Making sense of Pope Francis on faith, evangelization, and proselytizing (Part II)

Does Francis recognize that the Church makes determinate truth claims, and hence that the central truth claims of Christianity conflict with the truth claims of other religions about God?

Pope Francis checks his watch as he begins his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 5, 2020. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part essay; here is Part I.

The Nature of Truth

I argued in the previous section that Francis rejects propositional truth. On this view, the truth-status of these propositions are, if true, such that they will be true always and everywhere. It is not the context that determines the truth-status of their conceptual content. A doctrinal proposition is true if and only if what that proposition asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, the proposition is false. It is not the context that determines the truth of the proposition that is judged to be the case about objective reality; rather, reality itself determines the truth or falsity of a proposition. Abstract truths, such as, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), “Christ is risen from the dead” (1 Cor 15:20), and many others, are part of the content of faith. Our faith, then, is in both propositions and in the objective reality of the Person of Christ.

However, Francis rejects not only propositional truth but also is skeptical of the idea of “absolute 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.” 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.”

Is this what Francis says in his answer to Scalfari? Not quite. Francis says:

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. Of course, Francis is not a “relativist” about truth, but he is skeptical about speaking of “absolute” truth. Does he seek to leave behind both absolutism and relativism in matters of religion? Let us note that Francis is skeptical of speaking of “absolute” truth because, for Christians, he claims, truth is not only mediated through a relationship with a divine person, Christ, but also 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. In my judgment, Francis confuses the conditions under which I know that something is true and the conditions that make something true. 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.” 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.

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, dead and 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 affirmed in 1999 that “Truth, beauty, and goodness exist. The absolute exists. It can, or rather, it should be known and perceived.” 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). 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 now as Pope Francis, he writes similarly, “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.” His disclaimer withdrawing the validity or absoluteness of Christian beliefs sounds like relativism. Is Francis a relativist about truth?

What does Francis mean when urging us to renounce the claim that the central truth claims of Christianity are alone valid or absolute? Where does that leave the matter of incompatible truth claims among the religions about God? Most importantly, with the denial of the unique and absolute status of the Christian faith is Francis implicitly denying the fullness and completeness of God’s revelatory presence in Jesus Christ such that God is present in Jesus in a unique, absolute, and unparalleled way? Is Francis denying that claim? Certainly not explicitly, but the denial of Christological orthodoxy is implied. He does not seem to realize the implication of denying the uniqueness and absoluteness of Christian beliefs. Is this denial of absolute truth behind Francis’ affirmation that “God willed the diversity of religions?”

Perhaps Francis is concerned that the claim that Christianity makes unique and absolute truth claims entails that there cannot be any grasp of truth or goodness in other religions. If that is his concern, then he is mistaken because to hold that Christianity is the one true religion does not entail the view, as Harold Netland rightly notes, “that all of the claims of all other religions are false.” It only means that those claims of other religions are false that are logically incompatible with the central truth claims of Christianity.

As it stands, this claim is confusing. For 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 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, is Francis 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.” I judge Stout’s reasoning to be correct and hence, Francis is wrong in urging us to “give up . . . the pretension that they [our beliefs] are unique and absolute.” This urging is behind calling us “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).” But here Francis clearly fails to understand that truth of its very nature is exclusionary. Otherwise, the distinction between truth and falsehood is abolished.

Accordingly, Pope Francis’ dismissal of abstract truth, as well as absolute truth, misses the indissoluble link of faith, beliefs, truth, and the relationship of the latter to objective reality.

Ideology and the Law of Evangelization

I spoke above about Pope Francis’ criticism of a tendency to ideologize faith. What is an example of an ideology? “Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies” according to Francis, which has a grip on the contemporary minds of many in the Church. Francis describes the characteristic of neo-gnostics to be such that they seek “to domesticate the mystery.” In other words, by domesticating Francis seems to mean that they “understand the complexity of certain doctrines,” “their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible,” “they absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking,” and hence consider their “own vision of reality to be perfect.”

