In all the controversies swirling in our Catholic Church nowadays, even to the point of possible schism, there is a word that is almost never invoked. It is a word that might well be needed more than any other word. Big hint: That word appears three times in the title of this column. Let me suggest why doctrine is crucially important now and always.
The Problem with Doctrine
Apologist Jimmy Akin once well wrote, “[The Church] uses terms in documents and most of the time it expects you to already know them. Sometimes it gives you a partial definition or at least clues about what a word means, but in general, it leaves the writing of dictionary-style definitions to the writers of Catholic dictionaries.” Doctrine is one of those terms.
Even one of the most important documents for understanding doctrine does not define the word doctrine: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei” (issued during the pontificate of St. John Paul the Great when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect of that Congregation). I share Jimmy Akin’s sentiment expressed in his same column mentioned above, “It would be nice if the Church had an official dictionary I could use to answer this question [on the difference between dogma and doctrine], but it doesn’t.”
All is not lost. The estimable Father John Hardon, SJ, provided a definition of doctrine in his Pocket Catholic Dictionary: “Any truth taught by the Church as necessary for acceptance by the faithful.” I offer clarification and elaboration of Father Hardon’s definition.
One clarification is that when Father Hardon says the Church, he means the Magisterium, not all those baptized into the Catholic Church. (Jimmy Akin also means the Magisterium above). Recall that the Magisterium (on which I have written at greater length in a previous column) is the term both for the office or authority of interpreting God’s Revelation and for those who hold that office. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #85.) So it is accurate to say either “The bishops under the leadership of the pope have the Magisterium” or “The bishops under the leadership of the pope are the Magisterium.”
We also need to recall that true Faith is the acceptance of Revelation, as I have explained previously. We only have true Faith to the extent we have accepted Revelation. Faith and revelation are two sides of the same coin, two sides of the relationship between God and Man. Furthermore, God has revealed the Faith we should have in acceptance of His Revelation. The Magisterium has taught truths about both Revelation and Faith.
Furthermore, Catholic doctrine is objectively true, which means that it is true for all people at all times and places. It cannot be “true for me” but not “true for you,” except in a psychological or sociological sense. Yes, it might not be true to all people (all people might not accept it as true), but it is true for all people. Catholic doctrine is as true about reality as 2 + 2 = 4 is true about reality. Someone who disagrees with it is as mistaken as someone who thinks 2 + 2 = 5. (Which is to say nothing about blameworthiness for being mistaken.)
So I suggest a more complete definition of doctrine is: the Magisterium’s authoritative clarification of Revelation and Faith that must be accepted as objectively true in order to be Catholic. As far as I can tell, this definition seems to fit the use of the word doctrine in Magisterial documents. But we need to keep in mind that the definition I have just given is not a Magisterial definition of doctrine. There is no Magisterial definition of doctrine.
Doctrine reflects the collective wisdom and holiness of the whole Church. Although doctrine is eventually formulated only by the Magisterium, bishops do not exist in a vacuum and work alone. Over the centuries, the Magisterium has been influenced by many men and women who were not bishops, including at ecumenical councils, which are the most solemn gatherings of bishops and are capable of proclaiming infallible doctrine. St. Athanasius was not a bishop when he was one of the leaders resisting the heresy of Arianism at the Council of Nicaea. Joseph Ratzinger made important contributions to the Second Vatican Council, which ended twelve years before he was made a bishop.
The most outstanding example of someone outside the Magisterium who has affected doctrine is St. Thomas Aquinas. He was never made a bishop, yet he has had a profound influence on Catholic doctrine. According to St. John Paul the Great, “In his thinking, the demands of reason and the power of faith found the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought” (Fides et Ratio, 78). In fact, he died while traveling to the Second Council of Lyon (an ecumenical council), which had called him to attend in order to seek his advice. The Catechism quotes St. Thomas extensively.
With the recent “Amazon Synod” and the canonization of John Henry Newman and with the “synodal way” to begin in Germany on December 1, there has been in the Catholic world more discussion than usual on the “development of doctrine.” We should realize this: while the expression of doctrine can change, the substance or content of doctrine cannot change. As the Catechism (#42-43) teaches us, “Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God . . . nevertheless [our human language] really does attain to God Himself . . .” While doctrine can be worded better as the Magisterium’s understanding of God deepens, newer wording that actually contradicts the substance of previously taught doctrine is not a development of doctrine but a corruption of doctrine. Doctrine expresses the reality of who God is and the reality of what God wants. God does not change, and God does not change what He wants; so doctrine cannot substantially change.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The best single source for Catholic doctrine is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. As Cardinal Francis Arinze recently said in an interview, “If a Catholic says, we don’t know what we believe, or we don’t know what to believe . . . My response: there is a book called CCC. Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
Anyone can read the Catechism or read enough of it, since all parts are not equally readable.
Besides the Catechism, there are many excellent resources for understanding Catholic doctrine.
There has never been a time in the history of the Catholic Church when there were so many excellent resources for getting an accurate understanding of Catholic doctrine.
The Role of Doctrine in Our Relationship with God
What’s the basic dynamic in a personal relationship? Two people meet. Each gets to know the other—knowledge is part of the relationship. Besides knowledge of each other, there is interaction—give and take—in the relationship. Knowledge affects interaction, and interaction affects knowledge. We need to know something about the other person in order to choose if and how we will continue to interact with her. And the more we interact with someone, the more we know her. The more we know her, the better we can interact with her.
God wants to have a relationship with every human being. That is why He created us, even though He will not force us to have a relationship with Him. God wants us to know Him so that we can interact with Him as He wants us to interact with Him. The best way to know God and how He wants us to interact with Him is Catholic doctrine. The more we know God, the better we can interact with Him. The better we interact with God, the more we come to know Him.
If someone rejects a Catholic doctrine, he or she cannot accurately claim to be Catholic on the issue covered by that doctrine. How do we know if a statement is a Catholic doctrine? If it was issued by the Magisterium and must be accepted as true for all times and places, it is a Catholic doctrine. The statements in the Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed are doctrines. When to abstain from eating meat is not a doctrine, but a “discipline” (in Church language) or rule.
Doctrine is challenging! A relationship with the Almighty Lord is challenging! We are weak, imperfect, sinful beings. But we should not give into the Devil’s temptations to be intimated by doctrine or to despair when we fail to live up to it. Do not think of doctrine as an impossible ideal. Think of doctrine as the description of human fulfillment, a fulfillment we will not completely experience until we enter the Kingdom of God. We all want to have the best possible lives. Doctrine tells us what makes for the best possible life. We should never give up on doctrine because we should never give up on having the best possible lives. We should never give up on doctrine because we should never give up on God, who knows what is best for us infinitely more than we know. When we inevitably fail to live up to doctrine, God has given us the Sacrament of Confession to give us a fresh start.
Doctrine is a great gift from God! It helps us know Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, as St. Richard of Chichester would say. Doctrine prevents us from creating God in our image and likeness and allows us to grow in His image and likeness. Imagine how much better Vatican II could have been implemented if the bishops had clearly and consistently taught what is doctrine, and therefore changeless, and what is not doctrine, and therefore changeable.
There are those who disparage doctrine. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, there are only two kinds of people: those who accept doctrine and know it, and those who accept doctrine and don’t know it. The most self-styled free thinker or pragmatist who has rejected Catholic doctrine is living according to some other “doctrine.” Those who consider obeying Catholic doctrine an obstacle to being loving misunderstand both doctrine and love.
Chesterton also said, “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.” The most practical and important thing about a Catholic is still obedience to doctrine.
How do we know if we are doing God’s Most Holy Will? We know doctrine, and we compare our lives to it.
How do we know what advice to give others? How do we know if we are getting good advice? We make sure it does not contradict doctrine.
How do we know if a homily was right or wrong? We know whether or not the priest or deacon accurately presented doctrine and what is in harmony with doctrine.
What makes for a good parish? It must be making every effort to grow in faithfulness to doctrine.
What makes a grade school, high school, college, or seminary truly Catholic? It must teach that all doctrine is objectively true, and its policies and practices must not contradict doctrine.
Where should we give money? When we give to a historically Catholic institution that continues to call itself Catholic, we need to know if we are subsidizing heresy and keeping it entrenched.
How do we survive in our current age of great confusion and corruption in the Catholic Church? Faithfulness to doctrine.
Doctrine, doctrine, doctrine.
In Luke 18:8, Our Lord asks, “But when the Son of Man comes [at His Second Coming to judge the living and the dead], will He find faith on earth?” He will find faith on earth to the extent that He finds acceptance of Catholic doctrine—acceptance (even implicitly) of the objective truths expressed in doctrine, acceptance lived out as fully as possible.