A Manual Of Catholic Theology, Based On Scheeben's “Dogmatik”
Joseph Wilhelm, D.D., PHD. And Thomas B. Scannell, D.D.
With A Preface By Cardinal Manning

Vol. 1. The Sources Of Theological Knowledge, God, Creation And The Supernatural Order
Third Edition, Revised, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Lt.
New York, Cincinnati, Chicago, Benziger Bros.

[Pp. 71-84]


SECT. 22.—Origin and Growth of Ecclesiastical Tradition.

I. ECCLESIASTICAL tradition differs essentially from human tradition, whether popular or scientific. Human tradition can produce only human certitude; it increases or decreases with the course of time, and may ultimately fail altogether. Ecclesiastical Tradition is indeed human, inasmuch as it is in the hands of men, and it may be popular or scientific, historical or exegetical. But it is also something far higher. Its organs are the members of Christ's Church; they form one body fashioned by God Himself; and animated and directed by His Holy Spirit. Hence their testimony is not the testimony of men, but the testimony of the Holy Ghost. Its value does not depend upon the number of witnesses or their learning, but on their rank in the Church and the assistance of the Holy Ghost; and the authenticity of their testimony remains the same at every point of the stream of Tradition.

II. Nevertheless it must be admitted that the human clement modifies the perfection of Tradition. There may be a break in its continuity and universality. A temporary and partial eclipse of truth is possible, as are also further developments. It is possible that for a time a portion of the Deposit may not be known and acknowledged by the whole Church or expressly and distinctly attested by the leading organs of the Apostolate. We may therefore assert that the essential integrity, continuity, and universality of Oral Tradition, as required by the infallibility and indefectibility of the Church and as modified by the imperfections of the human clement, are subject to the following laws:-

1. Nothing can be proposed as Apostolic Tradition which is not Apostolic Tradition, or is opposed to it; and no truth handed down by the Apostles can be altogether lost.

2. The most essential and necessary truths must always be expressly taught, admitted, and handed down in the Church, if not by every individual teacher or hearer, at least by the Body as a whole. Truths belonging to the Apostolic Deposit which have been so obscured as not to be known and professed by all the members of the Church, and even to be rejected by some or not distinctly enforced by others, must be attested and transmitted at least implicitly ; that is to say, truths clearly expressed and distinctly professed must contain the obscured truths in such a way that by careful reflection and the assistance of the Holy Ghost these obscured truths may be evolved and proposed for universal acceptance. There are, we may observe, several ways in which one truth may be implied in another. General truths contain particular truths; principles imply consequences; complex statements involve simpler statements whether as constituent parts or as conditions; practical truths presuppose theoretical principles and vice versa. The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of Papal Infallibility are implied in other dogmas in all of these four ways (infra. p. 105).

Only the actual and express Tradition of a truth can be appealed to in proof that it is a matter of Faith. If we can show that at a given time the Tradition was universal this alone is sufficient — continuity is not absolutely necessary. However, except in cases of an authoritative definition, Tradition, to become universal, requires a long time. Even when an authoritative definition is given, it is always based upon the fact that the Tradition in question was universal for a long time. Hence the duration for a more or less long period should be proved.

SECT. 23 — The Various Modes in which Traditional Testimony is given in the church.

The modes or forms in which the infallible testimony of the Holy Ghost is given are as manifold as the forms of the living organism of the Church. For our present purpose we may distinguish them according to the rank of the witnesses.

I. The most adequate testimony exists when the entire Body of the Church, Head and members alike, profess, teach, and act upon a certain doctrine. (“Curandum est ut id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.'' Vinc. Lirin, Common., cap. 3). This unanimity is expressed and maintained by professions of Faith universally admitted, by catechisms in general use, and by the general practice of the Church either in her liturgy, discipline, or morals, in so far as such practice supposes and includes Faith in particular doctrines. Hence the old rule quoted against the Pelagians, “Legem credendi statuat lex supplicandi.”

