Even momentous events such as the Continental Congresses require lunch breaks, and as every out-of-town business traveler ought to know, that is a great time to stretch your legs, savor the local fare, and see some interesting sights. On October 9, 1774 two friends, George Washington and John Adams, on break from the First Continental Congress, decided to check out a local Catholic chapel and attend what would be John Adam’s very first Catholic Mass.
His reflections on the experience say a lot about the peculiarly American ambivalence for religious devotion excited by supernatural mysteries, in short, a deep discomfort with dogma. Here is how he described the experience in a letter to his wife Abigail:
This Afternoons Entertainment was to me, most awfull and affecting. The poor Wretches, fingering their Beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Maria's. Their holy Water-their Crossing themselves perpetually-their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, wherever they hear it-their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar . . . But how shall I describe the Picture of our Saviour in a Frame of Marble over the Altar at full Length upon the Cross, in the Agonies, and the Blood dropping and streaming from his Wounds
Here is every Thing which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination. Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.
With these words Adams prophetically reflects American misgivings and misconceptions about Catholic faith throughout our history right up to today.
His words are worth recalling almost 246 years later and eleven days before confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee—a 2020 version of a series of encounters that Adams would later become quite familiar with as the second president of the United States. As we await the process for the current Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and recall her last confirmation hearing, where the word “dogma” was raised with regard to her possible unsuitability for appointment to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, it might help us all to reflect a bit on dogmatic theology.
After teaching the interpretation of dogma (dogmatics) for nearly 20 years of my career, I can share important do’s and don’ts when it comes to dogma. And, if I may be so bold, Senator Dianne Feinstein knows as much about them as the great John Adams. Senator Feinstein infamously said in the 2017 confirmation hearings for the Court of Appeals, “And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern.” Here goes a short list of things Senators (and the rest of us) should be concerned with this time around:
Don’t confuse dogmas with morals. John Adams seemed to know this—while he was aghast at the worship of the “Wretches” (which is the first duty of the dogmatic), he was still able to enjoy the priest’s homily, “a good, short, moral Essay upon the Duty of Parents to their Children.” But when Senator Feinstein raised the matter of dogma in 2017, it seems she was not aware of the distinction when she referenced the ability of women “to control our reproductive systems,” an issue of morality not dogma.
The Church has no moral dogmas, though she does have clear and consistent, authoritative moral teachings. What is comes first, that is the arena of dogma; what ought to be done is morality; that comes second, and requires the former. Dogmas have to do with what God has revealed about the deepest nature of reality, above all about himself, and while dogmas and morals are deeply connected, the latter flows out of the application of the former.
Dogmas (also known as doctrines) are truths revealed by Christ which, because they come from God himself, cannot be changed or challenged; only our understanding of them can progress (Catechism of the Catholic Church §88, 94). Some examples of Christian dogmas are:
- The Incarnation (the dogma that the eternal Son of God became man in the womb of the Virgin Mary)
- The Trinity (the dogma of the one God in three persons).
Do connect dogmas to the height of speculative thought (vs. rigid sloganeering). Atheists object to dogmas as being anti-rational, but that is incorrect. To believe in a dogma on God’s own authority is perfectly rational—if God does exist and has really revealed it. And dogmas, once accepted on those grounds, can be rationally explored. We can examine them by means of our naturally derived knowledge in order to understand how they fit together to form a coherent and consistent picture of reality.
The Church teaches that what we believe as Christians and our act of believing it are in harmony with reason, and that God desires us to see the reasonableness of the things he has revealed, so that we can better understand the world, ourselves, and God. The Church, therefore, invites us to approach dogmas intelligently—to ponder them and penetrate more deeply into them, just as the handmaiden of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:51). In the words of Vatican I (1869-1870), “The assent of faith is by no means a blind impulse of the mind.” That which lies beyond our mental grasp does not put an end to thought—it gets it started. In the words of physicist Stephen Barr:
[Dogmas] do not shut off thought, like a wall. Rather they open the mind to vistas that are too deep and too broad for our vision. A mystery is what cannot be seen, not because there is a barrier across our field of vision, but because the horizon is so far away. [To correctly call something a dogma] is a statement not of limits, but of limitlessness. The reason that there are dogmas is that God is infinite and our intellects are finite.
Take for example, the dogma of the Trinity, which another friend of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, once called “the mere Abracadabra of the [tricksters] calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” The paradox at the heart of this dogma, that God is one and three, challenges the fundamental categories of “I” and “we” that bracket human existence, provoking one to wonder where “I” ends and “You” begins, or how much of “You” should be at the center of my “I,” or whether a society based on individualism as the most fundamental right can really foster and perpetuate human happiness.
This kind of happy confusion of categories caused by dogma might be why devoted Catholic spouses like, say, Amy and Jesse Barrett, seem to have a hard time locating where their family ends and children in need begin, and so hold their family open to adoption. For if God is “one but not solitary,” if “divine unity is Triune” (CCC §254), if God is in an analogous sense a “we,” maybe I find my fulfillment in “We the people” more than I do in any self-enclosed way?
