The Joy of Dogma

The Joy of Dogma
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In his Roman Journal, Stendhal reported that the Holy Year of 1825 assembled only 400 beggars, and he urged his readers to "hasten to see the ceremonies of a religion that is going to undergo change and die out." The author's count was off a bit: half a million pilgrims visited the eternal city that year, but since Stendhal himself was not there, the error is understandable.

However, his sentiment is not unusual: the imminent demise of the Catholic Church has been a recurring theme in the popular press for a very long time.

Thus it was somewhat surprising to find thousands of media representatives descending on Rome last February in the wake of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Strange that an institution that many have written off as irrelevant, if not in fact malignant, should find itself at the center of 24/7 news coverage for weeks. Of course, the resignation itself was attention-getting: here was a Pontiff who, even by papal standards, was seen by many to be extremely traditional, doing something quite revolutionary.

But this was only the first of two surprises. The second was a swift conclave and the election of a dark horse, not one of the handful of names tossed about during the run-up to the election by cognoscenti both within and beyond the Church.

And now we have "the Francis phenomenon." To the consternation of some (on both the right and left) and to the delight of others, the Catholic Church and her Pope seem to be in the news every day. The coverage is all over the lot, from thoughtful analyses to outrageous assertions, and it would be easy to critique some of the reporting, as the blogosphere does on a regular basis. Who else could be named best-dressed man of 2013 by Esquire magazine for not wearing Prada shoes? More seriously, media sources have reveled in the Pope's statement that some Catholics seem obsessed by issues like abortion and homosexuality -- while not adverting to the fact that these issues are far more of an obsession to the press than to Catholics.

However, it would be unfair to criticize the secular media for being secular. What concerns me is that a great many people, including Catholics, only know about the Catholic religion by what they learn from the press. I suspect that if you asked ten Catholics (or their non-Catholic spouses or friends) to write down five fundamental Catholic beliefs, the results would be meager. There are many reasons for this, but I am not interested in finger-pointing; rather, I think that the present moment provides an opportunity for us to explore what those fundamental beliefs are.

But how? The Sunday morning homily cannot address the teachings of the Church in depth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a tremendous resource, but a daunting one. What I felt we needed was a roadmap through the first part of the Catechism, which deals with the faith of the Church. To the end, I have written Into All Truth: What Catholics Believe, and Why. I was tempted to call the book The Joy of Dogma because the faith of the Church is truly good news, the truth that sets us free. This book is intended for the general reader, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and briefly summarizes what we believe, how our understanding of the faith has matured over the centuries, and what it means for our daily lives.

The foundation of the Christian faith is the dogma of the Trinity. This truth is fundamental, but also bewildering -- how to approach it? I decided to enter "into the mystery of the Trinity" in part one by replicating the process by which this truth gradually emerged. Unlike the Koran (or the Book of Mormon), the Christian faith was not revealed by a single sacred text imparted at a moment in time; even the table of contents of the Bible grew over many centuries. How did we come to profess (as millions of Christians do every Sunday when they recite the Creed) that there are three Persons in one God, and what difference should that make for us?

I start my story where most stories end: at a tomb. As the great apologist Ronald Knox once wrote: "The message that electrified the first century was not, 'Love your enemies,' but, 'He is risen.'" The disciples, shocked and despondent after the horrendous and humiliating crucifixion of their Master, found his tomb empty and met the risen Christ. More than resuscitated, he was radically transformed in a glorified human nature, the new Adam of a new human race.

These startling encounters changed the fearful disciples into bold evangelists, confidently asserting Christ's Resurrection in the very city where he had been executed. This event led them to re-examine the meaning of his death: far from being the tragic interruption of a fruitful ministry, it had been the goal of Jesus' life and the means of our salvation. This in turn prompted them to revisit a question -- indeed, the question -- Jesus had put to them earlier: "Who do you say that I am?" The answer was that Jesus was truly our brother, a human being like us, but also Emmanuel, God-with-us, in a way whose literalness defies our limited imagination. From the understanding that the Son is truly God, and the Holy Spirit whom he sent from the Father is also God, the dogma of the Trinity gradually took shape.

The understanding of that fundamental reality matured over several centuries, but the raw material, the data, was all to be found in the experience of those first disciples, preserved in the Church's communal memory and recorded in the pages of the New Testament. The Catholic Church has handed on this apostolic faith for two thousand years, pondering it like Mary in the Gospels, guided by the Holy Spirit to an ever-deeper understanding of the truth that sets us free.

But the Church is not some bureaucracy, issuing ever more complex editions of the Gospel, like some kind of ecclesiastical tax code. We live in the mystery of the Trinity, and everything in our Catholic life is shaped by the dogmas of the Trinity and Incarnation. Part two of Into All Truth looks at the other beliefs that shape our lives through those two lenses: the nature of the Church, the authority of the Pope and bishops, the Scriptures, the life of grace, the sacraments, the place of Mary in Catholic belief, our future destiny -- all these must be seen in relation to the Trinity and the Incarnation if our understanding of Catholicism is to be a matter of faith and not simply sociology.

I hope that Into All Truth will provide a glimpse at the basic beliefs of Catholics as they appear from the inside, for my fellow Catholics and for non-Catholics alike.

Milton Walsh is the author of Into All Truth: What Catholics Believe and Why.

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