Sunday, November 15, 2009

Doctrinal Minimalism

Sometime ago I did a post on Athanasius Contra Mundum in which I made reference to something called "doctrinal minimalism", which I cited as hurtful to the Church and associated with those who are zealous, orthodox Catholics but whose understanding of the history of the Church and the Church's Tradition were somewhat lacking. Dave Armstrong did a counter-post in which he questioned the use of this phrase "doctrinal minimalism." He asked:

What is "doctrinal minimalism"? What apologist is advocating this? It makes more sense as applied to liturgical matters....How "minimal" must one's views be to be classified in this way, liturgy-wise?

This is a fair question for Dave to raise. Often we hear only about liturgical minimalism (as here). I intend not to rebut Dave Armstrong (I think he had some good critiques of my post and I can grant some of his points); rather, I am seeking here to elucidate a point I raised in another post but failed to elaborate on in the time. As it could give rise to misunderstanding, I hope to clear it up here.

First, I admit that, as far as I know, I invented the phrase "doctrinal minimalism", so I am not surprised that Armstrong, or anyone else for that matter, would question me about it. On this blog I frequently discuss trends and ideas in the Church and sometimes classify them according to my own terminology. I've always maintained that my blog is a place, among other things, to throw ideas out and discuss them. I've never maintained that I'm publishing scholarly, peer-reviewed material here; it's a blog, for crying out loud. I do try to give my posts a touch of professionalism and research (who wouldn't want to?), but at the end of the day they are just my own beliefs and opinions in my own words.

But though I think I coined this phrase "doctrinal minimalism", it refers to a real phenomenon in the Church. Just as liturgical minimalism is an attitude towards the liturgy which sees the bare essentials as being good enough, so doctrinal minimalism is an attitude towards doctrine which takes as important only the bare minimum and nothing more.

How does doctrinal minimalism look in practice? I frequently give talks on a variety of topics to different groups; when I do these talks, I always draw from many sources, such as the Catechism and the Bible, but also the lives of the saints, writings of the Fathers and St. Thomas and other eminent theologians. One time (I don't recall the topic, but I think it was eschatology), a woman kept raising her hand every time I said that something was a long-held tradition of the Church and would ask, "Is that in the Catechism?" Sometimes what I was speaking about was in the Catechism, other times it wasn't; she told me that "If you can't show it to me in the Catechism, you shouldn't be saying it." She seemed to have a "Catechism alone" understanding of theology.

I explained to her that the Catechism, while being a sure norm for the faith and an excellent exposition of the faith, does not in itself exhaust the faith. There is much more to Catholicism than just what is in the Catechism. To be sure, the CCC has all of the essentials - Creed, Commandments, Sacraments, Prayer - but it doesn't contain the fullness of the Church's doctrinal, moral and mystagogical tradition. Catechisms are meant to be summaries, not exhaustive expositions. She seemed to accept this and was satisfied, but it got me thinking about this question of the degree to which one can get to the real heart of Catholic Tradition through the CCC alone.

An example - a few weeks ago, my pastor was looking for a list of the works of mercy, but to his surprise found that the list in the CCC does not mention praying for the dead as a spiritual work of mercy. At first we could not believe this, but it is true: in 1473 we are urged to do works of mercy; in 2447 the works are listed, but only six spiritual works of mercy are enumerated: praying for the dead is omitted. Paragraphs 958 and 1032 instruct us to pray for the dead, but not in the context of the works of mercy. If we were to go by the CCC alone, we would completely miss the fact that there are seven, not six works of mercy. Yet I would say that the seven spiritual works of mercy, with praying for the dead among them, are a firm part of Tradition, something that can be taught and asserted regardless of whether or not the CCC happens to mention one of them.

