The Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism: On Fundamentalism

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By William Deatherage, Executive Director

The following article is based on what we call Theoretical Applied Theology and should not be taken as dogmatic or doctrinal Church teaching. Its intention is to provoke thought by bringing in outside subject interests to interact with Theology and propose ideas that stretch the imagination, even if someday proven wrong.  I appreciate all feedback but would rather wait a little to discern better responses, rather than immediately answering. 

Terms Discussed

  • Fundamentalism (this article’s definition): the practice of applying an overly strict, narrow, and often literalistic interpretation of sacred texts and documents
  • Doctrine (traditional definition): all Church teaching regarding faith and morals
  • Dogma (traditional definition): doctrine that has been divinely revealed or formally declared as true; it is required to believe dogma if you are Catholic
  • Fact: an expression of reality reality
  • Dogma (revised definition): a human expression of God’s divinely revealed Truth
  • Argument: a string of expressions regarding truth held together by some sort of consistency
  • Doctrine (revised definition): a set of human propositions involving God’s divinely revealed Truths
  • Layers of Removal: the separation between God’s Truths and our limited understanding of His Truths.
  • The Infinite Gap (Layer One): God is infinitely greater than us, so no matter how intelligent or well-guided scripture authors and theologians could possibly be, their human words and expressions can never capture the full glory of God
  • Linguistic Context (Layer Two): every Biblical author and Theologian has their own literary context; some express truth via parables, some through judicial procedures, some through analogies, etc.
  • Cultural Context (Layer Three): every Biblical author and Theologian has their own temporal cultural context that they apply God’s eternal truths to; for example, St. Paul lived in a culture where veiling was considered sacred, so God commanded that women, being sacred childbearers, wear veils (there is nothing inherently sacred about a veil, rather the act of veiling was considered sacred by the culture at the time. The eternal truth is that women should treat their bodies with sanctity)
  • Language (Layer Four): the words that sacred texts were written in had very different meanings than the English translations do; for example, the Ancient Greeks had three different words for the English word “love”
  • Translation (Layer Five): the Bible and other theological works have been through hundreds of translations and iterations across history
  • Divine Law: consists of the commandments God has directly revealed to us through scripture and sacred tradition; it is entirely contingent on what God chooses to reveal to us and is not testable but is often more direct than Natural Law
  • Natural Law: consists of the observable scientific laws that govern the universe, including human nature; it is empirically testable but is often more difficult to discern than Divine Law
  • Paradigm Shift: idea pioneered by Thomas Kuhn that the sciences are just tools to solve puzzles with; when a scientific model proves inconsistent or insufficient at solving problems, it will either be readjusted or scrapped entirely if it is not adequate anymore
  • The Past Approach: analyzes past theological source material for linguistic and cultural accuracy
  • The Future Approach: analyzes what science suggests about human nature and how it illustrates our ideal natural design
  • Timeless Ideas: timeless concepts and morals that can be considered true, or valid, in any time period or context; they are difficult to attain but can be extracted by sifting through layers of removal



“That’s infallible. That’s dogmatic. That’s just what we believe. That’s the way it is. That’s what God said.” The relationship between the institutional Church, doctrine, and dogma is difficult to explain, but knowing how we should interact with such powerful ideas is perhaps even more important than the ideas themselves; otherwise we risk going down the dangerous path of literalism and fundamentalism. In this article I will attempt to define some terms that I believe have been misunderstood, while raising awareness of a worrisome trend I’ve witnessed among many young Catholics today. 

First, a few Definitions

While Catholic Answers is not the most academic source, it is certainly a valuable tool to translate theological language into a more approachable style. According to the website, “In general, doctrine is all Church teaching in matters of faith and morals. Dogma is more narrowly defined as that part of doctrine which has been divinely revealed and which the Church has formally defined and declared to be believed as revealed.

This definition seems pretty straightforward. Doctrine is the set of everything the Church proposes to be true. Most of such teachings can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’d like to emphasize “proposed truths.” This is an important distinction to make when looking at dogma, which is specifically a subset of doctrine concerning divinely revealed truths. For example, God is dogmatically trinitarian, being three Persons in one Nature. Christ clearly reveals this in the Bible, and it is a requirement to believe this to be considered Catholic. Now, what are the specific qualities or attributes of the Holy Trinity? Some have been declared dogmatic by the Church (this usually happens at a Church Council or the rare Extraordinary Declaration of Infallibility by the Pope), and others are still debated by theologians to this day.  

Let’s use a moral example. It is universally accepted by the Church that all human life is sacred and valuable. What exactly that means is often the subject of great debate, as Church teaching on the subject has fluctuated based on our scientific, psychological, and even sociological understanding of human life. A classic example of this is the death penalty, which remains doctrinal, not dogmatic, as the Church’s teaching has recently been revised, though not infallibly affirmed. If God is our Father and the Church is our Mother, we should think of this distinction in a relational manner. Mothers and fathers often set rules for their children. For example, bed times. Assuming that the children are perpetually kids (we are always God’s children), they will always have a bed time. But what exactly that bed time is depends on several factors that change over time. However, there are some rules that are self evident, unchanging, and require no formal statements. For example, mothers and fathers love their children. I understand this analogy isn’t perfect, but hopefully it gives a decent visual of the fundamental difference between dogma and doctrine. 

As you can see from the above paragraph, I enjoy analogies. In fact, the only way we can even talk about God is through analogy, as our human words are so imprecise and immeasurable in comparison to His total perfection. Now, between the two of them, dogma is often referred to as the “be all end all.” The one where “If you disagree with dogma you shouldn’t consider yourself Catholic.” So, how would I describe dogma? Well, asking a Catholic what dogma is is like asking a scientist what the basic rules of science are. You see, in most scientific fields, there are laws. Laws are supposed to signify a causation that should always happen. For example, Newton’s law of universal gravitation signifies a relationship between particle attraction. It is very complex, obviously, and is generally accepted by the scientific community. However, there are other things, like 1+1=2, or the existence of time and space, which are quite self evident. They don’t need proper scientific laws to spell them out, and pretty much all scientists can agree that they are true. Honestly, a scientist who denies the existence of space isn’t much of a scientist when you think about it. Likewise, a Catholic who denies the existence of Christ probably shouldn’t even be called Christian.

Alright. Reason. Now, I have heard some Catholics suggest that with all this complex dogma and doctrine surrounding us, that we should simply believe what theologians tell us at face value and move on. I am writing this article to state that this is not only a horrible idea, but it could lead to the utter demise of the entire Church, which would quickly devolve into fundamentalism. Throughout the remainder of this article, I will explain precisely why blindly accepting anything without exercise of reason (even in matters of faith) will lead us straight into an age of theological darkness.

Image result for unstable houseRemove enough reason and the whole thing will collapse 

The Big Problem: Layers of Removal 

Let’s put forward a more solid definition of dogma. There’s a great misconception that dogma is revealed truth. This is false, or at the very least incomplete. Dogma is a human expression of God’s truth just as a fact is an expression of reality. This means that an argument is not a set of truths, rather it is a string of expressions of truth held together by some sort of consistency. Doctrine, being propositional, is a set of human expressions which attempt to explain God’s divinely revealed truths.

These ideas may seem shocking at first, but it’s important to recognize our humility as finite beings who are faced with the daunting task of understanding God’s infinite wisdom. Even the great St. Thomas Aquinas admitted on his death bed that all along “everything I have written seems like straw.” Aquinas was a brilliant man: perhaps one of the most brilliant human history has ever seen. While historians debate what his statement meant, I understand it as an assertion of God’s great glory.

From here on out, I will refer to the separation between God’s word and human understanding as “Layers of Removal.” Here emerges the first layer of removal from the truth. Obviously, when an infinite God is asking a mortal human to transcribe His perfect truth in human words, words which are finite and inferior to divine truth, there’s gonna be a bit of a difficulty encapsulating just what that means. Factor that with the idea that the Gospels weren’t as much “one-and-done” revelatory experiences, and that they were more likely a combination of revelation and eye-witness testimonies, and we have a pretty solid layer of removal. Sure, there was the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make sure no one messed up too badly, but the fact of the matter is that we tried to transcribe God’s perfect commands into mortal words. Using reason, I think we can infer that no matter how intelligent a man may be, we are NOTHING in comparison to the awesomeness that is God.

