Mary and the hierarchy of truths

Catholics believe that God reveals the fullness of truth to Christians through the Bible and through the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit. They believe that a range of truths are revealed by God, some of these are accepted by nearly all Christians, and other truths, such as the importance of Mary in God’s plan for the world, are not.


Catholics believe that the teachings of the Catholic Church represent the fullness of divine truth which God has revealed through the Bible and the ongoing revelation of the Holy Spirit. However, having said that, an important observation needs to be that not all the revealed truths are equally central to the basic gospel message or equally important for salvation. This is what is meant by a ‘hierarchy of truths’.

In practice, this means that such truths as the divinity of Jesus, his dying on the cross for our salvation, the power of the Holy Spirit and so on are most important. While other truths, such as those concerning Mary, purgatory and so on are not the central points of the gospel message.

It is important for Catholics and Protestants to recognise this distinction!

Sometimes Catholics talk about Mary, purgatory and saints as if they were the most important Christian truths – which causes an unnecessary obstacle to Christian unity. Similarly Protestants may place exaggerated emphasis on Catholic beliefs about Mary etc. often rejecting them out of hand, even when they have some justification in the Bible. These extreme positions are unfortunate and divisive and should be corrected where they exist.

If during the centuries, the Holy Spirit has guided the Christian Church with the Bible and the experience of Christians, then Catholics want to acknowledge and embrace these truths, even if they are less central within the ‘hierarchy of truths’ than some others.
Catholic teaching has never considered truths about Mary as being equal in importance to truths about God. Teachings about Mary have always been related to the basic gospel message, though they are not the primary focus.
The Catholic Church has never stopped teaching about Mary and in the past 150 years has made some major pronouncements about her role in God’s plan. The Church’s understanding about Mary, as about all Christian truth, has deepened and become clearer through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the Catholic Church appears to teach ‘new things’ about Mary, it is usually an official clarification of things that have long been taught and believed by Christians. Such statements present truths that have been held in the church during the first centuries of Christianity.

The principle of the ‘hierarchy of truths’ points out two extremes that must be avoided in consideration about Mary: On the one hand, Marian doctrines must not be presented as equal in importance to the fundamental Christian truths about the nature of God and redemption. Mary must never be exalted, virtually to the status of a ‘goddess’ deserving the worship and adoration due only to God.
On the other hand, Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation must not be ignored or neglected. The Catholic Church believes that God intends Mary to have a definite place and role in the life of every Christian.

The Second Vatican Council wrote:

“This Synod earnestly exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine word that in treating of the unique dignity of the Mother of God, they carefully and equally avoid the falsity of exaggeration on the one hand, and the excess of narrow-mindedness on the other … Pursuing the study of the sacred scripture, the holy Fathers, the doctors and and liturgies of the Church, and under the guidance of the church’s teaching authority, let them rightly explain the offices (roles) and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which are always related to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity and piety”

The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church No. 67

Please Note - The Council mentions here the key principle for understanding any doctrines about Mary: they must always be related to Jesus Christ, who is the ‘source of all truth, sanctity and piety’. Catholic and Christian – An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs – Alan Shreck

There follows some excerpts from a report on the Hierarchy of Truths by the World Council of Churches:

“The Notion of “Hierarchy of Truths” – An Ecumenical Interpretation by the World Council of Churches 1990 :
The Catholic Church leadership in 1964 introduced the phrase ‘Hierarchy of Truths’ in its ‘Decree on Ecumenism’:

“In ecumenical dialogue, when Catholic theologians join with separated brethren in common study of the divine mysteries, they should, while standing fast to the teachings of the church, pursue the work with love for the truth, with charity and with humility. When comparing doctrines, they should remember that there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths in Catholic doctrine, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith."

1. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to the World Council of Churches in Geneva (12 June 1984), a former WCC general secretary suggested a study on the “hierarchy of truths”. The expression is in the Second Vatican Council’s decree on Ecumenism (1964). The concept has aroused ecumenical hopes, but the expression still needs clarification of its use in the decree and of its implications for the ecumenical dialogue. The Pope immediately favoured the suggestion.

10. “Hierarchy of truths” was a new concept at the Second Vatican council. But the phrase expresses an insight into a reality which has had different forms in the history of the church. The following serve as examples:

11. Even though the scriptures are divinely inspired as a whole and in all its parts, many have seen an order or “hierarchy” in so far as some biblical sections or passages bear witness more directly to the fulfilment of God’s promise and revelation in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in the Church.

12. One sees several kinds of “hierarchies” in relation to the authority of the church councils and to their contents. Most Christian traditions give special priority to the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. Some see also a “hierarchy” among these seven councils, inasmuch as those which formulated the doctrine of the mystery of Christ and of the Spirit within the communion of the Holy Trinity should as such hold a pre-eminent position in comparison with the other councils.

15. The churches of the reformation observe also a kind of “hierarchy” in dealing with the truths of the Christian faith. These churches hold that the gospel of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ, witnessed to normatively by Holy Scripture, is the supreme authority to which all Christian truths should refer. It is in relation to the gospel as the centre of the faith that these churches have summarised the truths of the faith in catechisms meant for the edification of the people of God in their faith, in new liturgical formularies and books, and in confessions of faith which are to guide the pastors in their preaching and the synods in their decisions. All this implies a “hierarchy of truths”.

Implication for the search for full communion
29. The notion of “hierarchy of truths” acknowledges that all revealed truths are related to and can be articulated around the “foundation” – the mystery of Christ – through which the love of God is manifested in the Holy Spirit. All those who accept and confess this mystery and are baptised are brought into union with each other and with the church of every time and place. This fellowship is based upon the communion of the Holy Spirit, who distributes various kinds of spiritual gifts and ministries and binds the members together in one body which is the church. Thus “the mystery of Christ”, “the centre”, “the foundation”, is not only that which Christians believe but also a life which they share and experience.

36. By better understanding the ways in which other Christians hold, express and live the faith, each confessional tradition is often led to a better understanding also of itself, and can begin to see its own formulations of doctrine in a broader perspective. This experience and discernment of each other is mutually enriching

40. In responding to the challenges of the present with an awareness of a “hierarchy of truths”, Christians are encouraged both to draw gratefully on the wisdom of their traditions and to be creative by seeking fresh responses in the light of God’s coming kingdom.”
Growth in Agreement II – World Council of Churches

Respect not Conversion
It is not our intention to convert Protestants to believe or agree with Catholic teaching, but to demonstrate and reassure any Protestant reader of the intellectual integrity of the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Holy Scripture, and particularly on these pages, the Catholic understanding of the role of the Virgin Mary – “the handmaid of the Lord “ in God’s plans for mankind.
We hope that to demonstrate that each of the respective Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary is rooted in the Bible and Christ-centred is a valid biblical interpretation for the Catholic Church to make, which our Protestant brothers and sisters should be able to respect.

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