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  • Sean O'Leary

Dedicated to Dogma or to Meaning?

During a social media conversation, I recently replied to a commentator’s claim that faith is dogmatic by definition, which seemed to suggest that faith is somehow invalid in the modern world. I responded: ‘Faith and reason go hand in hand. Dogma is simply a set of coordinates upon the landscape of discovery. Faith is rational’.


Sometime later, I began to wonder if my response was valid. I don’t often think about the role dogma plays in my journey of faith as a practicing Catholic. Yet, I’m aware that dogma exists and plays an important role in uniting the Catholic faithful from around the world. In this sense, dogma is an anchor of our spiritual lives.


I think of faith as simply saying ‘Yes’ to God. I include works of love in my working definition of faith. As with all matters of love, hope also plays a role. When we genuinely love somebody else, we always unselfishly hope for the best for them. For me, it is upon the three pillars of ‘faith, hope and love’ that everything else rests, such as the virtues, ethical living and moral choices.


For me, the evidence for the impact of faith, hope and love in our lives is simply overwhelming and constantly reorients my thoughts towards God. In my opinion, powerful currents within modern society seek to downplay or even topple these strong foundations. Doubt, anxiety and despair are growing. I see evidence for this in the persistence of real difficulties in the Western world, such as the burgeoning crises in mental health particularly amongst young people.


While technology takes the brunt of the blame for negatively impacting on young people’s lives, I wonder if the loss of real meaning in the lives of people is more important than we think. For instance, the PISA 2018 global survey by the OECD of 15 year olds across 79 countries showed that young people in Ireland placed below average in the ‘meaning in life’ index. Young people in Ireland are less likely than most to agree with the idea that ‘my life has clear meaning or purpose’. Curiously, the focus of Ireland’s media attention was on our well-regarded scores in literacy, maths and science.


Without faith in God, we can’t know what God has revealed to us nor know moral guidance in a truly deep way nor know the joy of hoping in God’s eternal promises. Through faith, we rationally assent to trusting and believing in God and come to know that we receive God’s own eternal life. The well-known phrase ‘faith seeking understanding’, introduced by Anselm of Canterbury nearly 1000 years ago still holds true. Within Catholicism, our individual faith is a voyage of discovery grounded by our communal faith in God. This is a deeply meaningful journey.


Buried in the soil that nourishes our faith, divinely revealed teachings that have been evaluated and accepted by the Church are known as dogmas. These dogmas, which are to be simply believed rather than questioned, reduce uncertainty and confusion. Dogma acts to secure the Catholic faith through the ages. There are possibly hundreds of separately articulated dogmas, including the Unity and Trinity of God, the Sacraments, the Communion of Saints and the Eucharist.


While I acknowledge that dogma has become something to be questioned, frowned upon or even derided in the modern world, I find the existence of dogma and tradition reassuring within my mind but also my heart. These dogmas are steppingstones into something so much deeper that it is difficult to articulate clearly in words.


At a basic level, I like to know what I’m worshipping so that I can explore more fully the meaning of life, safely experience the transcendent and answer God’s call. This also helps me to avoid worshipping transient gods, such as money, materialism or pleasure.


Of course, we can’t fully understand God but that doesn’t mean that we must content ourselves with a woolly vagueness. Within an ambiguous spirituality, it is difficult to discover any real meaning or to contemplate other truth claims in the world from a spiritual perspective. Without dogma, I would not be able to seek the deeper metaphysical meaning of scientific discoveries. It would also be impossible to make deep connections between diverse areas of knowledge.


Dogmas are an essential guide for living a Christian life within the community of the Church founded by Christ. As the Catechism explains: ‘Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith’.


Dogmas are not destinations in themselves but are signposts to a much more profound reality. Our lives are complex and so our search for meaning necessarily involves basic truths as a starting point for exploration. These basic truths are dogmas. Without them, we would be rudderless and apt to veer off in any direction even into uncharted, tumultuous and ultimately meaningless waters.


In fact, science can only be in harmony with faith precisely because of dogma. Without dogma, what principles would exist for science to be in harmony with? How would we know? The atheist denial of dogma is not even scientifically valid. It is an opinion, not a scientific conclusion. Dogma does not interfere in any way with the application of the scientific method. The work of numerous Catholic scientists throughout history attests to this fact.


If our faith is vague, shallow or simply sentimental, then everything in the world could be claimed to be in harmony with it. In my humble opinion, this would not be a positive development for humanity. Without dogmas, we lose vital safeguards for our faith and risk losing our grasp of the reality revealed by Jesus Christ.


And so, I am not dedicated to dogma as an end in itself but rather to the larger realities proposed by the Catholic faith that are illuminated by the lights of dogma. It is by the unifying light of faith that I grow in true knowledge and learn to grapple with the great depths of reality, a joyful and magnificent reality that fills my life with meaning and purpose.