In contrast to these neo-gnostics, Francis claims,

It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it. So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives. (Gaudete et Exsultate, 43)

Francis’ skeptical conclusion, if taken seriously, is self-refuting. Isn’t the entire character of Christian faith and theology imperiled if his conclusion is taken seriously? For his conclusion applies to not only theological systems but also the Church’s teachings that purport to be universally valid, absolute truths, and objectively true affirmations, because what they assert is in fact the case about objective reality. Perhaps this conclusion explains why Francis has such little regard for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in particular, and doctrine and dogma in general. Be that as it may, his conclusion, if taken seriously, would mean the rejection of the claim that doctrine mediates truth as correspondence with reality, truth that is universally valid.

Furthermore, it would mean the impossibility of infallibly true doctrinal propositions. For example, the canon of authoritative Scriptures is closed, Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God, there is no other authoritative foundation for the knowledge of God other than the reality of God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures itself, that God has revealed himself in word and deed, and many others. Infallibility pertains to the exercise of the Church’s teaching authority when she ascribes the highest degree of certainty to a dogmatic truth. Infallibility extends not only to revealed truths that are solemnly defined in the exercise of the Church extraordinary magisterium but also to those truths that are infallibly proposed by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church. Hence, not only what is defined is infallibly taught. Furthermore, we need to distinguish between the truth of a dogma and its being an infallible teaching. Declaring a dogma infallible does not make it true, but rather the highest degree of certainty is ascribed to this teaching that is already known to be true. Dogmas are either solemnly defined or are a declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation, a formal attestation, of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church. Both of these happen on account of specific historical occasions, for example, Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the early Church.

Moreover, Francis puts us before a false dilemma. Francis emphasizes the limitation, incompleteness, and inadequacy of our thoughts about God and then suggests that we cannot know truth determinately. He states, “The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre. The good theologian and philosopher has an open thought, that is, an incomplete thought, always open to the maius of God and of the truth.” Unquestionably, but this point is not at all incompatible with the claim that we can know truth determinately, even if not exhaustively; inadequacy of expression does not mean inexpressibility of truth. As Fr. Thomas Guarino puts it, “[such] teaching … grasps and displays existing states of affairs, and admitting clear dimensions of finality and even of irreversibility.” “Of course,” then, Guarino adds, “there is, unarguably, an apophatic and eschatological dimension to Christian doctrine that curtails the extent to which the mysteria fidei are known. Even with that said, however, it is a clear conviction of the Christian church that, here and now, it knows something universally, actually, and in some instances, irreversibly true about God’s inner life.”

Still, given Francis’ emphasis on the the limitation, incompleteness, and inadequacy of our thoughts about God, he leaves unanswered the question, how, say, Nicaea’s Trinitarian or Chalcedon’s Christological formulations consist of statements that describe reality entirely truthfully even if inadequately? He must answer the question in what sense dogmatic formulations or creedal statements are determinately true—actually corresponding to reality, bearing some determinative relation to truth itself.

Elsewhere he 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).” But this point is a straw man. Of course, our dogmatic formulations are open to reconceptualization and reformulation because they, Guarino correctly notes, “do not comprehensively exhausts truth, much less divine truth.” Divine truth may be expressed incompletely and inadequately, but neither falsely nor indeterminately. Just because we do not know everything that there is to know about a particular divine truth it does not follow that what we do know is not determinately true in these doctrinal formulations but only approximations of that truth.

Furthermore, Karl Rahner is correct: “They are an ‘adequatio intellectus et rei’, insofar as they state absolutely nothing which is false. Anyone who wants to call them ‘half false’ because they do not state everything about the whole of the truth of the matter in question would eventually abolish the distinction between truth and falsehood.” So the new linguistic formulation or expression can vary, as long as they mediate the same judgment. What is more, adds Rahner, “a more complete and more perfect statement does not falsify the one it supersedes.” The content of the concepts informing the propositions that God is Triune, and that the Second Person of the Trinity is God Incarnate, is meaning invariant, is fixed and hence determinate, and that meaning does not change precisely because it is true to reality, to an objective state of affairs. Bernard Lonergan is right that “meaning of its nature is related to what is meant, and what is meant may or may not correspond to what is in fact so [or is the case].” “If it corresponds,” Lonergan adds, “the meaning is true. If it does not correspond, the meaning is false.”

Francis must recognize that the Church makes determinate truth claims, and hence that the central truth claims of Christianity conflict with the truth claims of other religions about God. His failure to do so is connected with his rejection of abstract ideas as well as skepticism of absolute truth.

