There have been many definitions of “truth” presented throughout human history. But which one is true, which one is accurate?
In the 13th century, the Church’s greatest Catholic philosopher and theologian (in the opinion of many), St. Thomas Aquinas, defined truth as the “conformity of the mind to reality (Summa Theologiae or Theologica 1.21.2).” In other words, Thomas believed and taught that “truth” is the agreement between the intellectual representation of a concept or a thing and the way that concept or thing actually exists.
To understand his explanation, note that Thomas acknowledged two elements to truth: (1) reality or that which actually exists independent of the human intellect and (2) the correct intellectual grasp of that which exists. His definition is not that difficult to understand. It makes sense. St. Thomas Aquinas, from the Demidoff Altarpiece, tempera on poplar by Carlo Crivelli, 1476. Public domain.
Photography and Imaging, The National Gallery, London
The Summa as it is popularly called was Thomas’ effort to present a compendium of all knowledge and learning based upon the ancient philosophical thought of Aristotle (384-322 BC). It attempted to demonstrate truth as the relationship between the nature of reality and human experience. I find his explanation not only reasonable but instructive, convincing and useful.
As a Catholic thinker, Thomas focused a great deal of his teaching and writing on the “truth” of God’s existence and the reality of God’s involvement in our world. These “truths” can be known by reason, he asserts, as well as faith. One does not need to be a philosopher or theologian, however, to see the connection between reason and faith.
True enough, the Catholic Church considers the existence of God to be absolute truth and the non-negotiable foundation of all that the Church believes and teaches – the reality to which the human mind conforms! Once acknowledged and believed, the truths of our Catholic faith inspire and motivate how we live our daily lives precisely as believers.
We depend upon the Church to help us understand God’s role in our lives. God is not simply the recognition of our human intellect and reason. God reveals himself to us and invites us to believe and enter into an active relationship with him through our faith.
God created us and loves his creation. The Church believes, teaches and helps us to understand and grasp what that actually means. To accomplish that goal, the Church depends upon God’s revelation in and through his Word. The Church fulfills its purpose and mission as Church by interpreting his revelation and offering that interpretation in and through the teachings it imparts.
The history of the Catholic Church is the story of the Catholic Church doing precisely that, interpreting and applying the revelation of God. The history of the Catholic Church is an encounter with the truth of God in human life and experience, sharing that truth for the belief of its members.
That truth is the source of the Catholic faith and all that the Church believes and teaches now and has believed and taught throughout the ages.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the turning point and center of human history as the very revelation of God. The Lord Jesus Christ is the actual Word of God made flesh. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The Lord Jesus Christ revealed himself as “the Truth” when he declared “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me ( John 14:6).” He is the human personification and revelation of God. At his Baptism in the Jordan and, again, at his Transfiguration the scriptures note the words of his heavenly Father, “This [the Lord Jesus Christ] is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
During his life on earth, the Lord Jesus Christ called 12 men to be his apostles and established the Catholic Church on this foundation. In response to Peter’s declaration of the Lord Jesus Christ’s identity, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew16:16), the Lord Jesus Christ replied: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so, I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-20).
This is the scriptural affirmation of the institution and origin of the Catholic Church by the Lord Jesus Christ’s own words and intention and the scriptural foundation of theauthority he gave to Peter and his successors: the authority to proclaim truth.
The Catholic Church has, indeed, used its divinely established authority to teach truth over the past two millennia through successive popes and bishops in union with them, the “hierarchical magisterium.” Although much of what the Church believes and teaches as truth is rooted in mysteries that defy the explanation of reason and our senses, those same mysteries call for faith and belief in their truth.
In fact, membership in the Catholic Church requires such faith. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his universally famous Eucharistic hymn, Tantum ergo, “what our senses fail to fathom, let us grasp through faith’s consent.”
What has developed in the Catholic Church through its belief in God, in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Son, in divine revelation through Scripture and Tradition, and through the teaching of the Church’s magisterium over the centuries has come to be known as the “deposit of faith.”
In our own day, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: 84| The apostles entrusted the ‘Sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. “By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.”
85| “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
86| “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”
87| Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me,” the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.
88| The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.
89| There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the 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.
90| The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”
I recommended reading these references from the actual text of the Catechism to take note of the sources of their citations. Returning to the Thomistic definition of truth with which I initiated these considerations, what the Catholic Church believes and hands on as truth in the deposit of faith – its doctrinal affirmations as well as its moral teachings – is conformed to the divine reality that is its source and the source of the teaching authority of the Church.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) said it well almost a thousand years before St. Thomas Aquinas: “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”
I hope to share some more reflections on the truth of Church teachings soon. In the meantime, love and live your Catholic faith.