The Liberty of Dogma vs. the Tyranny of Taste

Those who say that doctrines must serve the Church’s pastoral mission have both inverted the proper order of things and placed sentiment above shepherding.

Years ago I wrote an article titled “Dogma is Not a Dirty Word”. In it, I noted how those who criticize the Church for being “dogmatic” fail to understand that everyone is dogmatic in a very real sense, as G.K. Chesterton noted in his 1905 book Heretics: “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. . . . Trees have no dogmas.” Along those same lines, in 1928, Chesterton observed, “There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.”

In fact, the unconscious dogmatist has a funny way of dogmatically insisting he is entirely free of dogma—or, at the very least, he has attained a special perch above and beyond the clutches of dogma and doctrine, which are sources of discord, confusion, and contention. Examples abound within the secular realm. Far more disconcerting, however, are examples and instances within the Church. As when, to draw upon my dusty article, we encounter those who declare “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.” 

This came to mind upon reading a recent Crux interview with Bishop William Kenney of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2013 to be, as his online bio states, “co-chair of the international conversations between the Lutheran and Catholic Churches.” It’s not that Bishop Kenney is unaware of various theological or doctrinal concerns, but it appears he has happily moved past them, saying:

The things that we thought caused the Reformation have been taken away- the excommunication of the Lutherans was lifted, the condemnation of the Catholics were lifted. That is the formal Churches’ position now, it is not just a theological proposition. There are those who say this has already achieved unity; it is certainly a major step forward, and it has removed most of the problems of the Reformation.

Yes, he acknowledges, the “women priests question is complicated”, but he then muses that when it comes to the Eucharist, “Lutherans have more or less the same doctrine as we have.” How much more, or in what way less is not clear. But does it really matter? Apparently not. “Would Martin Luther have been excommunicated today? The answer is no, he probably wouldn’t. And he did not want to split the Church – he came to that, but it’s not where he began.” In truth, contra the bishop’s Monday morning quarterbacking, Luther was a man of many moods and many positions, perhaps even multiple personalities. As Dr. Christopher Malloy, a theologian who has studied and written extensively on Catholic-Lutheran matters, said to me in a lengthy June 2007 Ignatius Insight interview: “We need to pay attention to the following question: ‘Which Lutheranism? Whose Luther?'” 

Not to worry, however, as Bishop Kenney serenely assures readers: “In other words, the Reformation was all a big misunderstanding!” All those conflicts and controversies over faith, nature, grace, salvation, justification, sanctification, Church authority, the Eucharist, baptism, holy orders, Scripture and Tradition, and so much more were apparently the products of a far less enlightened and much more dogmatic age. If only the Church fathers at Trent had known. If only St. John Fisher and St. Thomas had comprehended. If only St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Francis of Sales, and others from the Counter-Reformation “got it”. This is the essence of chronological snobbery, a disease that not just infects our age, but defines it. 

Now, the story goes, we have entered into a post-doctrinal age, an era marked by the most grand and important thing of all—the papal gesture:

“But there is enough convergence for Francis to have made his still-not-entirely-clear gesture?

If I wanted Francis to cause a pleasant revolution in Lund, he would say Lutherans can, under certain circumstances without asking all the time, receive the Eucharist. That would be a major gesture. The sort of thing I would like to see is that in a so-called ecumenical marriage, the non-Catholic party can always go to Communion with his or her partner. That would be a major step forward, and it’s pastorally very desirable.”

Not that just “any Lutheran could receive at a Catholic Mass,” the bishop helpfully explains, “we’re not there yet, and it would cause confusion.” And, as we all know, we mustn’t have confusion. Or ambiguity. Or a jumbled, incoherent relationship between doctrine and pastoral ministry. We mustn’t have them, but we do. Surplus, in fact, abounds. 

Speaking of such confusion, Cardinal Kasper has recently written an essay titled “Amoris Laetitia: Break or Beginning” (“Amoris laetitia”: Bruch oder Aufbruch?), in which he, according to a report, “critiques the ‘alleged confusion’ as having been caused by a ‘third party’ who has ‘alienated themselves from the sense of faith and life of the people of God.'” And: 

He continues to say that “behind the pastoral tone of the document lies a well thought-out theological position.” The Cardinal praises the “realistic, open, and relaxed way of dealing with sexuality and eroticism” in Amoris Laetitia that does not seek to “indoctrinate or moralize.” “With a grain of salt, one can say that Amoris Laetitia distances itself from a primarily negative Augustinian view of sexuality and turns toward an affirming Thomistic view on creation.” Kasper repeats his opinion that the moral ideal is an “optimum,” yet is unreachable by many. “Oftentimes, we have to choose the lesser evil,” he states, “in the living life there is no black and white but only different nuances and shadings.”

