In the recent Letter of Pope Francis to the new Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, I was particularly struck by two points made by Francis about the mission of the Dicastery: one, to promote theological knowledge rather than pursuing possible doctrinal errors; two, he cites from Evangelii Gaudium (40) that the Church “‘grow[s] in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth’ without this implying the imposition of a single way of expressing it.”
For the sake of fairness to Francis, in the February 14, 2022, Apostolic Letter Fidem Servare, he spoke of the DDF’s task being that of the “promotion and protection of the doctrine of faith and morals.” In addition, he says that in this regard the DDF must examine “writings and opinions which appear problematic for the correct faith, encouraging dialogue with their authors and proposing suitable remedies.”
These additional points from Fidem Servare are absent from Francis’ Letter because, in the latter, he explicitly distances himself from defending the faith from error. Yes, there is a legitimate doctrinal pluralism, but how can the DDF distinguish legitimate from illegitimate ways of expressing the faith without distinguishing truth and falsity, which will involve defending the faith from doctrinal errors? It can’t!
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In Pope Francis’ Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudium, he states in the first part of the second sentence, “For truth is not an abstract idea, but is Jesus himself.” In a homily that raised eyebrows, Francis urged us to “be careful not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths.”1 Now, we might think that Francis is rightly insisting that truth itself must be authenticated existentially—that is, lived out, practiced, carried out—and hence cannot be reduced to propositional truth—to being merely believed, asserted, and claimed.
Perhaps he is merely saying, as John Paul II once said, “No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 29). But the contrast in this first sentence is between abstract truth and reality rather than between two complementary ways of understanding truth, propositional truth and existential truth.
In his letter of September 4, 2013, to a non-believer, Francis responds to the questions of Eugenio Scalfari, a journalist of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. One of his questions asks whether there is “no absolute, and therefore no absolute truth, but only a series of relative and subjective truths.”2 Francis does not define “subjective truth,” but in Lumen Fidei §25, which was coauthored with Benedict XVI, we read: “subjective truths of the individual…consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions, which are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others.” This understanding of truth could also be called “personal truth.” Pope Francis seems to have an affinity with understanding truth in this sense, as I will argue below.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith claims that religious truth should be understood as “personal truth” rather than propositional truth. Describing Smith’s view, Harold Netland explains,
Personal truth is a property not of propositions or statements but rather of persons and is a function of one’s inner life…. In other words, personal truth does not signify objective correspondence with reality but rather personal integrity, sincerity, faithfulness, and the existential appropriation of particular beliefs in the believer’s conduct.3
By contrast, a true belief is simply true and therefore valid even for those who do not hold it; in short, it is true for everyone, as the way things are. This is propositional truth—a proposition is true if and only if what it asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, it is false.
What, then, does Francis say in his answer to Scalfari?
To begin with, I would not speak about “absolute” truths, even for believers, in the sense that absolute is that which is disconnected and bereft of all relationship. Truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship. As such each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture and situation in life, etc. This does not mean that truth is variable and subjective, quite the contrary. But it does signify that it comes to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: “I am the way, the truth, and the life?” In other words, truth, being completely one with love, demands humility and an openness to be sought, received and expressed.
This is a crucial passage and it requires much unpacking. Francis distances himself from understanding truth “as variable and subjective.” Indeed, he claims that “it is quite the contrary.” But it is hard to see that his disclaimer is persuasive. He is skeptical about speaking of “absolute” truth. Let us note that Francis’ skepticism arises from his claim that, for Christians, truth is not only mediated through a relationship with a divine person, Christ, but also is known under the conditions of history. Thus, in his skepticism about absolute truth, he implies that he objects to the idea of a truth-in-itself, without a knowing subject. Pope Francis distances himself from understanding truth “as variable and subjective.” Indeed, he claims that “it is quite the contrary.” But it is hard to see that his disclaimer is persuasive. Tweet This
In my judgment, Francis confuses the conditions under which I know that something is true and the conditions that make something true.4 In other words, he confuses the “question of whether one knows that the statement is true or is justified in believing it” with the question of “whether the statement is in fact true.”5 Pace Francis, affirming the existence of absolute truth and the conditions that make p true—which is objective reality—does not mean that one ignores the separate matter regarding the conditions under which I come to know that p is true.
Those conditions may include—as Francis rightly says—acknowledging that this claim is made from a social, cultural/historical, and ecclesial location in life. Furthermore, the epistemic conditions under which one comes to know the truth involves the right dispositions, moral and religious character, of the inquirer, as Francis correctly suggests.
However, Francis also confuses the matter in question. Truth itself is not a relationship; rather, the knowledge of truth consists of a relationship—personal encounter, trust, obedience, and love—between the knower and the known. Furthermore, personal knowledge is indissolubly linked with conceptual content, with believing and hence affirming certain things to be true, claims regarding “what” God says to us. It is no wonder that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably [emphasis added], it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” (150). This teaching is missing in Francis. John Paul II rightly sees what Francis overlooks.
