As most readers know, Pope Francis recently sent a letter to journalist Eugenio Scalfari in response to questions he had posed in articles that were published in La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper that he founded.
Scalfari’s questions, as the pope acknowledged, are undoubtedly shared by other “non-believers,” and the Holy Father characterized his answers, not as exhaustive and final, but as “tentative and temporary.” With that in mind, I offer the following, not just to Scalfari and other non-believers, but also to believers who wish to deepen their own understanding of how the doctrine of the faith may be applied to such questions.
Dear Dr. Scalfari,
Though your questions were not directed to me, inasmuch as they were posed publicly and concern the faith of the Catholic Church, I herein offer the following:
You ask how to understand the originality of the Christian faith inasmuch as it is founded on the Incarnation of the Son of God, in regard to other faiths that gravitate instead around the absolute transcendence of God.
First, the notion of “originality” with respect to Christianity – more specifically, the Catholic faith – is better contemplated in terms of its singularity among all “other faiths.” This singularity lies in the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, and her doctrines, as it is she alone who finds her origins in the Originator, the Creator who for love of humankind revealed Himself for their salvation.
As for “other faiths” that “gravitate instead around the absolute transcendence of God,” it is important to know that they do so, unlike the Catholic faith, with varying degrees of error.
The Divine Revelation of the transcendent God has been fully and completely expressed in the Incarnation; i.e., in the Person of Jesus Christ, whose Mystical Body is the Catholic Church alone, and to which the Lord entrusted the fullness of truth.
It is only in contemplating this reality that the “originality” of the Catholic faith is best understood.
You also ask what we should say to our Jewish brothers about the promise made to them by God: has it all come to nothing?
The promise has not “come to nothing;” on the contrary, it has come to perfect fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ!
Let us acknowledge that God has abandoned neither the Jewish people, nor the covenant that He made with them, but we cannot stop there; rather, we must also acknowledge that the Jewish people have indeed abandoned God, even if perhaps, unbeknownst to themselves on an individual level via invincible ignorance, and have effectively therefore removed themselves from the covenant with Him.
In order for the Jewish people to return to a covenant relationship with God and avail themselves of His promise, they are objectively required to embrace its fulfillment in Christ Jesus. As Our Blessed Lord told us, “He who rejects me rejects Him who sent me.”
Part of the Church’s mission, therefore, is to continue, in charity, to extend the invitation to the Jewish people to embrace all that the Lord has promised, calling on them after the example of St. Peter, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” through the waters of baptism! (Acts 2:40)
You ask if the thought, according to which no absolute exists and therefore not even an absolute truth but only a series of relative or subjective truths, is an error or a sin.
It is both an error and a sin.
In order to more readily comprehend this, it is first helpful to accept in faith the words of Christ Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (This approach serves as a fitting application of St. Augustine’s exhortation, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
The creature has no right to deny the Creator, who not only creates but sustains, for the creature’s very life is a testament to the Creator’s existence, and he who rejects the existence of “absolute truth” is rejecting the very existence of Jesus Christ who is the truth through whom all things were made.
Not only does absolute truth exist, it has been revealed to mankind in its fullness in Christ Jesus, and we do not hesitate to say that absolute religious truth is expressed without error in the doctrines of the Catholic Church, which is His Body, as well as in Sacred Scripture, the authentic interpreter of which is the sacred Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church.
Finally, you ask if, with the disappearance of man on earth, the thought will also disappear that is able to think of God.
The immediate answer is no, but distinctions must be made between the elect and the damned, or to use Scriptural language, the sheep and the goats.
It must first be said that the question is flawed in that it seems to presume that the “end of the world,” or the passing of life as we know it, is tantamount to the “disappearance of man” who ponders God. It is not.
At the end of the age, Christ will execute the final judgment, as we recite in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Those who receive their heavenly reward will no longer merely think of God; they will see Him “face-to-face” as He is, while the damned will not, and will instead eternally suffer knowledge of that deprivation.
For the non-believer, these answers can be but an “appetizer” that speaks to the Good News that God, in His infinite love for mankind, has made the truth that alone can satisfy our every hunger available in all of its fullness in Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son who laid down His life that we may be saved.
As for the banquet itself, “it cannot be difficult to find … if only it be sought with an earnest and unbiased mind; for proofs are abundant and striking” (cf Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei – 7).
If only our clergy could speak so clearly.
If I am reading this correctly, is the Holy Father essentially saying that one cannot continue to plead ignorance if they have knowledge of Christ? As St. Augustine writes, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.” Seems to me that one IS required to believe to be saved. If the creature has no right to deny the Creator, then why would a non-believer be saved? “The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience”. The type of vagueness in this last quote from Pope Francis seems to contradict Augustine’s logic. Am I way off here?
The matter of conscience as law is addressed in Romans 2, however, in the present case, the pope’s reply is less than complete, thus all the confusion.
Difficulty in this matter stems from the fact that our churchmen of the last five decades have largely neglected to distinguish between object truth and subjective judgment, the latter belonging to the Lord alone, the former being the content of the Church’s preaching.
With that in mind, the question that we cannot answer is what constitutes “knowledge” such that one is culpable. The mission of the Church, however, is unchanged; to preach the objective truth.
Pope Pius IX makes the necessary distinction well in the 1863 Encyclical, Quanto Conficiamur. very well. He touches on the role of “invincible ignorance” as it relates to the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, apart from which confusion is all but invited. He states:
“It is again necessary to censure a very grave error that is unfortunately entrapping some Catholics who profess that it is possible for men to arrive at eternal salvation, although they live in error, and are alienated from the true Faith and Catholic unity. Such opinion is absolutely opposed to Catholic teaching.”
“We know and you know that there are those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy Religion. Uprightly observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches, and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, His supreme goodness and clemency do not permit those who are not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishment.”
“… The promise has not “come to nothing;” on the contrary, it has come to perfect fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ! …”
Thank you for a concise answer to this question.
For further clarification: Which covenant is being discussed? Mosaic, Abrahamic?
Also what is the distinction between covenant and law – as in Mystici Corporis 20?
Frankly, between the terms covenant, law, testament, as well as the various covenants it is quite easy to get confused.
Looking forward to your thoughts.
correction: Mystici Corporis: 29
“Let us acknowledge that God has abandoned neither the Jewish people, nor the covenant that He made with them.”
This was really the only problem I saw. The Old Covenant has been revoked. It no longer exists. We have a NEW Covenant, which most Jews have rejected to their most terrible detriment.
“Turn Thine eyes of mercy towards the children of that race, once Thy chosen people: of old they called down upon themselves the Blood of the Savior; may It now descend upon them, a laver of redemption and of life.” -Consecration of the human race to the Sacred Heart (Pope Leo XIII)
Tradical – Great questions. It is confusing.
Mystici Corporis is speaking of the Old Law – the ritual and ceremonial laws of the old covenant. These have been made obsolete, while the covenant promises made to Abraham and David have been fulfilled in Christ.
The decalogue, however, endures, so too does the covenant made with Noah.
Thanks for the comment, Traditional Josh. I appreciate it. Perhaps my reply to Tradical helps.
I use the word “abandoned” purposely because it is often abused in this context. The point I am making is that while one can, in truth, say that “God has not abandoned the Old Covenant,” (he didn’t abandon it, He fulfilled it) that alone is so incomplete a thought as to invite an error.
To say that God revoked the Old Covenant is also an incomplete thought. What God revoked, or to use the words of Pius XII from Mystici Corporis, “abolished” was the Old Law, not the covenant per se as the covenant itself was neither revoked nor abolished, but rather, fulfilled.
I think part of the challenge here is in recognizing that “Law” and “Covenant” are not interchangeable terms.
Problem 1. Covenants with God have blessings and curses attached to them: e.g., Deut 28.
Problem 2. Failure to adhere to the covenant brings on the curses.
Problem 3. You can’t get out of a covenant unless one of the parties dies. That would mean that either God would have to die, or the Israeli people would have to die. If one of them didn’t die, they would be under the curses–since they have not been fulfilling the covenant–until the second coming.
So, it would seem that the Crucifixion was either God dying in a sufficient sense to end the convenient, or Christ taking the place of Israel and dying on their behalf (as well as for us all): otherwise, they would still be under the covenant…and thus under the curses.
Is that wrong?
PS: the above line of thinking was from a class with Tim Gray many years ago. Whether or not he still holds to it, I don’t know.
Thanks for your comment, Stephen. I hadn’t heard anything like this before. I would hesitate to say that the Sacrifice of Christ can be viewed as having released either God or Israel from the Old Covenant, like a marriage wherein the surviving spouse in no longer bound.
The People Israel, like every other human being, is ever duty bound to the Lord as a matter of justice. I suppose Tim Gray’s line of thinking here could be usefully included in a much broader treatment wherein the death and resurrection of Our Lord is understood first and foremost as fulfillment of the Old Covenant, but on its own it seems to fall flat.
The Old Covenant, and the Old Law associated with it, were but a preparation for the fulfillment that was ever its purpose; i.e., the New Covenant. E.g., the sin offerings, the Day of Atonement, the yearly Passover observances, etc… all of these served as preparation for Christ’s Sacrifice which at once fulfilled the Old Covenant and made obsolete the prescripts of the Old Law.
Deut. 28 itself prepares the way for Deut. 30 which foretells of the New Covenant that even now calls out to the People Israel to return to God through baptism (circumcision of heart).
Well give it some thought sometime. I don’t claim that I am correct, but I do claim that I can see no way out of the logic.
I seemed very nice in recent decades to say that the Old Covenant was never revoked in any way. But if that is true, then Deut 28 would still seem to still be in effect. That certainly would not make the descendants of Israel “accursed”: there were blessings just as much as there were curses! But they would still be under the blessings and the curses…and since they are not fulfilling the covenant in general terms, that would seem to necessarily mean that they are under the curses in general terms. And that does not seem a very nice thing to say after all.
In other words, the claims of the Church recently have sought to maintain that the descendants of Israel have certain ADVANTAGES as compared with other non-Christians. But a covenant could be either an advantage or a disadvantage–a blessing or a curse–depending solely upon fidelity. So, FUNCTIONALLY, the Church seems to be inadvertently claiming that the decedents of Israel are actually at a DISADVANTAGE as compared with other non-Christians. So this “development of doctrine” (I suppose) seems to have exactly the opposite implication from the one intended. In practice, the older view of the Church–that the Old Covenant was superseded–seem more humane and charitable after all.
BTW, I simply love your columns!