Synodalism giving new life to the dictatorship of relativism in the Church. Modernist glorification of confusion in new attack on Dubia cardinals.

 How much security does one need for faith? Conservative critics of Francis repeatedly call for clarity in teaching. The Erfurt dogmatist Julia Knop sees no danger of a “dictatorship of relativism” – the temptation of supposedly simple solutions is much more dangerous.

Years ago, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller complained about “spreading confusion in the teaching of the faith.” After the Family Synod and before the World Synod, cardinals demanded clear answers from Pope Francis. At that time, Cardinal Raymond Burke saw a "very harmful confusion" in the post-synodal letter "Amoris laetitia"; now the Dubia authors, including Burke, complain that the Pope does not respond to the questions clearly with yes and no, but with differentiated answers has. For the Freiburg dogmatist Helmut Hoping, this is “doctrinal ambiguity.” Complaining about confusion and lack of clarity is part of the standard repertoire of conservative Catholics. In an interview with, the Erfurt dogmatist Julia Knop explains why confusion is an important category in the Church - and why Pope Francis relies on ambiguous signals.

Question: Professor Knop, why are clarity and confusion such important categories in conservative circles?

Knop: This motif is also known from church teachings: that believers should not be confused, for example about the difference between clergy and lay people or between men and women.

Those who fear that believers will be confused by reform debates see the task of the magisterium primarily as providing clarity and carrying the "depositum fidei", the deposit of faith, "intactly" through the ages. In this understanding, faith is obedience to the will of God, which the bishops and the Pope certainly recognize and present in doctrines. The teaching office is conceived as a mediating authority between God and the world. As an authority with privileged access to the truth and corresponding responsibility towards the simple believers who first have to be taught about God.

Question: Is this still contemporary?

Knop: At least it worked for a long time and is obviously still effective in the minds of some concerned cardinals. However, at least since the Second Vatican Council, a paradigm shift has occurred. Today we understand the relationship between truth and language, revelation and dogma, the Magisterium and faith differently. Truth cannot be captured in sentences. It lies in the relationship with God. And this relationship, i.e. faith, is immediate and does not need any teaching.

Question: But doesn't the Magisterium have to watch over the faith so that everything doesn't appear to be equally valid?

Knop: Pope Benedict XVI. had first constructed and then fought the alleged “dictatorship of relativism”. In my opinion, we in the Church today face a reverse challenge: the problem is not a "dictatorship of relativism", but a "dictation of truth". Especially in religions, there is a great temptation to claim supposedly clear positions as true even when they are no longer obvious or reality has long since passed over them. But a "truth" that does not prove itself in discourse and in life, but must be enforced authoritatively, is not a promise of salvation, but a declaration of war. Even when it comes to God.

On the person

Julia Knop has been a Professor of Dogmatics at the Catholic Theological Faculty at the University of Erfurt since 2017. Her research interests include the (ir)relevance and (in)plausibility of the question of God in the present. She is an elected member of the Central Committee of German Catholics. On the Synodal Path she was part of the Synodal Assembly and the Synodal Forum on Power and Separation of Powers in the Church.

Question: As a dogmatist, you don't see it as your job to create clarity and unambiguity?

Knop: No, I am a scientific theologian. My job is to ask questions. I deal with Church teachings. I'm interested in how they came about, what controversies there were in the background, what should be expressed positively and what should be rejected negatively. I ask what beliefs of the past can mean today and what developments and corrections to traditional church positions are currently pending.

Theology always has a task of criticizing ideology. With regard to our topic, the "confusion" of believers, I think it is important to question the concept that feeds such fears: the ecclesiastical estate society, which not only shapes the church organizational chart, but also the idea that the bishops and the Pope would know better about God and the world and could judge the lives of believers better than they themselves.

Question: The world is already complicated even without such systematic theology. Can you understand why people at least expect simple, clear truths from the church?

Knop: The wish is understandable. But reality is complex. Faith too. You can't do it justice with simple answers. The church is not an enclave of clarity and it should not claim that it is, as if “outside” there was only chaos and relativism, but “inside” there was an ideal world full of splendor and truth.

There is good and evil everywhere. There are non-simultaneities and controversies, exhilarating diversity and worrying polarizations. How could it be otherwise in a global church? We have to deal with that. Deciding centrally what is true and what is false doesn't get us anywhere, especially not trying to forcefully enforce it. You don't have to protect the truth from reality and God from people's lives.

Question: Traditionally, the Pope has this role of creating clarity - and now the Pope himself comes and mixes everything up. Is the papal office also changing?

Knop: Pope Francis has set a lot in motion, also by ignoring the demand for clear guidelines and speaking and acting ambiguously. All sides clash with this: those who want clear judgments in the old fashion and those who strive for reforms but also want to see them legitimized from above. We are currently experiencing a kind of continental shift in the idea of how a global church should be organized and what a magisterium of the future might look like.

Question: By dogmatizing papal infallibility and jurisdictional primacy, the First Vatican Council showed clear limits to continental shifts. Is it even possible to go back on these dogmas?

Knop: Not in Roman Catholic internal logic. But the story continues. Pope Francis simply does some things differently. He does not follow the authoritative pattern of 19th century magisterial speech, but speaks in interviews, at flying press conferences, in footnotes, in personal letters.

Cathcon: This is just an excuse for the Pope to be constantly referring to himself.

He repeatedly says: "Reality is more important than the idea." He recently redefined the task of the Prefect of the Faith: In the future, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith should no longer primarily inculcate the doctrine, but rather contribute to the Church's further development in the interpretation of Revelation. It should not prohibit or restrict, but rather enable and broaden horizons.

However, the structural and doctrinal consequences of this program have so far been the exception. So Francis is sending ambiguous signals. It sets dynamics in motion whose impact cannot yet be foreseen.

Question: And how do we reach a consensus today about what is Catholic?

Knop: This will only work discursively and participatively. You have to conduct the argument courageously and intelligently. What is true, i.e. what is meaningful and conducive to life, must prove itself in debate and in reality. And what is supposed to be binding requires the commitment of those who are supposed to be bound to it. This is no longer possible through authoritatively presented teachings or clear sentences. Significantly, “I am the way, the truth and the life” says in the Gospel of John not Peter, the later representative of the institution of the church, but Jesus. Because truth in Christianity is not a theory or a rule. Truth means a relationship. One that gives life and hope.


Cathcon:  Never has so much delight been taken in error.

What is truth said jesting Pilate

 And would not wait to hear the answer.

As the great Anglican theologian, E L Mascall put it (whose sadly didn't in the end convert),

For there is really nothing academic, in the pejorative sense, about the notion of Truth at all. It lies at the base of all sane human intercourse, civilized and uncivilized alike. It is what children are taught to tell and what even liars hope they will be thought to be telling. It is what every witness in a court of law is placed under oath to respect and for disregard of which he may be sentenced for perjury. The capacity to recognize it differentiates man from the brutes. It is the ground of what I have described as the Intellectual Principle. And that, as I said at the beginning, is so obvious that hardly anyone but philosophers and theologians would think of questioning it.

and Pope Benedict was firm that truth cannot ever be relativised, as the modern world, to the left and the right and the centre of politics is so fond of doing.

Jesus saith to him: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me Dicit ei Jesus : Ego sum via, et veritas, et vita. Nemo venit ad Patrem, nisi per me.  [John 14:6]


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