This past week, during the general assembly of the US bishops, one bishop insisted that defending innocent life in the womb was not a “preeminent priority.” Rather, he implied the issue needs to be balanced against a wide range of important issues to which the Holy Father gives greater priority. It was a relativizing objection that was firmly corrected by his brother bishops. Archbishop Chaput objected, “I am against anyone saying that our stating that [abortion] is preeminent is contrary to the teaching of the pope, because that isn’t true. It sets up an artificial battle between the bishops’ conference of the United States and the Holy Father which isn’t true…I don’t like the argument Bishop McElroy used, because it isn’t true.”
The pushback was precisely on the question of truth, and the bishops applauded it. While but a brief exchange, it was revealing. It was a sign of growing dissatisfaction among bishops with an odd array of attempts to relativize certain moral truths which touch the deposit of faith.
Whether it’s German bishops advocating for changes in Church teaching, or laymen and priests doing the same on Twitter, there is a palpable sense that some powerful churchmen would like to see all the categories shifted to better fit with the world around us. This is not the first time.
The mid-20th century French Jesuit Henri Bouillard once insisted that theology must constantly move with “the evolution of all concepts.” He famously said, “a theology that is not up-to-date (actuelle) is a false theology.” Bouillard was not denying that Catholics believe in unchangeable truths, but the phrase was a striking one. If taken literally, it might mean that the Dogmas of the Trinity, or the Incarnation, are false insofar as they depend on very “out-dated” Hellenistic accounts of being, substance and natures.
Bouillard’s claim elicited a rebuttal from the French Dominican Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange opened his bombshell 1947 essay on the new modern theologies which were emerging before and after the war with a broadside against just the kind of temporal standard that Bouillard had advocated.
Fr. Garrigou asked how can one assent to an understanding of the Eucharist as a transubstantiation without an unchangeably true concept of substance? And most fundamentally, he asked, if every unchangeable truth of the faith must be measured by a changeable standard in order for it to be true, then doesn’t that entail a new definition of truth as change?
Garrigou was worried that a new definition of truth was arising from a variety of directions, each of which sought to unseat the traditional “correspondential” and moderately realist view of truth as the mind conforming itself to reality. Instead of adequation of mind to reality, however, a new view of truth was emerging, one which was evolutionary, always conforming thought to the lived experience of actual life.
What may look like disputes over theological “preferences” in historical situations, Garrigou began to argue, are actually disputes over truth and how we know it. Is something true because it conforms with some unchangeable law, some extramental and trans-historical reality, or is something true because it fits with some contemporary need of culture or human experience which is always evolving? What Bouillard represented — fairly or not — was a deeper metaphysical challenge posed by a new paradigm-shifting definition of truth. Fr. Garrigou concluded that those constantly advocating for an “updating” of unchangeable truths were in fact going the way of materialism and skepticism.
The Thomist philosopher would to the pre-Socratic material philosopher Heraclitus to illustrate part of the problem with the new evolutionary view of truth. For Heraclitus, everything is constantly becoming. You never step in the same river twice, and so nothing really is — being is constantly becoming. Everything is relative in a radical way, and if you are a materialist who just looks at phenomena, and knows only through the senses, then it’s easy to see how a thinker might observe how sensible things are always changing, and arrive at this view of reality which demands constant updating.
Yet this is nonsense, and Aristotle demonstrates why it’s nonsense. Kant can’t be Kant and not-Kant at once. It is impossible for something to be and not be at the same time in the same way. The law of non-contradiction ensures that the truth can be known, not just in a manner of speaking, but actually. While we are like night owls blinking at the intelligible light of the world, we can discern being from non-being, and thus distinguish what is true from what is false.
For Garrigou, Heraclitus, the skeptics, relativists of all stripes, Kantian and Hegelian logic alike, all make our knowledge of reality an indefinite process in which we never know the highest causes, never arrive at knowledge of reality as such. He is not rigid, he is a realist. And he believes that new approaches to truth are not only a threat to the faith, but they are a threat to reason as well.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange died in 1964 after having taught for fifty years at the Angelicum in Rome. He saw everything. He was a trusted confidant to no less than three popes, and was consulter to the Holy Office during the reign of Pope Pius XII. His most famous student was Karol Wojtyła, whose charisma, witty humor, faith and sharp intellect much resembled his great teacher. In a way, Garrigou’s influence lived on through the great stabilizing force of Pope St. John Paul II. His encyclical Fides et Ratio was deeply informed by Garrigou-Lagrange, and it was his singular gift to bring much of the relativizing trends that his teacher had warned about to heel.
With the US bishops’ general assembly this past week, I was momentarily reminded of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange and St. John Paul. Seeing bishops charitably and intelligently rebut relativizing tendencies on a small but important matter renewed my love for them as fathers, apostles, and as guardians. The intrinsic good of human life is an unchangeable truth, and many other moral truths depend on this one. To deny the preeminent priority of life does not just relativize abortion, it relativizes truth itself. And I think Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange might warn us today to be as attentive to this fundamental challenge to truth as we are to all the individual attempts to make a mess.