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The Shabbiness Of Untruth

How modern liberal exegesis makes believers slaves to the dictatorship of relativism

Father Thomas Petri, OP, nails a theological lapse in his fellow Catholic priest James Martin, SJ — a lapse that is widely shared today, whether those who do realize it or not. Excerpt:

Could Jesus be ignorant and need to learn from others? The question comes up whenever Catholics go to Sunday Mass and hear Matthew 15:21-28 (as they did a few weeks ago). It’s the scene where a Canaanite woman approaches the Lord and begs him to cure her daughter of a demon. Initially not answering her, Jesus delivers a seemingly striking rebuke: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel … It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Of course, he eventually accedes to her request and heals her daughter, but only after she demonstrates her faith in his divinity by calling him “Lord”.

Some claim that this shows Jesus being taught a lesson. Fr James Martin tweeted: “Today we see Jesus’ human and divine natures: he learns from the woman that his ministry extends to all, and he heals her daughter.” Even more audaciously, the official Twitter account for the Maryknoll Missioners actually declared: “Jesus was part of his culture: prejudiced against Canaanites. But he allowed a foreign woman to expand his views. Do we?”

Sadly, many Catholics will have heard similar claims from the pulpit. To claim that Jesus was part of his culture, and limited in his understanding, is a favourite argument of those who want women to be admitted to the priesthood. Jesus’s culture was sexist, they say, so it’s understandable that he would not ordain women.

But the idea that Jesus did not understand his mission in its fullness contradicts both the Catholic understanding of Jesus’s divinity and humanity, and the way the Church’s tradition has understood the Gospels.

Father Petri goes on to explain why this is simply bad theology. He continues later:

How, then, are we to understand this particular Gospel passage? Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, is instructive. We interpret the Sacred Scriptures attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture, within the living tradition of the whole Church, and in harmony with the whole of the faith.

We simply cannot take a single verse or a single passage of the Gospel, read it, interpret it and preach it in isolation from the rest of the Scriptures, from the faith we hold to be true, and outside the living tradition of the whole Church. To do so is to reduce the richness of Divine Revelation to isolated allocutions unconnected to the larger narrative of salvation history. In short, it is to become fundamentalists of a modern variety along the lines of the liberal Protestants who emerged in the late 19th century.

Which, one suspects, is the unstated goal of those Catholics who do wish to re-interpret Scripture to make it more friendly to the 21st-century post-Christian West. Read the whole thing.

Father Petri is a Catholic speaking to other Catholics, but it’s an important point for all Christians to bear in mind, within their own tradition. Along those lines, by all means read this long First Things reflection by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, pondering the meaning of the Pope St. John Paul II’s encylical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) as we near its 25th anniversary. The Archbishop writes:

Written to encourage a renewal in Catholic moral theology and a return to its classical Catholic roots, Veritatis Splendor grounds itself in a few simple convictions. Briefly put: Truth exists, whether we like it or not. We don’t create truth; we find it, and we have no power to change it to our tastes. The truth may not make us comfortable, but it does make us free. And knowing and living the truth ennoble our lives. It is the only path to lasting happiness.

In the years that have passed, the crisis of truth has only seemed to grow. Our age is one of cleverness and irony, not real intellect and character. Today the wisdom of Veritatis Splendor is more urgently needed than ever.

It’s common, even among people who identify as Catholics, to assume that the Church’s moral guidance is essentially about imposing rules, rules that breed a kind of pharisaism. But this is exactly wrong. It’s an error that radically misunderstands the substance of Catholic teaching. It’s also one of the worst obstacles to spreading the faith.

John Paul II knew this. Thus the first chapter of his encyclical is a meditation on the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man (Matt. 19:16–26). The rich young man seeks to enter into eternal life, and this, John Paul writes, is the starting point for Jesus’s teaching on how to live as a Christian. In other words, Christian morality is about seeking fellowship with God, which is our true happiness, the goal of our human existence. Yes, moral rules, laws, and commandments do exist. But they have value because they point to something far more profound: how to live in order to grow in virtue and attain fullness of life.

Abp Chaput says that after the end of the High Middle Ages, Catholic theology began to drift towards a rigorous legalism. “Rather than a quest for happiness, the moral life came to be portrayed as a difficult navigation of detailed rules,” he writes. And:

Against this backdrop, Vatican II (1962–1965) called for a broad reform of Catholic moral theology, one that reconnected moral truth with our desire for happiness. But many moral theologians remained trapped by the preconciliar theories that had formed them. They continued to presume a framework of divine commandments and obligations that bind and restrict man’s liberty.

Instead of reading the council as a call to deepen the life-giving power of moral truth, they believed—incorrectly—that Vatican II marked a break from the “oppressive” moral commandments of the past. They assumed that Catholic moral theology can be more life-affirming to the degree that it cedes territory to our unfettered freedom. But in practice, they only managed to exchange the rigorist legalism of their teachers for a new legalism with a laxist, progressive bent.

Abp Chaput says that the encyclical’s text

reminds us forcefully that truth, including moral truth (what we owe our neighbor; what leads us to or away from God), has an objective dimension. It’s not purely a function of cultural and personal circumstances. Of course, throughout history, and throughout our individual lives, many things do change. But some truths do not change.


Thus a pastor is not acting mercifully if he says, out of a misguided desire to help someone struggling with a difficult choice, “Don’t worry, as long as your heart is in the right place, God will understand.” Or even worse: “I dispense you from the law in this case.” The pastor has no power to launder a sinful choice into a morally acceptable one. In trying to do so, he commits a serious injustice. He also sins against charity, because he makes the problem worse by stealing the truth from the person he seeks to help.

To put it another way: Accompaniment, properly understood, is always a wise pastoral strategy. But the destination of a journey—a journey shared by pastor and penitent—does matter, especially if the route takes them over a cliff. Intrinsically evil actions always involve a turning away from God. This is the teaching of Jesus himself: “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).

The spiritual problems that arise in morally difficult cases do not stem from the “cruel” nature of a seemingly merciless law. The problems come from the fact that we fallen creatures have a hard time choosing the good when it costs us something. The right path to happiness isn’t to relax the law, but to give ourselves over to God’s power and the promise of his grace.

Read the whole thing. There’s so much more in it that I would like to quote, but I think you should encounter the entire essay yourself.

Why do I cite it here, along with Father Petri’s column? Because there’s a subtle but enormously important shift present in the claim made by Father Martin and the Maryknollers. If Jesus Christ, the God-man, was in any way ignorant and had to learn from others, then we 21st century mortals may feel justified in presuming that Jesus has something to learn from us. That is, we set ourselves in judgment over Him, reading Scripture with an eye toward seeing His judgment as culture-bound and flawed. If Jesus was wrong about the Canaanite woman, what else might he (and those who speak in his name today) be wrong about, because their understanding was and is limited by their culture?

If that’s the case, then we can’t really speak of truth as if it were something objective, to which we must submit. We can make it up as we go along, telling ourselves and others that we are growing into a new truth, just as Jesus of Nazareth did when He met the Canaanite woman. There’s really no limit to what we can justify with that understanding of Jesus, and of Truth.

Thus does liberal Christianity turn the splendor of truth into a drab and shopworn thing, a shabby garment fit for slaves serving what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger termed the “dictatorship of relativism”:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.




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