Defending Pope Francis: What is a Truth-Idol?

Pope Francis gave a homily at the Chrism Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday. A certain paragraph of that talk has been criticized as if it were false or heterodox.

Pope Francis: “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.” [Homily of Pope Francis]

I see no problem with his words at all, neither at first glance, nor after thinking about it for a while. And a quick search of the internet brings up this interesting similar quote, which may be the source of the Pope’s meditation:

“We make an idol of truth itself, for truth apart from charity is not God, but his image and an idol that we must not love or worship.” [Blaise Pascal, Pensées]

Both Pascal and Pope Francis are correct. God is Truth in the sense of infinite perfect Truth — all truths, all goodness, all love, all mercy, all put together as one divine eternal act. But when we choose a few particular truths, as “abstract truths”, distant from living the Gospel by love of God and neighbor, we do make an idol of truth. For we have reduced the Truth that is God to a few concepts, in so far as we fallen sinners understand them, and we subtract from the totality of truth all other goods, especially love, compassion, mercy, and living a life in imitation of truth.

Examples are easy to find, unfortunately. We all know that type of Catholic who is so thoroughly prolife that nothing else matters. That everything else in the faith is made to revolve around or in some way apply to the prolife cause. The truth that abortion is a very grave sin against innocent life becomes the be-all and end-all of Catholicism. Everyone is judged by how thoroughly prolife they are. And by taking the lead in the prolife cause, some of these persons gain notoriety, influence, personal aggrandizement, etc.

A similar case is found in the popular version of the theology of the body. The truths taught by John Paul II on that subject are treated like an idol to be worshiped. The whole of the Christian Faith is made to revolve around theology of the body. Every aspect of Catholicism is explained by reference to the body and/or sex. The whole of the Catholic Christian faith contains mysteries beyond human comprehension. But in this version of theology of the body, everything is easily understood by analogy with or reference to the body or the bodily function of sexual acts. And that is a type of idolatry, even when we are speaking about truths taught by a Pope who is also a Saint. Then again, at its worst, the popular version of the theology of the body teaches falsehoods and idolizes, not the truth about the body, but absolutely idolizes the body itself. And that is even worse.

The traditionalist Catholics have a certain way of following Christ and worshiping God, which is very good. But it is also possible to fall into error while being a traditionalist. When the right way to perform a liturgical service becomes the highest truth, and everything else pales by comparison, that is idolatry. Perhaps the Latin Mass is the best form of the Mass on earth, for fallen sinners, prior to the general resurrection. But making that truth a god to be worshiped is not uncommon. How often do traditionalists talk about liturgical form? And how often do they teach the basic principles of ethics or the doctrines of the Catholic faith in various areas of theology?

Pope Francis is absolutely correct in warning us, just as Pascal warned us, not to make an idol of our limited understanding of certain few truths. There is a scale of values in truth. You cannot pick your favorite truths and make a new religion out of those few ideas. And many truths in the faith are mysteries. So often I read Catholics explaining the Faith as if it were all very simple. They don’t admit that they might misunderstand. They don’t admit that some truths cannot be fully understood, not by any finite mind. And they don’t live the Gospel. They are only interested in their favorite truths and how these can be used to beat the heads of anyone who disagrees. And they do not accept any truth on faith, but only if it makes sense to their own minds.

Truth is an idol when it loses its proper place in the scale of values, when it is isolated from the call to love others and the call to worship God, who is Truth beyond comprehension. Anything that is not God, anything that is less than God, can be made into an idol: not only money or sex or power, but also lesser goods in contradiction to greater goods, or truth isolated from mysteries and from a trusting faith that believes beyond understanding.

Fr. Murray’s Error

Over at The Catholic Thing, Fr. Gerald E. Murray rebukes the Roman Pontiff for teaching the above simple lesson on avoiding idolatry.

“Given this, is it possible to make the truth into an idol? Can Catholic dogmatic teachings and the truths of the moral law become false gods that we worship so as to gain “a certain prestige and power”? It’s not possible. The truth as taught by the Church is what unites us to the true God and frees us from the errors of idolatry. Truth is not an idol, it is the remedy to idolatry.” [Of Truth and Idols]

The “given this” is that all truth comes from God and can lead us to God. Idolatry is when we make a god of what is less than God. And using abstract reason to understand truth is simply how the human mind works.