Image result for three little pigs straw house

But little did the pig know that his house wasn’t made of straw; it was pages of Summa!

Second and Third Layers: Context

But okay, let’s say that somehow we get it done right. Exactly to the T. Well, it’s time for our second layer of removal: linguistic context. While the first layer of removal asks what God meant when He revealed it, the second focuses on what the author meant when they wrote it. Remember when Jesus said “Hey. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich dude to get to Heaven.” Sounds kinda absurd doesn’t it? A camel going through a needle? Like the ones we use for sowing? Well, not really if you consider that it’s quite possible that a narrow gate in Jerusalem was called “The Eye of the Needle.” The gate was so narrow that camel drivers would have to unload their belongings before passing through. Huh. Granted, this is just one of a dozen theories about the verse, and it’s still disputed to this day. However, it just goes to show that understanding the context when Christ says something is pretty important, as we go from “it’s straight up impossible for rich people to go to heaven” to “the rich might have to unload a little wealth from their camels before passing through.” 

Layer three is similar to layer two, but it involves cultural context. Ever wonder why St. Paul says wives should submit themselves to their husbands, that women should either wear veils in Church or get their hair cut off and shouldn’t dare teach, let alone speak? Also, slavery is a-okay and homosexuals will straight up not make the cut to heaven. Well, did you know that St. Paul also commanded husbands to cherish and respect their wives, a view far more progressive than contemporary cultures? And would it really make sense to allow women, who weren’t exactly literate or as well-learned as men at the time, to teach, especially in a religious context? Veiling was a form of showing respect to God, whose essence is manifest in the womb at the moment of conception. Obviously, many other cultures had different ways of showing respect to the fertility of women. It just so happened that St. Paul lived in a culture where veiling was the way to show respect.  Slavery? St. Paul was very merciful to slaves for his time, and his statement was likely not affirming the system of slavery, but was rather perhaps an attempt to mitigate the system to make it way less worse. Let’s just say that a “slavery is wrong” argument might’ve been a bit… much for that time period to digest. After all, slaves were welcome in Christian churches and were considered equal in Christ, which severely broke from the Roman caste system. As for homosexuality, at that time it was kinda assumed that it was a lifestyle… You CHOSE to be gay by perfomrming homosexual acts. It was not known as a biological condition until millennia later.

In summary, using reason, we go from these culturally-muddied truths to some more transcendent and timeless ones. From:

  1. Women should be submissive to Men and women have natural reciprocal roles
  2. Women gotta wear them chapel veils to Women should be respected as life-bearers
  3. Women shouldn’t teach to Those who aren’t qualified to teach probably shouldn’t
  4. Slavery is neat to Respect your superiors in society but know you are equal in Christ
  5. Homosexuals are going to Hell to Homosexuals should be cautious with their activity

You might ask how one can possibly arrive at such eternal ideas? Is it because God sent an angel to tell us this? Is it because he whispered it to the pope who made an ex cathedra statement? No! We reasoned it using our modern understanding of psychology, sociology, biology, physics, and much more. Later I’ll explain how exactly we’re supposed to know we’re on the right track in using reason correctly, but let’s carry on for now…

This is honestly what drives me nuts about Catholics who cherry-pick verses and teachings from theologians. I’ll say this now: if St. Paul, the most important writer in Christian history, had his own historical context and cultural biases, I think it’s okay to assume that Aquinas and Augustine also did.

