The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.19
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” I could not think of a better quote from Winston Churchill to open today’s entry, for Paragraph 26 is the end of “the prologue;” next week our Thursday Catechism analysis will take us to the opening of the Creed, “I believe in one God.”
Today’s quote is footnoted from the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566). To be honest, I had totally forgotten this post-Reformation Catechism until I started our reflections on the present day Catechism, and I have been constantly surprised at the literary strength of this sixteenth century document. The Roman Catechism was written in the heat of a polemical time, its purpose being to guide parish priests in catechetics at a time when multiple Protestant critiques of Catholicism were made frequently and aggressively. Para. 25 borrows from the best of its predecessor as today’s Catechism takes its first step into the actual doctrinal exposition of the Church.
Para. 25’s citation is a thoughtful and really quite inspiring text on the context of doctrine, which is love. The Catechism will teach much about the relationship between man and God and man with other men, but in both cases that relationship is always defined as love. This is a recasting of Jesus’ words, to love God with all your might and your neighbor as yourself. The Roman citation understand the Church’s role as presenting an agenda of belief, hope, and action in such a way as to be perfectly transparent in its sole agenda, love.
The word “doctrine” often gets a bad rap. Today’s dictionaries describe the term as a common set of beliefs held by a group. One dictionary cited as examples “Catholic Doctrines” and “The Monroe Doctrine,” a juxtapositioning that seemed to shed less light than intended. If you follow the lists of secondary meanings, you eventually get down to something like “a subject taught” which is the basic meaning of its Latin root docere. But there is no getting around it that “doctrine” has a troubling or unfavorable ring to it.
I suspect this has something to do with the “modern age” and particularly the Enlightenment. Clearly the modern era, dating from Rene Descartes as many historians do, had no reticence about writing, speaking, and teaching. In pedagogical style, however, what made Descartes and later thinkers different from those who had gone before was the basis of their information. Descartes was a mathematician as well as a philosopher, and he laid the groundwork for future thinking by his timeless maxim (or doctrine, if you will) that “I think, therefore I am.” Truth, then, originates from the thoughtful man based upon solid observation and the compilation of data, the discipline of which was exploding in 1600 and beyond. (Descartes’ lifespan overlapped with Galileo’s, for example.)
The heritage of Cartesian thought had significant influence upon the ways religion was viewed. I happened to come across an interesting quote from Charles Babbage (1791-1871), the scientist credited with creating the mechanical principle of the first computer: “the true value of the Christian religion rested, not on speculative theology, but on "those doctrines of kindness and benevolence which that religion claims and enforces, not merely in favour of man himself but of every creature susceptible of pain or of happiness." Babbage reduces Christianity to ethics; humans observe that decency in their interactions with themselves or nature lead to optimum outcomes. Ethics was and remains a legitimate science.
But the modern era has not been kind to matters of faith. Catholicism has always defined the object of faith as “things unseen,” dating back to St. Paul. Science and modern philosophy do not “hate” Christianity. Babbage speaks for countless millions even today who see organized Christianity as a highly valuable component of quality of life. But as to matters such as Creation or the infinite love of Christ for sinners, the post-Cartesian world has no point of contact precisely because there is no way to talk about data that is unseen. In fairness, there are a good number of modern age thinkers who recognize religious experience as a phenomenon beyond scientific validation. One of the classic writings on the connection between the two spheres is William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
But on the whole the term “doctrine” has become suspect because there is nothing visible or measurable to uphold it in the eyes of an outsider. What further damages the term is misuse of doctrine by those who hold religious tenets. Much of the world has been outraged by the public beheadings and other atrocities carried out by extremists in the name of doctrines. Sadly, there were many an intellectual who thought the same about excessive disciplinary defenses of Catholic belief over the last millennium, the Inquisition being but one example.
Para. 25 does its best to present to the world the true intent of doctrine, and it is intriguing to see even in the 1500’s a recognition of official Church teaching in the context of hope (a reference to trust in Church proclamation) and action (St. James’ famous condemnation of faith without good works.) Today’s Catechism, in its preamble, pledges to present the Faith in a way that love, the essence of God, will always be evident. It is on this, as much as anything, that the mission of the Catechism will be judged successful.
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Are there any of you out there who remember when the first computer stores in your local malls were called “Babbage’s?”