In forum discussions, one of the charges most often leveled at non-Roman Catholics, is “you don’t have a teaching authority you can rely on, that never changes the truth. We have a Magisterium, and all you have are 30,000 some different opinions of men.”
This seems a serious charge, but is not when you break it down. First, a Magisterium is composed of “men” same as other non-Catholic leadership, albeit some of the other Catholic and Protestant denominations have women (gasp) too. The Roman church would argue of course that theirs is special, unlike anyone elses, since it is guided and prevented from error in matters of faith and morals. Thus the all too fallible “men” are prevented from being wrong, at least as described.
This is seen by some to preclude the Holy Spirit from doing the same for other fine Christian men and women, but there seems no scriptural reason why that should be so. In fact, we understand that the Holy Spirit inhabits each and every baptized person, and (gasp though you may) just perhaps it dwells within all beings regardless of faith or lack of same.
We’ll return to the problems that this belief in freedom from error gets one into for a moment to address the second claim: namely that the rest of us are all left with a hodgepodge of beliefs, allowing us no structure of truth at all.
Of course, this is not in the least true. Each of us doesn’t look to 30,000 different denominations, but one. And that one, which ever it may be, has stated beliefs about the nature of God, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are no different than the average Roman Catholic, who chooses to accept their Church’s rendition of truth because they find it makes sense to them. Having read the Bible, and perhaps other religious material, they have concluded that the Roman church comes down they way they do on matters of scripture. We have done no differently.
Here, there is a simple misunderstanding. My church, as do most all churches, have a set of beliefs. They each define how scripture is understood in brief or in great detail. They may have a book of hundreds of pages defining what an adherent must believe about thousands of things, or they may have a book of a few dozen pages, delineating those basic beliefs that are required to define oneself as “Christian.”
The determination by many denominations to avoid strict leadership hierarchies and volumes of dogmatic requirements, is done purposefully, not by lack of agreement. They, as I, have seen the danger of where that can lead.
Assuming one cannot error in such matters, and assuming one speaks on virtually every human concern, will lead to a very difficult problem, especially when coupled with an absolute adherence to tradition. It leads to stultifying moldiness in thought and practice. My opinion of course.
If I am bound to adhere to St. Jerome’s explanation of Adam and Eve, then I am going to have great difficulty in adapting that teaching to say, evolutionary biology and all that it now teaches us about human development. If I am bound to accept forever the statements of St. Augustine on the the proper point of marriage, then I cannot take into account more modern understandings of human sexual development, advances in psychology and sociology, developments in hygiene, disease prevention, and a whole host of other issues that do and should impact on marriage and sexual behavior.
The point is, a dogma that attempts to protect the claims of men who spoke 2000 years ago, ends up being trapped by its own declarations. They could not and cannot foresee what wonders will arrive on the scene, and when they do, they are unable to adapt. All they can say at that point is no.
Moreover, it gets only worse when we talk of scripture. When we define scriptural passages and then say they are dogma, infallible teaching, protected by the Holy Spirit, then we are unable to take advantage of advances in exegetical theory. Hermeneutics is a growing field, it takes for its lead the work done in literary analysis, and historical interpretation.
Scripture, properly understood, is a writing like any other. The Bible seeks to speak truly of events and persons. They, being real, are subject to analysis by many fields, be their anthropology, archaeology, historical, and literary. Those techniques have vastly improved over time. And our understanding of scripture must adapt and grow as well. We cannot hold St. Ambrose to standards he was not aware of. We cannot expect to be listened to when we insist that what St. Ambrose said is written in stone, when modern evidence tells us he was wrong.
That in a nutshell is what I find wrong with highly dogmatic religious institutions, and I don’t level that charge at only the Roman Catholic Church. It is most obvious that there are several others who become mired in just the same sort of unchanging forever dogmatic statements. What ends up is that one inevitably looks foolish if not down right immoral, a charge recently leveled at Pope Benedict’s claim that condoms make AIDS worse.
He of course means that condoms in his mind encourage sex outside marriage, and that at it’s barest logic does increase HIV infection. But the truth is clear, man has enjoyed sex since the he was Man, and no law, moral or otherwise is going to change that. Condoms reflect the truth, like it or not, that people will not put sex in a box to be taken out only when it’s time to create babies. As such, the Church’s refusal to budge on this issue is seen by many as simply immoral.
So, it is not that we have no dogmatic teaching, or that we have no tradition. We have both, out in the none magisterial world. But we recognize that they are in reality human made claims, and that as we learn more about our God and our faith, they will inevitably change to better explain and define who we are as Christians. That is that third prong that some of us adhere to as perhaps the most important of all, our reason, and God we believe is at the base of that power within us. As we grow in reason, we grow in faith and in understanding. We grow in God.