Social Order and Objective Truth

Author: Dr. Charles Rice


An overlooked aspect of the encyclical on Christian morality, is its exposition, in chapter three, of the legal and social consequences of the denial of objective moral truth. In his presentation of to the press, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger described that chapter as among "the great texts of the " and "a fundamental text for the questions which concern us all."

Have you ever wondered at the paradox that the 20th century has generated more declarations of human rights than any other century, and yet it has produced the greatest violations of those rights in history? Veritatis explains why. The denial of objective truth, which is a characteristic of 20th-century culture, reduces law to a function of power and invites totalitarian abuse:

"Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group, or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others....

"The root of modern totalitarianism is . . . the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate- no individual, group, class, nation, or state. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing, or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it" (n. 99).

Pope John Paul emphasizes that the recognition of objective moral norms is essential for freedom and "genuine democracy": "There can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth.... Only by obedience to universal moral norms does man find full confirmation of his personal uniqueness and the possibility of authentic moral growth. For this very reason . . . these norms . . . represent the foundation of genuine democracy, which can .. . develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the 'poorest of the poor' on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality, we are all absolutely equal" (n. 96; all emphases in ).

This makes sense. If there are no objective norms that always prohibit certain conduct, how can we define any ultimate moral limits to what the state can do? Along these lines, the Pope sees a "grave" danger, in the nations that comprised the former Soviet Union, of " which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible. Indeed, 'if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism'" (n. 101).

Ideas have social and legal consequences, even the ideas of American professors and others who are absolutely sure that they cannot be sure of anything. "Pilate's question: 'What is truth?'," said Pope John Paul, "reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows he is, he comes, and he is going. Hence we not infrequently witness the fearful plunging of the human person into situations of gradual self-destruction. According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value. All around us we encounter contempt for human life after conception and before birth; the ongoing violation of basic rights of the person; the unjust destruction of goods minimally necessary for a human life" (n. 84).

Over the past three centuries, the philosophers and politicians of the Enlightenment have attempted to construct a legal and social order as if God did not exist. The implied ground rule of most academic writings and conferences excludes reference to the divine law as a binding standard of law and morality. confronts this error. It affirms that the separation of freedom from truth "is the consequence . . . of " (n. 88). Nor is the Pope offering any abstract theory as the norm of morality. Rather, that norm is a living person, Jesus Christ. Thus, Pope John Paul affirms that "the true and final answer to the problem of morality lies in [Christ] alone.... to the question troubling so many people today: How can obedience to universal and unchanging moral norms respect the uniqueness and individuality of the person, and not represent a threat to his freedom and dignity?.... and calls His disciples to share in His freedom" (n. 85).

As Cardinal Ratzinger summarized the third chapter of it "shows . . . that 'at the heart of the issue of culture we find the moral sense'; in the face of social and economic injustices and political corruption, he speaks of 'the acute sense of the need for a radical personal and social renewal,' which alone is 'capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty, and openness' (n. 98). The text reveals the intellectual foundation of totalitarianism to consist in 'the denial of truth in the objective sense' (n. 99), and indicates the way to overcoming it."

Some describe this era as "post-Christian." Not so. lends support to the conclusion that this is really a "pre-Christian" era. The failure of the Enlightenment, in its effort to achieve freedom apart from the truth of Christ, is so clear that the answer presented in is obviously the only alternative.

The academic spin doctors will advise us on what this encyclical means and how they could have written a better one. This definitive and moving document, however, should not be taken secondhand. Read it for yourself.

This article was taken from the July 28, 1994 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.