By D.Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
One would perhaps not be too far wrong in guessing that for many people today the very word dogma sends shivers up and down their spine, those shivers indicating their stern disapproval of everything they suppose the word stands for. People who live in and are significantly affected by a world which is awash in relativism would naturally not be inclined to be approving of something that they feel can find no sympathy among those who consider themselves to be the promoters and protectors of the modern progressive (i.e. relativistic) mind-set. And what is that? Absolutes. Of course, the squeamishness that the dedicated relativist displays towards absolutes is really out of place, for he cannot justify his own relativism without becoming, in spite of himself, a foursquare absolutist. His brave proclamation that “Everything is relative!” represents about as absolute a stance as one would ever want to take. Some people allow themselves to get all exercised over absolutes of whatever sort, taking them to be realities which somehow can be avoided, or even dispensed with altogether.
“We must be very
careful to distinguish
though they share
there is a world
These relativists might concede that they can be comfortable enough with the idea of truth, if properly qualified, but the idea of absolute truth, well, that’s a bit too much. For them to subscribe to the notion of absolute truth, they feel, would be scandalously to show that they are not sufficiently open-minded, not intellectually resilient enough, to be able to be receptive to the latest relativistic alternative to currently held views that might come down the pike. The mistake they make here is in thinking that there is any real alternative to absolute truth. There isn’t. Every truth, if it is in fact that, is absolute truth. Those overly nervous relativists must strive to overcome their paranoid-like fear of the very notion of absolutes. When we say that every truth is absolute we are simply calling attention to the fact that it is fixed and invariable; it is, we might say, a permanent and irreformable fact. The mathematical statement 2 + 2 = 4 is an absolute truth, as is the fact that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865.
But let us return to dogma. The word is originally Greek, was picked up by Latin, and was eventually added to the vocabulary of English. The Greek noun has its roots in a verb which means (a) to think, suppose, imagine, and (b) to have an opinion. It is the second meaning, to have an opinion, which gave rise, in English usage, to the word dogmatism, which carried a definite pejorative connotation. Father John Hardon, in his very valuable Modern Catholic Dictionary (1980) defines dogmatism as, “Unqualified assertion of judgment…the position of those who are convinced about their philosophy but without judicious reflection, hence opposed to intelligent belief.” Someone given to dogmatism would be someone we would call opinionated, someone, that is, who tenaciously clings to certain views regardless of their being true or false. The simple fact that they are his views is all the justification the dogmatist needs for holding them.
But we must be very careful to distinguish dogma from dogmatism, for though they share etymological origins, there is a world of difference between them. What is dogmas, as the Church understands it? Once again we turn to Father Hardon, who informs us that dogma is, “Doctrine taught by the Church to be believed by all the faithful as part of divine revelation. All dogmas, therefore, are formally revealed truths and promulgated as such by the Church.” He notes that the word derives from another set of meanings originally attached to the Greek term-a declaration, decree, ordinance.
It is evident, given the Church’s understanding of dogma, that we should recognize its critical importance, especially in these troubled days for the Church, when there would seem to be an excessive supply of confusion distributed among Catholics. There is an altogether good and healthy way of being dogmatic, and that is by faithfully adhering to and courageously defending Church doctrine, the truths given to us through revelation, and which are part and parcel of tradition.
Before he was killed on the battlefield in World War One, a French Jesuit and philosopher, Father Pierre Rousselot, wrote a noteworthy book called The Intellectualism of Saint Thomas. In that book he makes some trenchant statements regarding dogma which, because of their pertinence to the theme if this article, are worth quoting at length. Father Rousselot wrote: “But dogma has truth, it is more true even than science, and the object of dogma is above and beyond man. Likewise, sins against dogma are the most serious of all, and errors concerning ideas are more dangerous than those concerning men. Take away dogma and you take God away; to touch dogma is to touch God. To sin against dogma is to sin against God.”
These are powerful words, stirring words, and are quite adequate to the subject they address. There can never be any justification for minimizing the importance of dogma, for to do so would be to minimize the very truths on which our faith is founded. And that is why, as Father Rousselot rightly puts it, sins against dogma are the most grievous of all.
If we would want a good example of a common modern understanding – or I should say misunderstanding – of dogma, we would be well instructed in this regard to consult a volume entitled Dictionary of Word Origins (1945), compiled by Professor Joseph T. Shipley. In this volume Professor Shipley has the following things to say about dogma: “This word for an opinion firmly but baselessly held was more modest in its start.” After citing the etymological origins of the word, he goes on with these observations: “But so many persons have said ‘It seems to me’ and as they continued have developed a positive tone and an assurance of certainty…One must keep in mind that things are not what they seem. Beware of the dogmatic man.” It is abundantly clear that what the professor is discussing in his book is not dogma, but dogmatism, and consequently everything that he has to say about the term dogma is quite beside the point. Someone who adheres to and is guided by dogma is anything but a person entangled in and captivated by mere opinion. To the contrary, he has his foundations in the richest and most valuable truths to which human beings have been given access, providing him with the necessary sustenance for his spiritual life.
We may not be able to alter the multiple misunderstandings regarding dogma which abound in the modern world, with the prejudices which ensue from those misunderstandings, but we ourselves have no excuse for not knowing precisely what dogma is all about, and the crucial role it must play in our lives. According to Father Rousselot, the chief of the “undeniable traits” of St. Thomas’s mentality was his complete dedication to dogma, which is easily explained, for to be dedicated to dogma is to be dedicated to truth, and the dedication to truth was, in sum, the story of St. Thomas’s life.
This article was first published under the title, “Dogma” in the April 2015 issue of the Fraternity Newsletter of The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter.
D.Q. McInerny is a Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary