The Importance of Doctrine

Adoration of the Trinity
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The Lord Jesus commanded us: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Greek: dianoia)” (Matthew 22:37). One of the ways the Church heeds the Lord’s command is by formulating doctrine. Doctrine is the result of the Church turning her mind in loving, thoughtful contemplation of the Lord’s Revealed Word (Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition). Yet today not a few Catholics (clerics and lay people alike) are suspicious of doctrine. Some think that an intellectually serious faith is a sign of traditionalism. Others hold that doctrine is far from reality and hampers the Church’s pastoral response to today’s culture.

We cannot pretend that the cultural revolutions of modernity and postmodernity have not diminished the Church’s pursuit of a doctrinal synthesis of truth. The ancient era had produced its intellectual synthesis (e.g., Greek philosophy, Roman law). The medieval authors produced new and improved summae of all knowledge available to them. Even many modern scholars did the same: just recall the Encyclopédie of the Enlightenment movement. Yet modernity’s emphasis on specialization has given way to intellectual fragmentation and relativism and, thus, to a widespread subjectivism and emotionalism. 

Among the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the postmodern approach is often clearly visible both in the Church’s activity and in the settings for formation, such as catechesis and the seminary. While in the past the Church would spend much effort, time, and money in promoting solid studies and a culture grounded on them, things are quite different now. A few brief observations about this.

It was once clear that candidates to the priesthood had to study a lot. Now it seems the assumption is that the less studious they are, the “closer to the people” they will be once they are ordained and appointed to a parish.

Instructors in seminaries and theological institutions who are demanding about their students’ education are today considered out-of-touch and sometimes reprimanded by superiors. They are told that they should not “discourage” seminarians by heavy reading commitments or demanding examinations. Something similar happens with catechists at a good number of parishes: there are pastors who don’t appreciate catechists who ask kids and teenagers to learn well the truths of faith, while in the past this was a prerequisite to access the sacraments.

As Massimo Faggioli has recently pointed out, “the current crisis of institutional Catholicism seems to have brought an end to the tradition of bishops and cardinals who were also something like public intellectuals.… Today it is rare to find a bishop who is publishing books that are more than a mere collection of his homilies.” Faggioli claims that, among the present bishops, only a few can “articulate their vision of the Church and Catholicism.” Faggioli goes so far as to affirm that “The so-called ‘Francis bishops,’ those most supportive of the pontificate’s aims and vision, seem capable only of repeating or imitating what is coming.” 

Faggioli’s analysis can be discussed on many points, but on one he seems correct: there is a sort of creeping anti-intellectualism at work among a good number of Catholic bishops. Naturally, we should not judge too severely: bishops today have a very hard job and under this perspective we should sympathize and cooperate with them the most we can. On the other hand, we must remember that bishops, too, were once seminarians, and the problem is the kind of theology seminarians were and are provided with.

The Church would, in the past, spend money to build beautiful churches and to patronize the arts. This would, at the same time, offer an outstanding array of beautiful works of art at the service of preaching and evangelization, as well as foster the growth of Christian culture in the world. At present, the Church, in many places, is still spending a lot of money, but often she pays for churches and pieces of work that can barely be defined as art. The fragmentation and subjectivization of culture have influenced the Church also in this field. Once, she was a leader in producing beauty and culture. Now she follows the trends of the secular (and often anti-Christian) Western culture. And she invests the faithful’s money to (unwillingly) contribute to her own destruction.

Being the religion of the Incarnated Logos, Christianity has always generated a culture and a way of living based on logical assertions and actions consequent to them. In our time, we experience a Church that, both in her liturgy and in her public statements and decisions, concedes probably too much to subjectivism and sentimentalism. She also tends to accept and promote many of the cases that the mainstream propaganda proposes as elements of a better, open, and progressive society. This gives the impression that the Church is closer to everyday life, that she accompanies the experience of the faith of the people. The truth is that she weakens or even loses her role as a leader for both her members and all other individuals. 

A clear example of this is the crisis which occurred in parallel with the appearance of the COVID-19 virus. Without going into detail here, we can say that the Church should lead the people in the present crisis, as in every other significant circumstance, by shedding on the world the light of sound rationality, like the moon reflects the light of the sun, instead of following and even recommending the arguable protocols put into place by civil authorities, without even trying to discuss them. Such an attitude is not accompaniment; it is surrender.

As the religion that brings together faith and reason, Catholicism has always produced a rich theological development, which led eventually even to solemn dogmatic definitions, or to the enrichment of the doctrinal understanding of the Gospel message. (“Transubstantiation” is one of the many possible examples). At present, we see that the Church organizes or joins many ecumenical committees to discuss doctrine with our separated brethren, but we do not see much work on paving the way to new dogmas through a thorough study of Revelation. 