Image result for context
I’d like to know the context of this situation

Layers Four and Five: Lost in Translations

Okay! Layer four! Let’s assume somehow that the Holy Spirit helped us to bridge that infinite gap 100% efficiently, the Gospel writers and Church Doctors perfectly captured God’s infinite wisdom AND conveyed their literary and cultural context. 100%. Layer number four is language… This one’s pretty self-explanatory. When you have a dude who probably spoke Aramaic being published in Greek and eventually transcribed in Latin, things get complicated. But how complicated could it actually be? How about this? Love your neighbor. What does that mean? No. Honestly. Did you know that Ancient Greek has three different words for love and several for neighbor? Heck, I’m not even sure the word “love” even matches up with those words in this context. My five second various Google searches seem to indicate it comes from the agape meaning. Don’t quote me on that, though using our reason, I think we can infer that Christ wasn’t inferring erotic (eros) love.

Lastly, layer five. This is pretty similar to layer four, but it highlights the fact that after hundreds of years, especially when the language has been changed a dozen times, things might get a little lost in translation. 

These layers of removal might seem quite intimidating at first, but are they really that unreasonable? Or are we just expected to think that we know everything there is to know about theology? I guess Biblical Theology would be considered a waste if that was the case.

Image result for bad translations
This doesn’t seem right… No one should feel ashamed to smile…

Let’s Make it Modern 

Up until now, I’ve been using Biblical examples primarily. There are dozens of theologians I could’ve used, but I’d like to turn my attention to the guy who is considered by many as the greatest theologian of all time: St. Thomas Aquinas.

Did you know that Aquinas believed that ensoulment didn’t occur until 40 days (80 if you’re a girl) after conception? Some will argue this is a lack of biological understanding, which I heavily disagree with. If anything, it seems to come from his habit of borrowing ideas from Aristotle. How about the Immaculate Conception? Was Mary born sinless? Not according to Summa Theologica. Where exactly do babies go if they die before Baptism? While Augustine is quite harsh regarding the subject, Aquinas also implies Hell. I fondly recall my mother cheerfully alerting me in 2007 that all the unbaptized babies made their way into Heaven. Despite her enthusiasm, Mom was wrong. Spiritually, nothing had changed, rather it was our understanding of God’s mercy that had grown fuller since the times of Aquinas. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has more information on this matter and its relation to Aquinas. A couple other ideas of Aquinas that may have not aged so well include the spiritual effects of circumcision and women’s inferiority to men.  

Many people will write all these off as Aquinas’s lack of understanding about science and culture. This only affirms my idea that while dogmatic teachings of the Church express an eternal truth, doctrinal ones are constantly evolving as our understanding of the human person changes. Furthermore, the idea that Aquinas was always correct in matters of faith and morals while being incorrect in materialistic scientific inquiries doesn’t quite sit well with me. This is because matters of science and faith weren’t very distinct from each other at the time; the distinction is quite recent, so to apply our modern understanding of the separate subjects when they used to be more unified might not be wise. Nevertheless, I gladly accept this idea, as my solutions for dealing with literalism of any kind relate precisely to the sciences.

Image result for aquinas funnyMany are certainly inclined to…

A Modern Approach 

By this point, I’ve mentioned that the solution to fundamentalism lies with reason. To this, many Christians will reply “but how do we know we’re reasoning well?” Many many philosophers have tried tackling the question of certainty: how can we be sure we’re right? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states “Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good. The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.” This means that we have two sets of laws to investigate: those revealed by nature and those by God. There is a major difference in how we understand the two, as natural law can be empirically tested at our whim whereas divine law relies totally on God’s decision to reveal Himself to us. It is fair to say, then, that natural law is studied by science and divine law is studied by theology. The differences between the two were highlighted by the Enlightenment, though modern philosophy has offered innovative methods to bring the two laws back into interaction with each other to construct a unified worldview.

Thomas Kuhn popularized the term “paradigm shift.” In an ambitious attempt to explain the scientific process, he stated, “Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.” This means that the purpose of a particular science, or worldview, is to solve puzzles, mysteries if you would. I briefly touched on Kuhn’s philosophy in my last article on worldview, but the remarkable thing about Kuhn is that he manages to ease tensions between different methods of thinking, from classical methods to post-Enlightenment ones.

