Two and two never make five: Spadaro, Orwell and the certainty of Catholic faith

Rev. Antonio Spadaro S.J., editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica and confidante of Pope Francis, stirred controversy when he stated on Twitter last week that:

“Theology is not #Mathematics. 2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with #God and real #life of #people.”

“Two and two makes four” is frequently used as an example of a statement which is obviously true and “Two and two can make five” as an example of an obvious untruth. It is often used in the context of the abuse of power by those who would impose falsehood on others in order to strengthen that power and impose their ideology. The most famous example of this kind of usage is probably that of George Orwell who wrote, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that:

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy.”

Orwell’s words could almost be used as a commentary on Rev. Antonio Spadaro’s statement. Spadaro is a vocal defender of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which many commentators consider to stand in direct contradiction on very many points, to the teaching of the Catholic Church. It is because of these contradictions, according to a natural interpretation of the text, that four cardinals privately requested clarification from Pope Francis as to the meaning of a number of these passages. Pope Francis made it clear to the cardinals that he was not going to answer their dubia, prompting them to bring their questions to the attention of the universal Church. Since the publication of the dubia, figures close to Pope Francis, such as Antonio Spadaro, have made it clear that they do not expect an answer to be forthcoming.

Defenders of the above propositions in Amoris Laetitia are in the unenviable position of having at one and the same time to assent (or at least publicly profess to assent) both to the teaching of the Catholic Church and to statements in Amoris Laetitia that, according to any reasonable interpretation, would naturally seem contradict that doctrine. However for the intellect to assent, at the same time, to two contradictory propositions is contrary to its own nature, which is to know the truth. It is impossible for two contradictory propositions to be true at same time; this is the law of non-contradiction. Those who attempt to adhere both to the Catholic faith and these propositions in Amoris Laetitia are forced to violate this first principle of human reasoning, without which it is impossible for human beings to assent to anything as certain. If two contradictory propositions are both held to be true at the same time then this necessarily implies a denial of the existence of an objective truth that can be certainly known by human reason and thus the existence of propositions that can be affirmed as true or false.

It is little surprise then to see that a member of the “party” defending Amoris Laetitia is now announcing that, in theology,  two and two can make five, because, to borrow Orwell’s words “it was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it.”

Theology is a more certain science than mathematics

Rev. Antonio Spadaro’s central claim is that whereas in mathematics two and two always make four, such is not necessarily the case in theology. While Spadaro does not explain his position in more detail the obvious conclusion to draw is that one cannot reach the same kind of certainty in theological questions as one can in mathematics. He seems to imply that whereas mathematics is an objective science in which there is always a right and a wrong answer, theology is more subjective and its conclusions need not be regarded as always true or false.

This position is wholly false. Theology is a science which has God as its primary object, and divine revelation as its secondary object. St Thomas tells us, in the first question of the Summa Theologica, that theology has a “greater certitude” than any other science.[1]  Mathematics, and other similar speculative sciences, “derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err”. Theology on the other hand “derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled.” Thus the Church can call upon Catholics to give full and certain assent to everything that the Church defines and teaches as being revealed by God, and reject everything that stands in contradiction to it.

Catholics are called, with the assistance of divine grace, to persevere in the practice of the theological virtue of faith, “whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that the things which He has revealed are true; not because of the intrinsic truth of the things, viewed by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, and Who can neither be deceived nor deceive.”[2]

Agnosticism and Modernism

In Nineteen Eighty Four George Orwell identifies the denial of “not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality” as being at the root of the Party’s assertion that “two plus two made five.” This is of relevance to us in the context of our discussion concerning the objective nature of theology.

The heresy of modernism denies the ability of the human intellect to assent with certainty to the truth of any reality beyond the sensory order. For the adherent of modernism “human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits.”[3] In this system human reason is “incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising his existence, even by means of visible things.”[4] It is therefore impossible for man to give absolute assent to any doctrine concerning God or the supernatural order.

Therefore while modernism does not deny the validity of sensory experience or the existence of an external reality per se, it does deny the validity of sensory experience in assisting us in adhering with certainty to conclusions about external reality beyond sensory phenomena. Thus it makes it impossible to affirm that any theological proposition is certainly true, and thus, once these premises are accepted, anything might be true in theology – even a proposition on the same level of absurdity as “two and two makes five.”

Divine revelation is for our salvation

In the first article of the first question of the Summa Theologica St Thomas Aquinas explains the true nobility of the science of theology:

“It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: ‘The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee’ (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation.”[5]

These truths are a gift from God to enable us to enjoy eternal happiness with Him. Let us honour God by adhering to them with certain and unwavering faith.

[1] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I. q.1 a.5.

[2] First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith.

[3] Pope St Pius X, Pascendi dominici gregis, (1908), No. 6.

[4] Pascendi, No. 6.

[5] Summa Theologica, I. q.1 a.1.