The Meaning of Dogma

Catholicism has always taken dogmatic statements seriously because it realizes that the failure to state the truth properly often leads to error.

“If the average man is going to be interested in Christ at all, it is the dogma that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has never been offered the dogma.”
— Dorothy Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?” 1

“I suppose I have got a dogmatic mind. Anyhow, even when I did not believe in any of the things called dogmas, I assumed that people were sorted out into solid groups by the dogmas they believe or disbelieved.”
— G. K. Chesterton. The Autobiography. 2

Contrary to popular assumptions, the terms “dogma” and “doctrine” are not intrinsically bad or evil words. No doubt, they can, in popular parlance, stand for a kind of rigidity in which careful consideration or reconsideration of an argument or a truth is rejected. The motive of this refusal is often traced to an unwillingness to frankly admit that problems concerning the presentation or meaning of a subject are at issue. But essentially, a dogma is intended to clarify, to state what can be stated about an ultimate issue or with something connected to it. We not only long to behold reality in itself, to see God “face to face,” and know that we do, but we long to understand, to make sense of what it is we behold or hold in faith or in observation. The world of reality and the world of mind are parallel to each other, but the latter depends on the former for its truth. Truth, as Aquinas said, is the conformity of the mind with what is, not the opposite, not the conformity of reality with whatever the mind wants it to be. Dogma, its statement, and what the dogma is about, its object, are not contradictory to each other. If they were, we could know nothing about anything. Our minds and the world would never meet or check one another. The latter, the dogma, depends on the former, on what is. The what-is-to-be-known always stands as prior to and as the basis of our statement of what is known. A dogma is simply the stating accurately, in the best way we can, in the language we know, what we know. The mind is, as Chesterton said, a “dogma-making” faculty. To deny the mind this capacity to state what it knows is to deny what it is to be mind in the first place. We are the rational animals, the mortal beings in the universe who both are and know what is not ourselves.

Often in more recent times, a curious “fear” has arisen that the dogmas of Catholicism might indeed prove to be true. Thus, what has come to be challenged is not so much the dogmas themselves, in their articulated intelligibility, but the mind’s very power to know anything at all including dogma. To obviate any possibility of a truth of things and of human things that man did not give to himself, we propose, as a first line defense, that we can know nothing but what we formulate for ourselves. Since it is claimed as a consequence that we are obliged by nothing in being, we are guaranteed freedom to do, not what follows from the objective order of things, including human things, but what we want, whatever we choose. No objective “givenness” can correct us. For nothing objective can be known.

This denial of any relation between mind and things generally begins with the epistemological problem, namely, with separating any connection between our senses and our mind. Following a tradition from at least Locke, if not Epicurus, we are said to know only an “image” of reality, not reality itself. But, in fact, what we know through our sensory powers is not a picture or image, but the thing itself. We know this reality through the normal workings of our senses and mind as they relate to each other in an orderly fashion. We do not know the images, but the thing through our sensory and intellectual powers and their relation to each other. If we only know the image of a thing, we can never know anything outside of ourselves, including one another. And of course, if we cannot know what is not ourselves, we cannot even know ourselves, since the knowledge we have of ourselves comes initially and indirectly through our knowing what is not ourselves. We know ourselves not directly but indirectly through knowing what is not ourselves. The very knowledge of ourselves is a gift from what is not ourselves.

Not infrequently, moreover, we find that the very effort to articulate dogmas, itself often a classically “Catholic” endeavor, is under attack because, it is held, human beings substitute or confuse the statement of the dogma or doctrine with the reality itself to which the dogma points. Thus, it is held, we believe in “dogmas” but not that towards which dogmas direct us or to what they articulate. Catholics, for instance, consciously and deliberately say the Creed together at Sunday Mass. This is, at bottom, the Church’s recognition that Catholicism is an intellectual faith whose members know and want to know precisely what it is that they hold about the Trinity and its Persons in relation to us. The Creed is the minimal but most accurate statement of this “holding” insofar as it can be properly formulated by the human mind considering revelation and what it means.

When we say this Nicene Creed, the objection goes, we are said to “believe” in the Creed as a statement but not in that to which the Creed points. As a matter of fact, I doubt if very few, if any, believing Catholics actually make this subtle confusion, however much they are accused of it for being “dogmatists.” But if, in spite of it all, they should do so, it would prove that they do not believe in a reality but only in a statement of reality. While this confusion is possible, the very accusation is, I think, often an effort to prevent us from making the effort to state what the doctrine actually indicates.