Finally, Pope Francis states, “[I]n the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 43). This statement raises the question: How does Francis then account for legitimate theological pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental permanence of meaning and truth? Francis is right that unity and uniformity can be distinguished, but only, I will argue, if we distinguish, as St. John XXIII correctly stated, “the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [‘eodem sensu eademque sententia’], is another thing.”

Unfortunately, fixating on the risk of ideologizing faith, he leaves unconsidered the question of the permanence of the meaning and truth of dogma. Francis makes clear that “today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.” These “unchanging truths” do not refer to the Church’s dogmas, but rather to the “authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and the ‘Gospel message in its unchanging meaning’.” Francis explains, “We should not think, however, that the Gospel message must always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content” (emphasis added). The latter refers to dogmas and doctrines, in short, orthodoxy. But it is a straw man to claim that any faithful Catholic thinks that the Gospel must always be communicated in dogmatic terms. What examples of fixed formulations and their inherent absolutely invariable content does Francis have in mind? He doesn’t say.

Nevertheless, he substantiates his position by paraphrasing John XXIII’s crucial statement in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, precisely where John distinguishes between truths and its formulations. Inexplicably, Francis quotes John, “‘the faith is one thing… the way it is expressed is another.’” This quote is actually a paraphrase, leaving out the crucial subordinate clause. Francis cites the Italian version of John XXIII’s statement—not the official Latin publication. The former distinguishes between the substance of the deposit of the faith, and the way it is expressed, but excludes the subordinate clause, namely, “according to the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia].” Rather, John XXIII states,

What is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times. For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [‘eodem sensu eademque sententia’], is another thing.

The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from the constitution of Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, which is earlier invoked by Pius IX in the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, also cited by Leo XIII in his 1899 Encyclical, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae, and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23 of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia). The permanence of meaning and truth is taught in the constitution Dei Filius: “… is sensus perpetuo est retinendus… nec umquam ab eo sensu, altior intelligentiae specie et nomine, recedendum… in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu, eademque sententia.” (Denzinger §3020) “... ne sensus tribuendus sit alius.” (Denzinger §2043)

Rather than Vatican II’s Lérinian hermeneutics, Francis holds that “Vatican II was a rereading of the Gospels in light of contemporary culture.” Typical of Vatican II, he adds, is “the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today.” This statement is obviously a reflection of Gaudium et Spes §4: “To carry out such a task [to carry forward the work of Christ], the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” It is also reflected in latter passages of the same Vatican II document and referred to as the “law of evangelization.” Put differently, this law refers to inculturation whose “ultimate aim,” according to Francis, “should be that the Gospel, as preached in categories proper to each culture, will create a new synthesis with that particular culture.” Elsewhere he adds, “It [the task of evangelization] constantly seeks to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context, without renouncing the truth, the goodness and the light which it [the Gospel] can bring” Vatican II explains:

For, from the beginning of her history she [the Church] has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom, too. Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people…. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage. (emphasis added)

This “law of evangelization,” which is about inculturation and hence recontextualizing and reinterpreting the Gospel in a particular culture, bypasses the crux of the conflict of hermeneutics of Vatican II, but it leaves unanswered the questions raised by that conflict.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his now famous 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, sharply described this conflict. He distinguished two contrary hermeneutics of Vatican II. Distinguishing these hermeneutics is crucial for addressing Francis’ claim “[I]n the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life.” Benedict states that “there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”

Significantly, the opposing hermeneutics of Vatican II (to that of discontinuity and rupture) is not that of mere continuity of tradition, and its enduring doctrinal truths taught by the Magisterium. Rather, Benedict wants to account for reversals, for the historically conditioned formulations of dogma/doctrine, with their possible correction and modification, while sustaining the permanence, or continuity, of meaning and truth of God. Hence, this hermeneutics is about reform and renewal, indeed, of creative retrieval of the authoritative sources of the faith, in short, of ressourcement, to go faithfully forward in the present. This hermeneutics is at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s Lérinian hermeneutics, and John XXIII states it admirably well.

Hence, Vatican II’s “law of evangelization” and hence inculturation may only be properly understood when the alternative but complementary—rather than conflicting—formulations of revealed truths show a “deeper penetration, better understanding, and more suitable presentations of those truths,” of the revealed mysteries of the Catholic faith. But that takes place, as Vincent put it, “within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia).” (cf. Gaudium et Spes §44; Unitatis Redintegratio §17).