A paradigm, according to Kuhn, works normally when everything goes according to plan. Think back to the middle ages. The earth is the center of the universe because it’s just worked out like that throughout all of human history. Then, suddenly, a group of scientists realize that a geocentric model of the universe isn’t exactly working out with what they observe. Some numbers are off, and inconsistencies are observed within the framework. Soon the irregularities become more regular. There is a problem. A panic. The model has found itself in a “crisis.”

In such a situation, one of two things happens: the model either re-adjusts itself to account for the anomaly, or it is discovered that it would be better to throw out the model and start again with a new one, much like how we now use a model with the Sun at the center of our Solar System. This is the “paradigm shift.”

Image result for thomas kuhn
Thomas Kuhn: Shifting Paradigms for Portraits

The Two Criteria

How is this relevant to Catholics? Well, it appears that our faith is a rather complex one. While many religions choose to stay away from describing the natural or divine, us Catholics think that’s too easy. So, we develop complex theological propositions, doctrine, to explain the world. As I demonstrated with Aquinas, sometimes doctrine does hinge on the scientific nature of the material, such as his views on the inferiority of women. Aquinas simply didn’t understand the biology of women as well as we do now.

This sounds great, but it also seems rather intimidating to the average Joe or Mary trying to simply live well. To that, I would like to note what Christ says are the greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor. These two simple phrases are THE quintessential methods for gaining a basic understanding of how to act. Of course, how love is expressed is a more complex question, but our natural biology is attuned to certain pleasures and pain which can greatly aid in understanding what it means to truly love.

Meshing Kuhn’s model with that of Church fathers, I present two criteria for how Catholics can more simply, yet effectively, evaluate actions and Church doctrine:

  1. Is it Reasonable? Yes, we can never truly grasp the full reality of God’s commandments, but if Natural Law and Divine Law are to be taken together, it again means that there are deeper parallels than we might initially think. I’ll get into this momentarily, but if our understanding of one law doesn’t match up with the other, we know there’s an issue. But what if both are messed up? Well, that leads to my second point…
  2. Is it Consistent? Think of all the things we DO know about God. His goodness, justice, mercy, beauty, etc. I’ve hinged that it’s nearly impossible to know what Jesus meant to the fullest extent, but there are some things that are repeated so much in scripture that it’s pretty difficult to deny them. All Catholic teaching MUST be consistent, between both Divine and Natural Law. If there is an inconsistency, it must be addressed. The key approach to consistency is a “past-future approach
    1. The Past: What does scripture or the theological text in its original context actually signify? Because of the layers of removal, it is key that Biblical studies be well-supported
    2. The Future: What does science tell us about how the person works? Science, when done well, cannot help but illustrate God’s natural law.I write extensively on this perspective here.

So, when there IS something amiss between Divine Law and Natural Law, what does that mean? Well, it means that either our faith is misplaced or our reason is ill-formed. Again, no one can have perfect faith or reason, but the more people we have who engage in these intellectual and spiritual practices, the clearer we will be able to see God’s laws, thus leading to happy lives and even greater eternities. Which brings me back to…

Image result for jetson and flintstoneSo, just get these two to agree…

So What?

Catholics are quick to label Protestants as fundamentalists when all too often we do the same. I mean, think about it. When’s the last time you could make a moral claim and justify it WITHOUT quoting a theologian or the Catechism. A social science professor of mine went as far to forbid using the Bible or theologians in arguments, and it made discussion very difficult. However, it also helped me to understand that arguments are not brilliant because of the people who made them, rather it was the arguments themselves, which have stood the test of time, that led to us labeling the crafters as geniuses. So, to blindly follow what any theologian says without proper investigation disgraces and disrespects the vast amount of work that they put into arranging such vivid explanations that are meant to guide us towards truth. It would be much like proclaiming a baker’s greatness without bothering to taste their cake, or wolfing it down and failing to appreciate the flavors. If the chef dies, will their masterpiece die with them? Or will someone come along to master their creation and add new twists and flavors to it? After all, they didn’t invent the ingredients at all; they just arranged them in a way that can be enjoyed and reproduced.

