The Role of Doctrine in Inspiring Believers to Moral Greatness

In order to demonstrate this essential coexistence of nature and grace in the life of the Church, and the life of the believer, it must be shown that doctrine is necessary for salvation, not superfluous, but essential to the Church’s mission given by Christ.

 Jesus preaching a sermon on the mount by Gustave Dore

St. Robert Bellarmine proposed as a mark of the true Church the efficacy of doctrine in inspiring believers to moral greatness. That this should be so is due to the hypostatic nature of the Church, which is the body of Christ. Human and divine, it is necessary that members of the Church, if they are to live in full unity with God and one another, be transformed through that same mode of existence, inflating neither at the expense of the other. In order to demonstrate this essential coexistence of nature and grace in the life of the Church, and the life of the believer, it must be shown that doctrine is necessary for salvation, not superfluous, but essential to the Church’s mission given by Christ. Secondly, it must also be shown that, of itself, doctrine is inefficacious without the subjective element of faith that makes it salvific. From the proper delineation of doctrine established by the above, the role of the Church in proposing doctrine for belief becomes clear. Finally, the dynamic of faith and action comes forth, by which the believer is indeed inspired to moral greatness.

Whereas in the natural sciences, purpose is self-evident, inquiry finding its justification in the results, the sacred sciences can seem arbitrary to the one whose assent is demanded. What does it matter whether Jesus Christ was God-made-man, man-made-God, or one appearing to be the other, so long as I believe in Jesus Christ and, therefore, am saved? Certain consequences of opposing belief can be demonstrated, but given that there is much more we cannot know than that which we can, it seems complete certainty will always evade us. 1 To espouse this position does avoid the rightly eschewed narrowness of dogmatism, but at the cost of leaving theological inquiry stunted, and ultimately, the life of faith, short-sighted.

This work of codifying, clarifying, and amplifying doctrine is the task of theology. Its justification, however, is not found in the result, the action that follows inquiry. St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this point in his Summa Theologiae. 2 It is objected that sacred doctrine is a practical science, since it is not enough only to hear the word, but also to act upon it. While admitting the truth of this point, St. Thomas clarifies that the action following sacred doctrine is subordinate to the primary object which is God. The primary concern of doctrine is not the created world, but the uncreated God, after which it is able to treat of the created world and, only then, have practical consequences. This follows logically upon the axiom that one cannot love what one does not know—another way of saying which is “appetition follows cognition.” Knowledge of God is primary in accomplishing the unity with God to which humankind is called, and leads efficaciously to that unity through the supernatural virtue of faith. This establishes the first motive for claiming the necessity of doctrine in the life of the Church. On a purely natural level, knowledge is primary, and so, too, on a supernatural level, knowledge has a certain primacy.

Secondly, the necessity of doctrine is demonstrated by Divine Revelation in a twofold way. There is, first, the very fact of revelation, which, of its essence, presupposes the above axiom. If knowledge were inconsequential to love, it would not be necessary for one to know of God. He could quite simply save humanity, and bring us to himself, without our ever being aware of either the need for salvation, or the process of its accomplishment. But, this would run contrary to human nature, in which intellect and will do not function independently but inter-relationally. 3 There is, further, the testimony of revelation to the necessity of doctrine. Following the same principle, it would be incongruous for our Lord to have commanded his disciples to “go and teach all nations” (Mt 28:19) if knowledge of one’s own need for salvation was only ampliative, rather than constitutive to its appropriation. The promise of divine assistance in the mission of the Apostles—to evangelize all nations—is precisely for the sake of extending Christ’s saving action throughout space and time.

Given the above, it is clearly the case that in discussing the definition and propagation of doctrine, the Church does not exceed the boundary of possibility, but, in fact, fulfills the role assigned to her by reaching toward that very limit. 4 To allow for a minimalistic notion of theological inquiry would ultimately work against that mission, not only in failing to expand the realm of perceived possibility, but in paving the way for error through inaccuracy, the fault of one who makes broad strokes and fails to take into account precise detail. Nevertheless, it is possible for the role of doctrine to become disordered in the individual, and this too must be treated if an authentic picture is to emerge.

