…is like playing tennis without a net.

It results in a certain formlessness, the reduction of an intellectually vigorous and astringent faith to something sentimental and shallow–nothing but a religion of ‘spirituality’ and good works.

Pope Francis criticized this type of religion in his recent speech concluding the Synod on the Family. He spoke of various temptations that distort the fullness of the faith, mentioning a religion of niceness “that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.” The Pope went on to criticize “the temptation to neglect the deposit of faith, not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing!”

The articulation of this “faith” without dogma becomes a sad, ridiculous struggle with words which cannot have any meaning other than the ‘re-interpretation’ of that meaning according to each person’s preferences, and about which no one can argue because all have agreed that there is no such thing as objective theology.

Consequently, the practice of the faith becomes vague and incoherent collection of good causes, passionate personal intentions of making oneself somehow better or following one’s idea of Christianity within a wilderness of personal opinion, sentimental conclusions. To do this is to create quicksand where once there was a solid rock.

It’s not even a case of the blind leading the blind. More like the bland leading the bland.

Sometimes those who have no use for dogma, doctrine and discipline move even further into a kind of intellectual wasteland, and they mistake the lack of content in their religion for a sort of free flowing formlessness. They even pride themselves on this emptiness. “Ah yes!” they cry, “we brave pioneers are willing to wrestle with meanings and meaninglessness. We often walk in darkness without seeing the great light, and is it not a courageous act of faith to walk boldly into that void where we may be sure of nothing except that we are sure of nothing?”

I once heard a sermon in Cambridge by a theologian who mistook his own  atheism for the via negativa–the spiritual way of negation. He piously said, “We who have no dogma and no certainty and no absolute authority to blindly obey, we are the courageous men of faith who “go bravely into that darkness which is the darkness of God.”

He reminded me of the character named Rycker in  Graham Greene’s novel The Burnt Out Case who mistakes the darkness of his mortal sin for the Dark Night of the Soul.

Dogma, doctrine and discipline are not an end in themselves and Pope Francis also warns of those who turn the Catholic religion into no more than a set of rules to obey and a list of doctrines to believe. He calls out the …temptation to hostile inflexibility…wanting to close oneself within the letter of the law and not …the spirit of the law…From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called ‘traditionalists’ and…intellectuals.”

The dogma, doctrine and disciplines are the foundation of the life of mercy. They are the tools of the merciful minister’s trade, the structure of the sacraments and the marking lines for the soul’s surgery. The dogma, doctrine and discipline of the church are the frames of the window through which I glimpse the heavens from my prison cell.

They are the map for the journey, the rulebook for the game and the ladder on which I climb.