With regard to the intellectus fidei, a prime consideration must be that divine Truth “proposed to us in the Sacred Scriptures and rightly interpreted by the Church’s teaching” [Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 5, 3 ad 2] enjoys an innate intelligibility, so logically consistent that it stands as an authentic body of knowledge. The intellectus fidei expounds this truth, not only in grasping the logical and conceptual structure of the propositions in which the Church’s teaching is framed, but also, indeed primarily, in bringing to light the salvific meaning of these propositions for the individual and for humanity. From the sum of these propositions, the believer comes to know the history of salvation, which culminates in the person of Jesus Christ and in his Paschal Mystery. Believers then share in this mystery by their assent of faith. (Fides et Ratio, 65) [emphasis added]
More than half a century ago, Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II) expressed clearly the point regarding the distinction between justification and truth.
It is not the strength, the power of conviction, or the authenticity of belief with which the given subject passes a judgment that determines whether or not it is true, but rather its conformity with that to which or to whom the given judgment pertains. The subject is the exclusive author of the judgment, but is not, however, the author of its truth. This distinction is often forgotten, especially when the pertinent judgments or assessments are accompanied by strong affective reactions.6
Yes, the judgments that we make about truth may vary—in other words, their epistemic status. But truth itself does not change because it transcends the limits of a cultural context. In his own words, as John Paul II rightly states, “Truth can never be confined to time and culture; in history it is known, but it also reaches beyond history” (Fides et Ratio, 95).
Francis must agree here with John Paul because he denies that truth is variable, subjective, or personal. But—unlike John Paul—he overlooks the epistemic conditions under which I know that something is true and conditions that make it true. Presupposing that distinction allows one to see that there is no opposition here between asserting that p is true simpliciter—what p says is the case, actually is the case, valid for everyone—and acknowledging the conditions under which I know that p.
Consider propositions such as that “God created the world,” that “Jesus Christ our Lord was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, died, and was buried,” and that “Jesus Christ was raised from the dead”—all these assertions are true since what they say is the case, actually is the case.
Now, if we focus on the content of what is asserted here in these statements, its theological truth-content, rather than the conditions under which they were asserted, we surely may say of such assertions that they are objectively true. In other words, “once true always true, permanently true.” The latter means that the truth or falsity of our beliefs and assertions is objective in virtue of certain facts about reality, which holds for all men—absolutely. In short, the source of truth is reality. We can know absolute truth because to believe, assert, or claim that p is absolutely true is identical with asserting that it is true simpliciter.
Moreover, the then-Cardinal Bergoglio affirms that “Truth, beauty, and goodness exist. The absolute exists. It can, or rather, it should be known and perceived.”7 Yet, sometimes Bergoglio does not seem to understand the idea of logically exclusive beliefs and what is entailed by that idea. For instance, he stresses, “Let us not compromise our ideas, utopias, possessions, and rights; let us give up only the pretension that they are unique and absolute” [emphasis added].8
Does he realize that this sounds like “subjective truth” or “personal truth?” Is Bergoglio suggesting that Christianity is not absolute? Does he realize that giving up this so-called pretension means renouncing the finality, fullness, and superiority of God’s revelation in Christ?
Elsewhere, but similarly, he writes,
To dialogue [with other religions] means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the [renouncing of the] claim that they alone are valid or absolute.9
His disclaimer withdrawing the validity or absoluteness of Christian beliefs sounds like relativism. Despite his disclaimer, does Francis’ view entail a relativist view of truth?
Elsewhere, Francis says in a similar vein,
The truth of God is inexhaustible, it is an ocean from which we barely see the shore. It is something that we are beginning to discover in these times: not to enslave ourselves to an almost paranoid defense of our truth (if I have it, he doesn’t have it; if he can have it, then I don’t have it). The truth is a gift that remains large, and precisely for this reason it enlarges us, it amplifies us, it elevates us. And it makes us servants of such a gift, which does not entail relativisms, but rather that the truth requires a continual path of deepening comprehension.10
Yes, knowledge of the truth requires such a path, involving then new linguistic formulations in the deepening comprehension that may result in doctrinal development. However, Francis doesn’t make clear here that these linguistic formulations do not logically entail discontinuity of doctrine.
On the interpretation of Vincent of Lérins that there are legitimate new formulations, it is stressed that these formulations must keep the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia). Again, Francis says, “To dialogue means to believe that the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the [renouncing of the] claim that they alone are valid or absolute.”11
What does Francis mean when urging us to renounce the claim that the central truth claims of Christianity are alone valid or absolute? As it stands, Francis’ insistence about withdrawing claims to validity and absolute truth is confusing. Logically speaking, if p is true, then –p must be false, and hence anyone who holds –p must be wrong. We live in a culture where people claim that there are no true moral or theological propositions; yet if there are no true propositions, then there are no false ones either. There are just differences, and no one is wrong. This is relativism about truth.
Now, given Francis’ critique of practical relativism,12 he cannot be asking us to withdraw our truth claims because that p is only true for me, or to hold them hypothetically or conditionally. In the first place, if we give up the idea that our beliefs are unique such that they are absolutely true, then aren’t we giving up holding them as true?
