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Why Catholicism is necessarily dogmatic, with a definite content

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

February 12, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – In an earlier post, I spoke of the phenomenon, already noted by Ratzinger, of how Catholics who hold fast to traditional doctrine are nowadays dismissed as “fundamentalists.” Surely there are those in Pope Francis’s entourage who would readily stick this label onto Gerhard Cardinal Müller for his Manifesto, or on Bishop Athanasius Schneider for his correction. Inspired by the courage and sound judgment of these two shepherds, I wish to comment further on why this label is misapplied – and what the act of labeling itself tells us about its applicators.

The act of faith directed to God has a definite content. One does not vaguely believe in “something divine”; one believes in the God who reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Creator and Lord; one believes in the Incarnate Word who redeemed us on the Cross, sanctifies us through the sacraments, and divinizes us with His grace. A Christian is one who professes the true faith, precisely as revealed – revealed by none other than God – and who knows that he has been given and now professes the true faith.

In his book The Intellectualism of St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Pierre Rousselot observes:

A passionate love for the absolute Mind naturally engenders a love of dogma. The truth of Faith is the basis of our religion, and dogma serves to express the object of our religion. Were religion nothing more than a human product, and dogma merely the expression of human reactions to the facts of dogma, it would be the merest folly to sacrifice human happiness or human life for the sake of a dogma. But dogma has truth, it is more true even than science, and the object of dogma is above and beyond man. Likewise, sins against dogma are the most grievous of all, and errors concerning ideas are more dangerous than those concerning men. Take away dogma and you take God away; to touch dogma is to touch God. To sin against dogma is to sin against God.

It is this adherence to divine truth that most of all characterizes the catechized and initiated Christian. Take it away, and there is no Christian left. If the definitive dogmas of faith are the “fundamentals,” the foundations, then to seek out and cling to those fundamentals can never be a harmful “-ism.” It would be, rather, a thankful and humble acceptance of a great gift from God.

The problem with Protestant fundamentalism is not that it insists on the absolute inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, for it is entirely right to do so, and there has never been a true Catholic who has denied these truths. (In company with the Modernists, some of today’s cutting-edge Catholic theologians do deny it, but that only shows how far they have departed from the common tradition of the Fathers and Doctors, councils and popes.) The problem is rather that Protestant fundamentalism does not accept more than Scripture; it does not accept God’s Word in the way God has willed to give it to the world, namely, by means of apostolic Tradition, through a visible Church that continually makes present in our midst the apostolic proclamation and practice.

The Christian religion commits us to a fundamental act of faith in the Church. The Holy Spirit was not deposited in the pages of a book, or confined to a gnostic Church of pseudo-mystics, or co-opted by a carnal Church of sociologists, social workers, and pastoral bureaucrats. The Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost to the Catholic Church, a visible and structured society willed by God to endure until the return of Christ in glory.

This Body, in its earthly form, is institutional and cannot be otherwise. It was instituted by Christ, and He Himself is its sovereign Head, who appoints for it subordinate heads – the pope, the bishops, the parochial clergy – whose task is to receive and hand down the deposit of faith, together with the traditions that developed over time. The Church is bound to a double fidelity: the faithful reception of the full Gospel and its faithful transmission to all men of all ages. As differently as Catholics may have dressed, eaten, spoken, or smelled in any century, we should all be worshiping in rites recognizably the same, professing the same Creed, and acknowledging the same code of morals (whether we follow it perfectly or not).

Those who attack Catholics as fundamentalists are therefore calling into question nothing less than the existence of the Church as a real body, a real community, summoned into being by the Lord, given a share in His incarnate reality, and bearing witness unwaveringly to His saving doctrine.

The claim of Bishop Peter Henrici (whom I critiqued in my earlier post) that theological truths cannot be definitively expressed in propositions is classic Modernism, condemned by Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis. From the Apostolic age up to the Modernist crisis, every Catholic theologian knew that the act of faith has more than a vague “divine being” for its object; it has definite revealed content as its object, and this revelation is expressed in irreformable dogmatic statements.

The dividing line in Catholicism is between those who accept the integrity and continuity of doctrine across all ages, which comes with an implicit trust in tradition and its theological exposition, and those who take doctrine as endlessly malleable, reinterpretable by each age according to its real or supposed “needs.”

For the Modernists, all doctrinal statements are subject to reinterpretation, renegotiation, or supersession; hence, even a condemnation or final decision – as we find them, for example, in Pascendi itself, in Humanae Vitae, in Veritatis Splendor, or in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis – can be ignored or contradicted if a later theologian, reading the “signs of the times” or equipped with “scientific knowledge,” considers it incorrect.

In contrast, an awe-filled reverence for the splendor, coherence, and inexhaustible truth of Catholic doctrine, as a whole and in each of its parts, animates the work of all the great theologians, from the Church Fathers down to moderns like Blessed John Henry Newman and Blessed Columba Marmion. They first received all that the Faith offered to them, without daring to sit in judgment over it, for they would never think that fallible human reason could be superior to divine revelation and holy tradition.

The same attitude is seen in humble compilers who write reliable summaries of the truths of Faith, constantly proclaimed and defended at the price of martyrs’ blood. In English one might think of the aptly named Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Fr. Ludwig Ott, or the Fundamentals of Catholicism by Fr. Kenneth Baker.

Poor Ludwig Ott, poor Kenneth Baker, whom the Henricis of the world have lumped in with those uneducated Protestants who believe in objective, unchanging truths of revelation! Poor Journet, poor Maritain, who, in their efforts to engage modernity, believed there were definite dogmatic truths revealed by God and demanding our acceptance or rejection! So confident were these Catholics of yore that they assigned “grades of theological certainty,” from de fide all the way to the worst, shy of heresy: “offensive to pious ears.” One could readily know what was taught as belonging to the Catholic Faith, and with what level of authority and certitude. One could readily avoid all that was heretical and even that which bore the faintest scent of heresy. Talk about concern for the “smell of the sheep”!

Such an understanding of the untouchable sacredness of dogma, to which Fr. Rousselot, Fr. Ott, Fr. Baker, Cardinal Journet, and countless others bore witness, is almost totally absent from Catholics today, even from members of the hierarchy. Cardinal Müller and Bishop Schneider are among the few shining exceptions. Let us beg Our Lord to raise up more witnesses like them, and to renew in all of us a radical commitment to revealed divine truth and perennial Church teaching.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.