The Splendor of Truth: a Symposium

Author: Richard John Newhaus


by Richard John Neuhaus

In October 1993, Pope John Paul II issued his tenth encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). The tabloids blazoned that the Pope is clamping down on sexual ethics. And yes, it turns out that he hasn't changed his mind on fornication and adultery, but that is rather to miss the point of this extended and closely reasoned argument about the nature of morality. Other reports focused on his criticism of ethical theories that go by cumbersome names such as "proportionalism" and "consequentialism." That is closer to the point, but still doesn't quite get it. Veritatis Splendor is much more than a pontifical salvo in intramural disputes among moral philosophers and theologians. Of course the argument should be read in its entirety. That is made easier by the fact that, maybe for the first time in this pontificate, a major document has found a translator who writes clear and felicitous English.

In this document, the Pope offers not so much an analysis of the world's moral condition (which we all know is in a very bad way) as an examination of why we moderns no longer make moral sense to one another. Making sense assumes that there is some truth about the matter in dispute. But when it comes to morality, it is widely assumed today that there is no such thing as truth. Indeed, "moral truth" is thought to be an oxymoron. You have your "values" and I have mine, and there the discussion comes to a screeching halt. "What is truth?" asked Pontius Pilate. He, like many of our contemporaries, took that question to be a discussion-stopper. John Paul II argues that it ought to be a discussion-starter.

Modernity, he notes appreciatively, has been very big on freedom. But now freedom has been untethered from truth, and freedom cannot stand alone without degenerating into license. License, in turn, is the undoing of freedom, for then, as Nietzsche and others recognized, all personal and social life becomes simply the assertion of power. If freedom is to be secured, power-and freedom itself-must be accountable to truth. Or, as John Paul puts it repeatedly, "Authentic freedom is ordered to truth." This, he emphatically insists, is not a new idea. The central text for Veritatis Splendor is the word of Jesus, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." (John 8:32) From the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai, from Aristotle through to the American Founders ("We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ."), it has been thought that there is a necessary connection between freedom and truth. The apparently new thing about our time is the proposal that freedom can get along without truth. That proposal, John Paul argues, is intellectually unconvincing, spiritually incoherent, and morally disastrous.

Clear thinking about moral truth founders on the rocks of relativism and subjectivism. In a radically individualistic culture, we do not discern and obey what is objectively true. Rather, each of us decides what is "true for me." We create the truth. This, however, is really not so new, according to the Pope. It is a way of thinking and acting that began with that unfortunate afternoon in the Garden of Eden and has resulted in herds of independent minds marching toward moral oblivion with Mr. Sinatra's witless boast on their lips, "I did it my way." The "postmodernist" twist on this is to argue that all morality is created by culture. We are socially constructed, it is said, "all the way down." Freedom may be high among your "values," but that is only because you are the product of a culture that values freedom. Ergo, your freedom is a delusion. In fact, you are as captive to your culture as somebody else who is the product of a culture that values collectivism, or child sacrifice, or whatever. John Paul knows these arguments inside out, but he is not buying.

The human person, he contends, truly is free. He is created for freedom and, although hindered by the wound of sin, he is capable of freedom. That is the truth about the human person without which all talk about morality makes no sense. John Paul readily acknowledges the insights of psychology, anthropology, and the behavioral sciences into the ways we are "conditioned" by culture, genes, and factors yet unknown. But deep within each "acting person" (a key phrase in the thought of this Pope) is an aspiration toward the good that he either follows or defies. Veritatis Splendor opens with an extended and intriguing reflection on the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks, "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" (Matthew 19:16) That, says the Pope, is the question of everyman, no matter how tentatively or confusedly it is asked. And the answer of Jesus is the answer to everyman, "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." Life is to know the truth and do the truth. In the Christian account of things, life is ultimately fulfilled in following the One who said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (John 14:6)

But, it may be objected, this is impossibly ethereal and offputtingly religious. Anyway, there is no going back to "simpler days" when it was possible to assert that "we hold these truths" as though there are actually truths to hold, and to be held by. We live in a pluralistic society; there is no agreement on what truths we hold; and so forth. Just so, says John Paul, and that is precisely why we need so urgently to engage in argument about the truth that undergirds human freedom and dignity. Our differences notwithstanding, we can make sense to one another because we have in common our human nature and the capacity to reason, and these are universal. The Pope is keenly aware that in contending for universal nature and reason he is going up against regnant views in many of our elite institutions'views that have metastasized with remarkable virulence in popular culture. As freedom has turned against itself, so also reason has turned against itself, with the result that confidence in what is distinctively human has been severely undermined.

