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The Throw-Down at the Council of Jerusalem and the Union of Dogma, Praxis, and Spirituality

The unity of the Catholic Faith is such that dogma, praxis, and spirituality cannot be separated. While each of these is distinct in terms of their acts, all are the same in object – namely, Jesus Christ Himself. All three of these are within the same sphere, and they inform each other.

To understand how all three are connected, we will look at the Council of Jerusalem as described in Acts 15, which is typically considered the Church’s first council. Here, at this council, we find the paragon of how dogma, praxis, and spirituality are interdependent and all entirely focused on Jesus Christ. Such a review of Acts 15 is beneficial for us in the Church of the 21st century, for we are facing a crisis of uniting dogma, praxis, and spirituality.

In Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem is called to solve one of the first theological debates of the Church, concerning the question of circumcision [1]. At this time, Paul and Barnabas are preaching and spreading the Gospel, but men have come from Judea, explaining to the people that the Jewish practice of circumcision is necessary for Gentile converts (Acts 15:1). We read the following concerning the situation: “And when Paul and Barnabas had no small contest with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of the other side, should go up to the apostles and priests to Jerusalem about this question” (Acts 15:2). Some scholars interpret this “no small contest” to be the event of Paul rebuking Peter, as described in Galatians 2. As Paul explains, “For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision” (Galatians 2:12). In other words, Paul is rebuking Peter for his fear of the circumcision party, which ultimately results in him withdrawing from eating with Gentiles; he no longer “breaks bread” with them, the early Church’s phrase for celebrating the Eucharist (Luke 24:30; Acts 2:42). Paul is right to rebuke Peter, for the Church’s mission is to preach the Gospel to the Gentile nation.

Nevertheless, even though Peter here makes a mistake in his praxis, as the first pope, he can never infallibly teach error in matters of faith and morals. Thus, at the council, Peter stands up after the apostles and elders debate the matter (Acts 15:6) and says:

And when there had been much disputing, Peter, rising up, said to them: Men, brethren, you know, that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, who knoweth the hearts, gave testimony, giving unto them the Holy Ghost, as well as to us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why tempt you God to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we believe to be saved, in like manner as they also. (Acts 15:7-11)

After this speech, “all the multitude [hold] their peace” (Acts 15:12), for now that Peter has spoken, this is the final word on the matter. Peter has spoken concerning the dogma of the Church: the Gentiles do not need to receive circumcision in order to be saved, because not even the Jews have been able to bear the burden. How can they expect the Gentiles to bear a yoke that not even the Jews could bear? Moreover, Gentiles have already been converted and baptized; for example, Cornelius and his whole household are converted and baptized through the grace of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10). For this reason, it does not seem necessary to impose on them the burden of circumcision. In this way, the circumcision party was partially correct: circumcision is necessary, but it is a circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 31:31-34), in accordance with the New Covenant, through rejecting the world in Baptism.

This proclamation of dogma is not divorced from subsequent praxis. After Peter has spoken, James stands up and, in full agreement with Peter’s statements about Gentile conversion, says, “For which cause I judge that they, who from among the Gentiles are converted to God, are not to be disquieted. But that we write unto them, that they refrain themselves from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20). James is thinking practically here: while the Gentiles will not asked to be circumcised in order to obtain salvation, there are certain practices that they should abstain from to be considered part of the Body of Christ. Just as the Jews cannot eat idol sacrifices or engage in unchaste activities, so too must the Gentiles follow those same rules. This is the “pastoral” application of the proclamation of dogma. Peter is not “soft” in his proclamation against the requirement of circumcision for salvation; rather, he is fully acknowledging the situation of the Gentiles, and James makes further application with regard to the practices that the Gentiles must avoid.

How is all of this connected to spirituality? For Paul, crucifixion is higher than circumcision, for the law of the Old Covenant was given for transgressions, or sin (Galatians 3:19). As Paul explains, “And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me. And that I live now in the flesh: I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered himself for me. I cast not away the grace of God. For if justice be by the law, then Christ died in vain (Galatians 2:20-21).” Paul is here revealing the simple reality that, because we are united to Christ through his crucifixion, the practices of the Old Law (except for the Ten Commandments, which are written on the hearts of men) are no longer necessary. Justification comes not through circumcision; rather, we are justified because of Christ’s crucifixion. Thus, it would be wrong to assert that the Gentiles must be circumcised in order to receive salvation and justification when, in reality, this comes through the crucifixion of Christ. Moreover, if we recall, Peter stopped breaking bread with the Gentiles when the question of circumcision became an issue. Since circumcision is not required for salvation, the Gentiles are able to participate in the Eucharistic supper, which means they are able to be united with the Lord fully.

In the Catholic Church today, we see far too many examples of dogma, praxis, and spirituality divided for the sake of “pastoral care” or “accompanying” an individual. This disconnect is obvious in the debates surrounding Communion for the divorced and “remarried.” Most recently, we see this disconnect in Cardinal Marx’s seeming endorsement of blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. He is reported to have said “there can be no rules” concerning this question, for the decision should be made by “a priest or pastoral worker” and dependent on the individual case. Whether or not Marx has actually endorsed these blessings and will put them into practice in his diocese, it is clear that such statements are scandalous to both Catholics and non-believers. In favor of a misunderstood idea of “pastoral practice,” Marx has effectively torn asunder the union of dogma, praxis, and spirituality. The Church’s dogma has always stated that, while individuals with homosexual inclinations are to be loved and supported, these inclinations cannot be acted upon in relationships. Rather, the Church has always called these individuals, as the Church does on all individuals, to live chastely, since homosexual relations are contrary to the natural law.

The Church has always practiced and enforced this life of chastity for all people, including those with homosexual inclinations. Any other practice, such as blessing homosexual unions, would be seen as contrary to the Church’s dogma. Because of the Church’s constant teaching, it would be the exact opposite of pastoral to allow blessings of such unions, because that is not the truly loving action for these individuals. Finally, in his statements, Marx has disregarded true spirituality, which would support those individuals carrying the cross of homosexual tendencies while living chaste lifestyles. Endorsing blessings of same-sex couples only supports the idea that it is better to live in accord with feelings rather than with reality and the Church’s teachings.

What is necessary in the Church today is a renewed understanding of the union among dogma, praxis, and spirituality. If these three are divided, or one is emphasized over the other, then there will not be a true application of the Gospel message. Rather, praxis and spirituality flow from dogma; if we change dogma, we will inevitably change praxis and how we live that dogma in our spirituality. If we change our praxis, a change in dogma will most likely follow.

Let us not relive the statement of St. Jerome: “One day the Church awoke and found herself Arian.” Rather, let us remain united to Christ through a union of dogma, praxis, and spirituality.

[1] I am indebted to Drs. Timothy Gray and Michael Barber, whose Scripture courses at the Augustine Institute have guided my interpretation of Acts 15.

Image: Council of Constance, 1414-1418.

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