Doctrine seems to be the church’s bad boy these days.
We hear progressives play the victim and say, “But doctrine is so divisive! We need a pastoral approach! We need to reach out to the marginalized who have been alienated by strict doctrine and discipline!”
To go off on a tangent for a moment, this is one of those pouting moments from the progressives which just doesn’t ring true to experience in the American Catholic Church.
When was the last time you ever met a priest who was a doctrinal hard liner? When was the last time you met any Catholic at all (apart from some looney Traditionalist extremists) who was bashing people over the head with doctrine? In fact if there is a problem it is just the opposite–that so many Catholics–priests and people both–who are totally wishy washy fluffernutter Catholics.
Sorry. Did you never hear of the fluffernutter? That was a sandwich made with peanut butter and marshmallow Fluff. Marshmallow Fluff for those who don’t remember–was a confection in a jar which can best be described as spreadable marshmallows. A Fluffernutter Catholic is one who combines sweet fluffy sentimentality with a certain nutty-ness in their opinions….
Doctrine cuts through that cloying–stick to the roof of your mouth kind of Catholicism.
Is the problem too much doctrine? In fact it is the opposite. In my experience there is very little doctrine either known or taught or preached in the American Catholic Church.
They don’t know or live by doctrine at all! Strict and harsh Catholics who are sticklers for doctrine? I haven’t met many
So to get back to the positive point. What is the point of doctrine?
Doctrine provides the rules for the game, the score of the music, the law of the land.
Doctrine provides the framework, the guidelines and the distinctions necessary for the spiritual life. Doctrine of itself can be dull and dead. It can lead to dull legalism, but understood correctly, doctrine is necessary and without it we are adrift or taken hostage by the dictatorship of relativism.
Doctrine needs to be stated clearly and dogmatically. That’s the whole point. It is like the rule book for the game. It needs to be stated clearly and unambiguously for it to be worth anything at all.
Of course every pastor knows that one can’t apply doctrine strictly at all times and in all places. Life is too complicated and too sweet to do that. However, without clear doctrine there is no way to do pastoral work at all.
The spiritual life without doctrine is like playing tennis without the net.
Think of it like this: doctrine is the score for the music. Take Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto. The notes, the rhythm, the score is all written down. It’s there in black and white.
If you want to play that concerto you better read the notes. If you want to conduct that concerto you’d better know the score. If you want to perform that concerto you cannot do so without the printed notes on the page.
But when the pianist walks out on stage, bows and sits down to play the concerto the music soars and sings. The doctrine is forgotten in the experience and thrill of the music.
But the thrill of the music could never have happened without the doctrine.
So the use of doctrine? It is the ladder you climb on, but it is the climb which is important. It is the trellis the vine grows on but it is the vine and the wine which matters more. It is the map for your pilgrimage, but it is the pilgrimage and the destination that matters more.
But could you , pray on the pilgrimage, climb the ladder or drink the wine without the structure and form and doctrine?
So let’s not denigrate doctrine, sneer at the theologians or put down those who insist on clarification when well meaning people muddy the water with their pastoral initiatives.
Doctrine corrects vague sentimentality, Fozzy Bear theology and fluffernutter Catholicism.
Doctrine is hard and clear and necessary and beautiful…
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