II. Next in extent, though far lower in rank, is what is called the “Sensus fidelium,” that is, the distinct, universal, and constant profession of a doctrine by the whole body of the simple Faithful. As we have shown in § 13, this sensus fidelium involves a relatively independent and immediate testimony of the Holy Ghost. Although but an echo of the authentic testimony of the Teaching Apostolate, the universal belief of the Faithful is of great weight in times when its unity and distinctness are more apparent than the teaching of the Apostolate itself, or when a part of the Teaching Body is unfaithful to its duty, or when the Teaching Body, about to define a doctrine which had for a time been obscured in the Church, appeals to all the manifestations of the Holy Ghost in its favour. Thus, during the Arian troubles, St. Hilary could say, “The faithful ears of the people are holier than the lips of the priests.” And before the definition of the Immaculate Conception the profession and practice of the Faithful were appealed to in favour of the definition. Cf. Franzelin, De Trad., th. xii., p. 112, where he rejects the interpretation given in the Rambler for July, 1859, p. 218 sqq. See also Card. Newman's Arians, pp. 464, 467; Ward, Essays on the Church's Doctrinal Authority, p. 70. “As the blood flows from the heart to the body through the arteries; as the vital sap insinuates itself into the whole tree, into each bough, and leaf, and fibre; as water descends through a thousand channels from the mountaintop to the plain; so is Christ's pure and life-giving doctrine diffused, flowing into the whole body through a thousand organs from the Ecclesia Docens.” Murray, De Ecclesia, disp. x., n. 15, quoted by Ward.

III. The universal teaching of the Bishops and Priests is another mode of ecclesiastical testimony to revealed truth. The testimony of all the Bishops is in itself infallible, independently of the teaching of the inferior clergy and the belief of the Faithful, because the Episcopate is the chief organ of infallibility in the Church. It is, moreover, an infallible testimony at every moment of its duration (“I am with you all days “). This mode of testimony is sometimes called the testimony of the Particular Churches, because the teaching of each Bishop is reflected and repeated by the clergy and the Faithful of his diocese. Hence the testimony of the Priests and of Theological Schools in subordination to the Bishop holds a sort of intermediate position and value between the “Sensus fidelium” and the testimony of the Episcopate.

IV. The central, perfect and juridical representative of Tradition is the Apostolic See. From the earliest times it has been the custom to consider the formula, “The Roman Church or Apostolic See hath held and doth hold,” as equivalent to “The Catholic Church hath held and doth hold;“ because the universal Church must hold, at least implicitly, the doctrines taught by the Holy See. When the Pope pronounces a judicial sentence he can bind the whole Church, teachers as well as taught, and the authority of his decisions is not impaired, even by opposition within the Teaching Body. Moreover, as a consequence of the connection between the Head of the Church and the Roman See, there exists in the local Roman Church, apart from the authoritative decisions of the Pope, a certain actual and normal testimony which must be considered as an expression of the habitual teaching of the Holy See. This arises from the fact that the Faith professed in the Roman Church is the result of the constant teaching of the Popes, accepted by the laity and taught by the clergy, especially by the College of Cardinals who take part in the general government of the Church.

V. Besides the Apostolic See and the ordinary Apostolate, God has provided auxiliary channels of Ecclesiastical Tradition in the person of the extraordinary auxiliary members described above, § 12. Their position and importance have been defined by St. Augustine (Contra Julianum, II. i. et ii., especially ii. c. 37), and by St. Vincent of Lerins who comments on the text of St. Augustine (Comrnonitor., c. xxviii. sqq., and c. i. of the second Commonitorium). In the early days of the Church, when the teaching functions were almost exclusively exercised by the Bishops, the extraordinary representatives of Apostolical Tradition were usually eminent members of the episcopate. They received the name of “Fathers” because this was the title commonly given to Bishops by their subjects and by their successors. They are also called “Fathers of the Church,” because, living as they did in the infancy of the Church, when extraordinary means were needed for its preservation, they received a more abundant outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and thus their doctrine represents His teaching in an eminent degree. Besides, their special function was to fix the substance of the Apostolic Deposit so that, naturally, their writings became the basis of the further development of doctrine, and were placed side by side with Scripture as channels of Apostolic doctrine. Thus they were the Fathers, not only of the Church in their own day, but also in subsequent ages. Compared with them, the later writers are regarded as the “Sons of the Fathers,” and sometimes as “Paedagogi,” with reference to what St. Paul says (I Cor. iv. 15), “If you have ten thousand instructors (paedogogi) in Christ, yet not many fathers.” The Sons of the Fathers were not all bishops. Many of them were priests or members of Religious Orders, or masters of theological schools. They represent the mind (sensus) of the Catholic Schools and of the Faithful, and are distinguished for human learning and industry, which they apply to the development and fuller comprehension of doctrine rather than to the fixing of its substance. Hence their name of “Doctors” or “Theologians.”

SECT. 24.—Documentary Tradition, the Expression of the Living Tradition.

I. Ecclesiastical Tradition by its very nature is oral. Writings and documents are not needed for its transmission; nevertheless they are useful for the purpose of fixing Tradition, and of remedying the imperfections of the human element. Hence it follows that the Holy Ghost, Who watches over the living Tradition, must also assist in the production and preservation of such documents so as to cause them to present, if not an adequate, at least a more or less perfect exposition of previous Tradition.

