A key theme of St. Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus, bishops he appointed to oversee the churches of Ephesus and Crete respectively, is their insistence on sound doctrine. He writes to Titus, “As for you, speak the things that are consistent with sound doctrine …” (Titus 2:1). He tells Timothy that if he passes on this doctrine to others, he “… will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of faith and sound doctrine that you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6).
St. Paul also makes an interesting connection between doctrine and civility. He writes of those who diverge from sound doctrine and describes the effects of their dissent:
Whoever teaches something different and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the religious teaching is conceited, understanding nothing, and has morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes. From these come envy, rivalry, insults, evil suspicions, and mutual friction among people with corrupted minds, who are deprived of the truth … (1 Tim 6:3-5).
We can see this clearly today, when so many people—even within the Church—spread false teaching and call good, or no big deal, what God calls sin.
Note that the effect of rejecting sound doctrine is, in effect, widespread incivility (rivalry, insults, suspicions, and friction). Yes, welcome to the modern Western world.
What is the connection between spreading false teachings and incivility? It is the loss of a shared foundation of fundamental truths. Without such a foundation it is difficult to have reasonable, rational discussions in which one begins with agreed-upon principles and builds upon them logically to form conclusions. Here is an extremely simple example:
- An obtuse angle is one whose measure is greater than 90° and less than 180°.
- This angle measures 120°.
- Therefore, this angle is an obtuse angle.
You can see that you wouldn’t get very far if you couldn’t agree on the definition of an obtuse angle or on how to use a protractor to measure angles or on how to compare the magnitudes of numbers!
The problem today is that, due to radical individualism and subjectivism, many basic realities are no longer accepted as legitimate premises upon which to base an argument. Without the ability to have reasoned arguments like the ones so beautifully depicted in the St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, we have descended into vehement disagreements, strident protests, heated rivalries, and even hatred.
The most extreme example of this is the relatively recent word “transgender.” Merriam-Webster defines it as follows: “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” Nothing is more obvious than that humans come in two sexes, male and female. The ability to determine one’s sex is neither difficult nor mysterious; a simple look at one’s private parts (in more than 99.9 percent of the population) is quite sufficient. When even something this simple or obvious is no longer accepted as such, the ability to have a conversation, let alone a rational argument, is diminished, to say the least.
In such a radically subjective climate, whose view “wins”? Generally, it’s the one who yells the loudest or has the most influence or is the most famous. It is not reason that triumphs but power. We have today what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” in which nothing is accepted as definitively true. The tyranny comes in the force (cultural, political, or legal) used to impose the standard that there is no standard. It is impossible to argue for a position from first principles when there are no agreed-upon first principles. Today, one achieves the highest level of popularity and acceptance by having no principles at all (other than that everyone’s “principles” are equally valid). Interestingly, the principle that there are principles is not considered an acceptable principle!
St. Paul rightly highlights the necessity for pastors to teach sound doctrine. This helps build a sturdy foundation of truth for the Church and the culture. Having agreed-upon principles provides the basis for rational discussion. It also sets limits on diversion: a range of views may be allowed but only within reasonable boundaries. It is like the rules on a multilane highway: a person can drive in any one of several different lanes, but only those going in a certain direction and certainly not on the shoulder or off on the grass. Sound doctrine provides limits; it helps us avoid getting in an accident or winding up at the bottom of a roadside ravine.
In the modern West, we seem to be engaged in a massive social experiment as to whether there can be a culture without a shared cultus. A cultus indicates a shared set of beliefs in God and in what He teaches and expects. Once upon a time in the U.S., though we had sectarian differences, there was still a fundamental agreement on basic moral norms rooted in the Ten Commandments and the long experience of Christianity. This common ground has disappeared, and the picture of St. Paul describes above is very much in evidence. Even in the Church there are factions, suspicions, rivalries, and even insults. That is what happens when doctrine is set aside, when silence and/or ambiguity are widespread and even weaponized. When the sheep are fighting, the shepherd should step in with clear teaching. In today’s radical uncertainty, even the shepherds are afraid to fight.
When doctrine collapses, incivility and fierce anger rule the day. St. Paul paints the picture vividly and accurately. The only real solution is to rebuild the sure and sturdy foundation of sound doctrine. Pray for greater courage among bishops, pastors, and Catholic Cultural leaders to rebuke dissent, solidly restore the foundation of truth, and then insist upon it. Without the truth there will be no peace.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Connection Between Sound Doctrine and Civility