15. Truth and Definition

15. Truth and Definition
Nothing can be added to the message of Christ. But more light can be cast on it. Our understanding of it can and ought to grow. Many elements can enter into this process of clearer understanding: prayerful meditation, theological speculation, doctrinal controversy.... But the ultimate responsibility and competence for defining revealed doctrine belongs to the Magisterium.
We have just made use of particular terminology that is pretty certain nowadays to produce a negative reaction among many. "Defining?! Are you actually speaking about definition of doctrine? But - surely this is a totally pre-conciliar concept that the Church has by now for all practical purposes abandoned?"
No; I do not think that the Church has abandoned the idea that doctrine needs defining, nor has it abandoned its role in this task. But I agree that the subject of doctrinal definitions is a theological "hot potato". Still, it has to be handled. Maybe some reflection can cool the item and even make it palatable and digestible. To do so our reflection will have to attempt to correct two current mistaken assumptions: a) the idea that a dogmatic definition is something restrictive and negative; b) the idea that if a point of doctrine is not yet dogmatically defined, one is "free" to dissent from it, even to the extent of holding a diametrically opposed position.
What does the notion of defining doctrine imply? A simple example can help us here. Let us suppose I am attending a projection of slides. A slide appears on the screen - a scene, let us say, of a family group standing in a garden - but it is rather blurred. People generally are not happy with blurred pictures if it is possible to get them clearer, so someone in the audience calls out, "Hey, focus". The operator does his job; he adjusts the lens, and there it is - a clear, well-defined picture.
That is what the definition of doctrine does. It makes a picture - an idea, a truth - clearer, easier to look at and see and understand in all its details.
A definition therefore is not something that restricts; it clarifies. It is a service. It does not limit mental freedom or vision or understanding; it facilitates them. What it limits is blurredness; what it reduces is confusion of images and outlines; what it eliminates is over-lapping of borders and edges.... But all of that precisely is necessary in order to have the freedom of seeing a clear picture.
Just as a blurred or faded picture restricts our visual freedom, so a blurred or vague idea restricts our mental freedom. Our mind wants to see things clearly; its understanding is hampered, is less free, if it does not.
When that slide was projected at the viewing we have mentioned, the audience was not happy. Objects were poorly outlined, some perhaps were not even easy to identify (is that little child a boy or a girl?), the relationship between bodies and areas and colors was not precise and clear. That is not good viewing.
The same holds good when what we are contemplating is not a slide but a point of Christian belief. If one cannot see its precise meaning, if the relationship between propositions and realities is not clear, that is not good understanding. A hazy mental picture is as unsatisfactory as a hazy visual picture.
Let us take the doctrine of the Incarnation as an example. That Jesus Christ is God and Man has always been the central point of Christian belief. Yet certain projections of this doctrine so blur the real meaning of the terms in which it is expressed, or so distort the relationships between these terms, as to present a vague and scarcely intelligible picture, or one that in fact gives a totally false idea of the Incarnation.
If the doctrine is projected in such a way as to suggest that Jesus is just God and that his Humanity is only an appearance..., or that he is just Man simply with a special relationship with God ..., or that he has only one nature, or that he has two persons ..., all of that, based on wrong focussing of parts of the picture or of the relationship between the parts, actually gives a false projection of the doctrine.
If this happens - it happened in the first three or four centuries and some of it is happening again today - the Christian audience calls out, "Hey, focus"; and the operator - the Magisterium - obliges. Then, once again we get an intelligible picture of clear definition: Jesus is truly God; he truly possesses the divine nature. He is truly Man; he truly possesses our human nature. And both natures find their union in one Divine Person.
Let us take another example: the Holy Eucharist. To understand the Eucharist simply as the Body of Christ may still be blurred understanding, if one is not clear about the relationship between bread and Body, if the apparent overlapping of the two realities is not clarified, if one is not sure where the bread "ends" and where the Body "begins".
If the projection of the doctrine of the Eucharist suggests that the bread remains bread but simply acquires a new purpose or significance, then the projection falsifies Catholic doctrine; as it does if it suggests that the Body is somehow present along with the bread during the eucharistic celebration but that, after the celebration, the Body "departs" and only bread remains. Such mis-projections have occurred in the past, and recur today.
