What Is Truth?

by SDG

in Benedict XVI

"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.

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Lurker August 2, 2005 at 5:26 am

Excellent post, Michelle! Sometimes I wonder how long it takes you guys to write some of these thoughtful articles.
Something I have problems dealing with are people who seem confused, though, about whether Truth really is an objective thing. By this I mean, they say things such as, “I believe abortion is wrong and I wouldn’t do it personally but that’s just my opinion and I wouldn’t tell someone else that they shouldn’t have an abortion.” What do you make of this, and how can you handle it?
Basically what they’re saying is, “I believe conclusively this is wrong , but I don’t really believe it.”
If they hold a belief, but won’t act on the presumption that it is true, then what GOOD is it?
I don’t know how to talk to these people about objective truths. I use the flies-to-honey manner of speaking as much as possible, but it seems that these people need to be encouraged in their convictions enough to carry them out of relativism and into objectivism.
So how can you go about doing that? Would you *really* say something like, “I believe that abortion is wrong, but I admit that I could be wrong about that”?
I would never say something like that, but at the same time I don’t want these people coming back at me with, “Nobody has the whole truth, and you could be wrong, and if you don’t admit that, you’re no better than the fundamentalists on soap boxes condemning to hell everybody else who doesn’t think like you, so you really shouldn’t go around telling other people what you believe, acting as if you really know the truth.” Arrgh, see the predicament?

Anonymous August 2, 2005 at 5:36 am

Nice post. Glad I read it. I heard a quote once that I like a lot. It seems appropriate here.
“Love without truth is hypocrisy and truth without love is destructive. When truth and love are combined in us as they are in Jesus, then we can enter fully into the promise of Jesus that “the truth will set you free.”
-Dr. Rembert S. Truluck”

scooter August 2, 2005 at 5:36 am

oops – last post was by me

Maureen August 2, 2005 at 7:44 am

Heh…that’s me. I do love answering questions or doing research for people, and I love finding stuff out. But I also love being right, especially if something’s going wrong or I’m uncertain about something else in my life. I suppose it’s a way of finding something to cling to, or passing on the stress to other people.
On the other hand, if I do like someone else and worry about them, I find it hard to present the truth at all if it goes against them.
Perhaps similarly, the more passionately and thoroughly I believe in a concept or cause, the less coherently I’m able to present it. Everything I know rushes into my head at the same moment (not to mention everything I feel), and the result is chaos. It’s a lot easier for me to argue obscure points of Star Trek than anything involving God. Star Trek doesn’t push my buttons, so I can stay calm.
And whenever the moment comes for me to stand up for my faith or for someone else, I am so far from calm that I’ve actually been accused of being mentally ill. (Granted, this was by someone who decided to drop a load of crup on me while I was in his car, many miles from home and on the interstate, and who had known me long enough to know I was not going to be pleased by his words or react well to being cornered by him.) I don’t want or mean to do it. I know perfectly well that simultaneously screaming and crying with righteous rage does not seem to be the stuff of “Faith of Our Fathers”. Although it did tend to discourage a couple people from simultaneously arguing that Catholics have guilt complexes and that Confession makes it too easy to get rid of guilt, I’m pretty sure that was the Holy Spirit and not my freaking out about it.
So although I know that staying calm and good-humored in these things is to be desired, I haven’t the foggiest idea how people do it. My mind and my emotions are wired very close together, which is handy for singing and poetry but not at all for apologetics. I admire you folks here for that.

M.Z. Forrest August 2, 2005 at 7:45 am

I think what you’ve written demonstrates that issues can be discussed without getting personal. It isn’t like Cardinal Ratzinger sugar coated his position on WO. What I’ve observed generally is that when debating a topic at some point a person will state that their fellow debater is trying to say they are less Christian or less Catholic. Personally, I’ve grown tired of having to heavily caveat my statements in trying to avoid this.

StephenL August 2, 2005 at 8:33 am

Michelle: Best post ever!

Veronica August 2, 2005 at 8:37 am

Excellent post, and right on the mark as well.

whimsy August 2, 2005 at 8:42 am

1 Corinthians 13:1-2
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Justin West August 2, 2005 at 8:44 am

“there is a difference between a love of truth and a love of being right. ”

Other Eric August 2, 2005 at 1:36 pm

Thank you, Michelle.

StubbleSpark August 2, 2005 at 6:26 pm

Good post and great comments.

BoBtheBLOGGER August 3, 2005 at 7:29 am

I’ve just started getting into Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith… it is amazing what a deep thinker our Pope is and how he is able to communicate very complicated ideas in very simple ways. I generally have to read what he’s written three or four times to make sure I’m getting it, but more from a sense of disbelief that I got it all the first time through!
I’d recommend it to anyone and it’s very easily accessible… I actually picked it up because I thought it was great that Wal-Mart was carrying Catholic literature. Figured I’d try to encourage that more. :)

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