Without the Truth, We are Left Only With Power. A Reflection Based on the Pope’s Teaching in Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus had been brought before Pontius Pilate for trial and in a pivotal scene there is this memorable dialogue:

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” asked Pilate. (Jn 18:37-38)

I have generally interpreted Pilate’s remark about truth to be highly cynical and dismissive, almost as though he said it with a wave of the hand. Further, I have thought it well reflects the cynicism of our own times that so dismisses the notion that there is such a thing truth or that it can be known. While many claim this rejection is liberating, the fact is, without a common consensus on a basic framework of truth to which we must all assent, things reduce to a power struggle where the strongest and loudest win. This does not actually seem very liberating in the end.

Pope Benedict in his new Book, Jesus of Nazareth (vol. 2), ponders the implications Pilate’s question and what it means for us, who, at least culturally struggle with the same question, “What is Truth?”  I’d like to give a few excerpts from the Pope’s reflections and add some commentary of my own. As usual, the Pope’s text will be in black, italic bold, and my comments will be plain text red.

The Pope begins by pondering if Pilate’s question is not somewhat understandable given that Jesus indicates his kingdom is rooted in the Truth. But since there are often endless arguments as to what truth is, Pilate, as a politician, asks, “What is truth? As if to say, How can a kingdom be built on something that is so debated? The Pope writes:

[Since] Jesus bases his concept of kingship and kingdom on truth as the fundamental category, then it is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him: “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38).

It is the question that is also asked by modern political theory: Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere…? By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?

In the last 50 years or so, the West has struggled greatly under the dissolution of a common moral and religious vision. Though we have long had sectarian differences, the basic Judeo-Christian vision held sway and tended to unite us in the essentials of a moral, and even political vision. That common vision, that grasp of the common truth, to which most assented, has dissolved. But, as the Pope articulates,  there are some who celebrate this dissolution, since; some argue that traditional and religious views excluded many from “power” or a place at the table. A united vision was/is to narrow for them.  So they not only celebrate the abandonment of truth as a category, but many actually seek to undermine and attack it. This is usually done through an un-nuanced call for diversity and the labeling those who seek to maintain a common vision as hateful, bigoted, narrow-minded, and so forth. Perhaps with this in mind, the Pope goes on to say:

And yet, on the other hand, what happens when truth counts for nothing? What kind of justice is then possible? Must there not be common criteria that guarantee real justice for all—criteria that are independent of the arbitrariness of changing opinions and powerful lobbies?…..

In effect, when there is no common basis from which to act, when there is no commonly accepted truth, no basis on which to reason, what we end up with is a power struggle. In the vacuum of a truth-free zone, what is reasonable does not hold sway. Rather, the one with the most power, money, and influence, the one who can shout the loudest or is most politically connected, wins the day. Truth thus yields to power, and without a common truth, mere power moves to the center.

And yet, it is one thing to assert that a common truth should unite us, but it is another to define what that truth is and should be. The Pope continues:

What, then, is truth? Are we able to recognize it? Can it serve as a criterion for our intellect and will, both in individual choices and in the life of the community?

The classic definition from scholastic philosophy designates truth as “adaequatio intellectus et rei” (conformity between the intellect and reality); Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 21, a. 2c). If a man’s intellect reflects a thing as it is in itself, then he has found truth: but only a small fragment of reality—not truth in its grandeur and integrity.

It seems here we have an appeal to what we have come to call the “Natural Law.” There is an “is-ness” to things, a nature that we must come to perceive and be in conformity with. In a pluralistic culture such as America, Natural Law is likely the essential basis from which we could build consensus. But, sadly, here too, there has been a breakdown in a Natural Law basis as many in our society have come to doubt that reality is intelligible at all.

St. Paul lamented the same thing in his day when he wrote of the Gentile world: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-21).

In rejecting the Natural Law, and that reality itself should be a guide for us, the modern discussion retreats primarily to the mind and the realm of opinion. And, as in Paul’s day, we have a lot of senseless thinking that is highly disassociated from reality.

Paul pointed to the approval of homosexuality in his time as a chief symptom of the problem.  Paul called homosexual acts “paraphysin” (contrary to nature). Any simple investigation into the anatomy involved makes it clear that the man is not made for the man, rather the woman is made for the man. But simple natural observation seemed to escape many of the people of his time and he describes their minds as “darkened.”

