This is the fourth in a series of reflections by Cardinal Müller on questions of present importance in the life of the Church.
What is the significance of Christian doctrine for the life of the faithful? Some theologians and bishops present an account of doctrine that strongly resembles the proposals made by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo in his interview book Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue. In this work, the well-known postmodern thinker urges the Catholic Church to abandon the truth claims she connects to her faith. In Vattimo’s view, absolute truths are a source of conflict and violence, whereas the real strength of Christianity lies in the practice of charity. Aristotle’s famous affirmation Amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas—Plato is a friend but truth is a greater friend—should therefore be reversed. Is it possible for the Church to follow Vattimo’s recommendations? Is it thinkable that the confession of specific truths of faith is no longer necessary for salvation? Or is there a regula fidei—a rule of faith—that contains the center of revealed truths and that all Christians need to confess in order to be in a right relationship with God and neighbor?
Vattimo’s thesis is neither original nor reasonable. In his Natural History of Religion (1757), the Scottish philosopher David Hume—in agreement with other skeptical and agnostic English and French thinkers—said that Christianity’s claim to absolute truth was to be blamed for the devastating civil wars that had taken place in Britain and France. For him, to find a basis for a peaceful and tolerant coexistence of people of different backgrounds, one had to turn either to a type of Christianity that was reduced to charitable works or to a natural religion and morality that did not invoke any supernatural revelation. According to this view, Jesus exemplified love. He taught and lived a morality of true human kindness. The Church’s dogmas are seen as mental constructs that allow the clergy to preserve and increase their power. For the proponents of this opinion, Jesus wanted a Christianity free from dogma—and it is precisely this kind of Christianity that corresponds to the needs of the present age. From this perspective, we need today a humanism without metaphysics, without revelation, and without a morality that is hostile to life. At the beginnings of the ecumenical movement before and after World War I, the following motto was frequently quoted: “Doctrine separates, life unites.”
More recently, the Egyptologist Jan Assmann has advanced the thesis that biblical belief in the one God eliminated the tolerance proper to polytheism (cf. The Price of Monotheism). He argues that monotheism by its very nature admits the confession of faith only in the one God of Israel, so that the worship of other gods is suppressed—along with their worshippers, if necessary. And yet, one can ask whether the identification of monotheism with violence and of polytheism with tolerance holds up to empirical scrutiny. The historical facts speak a wholly different language. Consider, for example, the persecutions the Jews endured on account of their loyalty to the one God and Maker of all. The martyrdom of the scribe Eleazar and the seven brothers (2 Mac 6:18–7:42) is just one example. The same applies to the persecutions of Christians under the Roman Empire during the first three Christian centuries. In our time, each year thousands of Christians around the world testify with their lives to the truth that God’s love is stronger than the world’s hatred. They are martyrs of the truth, the truth that is God himself and that is founded in him. Whoever, in the face of the martyrs’ suffering and death, asserts that their monotheism and their confession of Christ is a source of violence, demonstrates a degree of thoughtlessness that holds people in contempt. The very allegation that belief in the truth of the one God implies a readiness to resort to violence, is in itself an expression of mental violence, which in the West leads to verbal aggression against committed Christians.
But the identification of monotheism with violence is not found lacking only when it comes to empirical verification. It also contradicts basic logic. Violence is the one instrument the truth cannot use to make itself recognized. After all, truth aims at understanding, which comes about only when the truth is freely accepted by the reason. Therefore, to help someone come to this understanding—to help someone come to know the truth—one cannot resort to violence but must make use of rational arguments that seek to persuade. Truth can be denounced as a source of violence only if one apodictically asserts that relativism is the only correct position that one can take before a truth that is ultimately unknowable.
It is rather the lie, inasmuch as it can’t prevail by force of argument, that necessarily gives birth to violence or the threat of it. On top of this, there may be the lure of worldly goods to entice the believer to fall away from the true faith. Speaking to the last of the Maccabean brothers, “the king appealed…, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office” (2 Mac 7:24). This scene is relevant to current issues, as is the tyrant’s reaction to the faithfulness of a true Israelite: “The king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt” (2 Mac 7:39). Just as in later days Jesus would not threaten his tormentors but pray for them while hanging on the cross, here too we can recognize the nonviolent fruit of every martyrdom: “Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord” (2 Mac 7:40).
Intelligent critics of totalitarian ideologies (such as George Orwell in Animal Farm, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, or Eugene Kogon in The SS State) have traced the collapse of extremely violent states, such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, to the lies on which they were built. In these systems, solidarity with members of the same class or ethnicity counted more than truth and regard for our common humanity. Mielke, the Minister for State Security in the German Democratic Republic who was responsible for hundreds of deaths at the Berlin Wall, faced critical questions in the first democratically elected parliament after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Seeking to apologize for his misdeeds, he stammered: “But I love you all.”
Both experience and reason tell us that truth and love belong together and that truth and freedom are twin concepts, whereas lies and hatred, ideology and violence, form an ominous alliance. Israel’s primordial experience of God’s truth is connected with its liberation from the power of Pharaoh. The people are freed by God, who makes a covenant with them. The God of Mount Sinai, who revealed his truth by saying “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14), is also the God of the Exodus, who liberates his people: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2).
The One who made all human beings also wants to save all human beings. “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5–6). God is not the overpowering heavenly dictator who demands blind obedience, but “our Savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). And his apostles do not come as propagandists of a secular doctrine of salvation “with sublimity of words or of wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1), but as “ministers of the Word” (Luke 1:2), as his “witnesses to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), as preachers and teachers of the Gentiles in “faith and truth” (cf. 1 Tim 2:7).