Perhaps this is a typo or innocent mistake; I'm willing to bet it is. However, the problem is not with the CCC, but with an approach to it that assumes that it is exhaustive, and that if you can't "show it to me in the Catechism" then it is not important and is therefore dispensable. The Catechism just gives us an introduction to the basics of the faith and points us to a further learning and understanding - we ought not to confuse the starting point for the end. Granted, the Catechism is rich and in itself is an excellent study, but it is not the fullness of Catholic dogma. This is because (and perhaps Trads would part ways with other Catholics here), just because something is not defined de fide or part of the CCC does not mean that it is dispensable; in popular terminology, the "small-t traditions", though not always infallible or irreformable, are not therefore simply dispensable.

An example is Church architecture - traditional architectural principles were in practice jettisoned in the 1960's and 70's on the belief that architecture was extrinsic to the faith; after a generation of horrid architecture and its liturgical and doctrinal consequences, I don't think any orthodox Catholic would today argue that architecture isn't important. The whole experience of the 60's, 70's and their aftermath teaches us that things assumed to be extrinsic to the faith are actually more integral to it than we thought. Bad architecture really can damn souls, depending on what sort of practices and beliefs it leads to.

No faithful Catholic wants a bare-bones liturgy where the norm is the least - likewise, we shouldn't content ourselves with an intellectual apprehension of our faith that is content with just the bare minimum, with solely the CCC. We shouldn't take a sola scriptura approach to the Catechism or stand on it like a Protestant on the Bible; I am not denigrating the CCC by any means, but only pointing out that it's not the entirety of the faith.

In my original post I stated the belief that perhaps Protestant converts are responsible for this mentality in places - I think now that this is too great a generalization in order to be of any constructive use. Instead, I would challenge all of us to simply go further. Study the CCC, but look what the CCC references in its margins and citations. What do these documents say? And what earlier documents were these documents inspired by and built on? What did the Fathers say? One great weakness of the CCC (in my opinion) is that it tends to reference in the majority only Conciliar and post-Conciliar documents; it would be good for any Catholic to round this out with a thorough study of the Fathers and the Medievals.

Does doctrinal minimalism exist? Absolutely, and I think liturgical minimalism leads to it. This explanation is just a rough essay, I know; perhaps it can be refined and fleshed out more in the future. But I definitely think there is a danger of reducing our beliefs to just a few important essentials and not taking in the fullness of what our Tradition has passed on to us. For me, being a Traditionalist is just about bringing in the whole of our Tradition to bear on our life and outlook - so for me its not about the specifics; not about just the TLM, or the pro multis, or the music (although all these things are important) - it's more about just being part of the entirety of Catholic teaching and practice, past and present. I'm sure there are many Catholics who adopt this position who don't consider themselves Trads, and some Trads who think this is too simplistic and explanation. Let every man define or not define himself as he sees fit; I can only speak for myself.

Related Articles: On the Need for Theological Precision, What is Traditionalism?


Ben said...

I once read an article by this Orthodox who argued that many Protestants want a mere Christianity (a la Lewis) whereas Orthodox (and we would say Catholics) want "more Chrisitanity". This point is related to ecumenism--many Protestants want us to say "let's accept the Trinity, the Atonement, the Incarnation, baptism, and that's it. That's Christianity." The Catholic would say "yes, good start; but then the 7 Sacraments, the Immaculate Conception, the Papacy, the coredemption; the whole package comes from God".

By the way you wrote: "I am denigrating the CCC by any means". I suspect you meant I am NOT denigrating... (lol)


Unknown said...

A quick search turned up the phrase doctrinal minimalism in a blog written in 2006. I didn't go any further than that to see if the phrase was used prior to that. Here's the link:

Not that it matters, I'm always wondering if anybody can ever have a completely un-thought-up phrase with well over 6 billion people in the world. Hey, maybe I just made up the phrase un-thought-up. Hang on, I'm going to google it :)

Dave Armstrong said...


I don't really disagree with what you say here. When I questioned you about it before, I was asking mostly rhetorical, socratic-type questions. You made the claim about a certain class of folks in the Church, and I was challenging you to flesh it out.

