“The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

— G.K. Chesterton, “The Suicide of Thought”

During the 2018’s Holy Chrism Mass, Pope Francis has delivered a superb homily on the subject of closeness, whose reading I recommend in full. A proper response would be to try to listen attentively to this homily and seriously reflect on it, like Mike Lewis has done on this article.

Unfortunately, the message of this homily has been obscured by a negative article from Fr. Murray on “The Catholic Thing. Fr. Murray, I remind you, is a priest who regularly appears on Raymond Arroyo’s “World Over” in EWTN, where he has consistently decried Amoris Laetitia’s true interpretation (as he does explicitly in the article I linked.)

On the subject of His Holiness’ homily, Fr. Murray takes issue mainly with one paragraph:

“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.”

Fr. Murray, on the other hand, categorically rejects the possibility that truth may ever become an idol. He makes some good points: from Thomas Aquinas’ transcendentals, whereby God is Himself Truth, Goodness and Beauty… to Jesus Christ’s saying that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

From these fine points, he jumps to a conclusion that seems grounded at first, but is actually not: If truth and God are the same, then if we worship truth we are worshipping God. Therefore, truth could never become an idol. As Fr. Murray says, truth would be an antidote for idolatry, it would free us from the error of idolatry.

The problem of this assertion is… it is true at a first glance, but it is not the full truth. And herein lies the crux of the matter… for all purposes. For it is precisely because a certain truth can sometimes be not the full truth, that truth can become an idol.

You see, truth is so entirely vast, that only God can know it all. We puny mortals can only grasp a fraction of it, no matter how knowledgeable we may be. I am reminded of the tale where St. Augustine sees a child trying to fill a hole in the beach with all of the ocean’s water and is told that such a task is the same as trying to fit God inside the finiteness of a human mind.

If we cannot come to the realization of the wholeness of truth, then all we know of truth are the limited bits that God has shown us. And sometimes, those bits seem to contradict each other. Here is where the danger of truth-idols lies.

For example, is it true or is it not that Jesus Christ is fully human? It is true. But this seems, on the surface, to contradict the assertion that Jesus is fully divine as well. Orthodoxy postulates that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. However, people who could not reconcile these two apparently contradictory notions would then exalt Jesus’ humanity to the detriment of His divinity. And presto, the arian heresy is born.

Note that this does not mean that Jesus’ humanity has been refuted. It doesn’t cease to be true. But this particular truth has been so revered on the minds of the arians, it has become an idol. The bit of truth that is Jesus’ humanity is used to eschew the other bit of truth that is Jesus’ divinity.

Jesus’ humanity is truthful. But Jesus’ humanity as a truth-idol that negates Jesus’ divinity is false, not because it’s intrinsic truthfulness has been put into question, but because it has been abused to deny another truth. And the proposition “Jesus is not fully divine” is completely false. In other words, truth as an idol can morph into a falsity.

We can see other examples. It is not difficult to find papal critics who would subscribe to the notion that sexuality has been turned into an idol by our modern society. However, only a fringe group would argue that sexuality in itself is not good. Likewise, we know that God created the World “and it was good”… but many of those papal critics would surely preach that the modern day’s ecological movement can turn Creation into an idol too.

In other words, every single idol has a kernel of truth contained in it. Fr. Murray is on spot when he says:

“An idol is a false god. Idolatry is rendering worship to something other than God – a grave offense against the First Commandment. Idolatry is essentially man worshipping himself through the medium of some created reality. He makes the choice of what idols are important to him. His false god is his own creation, and thus it serves him. This is the complete reversal of the true worship that man owes to his Creator.”

This is precisely what idolatry is. However, if an idol is a created reality, then it is good in a certain sense, for God created everything “and it was good.” Even if the idol is man indirectly worshipping himself, then it has a grain of goodness in it, for man is the image and likeness of God. And if there is a bit of good, then there is a bit of truth, if we take Aquinas’ transcendentals seriously. The problem is when we give worship which is owed solely to God… to that isolated bit of truth contained in created realities.

Mind you, papal critics know this instinctively, for they constantly decry faithfulness to many of Pope Francis’ teachings as “papolatry.” What is papolatry, but idolatry of the pope? And yet, they do not deny that the papacy is a divinely instituted reality.

Likewise, isn’t marriage a divinely instituted reality? Dissenters would agree in a heartbeat. In fact, Fr. Murray’s piece does nothing but implicitly conflate “marriage” (as defined by the Gospel) with “truth.” But can’t marriage be turned into an idol too? Yes it can.

Can’t a married person put his/her spouse ahead of God? Can’t a married person put his/her children, the fruits of his/her marriage, ahead of God? Certainly so. What is marriage in those situations but an idol? A created reality which is rendered worship ahead of God?

If marriage as a concrete reality can be turned into an idol, despite being a sacrament, then so much more the truth of marriage, as an abstract idea to be studied by theologians, can be turned into an idol.

And herein lies the appropriateness of the Pope’s warning against those who dissent from Amoris Laetita (AL). We have seen that truth can be turned into a falsity, if a bit of truth is abused to negate another bit of truth. In the case of Fr. Murray’s article, he uses the Catholic truth on the indissolubility of marriage to rally against the object of Francis’ homily: closeness to the sinner. Nevertheless, who can’t say this isn’t also a Catholic truth? Wasn’t Jesus Christ close to the woman caught in adultery or to the divorced Samaritan woman?