A bit of definition clarifies our picture. The bread "ends" and the Body "begins" at the consecration. What was there before the consecration looked like bread and was bread. What is there after the consecration looks like bread but is not bread. The appearances of bread remain, but the underlying reality - what is there - is totally changed; is Jesus Christ. And he remains there, even after the eucharistic celebration, as long as the appearances - the "accidents" - of bread remain. Now, that is a clear projection of the mystery of the Eucharist.
The slide comparison can help illustrate further points that are important to our subject.
The operator projecting the slide does not create the picture. The picture is already there; he simply presents it for viewing. When he gives better focus, he is neither inventing nor changing the picture. He is simply facilitating better viewing of an existing picture which was taken perhaps quite some time ago. His job is not to make or vary the picture, but simply to project it in as well-defined and as viewable a way as possible.
So the Magisterium in relation to Revelation. The Magisterium does not originate Revelation. It does not tamper with or vary Revelation. It is at the service of Revelation; and of the viewers of Revelation. It protects Revelation for each generation to see; and defines it, or areas of it, so that it is presented to even the most blurred eyes in all clarity. Safeguarding clarity and definition is the function of the Magisterium. The Magisterium has no power to change the picture of Revelation into another picture. The picture was "taken" - and entrusted to the Church for projection - two thousand years ago. It will remain the same picture for the rest of time.
Feeling 'free' about the picture?
This can help us to spot the defective understanding behind the second point mentioned above, i.e. the suggestion that if a point of belief has not yet been definitively or formally defined, then one is not "bound" by it; one is even "free" to hold views that radically contradict it, even if it has been held and taught in the Church for centuries.
Those who feel that this attitude is uncatholic, that it smacks of a minimalistic and therefore a legalistic approach, are right. Yet they might be hard put to show it to be untenable if they limit themselves (as do their opponents) to purely technical or legal arguments. The untenability of this position is only adequately seen on ecclesiological grounds. Then it is seen clearly.
If the Church - the Church of the centuries - has the Mind of Christ, then its teaching reflects that Mind. And Christ does not change his Mind. The Mind of Christ is not an enigmatic mind (though it has depths of mystery). It is not ambiguous or hesitant. It is not a mind that fluctuates over the centuries, denying old truths or introducing new ones. It is not self-contradictory....
That is why we can have relative but real certainty in our grasp even of the "non-defined" areas of Christ's Mind. It would of course be preferable to speak of the "less-defined" - rather than the "non-defined" - areas, because the projection of even these areas is of sufficient clarity for us to be sure of their substantial content - to be sure of what this content is, and of what it is not and cannot be - even if such areas are open to further definition or clarification. That clarification will necessarily be a confirmation of what is already visible. It will show us what we already see, and show it in greater richness of detail.
The picture we already see will resolve itself into the same picture, but seen more clearly. It will not and cannot resolve itself into a totally unexpected (and less still a contradictory) picture.
Just because the picture in our slide-show is not perfectly focussed and every individual detail is not clear in fullest precision, this does not leave me, as viewer of the scene projected, "free" to twist what it represents into anything I choose. I do not (and should not) feel "free" to deny that the picture is one of a group in a garden, affirming instead that it may possibly turn out to be a riot in a city square. I may not see all the details in proper precision, but I see the main outlines with sufficient clarity to be sure of what the details, when properly focussed, may or may not turn out to be. It does not cross my mind to suggest that that ill-defined area of blue in the flower-bed may actually turn out to be a well-defined area of red. Those two figures shaking hands are, it is true, not totally clear; yet I am totally certain that all the focussing in the world will not resolve them into two fencers crossing swords together. I am equally sure that the somewhat blurred figure of a man standing in the centre of the scene will not, on further definition, vanish into thin air.
Yet this is precisely the sort of thing that some theologians in the Church are suggesting today in relation to the picture of Christian teaching. They admit, for instance, that contraception in the Christian view (Protestant as well as Catholic) has been seen until very recent years as seriously sinful. But, they claim, since this has not been formally defined, one is "free" to see it the other way round. Since there has been no definition one is free to hold that the message Christ projects for us is precisely the opposite: that the real truth about contraception is that it is acceptable and even pleasing to Him.