Vatican II’s project is a form of renewal theology in which the Church returns to authoritative sources of the faith aiming at renewing the present. Although the truths of the faith may be expressed differently, we must always determine whether those re-formulations preserve the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths, even with the reformulations’ correction, modification, and complementation. According to Vincent’s interpretation of dogma, and of Vatican II’s teachings, linguistic formulations or expressions of truth can vary in our attempt to deepen our understanding, as long as they maintain the same meaning and mediate the same judgment of truth (eodem sensu eademque sententia). In fact, this distinction between truth and its formulations has ecumenical significance. Other Christian traditions may have a deeper grasp and hence a more articulate but nevertheless complementary formulation of some aspect of the revealed mystery of revelation shared alike by Catholics and Protestants (Unitatis Redintegratio 17).

Without Vatican II’s Lérinian hermeneutics, we are left with a so-called “principle of pastorality,” which is a perpetual hermeneutics of reinterpreting and recontextualizing the Gospel. We find this approach in Christoph Theobald, SJ, who claims that the Latin version of John XXIII’s opening speech at Vatican II, which Theobald claims John rejected, distinguishes between “the deposit of faith itself, that is the truths contained in our ancient doctrine” and “the form in which these truths [plural] are proclaimed.” This version, too, overlooks the subordinate clause cited by Vatican I and derived from Vincent of Lérins, namely, that new formulations and expressions of the truths contained in the deposit of the faith must keep the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia). However, the original version (presumably Theobald means the Italian version) of John’s intervention, “simply underlines the fundamental difference between the deposit of faith, taken here as a whole –without reference to an internal plurality inherent in the expression—and the historical form it takes at one time or another.”

If I understand Theobald correctly, he prefers the Italian version, which is the original version, but not the official version, because there is no correction by the curia of the pope’s speech. It would take us too far afield to show that Theobald’s claim is wrong. Theobald’s claim is that this version does not refer to an internal plurality of truths in the substance of the deposit of faith, which are then expressed in alternative formulations. This principle collapses the distinction between the substance of the deposit of faith and their formulations into a historical context, without attending to the subordinate clause—eodem sensu eademque sententia—but also dismissing the notion of propositional truths and sentences, truth-content and context, and the like, that may be distinguished within the deposit of faith. This means, as Theobald puts it, that the substance of the deposit of faith as a whole is “subject to continual reinterpretation [and re-contextualization] according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted.” This is a plea for a perpetual hermeneutics. On this principle, doctrines are not absolute truths, or objectively true affirmations, because what they assert is in fact the case about objective reality.

We find a similar line of reasoning in Theobald’s reflections on the “law of evangelization” expressed in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes §44, and Ad Gentes §22. The core idea of this law is, “accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization.” As Theobald understands this “law,” ongoing accommodation of the Gospel—and hence a perpetual hermeneutics—is necessary given the cultural and historical diversity of the context in which the Gospel is preached.

This means that the principle of pastorality, according to Theobald, presupposes a double hermeneutic, that is, a mutually critical correlation between a “hermeneutic of the Gospel and a hermeneutic of languages and cultures open to receive the Good News of Christ.” Theobald rejects the “absolutizing” and “identification” of the Gospel “with the various doctrinal truths contained in the tradition, as found collected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and, in the life of a believer, in a uniform liturgy and, as regards Church procedures, in the Code of Canon Law.” He assures us that the principle of pastorality does not set up an opposition between doctrine, on the one hand, and pastoral ministry of those to whom doctrine is addressed in the historical and cultural plurality of contexts, on the other. Yes, “‘pastorality’… must include doctrine, but also leaves us with the hermeneutical task of isolating its authoritative element, not in itself [emphasis added], but in relation with those who whom it is addressed today.”

This approach relativizes the authority of doctrinal truths to the addressees. It is hard to see how it does not imply a subjectification of doctrinal truths that only become true, and hence authoritative, through acknowledgment. There is also a failure to recognize the distinction between the conditions that make something true and the conditions under which I know something to be true. In sum, pace Theobald, the principle of pastorality is inconsistent with the Lérinian hermeneutics of Vatican II. Furthermore, this hermeneutics is not inconsistent with the law of evangelization because historical context, on the one hand, and unchanging and absolute truth on the other, are not mutually exclusive in Lérinian hermeneutics.


