Know the truth and the truth will make you … an idolator?

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. jim123 says:

    I think that Francis, in his Holy Chrism Mass sermon, is saying something aimed in a different direction that the one that this blog post suggests. Francis gives the Gospel example of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman. Jesus could simply have said to the woman; “You are a sinner. You have being sinning a long time. You must stop sinning.” Would all those facts be truthful? Definitely truthful, without a doubt. But Jesus does not limit himself in such a way. Instead, he engages in a close encounter with her, where he draws out the **same facts**, but embedded in a shared personal exchange, which aims at drawing her in. Staying back at a distance and reciting facts from that distance is a different thing than a personal exchange. The absence of a person from the truth risks making it a non-living truth — which in that sense is an idol.

  2. L. says:

    This kind of self-immolating “teaching” that comes from Rome and from my own diocese makes me think of science fiction stories in which a Dr. Frankenstein-type character creates the monster, and tells the monster that he is the greatest creation of mankind, superior to every other man, at which point the monster asks, “If this is true, then who needs you?” and chokes the creator to death.

  3. Unwilling says:

    Post-Enlightenment thought is fundamentally skeptical. First of this or that truth, gradually of anything as truth. The vocable “truth” has at most a relative value. A political value. Critical-Theory deconstruction. It is in this sense that PF judges truth(s) — for or against some person or part. He is not denying, because he has not conceived, immutable eternal Truth. We can pray that he encounter HIM.

  4. teomatteo says:

    “… healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.”
    If the pope said this might he consider this ‘truth’ and might he then ‘idolize’ this truth and distort it? Does this have any meaning for me then? Well…. not really.

  5. jst5000 says:

    I think that we must be careful not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract mercies. They can be comfortable idols, always within easy reach; they require no recognition of ones sins, often validating a person in their sins; they scandalize the faithful; they are a sign of conforming oneself to the world – that God needs to be put aside (at least for a little time) while man acts; they demonstrate a lack of trust in God’s grace; they communicate the idea that God’s Law is meant only for a few and is too difficult for all, being more of an ideal; they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern. Because the “mercy-idol” imitates, it dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let those words reconcile with the intellect. Much worse, it distances ordinary people from true mercy and the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.

  6. JohnE says:

    I am not sure what Pope Francis is doing. Hopefully in the long run it will be helpful, but I think what the Church and the world needs right now is clear, faithful teaching.

  7. Toan says:

    I’d interpret Pope Francis’ comments in light of his recent encyclical’s comments on gnosticism. He is drawing upon a temptation that knowledgeable, traditional Catholics can have towards gnosticism: Knowing and cleaving to a lot of the truths of the faith can gain entry into a sort of “club”, in which members pride themselves over their knowledge and look down on and exclude others who lack that knowledge. It’s true that being knowledgeable can lead to pride, and to a feeling of superiority over others. (Reading the beginning of the Imitation of Christ is a good remedy for this, particularly in the Knox translation.)

    What’s grating to me, though, is the apparent implication that we, in holding to perennial Church teaching and discipline, are being categorized as idolaters and gnostics. There seems to be no recognition that fervent love for Jesus and neighbor could possibly be the motive.

    But, perhaps, Pope Francis hasn’t seen enough fervent love for Jesus and neighbor from us. Apparently we haven’t done enough to convince him of our good motives. Maybe we just need to provide more and more evidence of our fervent love for Jesus and neighbor. (Which, of course, we should be doing anyway.)

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    He has made himself perfectly clear. That’s the problem. The other problem is we have not wanted to take his words at face value and we should.

