I can’t believe how often I hear people who call themselves Catholic make explicit statements of unfaithfulness. It usually goes something like: “I love the Catholic Church and I believe most of what She teaches. I just disagree on a few of Her positions.” Usually the disagreements revolve around sexual morality, sins against the 6th and 9th commandments, and marriage.
The First “Cafeteria Catholic”
This is a much more serious stance than might otherwise be assumed in this age of hypersensitivity. To choose to disagree with the teaching of Holy Mother Church when one claims to be a Catholic has natural consequences that follow as surely as water flows down a stream. A momentary consideration of what exactly follows after discovering what really takes place may give a few of our fallen-away Catholic brethren enough pause to return to the narrow path.
When people who call themselves “Catholic” pick and choose what doctrines, dogmas and articles of faith they are willing to believe, they are called by the modern world “cafeteria Catholics.” This doesn’t sound quite so severe as the more accurate term heretic. The word heresy coms from the” Greek hairesis, meaning “choice.” But when a “cafeteria Catholic” chooses to believe what they want to believe instead of the revealed truth of God, several things happen.
God’s brightest and most beautiful angel Lucifer caught a glimpse of his own beauty and chose himself over his Creator. He was the first subjectivist, because he arrogated to himself the authority to reject God’s authority. Lucifer willfully declared, “I will not serve.” When Catholics reject one of the unchanging and unchangeable teachings of the Church, they echo the original declarative rejection. The original heretic who put his will above the will of the Father committed such violence against the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty that his treachery swept away a third of the angels from heaven. We are guaranteed to suffer a similar fate as the original fallen angel if we imitate him.
The Assent of Faith to the Teachings of the Church
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. If we are going to be authentically Catholic, we are not at liberty to dictate what Christ would have us believe.
It ought to be remembered and well considered that faith is one of the three theological virtues. It is a gift from God to those who choose to love Him more than they love themselves. Fully believing the revealed truth is well-nigh impossible for us mere humans in our present condition after the Fall. We are left with a darkened intellect, weakened wills and an inclination towards sin and these three defects make us susceptible to the temptations of the king of lies and at the same time constitute three road blocks to true belief. Those who submit their wills to the will of the Father are infused with the supernatural virtue of faith and only then can full assent to the revealed truth be grasped and embraced.
To give assent to the fullness of the Faith is an all or nothing proposition. M.V. Dougherty’s enlightening and erudite article, “Opining the articuli fidei: Thomas Aquinas on the Heretic’s Assent to the Articles of Faith” (The Thomist 80.1, pp. 1-21), demonstrates how 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 discover truth. A heretic can encounter truth in a natural sense and he can even still claim to believe many of the teachings of the Church, but he is incapable of enjoying the fullness of truth and at best can only hold agreement to the certain articles because of his opinions.
Thomist Cognitive States
Saint Thomas describes an ascending hierarchy of natural cognitive ability. The lowest is simply a lack of knowledge. Next is ignorance which he characterizes as knowledge one should know. Next is doubt, which he explains is one who vacillates between two contradictories. Next, one who suspects is firmer than the doubter in that he may lean towards one contradictory over the other. Further, one who tends to give assent to one of the two contradictories is one who surmises. Next is one who fully embraces one of the two contradictories and he is one who rests firm in his opinions.
Dougherty goes on to explain that the four cognitive states of doubt, suspicion, surmise and opinion all involve the will of the subject, or the “cognizer”. The reason that beliefs on this level require a participation of the will is that there is not enough intelligibility in their position to demonstrate truth in certitude. 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 goes on to explain that the right kind of consent to truth occurs in two different types of cognition.
The two highest ways of natural knowing Thomas calls intellection and science. Science is used here in not in the modern sense, but in the scholastic sense as the theological and philosophical knowing that follows the discovery of the intelligibility of self-evident propositions and demonstrated truths. As Faith is supernatural, so belief in the articles of faith requires 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).
Going After the One Sheep
In the end, the “Cafeteria Catholic” who claims to agree with some of Catholic Doctrine can only do so by his opinion by a force of a disordered will. When the heretic is faced with an article of faith and its negation, sometimes by opinion, he ascribes to the article of faith instead of its negation, but it is elected by human judgement and a purely human choice.
The fact that we are so reluctant to call a heretic a heretic will only impress the pathological onlookers of this weak-kneed age. We ought to be more concerned with impressing the One who made us. 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 to subjective opinion, heaven will rejoice over the recovery of a soul that had once been lost.
Christ goes after the one sheep. Let us in imitation of the one true teacher, speak the truth in charity so that the lost sheep may return to the fold and to the fullness of truth embodied in our articles of faith.