Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council

"Chapter 9 - Living by faith"


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There are many facets to the ways in which we should try to imitate Mary's faith. Two stand out among them. First, we need to believe and to obey the Church, out of confidence in the promises the Father made through Christ. Second, we should act on faith, by taking the right attitude to creatures. We can consider one in this chapter, another in the next.

Mary believed the word of the angel: he spoke to her with the authority of God Himself. We imitate this aspect of her faith by similarly believing the word of God. But it is important to note the ways in which that word reaches us, for confusion in our time on this point is very great.

At the very start of the Protestant movement, one of the most critical and basic points of departure was concerned with this question: How do we know for certain what is the meaning of the sources of revelation? The answer given to that question really determined whether a man was a Protestant or a Catholic.

Both sides agreed on this: A person ought to diligently and prayerfully study the sources of revelation. Of course, by "sources of revelation", a Catholic would have considered both Scripture and Tradition; while a Protestant would have considered only Scripture as the source. But once that had been done, and the moment arrived for the critical decision on what really has been revealed, then came the radical split between Protestant and Catholic. For the Protestant said that the criterion, the decisive thing was simply this: What do I think? In other words, personal, private judgment was the final means. There was no higher court which had any right to speak after that. For the Catholic, the decisive criterion was: What does the Church teach?

Today, Protestants still hold most firmly to their original position of private judgment. But many Catholics, strange to say, no longer hold to the Catholic position: they have crossed over to the Protestant side, while still claiming to be Catholic. They commonly say that Vatican II has authorized them to follow their own judgment instead of the teaching of the Church.

In our opening chapter we saw how totally the reverse of the truth was the common notion that Vatican II had voted to downgrade Mary. On our present matter, the very common belief is equally the opposite of the truth. What the Council really taught is summed up most concisely in the Constitution on Divine revelation:1 "The function of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, written or handed on, has been entrusted solely to the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." So, if one follows Vatican II, he will not be authorized to contradict the Church and follow instead his own personal opinions. For he knows that when the final decisive moment comes to determine the meaning of revelation, to say what is true in theology, it is solely the teaching authority of the Church that is to decide.

Vatican II distinguishes two levels of teaching in the Church, infallible, or defined teachings, and non-infallible, non-defined teachings.

Infallible teachings can come not only from a General Council: Vatican II repeats the teaching of Vatican I that they can be given even by the Pope himself acting alone. In fact, Vatican II explicitly teaches-in spite of popular distortions to the contrary-that the Pope need not, unless he wishes, consult anyone at all, not even the Bishops, before defining:2 "His definitions of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are rightly called unchangeable, for they are pronounced under the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised him in Blessed Peter. And so they need no approval of others, nor is there room for an appeal to any other judgment."

But the Council goes much farther: it even requires that we interiorly accept and believe even non-infallible teachings of the Pope, even when he is speaking alone:3 "... religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a singular way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not speaking ex cathedra [not defining]; that is, in such a way that ... there is sincere adherence to the judgments pronounced by him, according to his manifested mind and will..."

Here is the point at which many fail, and turn to a Protestant, not a Catholic method. They say there is a legitimate right of dissent, for specialists in theology. And if one is not a specialist, he will say he is following one. Really, if a man makes that his principle of action, then even when he does actually go along with a papal teaching, his basic reason for doing so will not be the fact that it is taught by a providentially guided authority, but that it agrees with his own reasoning. In other words, the decisive thing will not be the authority of teaching, but mere human reason. To act that way is to be, logically, a Protestant. If a man were to reason his way to every conclusion taught by the Church, but his reason for adherence to these truths would be his own reason, not the teaching authority of the Church, such a man, even though he believed everything the Church teaches, would be logically a Protestant.

Many say: "I cannot see it. So how can I accept it? I must follow my conscience." This is not the way of Mary, nor is it the way of any real Catholic. She accepted the word of God's messenger, not because she reasoned herself to the same conclusion, but simply because that messenger spoke with the authority of God. Similarly, the reason why we should accept the teaching of the Church should be the divinely protected teaching authority. We accept, not because of our reasonings, however good (it is, of course, good to add the support of reason), but because of faith in the promises of Christ who said:4 "He who hears you, hears me, and he who sets you aside, sets me aside." And: "If he will not hear the Church, let him be to you as a pagan and a publican."

So our support in accepting these teachings is, ultimately, faith, not reason. That fact removes a great difficulty. For many persons have a low esteem for the personal intelligence, holinesss, capability of the Pope and the collective Bishops. But if one has faith in the words of Christ, he cares not at all whether this particular Pope is intelligent, holy, highly competent. All that is strictly irrelevant. The only thing that is decisive is that he is the recipient today of the promises of Christ: "He who hears you, hears me."

