Why Is Doctrine So Darned Difficult?

| | Comments (2)

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. Luke 12:48

I have an interesting love/hate relationship with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This was brought home to me by an innocuous request that arrived by e-mail this morning and provoked far more thought than I have time for or my correspondent had time to read. Pity him!

In point of fact, I belong to the Catholic Church for several reasons, approximately in this order: The Real Presence, the Church established by Jesus Christ, an ongoing authoritative teaching magisterium. Huh? What was that last? Yes, you heard it, the body of doctrine and dogma and teachings that might be termed advisory or cautionary, having not the weight of doctrine or dogma, but not so easily dismissed as many of our progressive friends would have us believe.

In fact, left to myself, I would be firmly in the ranks of the progressive Catholics. Why? Well, as much as I love the fact that there is firm and clear guidance in the Church, I know enough of the weakness of human intellect to question some of those more outré and far-flung notions that seem to come forth from this wealth of teaching. A case in point--although Jesus clearly teaches that it is wrong to kill in the cause of faith (after all, if it were not appropriate for Peter to defend Jesus forcibly, what can be justified in the name of the defense of faith?), we somehow derive from a relatively clear body of Christ's teaching something called "Just War Theory." Now, I'm not certain this rises to the level of doctrine, but let's just say that there are several aspects of this body of thought that I find disconcerting and unlikely when exposed to the fullness of the teaching of Christ.

However, I also know that in matters of abstract thought about such things, I am more often wrong that I am right. My intuition is guided by the part of me that prefers to be sensually enveloped rather than the part that seeks God. The Base Man triumphs in these matters.

But my own experience of intellect leads me to doubt the conclusions of other. What is the agenda? What are they headed for? Do they have my best interests in mind or were they in the service of some sovereign or power for whom my compliance in vassalage is advantageous? You can see what happens. I have no trust for humanity.

Now the Church informs me that all dogma (with which I have a good deal less problem) and universally taught doctrine is informed by, guided by, and kept on-target by the Holy Spirit. There is a certain amount of comfort in this. The difficulty is to know where that guidance ends and the speculation of theologians guided by more human motives might begin.

So, I'm stuck in this quandary. A little more humility and I would have no problem. a little less intellect (or a little more) and I'd probably see the matter straight. But the reality is that I am the flawed person I am. I have what I have been given. And from what I've seen, I have been given a tremendous amount. God has blessed me with a good mind (not a great one) a certain verbal felicity and flexibility, and a stubborn streak a mile wide.

It is to this last that I owe the greatest debt of gratitude. I do not join the progressive thinkers among us in large part because I have made a commitment to the Church and I intend to stand by it come Hell or high water. Period. My own doubts and questions be damned--I will stand by what the Church teaches.

That's the stubborn streak. Problem is, it means that I often have to put the brain in check for certain issues. I hear people begin to spiel out how war is just, owning weapons is a God-given right and obligation, torture isn't really against God's teaching. . . you name the controversy that rages.

Then you go to find a clear answer--what does the Church teach--and what you get is the muddy water of the millions of interpreters and theologians with their own understandings and interpretations.

So the bargain I thought I was getting in joining the Church--clear teaching--materializes more often than not. But it is insubstantial in a sufficiently large number of cases to be aggravating.

I suppose it is not doctrine I oppose so much as the ornament and filagree frequently attached thereto. However, to someone not sufficiently well versed in the sources and where to go to find the correct teaching, the doctrine and its accretions are indistinguishable.

So when I say that I don't like doctrine, I suppose I mean, I don't like the uncertainty that seems to surround some doctrine. For example, is it a doctrine that women simply cannot be priests? I don't know for certain. Some say yes, some say no. As this happens to be one matter on which a person who I came to trust completely had a clear statement, I can arrive at a conclusion which may not be doctrinal. And so it goes.

To whom much is given, much will be expected in return. For those of us gifted with intelligence, curiosity, and analytical ability, these problems will continue to chafe. Does that mean doctrine is useless? Absolutely not. But it does lead me to rely more on a direct experience of God in prayer and through the prayer and lives of the saints. Perhaps this doubt of mine is simply God's way of making me acquainted with him through a more human element. Perhaps, like St. Teresa of Avila, I should spend more time with Christ's humanity, while not neglecting His divinity.

And finally, why do I share this? Possibly because it is like the grain in the oyster that may become a pearl-malformed and mishapened as it may be. But perhaps others share similar difficulties--and perhaps their paths are likewise being directed to paths of knowing that do not rely exclusively on the intellect, but engage the other parts of our humanity.

Bookmark and Share


I find most doctrine very defensible, reasonable. Not having women priests, for example, one can easily point to the example of Christ having only male apostles. It's not proof obviously but it suggests the doctrine is reasonable. If you want proof of a given doctrine then accepting many of them will be hard, but if your standard is merely reasonableness then most are easily accepted.

(I don't see Just War theory as doctrine but more theory, hence I don't have to address that thicket.)

More difficult is something like reconciling free will & God's sovereignty. There you might have to check your brain at the door. Dr. Johnson gave up trying to reconcile the two.

Good post, Steven, and quite admirable coming from someone who may have other dispositions.

TSO, I don't really think the example of Christ's apostles being male really says anything about the necessity of a male priesthood. Must priests also be Jews, then? Mary Magdalene was the "Apostle to the Apostles" by tradition: why doesn't this count for something.

No, I think the real doctrinal foundation of the male priesthood rests on a principle that dare not speak its name these days: the male headship of the human race. Christ is the new Adam, and the priesthood is the vehicle of His presence on earth.

More than His choice of apostles, the fact that Christ is Himself a Man - and necessarily so - would seem to be the foundation of the male priesthood.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 24, 2007 7:36 AM.

Rainbows End was the previous entry in this blog.

The Joy and the Pain of Philip Roth is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll