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Is 'Dogma' a Dirty Word?

What's in your dogma? On what belief do all your other beliefs rest? What's that one belief from which all other beliefs and motives derive?

I heard about two weeks ago a man say in conversation that he's a Catholic but he doesn't believe in all the rules or "dogma" of the Church. (He even threw up the air quotes when he said the term.) He said he doesn't believe God is into rules. (I didn't ask him to explain the Ten Commandments as I wasn't part of the conversation.)

But I know that many people think that way. That's what's behind all the "I'm spiritual but not religious" thing. That means you don't believe there are any rules. That simplistic view, I fear, views rules as impediments to happiness. And they can work themselves into some kind of righteous indignation that somehow all the rules of Christianity interfere with real love which they, freed from rules, are now capable.

But the rules of Catholicism are not incomprehensible. They are the well thought out conclusions of thousands of years of study by the brightest and holiest among us guided by the Holy Spirit. Their thinking is available in the documents of the Church. And moreover, these rules were established for our happiness. These rules are the best thinking on love; real love.

Case in point. The rules against abortion are not a "You shall not!" they are a request to be open to life. The Church is asking all of us to say the great "yes" just as Mary did over 2,000 years ago.

Just as the Church's "rule" that men should be faithful to their wives shouldn't be seen as "No!" to millions of women. It is more properly viewed as a "Yes" to your wife.

The Church's rules on contraception are not meant to make sex less fun. The Church is not prudish about sex. Evidence of that is that many Catholics have lots of babies. The Church seeks to elevate sex into lovemaking which puts the other before the self. Because only when we free ourselves from our selfish desires are we capable of love. Truly love.

Just look at what our culture has done to sex. Our culture argues openly for the meaningless of sex. It's good because it feels good. That's it. But that worldview views humans as animals who simply act on a primal instinct. And what does that bring us? People treating each other as animals. As less than human.

And somehow that's supposed to bring us happiness?

It is the Church's dogma which protects humans from that worldview. But I think that ironically for most people today "dogma" is a dirty word. I wonder without the Church's teaching, what is their dogma? What lies at the bedrock of all their decision making?

I wonder if in the end it isn't immediate personal happiness that lies at the bedrock of those who resist "dogma?" Which would be ironic because the Church's dogma is made for our eternal happiness. And chasing our own selfish desires leaves people in our culture today looking inward which leads them only further into themselves, like a snake devouring its own tail, forming a perfect circle which doesn't allow anyone outside to enter.

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Sharon said...

As a convert, I am annoyed every time I hear someone say "That's a dumb rule" when talking about some Church dogma. Usually people don't like the teachings on birth control, celibacy in the priesthood, and all male priests (at least those things seem to be the doctrines people complain the most about). I always say the Church doesn't have any "dumb" rules. Each doctrine, as you said is well thought-out over 2,000 years; I've learned over the years that every time I encounter a Church teaching I'm having a hard time accepting and/or understanding, with prayer and careful discernment I realize that the Church has a good reason to have that rule. God bless!

Rick said...

For a distinction between dogma vs. morals cf. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14601a.htm

Re: "spiritual but not religious" thing. That means you don't believe there are any rules." I think they pick the 'rules' that support their relationship with God. So they follow the universal precepts like respecting others and ignore religion-specific ones like keeping a kosher kitchen.

Craig said...

If the Church's dogma was designed just to provide eternal happiness and was used solely for that end, people wouldn't have much of a problem with it.
Unfortunately, dogma is more often used as a shield to hide behind when discriminating against others and persecuting those who are deemed unfit to be "real" Catholics.

carina said...

"Unfortunately, dogma is more often used as a shield to hide behind when discriminating against others and persecuting those who are deemed unfit to be "real" Catholics."

And who might this be? And in what specific instances are they being discriminated against or persecuted? And what would your definition of a Catholic be?

Let's stop talking about straw men so that we can have a real conversation.

Javier Plumey said...

One definition of a Catholic is one who follows the teachings of Jesus Chris,t as handed down down by the apostles by way of the Catholic Church, and who abides by the spiritual precepts guarded by the Pope and the Magisterium of the Church.

I know many Catholics that turn any spiritual teaching into a "dogma" the minute they disagree with it. It's much easier to say that you disagree with a dogma than it is to say you disagree with a teaching of Christ,. Unfortunately for those who follow that line of thought, they are one and the same.

Titus said...

1. A commenter above rightly pointed out, albeit briefly, that dogmas aren't actually the source of many rules. Nobody ever says, "The Immaculate Conception really puts a crimp in my lifestyle."

