Catholic teaching is like an orchestra. There are a lot of interactive parts including doctrines, dogmas, practices (disciplines) that reinforce Church teaching (such as meatless Fridays in witness to the Sacrifice of Good Friday), liturgy, Scriptures, tradition, and so on. Theological speculation attempts to harmonize all these elements of the Faith.
Even the illiterate among us sense when an orchestra is out of tune. Call this, the “sense of the faithful.” It’s useful, therefore, now and then, to recall the overall portrait of the Catholic “thing” – and to identify a couple of false notes that ordinary people can identify with certainty, and also things that it’s proper to consider uncertain.
For instance, when a grieving child asks a parish priest whether a beloved dead dog went to heaven, a pastoral/theological decision becomes unavoidable. Aquinas argues that animals have souls, but not eternal souls. So when a dog dies, beloved or not, the dog returns to the prime matter whence he emerged.
Covenant theologians, however, generally prefer the metaphors of Scripture. They would likely point to the Book of Revelation. Pets – along with all of God’s good Creation – will be purified of all evil and be assumed into heavenly glory and “made new” on the last day. (cf. Rev. 21:1-5)
Either answer is possible and neither is de fide.
But theologians also attempt to resolve apparent conflicts in Church doctrine. Baptism (liturgical, by blood, or by desire) is necessary for salvation. When a newborn baby dies without baptism, questions of salvation arise. Saint Augustine proposed the doctrine of limbo – a place of bliss, but without the beatific vision. Some theologians consider that opinion ill-advised and invoke God’s infinite mercy. Concerning unresolved theological arguments, we must be content with doctrinal mysteries – even as we continue to hope for resolution of the disputes.
Some theologians have suggested the possibility of an “empty hell.” Jesus redeemed us on the Cross, to be sure. But our salvation comes with cooperating with His graces – and is therefore not a sure thing. So we need not pretend to be erudite theologians to question the “empty hell” theology. Jesus repeatedly seems to say that angels have fallen there, along with human beings.
Why would beings composed of body and soul such as ourselves fare any better than angels? Universal salvation seems too good to be true. Nevertheless, charity requires that we assume goodwill towards theologians working on the frontiers of Catholic teaching.
After all, we cannot reduce the beauty of the Catholic faith only to conceptual statements. Even the most binding doctrines can be restated, without violation of their truth value, in light of evolving understanding brought about by science and other branches of human knowledge.
Advances in our scientific understanding of the created universe, for example, wonderfully enhance the poetic creation account in Genesis. Science is the study of the handiwork of God expanding our horizons to endless mysteries. Yet we continue to look at the world with the same simple wonder as the ancients.
At the end of the day, even the theological power hitters strike out from time to time. The indisputably great Thomas Aquinas failed to grasp the significance of the Immaculate Conception (not an official Church dogma until 1854). So as long as the power hitters allow theological lightweights like us to stick to the teachings of the basics of the Faith, we need not be disturbed.
But theology is too important to be left to the theologians. So there are limits to intellectual charity. Sometimes the faithful must firmly reject theological nonsense regardless of the claims of the intellectuals. Various doctrines that emerge from theological speculation are dangerous and wrong.
Martin Luther compared man to a dung heap. Original sin destroyed our human nature, in this view. God’s grace does not restore our dignity but covers up the mess like a snowfall on a dung heap. In contrast, Catholics believe Original Sin seriously wounded – but did not destroy – our nature. God restores us in the Baptismal font and continues to heal us in our encounter with Him in the Sacraments. You don’t need to be a towering intellectual to reject errant Protestant teachings and hold that God does not create junk.
We can also find nonsense at high levels in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In a recent interview, Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., the superior general of the Society of Jesus, said, “Good and evil are in a permanent war in the human conscience and we have ways to point them out. . . .Symbols are part of reality, and the devil exists as a symbolic reality, not as a personal reality.”
Did a symbol tempt Eve in the Garden and did the same symbol tempt Jesus in the desert? Saint Paul writes, “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) Did Saint Paul lie, or was he merely lacking a modern Jesuit education? We may not believe in the Devil, but the Devil keeps close tabs on us.
When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a son, Mary was perplexed. Her question to Gabriel was not disrespectful, dismissive, or skeptical. With fidelity, she asked, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34) Mary responded to Gabriel’s explanation with her magnificent fiat: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
God speaks to us through the glorious orchestra of the Catholic Faith, and the essentials of Catholic doctrine are accessible to all. We respond with devotion and, with God’s grace, holy theological reflection. When in doubt, the simple but firm faith of Our Lady is the answer.
*Image: Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by Raphael, 1509-10 [Apostolic Palace, Vatican]