1. During Pope John Paul II's visit to the World Council of Churches'
offices in Geneva (12 June 1984), Dr. Willem A. Visser't Hooft,
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 favored the suggestion.
The Joint Working Group (JWG) between the Roman Catholic Church
and the World Council of Churches commissioned two consultations
on "the hierarchy of truths." The first took place at
Bossey, Switzerland, September 1985.
After the JWG had commented on the initial report (October 1985),
the second consultation met in Rome, March 1987. The draft returned
to the JWG meeting in May 1987. A small editorial group incorporated
the comments from the JWG and from other conductors. The JWG again
reviewed the text in April-May 1988 and in February 1989, and
received this present version in January 1990 as a study document
to help further reflection on the theme.
This report is an ecumenical attempt to understand and interpret
the intention of the Second Vatican Council in speaking of a "hierarchy
of truths," and to offer some implications for ecumenical
dialogue and common Christian witness. The report also relates
"hierarchy of truths" to other Christian traditions,
although it can do so only in an approximate way. These traditions
do not normally use the expression although they appreciate the
insights it contains or they may express them in different terms.
Conciliar Statement and its Contents
"In ecumenical dialogue, when Catholic theologians join with
separated brethren in common study of the divine mysteries, they
should while standing fast by the teaching 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. Thus the way will be open whereby this kind of fraternal
emulation' will incite all to a deeper awareness and a clearer
expression of the unfathomable riches of Christ (cf. Eph. 3:8)"
(Decree on Ecumenism, no. 11).
The paragraph is in the Decree's second chapter, which deals with
the practice of ecumenism in the Roman Catholic Church (Nos. 5-12).
This practice includes the continual examination of our "own
faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church," and our efforts
"to undertake with vigor, wherever necessary, the task of
renewal and reform" (No. 4). Essential in such ecumenical
practice is doctrinal dialogue which is carried out "with
love for the truth, with charity, and with humility" (No.
11). Therefore, the concept of "the hierarchy of truths"
relates directly to the task of ecumenical dialogue.
The Decree emphasizes the necessity for a clear, full and understandable
explanation of Catholic doctrine (No. 11) as a presupposition
to "dialogue with our brethren." Then in conversation
Christian communions explain their doctrine more profoundly and
express it more clearly, in order to achieve a more adequate understanding
and accurate judgement about each other's teaching and life (cf.
No. 9). Then in the same number 11, the Decree broadens this understanding
of dialogue: it is a search together into the divine mysteries
to incite "a deeper realization and a clearer expression
of the unfathomable riches of Christ." One thus has to understand
the statement on a "hierarchy of truths" within this
broader, never-ceasing investigatory concept of dialogue.
Two immediate sources for the teaching about the "hierarchy
of truths" indicate its meaning. Archbishop Andrea Pangrazio
(Italy) first presented the idea to the Council (November 1963).
He noted that "to arrive at a fair estimate of both the unity
which now exists among Christians and the divergences which still
remain, it seems very important to pay close attention to the
hierarchical order of revealed truths which express the mystery
of Christ and those elements which make up the Church." Later
(October 1964), in a written modus or proposed amendment to the
Decree, Cardinal Franz König (Vienna) proposed the exact
phrase, "hierarchy of truths." He emphasized that the
truths of faith do not add up in a quantitative way, but that
there is a qualitative order among them according to their respective
relation to the center or foundation of the Christian faith (Modus
The Decree is silent about the meaning of "the foundation
of Christian faith." According to the official reason (ratio)
in Modus 49 for the introduction of the phrase, the importance
and the "weight" of truths differ because of their specific
links with the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation.
Thus by using the words "order" or "hierarchy"
the Council intended to affirm the organic nature of faith. Truths
are articulated around a center or foundation; they are not placed
side by side.
of Truths" in Christian History
"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.
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.
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 have 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.
The sacraments could provide another example of a "hierarchy"
within the same order which directly concerns the faith. Baptism
(which for some includes chrismation) as incorporation into the
Church, and the eucharist as the center of the life of the Church,
are regarded as primary, while all other sacramental acta are
related to these major sacraments.
The mystery of Jesus Christ, particularly seen in his death and
resurrection, is at the center of the liturgical year. All the
celebrations during the year, such as Christmas and Epiphany,
Easter and Pentecost, and feasts of the saints, highlight a different
aspect of the one mystery which is always fully present. Thus
the various festivals of the liturgical year with their particular
emphases are related in different ways (diversus nexus) to the
center or foundation the mystery of Jesus Christ.