Now you have done so, as to what you mean by "minimalism" -- and I have no problem with what you say.

But -- that said -- you still haven't documented how converts and apologists (or whoever you were critiquing) advocate "minimalism". You know what parish I attend and how traditional it is, so I think you know where I personally stand, and I am in those categories of convert and apologist and part of the "EWTN-loving" crowd or what-not.

I'm officially called a "Neo-Catholic" in the article on same in Wikipedia (while the same article ludicrously cites my own reasoning directly against what it says is the "neo-Catholic' position). So I am and I ain't at the same time over there. I always seem to be divided into two mutually exclusive people when "traditionalists" critique me. LOL

Beyond that, I would just note the distinction between what a Catholic must believe and what is not binding but good and pious and spiritually beneficial for a Catholic to believe.

The latter category is great, if the beliefs are widely held or devotions widely practiced (e.g., the apparitions at Fatima that I personally love). If you say that the latter makes for being a good or better Catholic, I heartily agree with you.

On the other hand, I don't see the point of denigrating Catholics whose piety may not incorporate all or even many of these elements.
We can extoll the counsels of perfection or the evangelical counsels,

but at the same time it is obvious (by definition) that not all are called to that. And to make out almost as if they are, is (sorry) closet Protestantism. Indeed, many laypeople are limited by things like marriage.

I used to, for example, be in Operation Rescue. I got arrested more than once trying to save babies' lives at abortion clinics. Not everyone has to or even can do that. I was married but didn't yet have children. Later, when I met Fr. John Hardon and became a Catholic and a father, he personally recommended that I should no longer do the rescues, because of the further responsibility of having children. In other words, there are different states of life.
This is the wisdom of the celibate priesthood: allowing greater service.

If the Church in her wisdom had thought all these things should be required for all, then she would have declared so. But if they are not, then they aren't required. They are good, but not required.

Dave Armstrong said...


So certainly you and I or "traditionalists" can't "require more than what Holy Mother Church requires. We can't look down on those who may be at a more elementary state in their walk with God or who may think certain non-optional aspects of Catholic piety are not for them. People grow and advance.

It seems like that is what you were doing in your original post; going after converts in particular and making out that they were "less Catholic" than they should be, and leading others down the same "bare minimum" path. But you didn't document (if I recall correctly) even a single instance with facts, which is what I objected to and why I fired several socratic questions back.

Why you felt that it was good to even go after the converts in the first place is a mystery to me, but in part that is what "traditionalists" do, that I object to: it is the excessive criticism of fellow Catholics: often to an extreme and uncharitable degree.

That has never sat well with me. I'm talking generally now; not about you. You responded very humbly and graciously to my critique. I'm just giving some of my own general opinions about what "traditionalists" so often do: the never-ending strong criticisms of fellow Catholics. Many have observed that this strong tendency is a sin against charity.

I think when we examine the issues brought up in "traditionalist" circles with more specificity (which is what I tried to do), then we often see that it isn't as bad as the critic may have thought (exaggerations have been made) or that the criticisms are off the mark and altogether unfair.

But again, if all you are saying now is that there are good practices and beliefs in Catholicism that aren't technically required, and that observing and believing these is praiseworthy and pious, then of course I agree. I even do a few of them myself!

After all, I vigorously defend things like, e.g., Mary Mediatrix, which is not yet a dogma at the highest level, yet very firmly in Catholic Tradition. I advocated the wider availability of the TLM long before the recent decree. I defend various traditional liturgical practices such as, for example, receiving the Holy Eucharist from the priest alone (as I do), as a matter of personal preference, rather than from eucharistic ministers.

So you and I (i.e., the person who critiqued your earlier post) are not of all that different opinions on this.

This will be cross-posted on my blog, with a few additional links incorporated.

Dave Armstrong said...

Dunno if my two-part comment posted. If not, I have cross-posted it on my blog.

