Welcoming the Light of Dogma

The authoritative teaching of the Church is liberating because truth is not something we create, but a divine gift we receive

During the moral theology class I was teaching this past summer, we read certain sections of St. Thomas Aquinas’ moral treatise in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae. In his treatment on the virtue of faith, one question struck me in particular, something that I had read numerous times before, but whose power really caught my eye this time around. 

In Question 5, Article 3, St. Thomas considers whether someone who disbelieves one article of faith can have faith in the other articles. While the whole question is worth reading in its entirety, the central, striking passage is from the main body of his response:

Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will.

The heart of St. Thomas’ statement concerns the very nature of faith. Contrary to the mentality of the “new atheists” and those that adhere to the ideology of scientism, much of our everyday lives are characterized by acts of faith. For example, when I walk into a university building on campus, I do not have knowledge that upon entering that the structure will stay in tact. I cannot claim to have a genuine knowledge that such buildings will not collapse if I, or anyone else for that matter, walk inside. What allows me not to be frightened or concerned about the building remaining stable when I am in it stems from an act of trust: I have faith and believe that the building will not collapse. The reason I lack knowledge in this area is that I know almost nothing about engineering, architecture, or any of the necessary skills involved in the building’s construction. Nor was I present when the builders were establishing its foundation and actually constructing the building to get to what it looks like now.

In an analogous way, this is how the gift of supernatural faith works as well. The truths that have been revealed for the sake of our salvation, specifically those that transcend our limited capacity to know them, necessitate that I accept them on trust. There are certain truths about God that can be known apart from divine revelation, what Aquinas would call the preambles of faith. Truths regarding the existence of God and some of his essential attributes, as well as truths in the moral order, can be arrived at without the aid of grace, something St. Paul readily acknowledges in his epistle to the Romans (see Rom 1:19-20 and 2:14-16).

However, those truths exceeding human reason are not able to be known apart from revelation. The two central tenets and mysteries of the Catholic faith are the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and these realities must be assented to through an act of faith. This does not mean we can have no understanding of such realities as they are expressed through the clear and articulate expressions of the faith. If what was revealed could not be more fully understood in a real way, then revelation is unintelligible, and the very foundation and reason for theology is usurped. Rather, it simply means that in order for us to have any understanding of them whatsoever, God must first reveal them; we can never get to them without him telling us about them.

Notice too that this understanding of faith is not opposed to reason; in fact, it is in harmony with it. A married couple who exchanges wedding vows must have faith in the promises of the other; they do not have knowledge that what is being promised will actually be fulfilled. Nevertheless, there are signs that point to such an act being reasonable. However, if I am embarking upon my sixth marriage, then my soon-to-be wife would hopefully hear from her friends that my fidelity is weak, and not trustworthy. And yet, one’s trust in another’s spouse is grounded in the fact that he or she knows the other person so well, and that this is the kind of person who is competent, and worthy, to be trusted.

Again, this applies to our understanding of the Catholic faith as well: the foundation of our trust in what the Church teaches is ultimately the authority, and competence, of God himself. Since it is contrary to God’s nature to deceive, then the certitude and truth of what we believe can be trusted. It is without error, and this is why we hold that the Catholic Church is infallible in matters of faith and morals. Her infallibility is guaranteed by the Incarnate Word giving the keys to St. Peter and affirming the head apostle as shepherd of his sheep (Matt 16:18-20; Jn 21:15-19).

What the Church proposes for Catholics to believe is defined, articulated, and clarified in her dogmas and doctrines. This act of intellectual charity is at the foundation of our faith and the road to sanctity. The Church’s mission is to proclaim, defend, and explicate the truth that it has received from God. This is the precise meaning when the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)states the following:

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. (par 88)

When the Church defines what it holds, its truth is guaranteed because its authority is a gift received from the very person of Christ Himself. This not only pertains to truths regarding the Trinity, Incarnation, the Marian doctrines and dogmas, or the Eucharist, but also to the Church’s moral teaching. The truth about contraception, that marriage is between one man and one woman, or the intrinsic disorder of homosexual acts, can be discovered by human reason via the order of the natural law. However, these are also part of the deposit of faith, the truth and certitude of which is based on the Church’s charism of infallibility.

Returning to Aquinas’ point: the Catholic who rejects one of the articles of faith no longer has living faith in the other articles precisely because they have called into question the very foundation of the faith, namely, God’s authority. If the Church can error in matters of sexual morality, for example, then upon what basis can one continue to trust what she teaches in other areas of faith?

I think it was the novelist Walker Percy who humorously noted that everyone believes in a pope—the question is just whether or not it is you or somebody else. This is the same point Aquinas is making, albeit in a slightly different way. If one believes in what the Church teaches because its truth and certitude rests in God’s authority, and since the deposit of faith is a singular expressive unity, then to deny one of the articles would be to reject God’s authority. We choose what to accept and reject, and in so doing, we become the arbiter’s of truth. No longer is natural and supernatural truth independent of what I think or feel; it now becomes transformed to fit what I will and decree. We then create what is true, good, and evil, and this entails a denial and rejection of both truth and dogma.

And so, let us not be fearful of dogma but rather rejoice in it. Dogma is liberating, for it reminds us that truth is not something we create, but something that we must discover, that which we receive as gift. It is given to us so that we might attain final happiness. Dogma helps us to think rightly about everything, and this enables us to live rightly as well. “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas…” wrote Chesterton in Heretics (1905), “Trees have no dogmas.” Chesterton later stated, in Tremendous Trifles (1909), that he embraced orthodoxy because “an error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes.”

Likewise, the Church is always persistent and acutely aware of this fact, that dogma and our spiritual lives are so deeply intertwined, for 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” (CCC, par 89).

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About Brian Jones 33 Articles
Brian Jones is ia Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.