Abiding in the truth of Christ 

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truthwe have beheld his glory (John 1:14). John describes Jesus as the Word, the eternally begotten Son of the Father, become man in the world. We can take his identity as “Word” for granted, but it means that the Father speaks through his Son and reveals his Truth to us through him. We are saved by coming to know Jesus and through him we come to know the Father. 

If Jesus reveals the truth to us in his person, why then do we need doctrine? To take one example, also from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us both that “the Father is greater than I” and “I and the Father are one.” The Church receives and teaches both realities but working them out led to a major heresy in the early Church, Arianism, which, following only the first of these two verses, taught that Jesus was created by the Father. The Church had to define a doctrine, not inventing a new truth, but teaching us how to understand these verses together, as we see in the Creed. Jesus is “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father,” and also “came down from heaven . . . and became man.” 

The Church exists to continue the mission of Jesus, proclaiming his truth and communicating his grace to the world. As members of his body, Jesus, the head, acts through us when we become docile to the action of his Holy Spirit in us, the life that animates his body. When we stake out on our own, however, relying on our own thoughts and strength, and seek to impose them on others, we no longer act in accord with the mission and spiritual power of Christ. We attempt to set up our own gospel and church. As Christians, we receive our mission from Christ and our goal is to abide in the truth and communion of Christ, in this life and in eternity. 

One prophetic voice has raised itself against the “politicization” of doctrine and even a “crisis of faith” within her: Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who reflects on the need to be rooted in Christ’s truth against all temptations and distractions in The Power of Truth: Challenges to Catholic Doctrine and Morals Today (Ignatius, 2019). Müller, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and close collaborator with Pope Benedict XVI, warns against a number of temptations that undermine the faith: a false development of doctrine that seeks to update faith in accord with the times and advocating for a paradigm shifta distortion of the role of conscience that would place it above the Church’s authority, and an eclipse of the integrity of the sacraments and morality in the face of new ideologies that accept sin as normative rather than helping to overcome it through grace and conversion.  

All these problems point to the need to recover a sense of faith that receives and accepts a supernatural revelation from God in humility, rather than placing oneself above it and manipulating it. Müller recognizes confusion in the Church and pointout the need for truth to serve as the foundation for our life and salvation: “Truth is not an abstract theory in the heads of a few individuals, but rather the ground on which everyone finds stability and strength, and the source from which all can quench their thirst for God and eternal life (Jn 4:14). Only the unambiguous character of the doctrine of the faith makes possible the breadth of the pastoral perspective and an orientation toward the goals, and this is so from every starting point. For God wills the salvation of all mankind and also that everyone should come to the knowledge of God and of the truth of his revelation (1 Tim 2:4)” (9). 

Not only must we come this knowledge of the truth, but we also must live it. Faith provides us with a relationship that sheds light on the meaning of our life and calls us into a communion of love: “By faith, then, we see the transcendent horizon  of human history, and of the personal destiny of each human being made in God’s image and destined for his household  that can motivate us to uphold human dignity without exceptions, even in the hardest cases. By faith, we gain the possibility of redeeming the suffering that the just must endure in a fallen world. And by faith, we add intimate love of God himself to the natural loves that motivate our perseverance” (149). 

The truth is a gift entrusted to the Church and, through her, offered to each one of us. The Church must maintain this gift faithfully and we all must abide within it. If we do so, it will serve as a light that, despite all darkness, keeps our gaze upon the Word: The one who is Truth itself.  

COMING UP: What every Catholic should know

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Catholic literacy has been in steady decline. A recent Pew poll revealed that only 50% of Catholics know that the Church teaches that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. Many Catholics do not know the basics of their faith, let alone the Church’s rich historical and cultural legacy. A new series, focused on What Every Catholic Should Know, seeks to address this decline. The first two volumes, just released, have been written by Joseph Pearce, his volume focused on literature, and Michael Barber, who addresses the central theological issue of salvation. The series is published jointly by the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press.

In Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know, Barber helps Catholics address questions and objections posed by other Christians, such as, “Are you saved?” For Catholics it’s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer, as we should say that we have been saved in baptism, are being saved as we grow in God’s grace, and will be saved finally and completely when we reach the happiness of heaven (104).

Catholics are often perplexed by the “faith and works” debate. Barber handles this issue with dexterity, helping us to see how faith helps us to enter into a saving relationship with God. His explanations draw deeply upon the Bible, showing us how the Church follows the entire witness of the Bible, not simply some passages taken out of context.

For instance, Barber explains how in the Bible faith “means more than just holding a particular belief. ‘Faith’ involves submitting to God’s will in trust … For Paul, true faith is ultimately sharing in the life-giving sacrificial love of Christ” (108). The Church teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own efforts, but also that we must cooperate with grace and that “God will judge each person according to his deeds” (85). Barber also points out how salvation cannot be conceived individualistically, because “believers are not saved apart from one another, but through being united to the ‘whole Christ,” namely, his body, the Church” (59). He also shows us how justification, being made just, cannot be reduced simply to the juridical, because it is transformative, as “we are truly remade” and enter into God’s own life (81).

In Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know, Pearce guides us through the Church’s deep literary tradition. He begins by telling us that “there is a very good reason for every Catholic to know the great works of literature — and that is because the great works of literature help us to know ourselves … In the great works of literature we discover a deep understanding of man’s being and purpose. We discover that man is a homo viator, a pilgrim or wayfarer who journeys through mortal life with eternal life always in mind” (1). Pearce points us first to the wayfarer Odysseus, who with his fellow Greeks and Romans, proved fertile ground for the development of the Christian imagination, infused with the light of the Gospel.

Dante, whom Pearce rightly calls “supreme” and “indispensable,” and his Divine Comedy “possibly the greatest poem ever written,” provides the best example of this blossoming of the Christian mind from both the Gospel and ancient world (37; 39). From Dante, Pearce guides us through Chaucer, who shows us “the same struggle between holiness and hedonism, sanctity and sin, and vice and virtue” we see today (46); corrects the typical reading of Thomas More’s Utopia; shows us how Shakespeare stands as a “colossus who straddles the centuries” and “his plays, and the truth and morality contained within them, transcend time” (59); and how Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the world’s first novel, strikes us with compassion and humor. There are too many modern authors to summarize them all, but some highlights include Austen, Manzoni, whose work, The Betrothed, earns Pearce’s commendation as the greatest novel, Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, Undset with her masterful trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Together, these two books on What Every Catholic Should Know can help us to grow in literacy, exploring a crucial and controversial dimension of our faith, our salvation, as well as providing a map of the major achievements of Christian letters. Written in an accessible and engaging style, they open up a broader horizon of theology and culture, one that is very much needed.

Featured photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash