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The Importance of Doctrine
Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap.
The Demise of Doctrine
Presently, there are some who disparage Catholic doctrine. They refer to it as “lifeless,” “dead,” or “cold.” They claim that it lacks vibrancy, and so it neither nourishes the mind nor enthuses the heart. In an overzealous attempt to dispel error and in an exaggerated effort to formulate precisely theological minutia, they argue, doctrine renders the Gospel message unintelligible. Thus, doctrine is seen as a relic of the past—vestige of a former era that has no future. Such derogatory assessments, however, manifest an arrogance that presumes that all that is old is of no value. Those who make such negative evaluations fail to see, in their blind conceit, the beauty contained within doctrine: a splendor that singularly imbues the ever-living divinely revealed truth.
What we need now is a renewed understanding of the distinctive importance of doctrine within the life of the Church. Doctrine is at the heart of living a holy life, and it is the means of fostering such a life. Without doctrine, the Church’s entire faith and morality, founded on divine revelation, dissolves. Without doctrine, the Church ceases to be the agent of salvation, the institution that Christ himself founded through his death and resurrection, and upon which he breathed forth his Holy Spirit. Without doctrine the Church becomes an empty, redundant, and pointless social construct.
The Proper Unity of Doctrine and Scripture
Those who denigrate doctrine often pit it against Sacred Scripture. They believe that doctrine is dead and unappealing, yet Scripture is filled with life and excitement. The Gospel narratives are easily understood. In his letters, St. Paul manifests a passionate love for Jesus and the salvation that Jesus embodies. St. Paul’s vibrant faith elicits faith in others. Only when doctrine overlays Scripture, they claim, is the beauty of the sacred text shrouded in obscurity and depleted of life. There is here, in this supposed discordancy between doctrine and Scripture, a failure to recognize that Sacred Scripture is itself not only the fount and source of doctrine, but it is also the principle and initial articulation of doctrine.
St. Thomas Aquinas heads off this false dichotomy. In the very first question of his Summa Theologica, Thomas dedicates ten articles to the relationship between Sacred Scripture and doctrine. In article one, he argues that revealed doctrine is necessary for humankind because it requires truth that cannot be obtained by reason alone. Aquinas states: “Now Scripture, inspired by God, is no part of philosophical science, which has been built up by reason. Therefore, it is useful that besides philosophical science there should be other knowledge, i.e., inspired by God” (S.T. I, q. 1, art. 1). For Aquinas, the articles of faith, that is, doctrine within Scripture, are the undisputed “given,” since they have been revealed to us by God himself, and so must be accepted by faith as true (see S.T. I, q. 1, art. 8). Therefore, the “authority of the canonical Scriptures” is “incontrovertible,” for “our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets, who wrote the canonical books” (S.T. I, q. 8, art. 8). For the Angelic Doctor, there can be no separation of Sacred Scripture and sacred doctrine, for Scripture itself is the written revelation, the Catholic doctrine, as believed and proclaimed by the apostles themselves.
What are the doctrines contained in Scripture? Though there are many, I offer three: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Since these are central Catholic doctrines, the Church would be unrecognizable without them.
The Doctrine of the Trinity
First, the New Testament teaches that, although there is one God, the one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Coming to a better understanding of this truth over time, the Church came to recognize that the Father is the Father because he eternally begets his Son in the Love that is the Holy Spirit. The begotten Son, in turn, loves his Father in the Love that is the Holy Spirit. And thus, as professed in the Church’s Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 AD), the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and Son” as the Love they share with one another. In this light, Catholic theology grasped that the persons of the Trinity subsist or exist only in relationship to one another. The Father is Father only in relation to his Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son is Son only in relation to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is Love only in relation to the Father and the Son. Thus, the one God is constituted by the interrelationship of the three Persons. Their interrelationships not only distinguish who they are as distinct Persons, but their interrelationships also constitute them as the one God. What could be more life-giving or love-giving than the doctrine of the Trinity? What could be more dynamic and everlastingly significant than the incomprehensible mystery of the Trinity? It is the fount from which all further revelation, all further doctrine, flows. We perceive here a development, a growth, in the Church’s conception and articulation of the New Testament’s trinitarian doctrine. What was declared in the New Testament is ever professed in the Church’s fuller understanding of this sacred mystery, which is articulated in her doctrine. This is a beautiful thing. Moreover, the truth of this trinitarian doctrine also reveals to us that humankind is able to be taken up into the very divine life-giving and love-giving Trinity. How is this so?
The Doctrine of the Incarnation
Second, then, the doctrine of the Incarnation is of supreme importance. St. John’s Gospel declares that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). God the Father, in his love for the world, sent his only-begotten Son into the world. The Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came to exist as man. Jesus is the Father’s Spirit-filled, incarnate Son. Such is the New Testament doctrine of the Incarnation. Later, when Jesus’ full divinity as the Son was denied, the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) declared that the Son “was begotten and not made.” What is made is of a different nature from the maker, what is begotten is of the same nature as the begetter. Thus, the Son, as begotten, is “consubstantial (one in being) with the Father,” possessing the same divine nature as the Father. Here, the Nicene Creed clearly proclaimed and ardently defended the doctrine that was already present within the New Testament. This doctrinal proclamation is essential to the Catholic Faith. St. Athanasius, exiled five times for his fierce defense of the Incarnation, famously declared: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (CCC 460). Moreover, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) specified that it is one and the same Son who is fully divine and fully human, and, thus, it is the divine Son who was truly born of Mary, the Mother of God, and who truly suffered as man for our salvation.
