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God’s Love Revealed: The Intrinsic Connection of Doctrine and Spirituality

In the world today, there is a tendency to separate spiritual things from objective guidelines and rules. How many people call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” as if to say the precepts of religion have no connection with the spiritual life? Nevertheless, it has been the constant teaching of the Church that doctrine and spirituality are inseparable. In this article, I want to focus on the idea that the spiritual life cannot be separated from the doctrine of the Church, as explained by many of the great saints, lest we fall into a kind of anthropological “feel-good” spiritualism [1]. This is a grave danger in our time, one to which we can easily succumb if we do not keep the presence of God at the center of all our actions.

Before looking at the connection between the spiritual life and doctrine, we must first define each. There are many ways to describe the spiritual life, but essentially, it is the inner life of man that unites him with God; gives him sanctifying grace; and increases the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes, “Sanctifying grace, the principle of our interior life, makes us truly the children of God because it makes us partakers of His nature. We cannot be sons of God by nature, as the Word is; but we are truly sons of God by grace and by adoption” [2]. Thus, in accordance with the Gospels, “Grace is eternal life already begun [in us]” [3]. In such a way, the spiritual life is something “other” from our nature. While grace perfects our nature, the spiritual life is not and cannot be identical to our nature. The grace we receive in the spiritual life is fundamentally transformative – we are transformed to become more and more like the Son of God. By entering into the spiritual life, we are already entering into the life of God. In this way, the Kingdom of God is present here and now, even though we will not reach its fulfillment until the Beatific Vision.

Doctrine is not opposed to the spiritual life. Rather, as we will see, the spiritual life springs from doctrine. Doctrine is fundamentally rooted in God himself, Who is love. For this reason, all of doctrine is first rooted in Revelation, which is the manifestation of God Himself. The Church, who is the receiver of doctrine, cannot “invent” anything new in her teachings; rather, all of her teachings deepen what is already found in Revelation. Anyone who believes he does not have to follow the “rules” of the Catholic Church because they were “invented” is sadly mistaken, for God Himself is the author of all the truths taught by the Church. For example, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the Ten Commandments are given “in the midst of a theophany[.] … They belong to God’s revelation of himself and his glory. The gift of the Commandments is the gift of God himself and his holy will. In making his will known, God reveals himself to his people” (no. 2059). Thus, the Ten Commandments, which are principles or articles of doctrine by which we are called to live, come from God and are not merely established by the Catholic Church. If God is love, then He established these rules out of love for us, which means we should follow them with our whole being. This principle applies not only to the Ten Commandments, but to every other point of doctrine established by the Catholic Church.

How, then, are doctrine and spirituality related? Louis Boyer gives us an extended and helpful explanation:

Christian spirituality (or any other spirituality) is distinguished from dogma by the fact that, instead of studying or describing the objects of belief as it were in the abstract, it studies the reactions which these objects arouse in the religious consciousness[.] … [S]pirituality studies the consciousness only in its living relationship with these objects, in its real apprehension, as Newman said, of what it believes. Dogmatic theology, therefore, must always be presupposed as the basis of spiritual theology, even though the latter concerns itself with the former only under the relationship that they entertain with the religious consciousness. [4]

Essentially, Boyer is showing the intrinsic relationship between the spiritual life and dogma. Theology studies the articles of dogma and looks at them abstractly – what is the Trinity, what is the significance of each of the Ten Commandments, how do we define the human nature of Christ, etc. Spiritual theology, which is the source of the spiritual life, looks at each of these articles as it relates to an individual’s “religious consciousness.” This should not be taken in a relativistic way; rather, the objects of doctrine become the objects of prayer. Praying to the Trinity for an increase of faith, hope, and charity will look different from studying the doctrine of procession and relation in the Trinity – yet the object is the same in both cases. In this way, the spiritual life cannot be divorced from the doctrine of the Church. Because we are united through God in our spiritual lives, through the gift of his grace, there can be nothing contrary about doctrine and spirituality. Despite some questions that may arise with regard to his theological approach, Henri de Lubac is exactly right when he says, “[T]here is no authentic spirituality that does not put dogma into action” [5].

Moreover, what we learn about God in our spiritual lives should influence how we understand doctrine. As described above, many people believe that the Church imposes extrinsic “rules” onto peoples’ lives; these rules become particularly troublesome for people in the realm of marriage and sexuality. Nevertheless, if we know that God’s nature is love (1 John 4) from praying with the Scriptures, encountering Him in the liturgy, and spending time in meditative prayer, then should this not also influence how we understand doctrine, which comes from God? The idea that the God of my prayer is “nice” while the God of doctrine is “mean” is untenable. God is the author both of our spirituality and of doctrine; both flow from the same source, which means we should approach doctrine with the firm conviction that God is love, and that everything within doctrine is for our benefit and salvation.

By way of conclusion, it is worth reflecting on the relationship of this discussion with the sacred liturgy of the Church. While the sacred liturgy – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Divine Office – is considered the public prayer of the Church, we can see how participating in the liturgy helps us to keep doctrine and spirituality united. Indeed, in the liturgy of the Church, we encounter many of the doctrines of God through the prayer of the Church. The liturgy teaches us that doctrine and spirituality cannot be separated. If doctrine is separated from the liturgy, the liturgy becomes a celebration of man and the goodness of his earthly existence. If spirituality is separated from the liturgy, the actions and the responses become meaningless to us, as if we were puppets acting out a stage performance. Rather, because both doctrine and spirituality are united in the sacred liturgy, we are able to have a deep, full, and profound encounter with God – and this encounter should overflow into our own personal spiritual lives. Let us, therefore, turn to the God of love in confidence, Who is the author both of doctrine and our spiritual lives, entrusting ourselves to him, that we might grow both in knowledge and understanding of His inner life.


[1] I am deeply grateful for the insight gained through Prof. Douglas Bushman’s course on the “Theology of Conversion” at the Augustine Institute. Extensive notes from this course have directed me to the necessary and important sources concerning this principle.

[2] Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1938, 1977), 10.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Louis Boyer, A History of Christian Spirituality, Vol. 1: The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers viii.

[5] Henri de Lubac, Theological Fragments (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 118.

Image: Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons.

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