The liberating power of dogma

Napoleon Bonaparte, the anti-Catholic emperor of France in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, once told a French cardinal, “Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?” The cardinal, the anecdote goes, responded ruefully: “Your majesty, we … have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.” The cheeky and daring response of this elder Churchman was based on what we heard in the Gospel today: the Lord’s promise that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against” His holy Church.

Surely there are few judgements of the Lord more inscrutable – more difficult to justify by human reason – than His choice of Peter, the poor fisherman from an obscure corner not only of the Roman empire but even of the Jewish world itself, to lead the divine society he founded that is the Catholic Church. However, our Lord turns worldly criteria on their head when He tells Peter, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” What flesh and blood – the wisdom of this world – has not revealed to St. Peter is his dramatic profession of faith in response to Christ’s question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The basis of Christ’s choice of Peter is not any human quality he has, but rather that Peter is attuned to what is revealed by God.

The fact that Jesus Christ, then, is not just a great human teacher but the Lord of the universe, “the Son of the living God,” cannot be known through human reason alone, but is instead revealed by God the Father. The same is true of Christ’s holy Church, His body on earth. Flesh and blood cannot tell us about the divine nature of this society established by God to make Christ present on earth, but only God, as He reveals today through Christ to St. Peter.

The problem, though, is that we so often do listen to what flesh and blood – or human wisdom that is far from the unsearchable ways of God – tell us about Christ. We can fall victim to listening to the voice of the world when it tells us that Jesus would just want us to be happy, rather than the real Jesus of the Gospels who calls us to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. And so likewise, we can be tempted to listen to what flesh and blood would tell us about Christ’s Church.

The Church, the world would tell us, is imperfect. It is out of date, tired, old-fashioned, and “on the wrong side of history” – maybe helpful for people back in the day, and maybe helpful even now for some, but hardly for everyone. Of course, there is a truth here; the Church is imperfect! She is a divine society with a heavenly destiny, but she is also composed of men and women who are imperfect, marked by original sin and subject to many forms of human frailty. But the Church is the body of Christ, which means that just as Christ is both perfectly human and perfectly divine, so too is the Church. She has a human element – She is made up of imperfect men and women deeply affected by original sin. But there is also something in Her of the divine.

Christ promises us that the gates of the netherworld will never prevail against His holy Church. This promise is fulfilled through the guarantee that Christ attaches to the Church’s teaching about faith and morals. The gates of the netherworld do not prevail against the Church – against the members of Christ’s body – because the Church faithfully teaches all that is necessary to spend eternity with God in Heaven instead of in the netherworld. Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church is precisely about the Church’s authority to teach on faith and morals – Her authority to guide us in the ways of life, rather than the ways of death.

This, though, is not the world’s view of the Church’s authority in teaching, nor, often, the view of many Catholics. We can be tempted think of the Church’s teaching as something that restricts us, something that makes us less free. What business does the Church have, we might think, telling us what to do? However, far from being a force that restricts us, dogma – the Church’s definitive teachings – is something that frees us. I was reminded of this paradox recently while reading a work by Flannery O’Connor, a great American Catholic writer of the 20th Century. In an essay she wrote about being a Catholic author, she addressed the criticism of many people that adhering to Catholic dogma would restrict her abilities as a writer. She responded that the Church’s dogma does not restrict, but rather, “Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery.”

“The only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery.” Whether it is the way one ought to run a business, how one ought to worship God, or the right way for a man and a woman to express their love for each other according to their state in life, the Church’s teachings do not restrict us but rather free us to do what is right and good. They guard and respect the mystery of who were as made in God’s image and likeness as His beloved sons and daughters. They protect us from the ultimate boredom and banality (or unoriginality) of evil. Further, dogma, as Ms. O’Connor writes, “is an instrument for penetrating reality.” It tells us what is real, instead of a world that chooses to ignore truth (or even the possibility of truth!) as inconvenient to its relentless pursuit of pleasure. Placing pleasure above truth is ultimately a lie about who we are as men and women – rational souls with a higher calling than mere seekers of pleasure.

