By DONALD DeMARCO
Our son had lost his wallet on a bicycle excursion a few hundred miles from home and presumed it would be lost forever. Happily, an honest gentleman discovered it and noted the home address and other particulars of its owner. He phoned us and, since, by matter of good fortune, he would be in our neck of the woods in the near future, offered to drop it off to us. My wife and I were, therefore, most eager to receive, thank, and entertain him on behalf of our itinerant son.
At a certain point in an otherwise agreeable evening conversation, the subject of religion came up. “If the Church would only get rid of its dogma,” said our guest and benefactor, in a manner that seemed to anticipate our approval. Our gratitude toward this gentleman prevented us from engaging in any form of disagreement, especially on a contentious topic.
It was a criticism I had heard many times before and I thought that he was not really speaking for himself but serving as a mouthpiece for a cultural position that had been floating on the wind for some time.
I would have been more disputatious had the remark come in class from one of my students. Under the circumstances, entertainment seemed more appropriate than any attempt at education. The evening ended cordially and he went on his way. His was a random act of kindness that neither my wife or I, nor my son, will ever forget. But his comment continued to rattle around in my brain.
Our society’s passion for freedom ignores the essential role of a stabilizing factor. We cannot walk unless one foot is stationary while the other swings forward. Without a skeleton made of durable bone, we cannot stand upright. The spinning record on the turntable emits no sound unless it converges with the relatively fixed needle. The dogma of the Church is the stable element which is a necessary condition for personal freedom to be a possibility. It is the core that fuels the drama. It is the set of rungs that give the ladder its practicality.
Those in the litany of Catholic saints — from St. Francis of Assisi to St. Thomas Aquinas; from St. Clare to St. Teresa of Avila — were all uniquely free individuals. Yet they all held firmly to the common core Church teaching, which is the dogma, the center that provides the Church with its centrifugal force. An engine allows a car to go anywhere. Without an engine, it goes nowhere.
Dorothy Sayers had heard this sentiment expressed back in the thirties when she was working on Strong Meat: “Away with the tedious complexities of dogma,” people declared, “let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship no matter of what!”
Spirituality is In; Dogma is Out! However, the elimination of dogma does not strengthen spirituality, but eviscerates it.
“It is the dogma that is the drama,” insists Miss Sayers, “not beautiful phrases, not comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death — but the terrifying assertion that the same God Who made this world lived in this world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
Christ has been lost in the search for comfort and convenience. People want a nice Church filled with nice people who have nothing but nice ideas. Christ may be terrifying because He does not settle for niceness. He recognizes the reality of sin and death, and the need for penance and redemption. That may not be nice, but it is anchored in liberating truth. The dogma that is the truth is the spark that sets us free. Religion that comforts the afflicted should also afflict the comfortable.
“Any stigma can beat a dogma,” G.K. Chesterton once quipped. The Church has been stigmatized for being rigid and unbending. The stigma label is both unfair and undeserved. The simple truth is that the Church without dogma is a Church without Christ.
Dorothy Sayers could not have complained more eloquently when she stated that “the flails of ridicule have been brandished with such energy of late on the threshing floor of controversy that the true seed of the Word has become well-nigh lost amid the whirling of chaff.” The Church welcomes everyone and is prepared to forgive anyone. But it should not be forgotten that she is built on a Rock. Without the dogma, there is no drama. Without the drama, there is no salvation.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)