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The Saints and Doctrine 

by James Hitchcock
February 1, 2002

Recently a Catholic journalist wrote, "You know when you have met someone you think is a saint: instead of feeling inferior, you feel enormously affirmed."

That seems to me one of those statements which the author would find it impossible to defend if asked. Does it follow that everyone who "affirms" us is a saint? Or that anyone who reminds us of our failings cannot be one? By this description the perfect saints would be what psychologists call "enablers" -- those who may not themselves do destructive things but in various ways support those who do.

I thought of this while reading a new book called The Saints' Guide to Knowing the Real Jesus, by David Mills. (The author and I work together on the board of the ecumenical journal Touchstone.) Interest in Jesus never wanes, although one might say that each age reinvents him. Right now there is a large industry proposing to help people find Jesus, ranging from the very traditional to New Age.

David Mills had the very Catholic idea of going back to what the Fathers of the Church said about Jesus, on the assumption, taken for granted throughout much of Christian history, that they were closer to the sources than we are and therefore understood better what the message of Jesus really was. It is also relevant that most of the Fathers were saints, the kind who were far more likely to remind people of their sins than to "affirm" them.

Today's culture encourages an approach to Jesus in which He is our brother and our friend. We are urged to love Jesus as He loves us, and to extend that same love to our fellow men. So far, so good.

But Mills points out something about the Fathers which now strikes many people as odd -- they were extremely concerned with doctrine, with knowing and proclaiming formal truths about Jesus. Thus the early Church was torn apart by, above all, the question of Jesus' exact relationship to the Father (the Arian heresy). At one point the dispute centered on one syllable of a Greek word -- whether Jesus was "the same as" the Father or merely "like" Him.

So important were these beliefs that creeds were written to embody then, one of which is still recited at Mass and in baptism. The Church placed enormous emphasis on "orthodoxy" ("straight teaching"). Not only were Christians supposed to live as Jesus commanded, they were supposed to probe the divine mysteries to the extent that God had made possible.

The Fathers might thus seem like ivory-tower scholars insulated from the world. But Mills reminds us that some of them suffered martyrdom for their beliefs, which for them were literally life-and-death issues. What was at stake was not some academic theory but the vital truth of the faith itself.

Sometimes modern Christians talk as though they have discovered "orthopraxis" ("straight action"), meaning that now we live the Gospel, not speculate about it. But the early Church which placed so much emphasis on correct belief was even more demanding than we are of appropriate Christian behavior. They had much higher standards of conduct, and they scrutinized catechumens very carefully before admitting them to the Church.

The modern way of looking at religion owes much to the philosophy called Pragmatism ("if an idea seems to work, don't worry if it can be proven"). It sets up a conflict between orthodoxy and orthopraxis, implying that those who emphasize the former must be deficient in the latter.

The truth, as Mills shows, is just the opposite. How can one follow Jesus if one does not even know who Jesus is? What an odd kind of love it is that shows so little curiosity about the beloved. As a modern thinker put it, ideas have consequences, and if you start out with erroneous doctrines you will probably end up losing your moral compass as well.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is the great contemporary example of someone who considered it of crucial importance to accept all the teachings of the faith and was also heroic in living that faith. I met her once. She was not in the least pretentious, but I'm sure that all of us in the room definitely felt inferior.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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