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 center of the faith that these churches have
summarized 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."
The Orthodox tradition refers to the fullness of truth, the totality
of the revelation of God. The revealed divine truths constitute
an indivisible unite, the coherent apostolic tradition. This Holy
Tradition, on which the Church bases its unity, represents the
entire content of the divinely revealed faith. There is no distinction
between principal and secondary truths, between essential and
non-essential doctrines. This position does not mean that within
Orthodox theological reflection and formulations, there is no
room for differentiation or distinctions. Orthodox theologians
suggest that the concept of "hierarchy of truths" could
help to distinguish permanent and common teachings of faith, such
as the declared Symbols (creeds) of the seven ecumenical councils
and other creedal statements, from those teachings which have
not been formulated and sanctioned with the authority of those
councils. Here may be room for differentiation. This raises, on
the other hand, the problem of the nature of the teaching authority
in the Church.
Ecumenical discussions on "hierarchy of truths" are
thus inseparable from the ways in which the Church formulates
authoritatively the truths and insights of its faith.
The Decree on Ecumenism uses "hierarchy of truths" as
a metaphor (and places "hierarchy" between quotation
marks. This indicates an order of importance (a) which implies
a graded structure (b) in which the different degrees serve different
functions. The Decree applies this to Christian doctrine in two
ways. First, there is an order between propositional truths of
doctrine and the realities which are known by means of the propositions.
Propositional truths of doctrine which articulate the faith, such
as the Marian dogmas, refer ultimately to the divine mystery and
guide the life of the people of God. Secondly, "neither in
the life nor the teaching of the whole Church is everything presented
on the same level. Certainly all revealed truths demand the same
acceptance of faith, but according to the greater or lesser proximity
that they have to the basis of the revealed mystery, they are
variously placed with regard to one another and have varying connections
among themselves" (The Secretariat for Promoting Christian
Unity, "Reflections and Suggestions concerning Ecumenical
Dialogue " IV, 4 b). Some truths lean on more principal
truths and are illumined by them (cf. Congregation for the Clergy,
General Catechetical Directory [ 11 April, 1971 ], No. 43; Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mysterium Ecclesiae [24 June, 1973],
Some Christian traditions, upon reflection, perceive two dimensions
of a "hierarchy of truths." On the one hand, God's revelation
itself exhibits an order, such as the transition from the Old
Covenant to the New Covenant. On the other hand, in the continuing
response of faith to revelation by God's pilgrim people, one sees
an ordering of truth which has been influenced by the historical
and cultural contexts of time and place. These varied responses
in faith to revelation have resulted in different orderings and
emphases in the doctrinal expressions of various churches in their
various historical periods, and of groups and even of individuals
within churches. The Second Vatican Council recognizes that in
the investigation of revealed truth, East and West have used different
methods and approaches in understanding and proclaiming divine
things and that sometimes one tradition has come nearer than the
other to an appropriate appreciation of certain aspects of a revealed
mystery or has expressed them in a clearer manner (Decree on Ecumenism,
In the ecumenical dialogue churches may become more aware of existing
hierarchies or orderings of truths in their tradition and life.
Through dialogue changes can result also in the ordering of a
church's own teaching, and this can facilitate rapprochement.
The Reformation churches, for example, increasingly acknowledge
the significance of the episcopal ministry in their order of truths;
and the Roman Catholic Church is finding a new appreciation of
the doctrine of justification by faith. These are signs of convergence.
The Decree on Ecumenism states that "the foundation of Christian
faith" determines the different ordering of doctrinal truths
(No. 11). What does this term "foundation" mean? The
Council's deliberations hint at the meaning by reference to the
"mystery of Christ" (Pangrazio) and to the "mystery
of Christ and the history of salvation" (Modus 49). This
context clearly indicates that the "foundation" refers
primarily to the living and life-giving center or foundation of
the Christian faith itself, and not to any of the formulations
which express it. Although many different formulas have witnessed
to this center or foundation, e.g. the Nicene-Constantinopolitan
Creed and the Apostles' Creed, no one formula can fully grasp
or express its reality.
This foundation is primarily that reality on which the entire
Christian faith and life rests, and by which the community of
Christ's disciples is constituted as his Body. It establishes
the true nature of the Church and sustains it on its pilgrim way.
