...in ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a "hierarchy" of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ. (Unitatis Redintegratio §11)The point of citing the hierarchy of truths in that context was to remind Catholics engaged in "ecumenical dialogue" not to dwell so much on certain distinctively Catholic doctrines "lower down" in the hierarchy, such as the Marian ones, as to obscure awareness of our unity with some non-Catholic Christians about some of the ones "higher up," such as the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and man's call to a share in the divine life. But some theologians, and not a few people who read them, interpret the Council's statement to mean that the lower-down doctrines are dispensable, inasmuch as they are matters of opinion not touching the "core" of faith, not articles of an organically whole faith. That view is incorrect.
Here's what Fr. Gus DiNoia, O.P., former chief editor of The Thomist and currently Undersecretary for the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has to say about this issue:
A lot of modern theology has been seduced by the criterion of reasonability, or as somebody might say, critical reasonability. The result is that you have to pare down articles of faith, rather than taking the entirety of the revelation in all of its complexity, richness, challenged difficulty. You pare it down so that you have a core that you can "live with." This is deadly, because now the faith has to pass the bar of human reason, whereas for classical theology it was just the opposite. Human reason had to pass the bar of faith.Quite so. While a given doctrine further from the "core" might not be as important as one closer thereto, it's sort of like one's pinky: it belongs to one's organism; one wouldn't want to treat it as dispensable; yet it only makes sense in terms of the whole and draws its life from more basic parts of the body.
From this way of thinking has emerged one of the most insidious abuses of "the hierarchy of doctrines." The hierarchy of doctrines is treated as a way of ranking doctrines by their authority and as Avery Dulles has pointed out in an article we published in The Thomist. This of course was not what the Second Vatican Council meant by the hierarchy of doctrines. What the hierarchy of doctrines refers to is that all of the doctrines, which, you might say, seem not to be central, are not, therefore, dispensable, but only understandable with respect to a core.
Let me give you a very good example. We are all bodies with parts, fingers, toes, ears, livers, brains, hearts, now if I said to you, what is your most important part, most people would say either the brain or the heart. If I asked you what is your most least important part, you might say, your pinky. But the fact that you are able to identify important parts of your body with respect to less important ones, does not mean that you are prepared to part with any of the parts of your body. You are not prepared to part with pinkies, because they are not hearts.
Although this sounds funny, sometimes it's these kinds of examples that are the only ones that make sense to people. The hierarchy of doctrines is more correctly understood with an organic metaphor, because what the hierarchy of doctrine means is that doctrine like the perpetual virginity of Mary or sexual morality don't make sense apart from the core. It doesn't mean some beliefs are less important and therefore dispensable, it means that they don't work apart from the core and in this case, the core is the Trinity; The Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, the hierarchy of faith is structured by the analogy of faith, by which the coherence of each part not only depends on but reflects the core and all the others. When people don't quite see the point of the "lesser" doctrines, such as those on sexual morality or the virginity of Mary, it's because they don't understand how the greater ones manifest themselves in the concrete and the particular. They are not immersed enough in the faith to grasp the analogy of faith, and thus are prey to the "insidious" error that Fr. DiNoia diagnoses and warns us about. That is especially true of many Catholics, who thus become legalistic, always looking to rank teachings of the Church by their precise "degree of authority" so that they can determine which they can get away with disbelieving.
While some teachings are hardly irreformable, such as those representing the exercise of prudential judgment about some morally significant aspects of contemporary life, the legalism I'm describing almost always extends to other teachings which indeed are irreformable. The cure is proper awareness of what holds the hierarchy of truths together. Such awareness can come about only if one is animated by a sincere desire to be grasped by the virtue and the content of faith, as distinct from developing religious opinions for oneself.
A good start for those so disposed would be the book whose cover is imaged at the beginning of this post. Just click it.