Personal Belief Systems

I was just wondering to what extent Catholics are allowed to retain their own ideas and interpretation while still being in communion with their Church.

When I first looked into Catholicism, I really was concerned with the idea that Catholics must trust the Church absolutely. (We are taught in Revelations to be on guard against false teachings from even the highest in our order.)

But when I entered RCIA, I found that many people who are already Catholic still have reservations on things. For example:

  1. One person does not believe that there is a hell.
  2. One person does not believe in free will.
  3. I’ve heard a priest say that all aborted babies go to heaven.
  4. I’ve also heard many Catholics say that only God knows who goes to heaven, and that we cannot assume anyone is in Heaven, aside from a few exceptions.

Sometimes I think many of these beliefs are refined and corrected by our personal relationships with God.

I feel a lot better to know that you can still be Catholic and are allowed to disagree sometimes. But to what extent is this true?



As a Catholic, you can, in a sense, disagree with whatever you want, but you are bound to do your best to find out the truth if there are things you have doubts about.

You say that you were concerned with the idea of Catholics having to trust the Church absolutely. Well, presumably you’ve decided for various reasons that you agree that the Catholic Church is the Church which was founded by Christ Himself. Believing in the teachings of the Church naturally follows from this because we believe that Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide it and that the gates of hell would never prevail against it.

I would advise you to ask questions to get clarification on issues that you find difficult - and indeed many of the Church’s teachings are hard to take. You don’t have to settle for the “because the Church says so” answer to your questions about the faith. I have found this myself - when you have a question about a teaching, research it: it may have its origin in Scripture, which will be plain to see, or it may be a part of Sacred Tradition and you may find evidence of ancient Church teaching by examining the writings of the Early Church Fathers. Don’t forget to keep a copy of the Catechism to hand - it is the best guide to Catholic teachings, and there are excellent cross-references to Scripture, Church Fathers, various Councils, Papal Encyclicals, etc.

As for your fellow RCIA members:

  1. Who doesn’t believe in hell: to what extent? Do they deny any sort of punishment in the afterlife for those who don’t obey the Commandments? If so, this is absolutely at odds with both Scripture and the ancient teaching of the Church. The Catechism says that “the teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity…” (CCC 1035). Hell’s existence is not up for discussion. However, what your friend could have a difficulty with is what the exact punishment that hell will involve. The Catechism says that the “chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God…” (1035) - so while it acknowledges that Christ referred to “eternal fire”, the Catechism does not compel you to believe that they suffer in a literal fire - this may be the case, but Scripture does give other descriptions of hell apart from fire.

  2. The one who believes that people do not have free will: this sounds to me that the difficulty is not free will exclusively, but a difficulty understanding how God can already know who will end up in Heaven and hell and that at the same time, people are said to have free will. The first thing to say is that God, being “outside” of time, sees our lives, all we do, and the choices we make at once. We, on the other hand, see a series of events. He sees our death as he sees our birth - at one and the same time. One cannot deny that we can make a conscious decision to do good, or we can make a conscious decision to do evil. As the Catechism says, “God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel, so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.” (CCC 1730)

  3. We do not know the fate of aborted babies. One hopes that these innocent children will be brought to Heaven, but the official teaching of the Church concerning unbaptised babies (including those who die through abortion) is that we can only entrust them to the mercy of God (CCC 1261). In reality, this is what is done for every person who has died - they are entrusted to God’s mercy. Beyond that is speculation, which may not be a safe route to take.

  4. The only people we can be sure are in Heaven are those who have been declared blessed or saints by the Church. Such declarations only come about after lengthy investigation and one or more authenticated miracles. So apart from these people, it is unwise to make assumptions about their fate, but in the hope that they are on their way to Heaven (i.e. in Purgatory), we should offer prayers for their souls.

I hope this helps somewhat.

Welcome to the Bride of Christ, to begin! Speaking generally, the Church demands obedience where she makes definitive statements of faith or morals. Outside of this, Catholics are generally free to form their own opinions regarding their beliefs, so long as they are not disrespectful to the Magisterium. This is, mind you, highly simplified. I suggest reading up on these issues in the CCC.

