sermon XLVII, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The virtue of piety is different than the colloquial term. It refers to the due reverence which we give to legitimate authority such as parents, superiors and Church authority. The common terms used today is religious assent of mind and will, which means essentially a pious reverence towards reflections on faith and morals (non-definitive) and giving at least respect to prudential teachings, even if you disagree (for example, on the death penalty, as the CDF has confirmed).
Concerning the Theological Note, the appendix section of Lumen Gentium addresses this and states: “Taking conciliar custom into consideration and also the pastoral purpose of the present Council, the sacred Council defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding. The rest of the things which the sacred Council sets forth, inasmuch as they are the teaching of the Church’s supreme magisterium, ought to be accepted and embraced (excipere et amplecti) by each and every one of Christ’s faithful according to the mind of the sacred Council. The mind of the Council becomes known either from the matter treated or from its manner of speaking, in accordance with the norms of theological interpretation.” The “norms” referred to here are the Theological Notes, taking into consideration and various sources of Infallibility (Scripture, Tradition, prior Magisterium, the Theologians, etc). Since the entire worldwide episcopate (with few exceptions) accepted Vatican II, it automatically has the authority of Communis. However, since some of the subject matter is not definitive or are merely pious reflections, these things are properly Probabilis. Teachings of the prudential order are not theological and must be respected, but can safely be contradicted. For example, Gaudium et Spes advocates world government. Lay Catholics must respect this, but they are under no obligation to obey it, as it regards politics and economics, of which the lay order holds the final judgment as applying the principles of faith and morals to secure the common good in a particular nation.
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4: Hancque sententiam ab omnibus Ecclesiae fidelibus esse definitive tenendam. Ott (in 1954) states on p. 459 that this doctrine is a Sententia Certa, but we may properly speak of it now as Fides Ecclesiastica since it is defined since 1994. See also the response by the Holy Office on this point, clarifying that this teaching is to be held definitively as belonging to the deposit of faith (October 28, 1995)
Donum Veritatis, 24. Emphasis in the original