In defense of dogma

Editorial, May 2010

I want to raise my voice in defense of dogma. Since the Vatican Council dogma has been neglected, downplayed and even reviled by some theologians. This has been the result of the emphasis on Holy Scripture, because the Council urged preaching at all Masses—mainly with preaching on the readings in the form of a homily. So in a short period of time the scriptural homily replaced the sermon which, before the Council, was primarily an explanation of the Catechism—Creed, sacraments, commandments, with explanations of the Mass and prayer.

Articles from the Creed were common topics, as also were explanations of how to go to confession and the need to do penance. In those days often Catholics went to confession before they would dare to receive Holy Communion. Basically, priests preached material from the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Scripture was used to prove points, but it was not the main focus of most Catholic preaching.

What has happened is that, for many theologians and priests, the Bible has replaced the Catechism as the center of concern for both theology and preaching. Recently I heard a Catholic theologian say at a public meeting that theology is interpreting Scripture. There was no mention of the Magisterium of the Church or Tradition.

Before Vatican II dogma was Ace, moral theology was King, canon law was Queen, and Scripture study was Jack. That certainly was the case at Innsbruck, Austria, where I studied and where both Rahners taught and also the famous liturgist, Josef Jungmann. In the USA before the Council in some theologates moral theology was Ace because priests were being prepared to hear confessions, while preaching was a secondary goal.

As a result of the emphasis in the seminary on the importance of dogma and morals, priests were well-schooled in those subjects and were prepared to preach on them. There was emphasis on dogma, and also morals, because of the certitude connected with them. Each thesis had a “note” of doctrinal certainty, with the authority of the Church behind it from defined definitions in the previous twenty ecumenical councils.

Catholic dogma gives the student certitude about what the Church holds and also offers different levels of certitude, for example: a defined dogma, a matter of Catholic faith (de fide catholica), theologically certain, common opinion and so forth.

Scripture study, on the other hand, does not offer the certitude that dogma does. Yes, the text of the Bible is without error, but every text has to be interpreted and that is where the problem is. As you know, there are thousands of different interpretations of the meaning of passages in the Bible. The “sola scriptura” of the Protestants has resulted in thousands of different Protestant groups. Books on the Bible offer the opinions of the author, but they do not give you certitude. And the famous scholars often disagree with each other about the meaning. Only the Magisterium of the Church can give you certitude and the Church has defined the meaning of only a few passages of the Bible, such as Rom. 5:12-21 and James 5:13-15. Perhaps the problem here is that too many Protestant opinions have crept into the Catholic Church and too many Catholic scholars are seeking approval from Protestants.

Dogma is not anti-scriptural—it is based on the word of God and is an authoritative declaration of the meaning of Holy Scripture. The procedure in a dogmatic treatise is to state a thesis, such as “God is immutable.”  The proof is given first from the Magisterium, then from the Bible, then from Tradition, then from reason. Here is material that a priest can use to develop a good sermon on the nature of God and the difference between temporal and eternal things.

Before Vatican II most Catholics knew the basics of their faith; more than 70 percent went to Mass every Sunday. They learned their faith because it was taught in the schools and preached to them every Sunday at Mass. Now most Catholics do not know their faith well; about 30 percent go to Mass regularly on Sunday, few go to confession, and almost all receive Holy Communion, including public sinners. There is more than one reason for this, but certainly the dethroning of dogma and its absence from many pulpits in the USA is a contributing factor. Therefore, we need more homilies that include an explanation of Catholic dogma.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.