None the less, it is a perfection of the human mind to seek to state, however imperfectly, what reality means through the formulation of a stated dogma. Nowhere in Catholic tradition is it claimed that the dogma or doctrine as a statement is, even by reason of its accuracy, something that exhausts the actual reality of what is defined. Nor is it claimed that no better statement can be concocted. This better statement depends on facts. The dogma is always designed to encourage us to pursue a further knowledge, understanding, and indeed love of the what is that we seek to know.

Catholicism has always taken dogmatic statements seriously because it realizes that failure to state the truth properly can and often does lead to error and confusion. Wars and hatred have no doubt been related to this problem of the accurate statement of the truths of things. Historical relations with Orthodoxy, with Islam, with Protestantism, with Marxism, with modern liberalism, with other religions, are at bottom rooted in theological questions having to do with the proper understanding of reality, of God, man, and the cosmos. This conflict, however, is one of the sources of skepticism about dogmas. They are said to “cause” wars, mere quibbles over nothing important, so it is said. The argument follows that if we forbid or deny doctrine, prevent or hinder its public expression, we will have peace. If we agree, however, that nothing is true, we will be “free” from all the “fanaticism” of the dogmatists, or so it is claimed.

In another sense, this controversy or violence surrounding dogmatic statements, while we do not easily praise it, does witness to the long-range importance of getting things right in our understanding of them. Things, both divine and human things, really are at stake if we misunderstand the meaning of dogmas. Many a beautiful statue or building has been destroyed by an iconoclastic dogma holding that any representation of the divine is evil. Nothing in revelation, however, gives us cause for thinking that its proper understanding and statement is something that makes no difference to ourselves or to the world. The “going forth and teaching” all nations means at least this, that lacking proper “dogmas,” lacking the proper understanding of ultimate things is a detriment to every people. The famous Aristotelian dictum that a “small error in the beginning leads to a greater error in the end,” moreover, has its validity and indeed its history. The idea that “no dogma is true” is itself a dogma. And if it is this “dogma” that claims itself to be “true,” it contradicts itself in its very statement. So the effort to find the truth of dogmas is in fact unavoidable if we wish to be sane about what the world and our relationship to it means.

The term “dogmatic” theology, before its subject matter came to be called the more ambiguous “systematic” theology, used to mean the orderly effort to spell out, in careful philosophic terms, what was revealed to us about God, man, and the world. It was concerned primarily with the truth of what was revealed as presented in clear terms that we could understand and accept. When any one read the various accounts of Christ and the events leading up to him, both remotely in the Old Testament, and more particularly in the New Testament, questions of exact meaning or understanding were bound to occur to anyone with a minimum of curiosity. There was absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to examine apparent contradictions or seemingly insoluble problems found in the sources of revelation. Indeed, it would be wrong not to seek to do so. Human beings cannot live with the internal suspicion of a contradiction in things. Seriously to hold the famous “two truth” theory, namely, that a truth of revelation and a truth of reason could contradict each other in the same person and both still be true, is a formula for madness.

The human mind is a searching instrument or faculty of our souls whereby we are in a constant state of wonderment about anything that is. Christ calls God his “Father.” He does not call him an “It.” He does not call him a “she” either, nor does he call him a “Form” or an “Energy,” or some static or dynamic abstraction. Maybe Christ was just confused, though that creates other problems. If he was confused, there is no reason to take him seriously. He maintained that “I and the Father are one,” while also asking the Father to let this “chalice” pass from him. It might be all right to hold one or the other of these positions, but both? Surely some inconsistency exists here. It is the function of theology to spell out, in terms of dogmatic statements, the consistency of what happens or is claimed to happen in revelation.

Revelation is a claim to truth, a truth we are expected to know about and accept. We are addressed on the basis of truth in what is revealed. This truth will be coherent with all other truth, even the truths of reason, following Aquinas’ principle that grace builds on nature. We cannot help but make an effort to state precisely what is to be held as true and, if possible, why. But then, why would we think that proving something to be “inconsistent” proved anything wrong with it? Maybe the world is itself “incoherent.” Maybe anything flows from anything. Perhaps no meaning can be discovered so that we just arbitrarily assign meanings as we see fit or as suits our private purposes?

