Dogmas are God’s secrets made public for the sake of granting humankind a share in his love.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
8 November 2017
Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:6)—Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor
In post-modern America, it has become a fashionable sign of the “enlightened” to oppose Church teaching. This is often displayed by a distaste for the dogmas and doctrines of the Church, expressed by lodging the complaint that the Church is all about “extensive rules” which she “imposes on others” for the sake of “nothing other than controlling people.” I recall taking a class on humanities some years ago at a secular college. The lectures portrayed Church dogma as intellectually limiting, rigid and irrational decrees that stifled freethinking and oppressed human freedom. Surely the wise, critical thinker would resist such nasty influences.
Rules, Rules, and More Rules?
Let’s consider the accusation that the Church is all about rules and prohibitions. Are there a lot of rules in the Catholic Church? Not really.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law is the largest body of rules and guidelines. It includes about 1750 canons, and if you flip through the paperback edition, you’ll find about 300 pages. Compare that to the confusing array of rules found in the IRS federal tax code with its weighty 73,954 pages. The most recent FAR AIM from the Federal Aviation Administration contains about 1300 pages. As of 2011, the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code comprised 16,000 pages in 28 volumes. Finally, the Colorado Real Estate Manual is about 1000 pages in length. Most importantly, an appreciation for the code of canon law, even if it may be somewhat complex and lengthy, is gained by understanding its purpose: it exists to order, clarify and protect, not burden or confuse or exclude. For example, there are regulations on marriage which strive to prevent people from fraudulently marrying someone while still married to someone else, such as might happen when a man marries a woman in one country, then moves to another and attempts to take a new wife. In any case, laity does not often have to deal with canon law.
What about the Catechism of the Catholic Church? It’s not a rulebook; it’s a beautiful, prayerfully written treatise on the belief of the Church that is filled with scriptural references and includes writing from saints, Church Fathers, Ecumenical Councils, etc.
There are, of course, some rules that regularly apply to the laity (and clergy). Things like fasting for one-hour prior to receiving the Eucharist comes to mind or the duty to attend Mass on Sunday’s and holy days of obligation. Other examples include the five precepts of the Church. But none of these are burdensome or restrictive; on the contrary, they help to ensure the spiritual well-being of the faithful. Teaching on the precepts of the Church, the Catechism explains:
The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor. (CCC 2041)
What about the Ten Commandments? Aren’t they a list of “rules”? In the first place, they aren’t merely Catholic and Christian “rules.” They are commandments given by God to his people for the purpose of giving them direction in living their lives properly in relation to God and others. All Ten Commandments can be known by the light of human reason since they form the primary precepts of the natural law. They are true and they make sense—they’re rules to live by. Knowledge of the Ten Commandments, which are feeing and elevating directives bestowed by our loving God and Father, helps people to attain their predestined end in God and live their lives in right relation with their neighbors. They provide ordering, healing principles for societies. Certainly nothing burdensome there. Is it burdensome for one person to be commanded not to murder another or commit adultery or steal his neighbor’s goods?
Dogmas and Doctrines
It’s not my intention here to point out the many distinctions between dogmas, doctrines, and the moral teaching of the Church. What I do want to emphasize is the big picture in a brief, easily understandable way. It’s simplistic and close-minded to suggest that the belief of the Church is restrictive or intellectually stifling or that dogmas are somehow harmful burdens thrust on humankind. On the contrary, they are God’s sublime gifts to man. All of them, without exception, are rooted in the love of God the Father for his children and are essential for human flourishing. Those skeptics who mock dogma, mock divine revelation and therefore mock God himself.
