Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

Welcome to our first conference on Veritatis Splendor. Let me say a few things about how I would like our discussion will proceed.

On Sunday night, I will post some statements and questions to start the ball rolling. I would like you to try to submit your observations and responses by Wednesday. From Wednesday to Saturday, please comment on each other's posts, agreeing, disagreeing, or building on the points that have been made. On the next Sunday, I will offer my summary on the discussion, and some notes for the following week.

This is my first time attempting anything like this, so I hope all of you will make up for my lack of knowledge and experience by your active participation. The quality of discussion here will depend largely on you.

I would welcome comments at any time regarding the pace or quality of the discussion -- too slow? too simple? too intellectual? too superficial? I am not sure at the moment how fast we will go. the document has 120 sections. If we did one section per week, that would take us over two years. (As they say in Brooklyn, "Fuh-GET aboud it!") I am thinking more in terms of three or more sections per week, but then again, since some sections need more attention than others, that may change.

Ready to begin? Read VS (Veritatis Splendor) numbers 1-3. Here goes....

With regard to the name of the encyclical: Does anyone find it paradoxical that an encyclical on the foundations of moral norms should be called the "Splendor of Truth"? Wouldn't we expect it to be something like, "The Splendor of Goodness," or "The Splendor of a Good Moral Life?" Or, to look at it the other way, if we heard about an encyclical with a title such as "The Splendor of Truth," would we not expect it to be about the sure ground of faith, or the evils of skepticism or relativism? What kind of connections are there between truth and morality, that might be relevant here? "The splendor of truth shines forth in the works of the Creator..." The encyclical begins in a way that reminds us of chapter 8 of the book of proverbs: "Does not Wisdom call, and Understanding raise her voice? On the top of the heights along the road, at the crossroads she takes her stand; By the gates at the approaches of the city, in the entryways she cries aloud: "To you, O men, I call; my appeal is to the children of men.... Sincere are all the words of my mouth, no one of them is wily or crooked; All of them are plain to the man of intelligence, and right ... Those who love me I also love, and those who seek me find me."

Truth is not something hidden and inaccessible. It is easily available to all who seek it. It shines with a "splendor." Indeed, it is like an active power ("in the entryways she cries aloud...") breaking in on our self-deceptions.

Then why is it that so many people reject the very notion of truth? How can there be, in Western society, an academic subculture that scorns truth, and holds relativism and skepticism to be the highest wisdom? (Personally, I have always found it very annoying trying to talk to people who think that they have reached a higher intellectual plane than I, because they dismiss any argument I make by saying, "Well, that's just YOUR OPINION.")

As VS points out, original sin comes in to play here. "As a result of original is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it toward idols...." Here is our paradox again. A *moral* failing (turning "his gaze away from...God") makes it difficult to be obedient to *truth*.

Human nature, wounded by originial sin, is not ruined by original sin. Even in the face of denials of truth, many people in fact do seek truth in one way or other. In fact, (we're moving now to section 2) we find that it is impossible for people to avoid questions of truth, especially moral truth. In my own experience, I see this principle at work in the way in which people, even those who deny any objective standard of right and wrong, will struggle to JUSTIFY THEIR ACTIONS. If someone does something that others find morally objectionable, and those others ask, "Why did you do that? What gives you the right to do that?" The person will try to JUSTIFY what he did with REASONS, which he holds to be OBJECTIVELY TRUE. He will appeal to standards of conduct he expects his challengers to hold in common with himself.

I remember hearing a doctor talk about his decision not to give a Down's Syndrome child a simple, life-saving operation, and how he vilified "metaphysical principles." (I can almost hear him -- "Don't come to me with your metaphysical principles. I am talking about a complex, real-life situation.") Then he went on to talk about quality of life criteria. I have often thought about that doctor. He couldn't stand metaphysical principles. But he had to say something to justify his actions. And to do that, he had to give REASONS, which, in my estimation, were far more abstract and metaphysical than the "metaphysical principles" he hated so much.

Section 2 goes on to talk about Jesus Christ as the answer to all our questions about how to live. The truth of God is shown to us in the teaching and person of Christ. He *is* God. He teaches the truth and wisdom of God. He gives us the answers to our most profound questions about life, morality, and happiness. But Jesus reveals to us the truth of God not only by his teaching, but by his person. In all of his actions, attitudes, thoughts, and words, he shows us what God is like. Or, to look at it another way, the best way to get an idea of what God is like, is to study the person of Jesus. Jesus is God, translated into human terms, terms we can understand. And further, if we want to know the truth about how God wants human being to live, we look at how Jesus lived, and strive to imitate his example. (By the way, have you ever met a Catholic, who, in a self-effacing sort a way will say, "The Catholic Church doesn't have ALL the answers." Well, I would say, not all the answers to everything -- e.g. the life span of plankton. But we do have all the answers about the most important question of life -- happiness, salvation, right living.)

The mission of the Church, and our duty as Catholics, is to bring to all men the blessing of knowing Christ. And for those who do not yet have faith, the Church is a witness to the truth about morality. Why is this so? Consider it this way: if a man knows how to do calculus, no doubt he also knows how to add, subtract, divide, and multiply. In a similar way, if the Church knows how to help people to become saints, no doubt she also knows how to help them become decent human beings, who are fair, responsible, honest, and moral. For this reason, the Church, besides being the herald of the gospel, is also an "expert in humanity." She sees as her mission, not only to help Christians become better Christians, not only to help non-Christians to discover Christ, but also to help all people of good will, no matter what religion or point of view, to be good human beings -- to know the truth about morality and virtue. Question: Does not her expertise give her a right to speak out on moral issues, even in a "pluralistic society"? Is it fair to say that when bishops talk about abortion, are they "imposing their religion" on other people?

The Church's expertise in humanity is needed by every person. Morality is "relevant." Every person, even if he does not have faith in Christ, even if he does not believe in God, needs a moral compass.

Am I on target? Did I leave anything out? I look forward to reading your comments and observations!

Some recommended reading:

On truth and morality:

Richard John Neuhaus, in The Splendor of Truth: a Symposium. First Things, January 1994, pages 14 to 16.