Official Truth

Echoing Pontius Pilate's cynical question, though often without the cynicism, people of faith in every period of the church's history implicitly ask, "What is truth?" Today too, sincere women and men continue to ask, "What is the right thing to do in this particular situation?" "What, in fact, does the Gospel require of me here and now?"

For many believers, the answer that cuts through the ambiguities and complexities of institutional life, the anxieties awakened when personal experience is in tension with traditional church teaching, is to turn to the "official truth" proclaimed by Vatican offices and papal pronouncements. There is wisdom in this, for wisdom and truth can indeed be found there; and we especially reverence and embrace those teachings of the church that our tradition holds as dogma, as divinely revealed.

But official truth, as I here use the term, also includes a broad spectrum of teachings, traditions, practices, disciplines and customs that fall outside the rubric of divine revelation. These are the factors and variables that give form to Catholic culture. While not dogmatic in nature, they nonetheless shape and determine the everyday lives of believers.

To the extent that they are grounded in Gospel values and the best tradition of the Church, they will support and encourage people (laity, religious and clergy) to live fully the new life they possess in Jesus Christ. These non-dogmatic truths themselves have been shaped and refined by the various experiences of women and men living the Christian life. They remain normative, I propose, under the validation of authentic human experience.

Whenever human experience, supported by theological and pastoral reflection, stands in contrast to the official teachings of the Church however, they require serious discussion and review. Yet the vary nature of institutional life seems to resist this kind of process. Without fail fears, anxieties and tensions will arise. Vested interests will be at risk, and comfortable lifestyles will be threatened. When this happens, defensive attitudes are assumed and the issue at hand is framed in such a manner that individuals become reluctant to pursue it. Pressure is imposed to embrace the "official truth" that may devalue and denigrate the "personal" and "experiential" truth of committed Christians who see a clear need for open and honest discussion and discernment guided by the Spirit. Voices of experience are not heard, or if heard are not taken seriously and quickly dismissed.

What is needed, I believe, is to understand that official truth sometimes stands in tension with the common truth grounded in the experience of people striving to live in right relationships with God, each other, and all creation. We now believe that the Spirit of God has enlightened both truths.

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