What do we mean when we speak of dogmas and doctrines? Let’s begin with a simple definition: dogma refers to truths of the divine faith that are revealed by God and formally and definitively decreed by the Church to be matters of divine revelation. Dogma is God saying, “This is true,” and the Church saying, “God said that is true.” Dogmas are always matters of the divine faith, infallible (without error), and irreformable (unchangeable). Should a Catholic or other Christian intentionally hold and teach something he knows to be contrary to dogma, he commits formal heresy. To do such a thing is gravely serious for a number of reasons, one of which is that it leads people into error about matters that pertain to their eternal salvation. Mutilating the truth is obviously a dangerous thing to do.
Doctrine, on the other hand, includes all the ordinary teaching of the magisterium of the Church. Many doctrines are infallible (no, it’s not true that only dogmas are infallible. This means that those folks who claim a right to pick and choose what doctrines to believe because “they’re not infallible” are in error. Doctrines are true teaching. Just because a particular doctrine may not be specifically defined as infallible by the extraordinary magisterium does not mean it’s insignificant or untrue. It also doesn’t mean it’s not infallible). An example is that abortion is an intrinsic evil—that teaching, taken from the fifth commandment, is without error (infallible) and will never change (irreformable). It’s infallible because it is a matter of the constant moral teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church and is connected to divine revelation on the dignity of human life.
What is the deposit of faith? The deposit of faith is the revelation of Jesus Christ in its fullness given to the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and placed in the womb of the Church. It consists of dogmas and doctrines of faith and morals. Whether we speak of dogmas or doctrines of faith and morals or the deposit of faith, we’re always speaking about matters of truth that are, at the least, connected to the divine revelation of God if not divine revelation itself. Recall that dogmas are always matters of divinely revealed truth.
Why are dogmas and doctrines necessary and important? To answer this question, it’s necessary to make the distinction between natural knowledge (what man can learn and know naturally by the light of human reason, such as 2 + 2 = 4) and supernatural knowledge and/or truth (what man cannot know with certainty without the help of God’s divine revelation). St. Thomas noted that, due to original sin, without the help of divine revelation man can know God only in a confused, obscure way. Although man can know with certainty by the light of reason that God exists, he cannot attain to an intimate, accurate knowledge of God that is error free unless God reveals himself to man. For example, is it possible for natural reason alone to definitively determine that Jesus Christ is perfectly God and perfectly man? Nope. That divine truth had to be revealed by Christ himself (God). There were many heresies down through the ages that got Jesus wrong. An example is Arianism, which viewed Jesus as a creature created in time, perhaps an important one, maybe even a demigod, but not God. This heresy remains alive today in Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Islam.
It’s easy to see that some truths are inaccessible to human reason alone, right? How is it possible, then, to say, as do so many enlightened academics, that dogmas are intellectually stifling? The point is, it’s not—unless one embraces the dogma of illogic.
Here’s what Pope St. John XXIII had to say about the fallible nature of human reason and the importance of knowledge that exceeds the capacity of the natural capability of reason:
[I]t is possible for us to attain natural truth by virtue of our intellects. But all cannot do this easily; often their efforts will result in a mixture of truth and error. This is particularly the case in matters of religion and sound morals. Moreover, we cannot possibly attain those truths which exceed the capacity of nature and the grasp of reason, unless God enlightens and inspires us. This is why the word of God, “who dwells in light inaccessible,” in His great love took pity on man’s plight, “became flesh and dwelt among us,” that He might “enlighten every man who cometh into the world” and lead him not only to full and perfect truth, but to virtue and eternal happiness. All men, therefore, are bound to accept the teaching of the gospel. For if this is rejected, the very foundations of truth, goodness, and civilization are endangered. (Ad Petri Cathedram, 8)
Dogmas and doctrines are integral to the deposit of faith given by Christ to the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that is placed in the womb of the Church. The source of the deposit of faith is, then, God. This sacred deposit is not comprised of a list of arbitrary rules or theories or human postulations; on the contrary, it consists of divinely transmitted revelation that builds on, elevates and ennobles human reason with heavenly realities. The belief of the Church, accepted in faith, is transformative of the human intellect and raises it to new, sublime heights by virtue of God’s self-communication given perfectly and in its fullness in Jesus Christ. Dogmas and doctrines are not in any way opposed to reason nor do they limit it; they consist of divinely bestowed information that opens our eyes with supernatural clarity, enabling man to see what otherwise would not and could not be seen. Divine revelation brings essential light to humankind. In this way, the fog of confusion is burned away by the purifying light of the Son.