  9. Quanah says:

    I don’t like the way Pope Francis phrased it, but I identify with what I think he is meaning. When I had my conversion of heart, I was enamored by the faith. A few months later I realized I didn’t have a relationship with our Lord; I had an impersonal interest in the faith like one would have in a new found philosophy or science, literature, etc. I was also less than charitable shall we say in my discussions with others concerning the faith. I was the perfect example for many years of what Pope Benedict XVI identified as faith that was a protest against modernity, et. al. rather than faith that was a zealous love of Christ. (He said this in an interview about his first encounter with members of Communion and Liberation, who he identified as being the first group of young people he had ever met whose faith was a zealous love for Christ rather than a protest.) Pope Benedict emphasizes that the truth is first and foremost a Person. I think what Pope Francis is meaning by “truth-idolatry” (as much as I don’t like that way of putting it), is truth divorced from Person, which results in the reduction of faith to an ideology and ultimately can lead to a departure from faith into error.

  10. defenderofTruth says:

    A good friend of mine opined that it is possible that by “moving left”, His Holiness is forcing the Church to move right. By making statements such as this, he is forcing us to do exactly as Fr. Z says: make sure our feet are on solid ground, rooted in Scripture and Tradition.

    In my experience, the progressive wing of the Church has positions that aren’t logically tenable given Scripture and Tradition. At some point, progressive Catholics have to reject Sacred Scripture, or Sacred Tradition, at which point they cease to be Catholic. As such, as we form solid positions consistent with Scripture and Tradition, the silliness of the Progressive wing will become evident, even to them (provided they are open to the Holy Spirit). Thus, the Church will abandon the progressive positions.

  11. Mike says:

    The idols we should fear are the ideologies that would wrest power from God, Who is Truth, and cede it to the autonomous Self or the authoritarian pagan State. We must pray that the See of Peter be restored swiftly to one who will state that truth with no equivocation, lest more souls be misled to their destruction.

  12. Chaswjd says:

    Perhaps the Holy Father was thinking of his Chesterton: ” “Every heresy is a truth taught out of proportion.” (Chesterton in the Daily News, June 26, 1909.)

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  14. Ave Maria says:

    Mercy divorced from truth is not mercy at all. An interesting article at

    this is about how being”nice” can lead a person to embrace evils. Jesus is The Way, The Truth, and The Life and apart from Him we can do nothing worthy of heaven.

  15. Malta says:

    My friend Charles Coulombe wrote a book, “History of the Popes,” it will be interesting what Catholic historians think of Francis 100 years from now.

  16. LarryW2LJ says:

    I’m a simple man – stuff like this makes my brain hurt.

    Can’t he just come out and say what he means without turning everything into a jigsaw puzzle that we have to piece together and guess what the picture is that we’re looking at?

  17. bobbird says:

    The obvious rejoinder is the quotation of Christ: “I AM the way, the Truth and the life.” Ergo, if someone made an “idol” of Truth, he would be worshiping the One who IS the Truth. These are weird times.

  18. acardnal 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.”

    YES! The “Roman Catechism” aka the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Buy it and read it. And you will know the one, true, faith. Obtainable from either Tan Books or Baronius Press websites.

  19. Charles E Flynn says:

    The Roman Catechism, also known as The Catechism of the Council of Trent, is once again available from Baronius Press:

    The description has blurbs from two sources unaffected by recent attempts to confuse the faithful:

    The Roman Catechism has for more than four centuries been the single most authoritative one-volume, carefully organized, easily readable, and clearly expressed synthesis of Roman Catholicism.
    – Fr. John A. Hardon SJ

    That golden book known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent, or Roman Catechism … Noted both for the abundance and accuracy of its teaching and for elegance of style, this catechism is a precious summary of the whole of theology, dogmatic and moral.
    – Leo XIII, Encyclical Depuis Le Jour.

  20. GrumpyYoungMan says:


    I’m dealing with the same issues – why not just be clear??? The lack of clarity makes it easy for one to (uncharitably?) assume that the goal is to “change” the truth.