There is, on the contrary, a tendency to prevent new doctrinal developments, if not to step back from doctrines that the Church has taught for centuries. Many theologians work at new doctrinal paradigms and new criteria for interpreting the faith, but they also argue against systematic doctrine and theology. They surely work tirelessly for the evolution of doctrine, but they do not seem to appreciate a development of doctrine that is in continuity with the past. Now, if something evolves, it ceases to be what it was before, while if something ceases to develop naturally and organically, it dies. Catholic doctrine should never evolve, on the one hand; on the other hand, the lack of work to promote organic, doctrinal development is a clear sign of decadence.

Pope St. Paul VI recognized that teaching the faith has become more complicated in modern times, as our society is skeptical of authority figures: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 41). St. Paul VI’s words were certainly a call to teachers to recognize the perils of hypocrisy and to see that their vocation requires authenticity—a call which has become dramatically appealing in view of what we have discovered about abusive practices among the clergy.

Yet St. Paul VI also recognized the great bias against authority figures—as authority figures—that modern people have. Moderns, said the Pope, will listen to teachers only if they are also coherent with what they teach. What Paul VI never said is that so long as we have witnesses, we have no need for teachers. But this is one way in which his words have been frequently manipulated, even by some churchmen. The Pope told us that, in order to evangelize, we need to be both teachers and witnesses: not one thing at the expense of the other. Left only with witnesses, the Catholic faith will be reduced to a “lifestyle choice” or personal opinion. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ was a great teacher. His followers are known as disciples, and He commanded them to teach others what He taught them. We need teachers! In our time, we need them urgently. It is important to remember that, while “opposing the known truth” is a sin against the Holy Spirit, “to instruct the ignorant” is a work of spiritual mercy. Teaching is an act of love. We cannot oppose doctrine to charity, as if it were necessary to be ignorant in order to love our neighbor. The opposite is correct, as we cannot have true love if we ignore the truth. The recent institution of the ministry of Catechist by Pope Francis can be understood in this line. What we need now is to find people at the diocesan level who are able to fittingly teach these teachers.

Without a “pattern of teaching” (Romans 6:17) as St. Paul calls it, to what should we give witness? Thus, we need a renewal of Catholic education at all levels. We need students in theology, homilists and catechists who seriously study the doctrinal content of the faith—because the faith is both a personal witness and a doctrinal content (see Pope St. John Paul II’s Catechesi Tradendae, nos. 22, 30, 52, etc.). 

Today, the Church must heed afresh our Lord’s command to love Him with all her mind. The Church needs to experience again that faithful doctrine is a catalyst for renewal. As I have argued elsewhere, we need theologians to present anew the synthesis of the faith that unifies what has been scattered by postmodern fragmentation. While scholarship and specialization are important and not to be neglected, there is need in our time to do in new ways what the great scholastics did in the medieval period. We need great handbooks of theology that provide a grand sense of the whole of the Catholic faith. For this is one of the most important elements among those that give confidence to the clergy and the lay faithful, make study appealing, generate artistic and cultural greatness, and inspire teachers and students alike.

This is why I have spent seven years writing Truth Is a Synthesis. I offer this handbook on dogmatics in the hopes that it will provoke interest in the systematic, integrative presentation of Catholic dogma. I propose that systematic theology today must be reminded that Jesus Christ is the great “synthetic principle” that warrants theological synthesis. In the person of Jesus Christ, we discover both the union and proper ordering of the aspects of Christian doctrine. Jesus Christ is the permanent union of God and creation. More specifically, Christ is the personal union not of two equal, independent realities, but of the Creator and His creation, which in its turn speaks of the hierarchical order existing between the elements that comprise the synthesis. 

The reality of Jesus Christ teaches the theologian how to properly integrate the historical and the eternal, the material and the spiritual, the human and divine, nature and grace. My hope is that through projects like Truth Is a Synthesis, the theologians and teachers of the Church will have their minds opened by charity and return to classical doctrinal contemplation so that the Church can grow in her capacity to love the Lord her God with all her mind.

[Image: Adoration of the Trinity by Albrecht Dürer]

By

Mauro Gagliardi, S.T.D, a priest of the Archdiocese of Salerno (Italy), is a Professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and Visiting Professor at the Angelicum. Fr. Gagliardi has also taught as a Visiting Professor in Spain and the United States. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as Consultor to the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff and Consultor to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Fr. Gagliardi has authored ten books and is the editor or co-author of another seven.

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