"Since there has been no definition" ...? This is the essential flaw in the argument. "The Church's teaching on contraception has never been defined" ...? But it has! It has been consistently projected to Christ's Faithful in clearly defined (if not solemnly defined) terms over centuries. Prior to 1960, the Magisterium, the theologians and the faithful were at one in how they understood the message coming to them from Christ on this point. This was a clear black-and-white area of the picture. No one doubted it or saw it otherwise: there can be sexual sins within marriage; contraception is one of them; it is gravely wrong [51].
The point is that definition is not just a magisterial or juridical act. It is also and even mainly a matter of how a doctrine is projected and seen. That is why, as we have been trying to illustrate with the slide-analogy, there are in fact degrees of definition. A solemn definition is the final possible stage; and it is only possible because the truth in question has been seen in clear definition beforehand. A definition, therefore, does not need to be solemn in order to be clear. It does not have to be formulated in the ultimate precision of a solemn infallible document in order to be unmistakable and unchangeable in its content and meaning.
In short; while a doctrine taught by the ordinary non-solemn Magisterium may not be finally or totally defined, it is not so blurred or obscure that its main features are unrecognizable. On the contrary, the main features are precisely the ones that cannot be mistaken. Where there is room for adjustment or further appreciation is in relation to the finer details. Even then the process of further definition will always simply emphasize the harmony between these details and the already unmistakable whole.
Is the Church's teaching on contraception therefore infallible? Since infallible teaching means teaching that is free from error and therefore certainly "true" - because Christ guarantees its truth - I do not see how a Catholic mind can avoid the conclusion that the traditional teaching on contraception enjoys a divine guarantee of truth - in virtue not so much of papal infallibility [52] as of the infallibility of the whole Church: of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, and also of the "sensus fidelium" for centuries right up to the post-conciliar period.
Vatican II itself explicitly lays down that the teaching of the Magisterium on birth control must be followed (GS 51). The postconciliar dissidence on the matter, by certain theologians, is no witness against Tradition and the Magisterium. It is the dissidents who have to show that they have not departed from the Mind of Christ; or to show how contraception can become "right" today - having been wrong yesterday - without this signifying that Christ, besides having failed to uphold his Church, has practiced deceit on his followers and has a confused and self-contradictory Mind.
The Catholic view has never been that defined dogma represents the area of necessary belief, while the ordinary Magisterium represents an area of spontaneous opinion where each one is free to think as he chooses. Both represent the area of truth. Both cover the area of Christ's Mind [53].
The ecclesiologically defective approach that claims the right to see what one likes where a teaching, however traditional, has not been formally defined, is of course only one step removed from the approach that claims to see what one likes even when the doctrine has in fact been defined by solemn magisterial act. Quite a number of contemporary theologians have already taken that step. In the name of theological development they suggest that the time has come to resee the whole picture of Christian teaching in such a way that what was seen as black before can now be seen to be white, what was seen as square before can now be taken to be round, what was there before can now be declared to be absent or posited as something to be removed.
The suggestions are made every day. They are made not only in the field of morals, as we have seen: that contraception - or divorce or abortion - though projected before as wrong, can now, to a modern eye, be seen to be right. Parallel suggestions are made in the dogmatic field, in relation to the most basic doctrines of faith: that the Virginal Birth of Jesus Christ, or his Bodily Resurrection, or his Real Presence in the Eucharist, though formerly projected and seen by generation after generation of Catholics to mean what the terms of each doctrine literally express, can now - "given the finer adjustments of understanding that our modern theological research methods permit" - be seen to mean no such thing but to be simply metaphorical figures or symbolic ways of conveying a totally different meaning: a meaning emptied in fact of any objective content or transcendental value.
Close-up viewing
Close examination of the details of a picture always risks losing sight of the picture. Over-concentration on one word or phrase of a message may make one forget the whole message.
For instance, historical-critical methods of biblical investigation are close-examination tools. They are like a magnifying glass; they magnify the text, but in doing so they often blur the context [54]. A magnifying glass in any case is not the best instrument for viewing an entire picture.
