Notes, Theological

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Most manuals of theology before the Second Vatican Council presented their doctrine in the form of theses, and to each thesis they regularly assigned a "theological note." Thus one thesis may have been qualified as "of divine faith," another as "Catholic doctrine" or, again, "theologically certain." The system of theological notes indicated what kind of certitude the thesis involves, what kind of assent it demands. This article briefly treats the definition, author, division, and main types of theological notes.

Definition. A theological note is a judgment of the dogmatic or theological value of a proposition according to its relation with the norms of faith. The remote norms of faith are Sacred Scripture and tradition; the proximate norm is the teaching of the magisterium. [see tradition (in theology)]. A note presenting such an evaluative judgment is called "theological" because it makes known the theological value of a proposition. It is also called a "qualification" or "value" because it manifests the theological quality or value of the proposition.

A "theological censure" (see censure, theological) is a pejorative judgment that indicates a proposition is in some way opposed or harmful to faith or morals. If a thesis is given the theological note "of divine and Catholic faith," then a proposition that directly contradicts this thesis will be given the theological censure of "heresy."

Author. Strictly speaking, a dogmatic or theological evaluation of theses is matter for the ecclesiastical magisterium, since it alone has binding authority in the Church. But theologians can be empowered to pronounce sentence in doctrinal matters, and sometimes popes have given this power expressly to faculties of theology. Gradually it has come to be customary for theologians to pass judgment on the theological or dogmatic value of their own theses, though sometimes the Church has restricted their power and forbidden them to censure certain propositions that are still freely discussed among Catholics.

Division. There are many theological notes in use today: "divine faith," "divine and Catholic faith," "defined faith," "ecclesiastical faith," "proximate to faith"; "Catholic doctrine," "theologically certain," "common and certain doctrine"; "probable," "more probable," "common," "more common," and others.

The propositions that are qualified by these theological notes may be grouped into three or four general categories. The first embraces propositions that are in some way "of faith." The second includes propositions that are "not of faith" but are in some way "theologically certain." The third includes propositions that are "not certain" but are more or less "probable." Many authors break the second category into two, so as to distinguish "theologically certain" propositions into those that are "Catholic doctrine" and those that are "not Catholic doctrine." The reasons for this distinction will appear presently.

Main Types. It is now possible to consider the main types of theological notes in greater detail.

Divine and Catholic Faith. The most important theological note is that of "divine and Catholic faith." It is given to truths that are dogmas of the faith and must be believed if one is not to incur the censure of heresy. Such truths demand an absolute assent, based not on intrinsic truth seen with the natural light of reason but on the authority of God revealing, who can neither deceive nor be deceived (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 3008).

The meaning of this note is best gathered from a dogmatic constitution of Vatican Council I: "by divine and Catholic faith everything must be believed that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, and that is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief either in a solemn decree or in her ordinary, universal magisterium" (Enchiridion symbolorum 3011).

Thus two points must be verified if a proposition is to be "of divine and Catholic faith": it must be divinely revealed and it must be proposed by the Church for belief as divinely revealed. If it is divinely revealed, or, as the Council puts it, is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, then it is "of divine faith." If it is also proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief, then it is "of divine and Catholic faith."

Such a dogma of the faith can be proposed for belief by the Church in two ways: either by a solemn decree or by her ordinary, universal magisterium. If it is proposed for belief by a solemn decree, that is, if it is solemnly defined, then its theological note is slightly changed by many theologians so as to indicate this. Instead of saying that it is "of divine and Catholic faith," they say that it is "of defined divine faith," or simply "of defined faith."

Such solemn definitions can be made by a pope speaking ex cathedra, as in the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX and of the Assumption by Pius XII. Solemn definitions are also issued by ecumenical councils, such as Trent and Vatican I, in their various decrees and dogmatic constitutions.

But not only solemn definitions of the Church receive the note "of divine and Catholic faith." It is also applied to truths proposed by the Church's ordinary, universal magisterium as divinely revealed objects of belief. According to Pius IX, "that subjection which is to be made by an explicit act of divine faith must not be limited to those things which have been defined in express decrees of ecumenical councils or of Roman pontiffs; but it must also be extended to those things which, through the ordinary teaching of the whole Church throughout the world, are proposed as divinely revealed and, as a result, by universal and constant consent of Catholic theologians are held to be matters of faith" (Enchiridion symbolorum 2879). One finds truths of this kind in certain famous symbols, such as the so-called Athanasian Creed (Enchiridion symbolorum 75) or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (Enchiridion symbolorum 150).

There are also some particular councils whose propositions have acquired universal and irreformable value from their confirmation by a Roman pontiff and acceptance by the Church as expressions of her faith. Such are the Council of Carthage (Enchiridion symbolorum 222) against the Pelagians and the Second Council of Orange (Enchiridion symbolorum 370) against the Semi-Pelagians. From these, too, we derive propositions that are "of divine and Catholic faith" and whose denial incurs the censure of heresy.

Divine Faith. This note is used by some theologians, and more frequently in the treatise on revelation than in other treatises. They consider a truth to be "of divine faith" if it is found in the written word of God or in tradition so clearly that, even if it were not proposed by the Church for belief as divinely revealed, it would still have to be believed by divine faith. For them such truths are the divinity of Christ and His Resurrection.

Ecclesiastical Faith. This is another note occasionally encountered in manuals of theology. It is a controverted note, maintained by some theologians, rejected by others. When used, it is applied to truths that are revealed only virtually, not formally, but that are proposed by the magisterium of the Church to be held absolutely and universally. These truths are often defined, but not as dogmas of the faith. They require absolute assent because they are backed by the infallible authority of the Church. Hence they are qualified as "of ecclesiastical faith." An instance of such a truth is drawn from the Constitution of Alexander VII: "we declare and define that these five propositions taken from the book of the aforementioned Cornelius Jansen were condemned in the sense intended by that same Cornelius Jansen" (Enchiridion symbolorum 2012).

Proximate to Faith. This frequently used not is applied to a doctrine that by almost unanimous consent is held to be revealed but is not yet expressly proposed as such by the infallible magisterium. That "God sincerely wills the salvation of all adults" is said to be such a doctrine. This note does not command absolute assent.

Catholic Doctrine. This is a common theological note but an ambiguous one. Some theologians apply it to dogmas of the faith. For others it seems to have the same meaning as "proximate to faith." By still others it is applied to one species of theologically certain propositions. Sometimes it is difficult to determine just what meaning it has.

It applies strictly to propositions that are not dogmas of the faith or strict theological conclusions from revealed truths, but yet are taught expressly and authentically by the magisterium of the Church. Such propositions, based on the authority but not the infallibility of the Church, require of the faithful a truly internal assent from a religious motive of obedience.

"Catholic doctrine" is said to extend to whatever the supreme magisterium wishes to teach expressly, without proposing it for belief, such as the chief ideas of encyclicals, propositions contrary to those that have been condemned, what is contained in the chapters of general councils without being certainly defined or what is easily deduced from these chapters, doctrinal decrees of the Roman pontiff or of Roman congregations if these have been approved and confirmed by the pope. These latter decrees are not irreformable and are of lesser weight than strictly papal precepts, but they too require an obedient assent.

Theologically Certain. This is another very common but not very satisfactory note. For it is sometimes applied only to strict theological conclusions, sometimes also to Catholic doctrine, sometimes even more widely to any common and certain doctrine of theologians. Hence "theologically certain" propositions must be carefully examined to determine just what this qualification means in each case.

In its strictest sense a proposition is called "theologically certain" if it is a certain theological conclusion from one premise that is revealed and from another that is not revealed but is naturally certain. Thus the proposition that Christ is capable of laughter is called theologically certain because it is deduced from a revealed premise (Christ is man), and from a naturally certain premise (every man is capable of laughter). (see error, theological).

In its widest sense, a "theologically certain" note is applied to propositions that theologians commonly hold as certain but that are neither strict theological conclusions from revelation nor Catholic doctrine. Many theologians qualify such propositions simply as "common and certain."

Probable. Another very common note is "probable," "more probable," etc. A thesis is termed theologically "probable" if it rests on a fallible but sufficiently grave theological motive. The Ecumenical Council of Vienne used this note: "We consider the second opinion which says that in Baptism informing grace and virtues are conferred on children as well as on adults, as more probable" (Enchiridion symbolorum 904).

In conclusion, one may note that theologians, while they found these and other theological notes very useful, did not found a way to achieve greater uniformity in the definition and use of them.

See Also: theological terminology.

Bibliography: h. quilliet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 2:210113. s. cartechini, De valore notarum theologicarum et de criteriis ad eas dignoscendas (Rome 1951). j. b. franzelin, Tractatus de divina traditione et Scriptura (4th ed. Rome 1896). l. de grandmaison, Le Dogme chrétien: Sa nature, ses formules, son développement (Paris 1928). j. salaverri, "De valore et censura propositionum in theologia," Estudios Ecclesiaticos 23 (1949) 17088.

[e. j. fortman]