Dogma and the Age of Anxiety

It’s quite common these days to hear disparaging comments about Catholic dogma and doctrine. But the complaints about dogma are harder to accept when they come from within, from Catholics themselves.

When the Archbishop of Dublin ordained Jesuit deacons in 2015 he warned, “We will not heal those whose lives have drifted from Jesus Christ by throwing books of dogma at them.”

And the new General of the Jesuits recently said, “Doctrine is a word that I don’t like very much, it brings with it the image of the hardness of stone. Instead, the human reality is much more nuanced, it is never black or white, it is in continual development.”

Ironically, it’s precisely because human reality is not black and white that we need the rock-hard reality of dogma. Aside from the fact that the “controversial” doctrines usually have to do with the 6th Commandment (many would welcome its repeal for obvious reasons), we would do well to consider some of the “difficult” and “rigid” doctrines of Jesus.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount presents some particularly difficult teachings.  In the “Lilies of the Field” discourse, Jesus says: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  Without doubting the truth of His words, we may find ourselves struggling to put them into practice. How is it possible to dispel so many of life’s anxieties? Those very difficulties, unfortunately, sometimes lead to rejecting His teaching.

We are said to live in an “Age of Anxiety” – just like every other age, I suppose.  The media makes more money selling anxiety. Facts without anxiety are boring.  When scientists recently determined that a huge swath of molten carbon lies 200 miles beneath the surface in the American West, reporters deftly linked the story to our fears – suggesting that if a massive volcano erupted in Yellowstone National Park, it would mean the end of the world as we know it. There are many such news reports, on subjects from solar flares to low testosterone. So much to worry about, so little time.

Many anxieties, of course, are far more understandable, if not exactly “reasonable.”  Personal health – especially as we grow older – can cause worry.  But when a doctor diagnoses a malady after tests, the certainty of the diagnosis usually brings some sense of relief. The illness can finally be treated, or at least understood, going forward. The certainty of truth is a remedy for anxiety.

The firm certainties of life vary depending on context.  On the one hand, our personal history is certain because events have taken place (even if memory fails) and simply become facts of our life. We were born; we grew up and were educated; we found jobs; we loved; we’ve suffered – the factual certainties are endless.

On the other hand, when we look to the future, humanly speaking, there is only one certainty: death.  No matter how certain we think our day planner is, we may not wake up tomorrow. Consequently, the uncertainties of the future are unlimited and can be very unsettling. As any parent knows.

Yet Jesus teaches us not to be anxious about tomorrow. He wants us to look at the facts of life – the lilies of the field, etc. –trust in God’s loving providence.

We know from our childhood catechisms that the dogmas and doctrines of our faith console us with certainties that we’d never have without God’s revelation. Here’s one:  “Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will I [the Lord God] not forget thee.  Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” (Is. 49:14-16)

Another dogma needs no comment, and directs us on our way with certainty:  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn. 14:6).  If you’re worried about the state of your marriage, Jesus says, again with unequivocal dogmatic certainty:  “Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mt. 19:6)

Without such dogmas and doctrines of faith, there would be no clarity for the future except the certain prospect of death.  As Flannery O’Connor writes, dogmas are true “windows to the infinite.”  As in: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rom. 6:8)

But even as we strive, with God’s grace, to believe all that Jesus teaches through His Church, we continue an ongoing struggle against anxiety. We are to live in the moment and that’s difficult to do in a fast-paced world.  God provides grace, if we’re open to Him, and when we need it, moment by moment, day by day.  This is why it is so necessary to repeatedly encounter Christ in prayer, the Sacraments, Sunday Mass, and the certitudes of Catholic dogma – God’s revelation of His plan for us. But God does not grant His grace in advance.

Hence there is sinful hubris in presuming to tinker with the teachings of Christ or to disparage Catholic “dogmas” and “doctrines” by suggesting they are subject to constant change. Those who do so become agents of confusion and anxiety, truly undermining Christ. Members of the hierarchy of the Church are not above the firm teachings of Christ.

Church doctrines – regardless of their perceived “rigidity” – are good because through them we encounter Christ and the providence of God.  The firm certainties of the teachings of Christ not only direct us, they help relieve the anxieties that plague us daily.  After all, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (Jn. 8:32)  Not a bad dogma to reflect upon.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.