Years ago, when the new translation of the Mass appeared — which, in a paradox worthy of apologist and lay theologian Gilbert Chesterton, was an old translation — one of my priest friends said it would be possible to spend an entire year just preaching on the “collects,” or opening prayer.
Rather than the banal translation of the liturgical reform foisted on people in the 1970s, the new translation contains both profound supplication and sound theology.
I was thinking about this as the furor began over both the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy and the nomination of the new justice for the Supreme Court of the United States.
Although she was not ultimately chosen as the nominee, much ink was spilled over the possible selection of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame law professor, a Catholic (most commentators in the secular press used the term “devout Catholic” when actually they mean “practicing”), and a mother of seven. She is devout, practicing — and, to worldly elites, fanatical.
Memorably, in a revealing show of the prejudice that is the guiding principle in the hearts of those who currently hold power in the world of politics, media and academia, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), in her earlier questioning of Judge Barrett, was “concerned” (as all presumably “enlightened” people should be), that because of Judge Barrett’s active Catholicism, the “dogma lives loudly within you.”
A very different kind of dogma lives loudly in San Francisco, of course. But what the good senator from that city and state did not realize was that, in a very beautiful way, her prejudice was a profound affirmation of the very purpose of dogma.
Dogma, from the literal translation of the Greek, is concerned with “that which one thinks is true.” For the dogma to “live loudly” in a Christian is nothing less than saying that a Christian is living by the truth of the faith. To be singled out for that is surely what all of us who claim to be followers of Christ hope will be recognized on the Day of Judgment.
The collect for the Thirteenth Sunday of what is peculiarly called “Ordinary Time” rounds up the prayers of the faithful, asking God to grant that “we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth” — in other words, that the dogma will “live loudly” within us.
As Chesterton wrote, “our age” (meaning the whole post-Enlightenment era, which has rapidly accelerated to a “post-truth” era) is “an age of prejudice.” Yet, as he said, “there are two things, and two things only for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice.”
One of Sen. Feinstein’s political predecessors — and perhaps a patron for the age of prejudice, Pontius Pilate — dismissed the Truth when faced with it.
The “dictatorship of relativism,” as Benedict XVI pithily described contemporary culture, not only dismisses the truth but denies its existence. The imagery of the collect, praying that we not be “wrapped in the darkness of error,” is particularly evocative.
To be wrapped in error can be remarkably comforting; it certainly makes for an easy life. The “cloak of error” can preserve the wearer from difficult choices and help them blend in with the crowd. It actually evokes an image of the Ring in “The Hobbit” — hiding Frodo not from the all-seeing Eye but from the Good.
Standing in the “bright light of truth,” letting the dogma live loudly, as Judge Barrett discovered, will bring contempt, hostility and discrimination — and maybe even the loss of livelihood.
The Gospel, the “Good News” proclaimed in that particular collect — and the reason Sen. Feinstein’s prejudice was actually a gift — is that living in the truth, guided by dogma, shedding the cloak of error, liberates men and women to be whom they were created to be.
Dorothy L. Sayers, the detective novel author and friend of Chesterton’s, once wrote that, far from being dull and oppressive, the “dogma is the drama.” The essence of the Good News is that, as she said, the “Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man.”
It is dramatic and liberating because it is the “terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
The proclamation of that dramatic dogma is what made Western civilization, and the assertion of that truth is, in itself, a dogma loudly dismissed. The men and women who first proclaimed the Gospel, certainly in the life of the early church, did so most effectively by demonstrating the power of the dogma to dramatically transform their lives.
When Saul became St. Paul, it was because of a dramatic encounter with the Truth who was a Person. Yet the flowering of the first Christian communities, and the conversion of so many, was because the dogma lived “loudly” in the witness of those Christians — the Christians who refused to abort their children, who rescued and adopted the babies left out to die, and who tended to the sick in time of plague and who suffered martyrdom for the Truth — the dogma.
Perhaps faith in the Western world will once again flourish and bring new life if the “dramatic dogma” lives loudly within each of us.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.