This “pastorality of doctrine” approach is a Neo-Modernism because it expresses merely an instrumentalist view of doctrine, in which doctrines are not absolute truths, or objectively true affirmations about state of affairs. Hence, the “pastorality of doctrine” approach sets loose a perpetual hermeneutics that entails historicism and a denial of revealed truth’s enduring universal validity. This “pastorality of doctrine “approach is the root of the recent reflections on inculturation. Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ interpretation of the law of evangelization and hence of inculturation has a particular affinity with this approach, as it evident in his recent address to the Roman Curia. What contributes to this affinity is Pope Francis dismissal of abstract truth, as well as absolute truth, which misses the indissoluble link of faith, beliefs, truth, and the relationship of the latter to objective reality.

(Author’s note: For an in-depth reflection of Pope Francis’ thought, see the revised and expanded second edition of my book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II [Lectio Publishing, 2019]. I examine his position with respect to Vatican II, his soteriology, moral theology as such and with reference to the controverted chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, ecumenism and Catholic ecclesiology, dialogue of religions and the question of truth, and the moral, ecclesial, and doctrinal crisis of the Church.)

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About Eduardo Echeverria 34 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.


  1. We now read from Pope Francis: “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” (from the Message of Pope Francis for the 48th World Communications Day, June 1, 2014).

    Deja vu. Along with the other citations marshaled in the Echeverria critique, we might also consider this clarification from Pope Paul VI, issued during the fanciful days closely following the Second Vatican Council:

    “As for the meaning of dogmatic formulas, this remains ever true and constant in the Church, even when it is expressed with greater clarity or more developed. The faithful therefore must shun the opinion, first, that dogmatic formulas (or some category of them) cannot signify truth in a determinate way, but can only offer changeable approximations to it, which to a certain extent distort or alter it; secondly, that these formulas signify the truth only in an indeterminate way, this truth being like a goal that is constantly being sought by means of such approximations.”

    (From Section 5, Mysterium Ecclesiae, ratified by Pope Paul VI and signed by Cardinal Seper, Prefect of the CDF, May 11, 1973).

  2. The presiding “pastors” of the 2013 “radical revolution,” are the 20th century “grandchildren” swept down-slope under the suffocating weight of what the late, great art critic and author Leo Steinberg called “the avalanche of 19th century rationalism.”

    Disciples of Bultmann’s rationalistic skepticism, they prohibit themselves and all after them to believe that Jesus really is the God-Son who was made flesh, mysteriously taking on our mortal flesh, yet who retained his command of the wind and sea, and raise the dead to life. This is not a conclusion they reached by studying the faith, but a first principle that they assert, quite literally on the mere basis of of the “miracles” of modern technology: as Bultmann declared, in his own words, “Now that we have electric lights and modern medicine, we can no longer believe in the mythology of the New Testament.” (This is not an exact quote, as I have not gone back yet to pull it verbatim, but I will post it later, and all can see I am truthfully stating his position.)

    Their lives have been devoted to erasing and forgetting the revelation of the supernatural power manifested by Jesus, unable to confess that Jesus rose from the dead, and instead, have spent their lives testifying that the Gospels are packed with fiction, and that St. John the Evangelist is NOT trustworthy when he recounts that St. Thomas touched the wounds of the crucified and risen Jesus, and blurted out in astonishment: “My Lord and my God.”

    They are, as St. Paul stated, “of all men, most to be pitied,” because they have indeed invested in Jesus, but “for this life only.”

    So they cannot give witness to revelation or tradition, yet they are mocked by their own theater, taking on fine robes, titling tbemselves “Excellent” and “Eminent” and even “Holy,” denying the miraculous power of The Lord Jesus, while they themselves simultaneously declare the authority to assign miracles performed by men of their own acquaintance, whom they declare, by the “evidence” of miracles they “testify,” are “saints.”

    They are simply in a ridiculous position, having not a faith that transforms, but an intellect that confected nothing more than their own pathetic theater.

    Do men who disdain the authority of scripture and tradition honestly expect faithful Catholics to obey their mere juridical position? As St. Peter told the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God, not mere men.”

