When I was in 8th grade I wrote an article for our school’s paper titled “Strange Laws”. I looked up the weirdest laws I could find throughout history for each of the fifty states. For instance, in Minnesota, a person may not cross state lines with a duck on top of his head. In South Carolina, when approaching a four-way or blind intersection in a non-horse driven vehicle, you must stop 100 feet from the intersection and discharge a firearm into the air to warn horse traffic.
At first I was questioning why such things should be (or at least were at one time) illegal. Then I began to think more broadly, “Why and how is it that laws even come about in the first place?” For instance, in a perfect society where no one ever does anything wrong, there would be no need for laws. Why have a law that states “You shall not steal” if no one ever stole or had the desire to steal? But of course there is no perfect society, so laws have been developed to hold people accountable for their actions. Now that we have laws that specifically state “You shall not steal”, if someone steals they can be punished and the prosecuting party can appeal to the law to justify the offense.
But how did that specific law come about? Before any laws were formally set by a type of government perhaps no one ever stole. Everyone shared without thinking anyone would ever have the motive to secretly take what wasn’t theirs and never return it. Once that first person stole and people began to realize that stealing should not be allowed, the law came about more formally and in writing so that everyone could clearly understand that it was wrong to steal and that they would be held accountable if they tried to steal. In a perfect society, that would simply go without saying. In a broken society, there must be some standard to clearly define what should be common sense in order to hold people accountable.
Now let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about Church dogma. The word “dogma” is one of those buzzwords that seems to have a negative connotation to it. Some people view dogma as one of those “religious” (with a negative connotation) things. Some view it as a strict roadblock to developing a personal relationship with Jesus. Now because I’m a layman who has had no formal education on such topics as the development of dogma or laws I’m only attempting to explain this in the most basic way possible. But sometimes understanding the basic foundation of something can help a great deal and allow for the possibility of building off a solid foundation.
I was recently talking to a friend who has been doing a considerable amount of research on the Catholic Church. When we got on the topic of Mary, he mentioned that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary did not come about until 1854. He seemed to be asking me “Why so late? Why not dogmatically define that from day one instead of waiting until 1854?”
One of the reasons is that there was no need to in the early community of Christians. This was simply “common sense” which people just took for granted. (To cite explicit examples you can read things written by St. Justin Martyr from 155 AD, St. Iraneus of Lyons in 189 AD, St. Ambrose of Milan in 387 AD, St. Augustine in 415 AD, and so on.) The belief that Mary was conceived without Original Sin, thanks to the anticipated merits of her son, wasn’t just one of many items on a long list of things you had to believe (as people view it as today); it was simply part of what it meant to be a member of the Early Church community.
It would be like blaming the NBA for having “too many rules” and being “too structured”. Without boundary lines, without regulation-sized balls, courts, and backboards, there can be no consistency and the game of “basketball” could mean anything. There would be no way you could play a game if opposing teams had differing views on how many points certain baskets were worth, what exactly a “foul” was, and how many people could play on the court at once.
Just as in a community where no one steals there is no need to formally write out “You shall not steal”, so too in a community (the Church) that first heard about and read about the traditions of the apostles that were to be passed down was there no need to formally declare that Mary was born without the stain of Original Sin (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The dogma of the Immaculate Conception came about primarily due to challenges to the idea that Mary could have been born without Original Sin. The Church, in dogmatically defining such a concept in 1854, did not simply look in the Bible to think of more things to add to a list of things you have to believe in. Instead they simply preserved what the Church had believed even before the Bible was formally compiled in the 5th century. They did not invent a man-made belief (which the Church can never do), they chose to formally define and preserve that which had been handed down to them (2 Timothy 3:14).
Like Mary, the Church “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” and dogmatically defined the Immaculate Conception in a world that no longer took this belief for granted. By putting it in writing they helped clear up any vague misunderstandings or obscurities that people outside the Church may have had. They clearly defined the boundary lines for the basketball court of the Church that had, in reality, already been acknowledged by those who had been playing on the court for the past 2,000 years. This also put into place a standard for people within the Church to be held accountable for and, in a sense, helped create a stepping stone for more concise and consistent doctrine to flow from.
When Church dogma is seen as “You have to believe this and that” it can be seen as an unnecessary roadblock and one of those “religious” (with a negative connotation) things. When it is seen as “This is in writing what the Church has been passing down for 2,000 years in an attempt to lead people into the fullness of Truth, which is a loving God”, it becomes much more welcoming and even comforting.