I have been following some reaction online to a statement Pope Francis made at the Chrism Mass in Rome.
The Holy Father said:
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.
While people on the conservative and traditionalist side of the Catholic Spectrum have criticized this comment or called it confusing, I think I understand what the Holy Father is getting at.
The key in Pope Francis’ statement is the “truth-idol” does not let the words “touch the heart.”
In my days as a Protestant, I would encounter fellow believers who loved to hurl a Scriptural proof text to prove their point. They might have said something truthful, but seemed to do so out of a desire to win, to be proved right, to have the last word.
I come across Christians, Catholic and non, who know the faith intellectually backwards and forwards, can quote Scripture or the right encyclical with the best of them, but some seem not to have mastered Christianity 101, which, to me, is making a habit of forbearing, forgiving, and not taking offense so as to inflame the carnal nature. It means speaking up out of a love of truth and righteousness, not because one is angry.
Thus, some of them seem to have lots of abstract truth, but they are still the same angry, disputatious, judgmental people as they were before, as if the fruits of the Spirit were only something to talk about not to exhibit in their lives as a gauge of how well the Truth who is Jesus, has incarnated in their individual lives.
And I have also encountered people who are full of abstract truth, but have horrible timing, who blurt stuff out because in their intellectual, cold abstract way they feel they must take it upon themselves to deliver that truth. They do not move from the impulse of the Holy Spirit, but from their own mental calculations. Instead of patience and a moment by moment obedience, they step in to play Holy Spirit in the lives of others.
The effect is usually the opposite of what they claim to hope for. They push people away from the Truth, Jesus Christ, despite their protestations that they stand for the truth.
But Pope Francis’ warning here about making abstract truth an idol has been so internalized in North America, probably the entire west, that most Christians, Catholic and non, fall to the other extreme, where abstract truths are seldom even mentioned for fear of being “that Christian,” or “that Catholic” who throws down the proof text or the faith as a formula on a piece of paper rather than a gift of the Spirit and a theological virtue.
It’s almost as if Pope Francis seems to be criticizing something that may have been a problem in the 1950s, but we have gone so far in the opposite direction that few Catholics even know anymore what the hard truths of their faith are. We are so geared to “dialogue” and “encounter” that the road map of objective moral truth has been cast aside, and thus people are lost, or making up their faith as they go along.
We need abstract truths. We need Scripture. We need to be taught how things hang together. And, above all, we need to appropriate Truth into our lives. So, it’s not only a matter of filling our heads with knowledge, it’s about obeying the Truth.
Fr. Gerald E. Murray gave an analysis at The Catholic Thing here.
Truth is the conformity of mind and reality. The truth about God is understood when we accurately grasp the nature and purpose of His creation (natural theology), and when we believe in any supernatural revelation He may make. Jesus told us that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All truths have their origin in the Truth who is God made man. The Christian understands that the truth is a Person.
Dogmatic and moral truths come from and lead to God. The truth banishes error, especially idolatry, because all truth is found in the Word made flesh. What is true is good and beautiful because it unites us to the good and beautiful God. He created us so that we may know Him by knowing the truth that He is.
Fr. Murray goes on to say this is a criticism of those who are standing up for the truth of marriage as indissoluble and for the integrity of the sacraments. I do not know whether this is in fact what the Pope was saying or implying, but it does seem that those sticking up for Catholic truth in this area feel targeted by some of the Pope’s criticisms and that of his surrogates. Fr. Murray again.
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.
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.