Monday, April 14, 2008


If you are not good at something it is best to admit it and move on to more constructive things. The same advice would do well for the Church.

We are not good at marketing ourselves.

We aren’t.

We are not good at wording things. Well, that is not exactly true. We are very, very good at wording things as long as you agree with the definition of the words that the Magisterium uses and understand the concepts behind certain phrases that are used in Church circles. Those who write most of the official things for the Church could never get a job in a local newspaper. Half of every paper would be apologies and corrections for the previous edition. Not that what they say was incorrect, but the way in which something is said is open to misinterpretation by those not using language in quite the same way.

One perfectly good word (that I happen to like) that does not work so well anymore is dogma. To the kennel with it! Perhaps the reason it does not seem to go down the collective gullet so well is because we have not explained it properly. If someone said they did not believe in a particular dogma they might be told, “But you have to or you cannot be Catholic!” “Who says?” might be the response to which the very well intentioned, budding apologist might say, “Because Rome said so!”

Is it any wonder people mislabel dogma as “man made laws, rules, and ideas?” But dogma is not a bunch of guys sitting around deciding what everybody needs to believe. It is the collective knowledge that we have of God. It is formal stating of revelation (God revealing Himself and His mission to us.) It is the result of the careful study of Scripture and Tradition. (Tradition being another word that is wildly misunderstood. See how we get into trouble?)

For example, our central dogma is the dogma of the Trinity. Thus did God reveal himself to us. To not believe in the Trinity is to put one’s self outside of not only the Catholic Church but Christianity in general.

Problem number 2: Say you do not believe in a particular dogma. It is said that you are anathema. You are kicked out of the club. The natural reaction might be, “Says who?” To which our earnest budding apologist might respond, “The pope!” Well, that is not exactly true (while at the same time sorta true.)

Look at it this way: One of my favorite professors in the seminary said, “You can only change the rules of the game so much until you find you are playing another game.” So you want to play basketball. But you want to play it with a ball with pointy ends, so that means you can’t dribble, and you decide that to make a point you have to run the ball into an end zone. You can call it basketball all you want but the expert in basketball will say, “You have changed the essence of the game so much that you are playing a different game.”

Dogma is our basic knowledge of God. To reject that revelation of Him is to change the rules to such a degree that you are playing a different game. Rome does not decide this, the pope does not decide this, this is the treasure that the Church has been given of which an individual has chosen not to partake. The big bad Church did not kick them out. They left even if they did not realize it. Dogma helps them (us) realize it. As Russell Shorto said of it, “Dogma wasn’t a dirty word – it was ground. Dogma was conceived not as an external shackle but as the living source that made knowledge of truth possible in the first place.”

Fixing our language. This is where you come in. The Church cannot change her language at society’s whim or one document would not be able to speak to another document without being thoroughly confusing. But we who love her as God’s instrument for His mission on earth must come to understand her language and interpret it for others.


Anonymous said...

Good post.

I think a lot of Catholics have the misconception that a bunch of guys in Rome with funny hats sit around creating rules for us. Most don't understand that our Church guards Truth, it doesn't manufacture it.

I never thought about the need the Church has for a vocabulary that will speak to every age (well, DUH!).

I'll probably get flamed for saying this, but the one term that crops up in Catholic books that really makes me gag is "marital act". I know it conveys a certain meaning, but it reminds me of an episode of Friends where Monica says something about giving a man "her flower" and Rachael says, if you keep calling it that, no one is going to take it!

Odysseus said...

-Well, that is not exactly true-

It isn't at all true. The Pope, as Sparky says, is a guardian of the Truth. Just as when JP II said he could NOT ordain women. It wasn't his personal choice. He knew that the Magisterium had spoken long before and was merely recognizing the Truth. The answer to the question, "Who says?" is:

"The Church says so!"

Adoro said...

This is an excellent post.

One thing that I've noticed in studying theology, even going back to my days as an undergrad, was the absolute insistence of the professors that we define our terms...and then use them appropriately. Last spring in my JP2 class, there was a great deal of discussion with regard to the terms used in Vatican II...and their subsequent misinterpretation; ie the hermeneutic of discontinuity. The Church does nothing without taking care to do it in light of what has always been true.

Just the other day (or yesterday maybe?) I was speaking with someone and she brought up this complete dischord. It's the fledglings in the faith; they interpret what the Church says from the wrong foundation. They have a problem with authority, and so they tend to look at the doctrines and dogmas as "rules" that must be followed. And they don't like it. On the other hand, you have people who may still have a problem with authority, but still accept it, or in fact, see the supernatural heirarchy of the Church as God's design...and fall in love. And it is from this love that obedience rises. We don't go to Mass on Sunday because we "have to". And sometimes we don't want to for some reason. But we go...because we love God and we know that He wills our Good.

If we can help people to understand the proper motivation, and see in the terms of their own lives how this really works, then maybe some inroads can be made. We do amazing things for people we love. And those things may involve following certain rules, but because we are motivated out of love for another, the rules don't matter; they are just a logical course of action - they fit naturally into the course of our choices and decisions.

Adoro said...

Rob ~ But that's not a complete answer, and it won't help people understand. The core of dissent, besides having the wrong foundation, is the big looming question, "Why?"

And that question is logical. That's basically the question St.Thomas Aquinas answered in all his volumes of work!

So in the case of the lack of authority to ordain women...well, it's because it belongs to the deposit of the faith. It goes back to the time of the Apostles, when Jesus chose only men to fulfill this role. And it carried on, never changing, the common understanding and theology was never disrupted. So far, it is not elevated to the level of dogma (because JP2 left out a couple important words), but I fully expect that it will become defined as official dogma at some point in the future, which will relegate the women who think they are ordained into the formal category of "heretic". (Which they currently are not. They are excommunicated, though, through their actions. )

I know YOU know this, but a lot of people don't, and they NEED the explanation. They may still choose to disregard it, but they have the God-given free will to do so.

Fr. V said...

That's why I said it is both true and not true. The "Church" is indeed all of us. These are the things upon which we agree. So when we say "the Church" we mean those of us who believe in these truths as revealed by God.

ON THE OTRO MANO - The pope is our visible head, our "spokesman" of sorts. So yeah, the pope says so. ROb's answer is PERFECT for those who already buy into God and His Church - Adoro's answer is perfect for trying to explain it to someone who doesn't "get it."

At lease so I think.

Anonymous said...

I usually say, "'Cause God said so."

:-) But usually, I'm not the one who is asked.

"We do amazing things for people we love. And those things may involve following certain rules, but because we are motivated out of love for another, the rules don't matter; they are just a logical course of action.." If only I could explain that much!!

Anonymous said...

Society has really done a number on dogma by using it in the general vocabulary for meaning a law that ends all laws, or something of the sort, rather than a clarification of Church belief and an annunciation of the divine mysteries!

Dogma rules!

Fr. V said...

A.M. - Good point.

(Again - language. It makes communication so difficult.)

Deacon Bill Burns said...

Great title for the post, and great post.