In the history of the question of sins against faith, the Church has traditionally taught that we can sin by unbelief, doubts of faith, failure to cultivate and perfect faith, heresy and apostasy. Now, however, since the Church has further clarified aspects of this question as a result of the decrees of the second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium among others), it is quite likely that one can sin against faith: by deliberately withholding assent from the ordinary teaching of the Magisterium without due cause, by fomenting dissent in a calm and ordinary manner, or by radically dissenting from its teaching in an extraordinary manner (using the media and vituperative language). We need to clarify exactly what these sins are all about.
Simple unbelief may spring from causes within a person for which he may or may not be responsible. When faced with the gospel teachings for the first time, many refuse the gift of faith because they do not wish to give up their life-style which may include an inordinate love for power, riches, sex and many modes of self-indulgence. They sin against faith by rejecting the truth, because they live in (what many gospel authors call) the darkness of sin, and they do not leave it. Sometimes, however, some unbelievers are excused from sinning because they are ignorant due to the fact that the minister of the gospel is unclear and confused about the truth of the gospel, or they may simply be overwhelmed by the bad example of other Catholics. Finally their cultural conditions would require a heroic renunciation of their family, friends and country which they feel they cannot give up at the present time.
Once someone accepts Jesus Christ and accepts the cross involved in being his follower, he may find himself confronted with spontaneous doubts of faith caused by emotions. These irruptions are not sinful as such, e.g. leaving the confessional one begins to doubt that the priest can forgive sins, or that a particular priest was validly ordained. Usually such involuntary doubts come from the emotions or a peculiar psychological disposition (rarely from the devil). Normally, one can resist these doubts by making acts of faith in God and turning one's mind to other things. Failure to do so, however, could lead one into the sin of heresy whereby one obstinately holds on to a proposition which either denies a truth of faith, or upholds something completely contrary to the faith.
Questions regarding the faith, i.e. enquiries to better understand the meaning of doctrines of faith, are not sins because the human mind has been created to try to clarify the meaning of words, sentences and reasoning processes of Church teaching. Failure to think through the questions of faith (i.e. to seek understanding according to the great Doctors of the Church) may indicate a lack of love for the faith, or simply laziness to grow ever deeper into the mind of God. Hence the need to cultivate critical study, or the good habit of prudently seeking clarity on questions of faith and morals from one's pastors, if they are competent.
Heresy, on the other hand, is a very grave sin against faith because the truths of faith bring us into contact with the living God. To reject a truth of faith is to spurn God, because one refuses to accept what one knows the Church to teach as a truth which has been divinely revealed. Heretics who are not in good faith act as if they have a personal pipeline to the Holy Spirit, which by-passes the Church, concerning what God has revealed as true. The Church's faith is not their norm of truth, sometimes because the Church hierarchy or its teachers are not morally good enough, or not as intelligent as they believe themselves to be. Heresy, in other words, is very much related to the sin of pride and arrogance about one's own intellectual abilities. Quite often, however, many call into question definitive teachings of the Church out of blindness caused by previous sins or ignorance, not realizing that the Church has taught something as pertaining to faith and morals (i.e. acts of fornication and adultery excluding one from heaven--Council of Trent, Denz.808). Heresy has such a powerful negative effect on the human person that the Church places an automatic excommunication on such a sin, largely because they have already excommunicated themselves from the Church as Teacher (CIC 1365, #1).
Some truths of the Church, while not formally revealed by God, may be taught infallibly by the Church, e.g. that certain books belong to the Old or New Testament inspired by the Holy Spirit. To deny them is a grave sin, though strictly speaking, it is not heresy according to the opinion of sound theologians.
Apostasy, or the renunciation of the faith, is a very grave sin which completely withdraws someone from the Catholic faith, and is certainly far more serious than initially rejecting the offer of the gift of faith. However, many who have left the Catholic Church may not necessarily be apostates because they hardly knew what the Church taught because of ignorance or poor catechesis. Others (if they understood their teachers) may simply refuse to live by the moral standards taught by the Church, and may not have withdrawn their commitment that the faith of the Catholic Church is true. Such would not be the sin of apostasy, but a sin against the virtue they refused to live by.
As the Church has evolved in her manner of teaching over the centuries, we can see that she asks of us in her non-infallible teachings of the Sacred Magisterium that we give religious assent of mind and heart. This assent to the ordinary teaching of the Bishop in his own diocese, and shown in a special way to the Roman Pontiff, is a serious obligation (Lumen Gentium, n.25). Beginning with Pius IX, then Leo XIII, Pius XI and Pius XII, one will find ample documentation showing that religious assent is a serious obligation in conscience for the believing Catholic. This "religious assent of the mind and heart" means accepting their teaching by agreeing with it, and holding fast to it. We are called to give this religious assent to the teaching of the bishop in his diocese and especially to the Holy Father, because each teacher has special graces to teach the people committed to their care. (New Catechism of the Catholic Faith, #2004). This presupposes, of course, that the teaching of the bishop is in harmony with that of the Sacred Magisterium.