It is not criticism of the theologian to say that the reason why he must use close-examination tools is that he is short-sighted. All of us are short-sighted in relation to Revelation. Magnified examination of the details should be a help to us not in order to view those details in isolation but so that, seeing them better, our over-view of the whole picture is magnified. Tradition is the main over-all magnifier.
Some contemporary theologians deserve criticism, however, not for being short-sighted but for being narrow-sighted. Narrow-sightedness, in relation to Revelation, is something no Christian can afford. Our perspective must be broad enough to cover the whole picture.
In taking a close-up view, we cannot afford to lose our over-all view. That is what is happening to some of our theologians. They have been caught in the trap of the specialist: "knowing more and more about less and less". They have brought their minds to concentrated focus on a particular research area - some aspect of Christian belief - and as a result they have totally lost perspective. Further, their narrowed view becomes normative for them. What lies outside its scope - Tradition, the Magisterium, the sensus fidei - becomes irrelevant. They judge the picture by the part - their view of the part. And what they then see is in fact no longer the Picture.
The close examiner may find himself so engrossed in his work that he feels he has neither time nor room to stand back, to recover that broader view. Then especially he needs the humility to make constant reference to the over-view given by the vantage point of the centuries (Tradition, the sensus fidei), or given, right now, by the Holy Spirit through a particular organ (the Magisterium).
The human tools of the theologian - philosophical systems, critical exegesis, etc. - are useful provided they are used simply as tools and in order to do theology. Theology is not theology if its reference or verification point is the tool used. Its reference point is the Faith, Revelation (the whole picture, already there and already clear), the Magisterium. If the tool becomes the self-verifying reference point, then the whole picture is lost. It becomes a picture in the mind of the viewer, variable according to the variations of his mind or imagination, but with no objective content in itself.
The broad-viewed ordinary believer who sees the whole picture of Revelation, even if not in great analytical depth, theologizes better than the narrow-viewed theologian who views one aspect of the Christian message but not in the context of the whole of Revelation [55]. The picture of Revelation is clear, but only to the eyes of faith. Eyes of human intelligence alone are blurred, and blur the picture.
The slide-projection image remains suggestive in further ways. For instance, we could say that the picture of Revelation is "three-dimensional". It stands out like the real thing full of life and movement that it is. Therefore it can be viewed by different viewers from a variety of angles. A man is a man whether seen from behind or in front. Depending on the angle, he looks slightly different; but he is still seen as a man. If he is not seen as a man but as something else, then it is not the angle of view that is at fault. It is the viewer's eye; his vision is faulty.
This could serve to illustrate the reality and the limits of theological pluralism, i.e. the fact that different theological explanations can be advanced for the same doctrines of faith. Pluralism in theology corresponds to this "three-dimensionality" of the truth. Changing ways of viewing a doctrine are legitimate provided it is the angle of vision that changes, while the object seen - the actual doctrine - remains the same.
The Eucharist - seen in a Catholic sense, as the true Body of Christ - can be viewed from a variety of angles: the viewpoint of Sacrifice, the viewpoint of Banquet, the viewpoint of Presence; the further viewpoints of its effects on the individual or on the community, etc. But it is still the same Eucharist that is being seen from all these angles.
Now if someone's angle of view on the Eucharist is such that he says, "I don't see the Body of Christ there, not his true Body"..., then that is not one more view within a pluralism of views. It is not seeing the same Object from a different angle, it is seeing a different object. That is no longer the pluralism of reasoning differently within the same Faith. It is reasoning outside the Faith.
In theological pluralism one sees Revelation as it is - from different angles. If one starts seeing Revelation as it is not, that is not pluralism. That is to interfere with the Mind of Christ, attempting to take things out that should be there or to put things in that should not. And then Christ speaks his Mind through the Magisterium: "Those are not my thoughts. You are not seeing my Revelation clearly. Clarify your sight or your angle of vision. Let me clarify it for you. This is what I mean. This is my Revelation. Take it or leave it. Do not twist it or tamper with it".
Pluralism means contrast, but not contradiction, between angles of belief. Pluralism means diversity of approaches within the one Faith, complementarity of views of the same Truth, different but interconnected understandings. We can and ought to revel in such pluralism. It is a cause of joy because it is a sign of Catholic richness and variety (cf. Chapter 17).
