Dialogue with Demas

MARK SHEA

The teachings of the Faith are not optional, though many Catholics erroneously believe that one can dissent from particular teachings of the Church that one happens to find unsatisfactory or unpleasant and still remain a "faithful Catholic."

The teachings of the Faith are not optional, though many Catholics erroneously believe that one can dissent from particular teachings of the Church that one happens to find unsatisfactory or unpleasant and still remain a "faithful Catholic." One such confused person is my friend "Demas." Demas has the remarkable knack of speaking aloud some of the most common mis-perceptions that modern Catholics have about their own Church. Recently, I had a conversation with him which was a veritable inventory of many of the confusions afoot in the modern American Church. So it seemed to me that a summary of our conversation might be useful to others who are confronting the same confusions and difficulties.

Demas has many objections to the teaching of the Church. He speaks, for instance, of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity and Assumption of Mary as "legends." Yet he imagines he reconciles his difficulties by insisting that this opinion is not contrary to the "essentials" of the Faith in any way. How? He reasons thus: "I am a good Catholic who believes the items listed in the Creed are the basic outline of our Catholic faith. These Marian teachings are not in the Creed, so they are optional."

Demas' assumption, of course, like that of many present-day Catholics, is that any item on his Hit Parade of Least Favorite Theological Themes not mentioned in the Creed is therefore not "basic" and may thus be dismissed as "non-essential."

What is Demas' point of confusion? Without realizing it, he does have a problem with the Creed; particularly the clause which reads We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. What Demas does not realize is that when that Church promulgates dogma (as that Mary is immaculately conceived, ever-virgin, and assumed into heaven) somebody who takes the Creed seriously does not declare the dogma to be a legend.

When I pointed this out to Demas he was taken aback (never, apparently, having considered this before). "But," he said with a certain bafflement in his tone, "there are lots of branches in this one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. And not all of them believe the same concerning Mary. So why should I?"

This is a straightforward question and deserves a straightforward answer: Namely, Demas does not belong to "lots of branches" of the Church. He belongs to the Roman Catholic Church. And Roman Catholics regard the Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity and Assumption of Mary as dogma, not legend, for that is what their Church declares (with apostolic authority) to be handed down to them by the apostles.

Beyond this simple point, however, is a further simple point. Demas will find it exceedingly hard to find any branch of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church which calls the sinlessness, perpetual virginity or assumption of Mary a "legend." He can certainly find a lot of sects that deny these things, but among the great apostolic traditions of Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, etc. he will get an argument if he informs them they regard these things as "legends." All of them hold these teachings to be handed down by the apostles. It is only the fine points about how Mary is sinless and assumed, not whether she is so, that the apostolic churches of East and West differ on.

When I pointed this out to Demas, he thought for a while and asked, "But where does an apostle ever write that Mary is immaculately conceived, ever-virgin, or assumed into heaven? Why didn't they write about this as they did the other portions of the creed? The first mention of all this Marian stuff does not turn up in writing for a couple of centuries after the apostles."

In reply, I told Demas that if he only accepts as articles of faith the things the apostles wrote, then he does not accept the Creed, for they did not write it either. It is as much a development of doctrine as the Marian dogmas are. The Nicene Creed is written in 325 AD and therefore also "doesn't turn up in writing for a couple of centuries after the apostles."

At this, realizing his blunder, he confessed making a poor choice of words, yet curiously did not really seem to grasp the implication of what I was saying. For after acknowledging that the apostles did not write the Creed, he continued asking how these "Marian legends" came to be dogma.

At the heart of this question lies a profound confusion about what the word "dogma" means. It is, however, an extremely common confusion. And it is best for a Catholic who is attempting to explain these matters not to blithely assume that since the other person is Catholic, they automatically know what the term means. So I explained to Demas that a dogma, in Catholic parlance, is not a folk belief which coalesced out of the gases of superstition, legend and speculation to gain, by ecclesiastical chicanery and back room politics, the sudden status of "fact" by a sheer accident of history. Nor is a dogma a loud screech emitted by the Church, forbidding anybody from thinking about something.

Rather a dogma is a carefully formulated statement which the Church makes when she is through thinking about something. It is what you get when you are done thinking. It is the conclusion, not the forbiddance, of thought. A dogma is a carefully articulated piece of the Catholic Tradition, part of the common heritage of the Church which has always been held by the Church because it was passed down to the Church by the apostles themselves. The principal difference between a dogma and other parts of the Tradition is that the dogma has been formally defined (usually in response to some challenge to it, though not always). Thus, to begin one's "questioning" of dogma by calling it "legend" is to begin by asking "How did the Church manage to invent this fiction and then twist it into a fact?" It is, in short, to call the Church a liar. And to do that is to disbelieve in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Creed Demas professed as "basic."