In our own time, as Natural Law recedes, we also, as a culture, retreat into the mind and lose touch with reality.  And sure enough, homosexuality is approved by increasing numbers as the simple truth expressed by nature is replaced by thought and opinion.

The Pope next moves to a more theological answer to the question, “What is truth?”

We come closer to what Jesus meant with another of Saint Thomas’ teachings: “Truth is in God’s intellect properly and firstly (proprie et primo); in human intellect it is present properly and derivatively (proprie quidem et secundario)” (De Verit., q. 1, a. 4c).And in conclusion we arrive at the succinct formula: God is truth itself, the sovereign and first truth (“ipsa summa et prima veritas”); Summa Theologiae I, q. 16, a. 5c). This formula brings us close to what Jesus means when he speaks of the truth, when he says that his purpose in coming into the world was to “bear witness to the truth”.

….. Man becomes true, he becomes himself, when he grows in God’s likeness. Then he attains to his proper nature. God is the reality that gives being and intelligibility. “Bearing witness to the truth” means giving priority to God and to his will over against the interests of the world and its powers. God is the criterion of being…..

Hence, to increasingly know the Lord is to know the truth, and to have that truth set us free (cf John 8:32). For we who believe, truth is not merely a set of facts, but it is found in a personal relationship with God who, through the Holy Spirit,  leads us to all the truth (Jn 16:13). Further, to know Jesus is to increasingly know the truth for he said plainly I am the truth (Jn 14:16)

We may also say that bearing witness to the truth means making creation intelligible and its truth accessible…..Let us say plainly: the unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognize truth; as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.

This was said above but repeated here for emphasis: to abandon the truth found in Natural Law, and in God for believers, is cede the field to the most powerful. It is not the reasonable who win the day, it is the strongest, richest or most powerful.

What is truth? Pilate was not alone in dismissing this question as unanswerable and irrelevant for his purposes. Today too, in political argument and in discussion of the foundations of law, it is generally experienced as disturbing. Yet if man lives without truth, life passes him by; ultimately he surrenders the field to whoever is the stronger.

A good summary statement.

“Redemption” in the fullest sense can only consist in the truth becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history.

The criterion of truth this time in the discussion should seem plain to us. Although, in a pluralistic society we may struggle to easily define truth, coming to some broad consensus is  essential for us. The word , “criterion” means, standard, principle or rule. Without some common basis, things reduce to power struggle. We see this increasingly to be the case as the West loses any common basis to discuss matters. What we are increasingly seeing are shrill debates, protests, advocacy journalism and the like. When conversations rooted in reason and commonly held truth can no longer be had, it’s “turn up the volume” time in America.  The one with the most money and power wins.

15 Replies to “Without the Truth, We are Left Only With Power. A Reflection Based on the Pope’s Teaching in Jesus of Nazareth”

  1. People like to sin.
    They like to break the Covenant.

    They like to lie their way through life, because it is an easier way of obtaining what they want.
    Power, wealth and more wealth.

    Most people want to be “successful” in obtaining material wealth, the latest gadgets, the red carpet and eternal beauty so they can attract a constant stream of new partners.

    When people speak of “freedom” in the western world, mostly they could have substituted that word with greed, materialism or the obtaining of their desires.

    People are still just eating apples and everything else offered by the Serpent.

    If you want to look at the grand state of affairs, you need not look any further than this:
    Since 1973, more than 50 million children have been slaughtered in the US alone, through abortion.

    The Wh*re of Babylon (feminism) is drunk with the blood of the martyrs.
    The bible tells us not to mince words, and I will not.

    But I will point out a few lies.
    The foremost in this day & age being “sexual liberation”

    The whole concept is a lie from beginning to end.
    There is no such thing.

    A wh*re is a wh*re. She is not “sexually liberated”.
    A thief is a thief. He is not “property liberated”.
    A liar is a liar. He is not “truthfully liberated”.
    A murderer is a murderer. She is not “lifefully liberated”.

    Nor is she “a free woman exercising her “choice” “.
    No, a murderer is just a murderer.

    In the end, those who seek the truth shall find it.

    And if they look for it at your blog, Monsignore, they have come a long, long way.
    I thank you deeply, Monsignore for your steadfast stewardship of Truth.

