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Dogma Is Not a Dirty Word

Carl Olson

“Catholicism is so dogmatic!”

Perhaps you’ve heard these or similar words uttered by a co-worker or intoned by a talking head on television. This sort of remark has come to be, at least for many, a rousing indictment of Catholicism. Within popular culture and beyond, the words “dogmatic” and “dogma” have become loaded with negative connotations: narrow-minded, arrogant, judgmental, and rigid. The lament of Ronald Knox as he battled secularism in England between the World Wars is as true today as it was seventy years ago: “We have made a dogma of a dogmatism, we have a creed of creedlessness, and our protest against formulas is, in this age of catchwords, the most stereotyped formula of the lot” (Caliban in Grub Street, 34).

While attacks on dogma from outside the Church are understandable (our Lord promised that we would witness such insanity), there are plenty of frowns and arched eyebrows to be found within Christendom when it comes to adhering to dogma. In his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999), John Spong, the controversial Episcopalian bishop, claims that the Church has buried the real message of Christ under an avalanche of dogma. A friendly reviewer summarized the book by writing, “Spong demolishes the stifling dogma of traditional Christianity in search of the inner core of truth” (Paul Davies, in a review posted on Amazon.com).

People of a similar stripe endorse what might be described as “ecumenism lite” and “theology-free Christianity,” declaring that real ecumenism and real Christianity are not found in dry formulas but in the “spirit of Christ.” Much is made of “love” or “sincerity” but often with little or no reference to the kind of demanding, self-denying life of holiness that Jesus set before his disciples. Dogma is out. Relativism, indifferentism, and shallow emotionalism are in.

According to Pope John Paul II, true ecumenism and true Christianity recognize that dogma cannot be molded on demand into the latest politically correct form of belief. “The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety,” the Holy Father states in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint. “In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is truth” (18). All ecumenism must be based squarely on dogma, especially the central truths of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Talk of joining hands in a fog of “Christ-consciousness” or wandering labyrinths in search for one’s “divine self” simply won’t do. Dorothy Sayers, an Anglican, surveying the weak-kneed brand of Christianity spreading throughout her denomination during the 1930s and ‘40s, wrote:

“Christ, in his divine innocence, said to the woman of Samaria, ‘Ye worship ye know not what’––being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshiping. He thus showed himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is: ‘Away with the tendentious complexities of dogma––let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!’ The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular” (Creed or Chaos? 19).

Sayer’s point is still dead-on at the close of the twentieth century. Many mainline Protestant denominations have abandoned the ancient creeds of the Church and have turned into pleasant––and dying––social clubs. The passing of time has also witnessed an increased reluctance by Catholics to unabashedly proclaim and explain Church dogma. There is confusion as to what—and for what reason––the Church really teaches and believes. In light of this fact, how can we not only defend Catholic dogma but also delight in it?

Before trying to defend dogma, we should know what it is and is not. There should be a solid understanding of two terms: doctrine and dogma. While sometimes used interchangeably they are not, strictly speaking, identical. Doctrine is Church teaching in all of its forms. It can refer to the whole of revelation or the deposit of faith. The word dogma comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem.” A dogma is a doctrine that has been expressly taught by the magisterium––either by conciliar or papal definition––to have been divinely revealed and contained in the Word of God, therefore requiring the belief of all Catholics.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church’s magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes in a definitive way truths having a necessary connection with them” (88). All dogma is doctrine, but not all doctrine is dogma.

Stated in a more general fashion, dogmas are infallible statements of truth given by the Church to guide the faithful in the Christian life. “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas,” the Catechism explains. “Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (89).

G. K. Chesterton observed, “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. . . . Trees have no dogmas” (Heretics, 96). He explains that man, in forming a definite philosophy of life, accepts certain things as true and, consequently, rejects many other things as false. When a man exclaims, “Fire is bright and hot,” he is also saying that fire is not dark or cold. We all go through life believing, consciously or unconsciously, that some statements and observations are true while others are not.