II. When the writings of the Fathers reproduce the authentic teaching of the Church. they constitute a Written Tradition, equal in authority to the subsequent Oral Tradition, and are, like Holy Scripture, an objective and remote Rule of Faith running side by side with Oral Tradition. Still they are not by themselves a complete and independent Source and Rule of Faith. Like the Holy Scriptures, they too are in the Church's custody and are subject to the Church's interpretation. There can be no contradiction between the teaching of the Fathers and the doctrine of the Church; apparent contradictions are due either to spuriousness or lack of authenticity on the part of the documents, or to a mistaken interpretation of them.

III. The various writings and documents which constitute Written Tradition may be divided into two classes.

1. The first class comprises those which emanate from the official organs of Ecclesiastical Tradition in the exercise of their functions, and which, therefore, belong by their very nature to the Written Tradition, e.g. Decisions of the Popes and of Councils; Liturgical documents and monuments, such as Liturgies, Sacramentaries, Ordines Romani, pictures, symbols, inscriptions, vases, etc., connected with public worship; the writings of the Fathers and approved Theologians in so far as they contain distinct statements on the truths of Tradition. These documents and monuments have more than a mere historical value. They all participate more or less in the supernatural character of the living Tradition of which they are the emanation and exponents, and, even when they are not the work of the authors to whom they are ascribed, they may still be of great weight.

2. The second class of documents is composed of those which, independently of the ecclesiastical rank of their author, or of the authority of the Church generally, contribute to the history or better scientific knowledge of Tradition. To this class may belong the writings of doubtful Catholics, and even of heretics and pagans. The two classes do not exclude each other. Many documents belong to both, under different aspects.

The Roman Catacombs have lately acquired great importance as monuments of the earliest Tradition. See Roma Sotteranea, by Dr. Northcote and Canon Brownlow.

SECT. 25.—Rules for demonstrating Revealed Truth from Ecclesiastical Tradition.

The rules for the application of the laws mentioned in the above section may be gathered from the laws themselves. Catholics, believing as they do in the Divine authority of Tradition, will of course obtain different results from Protestants who acknowledge only its historical value. Catholics, too, will apply the rules differently, according as their object is to ascertain with infallible certitude the apostolicity of a truth, or to expound and defend it scientifically.

I. For the Catholic it is not necessary to demonstrate positively from coeval documents that the Church has always borne actual witness to a given doctrine. The scantiness of the documents, especially of those belonging to the sub-apostolic age, makes it even impossible. The Tradition of the present time, above all if it is attested by an authoritative definition, is quite sufficient to prove the former existence of the same Tradition, although perhaps only in a latent state. Any further knowledge of its former existence is merely of scientific interest. When, however, the Ecclesiastical Tradition of the present is not publicly manifest, and the judges of the Faith have to decide some controverted question, they must investigate the Tradition of the past, or, as St. Vincent of Lerins expresses it, they must appeal to antiquity. It is not necessary to go back to an absolute antiquity: it is sufficient to find some time when the Tradition was undoubted. Thus, at the Council of Ephesus (AD, 431), the decisions were based upon the testimony of the Fathers of the fourth century. When the Tradition is not manifest either in the present or in the past, we can sometimes have recourse to the consent of the Fathers and Theologians of note. The temporary uncertainty and even partial negation of a doctrine within the Church is not, in in itself, a conclusive argument against the traditional character of the doctrine. The opposition can generally be shown to be purely human, and can often be turned to good account. We can sometimes ascertain its origin and show that the Church resisted it. Sometimes the difficulty arises from an appeal to merely local traditions or the opposition is inconsistent, varying, indefinite, mixed with opinions distinctly heretical or destructive of Catholic life and thought. It would be easy to prove that all these marks are applicable to the Gallican opposition to the Infallibility of the Pope. Even when the investigation of antiquity does not result in absolute certitude, it may at least produce a moral conviction, so that denial would be rash.

II. The Tradition of a truth being once established, a Catholic has no further interest in the investigation of its continuity, except for the purposes of science and apologetics. Heretics, moreover, have no right to demand direct proof of the antiquity of a doctrine. We may indeed reply to their arguments from Tradition, and set before them the traces of the doctrine in the different ages, but it is better to prove to them the Catholic principle of Tradition, for which there is abundant historical evidence.

SECT. 26.— The Writings of the Fathers.

