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Discerning Faith in a Post-Christian Culture

Paolo Gamberini, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Jun 25th 2020

In his address to the participants at the International Peace Conference at Al-Azhar (Cairo, Egypt) on April 28, 2017, Pope Francis reminded his listeners that dialogue on a global level may occur if three basic duties are observed: the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, the courage to accept differences, and the willingness to recognize the sincerity of the intentions of other people.[1]


In Evangelii Gaudium (EG), his apostolic exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis recalled that “true openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being ‘open to understanding those of the other party’ and ‘knowing that dialogue can enrich each side’” (251). Being rooted in one’s own tradition and being open to the others are both constitutive features of Christian faith.

The ‘logos’ of faith

From the very beginning, the logos of Christian faith has been influenced by different cultural settings: Hellenization, Medieval Scholasticism, Reformation, Enlightenment, Modernism, Ressourcement and Pluralism. How can the logos of Christian faith remain faithful to its identity and at the same time be open to the cultural processes that are going on in our global and multi-faith setting?

One way to answer this question is by calling to mind the address that Pope Benedict XVI gave at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006. In that speech, he highlighted how Christian faith must adhere to the conviction that violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of reason: not acting reasonably (συ?ν λ?γω), therefore, acting violently, is contrary to God’s nature. Pope Benedict XVI has thus indirectly united logos to agape, reason to nonviolence, affirming that “the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.” We are reminded of Augustine’s epistemological condition: “Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem” (One does not enter truth except through charity).[2] Agape makes it possible that the logos of Christian faith remains open to the processes that the Church is living in the modern world without yielding to forms of fundamentalism and avoiding any kind of “Benedict Option.”[3]

In his first interview given to La Civiltà Cattolica, Pope Francis remarked that “God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.”[4] The logos of Christian faith must be prepared to give up any form of crystallization and rigidity, and be ready to become more of a process of discernment in the world and in the history of human cultures. Pope Francis describes this process as welcoming “differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice” (EG 40). The logos that shapes Christian faith “is not a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance” but is shaped in a substantive plurality and diversity that helps “bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.”

We will formulate three principles for this process of discernment that can guide us in our ecumenical task and help us to reconcile doctrines of faith among Christian Churches. The first principle is that of the “hierarchy of truth”; the second, the principle of the “evolution of dogma”; and the third, the principle of “living faith.”

For the purpose of our argumentation, the terms “doctrine” and “dogma” are considered synonyms, leaving aside the question of the authority by which the latter is distinguished from the former. On one side, not all doctrines of faith and morals have become dogmas, but only those doctrines that have been declared as revealed by God, or intrinsically tied to Revelation by the highest authority of the Church, the Councils and the infallible Magisterium of the pope. On the other side, both doctrines and dogmas are considered teachings of the Catholic Church that are binding on all the faithful.

The discernment ‘of’ and ‘in’ doctrine

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis highlights the first principle in discerning doctrine. Quoting paragraph 11 of the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, Pope Francis points to the “hierarchy of truths.” Dogmas of faith and morals “vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith” (EG 36). Dealing specifically with ecumenical dialogue in the same exhortation, Pope Francis emphasizes this principle of discernment: “if […] we keep in mind the principle of the hierarchy of truths, we will be able to progress decidedly toward common expressions of proclamation, service and witness […] How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another!” (EG 246).

The second principle in discerning doctrine is the principle of the evolution of doctrine, as John Henry Newman explains in his essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine. The development of doctrine does not simply consist in a change of the outward formulation of the doctrine, with the core and essence remaining immutable. Such evolution would only consist in a movement from old to new, making explicit only the implicit that was already present in the doctrine, without paying attention to external factors. In such a case, the process of tradition would not influence from within the revelation of the truth. Walter Kasper explains: “Tradition cannot be compared to a dead coin that is passed down from hand to hand; it does not consist in dead formulations that you only need to repeat. It is not simply to develop premises already given. The vitality of a tradition is not even in a change of expression more suitable to the changing times but keeping the same content. We theologically understand historicity when we comprehend that the one and the same tradition is once again always called into question while facing new historical situations.”[5]

The third principle of discerning doctrines of faith, the living faith, may be inferred in Evangelii Gaudium where Pope Francis recalls that: “There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another. With the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity, we sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not Christian. In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance” (EG 41).