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. Sometimes Jesus is condemned because he claimed that he is the only way to heaven, yet the critic’s alternative is that there is no way to heaven—indeed, there is no heaven.

Another tactic, especially popular among heterodox scholars since the late 1800s, is to “free” Jesus from the Church’s “dogmatic” beliefs that portray him as harsh and judgmental. The irony of this misguided rescue mission, as Chesterton points out, is that “the image of Christ in the churches . . . is almost entirely mild and merciful” (The Everlasting Man, 187). If anything, the difficult and demanding words of our Lord are ignored or sugar-coated in churches while his mercy and love are consistently focused upon.

A further irony is that historical revisionists always end up with a Jesus made in their own image and thus of absolutely no help to people living today. Attempts to rescue Jesus from dogma always end up with a 2,000-year-old corpse who offers nothing but a handful of “authentic” sayings and a pathetic, meaningless death.

Another supposed defect of dogma is its complexity. “What people really need,” some claim, “is a simple faith.” People who make this criticism confuse simple with simplistic. The Catholic faith is both simple and complex because Jesus Christ is both simple and complex. He is God made flesh who died for us so that we might have eternal life. This is a simple statement, but it is also an inexhaustible mystery that the Church has pondered, preached, defended, and clarified for 2000 years.

Frank Sheed explained that the complexity of a mystery such as the Trinity or the Incarnation is not a wall which we cannot climb over or go around but is like an endless gallery of exquisite art whose halls wind endlessly, revealing breathtaking canvases at every turn. “A mystery, in short, is an invitation to the mind” (Theology and Sanity, 38), and dogma is the result of the Church’s mind, guided by the Holy Spirit, pondering the mysteries of the faith.

“Dogma is boring and impersonal” is the claim of others. Many Christians will remark, “I don’t want to hear a bunch of theology. I just want to have a personal relationship with Jesus.” They might as well tell the doctor, “I don’t want to know anything about my heart rate, blood pressure, or cholesterol level––I just want to be healthy.” There is no opposition between Jesus and theology. Theology is the study of God, aimed at understanding more clearly the truth about him. When dogma comes across as dry and dull, it is usually due to poor teaching or lousy listening, but it is not a fault of the dogma.

Besides, many Christians have attended church for years without hearing much real dogma. Instead they have heard insipid messages about “being good” and “loving one another” without any clear definitions of goodness or love nor what these things have to do with God, Jesus Christ, sin, and salvation. The solution, Sayers claims, is to present Christ boldly and clearly:

“Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious––others will enter the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ” (Creed or Chaos? 24–25).

Those who denounce dogma are often focusing not on the actual teaching in question but on the teacher, the Church. Most critics do not understand the dogma but think that they understand the Church. Atheists say, “I don’t need the dogmas of a murderous and bloody Church.” Fundamentalists say, “I don’t need the Church—I have the Bible.” Not a few Catholics say, “I’ll follow my conscience instead of those outdated rules.”

The issue in all of these cases is that of authority. Who has the final say when it comes to truth: the Church that is “the household of God” and “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) or those who treat the Church’s teaching like a buffet line? Modern man does not like truth but prefers his own opinions based on subjective and selfish criteria. He wants to be able to do anything he desires without any interference, especially from the Church. He prefers this moral isolation because he mistakes it for freedom. It is an attempt to escape from authority and it leads ultimately to hell, the final and eternal escape from God.

Dogma is not a dirty word. It is a light and a guide given by God through the Church founded by Christ. If people find dogma dull or dry or difficult, it is likely because they do not understand it––or do not care to. But without dogma the Christian faith would have eroded into mere sentiment and vague emotionalism centuries ago. Jesus claimed that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” and the Church has spent twenty centuries e xplaining and defending th at fact, often in the form of authoritative and definite dogmas.

“It is the dogma that is the drama,” wrote Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos?, “not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague.aspirations to loving kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death––but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to a heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe” (25).

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