Sam Danziger said...

I have a very practical concern:

How much Tradition do you have to know before you can help spread the faith?

Here's answers that I can think of and problems with them:

1) "very little, just trust in God"
In some ways this is a great answer. People are impressed by sincerity. However, if a person pursuing this approach is asked a hard question, then the best answer they can give is "I don't know". Usually people won't say, "I don't know" and instead will make something up that sounds good...

Suppose you don't know, but just trust the priest. This is fine unless priest is questionable. There's limits to how much you can trust even an imprimatur.

2) "Know as much Tradition as possible"
This answer is wonderful because it means that you will know not only the correct answers but also good methods for arriving at more correct answers. However, this takes a long time. It would take more than all of my life to make an exhaustive study of just the Bible and the CCC...


Perhaps the only solution lies in a community of believers.

Do you have any insights?

rkl said...

I don't think you necessarily need Tradition to help "spread the faith". Of course, this depends on who your target audience is. If you're talking to a group of educated agnostics, you might want to know your St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Justin Martyr. If you're talking to the general layperson, I think the CCC is sufficient in teaching the fundamentals of understanding the faith, because it is comprehensive, albeit rudimentary at parts.

I think Tradition comes in to enrich the existing faith and to deepen the faithful's understanding and appreciation of our Church, but not a necessary utility in spreading the faith for the most part.

Alexander said...

but in part that is what "traditionalists" do, that I object to: it is the excessive criticism of fellow Catholics: often to an extreme and uncharitable degree.

This runs both ways. Except that the extreme so-called Trads have a louder voice for some reason. For example, I have always been charitable in dialog with Catholics who disagree with me about the problems with Vatican II or how the New Mass is not as good (prayers, ritual, etc.) as the TLM – some are fine and some are nasty about it.

I have seen Trads purposely be nasty because it makes them feel better or they get a kick out of it. However I have seen Trads be nasty because they simply cannot handle what is going on in the Church; the stress of the matter crushes them.

Alexander said...

Dave wrote:

After all, I vigorously defend things like, e.g., Mary Mediatrix, which is not yet a dogma at the highest level, yet very firmly in Catholic Tradition. I advocated the wider availability of the TLM long before the recent decree. I defend various traditional liturgical practices such as, for example, receiving the Holy Eucharist from the priest alone (as I do), as a matter of personal preference, rather than from eucharistic ministers.

So you and I (i.e., the person who critiqued your earlier post) are not of all that different opinions on this.

This is what I figured were true about you and the “EWTN crowd” (for lack of a better description).

There is no reason for any Catholic to not want to see a wider use of the TLM or to use Traditional forms instead of novelty.

So you and Mr. Campbell (and myself) are truly not that far off. The differences lie deeper. For example, we would all love to see a wider use of the TLM but I would like to see its eventual dominance and then sole use in the Roman Rite. We would all agree that a Novus Ordo can be offered with solemnity, reverence and be perfectly valid but I would argue that it is, even done in that way, still inferior to a TLM. Also I wouldn’t suggest that receiving from the priest alone is simply a personal preference but has theological meaning as well as deeper reverence attached to it.

Boniface said...


I will answer that in a future post.


However I have seen Trads be nasty because they simply cannot handle what is going on in the Church; the stress of the matter crushes them.

I think this is an essential point. Many Trads who are of a more ill-tempered disposition seem to be this way because it is how they respond to what is going on-the stress crushes them.

I had an insight into this some months ago when reading a lot of comments by sedevacantists and realized that it was essentially a theology of despair - which is why I resolved some time ago to avoid critiquing anyone or pointing fingers for quite awhile. While the problems in the Church are real and demand real action to remedy, we have to remember the virtue of hope and trust that Christ is guiding the Church. If we focus too excessively on the negatives, we will find ourselves crushed and will act out by either becoming bad tempered (more likely) or possibly, in a extreme case, going sede.