“Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human.” — G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905)
Dogmas or doctrines are human endeavors to state as clearly as possible the truth about something, particularly truth that has been revealed. The human mind exists to formulate dogmas, to know and to articulate what is known about what exists. Dogmas flow from careful distinctions—this thing is not that thing. Reality is a well-nigh unlimited storehouse of different things, each of which has its own differences from and likenesses to other things. All beings have some analogous relation to other beings. We classify things according to these differences and similarities. In this way, we can carry them about within us as things we understand.
We find what things are by what they do or do not do. When we understand a dogma about something, we do not, by that human formulation of it, intend to imply we know absolutely everything about what we are dealing with. Human knowledge can be accurate and true without comprehending absolutely everything about a given thing. This fact is what is meant when we say dogmas flow over into mystery. One end of what we seek to know is always its very existence, its standing outside of nothingness. The cause of any finite existence reaches into what is existence itself, what is uncaused but is.
By now, it seems clear enough that the present Holy Father does not like dogmas very much. He does tell us that he has a few principles learned back in his youth, such as “the whole is greater than its parts” or “time is greater than space.” These principles sound like dogmas. Pope Francis often appears to see the world in the light of exceptions. The old natural law philosophers always insisted that we take into every situation issues of time and place when dealing with any given reality or action. In some way each existing thing is different from any other existing things.
Doctrines and those who hold them are often seen by the Holy Father to be “rigid” or even “hypocritical”. In previous eras, most people thought that it was the nature of the Church to have an office whose function was to decide things, even though things were not usually decided finally until absolutely necessary. At the beginning of the Roman Canon of the Mass, after recalling the name of the pope and the local bishop, we read: “et omnibus orthodoxis atque /catholicae et apostolicae fidei cultoribus—all those who hold and teach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.” We are not to make up new doctrines but the romance of Catholicism is to keep those doctrines intact that were handed down to us. They remain ever new in the light of whatever is popular or current. Not to preserve this mission in time or place would evidently be an abandonment of what the Church is.
Those few believers and non-believers who want to know what exactly is to be held and practiced according to Christian revelation, however, are seldom answered these days, almost as if it is an impertinent question to wonder precisely what is meant by theoretical or practical issues that involve actual human living. Yet, from the same source, we hear much advice and many solemn opinions about earth warming, immigration, war, economics, and ecology. Many of these are political opinions normally associated with what is called “the left”. And these are things that by no means rise to the level of dogma in their importance or certitude.
Indeed, an astonishing number of recently appointed papal advisors are known to advocate abortion, contraception, and the radical limits of growth, all of which views are deeply controverted by facts that never seem clearly to emerge in papal considerations of these issues. Moreover, these advisors never appear to change any of their opinions which have long been considered by previous popes to be contrary to the human good and the divine law. While nothing is wrong with knowing what one’s opponents maintain, following their advice would be another matter.
In light of this papal silence about the meaning of faith in particular circumstances that apparently involve revelation when clarity is needed, people are encouraged to go ahead and make their own decisions in difficult cases. After a while, the exceptions will become new rules and difficult cases may become norms. We obtain our “theories”, if we have any, from seeing what others in our time do. Modern culture is not neutral. It already contains embedded ideas guiding its laws and customs, ideas that need to be examined for their philosophical and theological content. This examination in part is what the theological enterprise was about.
We maintain that we want to be modern; things are constantly changing. Logically, on the basis of this approach, the norms that flow from historical or geographical conditions also change. This latter approach is recently said to be what Christ did in His own time. Christ in practice did, however, set forth a considerable number of rigid, clear, and unchangeable statements intended to remain unchanged in other times and places. However, we cannot have imposed on us today, so it is said, out-of-date criteria.
We alienate ourselves from our modern society and culture if we insist on living according to certain universal principles that are said to be rooted in reason or revelation and abide over time. In this process, scriptural “thou shalt nots” seem to become “thou shalts”. Contrary to the old adage that those who forget their history are bound to repeat it, we now believe that history can teach us little or nothing. It certainly cannot bind us to universal truths valid over time and space and said to be sanctioned by God.
This year’s annual Chesterton Conference was held in Colorado Springs under the theme of “The Tyranny of the Learned”. The theme suggests we do not live under a democratic regime. Elites rule us. Whatever we do derives not from nature, revelation, or experience but from some obscure theories that, on examination, have their origins in someone such as Hegel or Rousseau, or even in Epicurus or Heraclitus. The ordinary man is looked on by our elites as a clueless fanatic or as a hopelessly biased person, locked in the prison of dogmatic religion that allows no exceptions to its unpopular rules.
Religion, it is said, should not bind us by any criterion of excellence in the light of which we seek to live. Rather it should promote a vast caretaking enterprise, with all sorts of connection to the State, which has now become the final authority. Religion should not be concerned with why people need information or guidance about their transcendent destiny. The eradication of poverty and control of the environment are the central issues. Indeed, poverty seems to be something that needs to be perpetuated to give both religious and governmental elites a moral sense that they are “doing” something noble.
This caretaking is government’s chief concern and justifies its ever expanding power over the citizens. The question is not why people need help, but how to take care of them no matter how they arrived at the point of needing someone else’s help. Virtue ethics is replaced by a universalized compassion that does not much inquire into the question of why help of any kind might be needed or what really does work to remove actual poverty.
