Know Your Faith, for Real

By Chris Sparks

O Church of God, you are the best mother, you alone can rear a soul and cause it to grow. Oh, how great is my love and respect for the Church, that best of all mothers! (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 197)

One thing I’ve been noticing recently is that many Catholics have a bad habit of making claims about the teaching of the Church and being flatly wrong.

Some of our brethren sadly tend to mistake their preferred politics, economic theory, or what they find beautiful for the teaching of the Church on all such matters. They then proceed to declaim at length online and in print about how their brethren are failing to follow the teaching of the Church, which of course so beautifully conforms to the desires of their own heart, when in all actuality, sometimes the Church has never said anything authoritative on the subject at all.

But the teaching of the Church is actually an objective reality. We can dig into it and find out what the Church has said as well as if she’s said anything at all about a particular subject. The key is to know where to look, and whom to listen to.

What a joy it is to be a faithful child of the Church! Oh, how much I love Holy Church and all those who live in it! I look upon them as living members of Christ, who is their Head. I burn with love with those who love; I suffer with those who suffer. I am consumed with sorrow at the sight of those who are cold and ungrateful; and I then try to have such a love for God that it will make amends for those who do not love Him, those who feed their Savior with ingratitude at its worst. (Diary, 481)

Our director here at the Association of Marian Helpers, Fr. Chris Alar, MIC, likes to speak of the three-legged stool of Catholic teaching. Those three legs are:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Magisterium

These are the sources and boundaries of Catholic teaching. Let’s discuss them briefly in turn.

Scripture is fairly obvious — the Bible is one of the solid sources of authoritative teaching for Catholics. We should read the Bible and become familiar with what it contains. But merely reading Scripture isn’t enough. We need to also pay attention to Tradition.

Indeed, Scripture is the part of Tradition that’s written down. Tradition is the life of the Church, animated by the Holy Spirit. Some of the important sources of Tradition are the Church’s liturgical practices across the millennia, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers and the earliest Christians, bearing witness to the apostolic faith. That apostolic faith has been safeguarded across the centuries by the Magisterium of the Church.

The Magisterium is the bishops teaching in communion with the Holy Father on matters of faith and morals, especially when they teach through an ecumenical council. The Magisterium is empowered to give an authoritative interpretation of Scripture and discern legitimate development of dogma from distortions of the faith. Of course, the Magisterium may also make disciplinary and prudential rulings, which we are bound as Catholics to generally follow.

Given those three legs of the stool, here’s where I usually go for solid teaching on the faith:

  • The Bible. It’s the indispensable source for the words and deeds of God in relation to His people, especially when it comes to the Incarnate Son’s life and ministry.
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Rich in Scripture, quotes from the Church Fathers, popes, councils, and saints, this is an indispensable resource, summarizing much of the three legs of the stool.
  • The Liturgy, in all the approved rites of the Mass, as well as the Liturgy of the Hours and the other approved prayers of the Church. There’s an ancient saying: “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” the law of prayer is the law of belief. That is to say, you can know the faith by knowing how we pray (always in union with the Church).
  • The documents of Vatican II. The most recent ecumenical council of the Church, the documents of Vatican II are a tremendous summary of the faith applied to our times and charting the way forward for the Church.
  • The extraordinary magisterium of the popes. This includes their ex cathedra, infallible definitions of dogma and those times when a Holy Father teaches with the full authority of his office.
  • The ordinary magisterium of the popes. This includes their encyclicals and all the ways in which they ordinarily exercise their Petrine office.
  • The writings of the Doctors of the Church. These canonized saints are also acknowledged by the Church to have done an especially excellent job at teaching key truths of the faith, though they aren’t infallible.
  • The writings of the saints and their biographies. The Catholic faith can be seen most clearly in the lives of those who’ve lived it well enough to be canonized. There are few better teachers of the faith than great saints and mystics like St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), the Secretary and Apostle of Divine Mercy.
  • The writings and teachings of orthodox Catholic theologians and philosophers. Though not in themselves part of the Magisterium, still, excellent theologians and philosophers who seek to be true to the orthodox teaching of the Church can be great resources for learning more about the faith.
  • The messages of approved apparitions and approved private revelations, such as the Divine Mercy revelations given to the Church through St. Faustina. Though optional for faithful Catholics — you can take or leave all private revelation — still, once the Church has given her approval to private revelation, it can be hugely helpful in living the faith in the face of the challenges of our times. Also, if God has thought it worthwhile to send us a message from Heaven, prudence would probably say it’s worth listening to!

These are my reliable sources of information on the faith. These are the sources I listen to in my work for the Association of Marian Helpers, for Marian Press, and for my own faith pilgrimage as a Catholic. Over the course of years of debate, discernment, reading, prayer, and some academic study, I’ve come to the conclusion that these sources are a brilliant beacon in a darkening world, a solid foundation on which to base my understanding of the world and my life. I encourage you to do the same.

I submit in everything to the will of my superiors and my confessor. I will follow Your will insofar as You will permit me to do so through Your representative. O my Jesus, it cannot be helped, but I give priority to the voice of the Church over the voice with which You speak to me. (Diary, 497)

Chris Sparks serves as senior book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.



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