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Andy D. wrote:

Hi guys,

I have trouble with the duty to assent as it pertains to infallibility.

Related to this issue, I recently came across the phrase demand a conscientious acceptation
in the paper by Bishop Joseph Fessler (1813-1872).

First, on ones duty to believe:

  • I am aware that at times faith and belief have a meaning related to the moral duty and this I affirm.

  • I affirm that the Church has special divine inspiration and I have no difficulty with the idea of moral duty as it pertains to actions and ethics. I also have no difficulty with the notion of belief as trust.

  • I have no difficulty with belief as it entails:
    • an assent of spirit
    • a renunciation of selfishness
    • an openness of the heart, or
    • an assent to God's will.

    All of these assents I heartily affirm and I pray I can honor as much as possible with God's grace.

Nevertheless, these seem distinguishable from believing, as a function of our consciousness — perhaps a function of our heart, mind, and spirit. This meaning of belief does not seem subject to my will — rather it seems mostly involuntary. This meaning of belief may well often entail understanding which again is not normally thought of as a function of the will.

It is for this reason that a duty to assent or duty to believe are puzzling to me.

Thus, I have wondered if Catholic doctrine means by this a euphemism for some pretense of the heart — a willed suppression of content of one's awareness — when (conscience or one's internal light) may yet give little discernible signal or indication.

The rubber hits the road with respect to infallibility — if it might be taken to imply a moral duty to believe (for all the reasons above).

The rubber hits the road also with respect to a few doctrines that I have not yet studied.

For example, I have wondered whether the Immaculate Conception — even if true — may not need be counted as dogma or might not need be counted as essential.

Thus, the notion of duty to believe does embody for me this dilemma.

  • Do you have any opinion on this issue?

Andy D.

  { Can you clarify the duty to assent versus the duty to believe as it pertains to papal infallibility? }

Richard replied:

Hi Andy,

Your e-mail touches on an important point:

The Church's infallibility calls upon us not only to obey the commandments of morality, but also to believe certain doctrines which the Church teaches.

This is only possible through faith, so you're right to be exploring the nuances of what faith is.

At the heart of the matter, we believe various doctrines.

  1. Some doctrines can be known by human reason
  2. other doctrines God has revealed indirectly, and
  3. yet other doctrines God has revealed directly (formally in theological terms).

The Church thinks of Divine Revelation as a completed event which God accomplished in Jesus Christ: it is a deposit of revelation that is entrusted to the Church to present and explain, but to which nothing new can be added.

Church teaching includes doctrines of all those three categories. For example, God exists can be defended on purely philosophical, rational grounds, without depending on divine revelation. On the other hand, Jesus Christ is consubstantial with the Father is a doctrine that we can only know because God has revealed it. The Church has authority to teach in all of these areas, but the Church's gift of infallibility applies only to some of them.

We believe doctrines that are revealed by God because God cannot lie or err. Generally, these are matters that we could not know by unaided human reason. Even the natural [philosophical/ rational] faith we have is not adequate to enable us to receive these truths, so we need divine assistance.

This is what we speak of when we say that Faith is a gift. God gives this Faith, a theological virtue, to us: it is a supernatural power to accept and hold these divinely Revealed Truths.

We ask for it prior to our Baptism and He gives this to us in Baptism, along with the virtues of Hope and Charity so we hold the doctrines that God has revealed, with the power of Faith which He gives us and we hold them entirely because we believe Him. To willfully reject such a doctrine is to harm our personal relationship with God.

In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, section 25, the Council teaches about the response that believers owe to the various types of doctrine, which can be distinguished by how they are taught:

  • when the bishops in an ecumenical council or the Pope invoking his charism of infallibility present definitions to settle disputed matters of faith and morals, these definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith. Notice that the highest authority and the supernatural gift of faith are both invoked here.

  • when the bishops, as a group, united with the Pope, are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held, they proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly. Here we are dealing with doctrines that are not necessarily divinely revealed themselves, but that are implied by revealed doctrines.

  • when the bishops individually teach doctrine in communion with the Pope, they are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. Notice that a less formal level of authority is invoked, and the response of the faithful is something called religious assent; the Church does not invoke the supernatural virtue of divine faith here, and does not say that infallibility is involved in an individual bishop's teaching.

When one becomes a Catholic as an adult, one expressly takes on the commitment to hold all the doctrines which, the Church teaches, are divinely revealed. (If you attended an Easter Vigil service where converts were received, you may have heard this question addressed to the candidates for Confirmation.)

In writing this, I referred to a helpful article in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia:

Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council,
is online at the Vatican or EWTN web site:

This whole explanation of mine is a bit off the cuff, so:

  1. I hope this helps! and
  2. I hope I've got it correct, because this is subtle stuff!

Anyway, I'm sure my colleagues will add more info.

Yours in Christ,

— Richard Chonak

Andy replied:


This is very generous, thoughtful, and helpful but I must add a clarification.

It has to do whether the Church purports that there is a duty to believe cognitively, where believe would mean (more than trust) but to hold a proposition firmly and supportively in mind.

The problem for me is that I have never (in my recollection) experienced this type of belief as volitional, that is, strictly subject to my will. I don't think anyone has, except perhaps Saints,
but that is another question.

That is, I usually don't decide what to believe; my discernment (consciousness) decides for me. This type of believing (cognitional) seems a function of some things beyond my volition (beyond my will), such as time and discernment (where discernment I regard as a special gift from God).
I don't think I can decide what to believe in the same way as I decide to cheat, or not, on my taxes, something clearly subject to my will.

I fear that the Church — or my Catholic peers or future spouse — will (or think they should) count what I describe: asking for time for discernment, as sinful.

In other words, I fear Church people may count as sinful this answer:

"I don't know for sure what I believe (yet), but I honor Church wisdom, and seek to know more."

I send my heartfelt thanks for your patience and interest. I hope my questions are not offensive in any way.


Richard replied:

Hi, Andy —

Thanks for your note.

As a convert myself, I appreciate the position you find yourself in, It's a classic problem in which we experience the gap between the neutral stance of a cautious truth-seeking inquirer and the stance of the believer in a revealed dogma.

Personally speaking, I am confident that the living, eternal God loves your desire for reality and for truth, since they show that you love Him already. He is patient with us, so you be patient with yourself.

Here's what helped me while I was on the journey toward the Catholic faith. There were times when I would hear about some point of doctrine, and occasionally I'd think that the teaching was rather abstruse. I didn't have reason to reject it, but didn't perceive any obvious reason to embrace it. I thought it was unconnected to anything important.

  • Why would the Church care about it so much as to make it mandatory for all believers?
  • And what reason could the Church possibly have for even adopting this teaching formally
    in the first place?

Often, I would have to say simply:

"Well, I can't really settle this for myself intellectually at present, but this is part of the Catholic package. If I take the step of accepting the teaching authority of the Catholic Church as Jesus Christ's presence in the world, then this lesser point will come along with it."

Over time, I continued my study, reading, and pondering, and started to have joyful discoveries in which I realized the implications of various difficult points.

  • Sometimes I would recognize how various points of doctrine were related to each other, and really indispensable to each other.
  • Sometimes I read about the implications of a teaching and recognized that it was telling us something simply glorious about God or man or both.

I wasn't yet embracing these teachings as True, but I came to experience them as the Good and the Beautiful.

— RC

Andy replied:


It means a lot to me.


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