Love for Truth Is a Hallmark of Benedict’s Pontificate

VATICAN CITY — If, judging by the subject of his first encyclical, the message “God is love” is at the forefront of Pope Benedict XVI’s mind, then “God is truth” is not far behind.

So far this year, the subject of truth has been the key theme of several of the Pope’s addresses. As the subject of his World Day of Peace message on Jan. 1 (“In truth, peace”), the Holy Father explained that when humanity is enlightened by truth, peace naturally follows. A week later, in his speech to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, he spelled out how commitment to truth brings peace through fostering justice, freedom, reconciliation and forgiveness.

In lesser-known addresses, Benedict explained to a Christian association of Italian workers Jan. 27 how the search for truth is essential for “a real, not merely apparent, democracy.” The next day, in a message to members of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, he made clear how “love for truth” is vital to the work of marriage tribunals.

And in an address Feb. 10 to participants in a plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that Benedict headed for more than two decades before his election last spring as Pope, he said that serving the truth of the Christian faith is a “joy.”

This emphasis is not new. When, as Joseph Ratzinger, he was ordained archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, he chose as his personal motto “Co-worker of the Truth.” Explaining his reasons for the choice, he wrote in his 1997 autobiography Milestones: “In today’s world the theme of truth has all but disappeared because truth appears to be too great for man, and yet everything falls apart if there is no truth.”

Authentic Dialogue

His acute awareness of this danger has carried over into his pontificate. According to George Weigel, author of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, the Pope “sees that a culture which has lost any grip on the notion of ‘the truth’ is a culture incapable of sustaining a society of genuine dialogue, conversation and debate.”

 Weigel added, “When there’s only ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ and nothing either of us recognizes as ‘the truth,’ then, when real differences emerge between us, either you will impose your power on me or I will impose my power on you.”

The Holy Father explained this point with characteristic clarity in his World Day of Peace Message. Both nihilism and fundamentalism, he said, are “putting truth at risk” because they “share an erroneous relationship to truth: The nihilist denies the very existence of truth, while the fundamentalist claims to be able to impose it by force.”

In a homily prior to the conclave that elected him Pope, he pointedly said, an inability to recognize truth leads to a “dictatorship of relativism.” This is one of the reasons why Benedict believes serving the truth to be the “highest purpose” of any priest, and the essence of what it means to be pastoral and exercise charity.

“He perceives people, loves them and sees what they are yearning for and so he wants to show that there is no authentic love, real justice, moral action without authentic truth,” said one Vatican official. “It’s not pastoral just to talk about ethics, morality, love and justice without being rooted in truth, and he sees that very clearly. But similarly, it’s also not pastoral to talk about the truth but forget the love that undergirds it and that allows justice to be sought.”

Indeed, this combination of love and truth is vital to the Pope’s approach, one formed by his appreciation of St. Augustine of Hippo. “Augustine was one of the first to say that if you love, you understand the truth,” noted Jesuit Father Gerald O’Collins, professor of systemic and fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “Benedict dedicated his first encyclical to love, not truth, so that is his priority, but he sees them as deeply interrelated.”

‘Personal’ Truth

Indeed, in his pre-conclave homily last year, Benedict spelled out that “truth without love would be like a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.” And Benedict has repeatedly emphasized that the greatest Christian truth is found not in the imposition of dry doctrinal formulas, but rather in a personal encounter with Jesus.

“Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of truth, attracts to himself the heart of every man, enlarges it, and fills it with joy,” Benedict said in his Feb. 10 speech to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Only the truth is capable of invading the mind and making it fully joyful. This joy expands the dimensions of the human spirit, raising it from the anxieties of egoism, making it capable of authentic love.”

The Holy Father’s great intellectual ability also allows him to explore the essence of truth in reference to influential intellectuals, such as atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Numerous commentators pointed out the rarity of citing such a thinker in an encyclical, as he did last month in Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).

“That’s really a gift particular to him — to be able to take on Nietzsche and other thinkers because he’s read their works, he’s grappled with them and, in some sense, sees some truth in what they say,” said the Vatican official. “So he doesn’t exclude them altogether; he gives them credit where it’s due, but at the same time he has this ability to refute them.”

Throughout his priestly ministry, Benedict has frequently noted how reluctant modern society is to recognize or search for intellectual and moral truth, thereby opening the door for domination, tyranny and the “will to power” to take its place. For this reason, said then-Cardinal Ratzinger in a 1996 interview, “the ‘will to truth’ remains fundamental.”

And, after 10 months as Pope, it’s clear that Benedict has lost none of that conviction.

(Register staff and Zenit

contributed to this story.)

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.