Now, about your friends’ opinions…

  1. Um, no, Catholics need to believe in Hell. Try reading Revelation!
  2. Free will? Of course! Trent affirmed we, in part, merit our salvation, so how can we merit something without freely willing it? Free will is not optional in the Catholic Church.
  3. The question of the fate of unbaptised infants is left open to much individual interpretation, leaving room for the belief in purgatory and salvation. Catholics may not, however, allow that their opinions on the state of aborted infants’ souls ever justify or excuse abortion.
  4. These Catholics are quite right, if they mean by “with a few exceptions” the long list of canonised saints. I fail, however, to see how that list would constitute “a few exceptions,” seeing as there have been 10,000+ such canonisations. Remember, of course, that the Church does not believe this list of saints exhaustive.

Again, glad to welcome you as my friend in the Church!

Belief systems that you are talking about have to do with accepting or rejecting Church teaching and dogma more than anything else. For example, the Church, which has the authority given it by Christ, teaches the fullness of Truth, not bits and pieces of it. So, for the person who doesn’t believe in Hell, what he or she believes is irrelevent because the Church, by Christ’s authority, teaches that there is a Hell.

It doesn’t matter what the person who does not believe in free will thinks because God gave us the free will to either accept Him or reject Him as well as the Church. Same with the priest - we don’t know WHERE aborted babies go. We would like to think that they go straight to Heaven, but they are unbaptized. They still would have the stain of original sin on their souls. If they go to Heaven, then that would negate the Church’s teaching on the necessity of Baptism.

It is true. We DON’T know who goes to Heaven and who doesn’t. What we DO know is that the saints who have been canonized and recognized are already in Heaven, and we HOPE that our loved ones are there too. This is best left to God, not us.

Be very careful with what you learn in RCIA. The classes are usually taught by laypeople and many of them aren’t experts. The catechists in my RCIA class were mostly bad and it was frustrating to hear some of the heretical things they said. I ended up leaving because of the liberal and unorthodox things they taught. They also never seemed to want to tell people their ideas were incorrect. They had the attitude of everything goes and no one’s opinion is incorrect, even when it obviously went against Catholic doctrine or the Bible.

Some Church teachings, such as those on the existence of Hell or on the existence of free will, are infallible and as such must be believed absolutely (“with assent of faith”)

Other teachings are not infallible and need only be held “with religious assent”. As far as my very limited knowledge goes, this means that one must hold them to be at least probable (someone correct me if I’m wrong). As to exactly what this category consists of, I can honestly say I have no idea. Other people will hopefully be able to give you a more comprehensive explanation.

Anything not covered by Church teaching is up for discussion, more or less.

Bear in mind that in the past century in particular, there has been enormous growth of heresy and dissent within the Church, and not only among the laity. The Catholics on these forums are for the most part faithful to the teachings of the Church, but that doesn’t mean everyone is.

Catholics are free to disagree about anything that has not been declared a doctrine of the Church, something revealed by God, through the Church, and handed on in sacred tradition and sacred scripture, interpreted, taught and protected by the magesterium–the teaching authority of the Church granted to her by Jesus Christ her founder and head. That does not mean the doctrine has to be formally declared as infallible dogma by a pope or a church council, that means it has to be part of the continuous teaching of the Church. Sometimes doctrines which were implicit and unquestioned in the earlier years of the Church required a formal definition and defense when they were challenged in later ages, such as the doctrines surrounding Mary which support the teachings about Christ.

We can disagree for instance on whether or not priests may be married, but not on whether women can be ordained.

The prudent position for any Catholic who does disagree is to admit that it is very likely the individual, especially one who is still learning (most of us) is wrong, and that the Church founded by Jesus Christ, protected as he promised by the Holy Spirit from teaching error, is right. Then we humbly admit we need to study more on the issue, and most of all to pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Welcome home! we are a very big family and it would be a rare family indeed where every member agreed with everything all the time.

I would be willing to bet you that every heresy ever encountered by the Church began as a result of someone, somewhere holding on to a personal belief system rather than accepting the teaching of the Church.

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