The theological notes are used by theologians to class Catholic teachings according to their level of certainty. They are also specific theological censures, corresponding in gravity with the level of the truth denied.
Truth is always true. Theology however, sees different degrees of truth according to the way we get to know this truth and according to the degree of certainty. In this sense, a mystery revealed directly by God is more certain than a truth deducted by using reason. The same applies when one contradicts truth. That is the reason why, if a Catholic -Pope included- is wrong, it does not follow automatically that what he said is an heresy. The following article may help to be more prudent in making a judgment in today's confusion.
Levels of Certainty in Theology: Theological Notes
Jesus came on earth and revealed to the Apostles God’s mysteries. Instituting the Church, he provided Her with the power to teach these truths. It is the work of the theologians to identify the revealed truths and to try to establish all the conclusions from them. Not every teaching of the Catholic Church has the same proximity with the revealed truth. The teaching might be the words of Jesus itself, or a consequence of a human reasoning on the word of Jesus: it does not carry the same weight, it does not have the same authority, henceforth the same certainty nor obligation. The system of theological notes is used by theologians to class Catholic teachings according to their level of certainty. When a proposition comes in contradiction to Church teaching, the Church applies specific theological censures, corresponding in gravity with the level of the truth denied.
The breakdown that follows draws heavily on the work of Fr. Sisto Cartechini, S.J., in his 1951 book De valore notarum theologicarum et de criteriis ad eas dignoscendas [On the value of theological notes and the criteria for discerning them], as well as the explanations given by Dr. Ludwig Ott in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (1952).
The highest degree of certainty applies to dogmas, for instance the Blessed Trinity or the two natures of Christ. Dogmas are truths which the Church declares to have been revealed directly by God. Our belief in dogmas is founded first of all on the authority of God, Who reveals them: therefore they are of divine faith, fides divina. Since the Church teaches us these dogmas are contained in Revelation, our certainty is also founded on the infallible teaching authority of the Church (fides catholica). If a truth has, moreover, been solemnly defined by the Pope or an Ecumenical Council, it is de fide definita.
A proposition that contradicts a dogma incurs the theological censure of heresy against divine faith.
2. Doctrines of Ecclesiastical Faith
These are truths which have not been directly revealed by God, but which are closely linked to Divine revelation and have been infallibly proposed by the teaching authority of the Church ex cathedra: for example, the lawfulness of Communion under one kind. These doctrines are to be accepted on the sole authority of the Church, de fide ecclesiastica. Since the infallibility of the Church is a dogma, one who denies a doctrine of ecclesiastical faith is implicitly denying a dogma.
A proposition that contradicts a doctrine of ecclesiastical faith incurs the theological censure of heresy against ecclesiastical faith.
3. Truths of Divine Faith
Truths of Divine Faith are revealed by God but not formally promulgated as such by the Church in a special act: for example, the fact that Jesus claimed from the beginning of His public life to be the Messiah.
A proposition that contradicts a truth of Divine faith is censured as an error in Faith.
4. Teachings Proximate to the Faith
Teachings that are proximate to the Faith, sententia fidei proxima, are generally held by theologians as truths of Revelation, but have not been formally promulgated as such by the Church. A teaching that is proximate to faith is that Christ possessed the Beatific Vision throughout His life on earth.
A proposition that contradicts a teaching that is proximate to faith is censured as proximate to error.
5. Promoting Heresy
Certain propositions might not be directly in contradiction with a dogma but lead to a practical denial or abandonment of it. This note applies more to a practical teaching than a theoretical one.
An example would be the Novus Ordo Missae. Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci did not say it was heretical. In the Short Critical Study on the New Order of Mass (names also as Ottaviani Intervention) presented to Pope Paul VI in October 1969, they declared that:
the Novus Ordo Missae…represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session 22 of the Council of Trent.”
Promoting heresy is also the theological note that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre believed he had to use in order to characterize the harmfulness of the Novus Ordo Missae. Because the law of prayer and the law of the faith (lex orandi, lex credendi) are closely connected, one ends up believing the way he prays and vice-versa.
This note of promoting heresy could be applied to many teachings today which are presented as pastoral propositions or sociological reflections rather than a formal teaching about truths of Faith.
6. Theologically Certain Teachings
Teachings which pertain to the Faith and are theologically certain (sententia fidei pertinens, i.e., theologice certa) are doctrines on which the teaching authority of the Church has not yet pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed because they are logical conclusions drawn from a proposition that is Divinely revealed and another which is historically certain. For example, the possibility of the demonstration of the existence of God is theologically certain.
Propositions contradicting theologically certain doctrines are censured as errors in theology.
7. Catholic Doctrine
A Catholic doctrine is a truth taught by the Ordinary Magisterium, but not as revealed or intimately connected with revelation, for instance the validity of Baptism conferred by a Protestant.
A contradiction of Catholic doctrine is censured as temerarious (a more severe censure may apply in some cases).
8. Truths that are Certain
Truths that are certain, also known as common teachings (sententia communis) are truths unanimously held by theologians, derived from revealed truth, but by more than one step of reasoning: for instance, that God can create intellectual beings without ordering them to the Beatific Vision (cf. Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis paragraph 26). These teachings sometimes overlap with theologically certain teachings.
Denial of a truth that is certain is censured as temerarious.
9. Teachings that are “Safe”
Teachings that are safe have been affirmed in doctrinal decrees of Roman Congregations. Contradiction of a safe teaching may be censured as unsafe, or as temerarious.
10. Teachings that are “Very Common”
Teachings that are very common are the best founded theological opinions on a disputed subject. There is no censure attached to contradiction of such a teaching.
11. Less Certain Opinions
Less certain theological opinions may be classed as probable, more probable, or well-founded (sententia probabilis, probabilior, bene fundata). Pious opinions (sententia pia) are considered in agreement with the consciousness of the Faith in the Church. The lowest degree of certainty is opinio tolerata, weakly founded but tolerated by the Church. There are no censures attached to contradicting such opinions.
Dr. Ludwig Ott concludes:
With regard to the doctrinal teaching of the Church it must be well noted that not all the assertions of the Teaching Authority of the Church on questions of Faith and morals are infallible and consequently irrevocable. Only those are infallible which emanate from General Councils representing the whole episcopate, and the Papal Decisions Ex Cathedra….The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible. Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations…are not infallible. Nevertheless normally they are to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See….By way of exception, the obligation of inner agreement may cease[.]”