August 02, 2005

Article at Authory

What Is Truth?

For they have set out for his sake and have accepted nothing from the heathen. So we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers in the truth (3 John 7-8).

Since the elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI, I have been reading several biographies of him. Among them are The Rise of Benedict XVI by John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, Pope Benedict XVI: His Life and Mission by non-Catholic Christian historian Stephen Mansfield, and Pope Benedict XVI: A Personal Portrait by Heinz-Joachim Fischer.

One thing that struck me in the various accounts of our new Holy Father is that although his passion for objective truth is like a golden thread woven throughout his life pattern, those who tell his life story remark that he is one of the kindest, gentlest people you could ever hope to meet. He has been known to publicly debate non-Catholics, even atheists, and yet he is acclaimed for acceding to the good points they make.

For example, in one such debate, recounted by Allen, before Ratzinger's election to the papacy, an atheist challenged Cardinal Ratzinger, saying that there was a difference between a "life" and a "person." Yes, Ratzinger acknowledged, that is true and conceded the point by commenting that even a plant is a "life" and that there should be careful distinction between the two terms.

Contrast this generous and humble attitude with that of certain non-Catholic Christians and even some Catholics who appear to be just as passionately concerned for the purity of objective truth, even to the extreme of fashioning faddish "No Compromise" bracelets, but who cannot concede that anyone but they could be right in every detail. A person must either agree with them on everything they declare to be The Essentials, or, quite literally, be facing damnation.

My question then is how passion for objective truth can place one person on the road to sanctity and others on the road to sanctimony. Perhaps the answer is that there is a difference between a love of truth and a love of being right.

A love of truth can allow a man to be one of the staunchest defenders of Catholic orthodoxy of modern times and yet also allow for him to be personal friends with those who sharply disagree with him. Dr. Fischer, for example, recounts how Cardinal Ratzinger confided in him before the opening of the conclave that he hoped that the new pontiff, whom Ratzinger in no way thought would be he, might choose Ratzinger’s favorite papal name, "Benedict." Yet, at the same time, Dr. Fischer counsels supporters of women’s ordination that they may yet have hope of succeeding in the generations to come. In other words, Cardinal Ratzinger could both be a defender of Catholic orthodoxy and a personal friend of someone whose own views on certain issues apparently are quite heterodox.

On the other hand, a love of being right can allow non-Catholic Christian apologists to bicker viciously among themselves over whether Roman Catholics are Christians and all but excommunicate those they perceive to be "Dancing With Roman Wolves." It can also allow certain Catholics to bicker among themselves over whose interpretation of Vatican II is Right and to dismiss as lost in the quicksands of "modernism" any who, for example, attend the standard rite of the Mass or who think Vatican II was a Good Thing.

Perhaps the key to choosing the road to sanctity rather than the road to sanctimony is to understand that we must be servants of the Truth—fellow-workers in the Truth, so to speak—rather than masters of Truth who keep Truth as our personal possession.

Truth is Someone, an infinite Someone (cf. John 14:6), and that means that it is outside ourselves and cannot be packed fully into our finite minds. We can have access to the Truth, like the householder who inventories his storeroom and continually finds treasure both new and old (cf. Matt. 13:52). It also means that we may not have the access to Truth that others have. The Church is the depository of all Truth and will be guided into all Truth, but individuals may not see some facets of the Truth that other individuals do. It is for us to accept those facets, "baptize" them where necessary, and discern how they fit into the larger Truth entrusted to the Church. It is not for us to dismiss others, even those of different religions or of no religion, as know-nothings. They may not know it all, but then neither do we.

In short, to be at the service of the Truth is to admit the possibility of being wrong. Without an ability to acknowledge when we are in error—or that it is even possible that we might err—we will never grow in Truth. We’ll have only that Truth about which we are sure that we’re right and no more.

(Image: Rocks labeled with affirmations, Pixabay.)