2. I'm afraid I simply don't understand Craig's comment. But to be fair, let's examine several possible meanings.

A. Craig knows what a dogma is, and thinks the Church's assertion of them is somehow uncharitable and discriminatory. So, telling people "One God in three Persons" unfairly excludes people who don't believe in a triune God. This isn't a criticism of the Church, it's a criticism of any association, like lambasting the Boy Scouts for not being attractive to people who don't enjoy knots and camping.

B. Craig doesn't know what the word dogma means, and just thinks rules are unkind. This is a canard. Rules are everywhere. Pull out your credit card agreement, ISP contract, local municipal code, etc. Do you have any actual clue how many things you have implicitly promised to do or refrain from by living where you do and engaging in everyday activities? The tecahings of the Church are just the Terms of Service of the Truth.

C. Craig thinks the Church applies her rules in a discriminatory manner. There is little evidence of this assertion. It's not as if clerics with billy clubs go around brutalizing dissidents. The administration of ecclesiastical justice seems to work just as well, if not much better, than that of any civil government.

Patrick Archbold said...

Matthew is on the road and cannot comment, so please allow me on his behalf. I trust that Matthew knows the difference between 'dogma' and moral teaching. I believe he was trying to use the word the way that the man used the word and as many people mis-understand it.

The point was not to correct the man's understanding of the word dogma but to point out the folly that underlies it.

Amy said...

As a convert, I am annoyed every time I hear someone say "That's a dumb rule" when talking about some Church dogma.

Yes. I made the decision when I converted to do so with 100% agreement and acceptance of Church teaching.

It's not always easy, but I do it. Acknowledging the truth of Catholicism means putting something other than the self first, which is why people struggle with it so.

Craig said...

I did misinterpret Matthew's posting since he talked about contraception, which is not technically dogma, but is a doctrinal teaching .
I apologize for any confusion.

Pope Benedict XXXII said...

Whether we are discussing "dogma" or "doctrinal teaching" or "rules," many Catholics wonder how the Great Commandment devolved into 1752 canons and an 800-page catechism.

Some of the Church's rules are clearly human, rather than divine, in origin. For example, although celibacy can be a worthy discipline, priestly celibacy was originally intended to prevent bishops and priests from gifting the riches of the Church to their offspring.

Before placing too much trust in the Magesterium, recall that this is the same bunch that burned heretics at the stake, decreed that the sun revolved around the earth, launched the Crusades, and stood by during the Holocaust.

Certainly, every church has a human component, so every church is imperfect, and no church is more perfect than the Catholic Church, but conscience has a role in salvation, too.

Brian Walden said...

PBXXXII, I don't have time to respond to your entire post but what does conscience having a role in salvation have to to with willfully denying dogma or doctrine? Can you explain more fully what you mean when you say "conscience has a role in salvation."

Pope Benedict XXXII said...

Brian, Jesus warned against false teachers, but he never warned against questioning the Magisterium or the Pope, probably because he never conceived of a Magisterium or a Pope.

Historically, conscience has been a primary consideration in Catholic moral theology, but recent comments by the Pope suggest that a conscience is "informed" if it is "conformed" to (what else?) the Magisterium and the Pope.

Sounds condescending and self-serving to me.

Brian Walden said...

What are you talking about "recent comments?" The Church has always taught that a conscience must be well formed. It makes no sense for conscience to be purely subjective. A man's conscience guides his actions according to moral truths even when that it in opposition to what he feel like doing, if there are no moral truths and our conscience is merely what we feel like then there's not really any conscience involved.

Jesus prayed that we would all be one, he did not conceive a Church of a hundred thousand denominations all believing different things.

Anonymous said...


You might want to refresh your history lessons.

The move for priestly celibacy precedes the Church having significant properties for the children of clergy to inherent. While concerns about inheretance certainly played a major role later on, earlier in Christian history the major concern was that the clergy have the freedom and time to fully and undistractedly devote themselves to their ministry and more easily embrace the martyrdom that it might bring.

The Church idd not burn heretics at the stake. The Church condemned people as heretics and the secular state would then execute tham as a danger to the state. This does not remove the historical Church's culpability, but it is a much different picture. You also have to bear in mind that one of the primary purposes of an "Inquisition" was to prevent secular rulers from using charges of heresy to eliminate their rivals. It is, after all, the source of modern notions about rules of evidence. The "inquisitions" actually did far more to save life than end life. And it is also worth noting that when someone was condemned for heresy, Church officials were often instrumental in getting them burned only in effigy, or securing their "escape." Protestant churches and states executed expodentially more "heretics" in a much shorter period of time than Catholic states did (since the Church never did herself).