Dogma – the definitive teaching of the Church – frees us because it rightly orders our lives. Without the guidance of Christ’s Church, what we have is chaos. When I was a first semester freshman in college, I remember being completely overwhelmed by all of the things that were going on. I was writing for the college newspaper, singing in the choir, writing for a magazine, participating in the campus Catholic student organization, pledging a fraternity, and for some reason my academic advisor had allowed me to take more than the normal load of classes. With my mother no longer there to organize my daily schedule, life was utter chaos! Two things helped me to survive that year of chaos: First, my fraternity mandated that all pledges would attend study sessions every Sunday through Thursday evening from 7 to 11 p.m. That order and structure ensured that, amidst all the flurry of student activities, I made sure to focus on the most important reason I was there: my academic progress.

The other survival technique I learned from our choir director, who insisted that each of us had to maintain a daily schedule and a calendar. That advice changed my life. Many of the other members of the choir were resistant to his wisdom. They wanted the freedom to be spontaneous and to do what they wanted when they wanted to do it. I noticed, though, that when I started putting all the things I had to do in my calendar, seemingly tying myself down to a rigid schedule in the eyes of many of my friends, I actually had more time to do all of the things that I wanted to do. I wasn’t dashing from place to place, dropping commitments and failing to follow through on promises. I had peace in my life again and was able to accomplish my goals, like making the Dean’s List that first semester.

Just as my choir director’s sage advice – or rather, blunt insistence – that I keep an organized calendar ordered my life and made me more – not less! – free, so too does the Church’s dogma have the power to order our lives and make us more truly free. The Church’s teachings are not blunt instruments of torture imposed by crabby old men who want others to share in the misery. Rather, they are a gift from a God who loves us and wants to help us order our lives according to what is true and good in order to make us more truly ourselves, capable of fulfilling the grand calling that He has given us – the great adventure of sainthood.

When my fraternity forced us to study every weeknight from 7 to 11 p.m., they didn’t just put us in a room and tell us to go at it. They provided tutors who would help us with writing papers at a college level, they organized study sessions for the pre-med students trying to make it through the weed-out classes that would determine who would really be able to go on to medical school, and occasionally a generous active brother would even bring by some snacks for the miserable, studying pledges. So too our holy mother, the Church, does not merely impose rules and then leave us to flounder as we struggle to fulfill them. She provides tutors in the form of priests and catechists who help us to learn the faith, She provides parish organizations that help us to support each other in the battle for holiness, and She readily forgives us when we fail and come to the Lord with contrite hearts in Confession. Most importantly, through the same sacrament of Confession and most especially through the Most Holy Eucharist, She provides strength for the journey that sustains us through the power of grace.

The Church is called to be a prophet, to be a voice crying in the wilderness in our secular world. She helps us to see beyond what flesh and blood would reveal to us. Flesh and blood – shallow human opinion – would see the Church as a worn out relic of another time. But our heavenly Father – just as He revealed to St. Peter that his friend Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God – reveals something different to us: “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” in which are fulfilled the Father’s words from the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.”

This beautiful city, this bride adorned for Her Husband, this dwelling place of God with men, is His holy Church, the Catholic Church, prophesied in the Scriptures, founded by Christ Himself, and enduring to this very day and even until the end of time itself. The Church will never be out of date, behind the times, or on the wrong side of history because the Church’s teaching has the power to take us outside of ourselves, to see beyond what can be revealed to us by flesh and blood.

It is true that at times we will be like the patriarch Jacob, wrestling with the Lord, struggling to make sense of what the Church teaches – how it could possibly still be true so many centuries later? But it is the Church’s clear teaching on faith and morals that has the power to guard and respect the mystery of who we are and why we are here. With lives rightly ordered by Her saving truths, we have the freedom to do what is good, noble, and just in this life so that we might spend eternity with Her spouse, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever and ever, world without end. Amen.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXI Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVII