Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On the Idea of Doctrine

The idea of doctrine is unusual as a feature of scholarly attention.  The only two spheres of academic learning that I can think of which rely on the idea of doctrine are law and theology.  One might even say that doctrine is crucial for these two areas of learning, and anathema for most others. 

Legal doctrine is studied extensively by law students, and times were that "doctrinal" scholarship was the primary preoccupation of law professors.  That changed to some extent with the coming of both the crits and the 'law and...' phases of legal scholarship, though there continue to be accomplished and interesting doctrinalists (indeed, I have noticed a new wave of young-turk doctrinalists lately -- in some ways, it is they who are today's subversives).  But even those who plow the interdisciplinary and critical fields know to pay doctrine its due; stray too far from it and one's writing begins not to look like legal scholarship at all.  It may even be that it is doctrine which puts the 'legal' in legal scholarship.  I am far less familiar with the history of theology as a discipline, but it seems to me that the interpretation of doctrine would play a central role in the life of the theological scholar.  The accretion of exegetical incrustations is a happy and welcome event for theology, a sign that the field is thriving, and when one becomes a theologian, my guess is that one is committing oneself to the idea of doctrine as a core feature of one's writing life -- even if it is one's aim to offer reforming, novel, or radical doctrinal interpretations.   

Is there any other discipline in which the idea of doctrine is accorded respect, let alone pride of place?  Does it make any sense to speak to a philosopher or a literary critic, a scientist or an architect or a mathematician, about doctrine?  In these fields and most others, doctrine, to the extent that it appears as an intellectual phenomenon at all, is an impediment.  It is an obstacle to be blasted through, something to be challenged and replaced.  Parricide is the order of the day, and if there are doctrines out there, they are regarded with executioner's eyes by the next scholarly generation.  Naturally there are dogmas in all fields, law very much included, but the idea of dogma is different than the idea of doctrine.  A dogma is an entrenched but temporary piety; a doctrine has greater permanence and less attitude.  A doctrine is regarded by those within the discipline as fundamental, a cornerstone on which sound buildings can be constructed, redesigned, and reconstructed.  A dogma is more militant, more ambitious, and more brittle.

What can explain the prominence of doctrine in law and theology?  This is too large a topic for a blog post, but some rank speculation follows after the jump (which I hope readers will supplement). 

One possibility is that the idea of doctrine prevails in those disciplines with an attuned sense of the importance of authority and authoritative pronouncements.  Both law and theology share commitments to authority -- there is always the bedrock idea that some text or body speaks with an authority that binds to a greater or lesser extent.  Patrick Brennan has written insightfully about the claims of authority in law, and those waters are too deep to explore at length here, but suffice it to say that there may be some core conceptual connection between a discipline's valorization of doctrine and the importance of authority as a core component of the discipline.  Strong ideas of authority are, again, rare in other intellectual disciplines.

A second possibility might be that doctrine provides a kind of coordinating function in law and theology that just doesn't apply in other areas.  We need legal doctrine to accomplish certain goals, and to understand the common mechanisms by which those goals are properly attained.  Doctrine is like a common language -- you need to learn the basics of the language to get anything done.  But I'm not certain that this explanation offers anything distinctive about the specialness of doctrine in law or theology.  After all, you need to know the basics of engineering and aesthetics to be a competent, let alone exceptional, architect.  So maybe what's special about doctrine can't be reduced to social coordination.

A third possibility has connections with the first.  It is that the valorization of doctrine presupposes that the past -- the existing legal and social firmament, and its development over time -- is inherently, rather than only instrumentally, valuable.  This may be the most distinctive feature of disciplines in which doctrine plays a central role.  The idea here is that fields like law value doctrine because the legal past (that is, the pre-existing legal scaffolding) is inherently worthy of respect and deference.  Not slavishly blind deference, but somehow more than a strong presumption of respect.  A love, a sense of gratitude and kinship with the past qua foundational past.  To believe in doctrine as a core feature of a discipline is to embrace the arguments of Dean Anthony Kronman in his lovely piece two decades ago on the intrinsic virtues of precedent. 