    I wish this pope was easier to interpret…

  21. stephen c says:

    Chasjwd – Chesterton was right about a lot of things and wrong about a lot of things. He was wrong about heresy always being an exaggeration of truth. Some heresies were just evil, and had nothing to do, exaggerated or not, with truth. Think about it – there were some heresies, popular in their day and in ours, that were nothing like “truths taught out of proportion”: in fact, there were (and are) some that were (and are) just lies told by liars who wanted (and still want, poor fools) to profit from lies, because they were (and, we need to pray for them, sometime are) unrepentant sinners, who sought (and seek, poor losers) the vain good things of this world. Chesterton was too nice a guy to understand that, probably. which is why he falsely stated that every heresy is a truth stated out of proportion. Which is, in its way (his naive niceness, that is) what we would want for him, if we care about him.

    The Book of Proverbs, in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation, in the New Testament, are more useful on this subject than Chesterton – read those books, and you will learn, sad to say, that some heretics were probably just bad people who had no love at all in their heart – such things are possible. I have met a few such people and it is a chilling experience, one has to have a heart of stone not to feel that one has to pray for them! Only God knows the mystery of coldness that those particular heretics have experienced in their souls! I can understand why Chesterton, who had so much love for so many people, wanted to think differently, as if everybody else, including the most obvious evil-doers of his day, were just was mistaken versions of his good self, but that in itself was a heresy, and he was wrong. That being said, it is almost always good to quote Chesterton, whose insights are almost always worth thinking about, and thank you for your interesting comment.

  22. SimonK says:

    Imagine a person who loves reading theology books, but who doesn’t love his neighbour. Whose faith is all in his head, and not at all in his heart. Who would rather read a theology book than volunteer in a homeless shelter. Maybe such a person is indeed a “truth idolator”?

    Some will read the Pope’s words as targeted as his “enemies”. Actually, I read the Pope’s words as targeted at me. I would rather read a theology book than volunteer in a homeless shelter, so maybe “truth idolatry” is my sin.

  23. JabbaPapa says:

    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.

    These are difficult notions, but the Pope is right.

    The Truth and the Revelation is not immanent in our ideas, but it is transcendental in the Word, in the Son, and He resides in God’s Heaven.

    The Pope has a certain manner of mystic spirituality that is quite uncommon among Christians not cloistered in monasteries, though it is eminently Christian, whilst it is uncertain that might be of value to those among us who have more worldly and practical Vocations. [I wonder how many people agree with that.]

    But in that sense and for that purpose (remember, the Chrism Mass at the Holy See is given in particular for the Bishops and the Cardinals of the Church, plus the Roman Catechumens and Ordinands and the specifically Roman clergy, so including of course yourself dear Fr Z, not principally for hoi polloi of others or I out here in the sticks), for the benefit of some less “exalted” lives, I’d say that in practical purposes it would be mostly a warning against such things as Protestant literalism and the fake ideologies that it provides, some types of Gnostic Scriptural, dogmatic, or liturgical fetishism which confuse the messenger for the message, also against the Errors of Scientism and the atheist mistake of trying to see all writings in the false reductionist binary of true/false, and generally against seeking to become a Pharisee.

    Which (I can’t help it) is probably so abstract as to be of not much help to most.

    The heretical dogmas of Modernism, Relativism, Americanism are all “truth-idols” of the sort that the Pope is denouncing — indeed, the concept of the “truth-idol” is basically identical with “heresy”, which this homily is denouncing.

    These are difficult concepts.

  24. DeGaulle says:

    JabbaPapa, your interpretation may well be right and I hope it is, but I’m afraid that my initial reaction to this statement was to attribute the Sixth Commandment to possibly being the ‘truth-idol’ the Pope was referring to, in the context of AL and the reception of the Eucharist. My reaction may be alarmist, but in the current fog of confusion, how else can one interpret such unspecific statements? Pope Francis is, at best, an unskilled communicator.

  25. JabbaPapa says:

    DeGaulle :

    Pope Francis is, at best, an unskilled communicator.

    I agree.

  26. JabbaPapa says:

    Better he though than for example the Macron of France, in his unashamèd Masonic lecture to Congress as if his “truth” were some manner of worshipfulness.

    Did you get his promotion of a “New World Order”, and some “Common Good” ?

