Truth: is it relative or not?

This grew out of a discussion I had with my brother, who became a Catholic recently. I am a Protestant. I understand that the official view of the Catholic church is that the Catholic church and the Pope never falls into error, correct?
Here are my questions (I have about 1,000 but I’ll limit them to three)

  1. Aquinas mentions that Pope Gregory only teaches the sacraments of “Baptism, Chrism, and the Body and Blood of Christ.” Yet now the church holds there to be seven sacraments. The Council of Trent says that “if anyone…saith that they [the sacraments] are more or less than seven… let him be anathema.”
    What does that mean in relation to Pope Gregory? Isn’t the church committed to a view that if he said there were three sacraments, it was true in 600 but not true in 1563, and that truth is relative to the time we live in? Hypothetically, if we discovered aliens and a future Pope decreed that there be an eighth sacrament to bring aliens to repentance, would that not make the statements of the Council of Trent true for 1563, but false for 2150?
  2. For ~1,000 years, a priest who was hearing confession would say “May God have mercy on you and forgive you your sins.” Around the 12th century, this was changed to “I absolve you from your sins.” Which of these is true?
  3. Views on purgatory seem to have arisen some time between 600-1200. Belief in the Treasury of Merit originated around 1230. These views seem to have been heavily influenced by Jerome’s translation of “metanoia” from “repent” (inward work of the heart) to “do penance” (outward show of works). This (mis)translation is where Aquinas bases his view that sacrament is a penance, which seemed to influence the church’s decision to accept it as a new sacrament, despite the fact that Gregory did not hold this view. If Aquinas’ argument is based on a mistranslation, doesn’t that mean that the church is moving farther and farther away from the truth by holding this view?
    Please help me understand the Catholic view as it pertains to truth in these matters.

(1) The Church does not teach that the Pope never falls into error. The teaching is that the Church is safeguarded from the Pope formally declaring errors in faith and morals as necessary dogmas of the Church. I would need to see what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on Pope Gregory and what Pope Gregory actually said.

(2) The Church has leeway in determining the form/rites of the sacrament (though the species of water in baptism or of wheat bread and wine are not open to change), as it is the Church who is operating as an instrument in dispensing graces. Development and changes in form happen.

(3) The treasury of merit is a development of the more ancient doctrine that the Church is entrusted with binding and loosing and the distribution of graces. The treasury of merit is a formalized explanation of why it works and an explanation that it doesn’t do so by itself, but it must of course be reliant on the infinite merits of Christ foremost, and to a lesser extent the finite merits of the saints joined to him (the finite merits are joined to Christ’s but it must be stated that the merits of the saints would be insufficient on their own). You could say the formalization also prevents misinterpretations of the Church’s binding and loosing and instead confirms it is entirely placed in Christ, not just in the authority he gave the Church but in Christ’s merits. It is a defense and explanation for the ancient practice from antiquity which was being questioned at the time. It doesn’t mean the notions of binding and loosing the Church as being a distributor of grace didn’t exist long before then (see the Orthodox, too). As for Purgatory, again, there was some formalization. The earlier writings do contain notions of the righteous and martyrs being immediately in Heaven while not presuming that for all the righteous dead, the Church through ancient use has always incorporated prayers for the dead and for mercy on them in its liturgy and practices, and even Jews today generally believe in a notion of Purgatory based off of their tradition and Old Testament scriptural citations. The idea of atonement after death (in the Church’s case being perfected through Christ) well predates the 600s.


So what would a Catholic say about the truth of the earlier claims?

  1. Was Gregory’s view false? Is the Council of Trent’s view true pending further developments, or is it just true?
  2. Is priestly absolution true? And the previous view false? Or is there some middle ground I’m not seeing?
  3. Is the Catholic view that the Pope cannot hold a view that is false? Or that he could, but he just happens not to?

Depends on what his actual view, as opposed to the summary in the post, was.

Not a middle ground, but apparently not seeing the part about the Church having leeway in determining the form/rite of the sacrament. That is not a matter of faith and morals that must be held dogmatically.

No, as was previously explained. It is that the Pope cannot teach falsely on a matter of faith and morals that is necessary for all of the Faithful to hold (essentially the Holy Spirit will not allow a false dogma to be taught or proclaimed by the Pope).

1 Like

#1) Your quote comes from objection 1 on whether Penance is a sacrament. You should read the rest of it. Gregory also says, from the same document, “a sacrament consists in a solemn act, whereby something is so done that we understand it to signify the holiness which it confers.”

#2 & 3) What is your source?

#2 also comes from the objections on whether Penance is a sacrament. objection 1 on whether the form of this sacrament is “I absolve you”? says “certain absolutions which are given publicly in church…” Don’t know where you got 1000 years from.

This Catholic would say that there is no truth in any of your claims.

1 Like

As a non-Catholic, I don’t view the sacrament of Penance as “conferring” any holiness.
The 1,000 years came from Wikipedia. Not the best source, I know, but I see no reason to doubt the claims made there and I cannot find any iterations of “I absolve you” pre 1000, whereas, “Christ absolves you” is what is claimed to be the practice before that.

I guess your answer to my second question then is that it doesn’t matter what the truth is of whether God absolves or the priest absolves because it doesn’t relate to “faith and morals”? So one taught falsely and one taught truthfully but it doesn’t matter? Again, I’m not asking "what is the correct form/rite of the sacrament?’ I’m asking “which should we believe to be true, and is the church moving toward truth or away from truth?”

No they wouldn’t. You would, but you’re not everybody.

For #1: sacramental theology did indeed develop over time and in the early centuries marriage (for example) was not officially recognized as a sacrament. People still married and the Church still taught the permanence of marriage, but the theology wasn’t on the same level as it was in the Middle Ages.

For #2: The Church has the ability to decide the exact formula for celebrating Reconciliation. For example, people celebrate the sacraments in hundreds of languages and not all of these languages perfectly translate from one to another.

For #3: Theology does develop but making prayers to the dead goes back before the time of Christ to Judaism. So no, Purgatory is a very old teaching.

Thank you.

1 Like

Nope, although the Pope can be infallible in some very important, dogmatically defining cases (as I understand it) they definitely can fall into error.

Explanation of Papal infallibility:

Summa Theologica: of the Sacrament of Penance (Ten Articles)

The article quoted says Gregory, not Pope Gregory. Aquinas always identifies a Pope when he quotes him. Pope Leo says…Pope Pius says…etc. I don’t have access to Isidore’s etymologies to know which Gregory is being quoted, but it is not Pope Gregory or Aquinas would have identified him as such.
As for the truth, the Apostles were given the ability to bind and loose; and in Acts they acknowledged that another should take their office when they died.

What is truth? :wink:

Again, I’m not talking about the “formula”.
(This is a historical simplification, but roughly conforms to the history of belief in the church.)
Years 33-1000 AD - God absolves people of their sins.
Years 1001-2020 - Priests absolve people of their sins.
Which of these competing and separate views is true? Or does belief by the Church MAKE the view true (i.e. truth is relative?)

Does that clarify what I’m asking? Is Truth a fixed thing to be continually aimed for? And a church could be moving closer or farther away from the target? Or is truth a target that the church always hits just BECAUSE it’s the one true church?

Yes, this is the pertinent question. Answer: “truth is a concept”. We speak of a “true statement, or a true proposition when the proposition is the corollary of some axioms in a formal or axiomatic system, or when the proposition expresses a correct state of affairs in and open, inductive system”. If the first case, the truth of the proposition is contingent upon the axioms, in the second one it is contingent upon the actual state of affairs.

1 Like


That is a gross oversimplication. People confessed their sins since the early Church and it is even mentioned by St Paul in the New Testament, though in the early Church it was often in a public setting. There was something called “The Order of the Penitents” and they would often undertake severe penances for years on end, often - for example - if they renounced the faith during a state persecution but then wanted to come back to the faith after the persecution ended. The length of their penance could vary. If they renounced the faith under torture the penance was lessened but otherwise it would be longer.

The modern practice of the sacrament (confessing to a priest privately) came later but I know from memory that this was done earlier than 1000, although it took some time for it to become universal.

As far as truth being relative or objective: truth is objective. For the development of theology, I think of it as looking at a target from a very long distance, and then having progressively sharper lenses in order to have a more clear picture of the target. Although a person can still see the target using the naked eye, having progressively better lenses means a more and more precise picture with the ability to see more details.


I’m not talking about the sacrament of private confession. I’m talking about absolution of sins.
And yes, I know this is a simplification, but since we don’t know who exactly created this new doctrine or when, it works for this discussion.

33-1000 - God absolves sins
1001-2020 - Priests absolve sins

A Protestant would say “God is the one who has always absolved sins, and thinking that priests can absolve sins equals falling into error or moving away from the Truth that has never changed.”
What is the Catholic’s response to this?


God is the source of all good, yet God has always enabled his creatures to act as his instruments.

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” John 20: 19-20

In the Old Testament people did more than just ask God privately for forgiveness: they also made sacrifices for penance and expiation. Likewise, in the New Testament, people did not merely ask God privately for forgiveness. There was also the confession of sins. So I disagree with the claim that protestants are more authentic.

1 Like
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit