5. Dogma divides. Recently I picked up a liberal Catholic magazine which featured an interview with Bishop Gaillot of France. As you might remember he was the French bishop who was asked to step down from his diocese because of certain doctrinal deviations. In the interview the bishop spoke about his hopes for the Church of the Future. He wanted one which would reach out to the alienated by preaching and above all practicing love. That future Church should stop being so hung up on dogmas and instead promote Jesus' simple message of love and justice. In doing so it would include all: the poor, immigrants, divorced people and homosexuals.

When I finished reading the bishop's eloquent appeal for a more authentic Church, I went back to a book of essays by G. K. Chesterton. He had one called "The Usual Article." The article in question was gingerly introduced by the editors who feared it would cause a reaction because of its "boldness." It was titled "A Woman's Plea to the Church," and asked for an overhaul of dogma, throwing out the human accretions and getting back to the basics, the simple truth Jesus taught: That we should be kind to one another and that it is good to help the poor. Chesterton called it the "usual article" because he had seen so many like it. He threatened to write one in response titled "A Man's Plea to the Newspapers" (to stop publishing such insipid stuff.) Evidently he never wrote it because the "usual article" keeps getting cranked out. Today it has become the staple of liberal Catholic journals like the one which interviewed Bishop Gaillot. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I was not sure if it reflected his thought or if the interviewer was putting words in the bishop's mouth. I have a hard time believing he could have been a priest, then a bishop, and not realized the doctrines of justice and love were hardly unique to Jesus.

In response to the number two misleading slogan (All Religions Teach the Same Thing), I tried to show that what does make Christianity unique is Jesus' self revelation. You can find all Jesus' ethical teachings in the Old Testament and other great world religions, for that matter. Yet what does differentiate His teaching can only be called astonishing. It truly deserves the adjective "bold." That teaching, or more precisely that self-revelation was more by actions than words: breaking the Sabbath to heal, forgiving sins, calling off the fast because of the "bridegroom's" presence, etc. Those actions led to His death. The Nicene Creed, which we say at Sunday Mass, attempts to express the inner meaning of those gestures. It proclaims that Jesus is "True God from True God, Begotten not Made, One in Being with the Father."

All Christians accept that central dogma: that Jesus is the same substance (in Greek "homoousion") as the Father. Those who do not, like the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, cannot be considered Christians in the strict sense. Now at this point one could say, "you see, dogma does divide." Yes, but without it there would never be any solid base for unity. A look at Church history will illustrate this. Before the bishops at Nicaea declared that Jesus is "homoousion," there were some who pleaded for a vaguer, more encompassing word. Why not just say, like the Bible does, that Jesus is the "Son of God." The Arians (who were fourth century precursors of the Mormons and Witnesses) could then be free to interpret the phrase "Son of God" in their sense: that Jesus was an exalted person, through whom the whole universe was created, but he himself was created in time. The bishops knew a more precise definition was needed, one which would exclude that interpretation. That is why they employed a word not found in the Bible, but which expresses the biblical teaching exactly. They knew it was not enough just to repeat the same phrases, even if they are from the Bible. We need common understanding. That is what unites people in the long run. It is shared meaning which keeps us together.

Now if we agree that "homoousion" expresses our shared meaning about who Jesus is, then we are faced with a vital question. John Courtney Murray asked it his book The Problem of God. What think ye of the "homoousion"? Is it an authoritative teaching guided by the Holy Spirit? If so, it poses a dilemma to a Christian who founds his religion on "individual interpretation." A Protestant who feels the inherent contraction does have an option. In recent years many, including ministers, have come to the Church which possesses the same authority as the bishops of Nicaea. It does not involve believing a hundred dogmas, just one—that Jesus is True God from True God. And its corollary—I believe in the holy, catholic Church. Only shared meaning (dogma) can bring us together.

For dissenting Catholics the dilemma is more acute. They do not have the long Protestant tradition of "individual interpretation." What supports them is modern culture with its relativism and egalitarianism. They get a sense of community by opposing an authority they consider oppressive, but if anything, it is more than likely to be indulgent to them. Really they are pitiable because they lack integrity. At the same time we cannot continue with our current indulgence. It hurts them and it hurts the Church. As Jesus said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." We need to reaffirmed our shared meaning if we are to withstand the leveling force of secular culture. Dogma unites. And defends.

For more on the struggle between dissent and orthodoxy see my review of Flawed Expectations.


Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History