Nor should one plead "After all, it is admitted that these teachings are not infallible. So there is room for doubt." Yes, there is an outside chance. There is also such a chance that the food we will eat this evening that comes from a can is infected with Botulism: but normal persons do not worry about that, for the possibility is so very remote. Far more remote is the chance that a non-infallible teaching could err. And if it should, what would place us in the better position when we must make our accounting before Christ the Judge? Would it be better to say: "My policy was to follow those whom you promised to protect", or: "I was afraid that they might conceivably slip in spite of you, so I often doubted."

The second man, making a policy of following himself, will, statistically speaking, have to be wrong with some frequency; the first man might make one mistake5 in two thousand years. Which will the Judge more readily excuse? Which is imitating the model of the faith of Mary, which the Council sets before us?6

But we need to look also at another aspect of faith. Following St. Paul, as we have seen, the Council includes three elements in faith: intellectual acceptance of divinely taught truth, confidence in God's promises, and obedience to His will. What we have just considered takes in the first two of these three facets of faith. Full imitation of Mary's faith and full carrying out of the Council teaching requires that we also add the third facet: obeying the Church.

Even though there is a college of Bishops, with whom the Pope may work when he so chooses, yet7 "his power remains complete, over all, whether Pastors [Bishops] or the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his position as Vicar of Christ and Shepherd of the whole Church, has full, supreme, and universal power, which he can always exercise freely." Within their own dioceses,8 "Bishops have the sacred right and duty before the Lord, of passing laws for their subjects, or rendering judgment, and of regulating all that pertains to worship and the apostolate. ... All the faithful should embrace with prompt obedience what the sacred Pastors order ... imitating the example of Christ, who by his obedience even to death, opened the blessed way of freedom of the sons of God to all men." These last words remind us of the striking statement of the Council given earlier in the same document:9 "By His obedience He brought about redemption."

This obedience, as we said, is one of the three aspects or parts of faith. And it is founded on the other parts of faith, that is, on our belief that Christ has given to the authorities of the Church the right to command in His . name.

Here too, as in matters of belief, some persons are inclined to say: "But I cannot see it, this doesn't seem to me to be a good decision". What should we say? We need to notice that there are two facets here. First the question of whether Christ wills that we obey. There is no doubt that He does, unless of course, a command were immoral. But second: Are we obliged, if we follow the obedience of faith, to not only obey, but even to think that every command is the most prudent, the best way, or even that it is a very good way? By no means. The protection promised by Christ to the Church does not include a guarantee of prudence in all things. So it is enough for us to obey: we are not obliged to think every command very good and suitable.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we will, however, make an honest effort to see things the superior's way. For normal human pride tends to make us think a command is bad simply because we do not like to be given commands. Our feeling tends to warp our judgment. So, we are simply making a well-calculated allowance for probable error due to this tendency of ours when we honestly try to see things the superior's way. We recall too that there is offered to superiors, a grace of state. They can, and sometimes do misuse or refuse such graces. But at least the graces are offered. We are being realistic if we take that fact into account too.

Finally, we might note the example of Mary's Son. He knew the terrible hypocrisy of the Pharisees and strongly rebuked them for it. Yet He also said:10 "The Scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat upon the seat of Moses. Therefore, all things they say to you, do and observe. But do not do as they do. For they speak and do not do. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and impose them on the shoulders of men, but they themselves do not wish to move them with their finger."

Those who think ill of today's ecclesiastical authorities might ask: Are they worse than the Scribes and Pharisees, the "whitewashed sepulchres" who bind heavy loads impose them on others, but do not touch them themselves' Even so, the divine Teacher says: "All things they say to you, do and observe." Christ Himself obeyed, even to death, even to the death of the cross. And,11 "By His obedience He brought about Redemption." His Mother amid the darkness of Calvary continued her obedience that called for acceptance of the death of her Son. Only strong faith, faith that grows more powerful in darkness, can do such things. Those who want to follow after Mary and Her Son will obey. Their faith will grow from strength to strength in doing so.


1 On Divine Revelation § 10.
2 On the Church § 25.
3 Ibid. § 25.
4 Lk. 10,16 and Mt. 18,17.
5 Many charges are made that the Church has erred on the non-infallible level. The only charge that begins to hold is that in the Galileo case, one in 2000 years.
6 It is often said that the old traditional theology manuals used to admit a right of dissent, for a specialist, on non-defined teachings. That is true, but only if he has found new evidence, not previously known (such is not the case on Birth Control, etc.) and further and especially, he may not persist in that denial. He must accept the decision of the Church an his new evidence. Canon 2317 directs that if he does persist in denial, he is to be removed from preaching, hearing confessions, and from any teaching position.
7 On the Church § 22.
8 Ibid. § 27 and § 37.
9 Ibid. § 9.
10 Mt. 23,2-4.
11 On the Church § 3.

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