16 November 2015

Resource Guide for Catholic Autodidacts – Handbooks of Dogmatic Theology

Last time I gave an inventory of what I believe are the best Catechisms.  Solid, unending, repeated catechesis seems to be one of the keys to a coherent theological perspective, and the formation of a genuinely catholic way of living.  There are all sorts of principles and sentimental truisms floating around in the surrounding culture, and many of them are inimical to Christianity.  Solid catechesis helps us to know what we can and cannot accept, by acquainting us with the basics of faith and morality.

But once one gets a little deeper into the principles of modern culture and its various philosophies, a new set of confusions becomes possible—confusions that are not addressed directly by the average Catechism, because the concepts in which they are framed are too abstract or technical.  Every age suffers from philosophical and theological confusions of one variety or another.  Because they are difficult to anticipate in advance, oftentimes a new philosophical or theological error will arise, which has not been previously shown in the tradition to be incompatible with the Catholic Faith, even though it is.

The shepherds of the flock of the Lord are charged, as St. Pius X reminds us, to nourish and protect Christ's sheep by feeding them with sound doctrine and warning them against error.  This office of teaching and excluding, the "magisterium" (teacher-hood) of the Bishops, and the Pope among them, consists in perpetually reminding the faithful of Christ's teachings, and explaining the implications of those teachings so as to show when they are incompatible with popular intellectual trends.  Depending on the severity of the confusion and the gravity of the issue, the pastors will exercise their teaching office with greater or lesser urgency and authority.  They do this by various means: by the promulgations of symbols (i.e. creeds) which summarize the faith; through solemn definitions, which prescribe what must be held by all Christians; through anathemas, which solemnly exclude from the flock of Christ those who obstinately teach or profess errors contrary to the faith; and through encyclical letters, bulls, and all manner of decrees.

The result of 2000 years of this sort of of teaching, exhortation, and correction is what we refer to as the "Living Magisterium of the Church".  That's a lot of stuff.  And in the midst of all that stuff, there are regular clarifications and definitions which explain what propositions belong essentially to the Catholic faith, which follow from it necessarily, and which are, either directly or in their implications, opposed to it.

Once we realize this, an obvious desire follows from it: We want a text that collects and organizes all the major tenets of the Catholic faith, with the texts in which they are defined and explained by magisterial acts.  Granted, such a collection might not be the final word in terms of developing a genuine theological understanding of the faith, but it will at least establish a set of guideposts we can use to navigate the more difficult (and sometimes speculative) waters of systematic theology.


Today, I'm going to look at a few of the best tools that aim to perform this task.There used to be a great many more dogmatic manuals available (there still are... in Latin), but I will only be mentioning collections available in English, and only the three that I have found most useful in my years studying and teaching theology. 

Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Ludwig Ott

WHERE TO FIND IT: Amazon, and possibly elsewhere online.

STRENGTHS:  This was the first dogmatic manual I became aware of during the process of converting to Catholicism.  It has many strengths.  Primary among these is its format.  The is divided into major theological topics, each of which is subdivided, and then divided again into a list of dogmatic propositions, set in clear bold text.  After each proposition, the author offers a short explanation of the dogma, and evidence in favor of it from Scripture and Tradition.  He also often lists heresies contrary to the proposition in question and provides a short summary of how they reject it.  The book is available cheaply from TAN Books, and is (as these things go) small and very easy to navigate.  It aims to provide an outline or directory of citations, and is not a scholastic handbook of the old variety (with articles, questions, objections, dubia, etc.)

WEAKNESSES:  Ott's handbook is sometimes too cursory in its treatment of various issues.  Sometimes the evidences given in support of a particular proposition are inadequate to comfortably establish the proposition, and in these cases the handbook becomes somewhat frustrating.  Perhaps the worst part of Ott, though, is his simplistic way of assigning various propositions positions within the hierarchy of truths (i.e. the degree of dogmatic certitude accorded a particular doctrinal proposition: de fide, proxima fidei, etc.).  Sometimes one encounters people who have misunderstood the nature of the hierarchy of truths as a result of these labels (which are not unique to Ott)—people who think that only propositions "de fide" are absolutely certain and everything else allows a degree of flexibility.  This approach to dogmatic theology is very damaging, because it gives a great deal of leeway to heresies that ought to be excluded, simply because they don't violate any principles "de fide".

(Also, the way people talk about these degrees in the hierarchy of truths is annoying.  We have a habit of treating Latin prepositional phrases as adjectives: "ex cathedra pronouncements" literally means "from the chair pronouncements", which is wrong.  One should say "pronouncements ex cathedra" and so on.)