Pursuing our analogy we could describe the sensus fidelium as the "audience-response" of those countless publics who have contemplated the picture of Revelation down the centuries. Audience after audience has shown its appreciation in a way that becomes normative for the true interpretation of Christ's Performance. Their breathless response to Christ in his Mysteries - to Christ in the Manger, Christ on the Cross, Christ Risen, Christ in the Eucharist - has never been a mere poetic reaction to "suggestive myths" or "moral stories", but a heart and soul response to real events which really took place, which centuries later really affected their lives and in which they could take part with deepest effect. It was that response which led to so many popular expressions of faith and piety: family and public devotions, Passion plays, images....
To ignore or not to attempt to appreciate the depth and power of such audience responses is to narrow one's own understanding. It is in a certain sense to fail to learn from Christ viewing himself. For only Christ can understand his own Mind in full depth, and view Himself from all possible angles. The development of doctrine could be described as that process by which Christ, in his members, reflects on himself. This process will continue until the Body of Christ attains the total understanding communicated by the Head to his members.
Each audience of each age (and each individual viewer), while seeing the whole picture, has perhaps responded with more marked enthusiasm to some particular detail or other. It is possible that an audience of a later generation (or you or I as individual viewers) may not be so attracted by that particular detail. This, if it refers to incidental details, is our freedom. It could also be our impoverishment. The more one sees and appreciates not only the overall picture of Revelation but each and every one of its details, and the more one appreciates the flames or flickers of faith or of simple devotion that each detail enkindles or reflects, the richer one's response to the universality of the Mind and Heart of Christ.
There is in fact nothing in the history of genuine development of doctrine that is irrelevant to the full grasp of the message handed down from the Apostles.
The ordinary Christian viewer of Revelation, and especially the theologian, needs this constant reference to the past if he is to clarify his viewing and not risk changing the object viewed. The viewing angles of the Fathers, of the Saints, of the centuries, will help him focus his eyes in depth, give keenness to his gaze, to look more deeply in the right direction - i.e. towards the same Object - whatever his stance and angle of view.
Some contemporary theologians seem to have lost this ability to see with the eyes of the ages, or this sense that their own views need to keep within that developing harmony of all-round vision.
A fundamental question of the Christian thinker is: do my views, do these new insights entering my perspective, square with the audience view of the past? If they do not, then there should be a fundamental readiness to change them.
The more the audience of the past saw what I fail to see, or the more I see something radically different to what they saw, the more likely it is that I am the one whose vision needs correcting.
One gets the impression that many modern theologians do not think or act this way. Rather - if they think of the audience reactions of the past at all - they simply dismiss them as the narrow and credulous views of backward people who would never have been able to appreciate the picture of Revelation scientifically corrected and redrawn according to twentieth century standards.
Revelation is God's Work and the people's patrimony. Yet some modern experts have taken it into their own hands, to cut and patch and repaint, as if they had authorship rights over it, as if its worth depended on their authentication. There would seem to be as much presumption in their efforts as there is a lack of psychological perception of the effects of these efforts on the people.
What has been the response evoked by modern theologies of secularization and demythification of the Gospel? Plaudits from specialist groups or clerical coteries; boredom from the great audience of normal Christians. Why should a Christ who is not God, who is not Risen, who is not present in the Eucharist, interest me?
Experts are always faced with the temptation of reducing the worth of a masterpiece to the level of their own appreciation of it; or of thinking that its fame is due in fact to them and not to its intrinsic value.
Rembrandt or Raphael or Velazquez came to be considered geniuses not first (not even mainly) because some experts judged them so, but because they evoked a deep response in the common man. That popular and spontaneous judgment of the beauty of their paintings is in fact a greater pointer to artistic worth than the detailed analyses of the experts.
Modern art experts wax enthusiastic about the work of some contemporary painters whose paintings nevertheless cause laughter or boredom among the ordinary people. Who is to say which judgment is sounder?