On the other hand, what is wrong with suspecting that things fit together? But if they do fit together, we are not wrong to seek to explain why they do. That point brings us to the question of “what is an explanation anyhow?” An explanation is not necessarily true because everyone believes it, though that is an indication to be taken seriously. Rather it is more likely that if everyone holds something to be true, it is because it is evident to the normal mind that there is a valid argument for it. Mathematical propositions are famous for their clarity and inner logic. The easier ones are comprehended by almost every one who takes the trouble to grasp the terms of their proposition and how they are related.

Dogmatic truths, even if they require faith to hold them, none the less bear their own inner logic and consistency. They seem to be addressed to enigmas that philosophic truths or arguments do not in fact fully answer though they approach them. The very fact that philosophy, to be philosophy, must remain open to what it does not know, to the love of wisdom, means that intrinsically it cannot reject positions addressed to itself from whatever source. How does philosophy know that something in its own order, the order of reason, is addressed to it? The short answer for this is that certain things are found in revelation that are likewise found in philosophy, as if to say that the same mind lies behind both. This is particularly the case if the major issues that philosophy does not answer likewise have coherent or sensible answers in revelation.

In his Philosophical Dictionary, Mortimer Adler included, as one of his words to be examined, the word, “dogmatism.” He thought that most people fail to see the proper theological sense of the word as “referring to the articles of religious faith,” as distinct from philosophical questions where “dogmatism is totally inappropriate.” Philosophical questions as such need to be submitted to “rational inquiry” on which their truth or falsity is based. Still, Adler thought, there are some philosophical positions “the affirmation of which are beyond the power of reason to establish.” Philosophy, in other words, recognizes its own limits and with that, it recognizes that it is concerned with a whole that it does not completely grasp.

As an example of this latter principle of something reason cannot itself establish, Adler uses the instance of “ontological materialism.” This view holds that “nothing really exists except bodies and their physical transformations.” Using the evidence of logic itself, Adler pointed out that “that thesis, being a denial, therefore is a negation, and as such it is indemonstrable.” That is, we might be able to prove that something is there, or something is necessary if what is there exists. But the proposition “what is not body does not exist” cannot hold on its initial premise about material bodies.

Simply because we know that bodies exist, we cannot conclude that what is not body does not exist. Obviously, if something that is not body exists, it exists in a non-bodily way. Adler suggests that most scientists inadvertently accept the materialist thesis “without a logical qualm.” Evidence of our senses does tell us that material things exist. This is true. “There is no evidence that reality does not and cannot include the immaterial and the nonphysical. To assert that it does not and cannot is sheer dogmatism, of a kind that should be avoided in philosophy.” 3 It is this kind of “dogmatism” that Catholicism seeks to avoid in its own understanding of the meaning of its dogmas.

What, then, is the evidence that what is not physical exists? This alternative is why Plato is always good for us to know. Plato forever stands for the principle that the idea of a thing and the particular existing thing of a certain kind are not the same. The idea or form of a thing is universal. It prescinds from matter. What it is to be a tree may have been acquired from observing many actual trees, but it is not the same as an individual tree, though both have what it is to be a tree in common. The idea of a tree does not change, ever, even if all actual trees cease to exist. Trees come and go, the idea of a tree, or of a man, does not. We may need minds to think these ideas, but they are not material even when we know that the actual tree is largely material. “There is no evidence that reality does not and cannot include the immaterial and the nonphysical.” Indeed, in our very minds in their functioning, we reflectively see that something more than what is material is present.

The great encyclical, Fides et Ratio, of John Paul II was particularly concerned with the philosophical knowledge, or lack thereof, of theologians. It was quite aware that everywhere we look in biblical or theological questions that, behind them, are basic philosophical questions that can condition how we understand revelation and the propositions explaining it. The Church has prided itself historically in insisting that it had no “philosophic system” of its own, that it was open to any philosophy provided that it could maintain its truth.

Yet, the Church has since the Middle Ages been aware of the presence of Thomas Aquinas, with the idea that not every philosophy is equal simply because it claims to be a “philosophy.” Indeed, the Church has frankly stated that not every philosophy can sustain or present a coherent understanding of the truths contained within revelation. Not all philosophical systems are true, even though there is probably a point of truth even in their errors. There are, none the less, philosophies that would make the Incarnation or the Trinity, the basic truths of Catholicism, impossible of understanding or acceptance. It is at this point that an examination of the validity of any philosophy as philosophy becomes imperative.

