Pope Francis & Declarationist Nominalism
October 4, 2015
Pope Francis has concluded his whirlwind visit to our country. He spoke at a joint session of Congress, addressed the general assembly of the United Nations, helped lead a prayer service at Ground Zero, gave a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, spoke to thousands at the World Meeting of Families, offered Mass everyday, and has greeted untold numbers of homeless, downtrodden, and various others in need.
I believe that it is fair to say that Pope Francis’ speeches and homilies were widely received with enthusiasm. His mere presence was the catalyst for an openness to the Holy Spirit in countless numbers of people. He is our greatest evangelist. His joy is infectious, and his love of Christ is clear.
The Pope was very affirming of our country’s history and particularly the saints who have risen from within our churches. He also challenged our culture and spoke plainly about the Church’s teachings on abortion, justice, immigration, poverty, the environment, the family, sexual ethics and scandal, religious liberty, and inter-faith dialogue just to name a few. He also used some interesting terminology to quickly critique issues. One that stood out to me was during his address to the United Nations. He spoke of and condemned what he called, “Declarationist Nominalism.” I had to research this to understand what he was talking about. So, here’s my best stab at it.
“Declarationism” is the philosophical view that by declaring some thing so, it is such. Our Declaration of Independence is probably the most widely accepted example of this. By the creation of our Declaration of Independence, we thereby became independent of other countries. What followed was the need to back up this declaration with the blood of many Americans in order to secure this declaration. It was a revolution worth fighting for. In time, this declaration became the template for many other countries. In a different kind of example, I can declare that I am not in pain even though I am. This kind of declaration does not reflect reality, but instead denies it. So, declaring something to be so may or may not reflect or effect truth or reality.
“Nominalism” is a philosophical view which rejects universal essences/terms or abstract objects and claims that only individual concepts are real. Nominalism claims that there are no independent realities apart from the names we give them. Only our verbal descriptors have value. Another way of understanding this is the claim that universals are merely words, habits, and perceptions of particulars only. This can be contrasted to the philosophy of “realism” which recognizes universals and abstract objects. Realism holds that things exists in their own right wholly independent of our perception or naming of them. Okay, this may sound still pretty esoteric, and it it is. But, it has serious consequences. Most profoundly, realism, a philosophy which grounds all Judeo-Christian faith, states that God is real, can be known, and that God has created universal laws, values, and order. Nominalism would counter this. Nominalism would claim that God’s law is not universal, but particular to each person. It would further counter that there is any true teleology in the universe. Nominalism would reject any sense that there is a “right order” or morality based on God’s universal law.
Putting these together, Pope Francis leveled a very serious critique of a growing philosophical trend in our world. Declarationist Nominalism is the philosophy or belief that one can change the reality of something simply by calling it something different regardless of universals. For example, it is Declarationst Nominalism to call someone male or female by fiat instead of recognizing that genders are intimately tied with the universal of biological reality. Another example in our culture is calling something that is not a marriage a marriage simply by declaring it so. Such a philosophy undermines the revealed truth of God as well as universal realities and substitutes one's personal desire, opinion or sentimentality. Reality and truth are what they are, and no amount of renaming can change them. The Pope said that Declarationist Nominalism undermines truth and humanity. This insight of the Pope is mind-blowing and prophetic! I just hope I have been able to understand and explain it well.
So, with Pope Francis’ time with us, much has been done and said. He has shown us and proclaimed to us the Gospel with joy and never wavered under the pressure of political influence. He is not only our Pope, our Holy Father, our Roman Pontiff (term means “bridge-builder”), or our Vicar of Christ. He showed us that he is also our brother, an American for the Americas and from the Americas. May his visit continue to resonate in our hearts the message of the Gospel while also challenging us to more fully live it out.
Fr. William Holtzinger