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Column: Truth, not tolerance, should be our absolute

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Many years ago, I was making a private retreat. Also on retreat that week at the same center was a group of Universalist Unitarians. They were very friendly and at meal time always attempted to engage me in conversation.

I asked them about the format and content of their retreat. The objective of their retreat was for each of them to formulate or to revise their own personal creed. I asked them if there had to be certain common beliefs in each of their creeds. The answer was to me a surprising “No.” The only absolute was that each personal creed had to be tolerant of everyone else’s creed.

I was reminded of this experience during the furor this summer over the statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled, “Responses to Some Questions regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.”

In our culture today, tolerance and diversity have become the new absolutes. There is much good in these absolutes. After all, tolerance and diversity are civic virtues necessary for a democratic society and, properly understood, they are consistent with authentic Christianity.

Our very name Catholic means “universal.” We are called to do much more than tolerate others. We are to revere the God-given dignity of every other human being as one made in the image of God and one who the Son of God so valued that he gave his life on Calvary.

If you want a remarkable experience of diversity, make a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In St. Peter’s, you will see pilgrims representing every race, as well as an incredible variety of ethnic backgrounds. With the appearance of the Magi at the Nativity scene, we recognize in the very beginning of the Gospel Jesus breaking down the barriers of race and ethnicity. Our Catholic faith celebrates the beautiful mosaic of God’s image revealed in humanity with its different races and ethnic cultures.

Yet, sometimes tolerance and diversity are really used today to promote secular relativism, a philosophy that is premised on a rejection of objective truth. For the relativist, you can have your truth and I can have my truth even if we contradict each other. In other words, there is no truth.

Pope Benedict XVI has identified this ideology of relativism as the source of so much theological and moral confusion. It is out of such relativism that we find the ideological basis for the “pro-choice” rhetoric used to justify the killing of innocent unborn children, as well as the efforts to redefine marriage as something other than a covenant between a man and a woman.

This summer’s statement from the Holy See clarifying questions about the doctrine of the church was actually a follow-up to a document, entitled “Dominus Jesus” (“The Lord Jesus”), published in the jubilee year 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whose prefect, at the time, was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The original document also created quite a furor.

In “Dominus Jesus,” we find a reaffirmation of the church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue: “In considering the values which these religions witness to and offer humanity, with an open and positive approach, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions states: The Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.”

Yet, the document goes on to make clear, this is not to say that we consider Jesus simply a great religious leader or thinker similar to Buddha or Moses or Mohammed. Nor does our respect for the equal dignity of every participant in an interreligious dialogue mean that we believe the teachings of other religions have the same claim on the truth as the doctrines of the church.

“Dominus Jesus” states: “Equality, which is the presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in the dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relationship to the founders of other religions.”

My Unitarian friends helped me make a very special retreat. They reminded me of the gift of my Catholic faith and its belief in truth — both natural truths accessible to us through human reason and revealed truths communicated to us by God.

The problem with every person developing their own creed is that God is limited by the capacity of our minds to conceive him. God becomes something made in our own image, rather than our Christian understanding that we have been created in the divine image. What God revealed of himself in the Bible and ultimately in the Incarnate Word — Jesus — is so much greater than what our minds could have ever imagined.

We find the battle between truth and its denial right in the Gospel of John’s Passion narrative. What an irony that the accused prisoner Jesus asserts: “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” while his earthly judge, Pontius Pilate, feebly responds with the classic relativist’s question: “What is truth?”

Frankly, I prefer to be a disciple of Jesus rather than Pontius Pilate.

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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