In summary, the acknowledgment of dogmas does not close the human mind. Rather, dogmas open an infinite horizon for us to explore, one that always leaves a surplus that draws us further along the road of wonder. And all good judgment begins there.
Don’t confuse dogma with ideology. Here is a simple way to identify an ideology: find any instance where a valid, helpful insight into reality has been transformed from a method into a mentality, a cookie-cutter conception of reality in which all the dough is squashed into a single mold and which leaves a lot leftover on the table. This transformation, this modern voodoo, usually involves the implicit or explicit use of the word only (as in “only science can put us in touch with truth,”), and the appearance of “-ism” at the end of a term (as in scientism). Lest one might object that Amy Coney Barrett’s religion also ends in an “-ism,” the very term Catholicism shows that our only -ism should be “having it all-ism,” for this is what the word Catholic means, “of, or pertaining to, the whole.”
Nothing could be more different than a dogma is from an ideology, because dogmas are actually about taking enclosed, totalizing narratives and blowing the ceilings off of them. In this regard, consider the dogma of creation “out of nothing,” that is, the dogma that the Holy Trinity is the exclusive and direct principle of the existence of all things, to the exclusion of any pre-existing matter. This means that creation cannot be traced back to some event like a demigod brawl, or some other violent act, or to a hero-god that consorted with some fair maiden and begat the king, who therefore gets to decide what is right and wrong and before whom there is no court of appeal. If all comes from God directly, that also means that God can make creatures causes of each other out of an overflow of generosity, and so we can have things like evolution and representative democracies without transgressing the Deity. And this brings me to another “do.”
Do think freedom when you think dogma. In words that resonate with the cause of the freedom-fighters of the American Revolution, St. John Henry Newman protested the prohibition of dogmatic religious writings, “works of Controversial Divinity,” by Sir Robert Peel in his establishment of a reading room in Tamworth, England:
Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. A conclusion is but an opinion; it is not a thing which is, but which we are “certain about;” and it has often been observed, that we never say we are certain without implying that we doubt. To say that a thing must be, is to admit that it may not be. No one, I say, will die for his own calculations; he dies for realities.
Dogmas free us because they are both true and transcendent; they outstrip our small categories and make us think higher and wider thoughts. And in doing so, they compel us toward personal freedom, which is the fullest expression in personal right of what dogma is in thought. For who, without some degree of personal freedom to pursue happiness, or at least some memory of it, would soon or perseveringly think beyond the mere mitigation of their misery? Ralph Wood expresses the point eloquently:
Dogmas are not statements about empirically verifiable facts made in the manner of customary claims about objects. Nor are they purely theoretical truths that can be divorced from their liturgical setting. On the contrary, dogmas have a virtually sacramental function. They convey grace. They enable believers to encounter the reality of God’s incomparably generous self-gift to the world.
Were Amy Coney Barrett an ideologue, the last thing she would want would be for us to know it, especially right now, for the ideologue only wants power and means to enforce their program or philosophy. But she speaks of her Catholic Faith openly and freely because she knows a paradox that John Adams did not and Dianne Feinstein does not: that to believe true and noble dogmas unswervingly is to be free, that dogma requires freedom and engenders freedom.
In this regard, no dogma is more evocative of freedom than that of the human person as the image of God. For the modern mind, it seems an abstraction. But in its original context, it was revolutionary. For Ancient Near Eastern mytho-politics, only one human being was the image of the divine, and that was the ruler. While the priestly writers of the First Creation Account (Gen 1:1-2:4) sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon in exile (Psalm 137:1), they remembered freedom and wrote “God created humanity in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).
Through articulating this transcendent dogma they achieved the subversion of the oppressive political order of their day, in thought if not always in deed. John Adams might not have fully realized it, but it was this very dogma, taken up on the wings of the Gospel of Christ, that slowly created the conditions that once made the “American experiment” a relatively successful one. For as Adams’s friend Thomas Jefferson wrote just 30 years after Adams attended his first Mass,
No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth.
Amy Coney Barrett, paradoxical as it may seem, thanks to dogma has left herself open to avenues of truth that were held in contempt by Jefferson and Adams then, and misunderstood by Feinstein and others today. But in doing so, she has by no means closed her mind, or exposed herself as a fanatic who is incapable of executing her judicial duties independently and responsibly. Quite the opposite is the case when one truly lets the dogma live loudly within them. We should all try it.
 Dei Filius, 3: DS 3009, as quoted by Barr, Modern Physics, 12.
 Barr, Modern Physics, 14-15.
 John Henry Newman, Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects (London: Longmans, Green, 1891), 262. “The Tamworth Reading Room Letters,” included in this volume, were first published in 1841.
 Ralph C. Wood, “Living and Dying Upon Dogma: John Henry Newman and Flannery O’Connor on Christian Witness to a Post-Christian Culture,” Plenary Address at Revelation and Convergence: Flannery O'Connor Among the Philosophers and Theologians, a conference at Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, October 8, 2011 (unpublished).