90 The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ.51 "In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith."
I have paired these two entries in the Catechism because it is hard to do justice to para. 89 as a free-standing statement. The first sentence of para. 89 states what most everyone would agree upon, that our Christian identity and intensity depends upon our belief in the statements of Christian reality derived from Sacred Scripture and formally defined in the “Christological Councils” of the fourth and fifth centuries, which in turn give us the language of our Creed recited at Mass. The difficulty arises from the fact that the further one gets historically from the earlier Councils there is greater debate over precisely what are the actual doctrines and how the Church arrived at them. Vatican II acknowledged this problem in the Decree on Ecumenism (section 11) stating that “in Catholic doctrine there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith.” This Vatican II understanding is a staple of Catholic catechetics, as seen in this example.
Para. 89 states that dogmas are “lights along the paths of faith,” but the Catholic definition of dogmas includes several statements of belief which remain stumbling blocks to the consciences of those who share the Apostolic Tradition of Faith as articulated in the Nicene Creed. For the most part this collection of contested doctrines involves Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Each Marian doctrine has a long and intriguing history. The doctrine of Mary as “Mother of God” was the subject of the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.); the opponents of the doctrine objected that such a statement was blasphemous. Strictly speaking, the doctrine is logically impossible; its true meaning rests with the nature of Jesus as God and man, i.e., Mary’s infant is consubstantial with the eternal God.
The other Marian doctrines likewise spring from Christology or the nature of Christ—from the doctrine of the Virgin Birth from the second century to the Assumption declared by Pius XII in 1950. The idea of the Virgin Birth sprung from the Gospel data, notably Matthew and Luke, and Church fathers and bishops began to incorporate the idea into their writings as early as the second century until the idea had solidified into a dogmatic belief affirmed in several councils as late as 680 A.D. On the other hand, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is a separate issue; the Scriptural basis is conflicted. Jaroslav Pelikan, whose five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1975) remains indispensable in anyone’s Catholic history library, observes that Christian views on anthropology, particularly a pessimistic view of “fallen” human flesh, may have colored the writings of Sts. Ambrose and Augustine on human sexuality. (pp. 286-290) The belief in Mary as completely virginal throughout her life complimented the beginnings of the monastic movement of the early fifth century, where members vowed sexual abstinence in a quest for holiness.
For many of our Protestant confreres in the Christian faith, acceptance of every Marian dogma or doctrine is difficult. The classical Protestant tradition looks to the bible as the two-edged sword of Christian belief, and its sincere examination of the Scripture has been hard put to find biblical bases for the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, for example. After Vatican II Catholic theologians actually discussed whether Catholicism could accept converts from Protestantism without requiring full adherence to certain of the Marian doctrines. In more recent times, though, our attention has turned to the nature of doctrine itself as metaphor for deeper understanding of the Christ event.
When we profess faith, it is not the literal doctrine we have in mind, but the intention of a perfect God we wish to incorporate into our consciousness. As Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote some years ago, it is not the verbal proposition which is eternally sacred, but the divine reality we humans fumble around to put to paper for our guidance and salvation. No doctrine of the Church exists today unless it can be traced to the centrality of Christ as savior of the world. Over two millennia the Church has put forth a number of doctrines, and as I illustrated earlier, their origins take some time to come to cohesive expression. Vatican II would have done better to adopt the phrase “development of doctrine” rather than “hierarchy of doctrines,” (as Cardinal Newman did in the nineteenth century) for the latter seems to imply that some doctrines are “truer” than others. It is better to say that some doctrines have emerged from previous Church understandings.
The Catechism makes a strong case here for human engagement with statements of belief, or more specifically, the mysteries behind the metaphors. Doctrines are, after all, metaphors for a perfect truth we cannot fully penetrate in this life. The wording of para. 88 might be clearer; there is a chicken or egg phrasing, in the sense that it is not clear to the reader whether doctrines move us to holiness, or a holy life makes us capable of opening up to the mysteries of God. There is a hint of the old predestination controversy here, but one is safe to say that the invitation to faith and belief comes from God through his Son, Jesus, who in turn enriches the believer to a point where intimacy with God’s message is very possible. What the Catechism intimates here is that engagement with doctrinal metaphor is more mystical than logical.
I will be away for the next few Thursdays, and I should be posting again on the Catechism around June 14. I may have opportunity to post on happenings in the Church that do not require my library, so check in here or on Facebook from time to time on Thursdays.