An error that can be detected in certain over-emphases of the role of doctrine will be to downplay the need for supernatural faith in the knowledge of God, and that which he has revealed, so that the intelligam is detached from the credo it ought to presuppose. Such is the case with nonbelieving Scripture scholars and students of theology who, despite years of diligent study into the technical work of theology and the historical context of revelation, ascribe to it nothing beyond human authorship and a rationalistic foundation. Such can also be the obstacle for one who, without the reverence of submission to that which is patently greater, a stance intrinsic to true faith, rejects what seems inexplicable and irrational.

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in his speech upon the reception of Doctor honoris causa at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, touched this very issue in attempting to answer the question, “What is theology?” He points out that “the path of theology is indicated by the saying, “Credo ut intelligam.”: I accept what is given in advance.” 5 Because of this, the theologian, and by extension, every believer, presupposes an authority beyond himself. This authority is the truth that faith presents to the believer. Ratzinger goes on to say that by that authority “the circle of our own thinking has been broken … our thinking has, so to say, been given a hand and helped upward, beyond what it could achieve for itself.” 6

Thus, for the individual, natural knowledge is not sufficient. Just as humanity was incapable of attaining its own salvation, but stood in need of the Divine intervention accomplished in Jesus Christ, so too, knowledge of the God who offers that salvation is not capable of actualization without the same intervention. But, faith not only precedes that assent of the mind, which leads to assent of the heart, it also carries it through to completion. Therefore, a singular act of faith is insufficient if it is not subsequently maintained, or much worse, if it is consciously revoked. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., points out in speaking of this need:

If … the theologian loses faith (by grave sin against that virtue), there remains in him only the corpse of theology, a body without soul, since he no longer adheres, formally and infallibly, to revealed truths, the sources of the theological habit. And this is true, even if in following his own judgment, he still holds materially one or the other of these truths. 7

Consequently, the subjective dimension of belief is necessary if doctrine is to become effective. It vivifies the objective dimension, which is the body of beliefs itself. An isolation of either must be avoided, for in either case, there would remain only a shadow of what belief is meant to be. This reality notwithstanding, it must not be presumed that one without the other is an impossible situation. Evidently, it is the case that one could reject that truth to which his assent is called, but it must not be ruled out that the assent one desires to give could be led astray by errant teaching.

The Divine Commission to the Church is enough to assert that, in herself, the Church will never fail in this mission to pass on the truth, and Scripture testifies to the same, even after the Commission had been given, as can be seen in various of the epistles. In St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he describes the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tm 3:15). St. Thomas comments on this passage saying, “in the Church is firm knowledge and the truth…and they (those who believe) cannot be grounded in the truth except through the sacraments of the Church.” 8 This same idea will be taken up in discussing the role of the Church in proposing doctrine for belief. Nevertheless, there must first be corrected the error that would hold an exaggerated opinion of infallibility, which would go so far as to maintain that no individual representing the Church and mandated to carry out the teaching mission is capable of failing to pass on, at least, that which is essential.

To search for a concretized corpus of theology would ultimately prove to be in vain. Though the truth has always existed, and will always exist per se, the way that truth is received, understood, and handed on—which could summarily be defined as that same corpus—is an historical act. Therefore, so long as history continues, theology will continue in a living fashion. As Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P., put it in his introduction to The Godly Image, “Whatever critical reservations one might have about it, the simple fact remains that quite different perspectives mark the contemporary situation of the theological act.” 9 To present the objective truth in a way that elicits the subjective act of faith requires the mediation of history, specifically the moment of history in which one finds oneself, and those to whom the truth is being passed on. There must be a reconciling of the “foreignness” marking the received tradition, which necessarily exists as the quality of a product originating in the past, with the contemporality of the individual intellect, without doing damage to either the object or the subject. This is the task of the Magisterium, the theologian, the preacher, and the catechist, all of whom participate in the Church’s teaching mission to various degrees. A failure to take up this task, and to set oneself to the work at hand, is just as grave a fault of omission as would be the act of purposeful distortion of the truth is an act of commission. 10

Following upon a proper understanding of the role of doctrine, and the role of the Church in defining and proclaiming the same, it is necessary to treat of the individual, who, in a sense, stands as the mediator between what the Church believes and what she does. If the individual accepts the authority of the Church, then belief in God presumes belief in what God teaches through the Church. At the same time, that presumption of belief will not be brought to completion until faith leads to action. The individual first accepts what is taught and then acts in accordance with that teaching to bring this process to fruition.

