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Science, art, truth and grace

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

This Sunday we celebrate the solemnity of the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Lord to the nations. The Kings, whom St. Matthew designates as “magi from the East” encounter Christ because they combine their knowledge of astronomy with the signs of God, reason and grace. Natural knowledge and supernatural grace guide them. This solemnity reminds us, among other things, that faith and reason go hand in hand. As St. John Paul II taught us, they are two wings that enable human beings to soar to the contemplation of truth.

Truth is accessible to our intellect. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas defined truth as conformity of the intellect to reality. Human sciences and grace enable us to know the unfathomable mysteries of the universe and lead us to knowledge of God. The message from these Wise men from the Orient is very current and of great relevance.

Many in our times, including some Christians, think that there is a divorce between faith and reason, that science and religion are completely separated, or to use language from the times of Jesus, that Athens and Jerusalem have nothing in common. There are some who even assert that religion is pre-rational or even irrational. Some go so far as to argue that scientific knowledge is necessarily distant from and sometimes even opposed to religion. Knowledge about God is considered unscientific. Every form of knowledge seems to be provisional. People despair of the ability of human reason to know truth. Paradoxically, reason is exalted even as it is downplayed and considered incapable of leading men and women to happiness which is claimed to be subjective and independent of any criteria of truth or rationality.

Our civilization, so prodigal in technological progress, is dazzled by the achievements of the natural sciences, which are real and worthy of praise. However, it has forgotten that metaphysics, the science of being as such, is the foundation of scientific knowledge, what makes it possible. When this fact is forgotten, a crisis in scientific knowledge and the arts ensue. Ideology masquerading as science takes over, reason is obscured, passions are exacerbated, and opinions are accepted uncritically as if they were the highest form of knowledge. Today, the value of personal opinions is exalted as if they were the final and definitive criteria to determine the validity of rational thought and the truth of the assertion. It is true that every opinion must be respected, but it is equally true that not all of opinions are equally valuable, since as Plato said, opinion is the lowest form of knowledge.

A few examples. There are some who dare to challenge the diagnostic of a professional who has spent years studying because they have visited a medical information website on the Internet. TV and radio pundits lecture and pontificate as if they were scholars in every field of human knowledge. A film, a novel or a play makes a person an expert even if they have not read or know anything but that which is presented in the work.

Many of you have asked me about the film “The two popes.” I think it illustrates exactly what I am describing. I will obviously refrain from commenting on its cinematography because I am not a movie critic. I would be falling in the same pitfall I am pointing out. I think, however, that I am able to comment on the script. I know a little about the life of the Church and Argentine history. It is my country of origin. I was born in 1965. I was 10 years old in 1976 at the time of the coup that toppled the government of María Estela Martínez de Perón, the first woman head of state in the Americas and one of the first in the entire world. I have personal memories of those fateful days. Additionally, I have read some books about that period in the history of my homeland, among them: La soberbia armada, Soldados de Perón, Disposición final, Ezeiza, La masacre de san Patricio, Fuimos todos, Eran humanos no heroes, Soldados de Massera, Iglesia y dictadura and others. I am familiar with works by Cardinal Bergoglio such as Pecado y corrupción or the book length interview, El Jesuita. I have also studied part of the work of Benedict XVI, including the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which is not a book as stated in the movie.

“The two popes” is pure fiction. It begins by alerting the spectator that it is “inspired by facts”. The connection with facts is extremely loose, yet it purports to be close. That is, in my judgment, the worst part of the movie. It presents a cartoonish, stereotyped characterization of both men and the Church, yet it does so in an equivocal manner, as if it was faithful. It also slanders pope Francis showing him as an opportunist and collaborator with the military dictatorship.

Complex and very painful facts from contemporary Argentine history that still divide and cause clashes in society are presented with incredible superficiality and used to launch baseless accusations against Pope Francis as if they were established truth that, according to the movie, even he acknowledges. Not to mention the caricature of Benedict XVI and offensive images of people insulting him gratuitously simply because he is German and was born before 1939, forgetful of the suffering his family endured. His father lost his job as a policeman on account of his opposition to the Nazi regime that took power in 1933.

Good quality fiction helps us develop our imagination but cannot and should not be confused with truth which we can come to know with effort, applying the capabilities of our intellect and the assistance of grace.

To embark on a quest to know Truth is a great adventure that entails risks and difficulties. It requires personal effort. To make progress it is important to have a good metaphysical foundation, passion for truth and openness to grace, otherwise we would be building a house of cards. The example of the Magi is very eloquent. Human knowledge and grace enable the creature to move forward, penetrate the deepest levels of reality in the universe, meet the Creator face to face; to know Truth and reach the true freedom of the children of God!

Fr. Roberto M. Cid