Many years ago, I had an encounter with a coworker that would forever ignite a stronger desire to articulate Church doctrine in a clear practical manner. The story goes this way. I had recently finished developing a pilot Adult Education program for the Diocese I worked in at the time. The Bishop of the Diocese charged me with the task to develop an Adult Faith Formation program that would be practical and engaging to bring back fallen away Catholics. During the development of the program, the person I worked with was annoyed at the project. Some of the comments ranged from; “You are wasting your time”, to, “what a waste of paper.” This half-hearted barrage continued for several weeks.
Now, one might say, report this person to the bishop! However, I was of the inclination to attempt to sway this individual from casting doubt over the program itself by simply inviting him to join the project. However, my invitation always met his rejection. Eventually this individual threw the gauntlet at me by the following statement; “Doctrine is such a dirty word, it inhibits true freedom and locks us into a bunch of rules.”
At that point, I was ready to put on my mouth guard, tape my hands. and punch this person with Catechisms wrapped around my fists. Kidding aside, I wanted him to just be quiet and leave me in peace.
Too Doctrinally Centered
Can someone be too rules oriented? Perhaps, but the trouble was his association of doctrine with rules that must be followed… or else. In other words, follow these precepts so to speak and you should make it to Heaven. If not, then Hell awaits you. Doctrine, by my colleague’s definition inhibits the human spirit, stifles the ability of man to experience freedom.
In order to understand the place of authentic Doctrine, we must first understand how the theological virtue of love drives doctrinal instruction. The way to understanding Christian doctrine is rooted in our capacity to love. I will discuss this very important point later on. Getting back to my colleague, when his comment on doctrine did not raise a look of ire on my face he took it one-step further. “Alright then”, he said, “the problem with you is you are too doctrinally centered.” At this point, I stood up from my desk, looked straight into his eyes and told him to prove his thesis by articulating the negative consequences of utilizing the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
My friend displayed an unfortunate ignorance and hubris when it came to acknowledging those universal truths not necessarily fitting his personal outlook on God and the world. A common idea regarding doctrine by many is its supposed inhibitive nature. In other words, “I cannot do what I want because the Church teaches I can’t.” Yet, when you truly reflect on the issue of doctrine, you come to understand that it actually liberates man’s journey with Christ. The alternative — ignorance — does not. It is that simple. My colleague’s problem ultimately led a discussion of obedience.
His interpretation of freedomwas that the individual ought to experience things, and express actions as he sees fit. I told him this is exactly what the Church proposes to its faithful. The confused look on his face was priceless.
All of us are predisposed to act according to our senses. The use of our faculties reflects God’s love for us as His children. With respect to Church teaching (doctrine), my friend had issues regarding freedom versus assent to teachings aimed at preparing the soul for heaven. A great example of the gifts we have received is echoed by St. Paul in describing the institution of the Eucharistic:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor11:23-26)
The key phrase “do this” is a mandate from our Lord to literally perform this liturgical sacrifice in remembrance. In other words, Christ gives directives that include doctrinal truths, e.g. continue to celebrate my sacrifice in my memory. For my friend who felt somewhat inhibited because of Church teaching, this particular passage resonates at the heart of the matter. If Christ directs us in what to do using meaningful words of truth, and if everything is centered on Him, then knowing doctrine is a direct result of Divine revelation. In that case, wouldn’t it make sense to at least be open to these mandates i.e. doctrines of the faith? Blessed Cardinal Newman elaborates on the notion of freedom in connction with the assent of faith through the example of a child’s development of knowledge;
[U]ntil we account for the knowledge which an infant has of his mother or his nurse, what reason have we to take exception at the doctrine, as strange and difficult, that in the dictate of conscience, without previous experiences or analogical reasoning, he is able gradually to perceive the voice, or the echoes of the voice, of a Master, living, personal, and sovereign…? But still, if a child of five or six years old, when reason is at length fully awake, has already mastered and appropriated thoughts and beliefs, in consequence of their teaching, in such sort as to be able to handle and apply them familiarly, according to the occasion, as principles of intellectual action, those beliefs at the very least must be singularly congenial to his mind, if not connatural with its initial action. And that such a spontaneous reception of religious truths is common with children, I shall take for granted, till I am convinced that I am wrong in so doing. The child keenly understands that there is a difference between right and wrong, he is conscious that he is offending One to whom he is amenable, who he does not see, who sees him. His mind reaches forward with a strong presentiment to the thought of a Moral Governor, sovereign over him, mindful, and just. It comes to him like an impulse of nature to entertain it (Grammar of Assent, 103)
St. Paul sets the stage for us to understand where our freedom should be directed. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you will appear with him in glory” (Col3:1-4).
He reminds that our freedom rests in Christ, Lord of History. Essential to this understanding is the fact that we can either embrace it or reject it. The beauty of this act is placing responsibility in our hearts to freely embrace Church teaching, meaning embracing Jesus Christ completely.
Cardinal Newman concluded that freedom and assent rest on the ability to acknowledge the presence and work of Christ in our daily lives like my friend said: freedom consists in experiencing things, and expressing the experience in fitting actions.
So how is doctrine the nourishing milk (Heb 5:12) for the soul? It provides the opportunity to seek the truth in Jesus Christ. And when we find it, to either embrace it or reject it. The crux of my friend’s confused reaction to my comments on doctrine’s liberating qualities reveals a journey still on-going. Our freedom as witnesses of the faith impeles us not only to express but also to teach the formulations of the faith (CCC 170).
Freedom in Scripture
The following Scripture citations reflect the understanding of freedom and assent within the context of openness to Christ and his Church.
- The truth will make you free – Jn 8:32
- Free gift of grace – Rom 5:15-17
- Free in righteousness – Rom 6:20
- Free of gift of God is eternal life – Rom 6:23
- Free will – Philemon 1:14
- Freedom to live – 1 Pet 2:16
- Christ sets us free – Gal 5:1
- Life in Christ sets us free – Rom8:2
How does doctrine nourish our soul? Simply put, it brings us closer to the Divine Mystery who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The point of doctrine is not merely knowledge of God, but knowing God. The more we know, the further we journey in freely desiring unity with Christ. Our preparation is for eternity in Heaven, not on the things of this earth. Nourishment from the things of the earth is finite, nourishment from Heaven infinite — and infinitely good for our souls.