Lumen Fidei: Is Truth Totalitarian?

In paragraph 34 of Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis writes,

Truth nowadays is often reduced to the subjective authenticity of the individual, valid only for the life of the individual. A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems.

(My emphasis.)

In other words, my truth is what I choose to live by; your truth is at best an impertinent demand, at worst an unjust interference with my autonomy. (The Pope is describing this point of view, mind you, not advocating it.)

I think many today see the Catholic Church as just such a totalitarian system: a massive structure that insists we believe certain things and do certain things, and threatens to cast us into hell if we do and believe what we like. More that, some seem to think, given the power the Church would gladly cast non-believers and sinners into jail or burn them at the stake.

All of this is true, of course—that’s why we have armed guards at every mass to carry away those who receive the Blessed Sacrament unworthily, and why so many contracepting so-called-Catholics have vanished in the wee hours never to be seen again, and why orthodox Catholic politicians are dominating at the polls.

Oh, wait. Those things aren’t happening.

This is because the Church recognizes that knowing the truth is hard, and living up to it is harder. The Church goes to great lengths to communicate the truth (and hence can seem to be a bit of a nagger) but leaves the reception of that truth up to us, to do the best (or worst) with it that we can.

It is true that Catholics have, at various times, tried to impose the truth by force (though not as often as conventional wisdom would say). We’ve learned from that; we’ve learned that it doesn’t work, and only causes worse problems in the future.

But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. As a truth of love, it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual. Since it is born of love, it can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman.

(My emphasis.)

Christian truth comes from an encounter with the “Other”, with God in the Person of Jesus Christ, he being the perfect and full revelation of his Father in Heaven. It is a truth brought in love, and a truth to be accepted in love, which is to say by our free choice. True love of Christ simply isn’t the kind of thing that can be coerced.

The Church’s moral teachings aren’t demands to be met “or else”; they are guides to living with Christ in love, guides to choosing to live in Christ. Are there consequences to choosing otherwise? Yes, there are, and the Church tells us about them. But the Church does not levy those consequences as punishments (she does not levy them at all), and she does not desire them for anyone.

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