The initial step of this twofold process, by which the individual actualizes the doctrine of the Church, is the authority by which the Church formulates the truth in doctrinal statements. This motion is the exitus of revelation, directed toward the People of God who stand in need of it. The medium between that which is revealed, and those to whom it is revealed, is the Magisterium. “The magisterium, concretely the pope and the bishops, are introduced here not merely as members of the people of God and for that reason enjoying the assistance of the Holy Spirit; rather they are recognized as having, in addition, a special function as guides with the task of conserving the whole Church in the truth.” 11 It is for this reason, and on the authority shown above, whereby the Magisterium is established as no merely human office. To suppose that one’s own ability to know the truth, and to understand what is necessary for salvation, outweighs the Divine assistance promised only to the Church, ultimately exposes oneself to the danger of straying from the right path without a guide to correct errors along the way.

It is in the mediation of this exitus that the historical condition previously mentioned takes on great importance, and that the work of the individual theologian is required. Harmony must be reached between the dissonant, between timeless truth and temporal condition. Here again, the believing subject must rationally integrate faith with perceived reality, avoiding violence to either. John Lamont, seeking to clarify this topic, wrote, “the fact that part of a doctrine is due to historical conditioning, and is not a part of the faith, need not imply that it is false. It may be that historical conditions led to some true statements being incorporated into Church doctrine.” 12 It is by the very nature of the exitus in time that the historical situation must be taken into account. Far from complicating the act of faith by her involvement, the Church, quite to the contrary, supplies the necessary intervention in turning that which happened into that which is happening.

The final step—in coming to the conclusion that doctrine is efficacious in inspiring believers to moral greatness—is understanding the reditus, wherein one who has faith, and to whom the truth has been taught, is moved to action. In the most proper sense, this is not per se the end of theology, as St. Thomas showed in the reply to the previously cited objection. That primary end remains God, about whom theology is most properly concerned. The reditus of the believer is, rather, the end of the Church’s doctrinal mission. The Church believes because it is God who reveals; the Church proclaims because people stand in need of revelation. This is once again demonstrated by the analogy of being within the Church: Christ did not exist primarily for our sake, but for his own. Secondarily was his existence caused, which of course must be understood in its proper parameters, for the redemption of humankind. The Church, the body of Christ, shares in this same subordination of created being to the uncreated God. 13

The primary expression of true doctrine leading to true action is in the sensus fidelium. Precisely because Christ did not promise personal infallibility to any one individual—with the exception of Peter, whose voice is not his own but of the whole Church—the idea of right action following right thought cannot be guaranteed on the individual level. There is nothing to prevent an individual, who has received all of the constituent elements leading up to what ought to be a good choice, from choosing the contrary. This is a fact that, taking into account the effects of original sin, cannot be ignored without resulting in a distorted anthropology. Nevertheless, the voice of the Church, as expressed in the body of believers, can be guaranteed by the promise of Divine assistance. This does not mean that a simple majority of Catholics will always support the correct teaching, or that an opinion poll can determine true doctrine. Rather, what is meant by sensus fidelium—a rather dense concept deserving a much more extensive treatment of its own—is “the capacity of judgment and of witness of believers, of those who live without compromise in the community of the Church, which is the place of the presence of the Spirit.” 14 By such an understanding, it is impossible for a believer to ever say, “the Church teaches x, but I believe the truth is not x.” Such an attitude has already excluded one from the community of the Church to whom the promise of assistance was made. On a natural level, this may seem like a closed circle that, in fact, says nothing—such as the argument from authority that says: “X is true simply because I have said it.” It is the supernatural light of faith available in the Church that dismisses the illusion of such a circle. In reality, x is true because God, who is Truth, has said it. This is infinitely superior to the testimony of one who, despite great knowledge and training in a particular field, is not one with the Truth, as God is one with the Truth.

To live one’s life within the community of the Church—a community bound together by supernatural charity—is, then, the perfect form of moral greatness effected by the transmission of doctrine. Any individual act of moral goodness is subordinated to this singular act of moral greatness by which humans may become “sharers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). Commenting on the Second Letter of Peter, Francis Martin notes:

Peter teaches us that our holiness comes from knowledge of the One who has called us to his own glory and excellence, and that our immortality is fundamentally a share in his own. (He) goes on immediately to urge us to supplement our faith with virtue, our virtue with knowledge, and finally our godliness with brotherly affection and our affection with love. 15

There is a reciprocal relationship between knowledge and action. Knowledge leads to action, and action leads to deeper knowledge, so that the exitus and reditus of revelation is not simply a matter of gravitational force, but is, in fact, a living motion that bears fruit on its course. The circle is not closed in on itself, but is directed upward and beyond itself, by merit of both origin and endpoint. It is precisely due to this relationship, that doctrine is efficacious among the community of believers. The interdependence of doctrine and morality leads to the necessary conclusion that doctrinal definition is not a superfluous exercise. The moral greatness to which the individual believer is called is not, therefore, accidentally concomitant with the assimilation of doctrine into personal belief. Bound together by the virtue of faith, receptivity to what is given in advance, and the achievement of moral greatness, form a constitutive bond in the Christian life.

  1. Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today. San Francisco (Ignatius Press, 1991), 19.
  2. Prima pars, q.1, a.4.
  3. Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 23.
  4. John Lamont, “The Historical Conditioning of Church Doctrine.” Thomist 60, (1996): 511-35.
  5. Joseph  Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion. San Francisco (Ignatius Press, 2005), 31.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., trans., Patrick Cummins. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought. United States (Ex Fontibus Co., 2006), 55.
  8. Thomas Aquinas, trans., Chrysostom Baer. Commentaries on St. Paul’s Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon. South Bend, IN (St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), 46.
  9. Romanus Cessario,O.P., The Godly Image. Petersham, MA (St. Bede’s Publications, 1990), xv.
  10. Lamont, “The Historical Conditioning of Church Doctrine,” 519.
  11.  Giovanni Sala, SJ, “Fallible Teachings and the Assistance of the Holy Spirit: Reflections on the Ordinary Magisterium in Connection with the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” Nova et Vetera 4, no. 1 (Winter 2006), 35.
  12. Lamont, “The Historical Conditioning of Church Doctrine,” 511-535.
  13. Francis  Martin, “The Holiness of the Church: Communio Sanctorum and the Splendor of Truth.” Nova et Vetera 2, no. 2 (Fall 2004), 384.
  14. Sala, “Fallible Teachings and the Assistance of the Holy Spirit,” 36.
  15. Martin, “The Holiness of the Church,” 385.
Fr. Daniel Richards About Fr. Daniel Richards

Fr. Daniel Richards is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is a 2013 graduate of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is currently assigned as parochial vicar at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Gettysburg College.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    “To search for a concretized corpus of theology would ultimately prove to be in vain.” Much of the apologetical writing I read is precisely suggesting that there is a concretized corpus of theology that one must adhere to. I did not understand everything you wrote, but I assume you agree that there is a dynamic element in theology. So if true, can some Church doctrines that do not change, be understood in new ways. The case of Galileo suggests there are new understandings that impact the teaching of doctrine.


  1. […] In order to demonstrate this essential coexistence of nature and grace in the life of the Church, and the life of the believer, it must be shown that doctrine is necessary for salvation, not superfluous, but essential to the Church’s mission given by Christ.  Jesus preaching a sermon on the …read more […]