I. The “Fathers” are those representatives of Tradition who have been recognized by the Church as excelling in sanctity and in natural and supernatural gifts, and who belong to the early Church. This latter mark distinguishes them from the doctors who have lived more recent times, but it has only a secondary influence upon their authority. No great significance was attached by the Council of Ephesus or the older theologians to the antiquity of the Fathers. The Church herself has bestowed the title of “Doctor Ecclesiae,” by which it honours the most illustrious Fathers in the Liturgy, upon many saints of later date, and has thereby put them on the same level. We may even say that the canonization of a theological writer raises him to some extent to the dignity a “Father.” Still, the mark of antiquity is not without importance, as we have already explained.

II. The domain of doctrine covered by the authority and infallibility of the Fathers is co-extensive with that of the Church, whose mouthpiece they are. Hence it does not embrace truths of a purely natural and philosophical character, or truths revealed only per accidens, because these are not part of the public teaching of the Church. On the other hand, their authority is not limited to their testimony to truths expressly and formally revealed, but extends to the dogmatico-theological interpretation of the whole Deposit of Revelation. The material and formal authority of the Fathers — that is, the subject-matter with which they deal, and the ecclesiastical use of their writings — are beautifully expressed by St. Vincent of Lerins, when speaking of the Fathers quoted at the Council of Ephesus: “Only these ten, the sacred number of the commandments, were brought forward at Ephesus as teachers, counsellors, witnesses, and judges; [and the Council] holding their doctrine, following their advice, believing their testimony, and obeying their decision … passed judgment concerning the rules of Faith” (n. 30). The modern view which reduces the authority of the Fathers to that of mere historical witnesses could not better be refuted.

III. We must be careful to distinguish between the authority of one or a certain number of the Fathers, and the consentient testimony of all of them. It is evident that the former is not infallible, because the Church's approbation of their writings is not intended to be a guarantee of the truth of all that they teach. Some particular works, as, for instance, St. Cyril's Anathemas, have, however, received this guarantee. The Church's approbation implies: (1) that the writings approved were not opposed to any doctrine publicly held by the Church in the time of the author, and consequently were not subject to any censure ; (2) that the doctrines for which the Father was renowned, and on which he insisted most, are positively probable ; (3) that there is a strong presumption that the doubtful expressions of the Fathers should be interpreted in accordance with the commonly received doctrine, and that no discrepancy should be admitted among them except on the strongest grounds; (4) under extraordinary circumstances it may give us a moral certainty of a doctrine when, for instance, some illustrious Father has, without being contradicted by the Church, openly enforced that doctrine as being Catholic, and has treated those who deny it as heretics. When, however, all the Fathers agree, their authority attains its perfection. The consent of the Fathers has always been looked upon as of equal authority with the teaching of the whole Church, or the definitions of the Popes and Councils. But inasmuch as it is hardly possible to ascertain the opinions of every Father on every point of doctrine, and as the Holy Ghost prevents the Church from ascribing to the whole body of the Fathers any doctrine which they did not hold, it follows that the consent of the Fathers must be regarded as fully ascertained whenever those of them whose writings deal with a given doctrine agree absolutely or morally, provided that they are numerous and belong to different countries and times. The number required varies with the nature of the doctrine, which may be public, a matter of daily practice and of great importance, or, on the other hand, may be of an abstract, speculative character, and comparatively unimportant: and with the personal authority of the Fathers, with their position in the Church, with the amount of opposition to the doctrine, and with many other circumstances.

The Consent of the Fathers does not always prove the Catholic character of a doctrine in the same way. If they distinctly state that a doctrine is a public dogma of the Church, the doctrine must be at once accepted. If they merely state that the doctrine is true and taught by the Church, without formally attributing to it the character of a dogma, this testimony has by no means the same weight. The doctrine thus attested cannot, on that account, be treated as a dogma. Nevertheless it is at least a Catholic truth and morally certain, and the denial of it would deserve the censure of temerity or error.

IV. The authority of the Fathers is held in high esteem by the Church in the interpretation of Scripture. They made the Bible their especial study, whereas later writers have not been so directly concerned with it, and when they have treated of it they have followed the lead of the Fathers. The consent of the Fathers is a positive and not an exclusive rule, i.e. the interpretation must be in accordance with it where it exists, but where it does not exist we may lawfully interpret even in opposition to the opinions of some of the Fathers. This consent must be gathered from all their writings and not merely from their commentaries, because in the latter they often have in view particular points of doctrine of a practical or ascetic nature, whereas in their other writings they are rather engaged in expounding Catholic dogma. But even in both kinds of writings a complete scientific exposition of the text can seldom be found, because, as a rule, the Fathers have in hand some particular doctrine which they endeavour to draw from and base upon the text. Hence the many apparent differences in their exegesis, which may, however, be easily explained by a collation of the various passages. (See supra, p. 65.)

