Pope Francis has often condemned an over-intellectualized approach to the faith. In a 2018 Message for World Communications Day, he wrote:
In Christianity, truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things, defining them as true or false…Truth involves our whole life. In the Bible, it carries with it the sense of support, solidity, and trust, as implied by the root ‘aman, the source of our liturgical expression Amen. Truth is something you can lean on, so as not to fall. In this relational sense, the only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – is the living God. Hence, Jesus can say: “I am the truth.”
In this way, we can “walk in the truth.” The Second Letter of John connects this concept of walking in the truth to living in love. This makes sense if we remember that God is both truth and love; the two can’t be separated. As Pope Francis goes on to say (emphasis added):
To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful.
The stunted understanding of “truth” to which Pope Francis refers is unfortunately prevalent in many Catholic circles. We can see it playing out in the hate-filled discourse on social media and in the blogosphere. Christians should be known for their love, and yet the world right now is being confronted with the scandal of devout Catholics publicly “biting and devouring one another,” as St. Paul puts it. (cf. Gal 5:14-15) Nor is this problem confined to the virtual realm; the interminable arguments originating online are tearing apart our families and our communities. On the surface, the problem seems to be a simple lack of charity and civility. In reality, however, the root problem is the over-intellectualization of the faith. Charity is absent because the faith is not being lived, but merely being thought about—and Charity is primarily a virtue of the will, not of the intellect. A devout and committed Catholic should be someone who lives a life of deep prayer and service to God and neighbor, rather than someone who is up-to-date on the latest Church politics and has an opinion on every fine point of theology and canon law.
Paradoxically, the concrete experience of the Christian life in the community of the Church is the only thing that can lead to true understanding. All human thinking is deeply contingent. We would like to believe that all of our conclusions are purely intellectual and that we hold positions only because we are convinced of their logical merit. Since we are not disembodied intellects, however, we are all shaped by our environments, our preferences, our emotions, and our experiences.
This might sound like a relativistic position, but it is merely a realistic assessment of our human condition. God has taken this aspect of our human nature into account in his dealings with us. If we had been creatures of pure reason, Jesus might have come simply to give us a set of rules or a theological manual. Since we are embodied, contingent beings, Jesus founded the Church. Living and thinking within the community of the Church shapes our thinking and guides us toward God in a way that pure rationality never could. We are formed by acting together rather than by thinking alone. For this reason, the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. Just as for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we come to understand and recognize Truth in the communal breaking of the bread.
In his recent apostolic letter on the liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis gave a beautiful example of the way in which liturgical practice precedes and shapes understanding. He writes:
Many of us learned the power of the gestures of the liturgy from [our parents], as, for example, the sign of the cross…Perhaps we do not have an actual memory of such learning, but we can easily imagine the gesture of a larger hand taking the little hand of a child and accompanying it slowly in tracing across the body for the first time the sign of our salvation… that gesture is now consigned, like a habit that will grow with him, imparting to it a meaning…It gives us form. We are formed by it. Not many discourses are needed here. It is not necessary to have understood everything in that gesture. What is needed is being small, both in consigning it and in receiving it. The rest is the work of the Spirit.
Such learning through experience occurs on every level. A friend of mine told me how the practice of the faith led to understanding in his own life. While he was a Protestant divinity student, he joined a small group of Christians who prayed evening prayer on a regular basis. Evening after evening, they would pray, “let the hope of the poor not be in vain.” Evening after evening, they came face to face with the homeless who congregated near their church building. Gradually, they came to realize that they were being called to become the answer to their own prayers. They begin inviting the homeless to their communal meals. Eventually, the group formed itself into a Catholic Worker-inspired community that offered shelter to the poor.
My friend explained that, until this point in time, he and his wife had never understood why the Catholic Church prohibited contraception. It just seemed bizarre to them. As they became more open to the needs of the poor, however, they begin to understand this other kind of openness. It struck them that being open to the stranger at the door while being closed to new life in the womb would have been inconsistent. And after he and his wife discovered the beauty and consistency of Catholic sexual ethics, they became more interested in the Catholic faith as a whole and eventually entered the Catholic Church.
The central role of practice in the faith highlights the importance of unity, since the full practice of the Christian faith requires a community. Unity does not mean all marching in intellectual lockstep; rather, unity is the willingness to continue discussing disagreements without making such disagreements into divisions. As Gregory of Nyssa said “Amongst all the all-embracing words that Christ addresses to the Father there is one greater than all others and that summarizes all others. It is that in which Christ warns his own to be always united in solving questions and in the valuation of the good to be done.” Once a division has occurred, all hope of a productive solution is lost. Within the community of God, however, our diverse perspectives and conversations can contribute to building up unity. Such authentic dialogue is one of the many practices that can foster a true understanding of the faith. As we work and pray and converse with one another, the Holy Spirit can “guide us to all truth” (Jn 16:3).
Image: Adobe Stock. By zinkevych.