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Walking the Dogma

Carl Olson

The world is already overflowing with phobias, but there is one extreme, irrational fear that really should be acknowledged and addressed: dogmaphobia. A rather dramatic example of this widespread ailment took place in early September on Capitol Hill when Senator Dianne Feinstein, in questioning Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett—a Catholic—during a confirmation hearing, pontificated:

Dogma and law are two different things. And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.

That strange, if memorable, comment quickly went viral, inspiring t-shirts (“The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me”), hashtags (#dogmaliveswithin), and plenty of debate about religious litmus tests and anti-Catholic bigotry. It’s a good bet that Feinstein, a staunch supporter of abortion and other progressive causes, was not concerned that Barrett was going to impose from the bench her views about the Trinity or the hypostatic union. The senator was not so much focused on dogma as the Church understands it—divinely revealed truths to be accepted and held by the faithful—but on dogma as an irrational, blind adherence to beliefs that have nothing to do with the “real world.”

This view of dogma is so common it really has become a caricature. Dogma, we hear repeatedly, is meant to suppress truth; it is an exercise in raw, crushing power. Dogma, claimed psychoanalyst Carl Jung “is set up only when the aim is to suppress doubts once and for all. But that no longer has anything to do with scientific judgment; only with a personal power drive.” The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated that “dogmatism is the anti-Christ of learning.” And dogma, opined the mass-murdering Mao Tse-Tung, “is more useless than cow dung.” Pithy, if not quite classy.

Meanwhile, just this past week, a letter to the editor of my local newspaper dared to set the record straight: “Dogmas are faith-based beliefs accepted without question,” adding, in contrast, “Science questions everything.”

Does it? Does science, for instance, ask: “Can I prove that science should be accepted as the final authority on, well, everything?” And if it does, can it provide a scientific answer? (Hint: No, it cannot.) “Science and dogma,” claims the letter writer, “are opposing epistemologies.” Alas, he fails to provide scientific evidence.

More importantly, he fails to note what G.K. Chesterton, at the ripe age of thirty, already recognized: man is a dogmatic creature. In the concluding paragraph of Heretics (1905), the former agnostic (and future Catholic) argued:

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broadminded.

As Chesterton notes, one of the defining features of modern man is an obsession with “the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas.” But we have been created with a desire to know and to learn; we are oriented toward truth, as St. John Paul II explained so brilliantly in Veritatis Splendor. And yet we live in an era in which the refusal to believe anything—as if that were even possible—is taken as evidence of sophisticated depth rather than the sophistic banality it really is.

“When we hear of a man too clever to believe,” says Chesterton, “we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet, or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut.”

Put another way: everyone holds to a system of belief, a worldview, an overarching perspective—even if it is almost entirely implicit and rarely fully formed. “Every man in the street,” Chesterton said, “must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly.” And then he states something entirely appropriate to what took place in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago:

The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. It may be said even that the modern world, as a corporate body, holds certain dogmas so strongly that it does not know that they are dogmas. It may be thought “dogmatic,” for instance, in some circles accounted progressive, to assume the perfection or improvement of man in another world. But it is not thought “dogmatic” to assume the perfection or improvement of man in this world; though that idea of progress is quite as unproved as the idea of immortality, and from a rationalistic point of view quite as improbable. Progress happens to be one of our dogmas, and a dogma means a thing which is not thought dogmatic.

Senator Feinstein, like so many other moderns, is a dogmatist. Her issue with Amy Coney Barrett is not that Barrett believes in the existence of dogma but that Barrett’s dogma contradicts hers. It brings to mind the definition of doctrinaire in The Devil’s Dictionary, penned by the acerbic (and agnostic) Ambrose Bierce: “One whose doctrine has the demerit of antagonizing your own.” As I argued many years ago, in this same pages:

The issue is not whether dogma is good or bad but whether a particular dogma (called that or not) is true or false. Chesterton likened the doctrine and dogma of the Catholic Church to a key: the key is not the final desire of the seeker, but the key is what opens the door of truth. And this key is an exact instrument. It must be the right size and be cut with exact detail or else it cannot open the door and reveal truth. Those who claim that Christian dogma is too narrow and stifling are often the first to deny that there is any real truth or meaning to life, itself a much narrower and more stifling vision of reality.

Down, dogmaphobia, down!

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