RECOMMENDATION:  Ott is useful as a highly condensed, inexpensive outline of dogmatic theology.  It contains a wealth of citations and is good for getting your feet wet.  If your feet are already wet, I would not recommend purchasing it, but I still periodically use it.

Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils
by Giuseppe Alberigo and Norman Tanner

WHERE TO FIND IT: On Amazon, for about $150.

STRENGTHS: This is the English version of a collection produced by Giuseppe Alberigo (the historian famously at the head of the so-called Bologna School which is one of the sources of the progressive account of Vatican II) of the decrees of all twenty-one general councils recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.  Because the collection includes only the decrees and not all the acts and proceedings of the various councils, it can fit in two hefty volumes which include both the original languages and parallel English translations.  Reading the decrees of the councils is extremely beneficial in gaining a sense of the common understanding of what belongs to the Catholic faith through the centuries.  One is easily disabused of the delusion that modern Catholicism is more doctrinally narrow and uptight than the Church was in earlier centuries, for example.  Because Councils are called generally to respond to a pressing doctrinal or disciplinary crisis in the Church, the decrees are (mostly) very precise and take care to clarify and define what they discuss, rather meandering effusively.

WEAKNESSES: The text includes only conciliar decrees, and not even all of them (there are occasional omissions).  As a result, the crises which were handled outside of ecumenical councils are left untouched.  Furthermore, the text is not organized in such a way as to be easy to navigate.  The contents of both volumes are placed in an appendix to volume two, making it difficult to find a particular decree, and even then the descriptions are frequently vague.  Furthermore, the text is weighed down by the bloated corpus of documents issued at Vatican II, which take up half of one volume and are of little dogmatic interest on the whole, on account of the vague and effusive language in which many of them were written.

RECOMMENDATION: The set is worth owning if you have the cash for it.  If you acquire it, I recommend reading the contents of Volume One first.  If you're simply looking for a dogmatic definition on some topic, your best chance is to find the decree on that topic at Trent.

Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum 
de Rebus Fidei et Morum (Denzinger-Hünermann 2008)

WHERE TO FIND IT: On Amazon, for about $50.  Also, in some Catholic bookstores.

STRENGTHS: This is the 43rd edition of the anthology of essential Magisterial texts first assembled by Heinrich Denzinger in 1854 at the request of Bl. Pius IX.  The collection of texts is prodigious, focusing mainly on papal decrees and the documents of various major synods and ecumenical councils.  It offers significant excerpts from hundreds of texts that most readers would never otherwise be aware of or have access to.  The current edition offers the original languages (mainly Latin) with a parallel English translation.  Furthermore, each paragraph of the text is assigned a numerical index, which makes it possible to use the book's numbering system as a shorthand citation for any particular document.  Astute readers will have noticed in the '94 Catechism and in recent magisterial documents frequent references to "DS" followed by some number.  "DS" refers to Denzinger and Schönmetzer (one of the later editors of the collection).  The current edition is cited as "DH", for Denzinger/Hünermann.  Finally, each item in the anthology is indexed topically, so that one can look up a particular subject and find a list of citations wherein it is discussed in the volume.

WEAKNESSES: The current edition of the Denzinger is wonderful in many ways, but it has some major faults.  One minor fault is that its contents are disproportionately skewed toward the past few pontificates.  While nothing (to my knowledge) from earlier years has been left out to make room for the excess if post-Conciliar texts, it seems like a poor use of space to include so many of them.  The biggest fault, though, is the organization of the topical index.  The index is bloated to the point of unusuability, and organized not under traditional dogmatic headings but under fuzzy topics like "God Gathers His People", which are not very helpful in directing one to a particular dogmatic question.  Furthermore, the index is so complex that it has its own table of contents, which includes three tiers of headings.  So, for example, if one wanted to find a list of citations related to the nature of heaven, one would have to decide whether to look in Index Section M.1.b. "The Eschatological Character of the Pilgrim Church" or M.3.c. "Beatitude–Grace and Reward", each of which contains several paragraphs with lists of citations.  The whole index is over 150 pages long—large pages, full of very fine, dense print.  And then, once one has found the right list of references, it's necessary to look each of them up in turn to see whether they fit!  It's a needlessly difficult exercise. 

RECOMMENDATION: This is one of a few books I think every intellectually engaged Catholic really ought to own.  It has its dangers—people too accustomed to consulting the Denzinger sometimes end up behaving as if it made systematic theological reflection unnecessary. ("It already has all the answers!")  This is, of course, false.  But it does offer guidance on a huge number of common theological issues and confusions, and its a great resource to turn to when one runs up against a doctrinal disagreement or question that is not easily answered.  Buy it, read it at night, flip through it randomly and discover things.  It's a wonderful resource.