Do differences in Christian doctrine or dogma matter anymore?

People have died for their belief in transubstantiation or papal infallibility

My mother was very virtuous. She prayed every day and attended Mass at least once a week. But was she a Catholic? I had better explain why I ask.

One day I sat Mary Jennings down and quizzed her about her faith. "You know," I said, "when you receive Holy Communion every Sunday, is that actually the body of Jesus Christ or does it just represent the body of Jesus?"

“It just represents the body, of course,” she said, without hesitation. “Oh,” I said, surprised, “and you know the Immaculate Conception . . .”

“That’s not the virgin birth, you know,” she cut in. “That’s a mistake many people make. The Immaculate Conception means that Our Lady was born not like the rest of us, she had no original sin on her soul.”

“I know that,” I said, “but isn’t that very unfair?”

“Why so?” she said. “Because in school we learned that one of the main effects of original sin is that we were all born with the inclination to evil.”

“Yes . . . so?”

“Well, if Our Lady was the only human being ever born without the inclination to evil, it really is no big deal that she never actually did commit any sins.”

“You know, I never thought about it that way. You might be right. But 100 years ago or so, didn’t the pope make it a law that all Catholics must believe in the Immaculate Conception?”

“Well, he could be wrong. He’s only human after all.”

I deleted the next question on my list. Papal infallibility was done.

“Can I ask one more question?” I said.

“Of course, but then I need to get the dinner on.”

Organ transplant

“Okay. Well, I have a problem with the resurrection of the body and what happens on the Last Day. We are all supposed to gather, and not just our souls but our bodies too. But how can that work? What age would you be? What if you were a widow and had remarried, what husband would you be with? If you had had an organ transplant, what would happen the donor? Would you come back the way you were on the day before the transplant? And what about the donor? And amputees . . ?”

“Stop, stop,” she said. “It’s hard to believe, I admit, but does it matter?”

As she got up to leave, it was what Mammy said next that has stayed with me for all these years.

“Don’t worry about these things, Michael, they are not important. The important thing is to be good and to be kind. That’s all God needs.”

But, for all these years I have wondered, was she right? Do doctrines matter? If they don’t matter, why do we still have such division, even among those who call themselves Christians?

In our own European continent, after the Reformation, whole countries were divided up on the basis of different strands of Christianity. If they didn’t matter, why were points of difference such as “salvation by faith alone”, or “the primacy of scripture/the bible”, or “transubstantiation” or “the papacy” allowed to become justifications for killing, for burning, for martyrdom? Were wars fought and did people die because of unimportant things?

Why do children go to different schools on the basis of differences which, my mother said, “don’t matter”?

Mild curiosity

When I was young, I regarded the conversions to Catholicism of the likes of Cardinal Newman as a victory for "our side" over the "other side". When Tony Blair's conversion was announced in 2007, I felt the general reaction was one of just mild curiosity.

There was a sense that what he had done was of no more significance than if he had switched from supporting Bohemians to Rovers or even perhaps Rangers to Celtic. Nobody I knew analysed how he had come to change his mind on beliefs which had torn countries apart and split families.

Did he now believe in papal infallibility for the first time? Did he struggle to comprehend transubstantiation? Did the idea that Mary was the sole person born immaculate, free of original sin, take some sleepless nights for him to accept? Did he now accept that she was “assumed (bodily) into heaven”?

So why do I know so many Catholics who do not think it is important to believe in all these differentiating articles of their faith?

Today, we don’t kill people because of their religion (not in the Republic anyway, at least not recently). But 100 miles from my house there are “peace lines” made of corrugated iron.

I loved my mother, always will. But when she said “these things do not matter”, was she right?

Mike Jennings is retired general secretary at the Irish Federation of University Teachers and a former regional secretary for Siptu