Truth Does Not Contradict Truth

Truth Does Not Contradict Truth May 12, 2020

Monfredo de Monte Imperiali / Debate between Averroes and Porphyry / Wikimedia Commons

In his address to the Pontifical Academy of Science in 1996, Pope St. John Paul II reiterated the need for Catholicism to embrace what the sciences discover and not to fear it. Evolution, which scientists have discerned to be more than a hypothesis, but truth, does not contradict what Catholics believe. This is why he said, “We know that truth does not contradict the truth.”[1] To embrace the truth is to accept the truth wherever it can be found. Truth does not contradict truth. This does not mean our interpretation of the truth is correct. We must not confuse interpretations of the truth with the truth itself. The way some people interpret the Christian faith (such as fundamentalists), or the way some people interpret the sciences (such as with scientism), disconnect the truth from the truth by way of poor interpretation. When some truth seems to contradict another truth, there is the need to reengage the truth, to see where our interpretations falter. Often, what needs to be done is to see how various elements of the truth are reconciled by showing us another, even greater truth; sometimes, due to the nature of the human intellect, we might not be able to find a solution beyond the recognition of the paradoxical nature of the truth.

John Paul II did not create the notion that “truth does not contradict the truth.” In fact, he was making an allusion to Pope Leo XIII, who, upon speaking about the interpretation of Scripture and apparent contradictions found within Scripture, said the same thing, that is, the truth does not contradict the truth:

Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth, and we may be sure that some mistake has been made either in the interpretation of the sacred words, or in the polemical discussion itself; and if no such mistake can be detected, we must then suspend judgment for the time being.[2]

Pope Leo XIII affirmed, through his discussion of Scripture, that there can be problems involved in trying to reconcile elements of Scripture which appear to contradict each other. Sometimes, the only thing we can do is suspend our judgment, and let the truths presented by Scripture remain as they are, no matter how paradoxical that might seem. This is exactly the principle Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests Scriptural discussions on eternal perdition and universal salvation are to be treated; we must recognize Scripture has representations of both within it; how we reconcile them remains beyond our ability and so we must reserve judgment, letting God reveal the outcome to us in the eschaton.

While John Paul II was applying the principle in relation to science and religion, and Leo XIII was applying the principle in relation to what is found in Scripture itself, it is important to recognize the principle came out of an internal Islamic debate. It was asked if Muslims could and should recognize the truths discerned in pre-Islamic philosophers, or if such philosophers and what they taught should be rejected. Averroës, responding to those who criticized the philosophers, explained that the philosophers demonstrated and taught the use of reason which the Qurʼān expected Muslims to use in their own response to the faith. Thus, even if the philosophers made mistakes, which can be and should be corrected, they provided the resources necessary to rationally explore the Islamic faith and to act according to the expectations of the Qurʼān. And, because the philosophers did this well, they were to be respected and studied. Thus, when the philosophers caught on to a truth, Muslims should have no fear of embracing it because such truths would not contradict the truth of Islam:

Since this Law is true and calls to the reflection leading to cognizance of the truth, we, the Muslim community, know firmly that demonstrative reflection does not lead to differing with what is set down in the Law. For truth does not oppose truth; rather, it agrees with and bears witness to it.[3]

In this way, St. John Paul II and Leo XIII embraced a truth which came to them from a non-Christian source. They were following a tradition which served to defend the use of philosophy within Islam, a tradition which was then transposed within the Catholic environment by John Paul II to offer a similar plea as that of Averroës, but this time, in dealing with what contemporary science has learned of the world. In doing this, John Paul II was not only affirming a Catholic embrace of the sciences, but also of the truths found in the writings of non-Christian thinkers, taking a classical defense of such a humanistic enterprise and using it to deal with one of the major areas of knowledge available to us today. But this also means it is a statement which can be, and should be, employed by those engaging inter-religious dialogue, even as it is readily accepted and employed by those who do comparative theology. For, as Vatican Council II pointed out, Christians can and should accept whatever is good and true in other religious traditions:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. [4]

This is because:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.[5]

It is important for people concerned with the truth to be willing to explore it wherever it can be found, indeed, to bring together various elements of the truth and see how they can relate together. This, likewise, shows the catholic nature of truth, for truth is universal. This is why the earliest Christians recognized the church itself as being universal (catholic). For the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. By its teachings, all particular truths can be held together. Those who undermine this principle, those who reject a proper religious humanism, rejecting some element of the truth, risk not only heresy, but the consequences which follow when one does not holistically follow the truth. For where there is grave error, where there is unacceptable ignorance, grave consequences follow.

[1] “Nous savons en effet que la vérité ne peut pas contredire la verité,” Pope St. John Paul II, “Message to the participants in the Plenary of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences” (October 22, 1996). Translation from the French. ¶2.  (The Vatican does not have an English translation on their site. But you can read one here).

[2] Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus. Vatican translation. ¶23.

[3] Averroës, “Decisive Treatise” in Decisive Treatise & Epistle Dedicatory. Trans. Charles E. Butterworth (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2001), 8-9.

[4] Nostra Aetate. Vatican translation. ¶2.

[5] Nostra Aetate, ¶2.

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