The following ran on the Sept. 24, 2013, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Political scientist Matthew Wilson and theology professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.
September 27, 2013
By Bill McKenzie
Pope Francis offered some provocative thoughts last week. Speaking about the hot-button issues of abortion, gay rights and conception, he told a Jesuit interviewer: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
He went on in the interview to say that his church had grown obsessed with those topics.
I have to admit, the church universal seems way too caught up in debates over abortion, gay marriage and conception. So, I happen to agree with his view.
But what do you think? Are people of faith becoming too occupied with gay rights, abortion and conception?
And what do you make of this statement that also came from the Pope:
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”
Applying that line to your own religious tradition, how are believers supposed to know which teachings are more important than others?
In my tradition, the Presbyterian Church USA, we have creeds, but we don’t necessarily have a Presbyterian’s guide to the top 10 beliefs, or some such list of priorities.
This could get arbitrary, couldn’t it?...
MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
In what is becoming a distressingly recurring pattern, the “revolutionary” aspect of the Pope’s comments stems not from what he actually said, but from the spin that exuberant “reformers” seek to put on it.
It is in some ways reminiscent of the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which was in itself a needed engagement of the Church with the modern world, but which spawned a host of radical abuses in the amorphous “spirit of Vatican II.”
The Holy Father did not in any respect suggest that the Church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, or contraception were unimportant or misguided. Indeed, if one looks at his remarks in context, one sees that he affirmed that the Church’s teachings on these questions are well known, and that he agrees with all of them, so he does not feel the need to talk about them publicly as much as his predecessors did.
Who, after all, thinks that we should be talking about these things “all the time?” We don’t talk about the Trinity, or the Virgin Birth, or the moral unacceptability of rape and theft, “all the time.” We assume these teachings of the Church to be vital and true, and advance them as part of a comprehensive, cohesive body of moral and doctrinal teaching.
To suggest that we must focus either on human life and sexuality or on poverty and economic justice, or that we must choose between dogmatic theology and social ethics, presents a false dichotomy. The Church can, and must, walk and chew gum at the same time.
If one wants truly to understand Pope Francis’s thought, as well as that of his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, one must go beyond the shallow media storylines, which are often generated by people who are not only outside the Church, but hostile to many of its fundamental teachings.
Ironically, much of the media’s emphasis in its coverage of the Holy Father serves to reify the very reductive “culture wars” outlook that the Pope is trying to transcend. They are searching desperately for a “wink wink, nudge nudge” in his statements to suggest that unborn life really isn’t all that important, or that a relativistic, permissive sexual ethos is the way of the future in the Church.
People who are genuinely tired of the excessive focus on these questions would do well to take the Pope at his word that he does not seek to alter the magisterium on these “hot-button” issues, and concentrate instead on the profound statements that he is making about poverty, social inequality, materialism, and everyday evangelism.
Human life and human dignity are paramount moral values, which lead us to reject not only abortion, but also the death penalty and dehumanizing poverty. Human sexuality finds its full and proper expression only in the lifelong union of one man and one woman, but the Church reaches out also to those (the divorced, homosexuals, etc.) who struggle with this ideal. Individual moral behavior is critically important, but so too are social structures of injustice that undermine the principles of the Gospel.
Every Pope in my lifetime (and likely long before as well) has believed these things. They are the teachings of the Universal Church. Each occupant of the Chair of Saint Peter talks about them in a slightly different way, with different emphases and nuances born of his own experience and perceptions of the Church’s most critical need at a given moment in history. It is in this light that we should view Pope Francis’s statements of priorities....
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
When I was just beginning my theological education, I was deeply influenced by a professor who offered a set of very helpful distinctions among three words. The words were dogma, doctrine, and theology.
In his view, dogma consists of a few fundamental beliefs that are matters of faith and conviction. They are axioms. They are assertions that cannot be proved or disproved. One believes or does not believe them. They are not debatable, because they create their own frames of reference. Christians have a few matters of dogma, such as that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Doctrine is the body of teaching that the Christian Church has authorized as official statements of faith. The creeds fall into this category. They express what the church has formally identified as things that should be taught. But doctrine can be debated, to a certain extent it can be proved or disproved, and it can be changed.
For example, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church several years ago agreed on a common statement about the Christian doctrine that is known as “justification by faith.” A dispute over that doctrine split Western Christianity in the sixteenth century at the time of the Reformation. Four hundred and fifty years later, these two church bodies reconciled their differences over their understanding of the doctrine of “justification.”
Theology is an exploratory exercise. It is creative, critical, constructive work. Theology asks questions. It puts doctrines under a microscope and ponders doctrine through a telescope. Theology pursues new ways to express old doctrines. Feminist and womanist and liberationist and conservative and liberal and process and ethno-centric theologies are just a few of the forms in which theological thinking occurs. In some cases, theology is so effective that the Christian Church changes its doctrines.
What Pope Francis has done, as a great service to all Christian communities, is remind us that we should not confuse theology with doctrine, and that we surely should not confuse theology or doctrine with dogma. Statements by Christians on the topics of abortion and homosexuality, for instance, are theological assertions in making efforts to consider whether doctrine should be changed.
The Pope is helping all of us to find ways for having theological conversations while lowering the stakes. He is not rewriting Christian doctrine and he is certainly not disturbing Church dogma. He is just asking us to talk with each other.
We need not be afraid of him....