SECT. 27.— The Writings of Theologians.

I. By Theologians we mean men learned in Theology, who as members or masters of the theological schools which came into existence after the patristic era, taught and handed down Catholic doctrine on strictly scientific lines, in obedience to and under the supervision of the bishops. The title belongs primarily to the Schoolmen of the Middle Ages — the Scholastic Theologians strictly so-called; then to all who followed the methods of the School during the last three centuries; and, generally, to all distinguished and approved writers on Theology whether they have adhered to the Scholastic methods or not. It is only in exceptional cases that the Church gives a public approbation to an individual Theologian, and this is done by canonization or by the still further honour of conferring on him the title of Doctor of the Church. When we speak of an Approved Author, we mean one who is held in general esteem on account of his learning and the Catholic spirit of his teaching. Some approved authors are of acknowledged weight, while others are of only minor importance. What we are about to state concerning the authority of Theologians must not be applied indiscriminately to every Catholic writer, but only to such as are weighty and approved (auctores probati et graves).

II. The authority of Theologians, like that of the Fathers, may be considered either individually and partially, or of the whole body collectively. As a rule, the authority of a single Theologian (with the exception of canonized Saints, and perhaps some authors of the greatest weight) does not create the presumption that no point of his doctrine was opposed to the common teaching of the Church in his day; much less that, independently of his reasons, the whole of his doctrine is positively probable merely on account of his authority. When, however, the majority of approved and weighty Theologians agree, it must be presumed that their teaching is not opposed to that of the Church. Moreover, if their doctrines are based upon sound arguments propounded without any prejudice and not contradicted very decidedly, the positive probability of the doctrines must be presumed. No more than this probability can be produced by the consent of many or even of all Theologians when they state a doctrine as a common opinion (opinio communis) and not as a common conviction (sententia conmunis). These questions have been discussed at great length by Moral Theologians in the controversy on Probabilism. See Lacroix, Theol. Mor., lib. I., tr. i., c. 2.

The consent of Theologians produces certainty that a doctrine is Catholic truth only when on the one hand the doctrine is proposed as absolutely certain, and on the other and the consent is universal and constant (Consensus universalis et constans non solurn opinionis sed firmae et ratae sententiae). If all agree that a particular doctrine is a Catholic dogma and that to deny it is heresy, then that doctrine is certainly a dogma. If they agree that a doctrine cannot be denied without injuring Catholic truth, and that such denial is deserving of censure, this again is a sure proof that the doctrine is in some way a Catholic doctrine. If, again, they agree in declaring that a doctrine is sufficiently certain and demonstrated, their consent is not indeed a formal proof of the Catholic character of the doctrine, nevertheless the existence of the consent shows that the doctrine belongs to the mind of the Church (catholicus intellectus), and that consequently its denial would incur the censure of rashness.

These principles on the authority of Theologians were strongly insisted on by Pius IX in the brief, Gravissimas inter (cf. infra, § 29), and they are evident consequences of the Catholic doctrine of Tradition. Although the assistance of the Holy Ghost is not directly promised to Theologians, nevertheless the assistance promised to the Church requires that He should prevent them as a body from falling into error; otherwise the Faithful who follow them would all be led astray. The consent of Theologians implies the consent of the Episcopate, according to St. Augustine's dictum: “Not to resist an error is to approve of it — not to defend a truth is to reject it.” (“Error cui non resistitur approbatur, et veritas quae non defenditur opprimitur “ (Decr. Grat., dist. 83, c. error). And even natural reason assures us that this consent is a guarantee of truth. “Whatever is found to be one and the same among many persons is not an error but a tradition” (Tertullian). (Supra, p. 68.)

The Church holds the mediaeval Doctors in almost the same esteem as the Fathers. The substance of the teaching of the Schoolmen and their method of treatment have both been strongly approved of by the Church (cf. Syllab., prop xiii., and Leo XIII., encyclical AEterni Patris on the study of St. Thomas).

[Editor: We have additionally, since this work was published, the evidence of the Code of Canon Law (1917) concerning St. Thomas, which confirms and even strengthens the point made by Scheeben in this place. "The study of philosophy and theology and the teaching of these sciences to their students must be accurately carried out by Professors (in seminaries etc.) according to the arguments, doctrine, and principles of St. Thomas which they are inviolately to hold." CIC 1366, 2.]