That is something which is simply not part of most other academic traditions.  Just the opposite: the past is only worthwhile to the extent that it can be used to think more clearly, with keener sight, today, or tomorrow, or at some future time.  For law and, perhaps, theology, it is love for the past which sustains the perpetual esteem in which doctrine is held.     


DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

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Great post, and I agree that you're onto something with the third possibility especially. Would critics say that law and theology are both concerned with doctrine because without doctrine, there is no "there" there? Most fields tend to be oriented toward capturing reality accurately, and looking for new mechanisms by which to verify that accuracy. Doctrine can get in the way. Law and theology face some normative (law) and empirical (theology) challenges with a "verification of reality" approach. Doctrine helps provide a framework that makes the fields meaningful.

Posted by: rob vischer | Nov 4, 2010 11:19:59 AM

Thanks Rob, and I think you are right. Your comment reminded me of Steve Smith's book, Law's Quandary, where Steve says that even the most ardently skeptical law professor secretly believes in the "there" (what he calls the ontology) of law.

One additional thing about the last part of your comment -- it might suggest that a field like law (and theology?) may well be less about "accuracy" or "reality" than a certain acculturation, or custom, or tradition. And that orientation toward custom and tradition might take on its own normative dimension -- perhaps even as a challenge to the methodology of "accuracy"-based disciplines.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Nov 4, 2010 12:01:19 PM

I wonder if someone could comment about the difference between Judaism and Christianity, and how this relates to the idea of doctrine and law. It seems to me that Judaism has a body of knowledge or law (Halakhah) which is largely oriented toward what Jews must *do*. On the other hand, a lot of Christian doctrine seems to involve what one must *believe*. For the layman, at least, it is difficult to see why two branches of Christianity would split over a single word (filoque), and it is also difficult to see what importance certain dogmas (Immaculate Conception, Assumption) could possibly make in day-to-day life. Legal doctrines, I would think, would have practical consequences, along the lines of Jewish law.

Posted by: David Nickol | Nov 4, 2010 12:17:43 PM

David -- thank you for the comment. I do not know if you are in the NYC area this Friday, but St. John's is hosting a conference dealing with (among other issues) the question of "law in religion." One of the presenters is Chaim Saiman, who will deal exactly with the subject of Halakhah, and there are other papers addressing religious conceptions of law.

Also, and if you are interested, my colleague, Mark Movsesian, has also recently published a piece comparing the place and role of law in Islamic and Christian traditions (in the Seton Hall law review).

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Nov 4, 2010 12:46:59 PM

But our theological beliefs do mean something in real life. For example the Assumption. It was dogmatically defined in 1950. Why? Ven. Pius XII had viewed the horrors of the previous decade. To him the time was ripe to declare as a dogma this belief that was already held by Catholics. The purpose was to show the glory to which human nature can aspire and is in fact created for. The doctrine is rooted in the idea of the dignity of the human person. This was an answer to the devaluation of humanity that had taken place during WWII. By highlighting this belief it is reflected what we do such as in our stand against the culture of death. This leads to doing things such as voting pro-life, protesting at clinics, creating homes for unwed mothers, encouraging adoption etc. Theological beliefs always end up being played out in daily life.

Posted by: Fr. J | Nov 4, 2010 6:30:10 PM

A thought provoking analysis of what makes doctrine of specific relevance to law and theology. I am just about to give a seminar to a group of Master students this afternoon on the very question of doctrinal research in law, so I shall be putting your theory to them for discussion.

Posted by: Martin Hogg | Nov 8, 2010 5:49:29 AM

Martin, thanks for the comment. I would be curious to know how they react, and whether the idea of doctrinal research is exciting to them.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Nov 8, 2010 6:35:33 AM