SOCIAL ORDER AND OBJECTIVE TRUTH
by Charles E. 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
"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
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
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.