Now, will fundamentalism lead you to Hell? God’s judgment takes the conscience into account, so I personally doubt it. In fact, so long as you obey your conscience, the effects of mortal sin are somewhat mitigated, but don’t push your luck: sin is a very serious matter that impacts your relationship with God, so the ignorance card will only work as far as God’s grace and mercy extend.

No, fundamentalism at its most innocent primarily impacts the temporal, whereas at its worst it can have damning spiritual effects. Say you live an entire life according to the Catechism, which isn’t even a dogmatic work in itself. You do everything it tells you until the day you die in its most literal sense. Does it guarantee you a spot in heaven? No. I would think that it doesn’t even grant you a very happy life. This is because literalism is a very human psychological construct. It is very dangerous and it desecrates the fundamental value of truth in any communication by arrogantly assuming that our interpretation of God’s word is complete. 

Put it like this. Tommy (cinematographer for Clarifying Catholicism) is working on building a shed and tells me to give him a hand. I, being the good literalist that I am, give him my hand. He looks at me oddly and just keeps working, struggling to lift up a plank of wood. He cries “heads up!” as he swings the plank right at me, so I, being the good literalist that I am, put my head up and get clobbered. Tommy asks if I feel okay. I respond in my west-coast lingo “It’s all good, man,” (referring to the fact he’s done nothing wrong, NOT that I feel good) and Tommy, being the good literalist that he is, simply walks away as I black out.

Well, that was dark. How about this? Joe (Executive for Organizational Development) goes out to buy his girlfriend a Valentine’s Day gift. He goes to the store in search of a “good” gift. Now Joe, being the good literalist he is, thinks that his understanding of “good gift” is exactly what his girlfriend’s is. So, he gets her a power-saw. His girlfriend is not amused, and he quickly dished some “Mystery Meat,” what his girlfriend calls “good food.”

God is the source of all goodness and truth. Taking things literally really means we assert our flawed and biased understanding of reality as true. We completely disregard God’s ultimate truthfulness in favor of our flawed understanding, all because it’s easier that way. Laziness. Sloth. A security blanket according to Freud. Perhaps, though, this is because of how much some people over-analyze God’s laws, almost turning them into a “formula for salvation” that the Pharisees in Christ’s time thought they had. I must again assert Christ’s fundamental laws “Love God and Love your Neighbor.” While the Church has had thousands of years of beautiful tradition, for all that we claim to know, it all really is just “straw” as Aquinas says. What matters most, above all, is our relationship with God, who calls Himself our Father. God, who is understanding of all situations and circumstances, is not simply a machine waiting to grade our ACT (American Catholic Training) scores.

Yes, the Church is the pathway to God, but the Church does not define God, nor has it ever claimed full knowledge of God. Regarding God’s mercy, Pope Benedict XVI’s Theological Commission once wrote “There is greater theological awareness today that God is merciful and wants all human beings to be saved.” This notion is very interesting. Have you ever wondered how we got from the fire and brimstone of the Middle Ages, where impure thoughts were considered Hell-worthy, to the merciful language of Pope Francis? This is because God does not change, but his people certainly do. More important, our understanding of how our bodies and minds function and how they impact our relationship with God changes rapidly now. When we first encountered God, back in that Garden of Eden, we were but infants. Christ’s coming signaled a pivotal point in mankind’s maturity, extending salvation to all. Now, we are caught in an age where revelation still happens. The Church’s teaching is alive and it is evolving every day. Now, it can never contradict itself, of course, but when you compare Christ’s two basic commandments to the 200+ (unofficially) listed dogmas the Church has declared throughout history, it is clear that our relationship with God is dynamic.

When we are judged, it will be against no measure but ourselves. Could we honestly expect God, being all loving and all merciful, to judge a Nazi soldier, who was held at gunpoint to fight for his country, in the same terms as he uses to judge a middle class American who grew up freely going to Church each Sunday? Just as we recognize this, how can we expect God to judge us, beings with a very different scientific understanding of concepts like mental health and sexuality, according to the same criteria from a time period where the scientific elements were earth, wind, and fire? Our context is our world, our world is different from the world of Aquinas and Augustine, and their world is infinitely far-removed from that of God’s perfection. What links these three worlds, though, is not culture or context, rather timeless ideas. 