    With love, respect and devotion from the mountains of Northern Europe.


  2. You make excellent and persuasive points but unless the Catholic Church can puts it’s mouth where the money is, it will never have the impact it seeks on the public at large. Bishop Fulton Sheen was able to have a national syndication TV show with weekly sermons on commercial public television stations back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in order to get the message out.You have to put it where the people are and it’s obvious they are not running to the churches,religious radio, internet, and cable TV stations because it’s not the topic of conversation around the water fountain at work. Jesus made His impact on society through His message, life and crucifixtion. The Catholic church has made it’s impact on society according to commercial public media by way of aiding and abetting pedophile priest. Don’t place your lamp where it can’t be seen.

    1. I don’t think that’s particularly fair, there are a large number of Catholics who pray outside of abortion clinics and who try to evangelize and defend their Faith. There aren’t enough of us out there, but some of us are trying. Perhaps one example of a priest who’s trying to get out there, other than Msgr. Pope who does a great job in trying to spread the truths of the faith to us, is Fr. Barron who puts videos on Youtube and tries to engage the culture at large.

      I hope the Church can recover some day from some of the recent pains it is suffering, perhaps we can offer it up to God.

  3. Thanks for this great article, Msgr, which has really changed my conception of truth. I have usually seen truth from the narrow definition “conformity between the intellect and reality” which as the pope points out “If a man’s intellect reflects a thing as it is in itself, then he has found truth: but only a small fragment of reality—not truth in its grandeur and integrity.”

    I had not realized that this was holding me back from looking for and appreciating “truth in its grandeur and integrity.”

    How I have believed that when Jesus said “I am the truth” that he was talking in the narrow sense I will never know.

    As you point out: “Hence, to increasingly know the Lord is to know the truth, and to have that truth set us free (cf John 8:32). For we who believe, truth is not merely a set of facts, but it is found in a personal relationship with God who, through the Holy Spirit, leads us to all the truth (Jn 16:13).”

    And this is the full truth in its “grandeur and integrity” not just a fragment of reality as I thought previously.

    Once again, thanks for highlighting “truth” and opening my eyes!

  4. I have wanted to write about or articulate how without truth or objective norms, we necessarily fall to a might makes right mentality, but I wasn’t able to break it down and explain it as Pope Benedict has done.
    It saddens me to see that much of our politics in the United States has been reduced to which lobbyist group is the best funded or who can yell the loudest. We need the truth as a criterion of discernment.

  5. You should do a round up of these kinds of posts that touch on the Paschal Mysteries for Holy Week 🙂

  6. “You can’t handle the truth” is more than just a famous line from a movie. It is a recognition of the fact that most people live in their feelings and opinions to the extent that any sort of serious criticism results in an immediate reaction to protect their own personal view of reality. In short, people tend to live in their subjectivity. They look at the world through “rose colored glasses” and only deal with as much of objective reality as is convenient or necessary.

    Of course this is not particularly surprising. Every living creature engages in a variety of self-protective behaviors. What is different about human beings is that we will often claim to want the truth, while at the same time throwing up all sorts of barriers to actually grasping it.

    This raises a number of questions. First, is it even possible to know the truth; or, are we trapped in our subjectivity with no escape? Secondly, if it is possible to distinguish objective reality from our feelings and opinions, what is the process by which one can actually gain such knowledge? Finally, once one knows the truth, is it possible to know that you know the truth, or must all our beliefs remain open to possible correction?

    To help answer these questions, consider the following sentences:

    1. Sugar is sweet.
    2. Sugar tastes sweet.

    What is the difference between these two statements?

    The first claims that sweetness is an objective quality that sugar has. The second states that almost everyone experiences the sensation of sweetness when we eat sugar.

    Are both sentences true?

    No, the first is false. Sugar or sucrose is just another organic molecule. There is no special feature that sucrose has that other similar compounds lack. The reason why sugar tastes sweet is that it is present in a wide variety of foods that are good to eat. Our sense of taste detects the sugar and we experience the pleasurable sensation of sweetness. Sweetness is the conscious experience of the firing of specific neurons in our brains. Hence, sweetness is subjective and not an objective quality of sugar.

    Based on this example, it is possible to answer the questions raised above.