Let’s look at another example for a moment: the dogma of the Holy Trinity. This divinely revealed and infallible mystery of the faith could not possibly be known if Christ had not lovingly revealed it to his Church. As such, Catholic theologians note that it is a strict mystery. This does not mean it is unreasonable or irrational or completely incomprehensible, but rather that the light of human reason alone is incapable of discovering and knowing it. The human intellect lacks the proper, necessary light to see this Divine Light without God’s help. Consequently, human knowledge of the wondrous, mysterious inner life of the Tripersonal God is made possible only because God himself chose to disclose it.
The dogma of the Holy Trinity is God’s secret made public for the sake of granting humankind a share in his love.
Let me ask, if the view of so many academics is true and, as they say, dogma restricts the human intellect, how is it that men are better of shunning this dogma and remaining in darkness and ignorance with respect to the inner, relational life and plurality of divine persons who form the one Godhead? How is it that less is somehow more?
Perhaps some will protest: Why not open our minds to other possibilities? Perhaps gods of gods upon gods of other gods. Perhaps a godhead composite of divine persons and demigods and ordinary men and favored beasts? Perhaps the universe is itself God (Pantheism). What is wrong with that kind of thinking? It is wrong, that is what’s wrong with it. It isn’t true. It isn’t real. God has revealed the reality of his inner life. That is what is real and true and beautiful. Anything else is fantasy or forgery or heresy. It might make interesting fodder for movies, special effects wizards and fantasy novels, but it’s not something to live by. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of unless one insanely insists pride is a virtue. And that really gets to the heart of the issue, doesn’t it? That is, there are people who reject and dismiss dogma because it means submitting to a higher authority. There are people who find the belief of the Church unpalatable because it means acknowledging that God is the sovereign King of one’s life.
It is an odd thing indeed to think that dogmas and doctrines are somehow harmful or unnecessary or boring. Man not only needs dogma but craves it: he thirsts to know what is true and live by that truth. He constantly strives to bring order into his life, family, neighborhood, and society. The belief of the Church is precisely the antidote to the poison of a confused, chaotic world. Dogma and doctrine clarify, direct, order, and perfect. They are secure and certain lights along the often dangerous and dark path of life.
“I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” O God, “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart” (Psalm 119:105, 111)
It’s simply not true to say that the Church is all about rules and restrictions or that dogmas and doctrines are intellectually retarding. It’s no more true to say that, than it is to say a mother is all about “rules” merely because she carefully and with love teaches her children what is really true, and warns them against crossing the street without first looking both ways. A loving mother teaches her children about life and things beyond it; she informs them of what she has learned and what they are yet to learn. Above all, she teaches her children about heavenly things and the divine faith of the Church. A mother who refuses to teach her children, sets no standards, and fails to inform them about what is necessary to protect their lives is an irresponsible, unloving woman—she’s not a mother in the full sense of the word.
Dogmas and doctrines are absolutely essential to living human life to its fullest and to attaining God’s predestined end for the human person. The belief of the Church is a guiding light along the path of life. Further, the deposit of faith which the Church guards and transmits to the world is itself the divine revelation that God has communicated to his people out of a compassionate and loving desire that they come to reside with him forever. It’s not arbitrary information; it’s divinely bestowed fact. It’s words of truth and love.
The key to happiness is falling in love with these truths and words of supernatural origin. In doing so, one is inexorably led to the fullness of revealed truth incarnate: Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of Humankind who is Truth and Love Itself.
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Photo Credit: image compiled from free use photos by Deacon Frederick Bartels.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.