    More nauseating perhaps was the thunderous applause that Congress rewarded his statements of Masonic doctrine with.

  27. mo7 says:

    I am not educated in these matters. I can only speak Imho, he is talking about holding of the faith over those less knowledgeable, not using it charitably, but in a prideful way. I’ve seen some of that. The answer is not to be less knowledgeable. It is to own that knowledge with humility and share it in charity.

  28. robtbrown says:


    The absence of a person from the truth risks making it a non-living truth — which in that sense is an idol.

    All truth participates in God Who is the First Truth–and is the cause of all life.

  29. Gaetano says:

    Given our fallen nature, the sin-factory that is the human heart is capable of turning anything – even the that dedicated to the highest good, beautiful, and true – toward an evil end.
    That does not, however, mean that every allegation that unswerving allegiance to the truth is evil is – in fact – correct.

    “[T]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.
    – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

  30. TonyO says:

    Pope Francis is, at best, an unskilled communicator.

    What, you mean, like this?

    they offer a certain prestige and power and are difficult to discern.

    What is “difficult to discern”? Truth? No, that’s using the wrong word. You can “discern spirits”, for example, and you can discern a meaning, and so on. You can investigate truth, or study it, or learn it, or accept it, or fight it, but one does not “discern” it, that’s the wrong word.

    I am sure that Pope Francis thought that he meant something important and deep in saying these things. Maybe he was even right. Maybe he was trying to point out MIS-using the truth, and setting up in one’s mind knowing some truth in place of knowing the ground and source of all truth, God. But knowing some truth isn’t of its own nature opposed to knowing God, it is (all other things being equal) an element or part of the pathway tending toward knowing and loving God. Truths are not neutral things that have no power in them to lead to God, they are always connected to God and thus tend to lead us to Him (unless we abuse our knowing truth).

    More than likely PF has a mental bugaboo about people who seem to think themselves Christians but who don’t act like it, who (in his mind) are that way because they are “all about dogma” and not about love. I think don’t think it is the problem he makes it out to be, his mental bugaboo, not because he is wrong about there being some people Christians who fail to love, but because what he ascribes as the cause is only a teeny, tiny portion of the cause of peoples’ failures to live as Christians: caring about dogma and truth isn’t what leads to lack of love. If (in a few cases) people manage to care about dogma and truth in a bad way so that for them it creates an obstacle to love, it is still not precisely their concern for truth that they sin, but in their handling it wrongly. He manages to locate the speck in their eye while passing right over the great big log of a failure to adhere to chastity. Even in people who know their dogma well and who follow the 6th commandment, what PF thinks is a great big problem is still not the great big problem he considers it.

    He seems to be the sort of person who goes around saying “there are two kinds of people in this world, the bigots who put others into 2 categories, and those who do not.” Ummm, yeah, get back to me when you’ve sorted that one out properly.

  31. uptoncp says:

    “Certain abstract truths” – not the whole Truth. Is it not all too easy to seize on one small thing which, while true, blinds is to other, maybe more important truths? For example, “There is one God” is a truth so important that the Nicene Creed leads with it. But if I pursue it blindly and ignore the Trinity, I am wrong.

  32. Semper Gumby says:

    Thank you Fr. Murray and Fr. Z.

    Good points, bobbird and robtbrown:

    “I am the way, the Truth and the life.”

    “All truth participates in God Who is the First Truth– and is the cause of all life.”

  33. Chaswjd says:

    stephen c:
    I guess that I would have to respectfully disagree with you. Admittedly, there are those who are outright liars out there. However, I would argue that the thing which makes a heresy compelling is that it has just enough truth in it to make it attractive. Arianism was an (erroneous) attempt to deal with the truth that there is one God. Lutheranism is, in part, an attempt to deal with the truth that our salvation cannot be earned. Communism is an attempt to create the Kingdom (but without a heavenly King.) The Prosperity Gospel has, at its core, the idea that God wants the good for all of humanity (but then equates the good with material riches). A convincing heresy is rarely wholly wrong.

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