Doctrine MattersDAVID G. BONAGURA, JR.
Critics never seem to tire of pitting the doctrines of the Catholic Church against her works of charity, as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive or even opposed.
A recent column in the Sunday New York Times rehashed this worn cliché: the author asserted that in his global travels he has encountered "two Catholic Churches." One is "obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice;" the other is made of unheralded acts of charity and selflessness by religious missionaries and relief organizations. For this author the second church is clearly the right one; after all, "Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma."
This false dichotomy is at root an attack against faith, and it is nothing new. The Roman emperor Julian the Apostate despised Christianity and created his own religion as a rival; to win support from those impressed by genuine Christian charity he required his own priests to aid the poor. Thomas Jefferson, skeptical of religious mysteries, crafted his own version of the New Testament, which omitted all mention of miracles while showcasing Jesus' good deeds. The New York Times' charge has the same objective: by alleging that dogma impedes charity, it offers subtle encouragement to see aid to the poor as the only kind of religion needful – for secularists.
Sacred Scripture proclaims that God is love, and Jesus specifically left one commandment: love one another. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI calls love "God's greatest gift to humanity," and he places love at the center of the Church's mission. Why not, then, dispense with all the doctrines of divine mysteries – and those rules about behavior and morality – and just love and do good works as each one sees fit?
To begin with, we had some experience of radically secular experiments in the twentieth century, and they weren't pretty.
And besides, Jesus did not focus on the needy to the neglect of dogma. The opposite is the case: Jesus focused on the needy precisely because He was the true and living embodiment of dogma, which is nothing other than teachings about God. Jesus, called rabbi – teacher – from the beginning of His ministry through His resurrection from the dead, became man to teach that God is love of His very essence, and that we are to love in order to participate in God's inner life. Doctrine (Church teachings) and dogma (definitive explanations of the content of revelation) are not dead letters that sap vitality from believers; rather they are intelligible formulations that express real, living mysteries. Doctrine breathes life into the Church and the souls of believers by articulating the many dimensions of the one reason for our being – God. Through its solid teaching about God, doctrine gives powerful impetus to good works.
Thus in the Christian tradition helping the needy is not done for its own sake, but propter Deum, for God's sake; this is the ultimate motivation for the heroic work of those missionaries who so impressed the Times' columnist. Had Jesus not taught so, love would have no direction, and aid for the poor might have never crossed tribal lines. To take just one example, the modern belief of universal equality of all human beings regardless of sex or ethnicity – now espoused by secularists and believers alike – leans heavily on St. Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3: 28).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that dogma and the spiritual life have a symbiotic relationship. "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." Without the teaching of the Church, works of charity – the fruits of the spiritual life – lose the security of truth; in the words of Benedict, they degenerate into "sentimentality," and actually risk harming those in need of help. By the same token meditation on the living mysteries explained through dogmas can inspire us to greater heights of charity.
In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict explained that "Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked," and so on. What distinguishes Christian charity from ordinary social work is the additional communication of what Benedict calls "humanity" and "heartfelt concern," a response to the spiritual needs of the poor. In order to provide this, charity workers require a "formation of the heart" that stems from "that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others." Their love of neighbor then becomes "a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love."
Pope John Paul II compared faith and reason to "two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." The same can be said of doctrine and works of charity: they are two wings on which the soul comes to know and communicate the love of God. Dogma and rules do not distract the Church from social justice; they allow social justice to flourish by pointing it towards its proper and ultimate end.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. "Doctrine Matters." The Catholic Thing (September 10, 2010).
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THE AUTHORDavid G. Bonagura, Jr. is an associate editor of The University Bookman.
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