The true expert can deepen the popular understanding of the beauty of a masterpiece; but its beauty ante-dates him. Time points more surely to its worth than does individual judgment. Philistines have traditionally gone against the judgment of time; and time, in the end, has reasserted its judgment against them.
It is true that there is another function which certainly calls for expertise: deciding whether a newly presented painting claimed to be, say, an authentic Rembrandt, is in fact authentic or not. If we apply the analogy to our subject, the required expertise is in ultimate possession of the Magisterium.
How far does infallibility go?
Certain recent writers have criticized the Church's claim to infallibility as if it were a sort of "thought-throttler"; as if by saying that the truth goes "thus far and no farther", it seeks to limit progress in theological knowledge. Some critics add a more explicit accusation of pride, as if an infallible Magisterium were claiming to be in exclusive possession of knowledge, or even to be in possession of all knowledge, thus attributing to itself a God-like quality.
The confusion here is elementary, but noteworthy. Infallibility does not refer to extent of knowledge or understanding, but simply to freedom from error in knowing. It refers to certainty about the truth and to correctness in what is taught and believed.
Infallibility implies no claim that the doctrine in question cannot be further understood or better expressed; such a claim would exclude any possibility of development of doctrine. The claim implied in infallibility is not that the doctrine taught is exhaustively expressed, but that it is truly expressed. So infallibility leaves the way wide open for the development of doctrine. What is evidently excluded is any "development" which contradicts what has already been infallibly taught. It pertains to elementary theological sense to be able, as Newman put it, to distinguish a development from a "corruption".
An even deeper ignorance of the nature of infallibility is shown in the suggestion that the Church in its pretensions to infallibility is guilty of "hubris": the colossal pride of claiming to possess the fullness of divine knowledge. God alone evidently has the fullness of divine knowledge. It is true that the Church shares in divine knowledge, insofar as God has revealed this knowledge; but this is the gift of Revelation which should not be confused with that of infallibility. Revelation communicates divine knowledge - a divine message - to the Church. Infallibility enables the Church to hold and teach that knowledge without error: not to get the Message wrong. So, what has been given to the Church in the divine gift of infallibility is not knowledge but certainty: certainty that what the Church believes is true, because Christ is present guaranteeing that truth [56].
A separate point, under this same heading, is the thesis put forward by certain theologians that the infallibility of the Church is limited to dogmas of faith: what we must believe. In their opinion, the Church has no mandate to hand down infallible teaching in the field of morals: what we must do.
This thesis could be sustained only on one of two suppositions: either a) that the message of Salvation has nothing to do with practice; only with theory (sola fides!); or else b) that even if practice is important, we have no way of knowing with certainty how we should try to behave on concrete issues (contraception, abortion, etc.); we have no access to Christ's Mind on such issues. Both suppositions are incorrect.
Christ never preached salvation by faith alone. He gives moral norms (Mt 5:21-22; 27-28; 7:1; Mk 7:21-23; Lk 12:15; Jn 13:34, etc., etc.), insists that keeping his commandments is the proof of love for Him (Jn 14:21; cf. Mt 7:21), and sent his Apostles to all nations with the mandate to "teach them to observe all the commands I gave you" (Mt 28:19-20).
Christ's contemporaries came to Him and asked his opinion about moral issues: is it lawful to divorce or not? (Mt 19:3); is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? (Mk 12:14). And Christ gave his opinion. Are we to believe that He has no opinion - nothing to tell us - about contraception or abortion or homosexual conduct? The proposition of a "no-comment" Christ or a Christ who has "gone silent" makes no sense to anyone who recalls those promises: I am with you always... Whoever listens to you listens to Me...
But - it is sometimes objected - the Church has never in fact defined moral matters. This is simply untrue. Definitions on moral matters have been given both through the solemn Magisterium [57] and, particularly, through the ordinary and universal Magisterium (which we repeat, is also infallible). Over the centuries the ordinary Magisterium of the Church has defined a whole moral program of Christian living, in such crystalline clarity that no one can have any doubt about Christ's Mind on matters such as swindling, blackmail, slander, extramarital sex, contraception, homosexual conduct... The Church, in line with the strong words of Scripture (I Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21), has always taught that such conduct breaks communion with Christ and, for as long as deliberately held to, excludes from the kingdom of God.