My friend Fr Gerald Murray has a very good essay at The Catholic Thing. He posted it a couple days ago, so you may already have seen it. It deserves some attention because it touches on something fundamental even to our daily peace: truth.
Channel your inner John Lennon or Thomas Hobbes for a moment and imagine a world without stable, objective truth. Our existence would soon become nasty, brutish and short.
In the absence of truth, we have the imposition of will. And if I am stronger than you, then you had better do what I say. Or else.
Fr. Murray takes a look at something that the Holy Father said during the sermon for his Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday.
We must be careful not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths. They can be comfortable idols, always within easy reach; they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern. Because the “truth-idol” imitates, it dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let those words touch the heart. Much worse, it distances ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.
What on earth does this mean?
Is it possible to turn truth, which is a transcendental, into an idol? Truth reflects God. God is truth. Can you turn God into an idol?
It could be that what the Pope is driving at is that it is – perhaps – possible to stress something that it true to an exaggerated degree, at which point it becomes something detrimental. I know that it is hard to get your head around the idea that truth can be detrimental in anyway. The truth will set us free (cf John 8:31) not reduce us to idol-worshippers.
So, what does the Holy Father mean? What truths or true statements is he talking about? Is he talking about the Church’s dogmatic teachings? Dogma, after all, is rooted in Scripture (cf. “dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel”). Is that what he means? Is this a criticism of, for example, the memorization of formulas, as one might teach children with the classic Baltimore Catechism? Is this an assertion that, even though something might be true, we don’t always have to behave as if it is? What to do with “truth idol”?
I very much want to take what all Popes say seriously and on face value. But figuring out what this means, on the face of it, seems to lead into a cul de sac of contradiction. Fr. Murray has his view:
[I]s it possible to make the truth into an idol? Can Catholic dogmatic teachings and the truths of the moral law become false gods that we worship so as to gain “a certain prestige and power”? It’s not possible. The truth as taught by the Church is what unites us to the true God and frees us from the errors of idolatry. Truth is not an idol, it is the remedy to idolatry.
Pope Francis states that “the ‘truth-idol’ imitates, it dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let those words touch the heart.” Is the Gospel obscured or falsified by truths taught by the Magisterium of the Church – which are drawn from that Gospel?
If the truth could be an idol, then naturally any use of the Scriptures to illustrate that particular truth would be a charade. But the truth of God cannot be an idol because what God has made known to us is our means of entering into His reality – the goal of our existence.
Francis states that this “truth-idolatry” in fact “distances ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.” [Does the Pope mean, “Teaching people formulas that express the Church’s dogma without also engaging in works of mercy?”]
Here we have the interpretative key to what I think he is getting at. He is defending his decision in Amoris Laetitia to allow some people who are living in adulterous unions to receive the sacraments of penance and the Holy Eucharistic while intending to continue to engage in adulterous relations.
This doctrinal and disciplinary innovation, which contradicts all previous papal teaching and legislation, was confirmed as his unequivocal intention in his letter to the Argentinian bishops of the Buenos Aires region.
Those who defend the Church’s constant teaching and practice on this matter have been subjected to various aspersions. Now they are being categorized as engaging in a horrific violation of the First Commandment because they treat Catholic doctrine as inviolable, and thus binding upon all believers. [A sad consequence of the lack of clarity in this regard has been that band of camp-followers label those who uphold the Church’s perennial teachings and disciplines as being stupid, or haters, or afraid. It’s a typical liberal tactic.]
If truth could ever lose its quality of being the means to know the will of God, and become something false, and thus evil, then mankind is lost. Without immutable truth, we have no way to live in unity with God, with reality, and with one another. [Life would, as I mentioned, rapidly become nasty, brutish and short.]
The good news is that truth can never be false. It’s not an idol, and to defend the truth is not to lead people away from God towards false worship, but rather to invite them to embrace what is, in fact, their deepest desire for goodness, happiness, and peace.
The truth will set you free, it will not enslave you in error and darkness. Those who seek to be healed by coming close to Christ in his sacraments will only realize that goal by knowing and doing what Jesus asks of them. To reject in practice his words about the permanence of marriage and the obligation to avoid adultery, and then assert a right to receive the sacraments risks making an erroneous opinion into an idol.
Mercy can never been divorced from truth. Mercy, divorced from truth, would become mere caprice, my whim at this moment, the imposition of my will… this time for your advantage, the next time for my advantage.
Pope Francis is hard to understand sometimes. One good thing that results from his lack of clarity is that we then are bound to think through carefully what he is saying and the implications of what he says. For my part, I am promptly driven back to Scripture and sources such as the Roman Catechism and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make sure that I have my feet on the ground.