For my Twitter friends Herb Swanson and Mark Lambert, in response to Swanson’s article – Flannery and Other Follies:
At issue is sincerity in membership in the Catholic Church, specifically whether a Catholic should leave the Church if he believes her to be in error. Swanson, a protestant, offers that if he were to use the formula of Peter Kreeft, people like Tony Flannery should stop calling themselves “Catholic,” and Swanson himself should remain a protestant. I offer here that no one should leave the Church, and no one outside her should remain outside of her a moment longer.
It is important to clarify these words of Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft whom Swanson quotes:
“if a Catholic comes to believe the Church is in error in some essential, officially defined doctrine, it is a mortal sin against conscience, a sin of hypocrisy, for him to remain in the Church and call himself a Catholic, but only a venial sin against knowledge for him to leave the Church in honest but partly culpable error.”
Clarification is necessary because there is so much confusion among average people about what differentiates dogma, doctrine and discipline. As is noted by the editors at Catholic Exchange, “All dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas.”Also, they rightly explain that whether something is a dogma or a doctrine isn’t dependent on “whether we must believe it or not.” For the Catholic, all doctrines must be believed, including dogmas, even if we do not understand or agree with them. You read that right. Again, for the Catholic, all doctrines must be believed, including dogmas, even if we do not understand or agree with them.
I can give you a personal example. When I first converted to Catholicism, I did not understand/agree with the Church’s teaching on the role of Mary. I also did not understand/agree with the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. On both of these things, I knew that I was bound to believe, even if I did not understand or agree. My job, as a faithful Catholic, is to ask the Holy Spirit to help me to understand what the Church is trying to say on these things. In time, after much study and prayer, I did come to understand. For this, I am grateful because even more than just these specific things makes sense to me now. I am truly better off, both spiritually and intellectually, now that I understand and have full belief in the things I once misunderstood and disagreed on.
If I don’t understand Algebra, it would be irresponsible of me to condemn Algebra. Instead, I should trust that the Algebra teacher knows what she is talking about and I should be patient with both her and myself. I should study and pray. If I never understand it, even after years of trying, I still would not say that Algebra is to be rejected. In like manner, if I believe that the Catholic Church is the true Church founded by Christ, I have to trust that she is right about the things I may not understand or agree with.
Dogmas will never change. Doctrines may develop (“change,” in a sense) but this development will never be a direct contradiction of what was previously taught. Disciplines are things that can actually change in terms of contradiction. An example of a doctrine that has changed but not to the point of contradiction is Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salus (Outside the Church There is No Salvation), and an example of a discipline that can change altogether is the requirement that priests be celibate. There is no salvation outside the Church, but we define “Church” not only in the visible sense, but also in the invisible sense. There are many who are Catholic who do not even realize that they are. As for celibacy, the Magisterium could lift that requirement because, again, it is a discipline, not a doctrine.
The differentiation between dogma and doctrine has more to do with our level of certainty than with whether or not we must believe it. We must believe and submit to all dogmas, doctrines and disciplines.
From the editors at Catholic Exchange [Emphasis mine]:
A doctrine is a teaching of the universal Church proposed as necessary for belief by the faithful. Dogmas, properly speaking, are such teachings that are set forth to be believed as divinely revealed (Catechism, no. 88; cf. 891-892). When differentiating from dogma, we use the term “doctrine” to signify teachings that are either definitively proposed or those that are proposed as true, but not in a definitive manner (cf. Catechism, nos. 88, 891-92).
See a list of dogmas at http://www.theworkofgod.org/dogmas.htm. Doctrines (including, but not limited to, dogmas) are expressed in the catechism. Find a searchable catechism at http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm.
I agree that Kreeft is referring to dogma, a category of doctrine, in the quote offered. We can then assume that Kreeft is not claiming that one should leave the Church if one agrees with all dogmas, but not all doctrines. What he is saying is that if you believe a dogma to be in error, it would be a “mortal sin against conscience” to “remain in the Church.” As a blanket statement, I would have to disagree with Kreeft, but he offers more than this statement alone.
It is assumed in this statement that the person has a proper understanding of what the conscience actually is. Many people do not have a proper understanding of conscience, so Kreeft offers a detailed explanation to aid the reader in determining the level of authority of the conscience. He ends with a most important point.
Of course, we do not always hear that voice aright. Our consciences can err. That is why the first obligation we have, in conscience, is to form our conscience by seeking the truth, especially the truth about whether this God has revealed to us clear moral maps (Scripture and Church). If so, whenever our conscience seems to tell us to disobey those maps, it is not working properly, and we can know that by conscience itself if only we remember that conscience is more than just immediate feeling. If our immediate feelings were the voice of God, we would have to be polytheists or else God would have to be schizophrenic.
That our consciences can err should give us pause. It certainly gave me pause. Knowing my own inability to determine on my own what objective truth is led me to convert to Catholicism.
Here is a dogma to consider.
Without special Divine Revelation no one can know with the certainty of faith, if he be in the state of grace.
We cannot be gods unto ourselves because, as Kreeft notes, this makes polytheists of us. To say that you must follow your conscience rather than the Church, because you disagree with the Church on dogma, is something I’d never want to claim for myself. I know that my conscience errs. Having Bipolar Disorder, I probably err in conscience more than the average person. But Christ is not an absent King. He is King in the truest sense, in the Church, and I can obey Him in large matters as well as small by trusting that He has entrusted the Church with providing me with certainty.
Without certainty, there is no dogma. Dogmas are things we are certain of. If you disagree on a dogma, you are, in essence, disagreeing with the the idea of dogma itself, because you are a human being who can have no certainty at all, on your own. No human being alone can have certainty apart from the Church which teaches objective truth, therefore no human being can have dogma without the Church. No human being can, therefore, honestly say, “I am certain that the Church is wrong in her dogma.” The protestant can have no certainty of anything, including his own salvation.
Here is another dogma to consider.
God gives all the just sufficient grace for the observation of the divine commandments.
Not only must the dogmas of the Church be believed, they can be believed because God gives us the grace to believe. This is, of course, provided that we are open to it.
Is a Catholic better off spiritually if he leaves the Church because he disagrees, as a matter of conscience, with the Church on dogma? Kreeft says yes, but seems to offer a lot of room for circumstances in which that would not be the case. [Emphasis mine.]
To sum up the argument most simply and essentially, conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.
One should always do what he believes God wants him to do, but in all honesty, how close is your conscience to God’s will? You had better have a good deal of certainty to reject the certainty of the Catholic Church. It is obvious to me that your certainty that the Church is wrong is itself wrong because you are only a human being, whereas even the angels learn from the Church.
…so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
I hope this is helpful. I’m sure I could say more, and I’m sure I could have said all of this better, but this is the best I have to offer at the moment.