Even The Demons Believe They Know What Doctrine Is And Isn’t (Steve Bannon Edition)

In his recent Charlie Rose interview, Steve Bannon criticized Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York and other U.S. Catholic bishops for their opposition to President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA protections for “Dreamers.”  Bannon said that “as much as I respect Cardinal Dolan and the bishops on doctrine, this is not doctrine.  This is not doctrine at all.  I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine.  This is not about doctrine.  This is about the sovereignty of a nation.  And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.”

Bannon does not want American Catholics to follow the bishops and cardinals on the immigration issue.  He wants Catholic voters, as well as evangelical Protestants and others, to follow his own nativist opinions.  But he is misleading or mendacious or untutored (or a combination) about what is and isn’t doctrine.  Christian doctrine is Christian teaching.  Whether it is sound or unsound doctrine depends first on how faithful it is to the Christian scriptures.  Sound Christian teaching also needs to be congruent (especially for Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, but also, in sometimes complicated and conflictual ways, for Protestant Christians) with church traditions, as expressed, for example, in creeds, confessions, encyclicals, and other teaching statements.  If Bannon had said “dogma” instead of doctrine he might have been somewhat less wrong, but even putatively infallible Catholic dogmas [which are few] are statements of Christian teaching to build up faith and practice, not primarily metaphysical speculations.  Of course there is a distinction between “doctrine” and “life,” but a separation would be unscriptural, untraditional, and unfaithful.

Sound doctrine rooted in Scripture can certainly rely on the many Biblical injunctions to “welcome the stranger” going back to the book of Exodus.  If Steve Bannon believes that Christian doctrine has no pertinence to governmental restrictions on immigration and no claim on his attention when it is employed to criticize his nativist anti-immigrant viewpoint, he is really saying that Christian doctrine has nothing to do with any actual issue.  Bannon has plenty of company if that’s what he believes, but not good company, and he has effectively renounced his claim to grasp Catholic Christian tradition.  Bannon is not wrong to associate the immigration issue with “the sovereignty of a nation”  (but leaves Catholicity behind when he separates nation-sovereignty completely from sovereignty of God).  And the U.S. Catholic bishops are certainly capable of misconstruing Scripture and Catholic tradition in this or that way.  But when Bannon calls the cardinals and bishops “just another guy with an opinion” regarding welcoming or deporting immigrants, he has defined “doctrine” as conveniently irrelevant to all real-life controversies and left Catholic and Christian tradition in the dust.

P.S. Don’t trust me?  Let me quote from a guy with an opinion, St. Augustine, Book One, section 30 of his De Doctrina Christiana: after quoting Matthew 22:37-40 on love of God and neighbor, Augustine tells us that “it is clear that we should understand by our neighbor the person to whom an act of compassion is due if he needs it or would be due if he needed it.  It follows from this that a person from whom an act of compassion is due to us in our turn is also our neighbor.  For the word ‘neighbor’ implies a relationship…who can fail to see that there is no exception to this, nobody to whom compassion is not due?”  Is Augustine Catholic enough?  Does Augustine know what doctrine is about?  Does not even Thomas Aquinas say (Summa Theologica, first part, first question, articles 1, 4, and 5) that sacred doctrine is not just philosophical and speculative but also practical–and thus nobler than other “sciences”?  And if Mr. Bannon wishes to delve into doctrine in a serious way, I suggest he study the First Part of the Second Part of the Summa T., treatise on the virtues, q. 56, article 4: “Whether the irascible and concupiscible powers are the subject of virtue,” or not.

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