Demas seemed to grasp this, and even told me that he had thought "dogma" more or less meant "definition of superstition by authoritarian fiat." Indeed, he even seemed to indicate he would rethink his position. But paradigm shift does not come easy. And so, we were soon back in our conversational rut about the "legendary" dogmas concerning Mary. But (beginning to realize the precariousness of his position) Demas decided to weaken the term "legend" to mean something vaguely mushy, mythical and mystical la Joseph Campbell. Said he, "When I say the Marian teaching are legends, I don't think the term 'legend' is derogatory nor that it makes the story necessarily untrue." This was at least an attempt to accommodate the Church's dogma by calling it something less than an outright lie, but it was still inadequate I said. He asked why.

Because, I replied, to most speakers of English, "legend" denotes "fiction" as in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Legend of the Wandering Jew, and the Legend of the Flying Dutchman. True, it can mean a nice story, even an edifying story. But it still means a story that is not true. The Church, in contrast, is claiming to give us truth - in this case, historical truth, not fiction. Mary, says the Church, was a real live human being who was really and truly sinless, really and truly a virgin who had no sexual relations with any man and really and truly assumed into heaven body and soul. Therefore, to call a dogma of the Church "fictional" or "legendary" in Demas' vaguely Campbellesque sense is still to call the Church a liar. Demas could, of course, do this. But he could not, in the hearing of most speakers of English, do so and also claim to believe the Creed's description of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" in any meaningful sense. "Therefore," I told Demas, "it would be better if you used the language the Church uses to describe these facts about Mary, than to declare them legends. Either that, or refrain from saying that you can be a 'good Catholic' while espousing such a doctrine."

At this, Demas got rather upset with me and retorted he was glad I knew exactly what a "good Catholic" does or does not do. I replied, "In this case, I do know, not because I can read your soul or think you a greater sinner than me but because I know what common sense is. Nobody can say 'I believe in the apostolic Church' (and therefore in its apostolic authority) while simultaneously denying that authority and not be contradicting themselves. You are contradicting yourself. That is intellectually muddled (i.e. intellectually bad) Catholic faith. I do not say you are a morally bad Catholic (which is much more serious). I think you are profoundly confused. I do not say I think you sinfully prefer confusion deliberately."

Ruffled feathers somewhat smoothed, Demas returned to his doubts. "But how could these dogmas have been held by the apostles themselves? How could the apostles have believed in the Immaculate Conception when not one of them wrote that Mary was free from sin from the moment of her conception?"

Answer: The same way the apostles believed in the Trinity when not one of them wrote about that either. What we have from the apostles is not formulated dogma, but the common tradition of the Church that Mary was sinless, just as we have from them the common tradition of the Church that Jesus is Lord and He comes to baptize us in the Holy Spirit. What either of these propositions means in detail is not worked out in detail by the apostles but by the Church they founded - oftentimes centuries later. The meaning of the broad statement "Jesus is Lord" and "the Holy Spirit" is ironed out by the Nicene Creed - a Creed which is thoroughly faithful to the written and unwritten teaching of the apostles without being "written by the apostles." So with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The broad statement that Mary is "full of grace" is in our written tradition, while the consistent unwritten tradition of the Churches the apostles founded is that Mary is without sin (and, by the way, ever-virgin and assumed into heaven). What this means is hashed out over 1800 years or so and issues in the formulations of the Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity and the Assumption of Mary, just as the meaning of "Jesus is Lord" and "Receive the Holy Spirit" was hashed out over 300 years and issued in the Nicene Creed. The process is the same, only the length of time involved is different.

"But why does it have to be a dogma?" asked Demas, "If it truly is the truth, then can't it stand up for itself? Why the need for anathemas and 'apostolic authority'?"

In response, I suggested that Demas try applying his question to the Arian controversy. Simply because something is true (like the deity of Christ), does not mean that it is obvious, nor that somebody cannot come up with a falsehood that looks really plausible, nor that said falsehood cannot threaten to tear the Church apart. It is precisely because the truth often needs defending that the Church is apostolic. When she speaks with apostolic authority, those who claim to believe she is apostolic must accept what she says or forfeit the claim to believe in the Creed. That is simple common sense.

"But," replied Demas, "can we ever really be through thinking about anything? I am uncomfortable with the notion that there is a hard and fast 'truth' that is, so to speak, 'there.' I think the Church should operate more along the lines of scientific theory, always looking to refine what came before."

Once again, Demas was partly right. In one way, his attitude is very Catholic. Catholics do not, like our fundamentalist brothers and sisters, believe very much that everything about God and His revelation is plain, obvious, simple and static.

On the other hand, however, there is a balance. If we truly say we can never be through thinking about anything, then we are saying what no human being actually believes. We have, for example, finished thinking about how to master the complexities of tying our shoes, how to remember the alphabet, and whether or not it is better to be a death camp guard or Francis of Assisi. That is, we have come to some real conclusions about certain things and, upon them we base our further thought. This is, despite Demas' claims about the endless fluidity of truth, what scientific theory does too. There was a time, for instance, when there was serious debate about the sphericity of the earth. Thought has led us to the solid conclusion that the earth is round, not flat. The embrace of this dogma does not mean that Science now forbids further thought about the earth. It means that Science now considers it a waste of time to debate the question anymore and has moved on to more fruitful questions.

