I see that the Archbishop of Monterrey in Mexico has restored the “Last Gospel” to the celebration of all Masses in the coming year, citing it as a perfect synthesis the Apostolic Faith. It’s a brave and timely decision in a “post-truth” age.
We read the Prologue to St John’s Gospel many times over the Christmas season. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…” The noun St Jerome translates as “Word” has many meanings in Greek. To say that Jesus is the Word through whom everything was made is to assert that there is a divine ordering at the centre of reality, that the universe is actually the product of a careful and loving plan and that God, by revealing his Word as the true light, reveals that Man also is hardwired to find the truth about God and the truth that God has patterned into creation. The once distant God has revealed himself in a form which allows man to interact in a way that accords with human nature by revealed His fulness in Jesus of Nazareth.
I had always, in my naivety, assumed that the task of theology, called the queen of the sciences, was to take this divine revelation as its starting point and explicate it in a form which would make it more intelligible, a handmaid to the order and light inherent in revelation. So it was that I was alarmed to see a recent tweet from the papal confidant Fr Antonio Spadaro, in which he seems to deny the scientific nature of theology. “Theology,” he says, “is not mathematics. 2+2 in theology can equal 5 because it has to do with God and the real life of people.” I know that social media is the oxygen many people breathe these days, but there is a kind of irony in the thought of the brethren now being confirmed by spokesmen on Twitter, and it is this. For generations we had the brilliant idea of distilling the truths of the faith into pithy phrases of few characters. It was called a catechism. So here are a couple of “tweets” from it: “There can never be any discrepancy between faith and reason”; “Truth cannot contradict truth”.
The papal adviser’s tweet put me in mind of Michael Gove’s famous assertion that people were tired of experts. It’s a comment which will probably haunt him forever, but I think he was on to something. I think people respect genuine expertise. A real expert is always capable of making things more intelligible, is passionate about doing so, and will rely on the force of argument and conviction. What people are fed up with is a kind of sophistry which, in speaking of “real people”, means nothing of the sort. It is a kind of ad hominem argument that subtly implies that if you are not with this programme, then you are, by definition, somehow defective, not real – and if not real, neither intelligent nor sentient enough to understand sophisticated argument.
The tweet could be deemed to imply that if you are so old-fashioned as to believe 2+2 = 4 you are by definition not a “real person” – and, indeed, if you believe that God reveals himself in a form which is accessible to human reason (of which 2+2=4 is a sort of touchstone) you are clearly so defective in faith as to require some other, expert kind of input to get with the programme. Above all, I reject its implication that there is something inherently more enlightened and sophisticated about rejecting precision and logic for speculation and conjecture. The truth about God and about man was never intended to be the preserve of experts.
The other thing I thought of was Alice in Wonderland: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” This is not a good basis for a theological school, especially not one of moral theology, as Alice realises when she points out that this breeds confusion:
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