What makes a story timeless? I’d say it is the qualities that can be appreciated by all time periods. Similarly, what makes an idea timeless? I would argue that it is one that can be understood and reasoned by every human being, no matter what age they live in. This is the genius of Aquinas, for example, as so many of his writings start with truths that are timeless. Aquinas was not brilliant because he invented any idea, rather it is because he arranged pre-existing ideas into systems of thought that were easy to understand. Therefore, to trust Aquinas, or any theologian for that matter, blindly, will only lead to projection of what the person THINKS he is saying. 

I will finish with an Aristotelian idea. Does a great artist simply mimic and reproduce? Or do they understand? A good general copies George Washington’s strategies. The best general knows the strategies inside and out and can think on their feet when danger approaches. Pope Francis frequently uses the image that the Church is a hospital called to serve the wounded. Well, if you ask me, I’d rather my surgeon know the ins and outs of his craft, rather than simply memorize a list of terms and procedures. In any science, to keep the paradigm alive, we must be able to respond when things go wrong. It is up to us Catholics of the twenty first century to pursue faith with understanding. And just as problems arise in surgery, in the field of ethics and morals something unexpected will always, inevitably, go wrong.


The Problem

  • There has been a rise in confusion among young Catholics regarding our relationship to dogma and doctrine
  • Such confusion has led to an increase in Catholic fundamentalism, the practice of applying literal rigid definitions to sacred texts or documents

First, a Few Definitions

  • Doctrine is the broad set of Church teachings regarding faith and morals
  • Dogma is more narrowly defined as divinely revealed truths; it is required to believe dogma if you are Catholic
    • For example: the existence of the Holy Trinity is dogmatic, while many of its specific qualities are doctrinal, having never been formally defined or directly revealed by God
    • Another example: it is dogmatically held that all life is sacred, but the doctrinal teaching on death penalty has shifted throughout Church history
      • This can be somewhat analogous to a Mother and Father setting rules like a bedtime. Kids will always have a bedtime (dogma). What that bedtime is depends on the relationship between the kids and parents (doctrine).
    • However, the distinction between dogma and doctrine is very difficult, as asking a theologian about what is dogmatic could be considered analogous to asking a scientist what the basic rules of their science is
      • Some basic rules are outlined in laws, such as the Law of Universal Gravitation
      • Some basic rules are self-evident and require no formal proof, such as 1+1=2
    • The problem with all this is that some Catholics have claimed that researching and understanding dogma and doctrine is a waste of time, and that we should blindly accept what theologians tell us
      • There are some fundamental issues with this new brand of fundamentalism, primarily there are so many layers of removal from God’s divine truth that it is very difficult to say much for certain about God’s qualities, and we should therefore proceed with caution

Layers of Removal

  • Layer One: The Infinite Gap: God is infinitely greater than us, so no matter how intelligent or well-guided scripture authors and theologians could possibly be, their human words and expressions can never capture the full glory of God
  • Layer Two: Linguistic Context: every Biblical author and Theologian has their own literary context; some express truth via parables, some through judicial procedures, some through analogies, etc.
  • Layer Three: Cultural Context: every Biblical author and Theologian has their own temporal cultural context that they apply God’s eternal truths to; for example, St. Paul lived in a culture where veiling was considered sacred, so God commanded that women, being sacred childbearers, wear veils (there is nothing inherently sacred about a veil, rather the act of veiling was considered sacred by the culture at the time. The eternal truth is that women should treat their bodies with sanctity)
  • Layer Four: Language: the words that sacred texts were written in had very different meanings than the English translations do; for example, the Ancient Greeks had three different words for the English word “love”
  • Layer Five: Translation: The Bible and other theological works have been through hundreds of translations and iterations across history

