Truth has such a clear and calm power. My aim in pastoral work is this: to help by the power of truth.—Romano Guardini
The late, great Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022) writes in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “Charity, in fact, ‘rejoices in the truth’ (1 Cor 13:6).” He adds, “Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity.” Yes, expressing truth without compassion, kindness, patience, and understanding turns cold, harsh, ugly, and judgmental, and hence, in short, truth without love is nothing (1 Cor 13:2). Vice-versa: Love without truth is, however, blind, sentimental, and empty. Says Benedict XVI, “In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word ‘love’ is abused and distorted.” Rather than overlooking truth or love, however, in the context of the Church’s pastoral practice, we need to show the interdependency of love and truth. Authentic expressions of charity are not possible outside of or in opposition to the truth. This is a constant theme in Benedict’s theology. As then Fr. Ratzinger wrote in 1973, “Love is of no avail. It serves no purpose if truth is not on its side. Only when truth and love are in harmony can man know joy. For it is truth that makes man free.” Returning to Benedict:
Hence the need to link charity with truth not only in the sequence, pointed out by Saint Paul, of veritas in caritate (Eph 4:15), but also in the inverse and complementary sequence of caritas in veritate. Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the “economy” of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth.
Hence, without the co-existence and mutual influence of charity and truth, we are left with the watering down of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. St. Paul states the message that we have been entrusted with, namely, the message of reconciliation. “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5: 20). Why this urgency?
St. Paul consistently urges us to make choices that are worthy of the calling that we have received in Christ (Eph 4: 1; Phil 1: 27; Col 1:9). In particular, he identifies the risk posed by, especially but not only, sexual offenses: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Stop deceiving yourselves: Neither sexually immoral persons [pornoi, i.e., like the incestuous man], nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor ‘soft men’ [malakoi, i.e., men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners], nor men who lie with a male [arsenokoitai, a term formed from the Levitical prohibition of male homosexual practice] . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10).” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1861) instructs us that certain choices result “in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace.” The Catechism adds, “If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell.” How is that so? Because, the Catechism concludes, “our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.” This makes the Church’s pastoral practice a life-and-death matter. Clearly, then, our pastoral practice should be informed by the sense of urgency for the lives of people and that of their eternal salvation.
Thus, St. Paul wouldn’t say to the self-professed homosexual: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, ‘be reconciled to what is possible’.” Within the range of what is possible? Possible for whom? John Paul II pointedly asks, “Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ?” “This is what is at stake,” he adds, “the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! . . . Only in the mystery of Christ’s Redemption do we discover the ‘concrete’ possibilities of man. . . . This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act.”
There are those who are at odds with the vision of John Paul II. For instance, the twentieth century German Lutheran theologian. Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), a distinguished theologian, prolific author, preacher, and professor, and others, such as Timothy Radcliff, OP (a recent speaker at the Synod on Synodality), suggest a pastoral strategy in which, says Thielicke, “the homosexual has to realize his optimal ethical potentialities on the basis of his irreversible situation.”
Central to Fr. Radcliff’s pastoral proposal is urging the Church to take the stance of “friendship and proximity” so that she “can be with us as we face moral dilemmas and make choices.” He adds, “The Church will only be a cradle of gospel freedom if we are seen to stand beside people, supporting them as they make moral decisions within the range of what is possible, rather than making decisions for them.” This, too, is the position of Cardinal Blase Cupich, the current archbishop of Chicago: “It’s a lot easier to tell people what they are doing in black and white. The important thing in all of this as we move forward is to recognize that people’s lives are very complicated. There are mitigating circumstances, psychological, their own personal history, maybe even biological. It’s not a matter of detracting from what the ideal is.” Therefore, he adds, homosexual couples may be led “through a period of discernment, to understand what God is calling them to at that point.” We have a situation-ethic at work here. Under certain circumstances, acting contrary to the moral law, is good, justified, but not the highest good of attaining the ideal.
Unlike Radcliffe, Thielicke, first, clearly explains that, biblically speaking, “homosexuality cannot simply be put on the same level with the normal created order of the sexes, but that it is rather a habitual or actual distortion or deprivation of it. . . . The homosexual must therefore be willing to be treated or healed so far as this is possible; he must, as it were, be willing to be brought back into the ‘order’.” In all fairness to Thielicke, however, I should add that he sees the homosexual subject to certain temptations that are so great that he does not “venture to credit the minimal chances of being able to live ethically with homosexuality and achieve an acceptable partnership . . . with anything more than being a possible exception.” That is why Thielicke raises the question about the homosexual who is incurable, that is, whose condition is judged to be “constitutional” (as Thielicke puts it). In this case, Thielicke asks whether there is an “ethically responsible way” to live with homosexuality and “achieve an acceptable partnership.” In the end, Thielicke’s pastoral strategy dovetails with Radcliffe’s own, and hence it suffers from the same limitations.
Thus, according to this pastoral strategy, the self-professed homosexual is called to make moral decisions “within the range of what is possible,” as Radcliff puts it. But St. Paul would not say, “We implore you on behalf of Christ,” as Thielicke states, “achieve the optimal ethical potential of sexual self-realization.” Of course not. Otherwise, we would deny that our sinful condition is open to radical transformation, as John Paul stated above. Indeed, St. Paul says, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (Eph 5:20; italics added). Elsewhere he proclaims, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect [or: brought to full measure] in weakness” (2 Cor 12: 9).
There is a logical slippage in this pastoral strategy from the “law of gradualness” to the “gradualism of the law.” On the one hand, the former entails that the Church must be sensitive to a man’s moral progress, namely, that he is striving to become good by stages of moral growth, realizing, by God’s grace, Christian holiness. But he is a fallen human being, and hence, on this view, a man’s own weakness is not made the criterion of the truth about the good. Rather, as St. John states in 1 John 1: 8-9: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
On the other hand, the idea of the “gradualness of the law” turns the moral law in the Christian life from having an obliging force into an aspiring force. On this view, the moral law is situation and person specific such that, says John Paul II, there are “different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” This view then legitimizes situation ethics in our pastoral care.
By contrast, John Paul holds, “Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation.” Hence, he understands doctrine as a liberating truth of life, and hence it can never be separated from the Church’s pastoral practice. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (no. 89), “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.” In this light, we can understand why John Paul says, “The church promotes reconciliation in the truth, knowing well that neither reconciliation nor unity is possible outside or in opposition to the truth.”
We began with Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate and so we’ll conclude with that encyclical: “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are . . . exacting and indispensable forms of charity.” He adds:
Because it is filled with truth, charity can be understood in the abundance of its values, it can be shared and communicated. Truth, in fact, is lógos which creates diá-logos, and hence communication and communion. Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things [of reality]. Truth opens and unites our minds in the lógos of love: this is the Christian proclamation and testimony of charity.
Only a pastoral program based on the interdependency of charity and truth will be blessed by the Lord.
Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Second Edition, Revised and Expanded (Lectio Publishing, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.