Surely, Jeffrey Stout is right when he says that we do not necessarily “lack humility when we conclude that our beliefs are true, and, by implication, that those who disagree with us hold false beliefs.” Again, Stout rightly says, “To hold our beliefs is precisely to accept them as true.” Therefore, he adds, “It would be inconsistent, not a sign of humility, to say that people who disagree with beliefs that we hold true are not themselves holding false beliefs.”13 Francis has no grasp of this point.
In the second place, of course, given that truth is inexhaustible, it does “require a continual path of deepening comprehension,” as the then-Cardinal Bergoglio puts it. Missing, however, is that truth-claims may be incompatible, not only in interreligious dialogue, but also in dialogue in general. In other words, “What for one is true, for another is false. What for one is good, for another is evil.” What this means is that incompatible truth claims cannot just be “differing reflections of the inexhaustible richness of human life,” as Francis claims in Fratelli Tutti. Affirming some truth claim excludes that state of affairs “which would render the proposition false.”
For example, the proposition, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14) is true because what the proposition asserts is in fact the case about objective reality. The denial of that proposition is antithetical to orthodox Christian faith. In other words, the affirmation regarding the Incarnation excludes some possible state of affairs in which the proposition is false. As Anglican theologian Keith Ward rightly states, “If an assertion excludes nothing, it affirms nothing. In that sense, all truth-claims are necessarily exclusive.”14 Francis ignores this nonnegotiable truth in order to affirm the coexistence of diverse perspectives, locally and cross-culturally.
Yes, there is legitimate theological diversity, but properly understood in the Lérinian sense, as I have suggested above, “according to the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia].” And surely Pope Francis holds that one can express truth determinatively—inadequacy of expression does not mean inexpressibility of truth. For if the latter were the case, there would be no revealed truth, and no reliable access to these sets of truth (Fides et Ratio, 81). The belief-content of faith (fides quae creditur) expresses truth determinatively, and not merely approximately, because “the dogmatic expression must bear some relationship to truth for it to be considered de fide, unless one has a view that language has no proper referencing function to reality.”15
In sum, faith of its very nature involves belief, and to have a belief means that I am intellectually committed to the truth of that belief. Now, truth is such that if a proposition is true, then what that proposition states is in fact the case about objective reality. Propositionally being the case about objective reality means that it is absolutely, objectively and universally true. A proposition is absolutely and objectively true when it is true for not only those who believe it—that’s relativism—but equally true even when it is rejected. This means that a proposition is true regardless of whatever anyone thinks about it. Truth in itself is, therefore, universal in that “if something is true then it must be true for all people and at all times” (Fides et Ratio, 27).
Francis denies that Christian beliefs alone are valid or absolute, and hence I am not sure that he can maintain the uniqueness and identity of Christianity. Moreover, since truth matters because reality matters, we need to justify our religious commitment, particularly the claims one holds to be true must be justified. Otherwise, merely accepting fundamental differences, in short, one’s religious identity, says Pope Benedict XVI, “effectively blocks the path to truth.” The fundamental religious choices would consequently appear arbitrary, as having nothing to do with rationality and the truth about reality, particularly “with the possibility that religion has to do with truth.” Hence, truth matters.
Unfortunately, the loss of this perspective on truth means that the DDF’s mission for defending the integrity of the Catholic Faith, which includes defending the Faith from error and illegitimate interpretations, is lost.
[Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded (Lectio Publishing, 2019), 40-44.]
- Francis, “Homily at Holy Chrism Mass.”
- Francis, “Letter to a Non-Believer.”
- Harold A. Netland, “Can All Religions be True?” in Christianity & Religious Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 147. Like me, Netland holds to propositional truth.
- Raeburne S. Heimbeck rightly explains this distinction, “If we admit, therefore, that it is one thing for something to be the case (or not be the case) and another for us to know or have reason for believing that it is the case (or not the case), and if we admit that it is one thing for a statement to be true (or false) and quite another thing for us to know or have reason for believing that it is true (or false), then we have ipso facto acknowledged the validity of the distinction between criteria and evidence. For the gist of that distinction, to repeat, is simply the difference between the conditions which would have to be fulfilled for a statement to be true (or false) and the conditions which would have to be fulfilled for us to know or have reason for believing it to be true (or false)” (Theology and Meaning: A Critique of Metatheological Scepticism [London: George Allen an Unwin Ltd., 1969], 48).
- Netland, “Can All Religions be True?” 147.
- Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, translation, endnote, and Foreword by Grzegorz Ignatik (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2013), 136.
- Francis, The People Wish to See Jesus, 72.
- Ibid., 68.
- Francis, “Message of Pope Francis for the 48th World Communications Day,” June 1, 2014 [emphasis added].
- Bergoglio, Education for Choosing Life, 56-57.
- “Message of Pope Francis for the 48th World Communications Day” [emphasis added].
- See Chapter 2 of Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II.
- Stout, Ethics After Babel, 24-25.
- Keith Ward, “Truth and the Diversity of Religions,” in The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity, edited by Philip L. Quinn and Kevin Meeker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 109-125, and at 110.
- Gavin D’Costa, Vatican II, 35.