A Modern Approach

  • To understand His eternal Truths, God has given us two guides: divine law and natural law
    • Divine Law consists of the commandments God has directly revealed to us through scripture and sacred tradition; it is entirely contingent on what God chooses to reveal to us and is not testable but is often more direct than Natural Law
    • Natural Law consists of the observable scientific laws that govern the universe, including human nature; it is empirically testable but is often more difficult to discern than Divine Law
  • These two laws cannot contract one another and though the Enlightenment attempted to separate studies of the two (theology vs. science), modern philosophy has offered models where the two sets can interact with each other once more
  • Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” model might be of particular interest, as it presents academia as a set of systems that are used to solve puzzles and mysteries that mankind approaches; the better problem-solving tool will inevitably lead to progress
    • e.g. The Earth was once considered the center of the universe, gradually this model was subject to inconsistencies, such inconsistencies became more consistent, and the model needed to be scrapped for a better one
  • Theology, being the science of God’s ultimate truths, could benefit from this system

The Two Criteria

  • There are two criteria I suggest for Catholics to analyze when looking at Theological teachings
    • Is it Reasonable? While we can never grasp the full reality of God’s commandments, it must be at least somewhat understandable in terms of Natural Law and/or Divine Law; however, the second criteria is just as important as the first
    • Is it Consistent? Theological ideas must never contradict one another, so if there is any hint that ideas are inconsistent, it means something must be wrong; there are two tools we can use to evaluate consistency:
      • The Past Approach: analyzes past theological source material for linguistic and cultural accuracy
      • The Future Approach: analyzes what science suggests about human nature and how it illustrates our ideal natural design

So What?

  • Too many young theologians cite the Catechism or prominent Theologians without understanding their arguments
    • To do this is not only a great disservice to God’s gift of reason, but it disregards the efforts that great theologians put into arranging arguments and theories about God’s qualities for the sake of our understanding
      • It is important to remember that these Theologians did not create the truth, rather they simply found ways to arrange expressions of truth in a manner that was digestible to human understanding
    • Ironically, fundamentalism reduces the greatest theological arguments to caricatures of what our flawed minds THINK they mean
      • For example, if I searched for a good gift for my mother but used my understanding of the term “good gift,” I would most likely get her a Pokemon game that she never really wanted
        • In this manner, the way we approach goodness (or anything) should also be relational to God, our Father; by applying our flawed understanding of goodness to His commandments with too great of certainty and fundamentalism, we arrogantly assume that we can grasp God’s truths in their entirety
      • God never changes, but His people certainly do; and since we change it is only reasonable that our understanding of our relationship changes over time
        • For example, Pope Benedict XVI’s Theological Commission once wrote that “There is a greater theological awareness today that God is merciful”
          • These changes in our understanding of God are not scary or relativistic, as they illustrate a very real and very dynamic relationship we have with our creator
        • Fundamentalism utterly disregards this beautiful dynamic relationship that God has with every individual
          • For example, would a Nazi soldier who was forced to fight for his country be judged the same way a middle class American who had the option to choose his lifestyle would be?
        • Three worlds exist: our world, the world that theologians wrote in, and the eternal ideas that link them
          • Better understanding the layers of removal helps to bridge the former two worlds to discern the timeless ideas
        • A good surgeon will memorize procedures, but the best surgeon will understand the fundamentals behind said procedures; the Church is a hospital that deals with sensitive matters, and it is better that our doctors understand the fundamentals behind each teaching, so that when something goes wrong (which it always will), we will be better equipped to address it

4 Responses

  1. Well, you pretty much lost me at the “Needle’s Eye was a narrow gate” canard. Even Raymond Brown of the _Jerome Biblical Commentary_, who was certainly no fundamentalist, flatly denied that our Lord meant anything different from what He said here. For one thing, the different Gospels use different Greek words for “needle” and “eye,” which we wouldn’t expect if it were the name of a well-known landmark in a city where Greek was so common that there had to be signage in it. More to the point, the disciples’ reaction and His reply to them make it clear that he meant it to be as absurd and impossible as it sounds, “but with God all things are possible.”

    Equally as dangerous as fundamentalism is the antifundamentalism that takes its bearings from anything and everything in the world outside over anything in the consistent teaching of the Church over the years. This is most often seen in what used to be called matters of the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, as if people never knew until the twentieth century that playing with sex organs causes pleasure.

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