The crusades were largely - though certainly not entirely - a reactive move against an invading empire. There were certainly many war crimes involved on both sides and many sub-motives that were considerably less than pure, but to characterize them in the typically aggressive, unprovoked, evil terms is simply a-historical.

During WWII, the New York times spoke of the Church as "the lone voice in the darkness" because they were the only ones speaking out in a significant way against the crimes of the Nazis. After the war, the actions of Pius XII were credited, by Jewish historians, with being responsible for over 1/3 of the Jewish survivors of the holocaust .. having them hidden in the Vatican, in monestaries and convents, forging baptismal certificates, etc. Around 4 million Catholics died at the hands of the Nazis for resisting the Nazis and/or helping Jews escape or hide. If the Church were so complicit, why did the Nazis close their schools and hosptials, seize their property, close so many of their Churches, prohibit Catholics from voting or hoding office, outlaw Catholic political organizations, send priests to concentration camps or simply gun them down in the streets? This revisionist view of a complicit Church is simply astounding given the actual facts of history.

Rick said...

The truth about conscience is that will be the tribunal where God will judge us (LG). To be sure that it is healthy and reliable, then it must be well formed.

But what if it wasn't, then God is most reasonable and understands all the extenuating or mitigating factors and will judge accordingly in a perfectly fair way. Even courts consider the temporary insanity as a defense, so it is not cut and dried.

But that is the exception. In general, if one wants a sure guide to salvation then conscience has to be well formed and conformed according to the deposit of faith and morals that the Son of God Himself left with His Church that is guided by the Third Person of the Godhead.

So, what appears as self-serving to some is an act of fidelity and responsible stewardship to others.

Pope Benedict XXXII said...

Brian, I was objecting to the notion that an informed conscience is a "conformed" conscience, but we agree that there is only one truth and that we need an informed conscience to discern it.

We agree that we should be one. I believe that if the Church focused on proclaiming the Gospel, not embellishing it, we would be closer to that goal.

Jesus was radical and very absolute in many things, but he was also merciful. He looked to intent, and he honored the spirit, not the letter, of the law. Jesus had harsh words for the Pharisees of his day, with their rituals, robes, and rigorous laws.

Anonymous, we agree that the Church is not perfect. Hopefully, no one else mistook my four-paragraph blog post for a definitive history lesson. (BTW, the Church sending heretics to the state is like the Jews sending Jesus to the Romans. Blameless?)

Rick, which canons and catechisms did Jesus write? I don't have all of the answers, I don't claim to, and I don't judge anyone who thinks that they do, but if the Pope assumes divine authority, then he had darn well better be 100% correct. As you say, not everything is cut and dried in real life.

Finally, if an informed conscience is also a conformed conscience and if another person is more comfortable with the Church's legalism than I am, that can be responsible and not self-serving, too.

(That doesn't mean that we are both right, but that no one can know who is right until we are judged.)

Enjoy the holiday.

Rick said...

Pope Benedict XXXII asked, "Rick, which canons and catechisms did Jesus write?"

Answer: He wrote in the dirt once when a mob was out to stone an adulteress but that's been blown by the wind I reckon. But he did delegate all that when he said "He who listens to you, listens to me."

Patrick La Fratta said...

Nice allusion to Chesterton (Orthodoxy, chap. 2) with the snake there at the end.

Child of God said...

Dogmas are not open to revision any more than any other truth is (like gravity). Being the truth, it will always assert itself. There is nothing anyone can do to change the truth of it.

All you can do is choose to accept it and use it to your advantage, or defy it, which is by definition irrational behavior, and be disadvantaged.

Matthew A. Siekierski said...

B32, you say the Church isn't perfect? I disagree completely. The people in the Church, and the leaders of the Church aren't perfect, but the Church was created by God, and is perfect.

Those who disagree with Church doctrines usually haven't bothered to find out the Church's reasons for those doctrines.

Conformity of conscience is related to the above. The Church has a reason for teaching that abortion is a grave evil, and should be opposed in all cases. I can inform my conscience with those reasons, and thereby conform my conscience to the teaching of the Church, or I can view conforming my conscience as simply "accept this without question" and rail against an apparent requirement for blind obedience. The latter is what many people seem to think the Church means, when the truth is the former is what is expected.

And while one is informing his conscience, one should conform to the teaching of the church anyhow.

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