On the book tables at the Chesterton Conference, I noticed a very old book. It looked like a remnant that was found in some old attic or bookstore. The book’s faded yellowish-green cover looked like something from about 1910. The book was said to be an anthology of Chesterton’s writings entitled ABCs of the Christian Life. I had never heard of such a book with this title. So I bought it. It turns out that that the book was published in 2017 by Ave Maria Press with an Introduction by Peter Kreeft. It is a selection of twenty six topics arranged alphabetically and taken from various books and articles in the vast intellectual gold mine that proceeded from the mind of Chesterton.
Kreeft wrote that Chesterton “saw things that we don’t see; that is why we desperately need him here in the country of the blind. He seems crazy only because he is the sanest inhabitant in our global madhouse.” If there is anything we remember about Chesterton, it is that he came into the Church because, being sorry for his sins, he saw, again and again, that its dogmas were true. The arguments of the heretics, on examination, were, in examining their errors, what led to the truth.
Chesterton understood the need of a doctrinal authority consistent over time and place. In the years since he began to write, only God knows how many people have found their way into the Church, or remained in it, because of his clarity of intellect. The number, I suspect, is enormous. When we see this intellectual aspect of the Church de-emphasized, we begin to worry, as Belloc once put it, about the “human side of the supernatural Church.” Revelation is directed to intelligence. Nothing distinguishes the Catholic Church as it has historically presented itself more than this realization.
Why do we need dogma and what kind of dogma do we need? Under the letter “D” in this collection is a passage from Chesterton’s famous book on Charles Dickens. Here we find some remarkable things about the dogma that most perplexes modern (and ancient) man, namely, hell. Dickens, Chesterton tells us, could describe “miserable marriages, but not monotonous marriages.” Such a passage is not unrelated to recent controversies about marriage in the recent Synods of the Church.
Dickens held that “a desolate place is a place where anything can happen. This is a good thing for his soul, for the place where nothing can happen is hell.” Could it be put any better? We live in a place where anything can happen, even repentance or damnation. Once we have decided our lot by rejecting truth and living accordingly, nothing new can happen to us. This is the essence of the dogma of hell.
Dickens was not an optimist. Why not? “When I say optimist in this matter, I mean optimism in the modern sense of an attempt to whitewash evil.” Whitewashing evil is what most of the aberrations of our time are about. The world is not a more interesting or fascinating place if the possibility of evil is rejected. If we cannot choose evil, no drama is possible, no war or struggle over worthwhile things ensues.
Dickens called evil what it was: “evil”. This affirmation did not prevent him from seeing that in this life anything could happen, even forgiveness and repentance. Dogma is what prevents us from the vice of whitewashing evil, of calling evil good. The unity of the human race demands calling what is good, good, and what is evil, evil, in all times and places.
Dickens wanted to keep alive “the idea of combat, which means, of necessity, a combat against something individual and alive.” Combat against “isms” and “ideologies” such as racism or genderism is rooted in that impersonality, that abstraction from individual persons. They alone are involved in real issues of good and evil from which they are ultimately saved or damned. “If he (modern man) manages to praise everything, his praise will develop an alarming resemblance to a polite boredom.” Neither praise nor blame will make any difference in a world in which what we do makes no ultimate difference. If all things are morally equal, then what is the “good of good”?
This optimism that nothing we do makes any difference is “the very heart of hell.” The “joyless approval” of everything can only be met by “a sudden and pugnacious belief in positive evil.” This belief in the reality of evil clarifies the distinction in things, the difference between good and bad things which is not accidental. It is a question of dogma.
The world can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield. When we have defined and identified the evil thing, the colors come back into everything else. When evil things become evil, good things, in a blazing apocalypse, become good. There are some men who are dreary because they do not believe in God; but there are many others who are dreary because they do not believe in the devil.
We cannot be dreary if we are fighting on a battlefield. If we do not believe in the devil, we do not see the terrible realities that come from our refusal to distinguish dogmatically what is good from what is bad, what is true from what is false.
“For the full value of this life can only be got by fighting…. And if we have accepted everything, we have missed something—war.” It is no accident that the encounters in heaven between Michael and Lucifer were depicted as wars. We cannot avoid the fact that false dogmas can be affirmed. We do not deal with abstractions here. “The evil may be inhuman, but it must not be impersonal, which is almost exactly the position occupied by Satan in the theological scheme.” Our struggles are not against flesh and blood but against Principalities and Powers.
“It is, perhaps, the strongest mark of the divinity of man that he talks of this world as ‘a strange world’, though he has seen no other.” That is a remarkable sentence, mindful of Augustine. This passage is mindful of Chesterton’s famous question about why we are “homesick even at home?” The only answer is that we are not made for this world, even when this is where we begin our final journey. The refusal to accept this basic truth is the origin of most modern ideology that wants to give us a final end so much less than that which the dogmas of the Church promise us.
The world ”is not to be justified as the best of all possible worlds. Its merit is not that it is orderly and explicable; its merit is that it is wild and utterly unexplainable. Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived such a thing, that we should have rejected the bare idea as miracle and unreason. It is the best of all impossible worlds.” Chesterton’s final paradox, that this is “the best of all impossible worlds”, brings us back to the dogmas of the faith, those whose stability over time assure us that it is in this world in which evil is possible where we are to work out our salvation, a salvation that sees beyond this world. Only dogmas can assure us that what we were promised “from the beginning” remains possible in this impossible world.