  3. By identifying Pope Francis’ process of “Self refutation” Dr Echeverria astutely encapsulates the anthropocentric theology of his pontificate. “Truth is a relationship. Each one receives truth and expresses it from within according to one’s own circumstances” (The Pontiff). Self refutation is saying it is then saying it isn’t. Finally it is what it is. Leaving us as Eduardo Echeverria says without means of precisely identifying what is true. As in relation to its opposite. Although here there is no logical opposite. Merely a nominal one. A Yin Yang moral theology identical with an Ancient Chinese philosophical concept of dualism, that opposites may actually be complementary and interdependent. As the Englishman would say ‘Those inscrutable Chinamen’ we might say that inscrutable vexing Pope Francis. Except Dr Echeverria has exposed that inscrutability as a clever [though very ancient likewise clever] means of advancing radical change while similarly defending its opposite, Apostolic Tradition. As Qoheleth son of David would say There is nothing new under the sun. And contrary to Pope Francis’ dualism Truth is eternal its opposite not and the Twain shall never meet.

    • “…the Twain shall never meet.” I can’t help myself. . .

      On the problem of double-speak and half-truths, here’s what Mark Twain’s “Jim” had to say about Solomon and his quite different wisdom and decision to NOT settle for half a baby..

      “De’ spute warn’t ’bout a half a chile, de ’spute was ’bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ’spute bout a whole chile wid a half a chile, doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884 ).

  4. Blessings on Professor Echeverria for condensing part of his revised book. Yet if we are to be able to make sense in discussing this with others, we have to be careful to continue the struggle to grasp the basics: e.g., the difference between fides qua creditur and fides quae creditur, the necessity for Catholics of all rites to defend that absolute truth is expressed in our doctrines (that will always be able to move toward more precise understanding in God), and the importance of the guidance provided by St. Vincent of Lerins so long ago. In the book on Vincent of Lerins by Thomas Guarino (recommended elsewhere by Dr. Echeverria) we can learn the strengths and pitfalls even in using Lerins’ arguments, for he can be accused by some of being restricted to the problems he faced in the 5th century (retro-modernism?), but we should not try to do without him! In addition to Lerins’ two basic categories of preservation and development, Guarino posits a 3rd in his book on p. 3: “Essential criteria [to] ensure that proper development is not confused with poisonous heresy.” We cannot read over these truths and helps and merely file them! We must break our heads until they are our own, including making our lists of “essential criteria” that we can handle in our simpler lives, which also should include whom to follow. Surely most of us will require time, prayer and encouragement, but how else can our progeny also learn to value them and find those with whom to discuss them? May we be given the grace–and the time! Thanks also to CWR.

  5. Thank you again, brother Eduardo Echeverria, for a great second part to your article! Thank you also for showing that people of Hispanic origin/descendance are not automatically/blindly in total agreement with Argentinian Pope Francis ultra-cunning use of language (only needed when you feel compelled to deceive). I’ve met a good number of Hispanics that are not in lockstep with him but heart-united to the True Christ. Pope Francis, as described in the article, again takes a big embrace to Protestantism by sentimentally calling Truth “a relationship”, opening the door to the total, sentimental, self-serving relativism that has produced 15,000 to 35,000 (depending on how you count them) Protestant Denominations. The True Jesus is ONE!!

    Francis intentionally and willfully forgets that even TRUE relationships have ABSOLUTE Unchangeable Truths and Principles that govern them or they become cesspools of sin, deception, deep pain and even crime. These Absolute Truths in TRUE relationships ensure that, as difficult as it may be, there’s a steady pace toward SELF-TRANSCENDENCE, the path to authentic humanity and authentic union with God and each other. In very sharp contrast, the relativistic, Absolute-Truth-Free relationships like homosexuality, where you find the ultimate self-absorption of union with your identical gender/living-approximate-copy-of-yourself, they dehumanize their partner into nothing more that an object of masturbation in total, absolute opposition to Holy Self-Transcendence.