We must keep in mind that the evidence of faith is not rational evidence, since the act of faith requires the consent of the will in order to be realized.[6] The dynamic tension between the evidence of faith, moved by the external faculty of the will, and rational evidence, can never be overcome. Such tension creates situations of disagreement between intelligence adhering to faith doctrines and intelligence adhering to incontrovertible truth. It is a difference that leads to research, investigation and exploration within the same irrepressible and unshakeable attachment of faith. The act of faith does not remove the movement of intelligence to the evidence of what is believed and, therefore, the recognition of the difference between “believing” and “thinking.” The above-mentioned tension defines the believing bond between conscience and belief as a living bond, whereas dead faith blurs the difference between “believing” and “thinking,” considering “doctrines” as incontrovertible. Such perversion of the truth of faith makes doctrines of faith into rigid formulations.

Between the “objective” (fides quae) and the “subjective” reality of faith (fides qua) there is an interpenetrating perichoretic movement, so that the “objectivity” of the dogmatic statement (belief) is within and not outside the act of faith (believing). A strictly well-defined proposition of faith (belief) is not correctly understood and interpreted if it does not intrinsically imply the existential involvement of believing. The “truth” in dogmatic formulations is not something to be objectified and reified, outside of the believing process and the free consent of the subject that professes it. Any dogmatic expression loses its value, even its “essence,” if it is unable to awaken the act of faith in the believer. Thomas Aquinas clearly states: “Actus credendi non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem.”[7] At the Convention of the Italian Church in Florence in November 2015, Pope Francis reminded Catholics that “Christian doctrine is not a closed system that cannot raise questions, doubts, inquiries, but is alive, knows how to unsettle the mind, knows how to animate the soul.”[8]

In Amoris Laetitia (AL), the apostolic exhortation on “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis recognizes the decisive task that the faithful have in “carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37). Discernment does not simply mean applying doctrines or rules to real life; discernment is dynamic and “it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303).

Recent common declarations between the Catholic Church and other Churches, for example, the Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East (1994) and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), have clearly shown how discernment does not engage the life of the Church only on a pastoral and individual level but also on the dogmatic and ecumenical levels.

In the Common Christological Declaration, it is stated that the process of dialogue and discernment has brought Churches to understand better that the doctrinal differences of the past are not today understood as contradictory. Those differences were mostly due to misunderstandings and should not be considered without investigation as unorthodox beliefs. In the Joint Declaration between Catholics and Lutherans it is said that both Churches “are now able to articulate a common understanding” that makes possible “a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (No. 5).

Discerning and reconciling differences in pursuing the unity of the body of Christ belongs to the core of the logos of Christian faith. During his homily at the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund on October 31, 2016, Pope Francis acknowledged that at the time of the Reformation on both Catholic and Lutheran sides there was a sincere will “to profess and uphold the true faith,” but at the same time “because of fear and bias we were closed toward the faith that others profess with a different accent and language.”[9] During his more recent journey to Egypt, he addressed Pope Tawadros II on April 28, 2017, and recalled that “it is no longer possible to take refuge behind the pretext of differing interpretations, much less of those centuries of history and traditions that estranged us one from the other.”[10]

The logos of Christian faith urges Christians to move beyond an apologetic form of logos, defined by Parmenides’ principle of identity where tertium non datur (no third possibility is given), and embrace a dialogical form of logos – the subject of the cross (? λ?γος το? σταυρο?) – in which the logical argument (elenchus) is given by a kenotic, a self-emptying logos. The logos of faith becomes theo-morphic or Christo-morphic when it gives up holding the truth as something to possess, and chooses to let go of any grasp, giving up the “dual-thinking” of the tertium non datur. Such a different form of Christian self-understanding is not a compromise or a way of escaping intellectual rigor but a speculative quality, a paradoxical method of thinking imbued with Trinitarian logic that does not proceed by “either/or” but rather by “both/and” and in which the Spirit is given (datur). By doing this, the Christian logos will rediscover the “catholicity” and “inclusivity” of the “both/and” instead of the “either/or.”

We find a narrative example of this different logos in the answer Jesus gives to the question of the Samaritan woman. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).

