Dogma - “an arrogant declaration of opinion”


Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Rubens Credit Wikimedia

‘DOGMA’ has become a ‘boo-word’. Rather than its original Christian definition ‘a tenet of Christian faith’ or ‘the authoritative teaching of the Church’ the Oxford dictionary now includes the meaning ‘an arrogant declaration of opinion.’ The negative definition may have evolved through widespread criticisms of the way the Catholic Church has historically enforced its teachings, especially via the CDF (the Congregation of the Faith), formerly called the Holy Office. This Congregation has until recently reacted too often with unjustifiable accusations and heavy penalties like some kind of ‘thought police’ for what it has seen as errors of doctrine. Its treatment of the distinguished Jesuit ecumenical theologian Fr Jaques Dupuis provides a sad example of unjustifiable procedures until the CDF was recently changed by Pope Francis.

In the past two centuries exaggerated interpretations of papal infallibility helped to make the authority of the Vatican bureaucracy unaccountable, or ‘self-referential’ in Pope Francis’ terminology. The doctrine of papal infallibility was stressed by Pope Pius IX during the nineteenth century Italian risorgamento which abolished the Papal States and greatly weakened the social and political authority of the Vatican. The doctrine of papal infallibility was accepted, but was defined much more guardedly and contextually by the First Vatican Council (1870). Roman Catholics in the UK until relatively recently saw the Church as a besieged fortress, and so tended to support the doctrine of papal infallibility and reject the liberal values of ‘modernism’ to demonstrate their devotion to the Church and personal loyalty to the pope.

Is this all really so important?

It is of obvious importance to the way in which we believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and for the continued credibility of the claims made for the Church’s authority in a sceptically challenging age. But perhaps the most important consideration is the way in which the issue tends to confuse two important distinctions in the way as Catholics we think and speak of our faith. When we speak of an act of faith, we primarily mean our act of trusting in God, and in Jesus Christ as God. Insofar as the Church includes us and represents the presence of the Holy Spirit, so too we may trust and place our faith in the Church.

The other is often called ‘the Faith’ and means the body of teaching about God, Jesus Christ,  the scriptures, the Church etc, that we are called by the teaching authority Church to accept in order to be allowed to be part of the communion of the Church. But not always. The recent revelations of abuse covered up by the highest authorities have significantly affected the trust most Catholics have in the Church. This is obviously very different from our trust in God, in Christ, and in saints through whom we trust God to be acting for our good. But too many clergy abused the trust of the people.

Did all this happen because the institutional Church had laid too much emphasis on faith in its own institutions rather than its primary personal faith in Christ himself and his teachings?  In the Nicene creed we solemnly acclaim, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” How can we believe in such a weak and fallible human institution as ‘holy’ when it has allowed such evils to be perpetrated, ignored and covered up? This is the dilemma faced by huge numbers of good Christians. Perhaps Jesus himself offers us the best explanation with his parable of the ‘wheat and the tares (weeds)’(Matt: 13:24-30). Here the Church is identified as ‘the kingdom of God,’ and so is seen as holy, because those in it have responded to the invitation of God. But we always need to remember that the Church only exists ‘to call sinners to repentance,’ and its sinners include all in the Church, clergy and lay from the highest to the lowest. As St Peter himself said of those who did not follow the law of Moses, “Truly I see that God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). The Church is not holy because we are all to see ourselves as saints as St Paul seemed to imply. The Church is only holy because it is instituted by Christ with the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Whether to obey the Holy Spirit is a choice each one of us has to make all the time, especially in our exercise of spiritual authority over others.

A test flight of infallibility

Equally dogmatic has been the way in which during the past two centuries some traditional devotional beliefs have apparently been added by popes to the apostolic deposit of faith, as if this was some kind of test flight of infallibility. But this happened without any genuine historical investigation into the origins of these traditions, or theological consensus about their development. Even more questionable is whether a sufficient distinction was made between the acceptance of beliefs which may be allowed for local popular devotion (e.g. of saints, angels, Lourdes, etc) and those canonical teachings which have always been accepted as apostolic and essential to the meaning of Christian faith.

Many would regard the comparatively recent additions of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception as examples of the problem. While most would accept these devotions as traditional expressions of the of the Church’s love of our spiritual Mother, many Catholic theologians would hesitate to provide a truly credible defence of more dubious stories  originally made in the 5th century by Bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem about these traditions as either credibly or implicitly originating in the apostolic deposit of faith.

Practising Catholics may easily agree that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church, that papal teaching is part of the highest teaching authority in the Church, and that because God chose Mary as the mother of his Son, she is venerated as the highest saint in heaven. But true devotion to Our Lady does not in any way need us to engage in all the complex theological implications of whatever we may mean by original sin. Like Moses before the burning bush, few of us would be willing theologically to set foot any further than we really need on that holy ground we revere with wonder as the ‘mystery’ of God. Musical compositions and artworks can inspire our joy and wonder, but elaborate definitions of faith may turn into theological hyperbole, in turn opening more vital doctrinal definitions to ridicule as absurdities.  Too soon they can sound unrealistic and outdated, so failing to convince, let alone to inspire the Christian soul seeking for the truly holy.

The language of mystery and wonder

The mysteries of faith are vital to our faith in God. We can only use the language of analogy - a language of beauty that prefers to leave the mystery open for wonder and development. The very language of dogmatic proclamations can too easily obscure rather than confirm our faith.  The commission given by the risen Christ to Peter was pastoral, not dogmatic, “Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep…” It is also the more trenchant language of Pope Francis: ‘Get used to the smell of the sheep.’

The importance of all this should not be underrated. What we understand by our communion with God includes everything meant by ‘the communion of saints’ in the apostles’ creed - our communion with one another as the Church, and the duties of love and care we are called to show for one another as fellow Christians and all the ways in which we communicate our faith, our hope, and our love of God. What we call ‘dogma’ should be an intrinsic part of our communion, and expressed as such.

We should not forget the primary purpose of the Church: the continuation of the work of the risen Christ in transforming us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can only work in us by inspiration, including the continued inspiration of the whole Church, its ways of communion which are expressed by and through us all, especially for those who are in greatest need. The language of inspiration must be inspirational enough for the Holy Spirit to inspire us! The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is shown through the Christian gifts of love, joy, and peace – gifts we can easily recognise in the person of Christ himself and in His saints. He presents His gifts as His bequest to us through the Church as the living Word of God, even though His Church is a Church for self-confessed sinners.  We can only strive in hope one day to hang up our boots as His saints.