    That’s why promiscuity in homosexuality is the rule and not the exception, lies aside, in order to renew the “newness” and “excitement” of the empty, dehumanized partners. Likewise, the cunning relativization of Truth that Francis proposes also turns God into a masturbatory device, where spirituality is just meant to stir sentimental, self-absorbed, dehumanizing, self-serving ecstasy and where our spiritual “partners”, the many invented religions/spiritualities, must also be changed often to keep the sentimental drug high going and going and going (Satan’s version of the Energizer Bunny). This depletes us of true humanity and true connection with the TRUE God, so we live in the total spirituality mediocrity that tyranny absolutely loves and thrives in. Only True Catholicism destroys tyranny and that’s why it’s being dismantled through ultra-cunning language.

    Standing solid in Absolute Catholic Truth gives us the tools to communicate it and adapt it to our individual interlocutors and to the whole world, to any culture, at any time period and under any circumstances. Relativization only adapts the Truth to Evil, the Sentimental Forced Hybrid of Good and Evil that is at the core of homosexuality and all Absolute-Truth-Free relationships. Jesus offers us the Greatest Relationship with Him and everyone else, and He never, ever compromised the Truth, even under the intense social pressure of his loved, close associates (John 6:66-67) or the total rejection of Absolute Infinite Agony (Luke 23:33)!!

    • How convenient and underhanded, Mr. Joe M! You package President Trump with a sentimental compulsive liar (Warren) and a sentimental compulsive accommodator to the world (Pope Francis). In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t see Mr. Trump, or anyone else for that matter, as unquestionable icons of perfection, total wisdom or deserving absolute devotion, never ever, that belongs only to Christ and always Christ. At the same time, sinful Mr. Trump, a sinner as the rest of us and YOU (1 John 1:8), has turned his life around, responding to the call of REPENTANCE that Jesus issued to all of us and YOU (Matthew 4:17).

      He has shown clear evidence of that repentance and obedience under humongous, horrific, vicious pressure (John 14:15-17), advocating for the life of the unborn, protecting religious rights, giving priority to legitimate Americans first, etc., etc., etc. No President ever in American history has been so viciously attacked, slandered and defamed, yet he stands (Matthew 5:11, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of ME”).

      Warts and all, President Trump is standing for life and the principles of Christianity that the USA was founded upon and THAT’S why he is so hated. His oh-so-dignified predecessor was always treated with silk gloves and, ever so consistent with that entitlement, forced Africans to legalize abortion and homosexuality or their financial aid would be cut, a most despicable, anti-Christian quid-pro-quo.

      Trump shows that the mighty works of God in us don’t start with perfection, which only God possesses and demon worshipping ideologues totally fake, they start with REPENTANCE and continue with OBEDIENCE, none of them blind and compulsive sentimental things, and that I remind myself of every single day and highly recommend to everyone and YOU.

  6. I have been thinking/praying what to write for awhile, but today’s 2 articles made my thought evident. I continue to read CWR everyday because there are many worthwhile articles. BUT I am hurt by quite a number of articles that are written against the Pope and the Catholic Church. I presumed before I started reading CWR that it would be a Catholic endeavor. I was wrong in many instances. Any negativity against the Church and of course the Holy Father is almost diabolic. That may not be the writer’s intent or CWR’s desire, but attacks against the Pope…only show a total disregard against the Church Christ established. I also believe the comments that put down the Holy Father, the Church have no place in Catholic reporting. As a Catholic and any publication should be a source of unity and not a criticism. Many of the comments show a conscious desire to undermine the Church. There is nothing about fostering unity of Christians to the person chosen by the Holy Spirit, whoever he is. Negativity about the Church is only an instrument of scandal which can lead others to be taken in by negative opinions. Giving scandal is a serious thing when it could lead people to question and possibly lead astray Catholics and non-Catholics.
    The antidote if one feels something might be wrong is to be silent and do much penance and prayer for a situation. That is loyalty to Christ. It is his Church and love for Christ entails complete loyalty and unity to Christ’s representative on earth. Thank you for listening !

    • “Any negativity against the Church and of course the Holy Father is almost diabolic.”

      Any? Do you think that reporting the truth about abuses and corruption in the Church is “almost diabolic”? I ask sincerely. Because I am convinced that Catholics, of all people, should not fear or avoid the truth, even if it is truth about Church leaders.

      Also, if any and all criticism of the Pope is bad, what of any and all criticisms of faithful Catholics? Ordinary Catholics have clear and substantial rights, and Church leaders have important and clear responsibilities when it comes to how they act toward the lay faithful.

      “The antidote if one feels something might be wrong is to be silent and do much penance and prayer for a situation.”

      For some it may be. But there is nothing wrong with sober, respectful expression of concerns and problems. After all, a pope is not perfect in his governance or prudential judgments, and to think he is above faithful criticism is to become the sort of walking caricature that a Jack Chick or Alexander Hislop would gleefully embrace.

    • Lin V –

      Under your standard, Catholic faith means never confronting injustice, unfaithfulness or evil done by a Pontiff or any member of the hierarchy (and turning a blind eye to lots of other unFaithful behavior at Catholic chanceries and universities and on and on).

      This is a kind of moral self-imprisonment that is inculcated by faithless men who enter the Church institutions and do injustice and evil.

      One such example is the recently deceased Cardinal Danneels of Belgium, who was retired in disgrace in 2010 after being exposed by the Vangelhuwe family and the Belgian press for standing against the Vangelhuwe family, who were asking the Bishops of Belgium to bring their own uncle Bishop Roger Vangelhuwe to justice, because he was guilty of raping their brother, the bishop’s nephew, for 10 years, when he was a little boy and teen.

      The Pontiff Francis in 2013 restored Cardinal Danneels to Church power in 2013, and had Danneels standing on the balcony with him on the very first day in St. Peter’s Square. He did this because, as both Danneels and Austen Ivereigh have documented in their books, Danneels helped orchestrate the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pontiff.

      That is direct, downright and blatant evil and injustice. If we can’t reject that, we are utterly indifferent to any morality or justice.

    • Lin –

      My best sense is that when men refuse justice and truth when their friends have committed sexual abuse and / or covered it up, they have betrayed Jesus, and represent “other” masters.

    • Hmm, sounds like the tactic of one Marcial Maciel Degollado, LC. No criticism, no questioning, absolute loyalty.
      How did that work out for the seminarians, women, and children sexually abused?
      The pray-pay-obey (and keep silent!) attitude is partly, if not largely, responsible for this mess.

      • Bingo…and that is what most of the clericalist subculture, including the chancery staffs and “Catholic media,” want to happen. They want it to all go secret and quiet…once again.

    • Lin V –

      Your ground rule is that “any negativity” against the Pontiff is “diabolical”?

      At the same time, I am almost certain that you consider sex abuse of minors diabolical. (You will correct me if am wrong.)

      And if know your history, you may well know that there have been evil men as pontiffs, for example Pope Alexander VI, and that some pope’s murdered other popes to become pope.

      So, if we mistakenly (but with what are instinctually good intentions) followed the rule of behavior you describe, if sex abuse is diabolical, and negativity about the Pontiff is also diabolical, then if a Pontiff is guilty of injustice involving sex abuse and coverup, then we as Catholics are doomed to being diabolical no matter what we do, because if we oppose an unjust or evil bishop or Cardinal or Pontiff, our opposition to the diabolical sin is itself a diabolical sin.

      You can see the trap that we enter if we think the way you have suggested.

      Given the above explanation of the problem with your position, please read this article, by a faithful Catholic journalist in England, Damian Thompson, and explain your position:

    • Lin Versino wrote:
      The antidote if one feels something might be wrong is to be silent and do much penance and prayer for a situation.
      In James 5:19-20:
      19 My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins”.
      In Ezekiel 3:17-21:
      17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 18 If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. 19 But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life. 20 Again, if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. 21 Nevertheless if you warn the righteous man not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and you will have saved your life.”
      These verses of Ezekiel speak to the responsibility of the prophets to their office. Admonishing the sinner is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
      It was silence that allowed the clerical abuse crisis to metastasize into the invasive tumor that it has become.

    • There is a big difference between showing filial respect for the office and the Papacy on one hand, and defending each and everything the Pope does or says, no matter how incoherent, indefensible and harmful to the Faithful it may be. The former is mandatory for Catholics, the latter is not, especially as it is almost impossible to defend this Pope’s words and deeds, from his undermining of Church doctrine, his tolerance of moral and financial corruption to his throwing Chinese Catholics under the bus.

  7. Thank you for writing this excellent essay, Dr Echeverria. Yours is the best analysis of this matter i have come accross yet. You have nailed it.

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