In my old Church, and in my new one, the unspoken question is the one which is the title of this post – does dogma matter? Clarity is not a word readily associated with the delphic pronouncements of the present Pope, but on the ancient principle that ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck‘, it would seem safe to say that he thinks ‘mercy’ trumps dogma. If this is not what he thinks then his comments about the undesirability of ‘rigidity’ and keeping the commandments in such a fashion would make even less sense than they do on that reading. We saw much the same thing at the Church of England Synod last week, where the mantra of ‘if it is love it is fine’ was used to promote the idea that gay marriage was fine for clergy. What is being said here is that whatever Scripture and Tradition say can be negated by the exercise of our reason: it was our ‘reason’ that got us expelled from Eden; it was our reason which was damaged in the Fall; it is our reason which is defective; it is our reason which needs guiding by Scripture and Tradition. It is the very essence of the division in Christianity which is evidenced here: what has priority, our unaided reason or our reason as aided by Scripture and Tradition?
When I am told that we shouldn’t read St Paul’s admonitions on homosexuality the way they have been read from the beginning, I ask a simple question: before someone needed to reinterpret what he wrote, did anyone advance that argument? The answer is no. The unanimous tradition of the Church is unequivocal on this subject and on re-marriage for divorced people, as it is on fornication, euthanasia and abortion. The fact that the world does not like the stance of the Church on these matters might well be, in the minds of some, reason to go back and reconsider our teaching; but make no mistake, that reconsideration is prompted by the desire not to be so out of step with this world – at least in its Western sexual and social mores, mores which even in the West, a generation ago, were considered sinful. So, if we want to be honest about this, advocates of change should be clear – they want to make sin into something else because they feel that in our modern Western society free choice is a prime good. Fine, but God has his ten commandments, and they are not presented to us as ‘God’s ten optional suggestions’.
Dogma is the collective wisdom of the Church and its meditation on Scripture, it is God’s guidance to us. We can ignore it, we often do because we are sinners, but at least, until recently, hypocrisy surrounded this practice, and we might recall that hypocrisy is the tax that vice pays to virtue; but now there is no need. If we have abolished sin, then someone needs to tell God that in our wisdom we do not need his guidance; the last time anyone did that they found themselves expelled from Eden. We ask, with all the petulance of a spoiled child, ‘where is God?’ when bad things happen; but we seldom stop to ask how far bad things come from our ignoring God. He is where he always is – loving us, waiting for us to repent and reach out in love to him. If we have become too wise and too grand for that, then we have indeed chosen the light of our own reason to God’s light – and may he have mercy on us and guide us to repentance.