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Freedom and doctrine

It is a requirement of human freedom and dignity that Catholic doctrine be understood as true, unchanging and publicly knowable. To the extent doctrine is settled and knowable, to be a Catholic is not to subject oneself to the rule of priests but to live intelligently in the world. Doctrine then plays a part (speaking quite figuratively) like that played by the laws of mechanics, and the sacraments one like standard dental treatment. The hierarchy becomes clearly ministerial, rather as dentists and high-school physics teachers are ministerial. It’s idiotic not to listen to them and obey them, but there’s nothing tyrannical about the relationship because there’s nothing made-up or arbitrary about what they do or say. The relation is based on simple recognition of the way things are, and that recognition binds them even more than it binds us.

If doctrine’s up for grabs then everything changes. Whoever gets to decide doctrine decides the nature of the world, and to the extent personal choice or creativity is involved the decider takes on the role of God. In the American church it has mostly been functionaries like theologians and religious educators who have been eager to seize that role. As in the rest of life, those who are powerful in the limited traditional sense in which kings, tycoons and bishops are powerful are no longer the great threat to freedom. The threat comes from experts and bureaucrats, who continually change the rules and redefine the meaning of things so that without them no one is competent to carry on life.

All of which suggests a political argument for traditionalist Catholicism: it’s the form of the religion that belongs to the people, who mind their own business, to the hierarchy, who are few in number, and to the dead, who rule only by providing an example. As such, it is far less oppressive than an updated Catholicism based on expertise. To let innovation, creativity, free development and the like into the aspects of religious life that pertain to the hierarchy—doctrine and the sacraments—is to make the Church a tyranny.