The Hierarchy of Knowledge
What is truth? How can I know the truth?
Amidst the fog of war that blinds modern man, these pressing questions seem intangible and indefinite to many. Beyond the mists of confusion of mental lethargy and apathy, the storms of passions, the wayward sails, and the rudder of the will and intellect, modern man is often thrown about searching for certainty and confidence in the knowledge of the truth.
Man is lost. He knows not which way to turn. Disoriented by the continuous change inflicted upon culture and cult by the enemies of mankind, he, like a pilot in freefall, looks for a constant to position himself. This phenomenon is not unknown. After all,
“What is it that hath been? the same thing that shall be. What is it that hath been done? the same that shall be done.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Dante Alighieri at the beginning of the Inferno states,
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
“Thus saith the Lord: Stand ye on the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, which is the good way, and walk in it: and you shall find refreshment for your souls.” (Jeremias 6:16)
Fortunately, great minds in Tradition have provided man with a map. God has not wholly abandoned His people. There is a hierarchy to knowledge, a certainness to Truth, which allows man to navigate the war being combatted about him and come safely through to his home in the truth and in Faith.
The great drama is set. Like the epics of antiquity, man, like Odysseus, must battle through the fog of wars, traverse the chaos of the sea, and set his own home in order emptying it of ruffians and never-do-gooders who threaten his proper mastery. The Church though in Her wisdom and by God’s Providence, has given a way to judge and rightly order the faculties to discern bountiful refreshing waters of truth from the mirage of deceit and falsehoods.
St. Paul in his letter to the bishop Timothy states,
For there shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine but, according to their desires, they will heap to themselves teachers having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.”
The Church sets forth the following hierarchy of knowledge. A hierarchy of certainty exists within this hierarchy.
An arrangement of this hierarchy is as follows:
I. Ontology or general metaphysics highest study of which is Theology.
II. The Philosophic Sciences.
III. The Mathematical Sciences and the General Sciences of Observation and Experimentation: Arithmetic, Geometry, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Biology, Politics, and Economics.
IV. All the practical arts and sciences whose primary purpose is not the understanding or the explanation of reality but some practical utility. Their number is very great. They correspond with the variety of crafts and professions, especially those which are intricate enough to require the development of a science or perhaps many sciences. E.g., all the sciences of medicine, engineering, farming, pharmacy, navigation, metallurgy, carpentry, teaching, banking, jurisprudence, etc.
Ontology is the study of being or what is. It looks at what is real. The highest form of this study is the study of theology. Now, theology strictly speaking is the study of God, but more loosely it can be applied to God’s actions, including His continual influence in history- of men and nations. There are many aspects of God that few great minds could reason or philosophize about. One could realize God’s omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and other attributes, by the use of a lower level of knowledge. However, very few men could undertake this intellectual activity and even then, it would be incomplete. Since mankind with our little intellects could not possibly know God fully, and so few of us through the hard labor of thought, could understand some of His attributes, it stands to reason that man is reliant on God to reveal Himself to us. Revelation becomes then the highest form of knowledge because it is through Revelation that man comes to know God, who is the source of truth and all reality.
It is only through Divine Revelation that man knows God is Trinity or comes to know that the Second Person of the Trinity became flesh and dwelt among us. This Revelation was infallibly given by Christ to his Apostles and from them to the whole Church. Through the transmission of Tradition, man receives this Revelation. All that is needed for us to gain heaven has been given.
The first source of infallible Tradition is the solemn judgments of the Church, which are often called the Monuments of the Faith. These would include but not be limited to the solemn definitions of the popes, but also the Creeds, Rites, Liturgies, and Blessings organically developed and promulgated by the Pope. Papal infallibility would also fall under this source. The First Vatican Council sets forth the conditions by which papal infallibility can be trusted. These conditions are: 1) that what he teaches must pertain to faith or morals, 2) he teaches by plenary use of his papal office, that is ex-cathedra, 3) he has to teach that it's definitively held and clearly define what is to be believed, and 4) it is something that must be held by all the faithful. A papal decree that does not pertain to faith or morals, is not promulgated ex-cathedra, is not taught to be definitely held or is ambiguous, and is not taught to be held by all the faithful does not enjoy the certainness of papal infallibility.
The second is the Bishops when an Ecumenical Council likewise soundly defines or judges some matter of the Faith (these definitions and judgments) are also infallible. However, it is important that to be an Ecumenical Council whose definitions and judgments enjoy the assurance of infallibility, the Council must define or judge some matters of the Faith. If a council, from its opening to its closing, neither defines nor judges on matters of the Faith, its hierarchical structure- in the cases of councils- is not only diminished, but it becomes purely pastoral. If a pope who opened such a council or closed such a council, were to then explicitly state that said council was pastoral in its nature, then this would not further prove such a point of a council being pastoral but would be helpful for those faithful (who did not know the very nature of the essence of general or ecumenical councils) to avoid any conscience assenting to errors that may be communicated or exploited in such a council.
Thirdly, the ordinary magisterial teaching when it is taught by all the bishops throughout the world also constitutes an infallible source of Tradition. One must read the word ALL. If it is not ALL, then this certitude is not there.
Fourthly, the sensus fidelium or the sense of the faithful is an infallible source of tradition. If all Catholic people have always believed something, then that in itself is proof that this is the teaching of the Church. Of course, any good Catholic should know that to deny any dogmas of the Church would make one a material heretic and bring this unhappy soul outside the fold of the Church.
Fifthly, the consensus of the Fathers is a sign that a teaching is a part of the Divine Tradition and thus is infallibly taught by the Church. This moral unanimous consent of the Fathers demonstrates that the Church has always believed in a teaching. This is so since the Fathers were those early men of faith who received the Tradition from the Apostles or those taught by the Apostles or during the early ages of the Church. Since one of the marks of the True Church is its Apostolic origins, this would give evidence that a teaching is of Apostolic origin. However, one should be aware that to properly be a Father of the Church, one must live and die in the Church. Any heretic, material or formal, or schismatic would be then de facto not a Father of the Church. Hence, Early Christian writers such as Origen are not Fathers of the Church as multiple writings of his were condemned in a General Council in 553.
Finally, the constant and universal teachings of the Theologians and Doctors are a source of infallibility because it reveals the received Deposit of Faith in later ages.
These infallible sources of Tradition are how Divine Revelation is made known to man with certainty.
The error of modernity should be obvious. Man has inverted the order of the hierarchy of knowledge. Man uses the practical sciences to judge Revelation. Man uses the mathematical and general sciences to judge Revelation. Man uses natural philosophies to judge Revelation. Instead of relying first on Revelation, and allowing it to enlighten and guard the Philosophical Sciences, the Mathematical and General Sciences, and the Practical Sciences and Arts, man turns these lesser and more easily wayward sciences, to judge the Truth of Revelation.
Catholics should respond by trusting the certitude of Divine Revelation received from the Church and judge all other knowledge accordingly. Through this means, Catholics will come to know, love, and serve God better for His glory and our sanctification, but will also be saved from the many errors of modernity that over the last several hundred years have misled countless souls.