Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Can Dogma Develop?

From Catholic Answers:

As these and many other cases demonstrate, doctrinal questions can remain in a not-yet-fully-defined state for years. The Church has never felt the need to define formally what there has been no particular pressure to define. This strikes many, particularly non-Catholics, as strange. Why weren’t things cleared up in, say, A.D. 100, so folks could know what’s what? Why didn’t Rome issue a laundry list of definitions in the early days and let it go at that? Why wasn’t an end-run made around all these troubles that plagued Christianity precisely because things were unclear? The remote reason is that God has had his own timetable and set of reasons (to which we aren’t privy) for keeping it. The same could be said about Old Testament prophets: Why didn’t they understand the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity all at once? Or the identity of the Messiah? Or the fullness of Christian teaching? Partly because God had not revealed it all yet, and partly because their understanding of the implications of the doctrines they had needed to grow clearer over time.

This need to discern more clearly what is contained in the deposit of faith given to the Church by the apostles points us to the related subjects of infallibility and inspiration. The pope and the bishops (when teaching in union with him) have the charism of infallibility when defining matters of faith or morals; but infallibility works only negatively. Through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the pope and bishops are prevented from teaching what is untrue, but they are not forced or told by the Holy Spirit to teach what is true. To put it another way, the pope and the bishops are not inspired the way the authors of Scripture or the prophets were. To make a new definition, to clear up some dogmatic confusion, they first have to use human reason, operating on what is known to date, to be able to teach more precisely what is to be held as true. They cannot teach what they do not know, and they learn things the same way we do. They have no access to prophetic shortcuts—they must delve by study into the riches of the words God has already given us.

Borrowing From Paganism?

Fundamentalists assert that what Catholics label as development is nothing more than a centuries-old accumulation of pagan beliefs and rites. The Catholic Church has not really refined the original deposit of faith, they claim. Instead, it has added to it from the outside. In its hurry to increase membership, particularly in the early centuries, the Church let in nearly anybody. When existing inducements were not enough, it adopted pagan ways to encourage pagans to convert. Each time the Church did this, it moved away from authentic Christianity.

Consider Christmas. Strict Fundamentalists do not observe it, and not only because the name of the feast is inescapably "Christ’s Mass." Some say they disapprove of it because there is no proof Christ was born on December 25. Others argue he couldn’t have been born in winter because the shepherds, who were in the fields with their sheep, never put sheep into fields during that season (a plausible, though in this case, erroneous assumption). Others, noting the Bible is silent about the feast of Christmas, say that should settle the matter. But these are all secondary considerations.

The real reasons many Fundamentalists oppose the celebration of Christmas are, first, that the feast of Christmas was established by the Catholic Church (which is bad enough) and, next, that the Church provided celebrating the birth of Christ as an alternative to celebrating a pagan holiday occurring at the same time.

The Fundamentalist objections notwithstanding, Scripture sanctions this practice. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was on the same day as a Canaanite vintage festival that it supplanted, much as Christmas coincided with the festival of Sol Invictus that non-Christians were celebrating. This is the same principle that Protestant churches use when they replace the celebration of Halloween with "Reformation Day" or "harvest festival" celebrations. It is an attempt to provide a wholesome alternative celebration to a popular but unwholesome one. Anti-Catholics who accuse Christmas of having "pagan origins" fail to recognize that it is precisely anti-pagan in origin.