Does Doctrine Matter?

Man is a rational animal. That doesn’t mean he’s always reasonable, but it does mean that his actions are guided by what he believes about the world and how it hangs together. Reality comes first for him, or at least it should and often does. That is one reason love of God—of the Most Real Being—is the first of the two great commandments.

To love God is to be oriented toward the world as it really is. The good and the true go together, so an orientation toward truth is never at odds with the right orientation toward our neighbor. To act badly toward others is to ignore the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves, and to ignore reality is to follow impulse and embrace injustice.

So the Church as merciful mother can’t be separated from the Church as teacher and guardian of true belief. She needs always to be both, since separation from truth is separation from God and therefore from mercy and salvation. Still, the unity of mercy and truth isn’t always obvious to us. The Church sometimes tells us things that we don’t want to hear, just as Mom tells us to do our homework, eat our Brussels sprouts, be civil to our sister, and go to the dentist. The reason, of course, is that she recognizes reality, and wants us to live in accord with it even when we don’t want to. At times she may find it advisable to ease up here or there, but she’ll catch up later if she’s doing her job.

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Of course, she may not always do so. The world’s not perfect, and Mom is not only Mom, she’s also the fallible woman who happened to give birth to us. Similarly, the Church is the Body of Christ and the Sacrament of Salvation, but she’s also the flawed human beings who compose and govern her and sometimes do what they shouldn’t.

We need to be governed, we’re not perfect ourselves, and our governors often see things we don’t, so we should honor and obey them in spite of their weaknesses. Obeying does not mean blind obedience, however, and it certainly does not mean silence in the face of real problems. It is legitimate for children to raise issues with their mother if the issues seem serious. Intelligent cooperation is impossible otherwise, and she sometimes needs second opinions like everyone else.

That is true for the sons and daughters of the Church no less than those of a human mother. And the current condition of the Church does seem to call for second opinions. To all appearances, the pastoral tendencies of recent decades have led to a broken-down sheepfold, a scattered flock, and packs of well-fed wolves. For a while an inclination to moderate some of those tendencies had been apparent, but quite recently there seems to have arisen a strong movement toward their radicalization.

With that in mind, it seems that those who believe that very recent tendencies are likely to make existing problems worse should say what they think. A layman without special authority must speak for himself, but it seems to me, and I believe many others, that one huge problem in recent decades has been a tendency to downplay doctrine, and therefore reality, in favor of subjective experience and interpersonal relations.

Truth can be upsetting, and sometimes it’s useful to smooth things over with people, but making nice can’t be our basic approach to anything serious. The tendency to make it so seems nonetheless to be growing stronger in the Church. Very recently, for example, high Vatican officials thought it important to warn bishops’ conferences  against formulations of pastoral care based on fundamental truths about the situation being dealt with (literally, “meramente applicativa della dottrina,” “based simply on an application of doctrine”). Why is dealing a situation in accordance with reality supposed to be bad? If there’s a specific problem the officials are worried about, it seems they could have raised the issue without warning against an emphasis on truth. Paul told Timothy to “preach the word: be instant in season, out of season:  reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine.” That advice has usually been considered pastoral. Is it now considered antipastoral? If so, why?

To all appearances, downplaying truth leads to bigger and bigger pastoral problems as the sheep go farther and farther into the wilds. Telling them the Church will meet them where they are and accompany them in their journey wherever it takes them doesn’t seem sufficient. Very high Church officials appear to believe, for example, that half of Catholic marriages are invalid, because brides and grooms misunderstand or implicitly reject what marriage is. If so, the Church’s failure to teach has resulted in tens of millions of Catholic couples, mostly unintentionally, living together without being married. If the sacrament of marriage—and understanding by couples of the meaning of their relationship—actually matters to high Church leaders, it’s hard to understand why their leading proposal for dealing with the situation has been changes in discipline and procedure so validity of marriage has as few consequences as possible and it’s easier to ignore marriages that may be invalid. Why are those things the key to improving Catholic family life?

The problem of course goes deeper than current hot-button issues. The Church claims to have the fullness of the Faith. That seems important, because God is important, and true belief about God, together with valid sacraments, helps us orient ourselves toward Him. Indeed, the Catechism and the Second Vatican Council tell us that “they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”  Very high ranking churchmen have nonetheless downplayed the importance of entering the Church and at times even discouraged conversions. How can that attitude be justified or even understood?

One sometimes gets a sense that many of our leaders don’t believe that truth is central to the life of the Church and the responsibilities of their office. If I were a high-ranking Churchman, by my office a prominent teacher of the Faith, and someone asked me about a hot-button issue, women priests or homosexuality perhaps, it seems to me I wouldn’t suggest that I’m personally sympathetic to secular liberal views but my hands are tied because I’m a son of the Church. Before I reached that office I hope I would have thought long and hard about the ways in which Catholic doctrine is at odds with secular belief, and if I couldn’t argue in good faith the correctness and essential humanity of Catholic belief I’d doubt my suitability for the position.

Of course, justifications can be offered for downplaying doctrine. Many people don’t understand it, like it, or see its point, so it’s imaginable that presenting it clearly would repel some who might otherwise be interested in what the Church has to offer. It should be obvious by now though that such arguments don’t make sense of reality. People come to the Church because purely secular ways of thought don’t meet their needs. If you want to attract such people, rejecting a system of belief they have found wanting is not a bug but a feature. The Protestant groups that insistently downplay doctrine in the interest of inclusion and outreach are collapsing. Something similar can be observed among Catholics: the Church in Latin America, which in recent decades has emphasized social themes acceptable to secularists, has notoriously been losing people to Protestantism, and a recent poll reveals that the biggest reasons are that people want God, they want holiness of life, and they don’t like what Catholic worship has become. That is the actual cry of the people. Why not listen to it?


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