Sometimes the teachings of the Bishops and the Pope may in fact be revealed truths, but they do not teach them as such. At times they may clarify ambiguities of past magisterial teaching. While the Bishops (in a General Council) or the Pope individually, may not always invoke the charism of infallibility in their mode of teaching, they may at times be teaching doctrines that will eventually become infallibly taught as definitions - either connected with divine revelation or actually divinely revealed. Sometimes their teaching may be infallible by reason of the fact of the ordinary and universal magisterium, because it pertains to a doctrine consistently taught over many centuries. Hence giving humble submission of mind and heart to their teaching leads us on to give ourselves to the truth of our Church, even if we may not know exactly how it pertains to the hierarchy of truth as revealed by God. We experience a sense of certitude and a safe haven of thought when we humbly submit to the Church's teaching.
Sometimes the teaching of the Magisterium (papal and episcopal) in very complex matters may evolve, not because the past was in error, but because historical circumstances have changed (e.g. labor conditions) requiring more refinements or further qualifications on its social doctrine. Consequently we should never assume that an occasional change in the expression of the gospel message implies a previous inaccuracy in the expression of Catholic doctrine. Theologians, whose task it is to apply the gospel message to the changing times in which we live, may at times come up with new concepts that seem to contradict or differ from the Church's traditional teaching. Loyal theologians will make known their doubts or hesitations either in scientific journals (as distinct from the media), or communicate with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding their objections. They should never publish their objections as a counter truth, or worse, as the work of a para-magisterium. Sometimes a theologian's perplexities humbly submitted to the Church may prompt a papal or episcopal letter which further clarifies some problem of faith or morals. Unfortunately, in recent years some radically dissenting theologians have persisted in opposing common Church teaching, going public with their opinions as if they were a parallel teaching authority to the utter confusion of the Catholic laity. The faithful should wait for further clarification, if some aspect of the traditional teaching of the Church seems to be called into question.
The term "magisterium" (taken from the Latin) is the teaching authority of the Church, an authority entrusted to the Church by Christ Himself who, before leaving this world, commissioned Peter and the Apostles to carry His message to all nations (Mt.28:19), and promised the assistance of the Holy Spirit safeguarding it from error. (Jn.16:13f) As Pope Pius XII pointed out in his encyclical "Humani Generis"
The Decree on Revelation of the second Vatican Council "Dei Verbum" speaks in similar language:
The gift of our Catholic faith enables us to give religious assent of mind and heart to the word of God as interpreted and handed on by the Sacred Magisterium. Consequently, one who withholds religious assent from the teaching of the magisterium sins against the virtue of faith, a sin of deliberate nonassent. Worse still, to do this and communicate one's nonassent to others with the intention of getting others to share in nonassent is to commit the sin of public dissent (grave or light depending upon the circumstances and motive). Being an act of human faith grounded in divine faith, religious assent affirms ecclesial solidarity. Open dissent causes disunity and begins the groundwork of schism, which will then be a grave sin against charity.
Since the time of "Humanae Vitae", so much confusion has entered the life of many dioceses here in the U.S. and abroad, that many people in good faith find it impossible to give religious assent to the teaching that contraceptive birth control is intrinsically sinful. Because of the ongoing radical dissent which continues without public sanctions, many people cannot give their religious assent to this moral doctrine. They have formed their consciences in such a manner as to believe that it alone is the authentic guide in moral decision-making as if it were an independent and infallible faculty. (New Catechism of the Cath. Church, #1794). It really means that no one, not even the authorized persons who speak in the name of Jesus can be a source of truth for them. One wonders why they choose to remain in the Catholic Church unless for accidental motives such as private devotions. One must assimilate the teachings of the Church in faith and prayer and put them into practice in order to form an authentic moral conscience (ibid. #1802).
What are the reasons for this failure to form one's conscience in line with the teachings of the Church? Beyond question, the principal cause for this breakdown in communication between the Church's official teaching and ordinary Catholics has been due to radical theological dissent tolerated and permitted by the Church authorities for many years, with an occasional public or private reprimand for certain theologians. Radical dissent basically comes down to letting believers have it both ways: they call the Church their Mother but not their Teacher. They can say yes to things in their faith which they like and reject the truths they dislike, and so become "cafeteria Catholics" picking and choosing on the basis of their choices on the feeble lights of their favorite theologians. Further, some have claimed that the Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council "Dignitatis Humanae" gave them a religious liberty to ignore the teachings of the Church when they are inconvenient, when in fact the decree on religious liberty had to do with civil government not coercing anyone to join a particular faith.
Faith is a free gift, but it can be sinned against and lost. So, we must nourish it by prayer, think about it lovingly, live it morally and celebrate it liturgically. We received our faith from our mother the Church. Loving her means learning to trust her teachings in her ordinary and everyday instructions even when those teachings are not easy to live nor popular with the culture around us.
Fr. Basil Cole, O.P. Is a member of the Western Dominican Preaching Band, and assistant professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy. He was also the contributing editor of The Rosary, Light and Life in 1980-1983. He has recently authored a book, Music and Morals, published by Alba House 1993, copies of which may be obtained at the Rosary Center for $8.95.
Father Cole may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to the top of this page.
Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page