Hierarchy of Truths

views updated


The term "hierarchy of truths" refers to the order and relationship that Christian doctrines have with one another. While the expression came into common theological usage at vatican council ii, the basic idea of a differentiation in the scale and value of individual truths has long been recognized in various ways by theologians.

The Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican Council II advised Catholic theologians engaged in ecumenical dialogue: "when comparing doctrines, they should remember that in Catholic teaching there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith" (ch. 2.11). This idea originated in a speech given by Archbishop Andrea Pangrazio of Gorizia-Gradisca (Italy):

to arrive at a fair estimate of both the unity which now exists among Christians and the diversity which still remains, it seems very important to me to pay close attention to the hierarchical order of revealed truths which express the mystery of Christ and those elements which make up the Church.

Although all the truths revealed by divine faith are to be believed with the same divine faith and all those elements which make up the Church must be kept with equal fidelity, not all of them are of equal importance [Council Speeches of Vatican II, p. 191].

Distinguishing between truths on the level of our final goal (such as the Trinity or Incarnation) and truths on the level of means toward salvation (such as the sevenfold number of Sacraments or apostolic succession), Pangrazio thought that

doctrinal differences among Christians have less to do with these primary truths on the level of our final goal, and deal mostly with truths on the level of means, which are subordinate to those other primary truths.

Since Vatican II did not explain the meaning of hierarchy of truths, its usage has varied since the Council. The second part of the Ecumenical Directory, issued by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (April 16, 1970), identified the hierarchy of truths in terms of the relationship of a particular truth to the foundations of Christian faith, but also distinguished between "revealed truths" and "theological doctrines" (ch. 2.5). The Secretariat's Reflections and Suggestions Concerning Ecumenical Dialogue (Sept. 18, 1970) apparently distinguishes between a hierarchy of truths based on their different relationships to the foundation of Christian faith, and another hierarchy of truths related to the actual life of the Church. Accordingly, the position of a given doctrine in the life of Christians may differ from its theoretical place in relation to Christian foundations (ch. 4.4).

Similarly, a number of different emphases regarding the hierarchy of truths can be found in contemporary theological discussion. For example, some continue to categorize truths on the basis of the degree of their explicitness in scripture or the teaching of the Church. Others evaluate truths on the basis of their necessity for salvation. Still others contrast "nuclear" beliefs which are basic to the psychological functioning of a person's belief-system with "peripheral" beliefs which have few ramifications in a person's life.

Insofar as various principles of ordering or evaluating truths are available or possible, theologians can construct different hierarchies of truths, so that the position of a particular revelatory truth might then vary from one hierarchy to another.

See Also: truth; ecumenical movement.

Bibliography: a. pangrazio, "The Mystery of the History of the Church," in H. Küng, et al., Council Speeches of Vatican II (Glen Rock, N.J. 1964) 188192. g. tavard, "Hierarchi veritatum," Theological Studies 32 (1971) 278289. d. carroll, "'Hierarchia veritatum': A Theological and Pastoral Insight of the Second Vatican Council," Irish Theological Quarterly 44 (1977) 125133. w. henn, The Hierarchy of Truths according to Yves Congar, O.P. (Rome 1987).

[j. t. ford]