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Catholicism and Free Thought


Many people believe that Catholicism, because it is a dogmatic religion, stifles free thought and free speech. “How nice for you,” some will say to a Catholic convert, “Now that you’re a Catholic, you won’t have to think anymore.” Or, “It must be nice to be a Catholic and have such ‘certainty.’” This is said with a snuffling, cynical laugh because by ‘certainty’ they often mean that one has become a mindless robot—a Kool Aid drinking cult member following the demands of his leader in white, without thinking.

Another jab Catholic converts often hear is, “Of course there are some folks who need that kind of certainty.” The subtext here is, “You’re not really smart enough to think things through for yourself, and you are probably emotionally and socially insecure and immature so you need to belong to a mutual self-love group which offers its members certainty in all things.”

Like any criticism leveled against the Church, this one is partially true. There certainly are cults that offer their members mind-numbing ‘certainty’. There are emotionally insecure and immature people who need to belong to such cults. We have to admit that there are some Catholics like that, and that there are, sadly, some Catholic sub-groups, religious orders, and movements in which members have sometimes behaved like this.

However, abuses do not undo right uses. My typical response to the charge that, “You Catholics all thoughtlessly follow your leader, believing and doing whatever he tells you” is that “You clearly don’t know very many Catholics. The vast majority take little notice of what their leader tells them and have scant understanding either of the dogmas or the moral teachings of their Church.”

But that is to make a cynical response. Instead, there is a more reasoned argument, and it is this. Let us ask foundational questions. Either there is such a thing as truth or there is not. If there is no such a thing as truth, then every man may think what he likes and the world is absurd. If there is such a thing as truth, then because we are creatures who use language both in thought and speech, we must be able to put that truth into words.

We put that truth into words in many different ways. We tell stories, we write poems, we discuss and debate and reason our way into truth, and one of the ways we express the truth is through propositional theological statements. These statements, or resolutions, are not the whole truth, but they state truth in a propositional way as precisely and completely as possible. This statement of theological truth we call dogma.

If this process is possible at all, then a church (which is founded to proclaim and live the truth) must in some sense be dogmatic, and if it is at all dogmatic, then it must be in the business, at least in a minimal sense, to declare that dogma be necessary. If the dogma wasn’t necessary, then it wouldn’t be dogma. In other words, that church must have the authority to say, “This particular proposition is true. That means you must believe it if you belong to this Church because the Church lives to proclaim and live the truth. It can’t be true sometimes, but not at other times. It can’t be true for me, but not for you. If it is true, then it's true always and everywhere for all people whether or not they understand it."

Now this is something solid, something real. It is a rock on which to build a worldview. Without such a thing as dogma (and the authority to declare a belief a dogma), the Church is built on the shifting sand of subjective personal opinion. This will eventual cause the whole worldview to collapse. But when you build on rock, you stabilize 'free thought,' not stifle it. Dogmas may seem to suppress free thought because, by virtue of declaring some things true, they must necessarily declare other things to be false. To say, "My apple is red” is  also to say “My apple is not blue.”

Dogma is demanded not because it gives all the answers, but because it gives the foundation upon which to ask the right questions. Dogma gives thought wings because it gives thought a structure.

Even when a person dissents from Church teaching and denies the dogma, they are still affirming the necessity for dogma, otherwise what would they have to rebel against? Even the person who kicks a rock proves that the rock exists. Indeed, it is arguable that it is the person who kicks the rock who is most affected by the rock, for by kicking the rock they have hurt their foot. Therefore even the ‘free thinker’ who rejects dogma proves the reality and solidity of that dogma.

Therefore dogma gives thought structure. It not only gives thought a structure, but dogma, combined with tradition, give a person a context and structure for a unified world view. There are corridors in the mind, shelves of knowledge which are cataloged, galleries of art to enlighten. There are libraries of great minds which illuminate, biographies of the wise and righteous to guide. Catholicism, rooted, nurtured, and flourishing within the Western classical tradition, provides a unique and irreplaceable structure in which truly free thought can flourish.

Without this structure and context, the ‘free thought’ is simply a jumble of impressions and emotional reactions, conditioned by a scrap of propaganda here, a bit of education there, and a swirl of sentimental reactions sparked up by popular culture. It becomes like playing tennis without a net. Totally ‘free thought’ is free, but it is not thought—it is an expression of opinion, or an exclamation of emotion.

Dogma provides the structure necessary for real thought. To end, consider the creed, which many 'free thinkers' consider restrictive—an antiquated formula for a dying religion. It is a straight jacket, a set of blinders, a cage for the mind. But Catholics don't see it this way. It's not a cage to constrict, but a ladder on which to climb. It's the stairway on which to ascend, the map for the journey. And, as we all know, it's the climbing, the ascent, and the journey which matter most.
Originally posted at Standing On My Head. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Mud Preacher)

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. He was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and then in 1995, he and his family were received into the Catholic Church. For the next ten years he worked as a freelance writer, contributing to more than fifty magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He now serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. Fr. Dwight is the author of many books including The Quest for the Creed (Crossroads, 2012); More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of the Faith (Ignatius, 2010); and Catholicism Pure and Simple (Stauffer Books, 2012). Connect with his website DwightLongenecker.com, or his Patheos blog, Standing On My Heard.

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