“Truth,” said Pontius Pilate, “What is that?” This immortal line, uttered by the Roman Governor of Judaea a little under two thousand years ago, must surely count as the most ironic rhetorical question in history.
We cannot know whether Pilate’s words were meant as a bitter snipe at someone who claimed, impossibly, to “bear witness to the truth”, or an exasperated cry from the heart, or just a throwaway comment. One thing is for sure, however: he had no idea that the answer to his question stood there directly in front of him. Jesus was himself Truth – with a capital ‘T’. How the angels must have groaned.
It is all too easy to condemn Pilate, but in fact he was echoing a sentiment that is arguably the defining characteristic of our present age. There is in our modern society what might be called a crisis of truth. Human beings and human society are all too fickle and ready to compromise. We all want to play God and act as our own arbiters of what is ‘true’ for us… and nowhere is this crisis more corrosive than in the Church – the very bastion of truth.
It has become a hackneyed cliché to talk about the ‘spirit of Vatican II’, but one vital way in which this so-called spirit has served to thwart the actual content and intention of the Council is by undermining the confidence Catholics have in the truth of their own faith. How often have we heard statements like, “Oh, we don’t have to believe that anymore,” or, “We all have our own truth.”
Vatican II’s readiness to recognise truth and value in other Christian denominations, and even different religions, has been misconstrued and taken to mean that no one church or religion can claim to possess the complete truth. This is despite the fact that Vatican II also taught quite clearly that elements of sanctification and of truth found outside the visible confines of the one Catholic Church are gifts which properly belong to that Church and are, therefore, “forces impelling towards catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium). Ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue are laudable and essential aspects of the modern life of the Church, but should not be taken to imply an erosion of the uniqueness of the Catholic Church – which in fact forms the basis for any authentic dialogue.
If only Catholics today would celebrate the unique truth claims of their Church, rather than constantly be embarrassed of them. If those of us who still attend Mass had the courage to inspire the legions of the lapsed, young and old, with the notion that in Catholicism one possesses the fullness of truth – the one key that fits the lock of life perfectly – then perhaps wandering souls might recognise the need in their lives for truth and return.
However, today more than at any time in history, anyone who claims to possess the absolute truth risks derision, or worse. We all have our own truth, the relativists would say, but anyone who claims to have absolute truth, or the only truth, would be implying that his truth has implications for others who might not share it. This is fundamentalism, and look where fundamentalists have got us. According to this line of thought, claiming to ‘possess truth’ is dangerous, and simply leads to war, hatred and terrorism.
In December 2002, the then Cardinal Ratzinger parodied the relativist argument. “Isn’t it arrogant,” he said, tongue in cheek, “to speak of truth in matters of religion to the point of affirming that truth, the only truth, has been found in one’s own religion?…These people, it seems, are unable to dialogue; therefore, they cannot be taken seriously, because truth is not ‘possessed’ by anyone. We can only be in search of truth.” Then, turning the tables, the future Pope continued, “However, against this affirmation one can object: What search is this about, if one can never arrive at the goal?”
All too often in today’s relativistic, secular world, Catholics shy away from celebrating the divine character and truth of their Church. But if we don’t have the courage to make any truth claims about the faith of our Church, it is hard to see why anyone else would want to bother becoming a member of it, especially when there are so many other attractions in this life. Perhaps this goes to explain why the number of receptions into the Church has declined in recent decades.
Converts are attracted by truth and courage and clarity, not by platitudes and niceties. If the Church is true, it is the answer to life’s issues, hopes and fears. If it is not, then it is really nothing at all – just another cult or fad. When scandals loom large, and people lose faith in the personnel of the Church, they will easily lose faith in the Church as a whole if they are not helped to understand that the Catholic faith is fundamentally about Truth, and not about people.
When Cardinal Avery Dulles, the American Jesuit theologian, explained a few years ago why he converted from Presbyterianism to Catholicism as a student in 1940, he observed that many of the reasons people give for admiring the Catholic Church are not sufficient to justify membership in it. Instead, he said, the fundamental question is truth, and “whether the Catholic Church is the place where Christ’s saving presence is to be found”. Cardinal Dulles said that he was a Catholic because he “heard the call of Christ resonating in the Catholic Church”, and because it was this Church that carried out the essential apostolic ministries of teaching, sacramental worship and pastoral governance in a way that “brings me closer to Christ than I could otherwise be.”
If we want to attract more young people to church, and persuade the lapsed that returning to the practice of their faith will be indeed be worth the effort, we need a campaign to reclaim our identity as Catholics. We need to celebrate the truth, not feel embarrassed by it. People are not inspired by the wishy-washy or the bland, but the Catholic Faith when proclaimed with clarity is anything but. It is radical and even revolutionary. It is a clarion call to the modern world. As the great Catholic writer G K Chesterton said so boldly and unashamedly, “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”
In the last General Audience before his untimely death in 1978, the much loved but rarely quoted Pope John Paul I acknowledged that it is difficult to accept some truths, “because the truths of faith are of two kinds: some pleasant, others unpalatable to our spirit”. However, he went on to say: “Christ and the Church are only one thing. Christ is the Head, we, the Church, are his limbs. It is not possible to have faith and to say, ‘I believe in Jesus, I accept Jesus but I do not accept the Church.’ We must accept the Church, as she is…When the poor Pope, when the bishops and the priests, propose a doctrine, they are merely helping Christ. It is not our doctrine, it is Christ’s: we must guard it and present it.”
If truth can be found and possessed, as it can, there are some serious implications for all of us. Not only do we have to do our best to explore it and act on it, but we also have to share it. Truth is far too precious to keep to ourselves. Truth also requires submission, but this submission leads not to slavery but to real, authentic freedom.
Truth is never easy, but cannot be compromised. In Catholicism we possess not only something that is true, but something that is also beautiful and precious. With the banner of truth flying high, Catholics can propose a coherent world-view to this cynical, secular generation. If we have the courage of our convictions, and trust in Him whose truth it is we proclaim – who is Himself Truth – then, and only then, can the new evangelisation begin.
(C) DB, 2006