The Doctrine of the Eucharist
Third, in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus declared at the Last Supper that the bread he is giving to his apostles is his given-up body, and that the chalice is the cup containing his poured-out blood. Jesus told them that on the Cross he, as the great Hight Priest, would offer up his body and pour out his blood as a saving sacrifice for the salvation of the world. The saving benefit of Jesus’ saving-sacrifice is that his disciples will be able to eat his risen-given-up-body and drink his risen-poured-out-blood and so come into living, salvific communion with him. They will abide in him and he will abide in them. This New Testament’s doctrine of the Eucharist came under attack during the Protestant reformation. The reformers denied that the Mass is a sacrifice and that Jesus is truly and really present in the Eucharist. In response to this denial of the New Testament doctrine, the Council of Trent (1545–1563 AD) declared: “In the divine sacrifice that is offered at Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is present and is offered in an unbloody manner.” Jesus’ once for all sacrifice is made present at Mass so that those who participate in it reap the saving benefits of that one sacrifice. Moreover, the Council specified that at the consecration “the whole substance of bread is changed into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change, the holy Catholic Church fittingly and properly names transubstantiation.” Thus, the Council solemnly professed, and so confirmed, that the Eucharistic liturgy celebrated by the Church is the same as that Jesus himself instituted at the Last Supper. Moreover, it also confirmed the manner in which Jesus is truly and really present in the Eucharist. What Catholics eat and drink, under the form of bread and wine, is the risen Jesus himself—a change of “whatness” has taken place, which is fittingly called transubstantiation. Thus, the Council of Trent’s doctrinal definitions interpreted and affirmed the Eucharistic doctrines that were present in the New Testament. Without these doctrinal clarifications the Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life,” (LG 11) would have been lost, as well as devotional practices that draw us closer to the heart of our faith, like adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Importantly, the truth that these three doctrines declare, both in their biblical form and more theological form, teach the faithful that they are subsumed into these very mysteries. By abiding in Christ in holy Communion, the faithful come to abide within the eternal life and love of the Trinity itself. Thus, the realities that these doctrines affirm are the means by which the faithful foster and grow in holiness of life, including love of neighbor. Far from doctrines being lifeless, they are life-giving—situated at the heart of what we believe, how we pray, and the way we live.
The Development of Doctrine
John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote extensively on the development of doctrine. However, it needs to be noted that the development of doctrine does not mean that the mysteries of faith themselves have grown over time. The Trinity cannot become more the Trinity. Jesus cannot become more incarnate. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist cannot become more real. What has developed is the Church’s understanding of these doctrines. The scriptural doctrines, the doctrinal mysteries of faith, were progressively more lucidly conceived, and so more clearly articulated, and so more fully treasured. Such deeper clarity and articulation, as we have seen, is found principally in ecumenical councils and conciliar creeds and decrees, as well as in the Church’s living theological tradition. Notably, the doctrines that are found primarily in Scripture are the same doctrines that are more fully comprehended within the Church’s ever-developing perception of them. The development of doctrine is an exercise of the Church, by means of its faith, seeking understanding.
The Development of the Church’s Moral Doctrine
We have found that the doctrines concerning the biblical mysteries of faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist, do not develop in the sense of acquiring more growth, but rather the Church’s understanding develops. However, within the Church’s doctrinal moral teaching there is, in a sense, a growth of the doctrines themselves that is achieved, again, by means of the Church’s fuller understanding. I will provide two examples.
St. Paul takes for granted the slavery that existed at his time and which had been in existence for centuries (see Eph. 6:5–10; Col. 3:22–25; Philemon). However, as the Church grew in its understanding regarding the dignity of all men and women, it slowly became evermore convinced that the institution of slavery was immoral, and, thus, must be condemned as an iniquitous practice. While numerous popes eventually condemned it, its eradication was a slow process, and tragically slavery continues today in what is now referred to as “trafficking,” especially of young women.
Presently, the Church is newly confronted with a multitude of “gender” issues. In addressing these concerns, the Church’s magisterium has had to stress that God created only two complementary sexes—male and female. Moreover, one cannot transition from one sex to another either mentally or physically, by bodily mutilation. Positively, the Church has articulated anew a Christian anthropology about the inherent goodness of men and women, and the natural and sacramental character of marriage being between one man and one woman.
These illustrations make evident the constant growth in the Church’s moral teaching as it ever confronts new ethical issues. The foundational basis of every ecclesial response is the Bible itself. The application of the biblical doctrine develops, grows, and matures through the course of time.
Moreover, we must note that the Church’s consistent and continual magisterial moral teaching cannot be reversed, a reversal espoused by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Cardinal Robert McElroy, and the recent German Synod. For example, the infallible magisterial teaching condemning slavery, abortion, contraception, adultery, fornication, sodomy, and murder cannot be changed, nor declared to be moral under certain conditions and situations. What is intrinsically evil, as John Paul II stated in Veritatis Splendour, and Archbishop Charles Chaput reiterated in an article recently posted on this website, is always immoral in all circumstances, and therefore, under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church does not have the authority to make such changes.
A Reunion of Doctrine and Scripture
The truths which doctrine embody are the realities into which Catholics are incorporated. Thus, all the members of the Church (clergy and laity alike) should lovingly contemplate the Church’s doctrines so as to immerse themselves within the realities of the faith. Doctrines are far from being irrelevant and esoteric. We must reject calls to cast off doctrine and instead treasure doctrine as a fuller understanding of truths revealed in Scripture. In beholding the doctrines of the Church, the only response the Church can give in word and deed is—“Amen, I believe!”
Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM, Cap, is a prolific writer and one of the foremost living theologians in the Church. He was formerly Executive Director for the Secretariat for Doctrine at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.