Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Doctrine and Policy: The Authentic Catholic Mind

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 11, 2011

I never cease to be amazed by two kinds of reactions to the positions we take on On the one hand, some people react to our explanation or defense of Catholic doctrine as if we are articulating just another personal opinion. On the other hand, some react to our suggestions for political, social or economic development as if they are dogmatic errors which must be rejected at all costs. Truth to tell, both reactions very often come from the same people.

These reactions indicate a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be Catholic coupled with a tendency to take one’s cues from prevailing cultural ideas rather than from the Church herself. For the Church teaches infallibly in matters of faith and morals (commonly called Catholic doctrine). But in matters of political, social or economic development, she can teach authoritatively only at the level of guiding principles, and not at the level of practical proposals, mechanisms and policies. Therefore, the only reasonable approach for a Catholic is to assent to Catholic doctrine without argument while accepting the legitimacy of disagreement over specific proposals for political, social and economic development.

The former is guaranteed by God Himself; the latter must be evaluated prudentially on two counts: First, the degree to which a proposal accords with the principles of Catholic social teaching; second, the degree to which it can actually be expected to accomplish its goals. But when people assert that doctrine is a matter of opinion while specific social strategies can be dogmatically approved or rejected, then we are no longer dealing with a Catholic mind. Only the person whose mind and attachments are primarily formed by the world will relativize doctrine and absolutize politics.

A similar error can occur in our evaluation of the Church herself, for the Church has both human and Divine elements, both fallible and infallible. For example, if a Catholic is willing to cooperate with grace, Catholic doctrine and the sacraments infallibly engender holiness, but the Church’s administrative programs bear fruit only according to their prudential matching of the right action to the right situation, and the behavior of individual Churchmen bears fruit according to its conformity with Christ. For this reason, when we dislike or react negatively to particular programs and policies or to things that particular Churchmen have done, we react with a Catholic mindset only if we distinguish such things from the essential holiness of the Church herself.

The tendency to dismiss the Church because, in this or that era, the actions of some Church leaders were either immoral or ill-suited to the needs of the time, is to incorrectly characterize the Church by her human element. Not only is this a category mistake, but it typically means we recognize and react against the sins in one culture primarily because they are not serious temptations in our own, yet we ignore those sins which are symptomatic of the culture in which, sadly, we too often live and move and have our being. This tendency to judge the Church by her human and fallible elements, which are very frequently alleged as reasons for rejecting her infallible teachings, is simply another example of a mind formed not by Christ but by the world.

Returning for a moment to the question of political, social and economic suggestions, we do well to advance vigorously whatever approach we believe offers the best combination of Catholic social principles and practical effectiveness. Sometimes passions will run high, which ought to do nobody any harm, as long as we do not absolutize our positions, as if no true Catholic could possibly disagree. The right balance is sometimes difficult to strike, particularly in a discussion between those who believe (as I do) that the modern secular State is seriously corrosive of the social order; and those who believe that the modern secular State is the only possible defender of the common good against those who are naturally rapacious (often referred to as businessmen). I need not repeat the arguments here. It is perfectly acceptable that I am passionately committed to my proposals—as long as I don’t claim that God is sure I’m right.

But God is sure that the Church is right when it comes to faith and morals, including the proper understanding of the natural law. This is because God has guaranteed the Church’s conformity with His own mind through her Magisterium. As men and women, we can easily lose sight of this, because we tend to be culture bound. But as Catholics we must rise above culture and take God’s view of things. The first step is to recognize that the Church’s doctrine is certain, but our political, social and economic prescriptions are provisional. The authentic Catholic mind always knows what is up for grabs, and what is not.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: - Aug. 14, 2011 3:54 PM ET USA

    Dude! I love this line: "relativize doctrine and absolutize politics." Although I suspect that your "-ize" words are neologisms.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 13, 2011 4:34 PM ET USA

    Dr Jeff Mirus has correctly prioritized the different levels of importance which we should give to the various teachings of the Church and their application in society. Faithful Catholics innately recognize that honest disagreements in terms of socio-economic policies cannot be put on a par with dissent regarding unchangeable doctrine such as the right to life in relation to abortion or euthanasia.

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Aug. 13, 2011 12:42 PM ET USA

    In this order, I conduct my life: God, Family, Country. Next to the Eucharist, available EVERY DAY to most in the USA, all else pales. I receive, not just grace, but the real presence of THE GIVER OF THE GRACE. Dr. Mirus knows very well how strident I can be on matters of Catholic prudential judgement. His voice [no other I know of] routinely gets the balance [nuanced and arcane in many cases] just right. Kudos, again Dr. Mirus, in a world that is often more than a bit off the mark.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 12, 2011 7:40 PM ET USA

    It is easy to become myopic these days. Many Catholics are searching for answers, and they are confused in their priorities. The US Constitution is as important if not more so than any Catholic catechism to many American Catholics. Principles exalting man and denying the rights of God and his Church are embraced even among Catholics. Furthermore, the unprecedented inroads of a latitudinarian mindset among the clergy and even the hierarchy has further eroded the "Catholicity" of many Catholics.

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Aug. 12, 2011 4:37 PM ET USA

    The Church's teaching must be followed if one considers oneself a Roman Catholic. "Be thou hot or cold, thou art luke warm I shall vomit thee out from my mouth!" Either we are all for the Church or we are not, there is nothing in between. Love what you have said Dr. Mirus. If to enter heaven is so easy that we just do as we wish... Christ didn't have to come and died the way He did for us! Take His Word and Life SERIOUSLY, if YOU believe you are Catholic!

  • Posted by: - Aug. 12, 2011 8:15 AM ET USA

    "The only reasonable approach for a Catholic is to assent to Catholic doctrine without argument . . ." Or perhaps, assent to Catholic doctrine while seeking deeper understanding of it.