Tuesday, August 18, 2009

James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 2)

Here is a second excerpt from Part 8 (“A Call for Vatican III”) of James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword. You may recall how in the first excerpt I shared, Carroll notes that history has a way of challenging that Catholic view of truth that “meshed perfectly with, indeed required, the nineteenth-century view of Catholic authority, whose role was to guard against ambiguity – which it could do, after 1870, infallibly.”

“Once the Church, in its hierarchy, and in particular in the pope, had defined the objective truth, the duty of the Catholic was univocally to conform his or her mind to that truth,” writes Carroll.

Following is how Carroll documents history challenging such an understanding of truth and authority.


The implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution outran its first adherents and soon frustrated the most compulsive calaloguer. Human knowing is as dynamic as the development of species is. The absolute truth can in no way evolve or change (God as the Unmoved Mover), but what if everything else does? Then in 1918, Albert Einstein published Relativity: The Special and General Theory, suggesting that neither the ground on which one stands while thinking nor the time in which one pursues a thought to its conclusion is free of ambiguity, paradox, contradiction, movement – relativity. Suddenly thinkers had a new language, based in physical observation, with which to describe the fact that every perception occurs from a particular point of view and that not even the point of view is constant. Every person is a perceiving center, and every perception is different. There is no absolute conformity of the knowing subject to the known object. Therefore truth can be known only obliquely, and, yes, subjectively.

Change is built into the way truth is perceived, and every person’s perception has something to offer every other’s. Therefore revision, criticism, dialogue, and conversation are far more relevant to truth-seeking than conformity to dictation from above. This flies in the face not of Catholic tradition but recent Catholic tradition. For example, this existentialist framework fulfills the apophatic impulse of Nicolaus of Cusa, whose Learned Ignorance (1440), affirming that God, and therefore truth, can be approached only indirectly, set the stage for his celebration of pluralism, Peace Among the Religions (1453).

Unfortunately, Nicolaus of Cusa stood by another of those roads not taken. Catholic theology spent much of the twentieth century recovering from the defensive rigidities of Counter-Reformation scholasticism, but the recovery is not complete. Vatican III must retrieve for the Church the deep-seated human intuition that mystery is at the core of existence, that truth is elusive, that God is greater than religion. “The heart of the matter is mystery in any religion,” David Tracy said. “The Law is there for the Jew to intensify that sense of mystery, not to replace it. The Church is there for Catholics to do the same.” If mystery is at the core of religion, then ambiguity, paradox, and even doubt are not enemies of faith, but aspects of it . . . [T]ruth [is] like a tapestry, but seen from the reverse side, with all the imprecision that implies.

[Yet does this mean] we are condemned to a mindless pluralism that is ready to equate the shallow with the profound, the stupid with the wise, the cruel with the kind, all to avoid the monotony of the “one voice,” the tyranny of the self? Does subjectivity condemn the person to the tyranny of the self? Does subjectivity condemn the community to, in David Tracy’s phrase, “the void of sheer fascination at our pluralistic possibilities?”

NEXT: Part 3

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 1)
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
Beyond Papalism
Thoughts on Relativism
Many Voices, One Church
“Something Exciting and Joyous”
What It Means to Be Catholic
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Dialogue is Key in Moving Past Theological Impasses

Recommended Off-site Links:
CCCR Responds to Censure by Chancery Progressive Catholic Voice, August 13, 2009.
James Carroll’s Official Website

1 comment:

Paula said...

Hey, Michael. I think these quotations from Carroll are great. Thanks for posting them.