The truth of God in Christ and in his Church remains the foundation and the source of the love of God and neighbor, a love that is the fulfillment of the whole law. Plato was right when he subordinated his reverence for Homer to the truth (Politeia 595bc), and Aristotle applied this principle to Plato himself, his teacher (Nicomachean Ethics 1096a). The sentence criticized by Vattimo irreversibly remains in force: Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas. Any distortion of the relation between subjective sympathy and moral truth is excluded.
Vattimo’s advice to the Catholic Church contains a diabolical temptation that promises a success that is but apparent: If you want to reach out to people and be loved by all, do as Pilate did, leave truth aside and avoid the Cross! Jesus could have averted death if only he had stayed focused on his message about the unconditional love of his heavenly Father. Why did he have to challenge the devil, the true ruler of this world, the “father of lies” and “murderer from the beginning”? (cf. Jn 8:44–44). Christ himself is responsible for his death, and the Church will not have any future in this world unless she follows the path of worldly wisdom and power! We can respond to this temptation with Holy Scripture, which reminds us of the true gospel message: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, ‘We have fellowship with him,’ while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth” (1 Jn 1:5–6). We believe in Jesus and follow him because he is the Truth. As Truth-in-person he remains the foundation and criterion of all truths. Those who are of God and dwell in Christ “will know the truth,” and the truth will set them free (cf. Jn 8:32). St. John Paul II once said that if he were able to preserve only one gospel verse, this was the one he’d choose.
What, then, is the basic error proper to metaphysical skepticism and moral relativism? It may well be that they mistake truth for theory. A theory will of course always be somewhat removed from everyday life. In Christ, by contrast, knowing God’s truth and observing his commandments in one’s life always go together. In him the “light has come into the world” (Jn 3:19). All those who justify their evil deeds hate the light and love the darkness, hiding their evil deeds from the light of truth. Truth and morality are interdependent. This is the radical novelty of Christianity. There must not be any contradiction between the faith that is confessed and the life that is lived according to God’s commandments. “But whoever lives the truth comes to light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (Jn 3:21).
Does our eternal salvation depend on the concrete acceptance of the truths of faith? At this point we can see the answer to our initial question. Relativism about truth limits salvation to earthly joys, sensual pleasure, and emotional contentment. What is lost sight of, then, is the fact that God is the origin and goal of human beings. He himself is the goal of our infinite quest for truth and happiness. Forgetting God, we miss our true being.
Faith in Christ already contains all truths. In Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, the faith in him and the knowledge of him come together as one. He is the one divine Word that has become flesh. The human words that constitute Jesus’s teaching have passed over into the “teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42) and the Church’s doctrine of faith. They make present the one truth of God and communicate divine life to us (cf. Jn 6:68). Hence Jesus can tell his disciples back then and today: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63). It is thus impossible to separate the act of faith from its contents, that is, from the articles of the Creed. Faith cannot be a formal trust in a person who remains materially unknown to us in his being and essence, in his history and destiny. To love a person also means to want to know that person’s truth. Therefore, the content of faith is significant for our salvation. The articles of faith do not convey theoretical projections and moral postulates. Rather, they are a confession of God himself who in his words and deeds communicates himself to us as truth and life (cf. Dei Verbum 2).
God, who is the truth, leads us into the truth. God reveals himself to us. This is why our beatitude also depends on our belief in the ecclesial Creed that concerns the triune God. Our baptismal confession is not about the state of our emotions nor about what Jesus subjectively means to us or who we think he is: a prophet, a teacher of ethics, or whatever other projection human beings can invent in their attempts to justify themselves. Rather, what we are asked in baptism is whether we believe in God the Father who created us, in God the Son who redeemed us, and in God the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and who is the Lord and giver of divine life. “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). For “without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb 11:6). Thus, faith is significant for salvation not only inasmuch as it implies trusting that God will forgive us for Christ’s sake, as the Lutheran doctrine of justification has it. There is also another essential aspect of faith, namely the knowledge of God. This means that we acknowledge God in the truths that he has revealed for our salvation (fides quae creditur). “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Rom 10:10). If we want to be saved, we must believe “that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead” (cf. Rom 10:9).
John Henry Cardinal Newman introduced the distinction between a “liberal” and a “dogmatic” principle for interpreting Christian revelation. The liberal principle accepts the truths of God’s revelation in Christ only to the extent that they cohere with natural reason, correspond to pious feelings, or serve the needs of civil society (cf. Apologia, chap. 2). The dogmatic principle, in contrast, is described by Newman in these terms:
That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; … that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts; that our choice is an awful giving forth of lots on which salvation or rejection is inscribed; that “before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith”; that “he that would be saved must thus think,” and not otherwise; …—this is the dogmatical principle, which has strength. (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine)
In his so-called Biglietto speech on the occasion of his elevation to the Cardinalate (1879), Newman further explains the meaning of liberalism: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. … [This liberalism] is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that … [r]evealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. … [Revealed religion] is in no sense the bond of society.”
To speak of Christianity as dogmatic, in contrast, is to say that it is based on God’s historical self-revelation. It is to say that the Word made flesh has imparted to us the fullness of truth and life. It is to say that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church, in her preaching and her pastoral care, witnesses to the truth of God, communicating divine life to us in the sacraments. For “the Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved” (Gaudium et spes n. 10).
Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.