From the Pope’s homily:

“Closeness, dear brothers, is crucial for an evangelizer because it is a key attitude in the Gospel (the Lord uses it to describe his Kingdom). We can be certain that closeness is the key to mercy, for mercy would not be mercy unless, like a Good Samaritan, it finds ways to shorten distances. But I also think we need to realize even more that closeness is also the key to truth; not just the key to mercy, but the key to truth. Can distances really be shortened where truth is concerned? Yes, they can. Because truth is not only the definition of situations and things from a certain distance, by abstract and logical reasoning. It is more than that. Truth is also fidelity (émeth). It makes you name people with their real name, as the Lord names them, before categorizing them or defining “their situation”. There is a distasteful habit, is there not, of following a “culture of the adjective”: this is so, this is such and such, this is like… No! This is a child of God. Then come the virtues or defects, but [first] the faithful truth of the person and not the adjective regarded as the substance.”

What the Pope has said here is truth. His Holiness specifically says that closeness is “the key for truth.” Not a substitute for truth, but the key for truth. He doesn’t put asunder what God has adjoined. He doesn’t contrast closeness and truth. That is something left for Fr. Murray to do on his piece: to exalt truth to the detriment of closeness, as if they contradicted each other.

And yet, it is precisely when we separate truth and closeness, that the Pope’s quote about truth-idols comes into play. It is not coincidence that one quote comes immediately after the other. Let us read it again:

“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.”

But there is another truth-idol contained in Fr. Murray’s constant interventions in EWTN: the worship of the truth about intrinsically evil acts being always objectively evil. This is true… and yet, Fr. Murray uses this truth to fight against another truth: that mitigating factors may diminish subjective culpability for any sin.

To prove what I say, here is a video of one of Fr. Murray’s interviews (watch from 05:18 to 06:37.) In there, Fr. Murray completely ignores what Cardinal Coccopalmerio said, which was clearly about subjective culpability, and shifts the topic unto the intrinsically evil nature of an adulterous relationship, as if that was ever the point. He doesn’t even acknowledge the doctrine of mitigating factors, he just seems oblivious to it. He cites the Catechism #1753, and ignores #1754 right after that (not to mention #1735 and 2352.) And this isn’t an isolated incident, rather it’s his typical modus operandi… whenever someone defends AL on the orthodox grounds of mitigating factors, he will claim that the doctrine of intrinsically evil acts is being denied.

Just like the arian can’t reconcile the equally truthful aspects of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, and idolizes one to the detriment of the other… AL dissenters seem unable to reconcile the equally truthful aspects on the objectivity of sin and the subjectivity of guilt. By idolizing the former to the detriment of the latter, they morph it into a falsity.

Let us prove how this idolatry has turned a truth into a falsehood. First, AL dissenters will worship Tradition above the Magisterium, namely Francis’ magisterium, since they disagree with him. They will then proceed to use tired Protestant arguments to undermine papal authority on faith and morals, as if that authority wasn’t part of the same Catholic deposit of truths as the indissolubility of marriage.

But, most importantly, they will spread falsehoods about the meaning of a magisterially valid document like AL, creating false strawmen to spread confusion in order to avoid its implementation. From Fr. Murray’s piece:

“The truth will set you free, it will not enslave you in error and darkness. (…) To reject in practice his words about the permanence of marriage and the obligation to avoid adultery, and then assert a right to receive the sacraments risks making an erroneous opinion into an idol.”

However, Pope Francis specifically rejects the notion that truth enslaves us on AL #147. He doesn’t reject “permanence of marriage“, for he postulates that his pastoral approach can’t be used to weaken the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage on AL #243. And His Holiness rejects the notion that people have a “right” to receive the sacraments, since such is clearly denied by the Buenos Aires interpretation (that he calls “the only interpretation”.) I suggest my article on the erroneous interpretations given by dissenters here.

As Francis has said, Fr. Murray’s truth-idol is an abstract truth (the good father explicitly defends abstraction on his article.) It is a comfortable idol, for it gives easy one-size-fits-all solutions to every pastoral problem he may come across. By doing so, he will impose distance (namely from the sacraments) on ordinary people who would otherwise be drawn close to the Church by Francis’ pastoral approach. His truth-idol dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let the words of the Gospel touch the heart. And, even though I don’t doubt Fr. Murray’s sincerity and good intentions, it is undeniable that his interventions offer him a certain “power and prestige” among a growing subset of the Church, which feeds on discontentment against Pope Francis.

In other words, Fr. Murray’s piece fulfils every point of Pope Francis’ warning. Therefore, we should not read Pope Francis’ homily in light of Fr. Murray’s article, but rather the contrary. We should read Fr. Murray’s article in light of Pope Francis’ homily. Because Fr. Murray’s piece is a perfect case-study on what Francis was talking about when he described truth-idols. Contrary to Fr. Murray’s assertions, truth can be turned into an idol and a falsehood… and his own piece denying it proves this

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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