The opposition between Mount Gerizim and Mount Zion (Jerusalem) symbolizes the dual thinking in which one party is winning (we know what we worship) and the other is losing (you worship what you do not know), whereas the non-dual thinking is well illustrated by the answer Jesus gave to the woman. In order to know God we need to move beyond the logic of which is greater (symbolized by the mountain) and put on the mind of Christ (cf Luke 9:46-50), a “non-dual” logos which embraces opposite and contradicting sides “in spirit and truth” and moves forward to define doctrines with the other and not without the other so that a process of discernment of and in doctrine may take place, for “who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50).

In his homily during the celebration of Vespers on the Solemnity of the Conversion of Saint Paul on January 25, 2015, Pope Francis commented on these words to the Samaritan woman, saying that Jesus “does not side with the mountain or the temple, but goes deeper. He goes to the heart of the matter, breaking down every wall of division. He speaks instead of the meaning of true worship: ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24). So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches and seek instead to grasp more fully what unites us, namely, our call to share in the mystery of the Father’s love revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit. Christian unity – we are convinced – will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions. When the Son of Man comes, he will find us still discussing! We need to realize that, to plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another; we need to encounter one another and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities, overcomes conflicts, reconciles differences.”[11]

God is not ‘Catholic’

In order to discern doctrine and reconcile dogmatic differences, two conditions must be kept in mind. First, Catholics must remember that truth can never be possessed in its fullness; second, knowledge of truth is conditioned by its reception in time. In his “Letter to a Non-Believer” (September 4, 2013) Pope Francis responded to Eugenio Scalfari, former editor and journalist of the newspaper La Repubblica, and remarked that for believers “truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture and situation in life.”[12]

The logos of Christian faith is sustained by both the notion of truth as relationship and of God as magis. Both notions identify the “object” of doctrine (the Trans-cendent), the ever unfolding mystery of God (Deus semper maior), and the “way” (trans–cendere), the ongoing process of transcending any grasp of the mystery. Truth does not overtake us as a statement, but as Someone we experience and who needs to be encountered over and over again.

The need for transcending doctrines and dogmatic formulations is well expressed in Evangelii Gaudium: The Church “needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed Word and in her understanding of truth. […] For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. […] In this way, we hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance. This is the greatest danger. Let us never forget that ‘the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning’” (EG 40-41).

We may say that Pope Francis has been inspired by the principle of “consolation without preceding cause” which Ignatius of Loyola explains in the eighth rule of discernment for the second week of the Spiritual Exercises (no. 336). The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner speaks of this “consolation without preceding cause” as an athematic experience whose object is God alone. “God” is meant not as a definition or a concept but as the horizon which is beyond any concept and definition. Consolation without preceding cause is a critical and transcendental presupposition which makes everything else relative. Ignatius carefully distinguishes the transcendental moment, when God is active as first cause, from the categorical moment, when human responsiveness appropriates and translates God’s direct action by means of thoughts, images and words.[13] Such a distinction makes any doctrinal formulation relative and subject to the dynamic transcendence of God that is implied in the Ignatian notion of magis.

In such a context Karl Rahner advocates for a sound and appropriate understanding of agnosticism.[14] In the above-mentioned interview in La Civiltà Cattolica Pope Francis recalls the Jesuit mystical tradition: “The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. There have been periods in the Society in which Jesuits have lived in an environment of closed and rigid thought.”[15] This “transgressive” character of “mystical” thinking defines and (re)forms any experience and any understanding of the mystery of God. The meaning of the word “transgressive” derives from the Latin transgredior which means “to move on and proceed beyond.” Pope Francis recognizes that the more we approach God, the greater is our uncertainty. “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions, then that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.”[16]

The vacuum or the “not-yet” that is left open by this uncertainty, defines the areopagus, the public arena of dialogue, in which faith communities convene and converse, and discernment is exercised.

