I did not post yesterday (Wednesday) as Margaret and I switched date day to Wednesday and we set out on what would become a 9-mile walk through lingering summer heat along the newly restored Lake Apopka and its recently updated hikers trail. The restoration has created a magnificent bird sanctuary; as we were the only hikers out, the hawks were not happy to see us and let us know about it verbally. I believe we saw about a dozen wild gators; I used my phone camera and set up to shoot seven at one sighting, but of course six dove underwater by the time I got the seventh. At any rate we got home in the afternoon and I had only enough strength to drive up to McDonald’s for our date day ice cream cone.
I’m still a little stiff and sore this morning, so I hoped that today’s entry from the Catechism would require a minimum of agonizing analysis. Paragraph 23, as it turns out, is a very pivotal instruction for anyone undertaking the study of Catholic belief, for it raises the issue of “doctrine.” I seem to remember that back in the 1950’s I learned something about “collective nouns,” words in the singular that contain multiple objects. Doctrine is one such word, and I might add that it is a frequently misunderstood word at that. In the current Synod of Bishops there are evidently a number of bishops laboring mightily to defend what they understand to be a frontal assault on doctrines involving the nature of marriage, so the meaning(s) of the term remain a central discussion point in catechetical ministry and the Church in general.
The Catechism is identified in para. 23 as the exposition of Church doctrine. In the 1980’s there probably was a need for some kind of official educational consolidation of the essentials of the Catholic Tradition of belief. I never saw a catechism in a classroom that expressly expounded heresy, but as I have written in earlier posts, there was a heavy emphasis upon “experience” over content that was admittedly disturbing, as it contributed in many cases to an egocentric approach to Scripture and Church Tradition that ultimately was doomed to fail. As a pastor it was always distressing to see people foam at the mouths at any suggestion that the Adam and Eve narrative is a profoundly philosophical/religious metaphor on evil in the human situation and not a narrative of wild serpents and juicy apples.
The Catechism is an attempt to bring order out of chaos, and while its genesis may have been inspired by catechetical difficulties, the text here sets out a broader agenda as an exposition or compendium of Catholic doctrine. I think that para. 23 would have been improved and made more accurate with the following riders: (1) “doctrine” as understood in this time and juncture in the unfolding of the Mystery of Salvation, and (2) “doctrine” as held by the sensus fidelium or universal belief of the Church.
Pope John Paul II, during his pontificate, held a fond wish that the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches would be united. It struck me that the Orthodox Church places great emphasis upon the first seven ecumenical councils, or Christological Councils (Nicaea 325 AD through Second Nicaea 787 AD) as embodying all of the essential doctrines necessary for salvation whereas the Roman West has continued with councils of doctrinal determination on through 1870 when Vatican I formally defined the doctrine of papal infallibility. (Vatican II made no new infallible or doctrinal statements, being pastoral and directive in its nature.) I have often wondered if Pope John Paul’s pastoral affection and hope for unity with the East played a role in his doctrinal emphases; the Catechism has a pronounced devotion to the early Church fathers as primary sources, which seems to share the Eastern belief that the doctrinal formulations of the early centuries stand as unchanging, immutable pillars of identity and represent unchanging formulations for all time.
Well, what were agreed upon in those early councils were the best formulations of the mysteries of salvation that the majority of bishops, successors to the Apostles, could agree to in common assembly. The Christological doctrines (that is, those related to the nature, identity, and effects of Jesus Christ) were the final stages of a lengthy discernment process that actually began with the Hebrew Scriptures; continued through the life and works of the historical Jesus; a divinely inspired multiple faceted series of interpretations put to paper by the evangelists; enhanced, elaborated and defended by three centuries of great Church minds; and critically important—expressive of the praying Church. Lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief. It was devout Eastern Catholics who looked to Mary in prayer as the theotokos, the “God-giver,” or in our parlance, “Mother of God.” No logical theologian would have proposed from scratch a doctrine implying that Mary was the mother of the Trinity. In fact, the influential theologian who did point out the illogic of this term as an affront to God was Nestorius, and the Council of Ephesus in the 430’s condemned him and his followers. Ephesus is a splendid example of early Church’s appreciation of metaphor and its recognition that doctrinal statements did not develop with the precision of Euclidian geometry.
The very act of creation, as I told my class on Saturday, is illogical and gratuitous. A being totally fulfilled within himself has no need to create an appendage that will bring him a lot of grief when the spreadsheet is tallied. Any definition of “doctrine” must be prefaced its limitations: it is a metaphor for mysteries we cannot logically understand, it is a process of continued and developing understanding of its sources, and it is a sublimely personal experience in that nether land of faith and doubt through which every thoughtful adult passes. To have claimed to have “captured God’s mind” in propositions can be the ultimate blasphemy. Hopefully no catechism falls prey to that.