The idea that at the end of the second millennium the Catholic Church has turned out to the premier institutional champion of humanism and reason in the contemporary culture will strike many as improbable, if not preposterous. They should read Veritatis Splendor and other writings of this philosopher Pope. Or, for that matter, they might consult again, or consult for the first time, Augustine and Aquinas. John Paul is for sure no friend of "secular humanism," nor is his defense of reason to be confused with the truncated and reductionist rationalism of the Enlightenment "philosophes". True humanism, he contends, is directed toward the transcendent, toward the ultimate good, who is God. And reason participates in the fullness of truth through revelation. But to those who are made nervous by references to God and revelation, the Pope is saying in this encyclical that we still have a lot to talk about. And we had better get on with it before humanity staggers more deeply into the night of moral nothingness. Some might think John Paul's sense of urgency slightly apocalyptic; others, more alert to the intellectual and cultural drift of our time, will welcome his argument as a bracing call to reaffirm reason and human dignity in the face of nihilism both theoretical and practical.

Human rights and duties, says the Pope, are "universal and immutable." That is the position the United States has taken against countries claiming that the idea of universal human rights reflects the "cultural imperialism" of the West. In fact, such countries may have a case. The human rights agenda is no more than an ideological imposition by the West, if the cause of freedom is divorced from the claims of truth. The contention that there is no objective or universal truth has achieved a measure of official status among us by fiat of the Supreme Court. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for example, the Court declared that it is up to each individual to determine "the concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." John Paul, by contrast, warns against "the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism." When truth itself is democratized-when truth is no more than the will of each individual or a majority of individuals-democracy, deprived of the claim to truth, stands naked to its enemies. Thus does freedom, when it is not "ordered to truth," undo freedom. Moral truth, evident in a "natural law" that is accessible to all reasonable persons, includes commands both positive and negative. But not for nothing are most of the "ten words" delivered at Sinai framed in the negative. We cannot always do the good that we would, but we can always refuse to do evil. Some acts are intrinsically evil, evil per se-always and everywhere, without exception. As examples, the Pope cites homicide, genocide, abortion, slavery, prostitution, and trafficking in women and children. He quotes Pope Paul VI: "Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it." Evil must never be called good, nor good evil.

Here John Paul takes on those moralists, including Catholic theologians, who say that an evil act may be justified by the end to which it is directed ("consequentialism") or by weighing the other goods at stake ("proportionalism"). It is never licit to do evil in order to achieve good. To those of a contrary view the question might be put: When is rape morally justified? Or the torture of children? Or Auschwitz? John Paul's answer is never. Intentions may be noble, people may claim that they are acting "in good conscience," circumstances may mitigate personal responsibility, but the act remains, always and everywhere, evil.

The moral person is prepared to die rather than do evil. The words of the Latin poet Juvenal, says John Paul, apply to everyone: "Consider it the greatest of crimes to prefer survival to honor and, out of love of physical life, to lose the very reason for living." The encyclical includes an extended meditation on the meaning of martyrdom, drawing examples from the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the chronicle of courageous resistance to tyranny. Martyr means witness. We are not all called to martyrdom, but we are called to bear witness to the truth that makes, and keeps, us free. And that, according to Veritatis Splendor, is the splendor of living in the truth.

RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS is Editor-in-Chief of FIRST THINGS. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal, October 8, 1993. The full text of Veritatis Splendor is available from Origins, at 3211 Fourth Street N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017 ($5 for single copies, $3.50 for two to four copies); it is also available from Daughters of St. Paul, St. Paul Book and Media Center, 150 East 52nd Street, New York, NY 10022 ($2.25 each).

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