Yet, as Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, noted in his recent pastoral letter about Amoris Laetitia, “As St. John Paul II explains, certain positive commandments, while unchanging and universal, admit of widely varying means to accomplish them. Moreover, at times external circumstances can impede a person’s ability to perform such good acts. There are negative commandments, or prohibitions, on the other hand, which are universally binding in each and every circumstance. They admit of no exceptions whatsoever and can never be chosen…” Or, as Abp. Sample told me in a CWR interview, “the ‘Thou shall not’ commandments admit of no exceptions in the objective. Generally speaking, no one is forced to act in an evil manner against the commandments of God.” Put simply, adultery is not an option, no matter how many “pastoral” smokescreens are tossed up by this or that cardinal. 

But the approach and perspective is clear: doctrine—that is, the Church’s consistent and venerable teaching on faith and morals—must take a back seat to “pastoral” measures. This was summed up succinctly by Cardinal-elect Cupich of Chicago in his April 2016 column about Amoris Laetitita: “There are no changes in doctrine in this document, and in fact the pope urges the church not to step away from proposing the full ideal of marriage. At the same time he makes clear that doctrines are at the service of the pastoral mission. He also knows that this call for a more compassionate pastoral outreach of accompaniment, discernment and integration, one marked by tenderness, will leave some perplexed” (emphasis added). 

Ponder that statement for a moment: “doctrines are at the service of the pastoral mission.” That is, to use non-theological language, complete nonsense. First, ironically, it has the character of a dogmatic and doctrinal assertion; it is a splendid example of Chesterton’s “unconscious dogmatist”. Secondly, it somehow overlooks the simple fact that the pastoral mission of the Church is based upon and flows from her beliefs—that is, her doctrine—about the person and work of Jesus Christ. As soon as someone says, “The Church pastoral mission is…”, they must refer to doctrine. (Those who don’t understand this basic point would do well to read the opening paragraphs of the Summa Theologiae.)

Third, it betrays the same sort of negative and narrow view of doctrine that is, unfortunately, found in some of the writings and statements of the Holy Father. For example, Pope Francis states in his apostolic exhortation: “Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defence of a dry and lifeless doctrine.” On the face of it, this sounds fine. But note how it implies that doctrine—again, the teaching passed on to the Church by Christ—is “dry and lifeless” unless it is presented in a certain manner; that is, doctrine is reliant upon subjective elements in order to convey objective truth. Yet God states that when his word goes forth, “it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). Yes, we should present the truth with all of the charity and clarity we can muster, by God’s grace, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the Holy Spirit is held hostage by our limitations. 

Revealed and authentic doctrine has power because it is given by God out of love, for the purpose of growing in truth and love. “Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ,” wrote the Apostle John, “does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn 1:9). And while doctrine develops, it never changes into something else. As Abp. Sample explained well in his letter: 

When discerning genuine development, we read parts in light of the whole, formulae in light of the essence, and the newer in light of the older. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Tradition does develop, but Tradition develops only in continuity, never in rupture. Pastoral practice and sacramental discipline develop as well, but practice and discipline must be completely consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the Church.

Yet Kasper and Cupich and others would tell us differently. In claiming that doctrine must bow to pastoral measures and initiatives, they actually subvert one of the most basic fundamentals of Catholic doctrine: that it is God who initiates and it is man who responds, either in humble faith or in prideful resistance. The Trinitarian mission—the saving work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is to communicate and impart the gift of divine life and love, and the “ultimate end of whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity” (see CCC 257-260). The commandments are not “ideals”, but means by which our love in and for God grows ever deeper. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” (Jn 14:15) Jesus told the disciples. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments,” wrote the Apostle John, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn 5:2-3). The Apostle was not only unaware of the endless “complexities” of modern life, he was happily resistent to the false notion that only a few special men and women can be saints. 

So, Christ’s commandments are not burdensome, nor are his doctrines confusing. Yet some in the Church are convinced that teaching the commandments is both a burden and a sign of rigidity; they seem to believe that sentimental gestures are more important than shepherding. That is truly sad; it is also truly cowardly. “We have the duty, as Bishops,” wrote St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, “to be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught. My Brothers in the Episcopate, it is part of our pastoral ministry to see to it that this moral teaching is faithfully handed down and to have recourse to appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to it” (par 116). 

Alas, dogmas and doctrines are often viewed as chains that bind rather than keys that free. And when such is the case, we are in danger of being imprisoned and bound by our weaknesses and passions, as Chesterton warned: “Instead of the liberty of dogma, you have the tyranny of taste.” 

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.