    First, we can tell the difference between our subjective experiences and what exists objectively and is the cause of a particular experience. This shows that we are not trapped in our subjectivity as some have claimed.

    Secondly, the way in which we escape from the trap of confusing experiences, opinions, and feelings with objective reality is by using our intelligence to investigate and analyze any truth claims. It is only when one understands the sources and causes of an experience that one is able to judge accurately the objective reality that grounds the experience.

    Finally, you may have noticed that I have frequently used the plural ‘we’ above. That is because the pursuit of truth is not an individualistic enterprise. We are finite and fallible knowers. We need the experiences and wisdom of others to refine and clarify all that we think we know. Only God is free from error and self-deception. We are a work in progress and must never forget that.

  7. Love without truth is sentimentality (liberalism). Truth without love is empty dogmatism (neo-scholastic conservatism). Both toxic approaches to the Faith continue to drive people away.

    Priests cannot give what they do not have. Failing a contemplative prayer life, both priests and laity fill the vacuum with self-serving activities often disguised as social justice, or lots of diocesan boards, commissions, and meetings, the main purpose of which is to make the attendees feel important.

    Only Truth and Love defined as Jesus in His trinitarian relations, delivered with a JP II personalist approach, will draw people in. And this must be proclaimed by priests and laity with a lifestye rooted in and reflecting contemplative prayer.

    1. Amen! And Thank You for bringin up the importance of the “personalist approach” so often emphasised by John Paul II…Sometimes I wonder if his wisdom and insights are being forgotten.

      Also, thank you for pointing out the toxicity of BOTH “Love without truth” & “Truth without love”. I’m not sure which I find more damaging, but I think the latter…maybe because I suspect with the former there may perhaps be more hope, more potential for openness to seeking and finding; while the latter could easily drive an honest seeker of good will away, leaving them without hope. John Paul II knew the balance…of course he had that ‘lifestyle rooted in & reflecting contemplative prayer”. I believe that Pope Benedict does as well; but the poor man has been so misunderstood from the get-go. What a mess!

      Anyway, I thank you for your clear & simple comments on this good article!

      God Bless!

  8. Msgr Pope, thanks for the food (TRUTH) you treat us to daily. Pray that we eat and digest it (act). Dont let us starve! Thanks and keep it coming!

  9. All of us, in our saner and sober moments, when we truly reflect, are searching for truth.
    I went searching for truth this past Tuesday and Wednesday. Father Robert Spitzer, former president of Gonzaga University, returned to Gonzaga to speak about the current state of cosmology, physics, theology as it relates to the formation of the galaxy and or universe we all currently reside in. It was a wonderful presentation. Especially when Fr. Spitzer deviated from deep science to deep theology.
    The sad part of the whole picture is that Gonzaga is really not a Catholic university. None of the Jesuit universities are. They play on their affliliation, but they are truly more secular than Catholic.
    Fr. Spitzer was president for 10 years. During his tenure, the university was definitely moving towards communion with the Holy See. In the short time he has been gone, the secular humanists have been busy. Pro bono work by faculty at the Law school for Planned Parenthood’s local affiliate. A University trustee who was a board member for Planned Parenthood, herself a graduate of Gonzaga and Gonzaga Law School. The controversial feminist call to arms play, the Vagina Monologues, banned by Fr. Spitzer, was presented on campus the week prior to his return. The current University president, the first non-Jesuit in school history, prides himself on donating money to President Obama’s election campaign.

    Truth is right in front of us. It is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May the scales fall from the eyes, and the hearts soften.

    Peace and God Bless, and may Jesus Christ be at the center of you life.

  10. Would you please address the reality of Neo-Nazi skinheads or Islamic fundamentalists?

  11. Forgive me, sir, but may I offer a differing opinion?

    While generally Man is searching for Truth, they ultimately find that it is harder to accomplish than to surrender to the vacuum of a Truth-less world. For, without the inequality posed by those who wield Truth, everyone is left on a fair, equal-on-all-sides field. It is easier, for it is more familiar, to claw one’s way to become the master of the anarchy.

    How is Power less than Truth? Most certainly, to many, it is far weightier, for it is more material, while Truth, in general, seems more ephemeral

  12. and what is wrong with seeking the comforts of the familiar? For seeking Power instead of Truth

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