Discernment has, therefore, a mystical dimension, since only an apophatic knowledge of God (deus definiri nequit) makes possible a process of transcending. In an interview with Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis acknowledges that the God he believes in is not “catholic.” “I believe in God. Not a Catholic God, a Catholic God does not exist. God exists.”[17] And in the interview given to the director of La Civilità Cattolica: “God is encountered walking along the path. […] Discernment is essential. If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists: they have a static and inward-looking view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in the life of every person.”[18]

In the letter to Scalfari, Pope Francis comments on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (14:26): “I am the way, the truth, and the life”: “The truth, being completely one with love, demands humility and an openness to be sought, received and expressed. Therefore, we must have a correct understanding of the terms and, perhaps, in order to overcome being bogged down by conflicting absolute positions, we need to redefine the issues in depth. I believe this is absolutely necessary in order to initiate[a]  peaceful and constructive dialogue.”[19]

In Dialogue and Proclamation (1991), the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue affirmed that the knowledge of the truth received in Jesus Christ is “an unending process.” “While keeping their identity intact, Christians must be prepared to learn and to receive from and through others the positive values of their traditions. Through dialogue they may be moved to give up ingrained prejudices, to revise preconceived ideas, and even sometimes to allow the understanding of their faith to be purified” (No. 49). The “mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5) shapes and transforms the logos of Christian faith.

The dialogue between Christianity and Judaism provides an example of how such transformation of the logos of faith takes place. The document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures recognizes as possible and legitimate the Jewish reading of sacred texts and affirms that Jewish hope in the Messiah is not vain. The Jewish-Christian dialogue is a clear example of how the logos of the Christian reconsiders its own doctrinal conceptions when it comes to defining the doctrine of faith with others, in this case with Jewish people. This has happened in the rejection of the idea of “supersessionism,” the notion that the “new” (Christianity), because it is better, has replaced the “old” (Judaism).

Discernment, reconciliation and transformation of the doctrines of faith will make it possible to “unmask the violence” that presents them as something sacred, a sort of idol, instead of being an authentic openness to the Absolute, as Pope Francis reminded us in his address at Al-Azhar.[20]

[1].Pope Francis, Address to the participants in the International Peace Conference, Al-Azhar Conference Center, Cairo, April 28, 2017. Cf. also A. Spadaro, “Egypt, Land of Civilizations and Alliances: Francis’ dramatic, therapeutic and prophetic journey,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 English edition.

[2].Augustine, Contra Faustum 41, 32, 18; PL 45, 507.

[3].The choice to retreat from the world. The “Benedict Option” refers to St. Benedict of Nursia (d. mid-sixth century) who strongly influenced religious life in the West. Cf. A. Gonçalves Lind, “The ‘Benedict Option’: What is the role for Christians in society today?” in Civ. Catt. 2018 English edition,

[4].A. Spadaro, “Intervista a papa Francesco,” in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 468.

[5].W. Kasper, Wahrheit und Freiheit. Die Erklärung über die Religionsfreiheit des II. Vatikanischen Konzils. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter – Universitätsverlag, 1988), 37.

[6].Cf Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q.2, a. 1, ad tertium.

[7].ST II, 1, 2 ad 2.

[8].Francis, Address to the representatives of the Fifth National Convention of the Italian Church, Florence, November 10, 2015, in

[9].Francis, Homily, at the ecumenical prayer in the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund, October 31, 2016, in Cf. G. Pani, “Il viaggio del Papa in Svezia,” in Civ. Catt. 2016 IV 381-392.

[10].Francis, Speech, during the courtesy visit to H.H. Pope Tawadros II, April 28, 2017, in Cf. A. Spadaro, “Egypt, Land of Civilizations…,” cit.

[11].Francis, Homily at the Celebration of Vespers on the Solemnity of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, in

[12].Francis, “Lettera a chi non crede,” September 4, 2013, in

[13].W.H. Longridge, The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Translated from the Spanish with a commentary and a translation of the Directorium in exercitia, Robert Scott, London, 1922, 193.

[14].K. Rahner, “Justifying faith in an Agnostic world,” in Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. XXI, New York, Crossroad, 1988, 130-136, at 136.

[15].A. Spadaro, “Interview with Pope Francis,” cit., 455.

[16].Ibid., 469.

[17].E. Scalfari, “Papa Francesco a Scalfari: così cambierò la Chiesa. ‘Giovani senza lavoro, uno dei mali del mondo,’” October 1, 2013, in

[18].A. Spadaro, “Interview with Pope Francis,” cit., 469f.

[19].Francis, “Lettera a chi non crede,” cit.

[20].Cf. Francis, Address to the participants in the International Peace Conference, cit.

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