Detail of "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics" by Filipino Lippi

Detail of “Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics” by Filipino Lippi

This is an age of disbelief, material reductionism, and subjectivism. It is increasingly difficult to give our full assent to Holy Mother Church’s teaching because they are difficult to reconcile with our modern ethos. One may rightfully object that there are many things about which men of good will can disagree, but the unchanging, dogmatic articles of faith of the Church are not among them. The articles of Faith refer to the twelve articles of truth expressed in the Apostles’ Creed. Included in the Articles of Faith are all the things a Catholic must believe that come from the Revealed Word of Christ, Holy Mother Church and the universal magisterium. If we are going to be authentically Catholic, we are not free to decide what Christ would have us believe.

Considering how difficult it is to believe in these dark times must be understood in conjunction with the exacerbating difficulties we have suffered by the Fall of our first parents. We already suffer a darkened intellect, a weakened will and an inclination towards evil. If we add to that an increasingly disordered society we are in sore need of supernatural help. It may be helpful to consider the definition of divine faith given in our Catechism paragraph 155: “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.” Those who submit their wills to the will of the Father are infused with the supernatural virtue of faith and only under these conditions can full assent to the revealed truth be embraced.

To give assent to the fullness of the Faith is an all or nothing proposition. In an enlightening article by M.V. Dougherty called “Opining the articuli fidei: Thomas Aquinas on the Heretic’s Assent to the Articles of Faith” (The Thomist 80.1, pp.  1-21), it is demonstrated that St. Thomas Aquinas consistently defends the position. If one chooses to disbelieve a single article of faith, then the gift of infused faith is no longer available and he can then no longer give full assent to any of the teachings of the Church.

According to St. Thomas, the heretic is deprived of all supernatural intellectual gifts and left to his own fallen devices to attempt to discover truth. It is possible for a heretic to encounter truth in a certain natural sense. It is even possible for the heretic to claim to believe the majority of the Church’s teaching, but he is incapable of embracing the fullness of the revealed truth of Christ. The fact is that he is only able to give a kind of an assent to the truths with which he agrees by the authority of his own opinion.

Natural Cognitive States According to Thomas

Thomas Aquinas elucidates an ascending hierarchy of natural cognitive ability. The very lowest possible level is simply a lack of knowledge. Thomas explains that even ignorance is higher than a lack of knowledge. The great Church Doctor explains that ignorance is characterized as knowledge we don’t know but that we should know it. The next higher step of natural cognitive ability is doubt. Thomas explains that doubt is exhibited by one who is aware of two opposing positions, like yes God exists and no God does not exist, and he equivocates between the two without making a decision. Further up the hierarchy is a position Thomas calls suspicion. This is characterized by one who is not sure which of the two positions is correct, but leans slightly towards one of them, as if he suspects that one thing may be right. A little higher up on the hierarchical scale is the one who surmises with a little more surety than the suspicious that one of the two positions is actually correct. Then we finally arrive at the highest position a heretic may attain, that of opinion. The one with an opinion comes down definitely on a side of the issue and asserts it to be a truth.

M.V. Dougherty further explains that the four natural cognitive states of doubt, suspicion, surmising and opinion are significant because they require an act of the will to participate in the conclusion. Beliefs on these four levels require the participation of the will because there has not been discovered a sufficient amount of intelligibility in their positions to demonstrate a certain truth. In other words, “Aquinas is careful to distinguish the assent that takes its origin from a volitional act from the assent in which the intellect is compelled in virtue of the intrinsic intelligibility of a truth” (page 7). Thomas elucidates two higher forms of natural cognition that do not require the participation of the will because they encounter incontrovertible evidence.

The two highest ways of natural knowing

The two highest forms of natural cognition are called by Thomas intellection and science. Science is used here in the Aristotelian sense as that philosophical knowing that follows the discovery of the intelligibility of self-evident propositions and demonstrated truths. But because Faith is supernatural, so belief in the articles of faith necessitates supernatural help. Dougherty summarizes Thomas’ explanation of what happens to the heretics’ cognition:

“By choosing to deny certain articles of faith, heretics forfeit the supernatural help of assenting to the other articles of faith. And of course, heretics do not enjoy the benefit of having the intrinsic intelligibility of the articles of faith exercise causality upon their intellects to compel assent. … The natural limitation of the human intellect renders humans unsusceptible to such causality. The cause of assent for heretics, therefore, must be an exercise of their own wills whereby they choose to assent to a subset of the articles of faith” (page 9).

Abandon Self-reference

One who chooses to reject one or more of the articles of faith but still embraces many of the Church’s teachings can only give assent to Her teachings by his opinion asserted by a disordered will. When the heretic encounters the question of assenting to an article or its negation it is possible for him to give his assent but it is chosen only by human judgement and human choice unaided by grace. Not being rooted in true faith, this kind of assent is easily swayed by external considerations and prone to shifting. It is only by assenting unwaveringly to all that Holy Mother Church teaches us that we are graced with the infused supernatural virtue of faith and that alone has the power to keep us on the narrow path to salvation.

When it comes to discovering what is true and what is not true, especially concerning the articles of faith, it is foolish to reference the world or ourselves when we have the Incarnate Word of God, the inerrant scriptures, the Universal Magisterium, Church Doctors and countless saints to guide us. By self-reference and reference to the disordered world we are bound to rebel against what appears difficult. The world and the prince of this world would have us worship ourselves and not God. The world encourages us to be disobedient to Truth.

St. Paul reminds us in Romans 5:19, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” When one decides for himself what he will abide in and what he will not, he is not imitating Our Lord Jesus Christ who out of obedience to His Father died on the Cross for us, no, he is imitating Lucifer and Adam who thought they knew better than God what was good and what was evil.

One who chooses his own opinion over Catholic truth is not just a “cafeteria Catholic” but a heretic. It is an act of charity to demonstrate that those who disbelieve even a single article of faith are putting their immortal souls in grave danger. If even one comes back to reality instead of ascribing to subjective opinion, heaven will rejoice at the recovery of a soul that had once been lost. Let us speak words of truth in charity so that our lost brethren might return to the fullness of truth embodied in our articles of faith. And finally, let us not forget the words in 1 Samuel 15:23 “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.”

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