The very fact that faith is itself directed precisely to intelligence, then, would indicate that, in the very effort to understand what is revealed in all its perplexity, there would come about as a by-product, as it were, a deepening of philosophy and a confirmation of that philosophy more capable of explaining the coherent meaning of what is. As Aquinas states, “What comes from God is well ordered. Now the order of things consists in this, that they are led to God each one by the others” (I-II,111.1). If we understand the logic of this position, it means that philosophy, by being what it is, is open to or aware of what are its own limitations. Revelation, on the other hand, by being what it is, leads philosophy and other disciplines and realities to what they are, to knowing more of what they are than they would without the stimulus of revelation. But it does so on the grounds of reason, not revelation.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a sense in the modern world that philosophy has deliberately closed itself off from considering anything to do with revelation out of fear that things might just cohere, that there is a whole that somehow includes both reason and revelation. The human mind in fact is able to invent numerous reasons for not doing what is right. The human person can choose to follow some path or position of its own formulation as a reason for doing what he wants.. There is a more sophisticated modern version of this position. Philosophy, it is said, is not in principle to be understood as anything but what the human mind can know by its own powers. This methodological limitation, generally called “rationalism,” would mean that philosophy must a priori reject any “addition” or “deepening” of itself that would, even if true, come from outside its own control, no matter how “real” or fruitful the latter was to this same truth.

Philosophic rationalism, on such a thesis, could only reject what was concluded to by philosophy’s own efforts to understand or articulate what is revealed or to resolve the apparent difficulties or contradictions said to be found in revelation. Thus, referring to the famous project of whether there can be such a thing as a “Catholic” philosophy, even if what is meant is a genuine philosophical position but one derived from considerations of revelation, we conclude that, if we are not Catholic, we cannot accept the philosophical position gained under its stimulus. We reject what is true even if it is philosophy because of its “tainted” origins in revelation.

But this rejection seems like a very un-philosophical act, one that refuses even to consider an issue that arises from revelation, whether one believes it or not. A genuine philosophy would mean, it would seem, an openness to a truth, from whatever source. The question comes down to the matter either of a genuine openness to what is or to a systematic restriction of philosophy to a rationalism that sets limits on what it can think.

The meaning of dogma, in conclusion, takes us back to the observation of Dorothy Sayers that was cited in the beginning of these reflections. The normal person, she remarked, is interested in dogma. He wants to know the truth. But it is rarely presented to him in terms in which he can understand. Lacking the proper explanations, many likely go about listening to or concocting ideas that are far from the true understanding of what the faith teaches. And this is the pertinence of Chesterton’s remark, that even before he realized the intrinsic importance of dogma, it was clear that people implicitly organized themselves about dogmatic ideas or positions so that to understand them, it was necessary to examine what they held. Chesterton’s famous book Heretics, which was published a century ago in 1905, was precisely on this point. The real choice is not between dogma and no dogma, but between a dogma that is true and one that is not.

In the end, we want to know the truth of things. But we also often do not want to know the truth if it requires us to change our lives. Yves Simon remarked that for intellectuals and academics in particular, one of the most difficult things they face is the necessity to change their minds when they discover that their favorite theory does not prove to be true. But there is the further point that Paul wrote to Timothy, that many would come to believe in almost any sort of doctrine once they refused to accept what the faith held to be true and the explanations of it that we call dogmas. The alternate to a true dogma is not, in practice, no dogma, but a dogma that is not true.

If there is anything peculiar about revelation, it is its insistence that certain truths need to be known to be saved. We are to live upright lives on the basis of these truths, to be sure, but revelation does address our intellects with a claim to be true. It is the truth, we are told, that will make us free. As we see and articulate the alternatives, as we see worked out in historical reality the alternatives to the truth of things, we begin to suspect that the effort of revelation to address itself also to our minds is at the heart of what it was about. Generally speaking, we do not live well if we do not think well. This is why, whatever else it is, Catholicism is an intellectual claim that addresses our minds in the name of what any mind can think.

  1. Dorothy Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?” The Whimsical Christian (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 39. 
  2. G. K. Chesterton, The Autobiography (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, {1936} 1988), CW, XVI, 167. 
  3. Mortimer Adler, Philosophical Dictionary (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 88. 
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.