The central place where this foundation is proclaimed, confessed
and celebrated is the worship of the Church.
Any attempt to describe this foundation on a conceptual level
should refer to the person and mystery of Jesus Christ, true God
and true human being. He is the one who said "I am the way,
and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). In the life, death
and resurrection of the Son of the Father, God has come into our
midst for our salvation, and the Holy Spirit has been poured out
into our hearts. In the Spirit's power God has established his
one Church, enables its members to experience Christ in faith
and to be witnesses to him, and empowers the Church to reach out
to all humankind until all have been gathered up in God's kingdom.
This foundation is normatively witnessed to by the prophets, apostles
and the apostolic communities in the Old and New Testaments. In
faithfulness to the original apostolic witness, it is confessed
in the ecumenical creeds and handed on by the Church through the
The Decree bases its affirmation of a "hierarchy of truths"
on the fact that these truths have different links (diversus nexus)
with the foundation of the Christian faith. What is "different"?
How do different affirmations of truth relate in different ways
to the same foundation?
First of all, the Council's sentence does not mean that there
is only a more or less incidental relationship between these truths
and the foundation, so that a merely relative character stamps
them, and one can consider them optional in the life of faith.
Still less does the Decree's sentence consider truths of faith
as more or less necessary for salvation, or suggest degrees in
our obligation to believe in all that God has revealed. When one
fully responds to God's self-evaluation in faith, one accepts
that revelation as a whole. There is no picking and choosing of
what God has revealed, because there is no picking or choosing
of what revelation isour salvation. Hence, there are no
degrees in the obligation to believe all that God has revealed.
The difference of the link of each truth is in its wider or closer
proximity to the foundation of faith. This proximity does not
ask us to fit each one of these truths into a static system of
ordered concepts. Rather, we are to perceive the dynamic relationship
which a given truth entertains with the foundation in the communal
and personal faith as it is lived by each member of the Body of
Christ. We are to see the importance or the proximity or the "weight"
which each truth has with the foundation of faith in the existential
relationship of Christians and their communities.
This presupposes that those truths which serve to explain and
protect other more fundamental truths have only an indirect link
with the foundation of faith, or at least a link which is less
direct than that of other truths. This is important in the search
for unite among churches, because each Christian communion establishes
a more or less immediate link between this or that truth and the
and Theological Implications
The concept of "hierarchy of truths" has implications
for the relations between churches as they seek full communion
with one another through such means as the ecumenical dialogue.
It can help to improve mutual understanding and to provide a criterion
which would help to distinguish those differences in the understanding
of the truths of faith which are areas of conflict from other
differences which need not be.
Implication for the Search for Full Communion
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 Christ, 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
center," "the foundation," is not only that which
Christians believe but also a life which they share and experience.
Those who accept and confess the mystery of Christ and the Holy
Trinity and are baptised and thereby share in the fellowship of
the Holy Spirit, are challenged to manifest that fellowship in
shared life, in common witness, in common confession of faith
and service to humanity, in shared worship, in joint pastoral
care, and in commitment to ecumenical dialogue. Such living-out
the degree of communion that already exists excites desire for
31. While the common "foundation" and baptism unite
Christians with one another in the communion of the Holy Spirit,
they have not yet been able in a perfect way to make this communion
fully visible. This is due to human weakness and sin, to theological
and doctrinal disagreements, to historical factors, and in part,
allo to differences about the ordering of truths around the central
In their common acknowledgment of the "foundation,"
divided Christians are led to view their differences of ordering
the truths around this foundation in a more positive and constructive
way; for example, the place in different churches of the doctrine
of justification in relation to the "foundation." They
understand some differences to be instances of that legitimate
diversity of expression of common truth which may always characterize
the communion of the Church; for example, those differences in
theological reflection and devotional practice which may have
arisen on account of historical and cultural factors, are not
necessarily differences with regard to the foundation of the faith.
The communion of a visibly united Church will certainly include
a diversity which is a proper expression of its catholic, apostolic
However there are doctrinal differences which are still decisive
obstacles that Christians have to overcome before they can manifest
full communion in a shared sacramental and ordered life. These
differences vary in importance according to their relation to
the central mystery of Christ. Ecumenical dialogue is one of the
principal means by which Christians can better understand the
weight and importance of these differences and their relation
to the "foundation" of our common faith. In such dialogue
Christians can gain new perspective on their common task to reorder
priorities in faith and practice and to take appropriate steps
and stages on the way to fuller communion.
An appreciation of "hierarchy of truths" could mean
that the ecumenical agenda will be based upon a communion in the
"foundation" that already exists and will point the
way to that ordering of priorities which makes possible a gradual
growth into full communion.
Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue
If rightly used, the concept of "hierarchy of truths"
can help those Roman Catholics who are responsible for teaching
the faith eagerly to become more open to fuller communion in the
faith of Christ, when they are "comparing doctrines"
(Decree, No. 11) in ecumenical dialogue. Those of other Christian
confessions also make use of such an ordering of truths, and emphasize
this method especially in their ecumenical initiatives. For Protestants,
the gospel has a more immediate link with the foundation than
does the ministry which serves the gospel. This different link
also brings about differences in what we have in common. That
there is only partial communion among churches is due not only
to their disagreement about certain doctrines, but also to the
different links they establish between the truths and the foundation
of faith. The progress made in ecumenical dialogue leads to convergences
which tend to attenuate the differences which the Christian Communions
have established between the links of certain truths with the
foundation of faith. Several churches, by recognizing this in
their involvement in bilateral and multilateral dialogues, are
experiencing the beginnings of such convergences.
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.
The process respectfully approaches the mystery of salvation and
its various formulations, with no intent to reduce' the
mystery by any or all formulations. The process is a means of
more adequately assessing expressions of the truth of revelation,
their interrelation, their necessity and the possible diversity
of formulations. Refocusing on the "foundation," a "hierarchy
of truths" may therefore be an instrument of that theological
and spiritual renewal which the ecumenical movement requires.
The notion of "hierarchy of truths" could be helpful
in the area of mission and common witness. Especially in secularized
and highly complex societies, it is important to proclaim in word
and life those foundational truths of the gospel in a way that
speaks to the needs of the human spirit. The common discernment
of these needs is imperative and the common use of a "hierarchy
of truths" may facilitate an ecumenical discernment of the
"foundation" and thus lead to convergence in theological
understanding which may clarify the content of a common witness.
The contemporary understanding of the missionary task has to respect
and take into account the richness, complexity and diversity of
cultures. The process by which the Christian faith is interpreted
and welcomed in various cultures requires sensitivity to this
diversity. A "hierarchy of truths" may also be a means
of ensuring that the necessary expressions of the faith in various
cultures do not result in any loss of its content or in a separation
of Christian truths from the foundation. Both in relating content
of faith and culture and in making a distinction between them,
the notion of "hierarchy of truths" may play an important
The notion of "hierarchy of truths" could also be a
useful principle in theological methodology, and hermeneutics.
It could provide a way for ordering theological work by acknowledging
both the organic wholeness and coherence of the truths of the
faith and their different places in relation to the "foundation."
It is dialogical in spirit inasmuch as it envisages "comparing
doctrines" within the specific traditions and within a broader
ecumenical context. In directing primary attention to the person
and mystery of Jesus Christ, "the one who is, who was and
who is to come" (Rev 1:8), the concept may help theology
to respect the historical dimension of our search for, and witness
to, the truth.
By focusing on the "foundation"the mystery of
Christ, the notion of "hierarchy of truths" contains
an orientation towards the full realization of the kingdom of
God and thereby already now evokes a sense of urgency and responsibility.
This can highlight the dynamic character of the Christian faith,
its relevance for every time and age, and therefore serve the
pilgrim churches in their task of "discerning the signs of
the times" and to give an account of their faith and hope
in their concrete situations. 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.
The work on the study document The Notion
of "Hierarchy of Truths" was organized by the Pontifical
Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Secretariat of the
Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.
The following persons participated in one or several meetings
at which the study document was prepared:
Invited by the PCPCU
Prof. William Henn, OFM
Dom Emmanuel Lanne, OSB
Prof. René Marlé, SJ
Most. Rev. Basil Meeking (Secretary 1985-1987)
Rev John Mutiso-Mbinda
Mons. John Radano (Secretary 1987-1990)
Dr. Hendrik Witte
b) Invited by Faith and Order
Rev Dr. George Dragas
Dr. Günther Gassmann (Secretary 1985-1990)
Prof. Jan Lochman
Prof. Nicolas Lossky
Dr. Mary Tanner
Fr. Max Thurian
[Information Service 74 (1990/III) 85-90]