It is very troubling that any Catholic priest would go out of his way to find an interpretation of any Pope’s words that will make his teaching seem false. Is it really “not possible” to make an idols out of a few abstract truths? What about those persons who idolize the truths of science, and use them to claim that God is unnecessary and probably non-existent? What about the Pharisees of Jesus’ time who were upset that Jesus did not ask them to put to death the woman caught in adultery, or those who were upset that Jesus would not approve of divorce?

Certainly, some liberal Catholics make an idol out of love, using the idea of love to contradict or make needless the entire moral law. And then there are conservative Catholics who think that intellectual adherence to correct doctrine is salvific, not noticing that this is essentially the same as the error of Protestants, who think that faith alone saves. Adhering to the correct ideas on doctrine, while refusing to be guided by truth to a life of loving your neighbor is classic Pharisaism. And it is in fact an example of the idolatry of truth.

Consider the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritans had grave errors on faith and morals in their belief system. Yet the good Samaritan was in the state of grace because he loved his neighbor. The Jews who passed by and refused to help the injured man had the correct ideas on faith and morals. But they made an idol of those ideas, thinking that, if they adhere to the correct ideas on doctrine, they don’t have to help those in need.

Fr. Murry is correct that doctrinal truth — properly understood AND given its place in the whole of the faith — will only lead us closer to God. But that is not what Pope Francis is talking about. Instead, he means mere abstract adherence to a subset of truths, while keeping your distance from our neighbors in need — just like the persons who refused to be “good Samaritans”.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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8 Responses to Defending Pope Francis: What is a Truth-Idol?

  1. Matt says:

    Very good post, Ron.

  2. stefano says:

    You say: “Instead, he means mere abstract adherence to a subset of truths, while keeping your distance from our neighbors in need…” Exactly, but the fact that he means such a meaning implies that he refers to the pro-life catholics. To me this is not acceptable: 1) because he cannot pubblicly condamn every pro-life for being uncharitable to his neighbours (does he know me?), accepting and approving the prejudice of many non catholics; 2) because the cause of life does not have to do at first with catholic truth, but with human nature (it is not a matter of faith, but of reason), and many pro-life people are not even catholics, who then should not be criticized for doing something good and very important even for the cause of the Church; 3) because amongst all sins those against life are by far the worst, and the crimes against life are by far those that most endanger the human species and the peace of the world (as Mother Theresa used to say), if one just looks at what abortion has produced as a consequence in terms of manipulation of human life, corruption of family values and of the traditional concept of family on which the human society is based upon, according to God’s design and Christian Revelation.

  3. stefano says:

    …Furthermore, I think that it is at least abusive to refer to someone who has elected one aspect of the truth to testimony the truth as a whole, as “idolatric”. Especially when you think of what he wrote in AL concerning the good that is possible, as opposed of the good as an ideal.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The pro-life example was mine, not his. And I meant a subset, a minority of pro-lifers. The warning works for any concept, any idea, not to turn it into an idol. It works for criticizing the left when they focus only on the environment, and not on the spiritual needs of people or on the unborn. It works to criticize the right for excessive concern about liturgical form, or politics, etc. Are conservative Catholics so faithful that they should be above criticism by the Pope?

    • stefano says:

      No, but then again whatever Pope Francis says in words or writing has always to be mediated and interpreted by generous souls of good will like you and me in order to be generically acceptable.

      Otherwise, the common understanding is different, for catholics and especially non catholics, who definitely understand what I had initially mistaken.

      And that is what stays and counts, not what you and me correctly propose as an interpretation. Also because his press office never contradicts the distorted interpretations of his teachings.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Pope Francis is subject to legitimate criticism for how he handles these kinds of controversies. But some authors can’t seem to criticize the Pope without villainizing him, rejecting his every teaching, and treating him like a political enemy. We should criticize humbly and faithfully, interpreting his words and deeds with charity.

  4. Tom Mazanec says:

    Prolife or prochoice is my first criterion in voting. I could imagine voting for a prochoice candidate only if a greater issue were involved, say “If elected POTUS, my two priorities are to outlaw abortion and launch an all out thermonuclear strike on China and Russia.” were the prolife candidate.

  5. Dave says:

    I don’t comment much, but this is the best insight into Francis I have ever read.

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