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Hierarchy of Beliefs

A common misconception among many Catholics—and not just those who suffer with scrupulosity—is that all Church beliefs are of equal weight. Many seem to believe that all disciplines, practices, doctrines, and dogmas of the Church are revealed truths we should follow. Many think every Catholic belief has flowed from the teaching ministry of Jesus and (after his resurrection and ascension) his Twelve Apostles.

That’s pretty unbelievable when you understand the outcomes of what is being accepted as Truth. It is no wonder many Catholics are confused. It is no wonder that many attach “grave and serious” to thoughts or actions that are neither grave nor serious. A result is that many people believe Catholicism is burdensome, an everyday struggle of trying to keep life balanced and simultaneously live with a sense of freedom and purpose instead of dread and anxiety.

In Catholicism, there is a hierarchy to our beliefs and practices. At the top are “revealed truths” (doctrines) found in our Creed that were revealed during the ministry of Jesus and include belief in the Holy Trinity; the Incarnation; Christ’s passion, resurrection, ascension, Second Coming, and Last Judgment; the remission of sins; the Church; and eternal life. 

In addition to the doctrines are dogmas revealed within the constant teaching tradition of the Church and in sacred Scripture, both of which have been clarified and explained primarily through Church ecumenical councils. A way to approach the Church’s 250-plus dogmas is through the magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church. The teaching authority includes the pope and bishops.

Certain precepts, practices, laws, and disciplines of the Church have emerged from its doctrinal and dogmatic traditions and have been clarified by the magisterium over the centuries. These are deemed as central to our understanding of what it means to be Catholic. Collectively they are the “pastoral application” of the Christian faith. They are applied by teachers, pastors, and individuals who engage in the practice of the Catholic faith in their day-to-day lives. 

Pastoral practice is dependent on the individual interpretation and experience of the person who is applying it. The faithful hope these pastoral practices are evenly applied, but that does not always happen. The reality is that many different interpretations are often possible. Whenever people engage in interpretation, differences are inevitable. We need not necessarily classify different interpretations as right or wrong. Of course, some might insist a certain interpretation is correct, but such a conclusion is not necessarily so. No less a saint and doctor of the Church than the Redemptorists’ own St. Alphonsus Liguori correctly argued that it is not unusual to have two “equally probable” interpretations. In such instances, we may feel free to make our own choice.

Practices, interpretations, and disciplines change and often mirror the experience of the local people of God. For example, the holy days of obligation can vary from country to country. Moreover, in the United States there is no uniformity. Six ecclesiastical provinces celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord on a Thursday (forty days after the resurrection), while the rest of the country celebrates it on the following Sunday. The six that celebrate the ascension on Thursday are Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia. If this fluidity meets the needs of the people of faith, so be it.

Canon law, the universal codification of the practice of discipline within the Church, also allows for interpretation. For example, canon law states that the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist is paramount in the life of the Church and central to who we are as Catholics. But the law was written with the understanding that when there are times when its application is impossible, Catholics are excused from the obligation. These times include when a Catholic is: ill, injured, or caring for the incapacitated; in a disaster area; far from a place where the Eucharist is celebrated; and so on.

Navigating, applying, and living the complete belief system of the Church demands maturity. The Church understands that adults may, at times, need to apply in a different way what is required and recommended. Of course, children cannot be expected to apply the beliefs in the same manner that adults do. The Church also understands that experiences can severely limit the application of the beliefs. As a result, the Catholic belief system is not static. It is animated, alive, and grace-filled.

Unfortunately, scrupulosity often limits the freedom people need in order to fully engage and practice Church beliefs. Through no fault of their own, they experience “diminished capacity.” This means the afflicted person does not possess the necessary maturity to live out the hierarchical system of beliefs, despite deep desires to do so. Thus, it is important for those of you with scrupulosity to take care when applying Catholic beliefs in your lives. Please direct any concerns you may have to your spiritual director. He or she will help you navigate.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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