Lots of people can’t spell dogma because they think it’s a four-letter word.
When the word is mentioned, conversation stops. Tempers flare. Moods become icy.
Why do words like “dogma” and “dogmatic” carry such a negative connotation? And, more importantly, should they?
Why is “dogma” received with such negativity?
It may be ignorance. Someone offended by the word may simply not know what it really means.
It may be experience, as Christians use dogma as a cudgel to beat their fellow Christians rather than correct them with gentleness. (Gal 6:1) (Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma has a nice swing to it.)
It may be pride, as the secular culture trains people to shout “Don’t tell me how to live my life!” and trains Christians to think “it’s none of my business” (forgetting that that was Cain’s answer (Gen 4:9)).
Dogmas are not bad words.
They are not there to hurt us. The Catechism teaches us that the Church’s Magisterium (her teaching office) exercises its God-given authority in defining dogmas. In defining dogmas, the Church is “obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith”. (CCC 88) These definitions are gifts from God, even if those gifts are often received with the disdain reserved to new socks on Christmas morning.
In order to appreciate the gift (the dogmas – you’re on your own with the socks), there are a few things a Catholic must understand:
1. Dogmas are not arbitrary man-made rules.
Dogmas are not made by the Church; they are recognized. As Fr. Hardon puts it in his Catholic Dictionary, each dogma is a “doctrine taught by the Church to be believed by all the faithful as part of divine revelation” (emphasis mine).
Each dogma is a divine (from God) revelation (something revealed) – it is something revealed by God. God is the author; the Church hands it on.
Scientists did not create the concept of the Higgs boson while discovering it. When representatives of the researchers doing that work said they had virtual certainty that they had detected a Higgs boson, the boson did not suddenly become real. If it’s real, it was always real. It has, however, taken us this long to “see” it.
Likewise, if Mary was immaculately conceived, it happened at her conception, not in 1854. If God is a trinity, He has always been a trinity. He did not become one (er, three) at Nicea in 325.
2. Dogmas are road signs.
The Catechism teaches us that “(d)ogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure.” (CCC ¶89)
Path lights aren’t there to trip us up. They aren’t there to keep us from having a good time. Rather, they protect us, so we can enjoy ourselves without constantly thinking about where we’re stepping.
If we keep to the path, we’re free to have fun. Without the lights, we’re spend all our time stumbling in the darkness.
3. You can impair your understanding of dogmas.
When you drive down the highway, you must follow the posted signs. The signs, though, are not the whole of the highway.
There is, hopefully, beautiful scenery. There are rest stops and entertainment to enjoy along the way. There are destinations to reach.
Even so, you need the signs. You need to follow them to travel the road safely.
The same paragraph in the Catechism that describes dogmas as path lights (or road signs, in my analogy) tells us that “(t)here is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas” and that “if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.”
If you drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol – or lack of sleep – you may miss some of the signs or misread them. You may “choose” to ignore them. If you drive impaired, you can’t follow the signs and may crash. You may even take others down with you.
Sin impairs us. The more signs we ignore, the more likely we are to ignore others. “I always speed down this road, and I never get caught.”
We fall into habitual patterns so deeply, at times, that we can no longer see them clearly. We don’t realize we’re misinterpreting the signs, because we feel fine.
With sin, as with street signs, we may need a friend’s warning or a bad crash or even a night in jail to bring us around.
4. Dogmas cannot change.
“Ah, but road signs can change!” you say. Yes, but who may change them? Only the authority from which they came – the town or county or state government. Anyone else changing a sign is a vandal. Anyone else taking a sign down is a thief.
Some signs, as well, cannot be changed even by legitimate authority because they’re simply true.
No matter what the city council may vote, that bridge will freeze before the road surface. The turn is going to be slippery when wet. That’s just natural law and no authority short of God can change it.
Catholic dogmas are not there to make our lives difficult or unhappy. They do not inhibit freedom anymore than a road sign inhibits your freedom to drive. They are there to guide us along the road, and this road is the most important that we travel. Considering its narrowness and difficulty, we need all the guidance we can get.
Copyright © 2012, Joe Wetterling