So with Theology. The primitive data from the apostles (both written and unwritten) pointed, for example, to the sinlessness of Mary. The Church, holding this data in its tradition, thinks for centuries about how this might be, whether it has heard the apostles clearly, how this bit of data can be reconciled with other bits of apparently contradictory data from the apostles (like the fact that all are redeemed by Christ) and eventually formulates the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (i.e. that Mary was preserved from all sin from the moment of her conception due to the redemption of Christ) to account for all this strange data it has from the apostles.

Once this formulation is settled on by the Church (and field tested against the liturgies, tradition, theological tussling and philosophical wrangling of centuries of the Church's greatest minds), the Church behaves not unlike the scientific community. It says, "We don't need to argue about this anymore just as we don't need to still wonder if the earth is flat or round. Let's move on to more fruitful questions." So it is not that either Science or Theology are "always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth." Both disciplines build on truth.

At this point, Demas began to get nervous. Too much talk of "truth" and "conclusions" made him feel hemmed in and trapped. "Just call me Zechariah," he retorted, "But I just have to go on questioning like he questioned the angel Gabriel in Luke's Gospel. Believing in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church does not mean to me that I have to believe 100% of the dogmas presented by the men that are in charge of it here on earth. (Like all that stuff about contraception.) Threaten me how you may for daring to think, but I guess that old archangel is going to have to deal me the same punishment, because I have a mind and I can't be told what to think."

Clearly the fear at the back of these words is the fear of losing one's liberty. And it is a fear not to be dismissed lightly. Demas fears greatly being told what to think. He by no means has cleared his mind of the visceral mis-perception that dogma equals authoritarian fiat. What he does not see however, is that the very right to think he is fighting for commits him, if he is serious, to certain restrictions, since thought itself is necessarily restrictive. If we come to the conviction that the earth is round, we are really not free to think it flat anymore. If we choose to turn right we may no longer turn left. If we marry this person we are necessarily rejecting all the other potential spouses the world has to offer.

So I replied to Demas: "Your words say to me that you are trying to have your cake and eat it. In a funny way, the mention of contraception is particularly apropos, for the demand to think a contradiction is intellectual contraception. The purpose of the human brain, like the purpose of sexuality, is to come into fruitful union. In the case of sex, it is fruitful union with another human being that issues in a child for whom we are responsible. In the case of the brain, it is fruitful union with truth that issues in conclusions which we must take responsibility for and act upon. What you are demanding is the right to have the pleasure of feeling some aimless movement in your gray matter without reference to what is true or what that truth may demand of you. To simultaneously claim to believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church while denying any dogma of that Church is to sterilize your brain. To fail to acknowledge this fact of life is not thinking, but the refusal to think."

Mark me, Demas. I am not saying, "Do not ask questions." Rather, I am saying, instead of asking questions like Zechariah, why not ask questions like Mary? For the way to keep from simply ending in a muddle of "always learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth" is to take your Catholic faith seriously and not simply remain in murk and confusion when you say "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." If you actually believe this phrase in the Creed, you ipso facto believe that when that church defines a dogma, it is saying, "This is an article of faith handed to us from the apostles and is trustworthy."

Believing this, you are, in logic, no longer free to dispute whether the revelation of God is true (which is why Zechariah was disciplined by the angel). But you are still quite free to ask in faith how it is true (as Mary did when the angel announced her impending pregnancy). That is, you are free as a Catholic to do the work of legitimate theology. Thus, a Catholic is not free to doubt, for example, whether the saints can hear our prayers since the communion of saints is a dogma of the Church. But it is quite on the cards to wonder how this might be possible for finite creatures like saints. For the same reason, St. Thomas could ask how the Eucharist was the Body and Blood of Christ, yet not doubt whether it was.

Demas, most of your disputes concerning points of Catholic dogma are still disputes about whether a dogma of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is true. But the fact remains, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot reject the creedal definitions of the Church's authority to define dogma and still claim to believe the Creed. So why not bring your questioning nature under the yoke of Christ? There is still a lot of "how" questioning to do even when you accept all the dogmas of the Church. But if you reject the Church's dogmas you doom yourself to waste time arguing with the Holy Spirit. A tiresome exercise. So I ask you, Demas, do you believe the Creed or not?

Demas thought for a while. "As I understand it, yes."

"What about as the Church understands it?" I asked.

A moment of silence, and then we were off and running on another objection to the Church - this time about contraception. This was going to be a long talk. But then, Rome wasn't built in a day. In fact, like our conversation, Rome still isn't finished, nor shall it be until the glorious Day of our Lord's return. But the Lord continues to build His house.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Shea, Mark. "Dialogue with Demas." The Catholic Faith 4, no. 1 (January/February 1998): 19-22.

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Mark Shea is Senior Content Editor for Catholic Exchange. You may visit his website at www.mark-shea.com or check out his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It!. Mark is the author of Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did (Basilica), By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor), and This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence (Christendom).

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