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Rod Dreher and the Shape of Religion

December 20, 2009

“Downplay doctrine,” writes Rod Dreher in a recent Crunchy Con post, and “over time you lose the shape of the religion, especially in a culture like our own, which offers a powerful, relentless counter-narrative to the Gospel.”

This is what philosophers call a tautology. Dreher defines the shape of religion as doctrine, and then says that if we downplay doctrine, we will lose the shape of religion. To be sure, Christian leaders have, since Nicaea, insisted on the importance of getting doctrine right. But to characterize doctrine as the “shape of religion” is to assume: (1) that the essence of religion is doctrine, and not liturgy, storytelling, or the like; and (2) that the truths of Christianity are essentially unchanging.

The first assumption, by Dreher’s own admission, pits Catholic books and magazines against the “rank heresy being preached from the pulpit” that he heard each Sunday as a Catholic. There is no denying that a Catholic Answers or Scott Hahn espouses a more orthodox version of Catholicism than does the average parish priest. Orthodoxy is, moreover, quite obviously an essential feature of Catholicism. Apart from the teaching authority of the Vatican on faith and morals, Catholicism does not become liberated from dead tradition; it becomes Protestantism.

What Dreher fails to realize, however, is that Catholicism is not — essentially — the Catholic hierarchy and its teachings. The Church is comprised of countless believers (the “Faithful”), who bring with them each Sunday what Dreher might call “cultural baggage,” but without whom the Church could not possibly do its work in the world. Traditionally, doctrine was a top-down affair: everybody knew that if you believed Christ was God but not fully man — well, so much the worse for you. But the world has changed. For better or worse, American Catholics are simply not going to oppose contraception or homosexuality just because the Pope commands them to do so. These Catholics, it should be stressed, comprise the body of Christ. They read the scriptures, feed and clothe the poor, receive the sacraments, and participate in any number of other essentially Catholic activities.

In Dreher’s view, heterodoxy bends the Church out of shape, and the only proper response is reformation (as in “re-formation”). Perhaps Dreher has other ideas, but it seems to me that meaningful reform along these lines would require the Vatican to excommunicate heterodox clergy and theologians, and deny communion to believers who hold dissenting views on gay marriage, abortion, or other issues.

Here is an excerpt from the USCCB guidelines on receiving communion (““Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper”: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist):

If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.

That would exclude just about everyone, by my reckoning. It should come as no suprise, then, that American Catholics have tended to either ignore or rationalize the pronouncement away. I repeat: if conservative Catholics desire doctrinal unity, disciplinary action — and not just for a few prominent politicians — will be necessary.

I don’t mean to suggest that Dreher’s ideal for the Church is, in any way, a good idea. In reality, enforcing orthodoxy – even were that desirable — would deeply wound the body of Christ. It would mean delegitimizing the religious experience of thousands of American Catholics – telling them, in effect, “your participation in the liturgy, drawing of nourishment from the Old and New Testaments, and feeding of the poor are all commendable – but none of this makes you essentially Catholic. In fact, you are not essentially Catholic.” A narrow focus on orthodoxy elevates doctrine above all else, and seeks to adjust the Church’s membership accordingly. Is that really what we want?

Pluralism is not the same thing as indifferentism. Obviously, the Church has a responsibility to discern and teach the truth. Yet, it is not only possible, but desirable that the Church tolerate dissenting views among Catholics, lay or otherwise. (The danger is always, of course, that religion is made to bend at the knee to culture, as has been the case with the Anglican church since Henry VIII.) It would not contradictory for the Church to say to the lay American Catholic “you are flat wrong about gay marriage, but may nevertheless come to the communion table.” Like any abstract principle, authority must find its place within the hierarchy of truths; in this case, alongside conscience. A doctrine-propounding authority run wild — unable to adapt to and evolve alongside culture — will not only alienate lay Catholics; it will undermine itself, eventually.

Which leads me to Dreher’s second assumption. It may indeed be the case that the truths of Christianity are unchanging: Scholasticism, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Humanae vitae – all of these may simply re-iterate truths that have always been and will always be. All of these may be as fixed as the stars in heaven; yet one thing is for sure: if the truths of Christianity are not changing, the truths of Christianity are dead.

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