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The Truth Will Set You Free

8/1/2018

by Nicholas J. Healy Jr.

Twenty-five years later, St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the Church’s moral teaching is more timely than ever

Pontius Pilate presents Jesus wearing a crown of thorns

After having Jesus scourged, Pontius Pilate presents him wearing a crown of thorns: “Behold, the man!” (Jn 19:5). Not long before, as Pilate questioned him, Jesus said he came into the world “to bear witness to the truth” — to which Pilate responded, “What is truth?” (cf. Jn 18:37-38). Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri, 1871 / Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Following his exile from the Soviet Union for the “crime” of publishing The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a simple, yet profound reply to a reporter. When asked what he stood for, he said, “Those who have lived in the most terrible conditions … understand that between good and evil there is an irreconcilable contradiction.”

By this and his strong critique of Soviet communism, however, Solzhenitsyn did not imply that Western democracy was faultless. In a 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, he argued that Western culture had in recent decades rejected “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice,” embracing instead the notion that “an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims.”

Solzhenitsyn’s words complement those of his contemporary, St. John Paul II, and have only gained relevance in the context of relativism today. For both men, the great drama of our time is a crisis of truth that leads to a confusion between good and evil.

“All around us,” observed John Paul II in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), “we encounter contempt for human life after conception and before birth; the ongoing violation of basic rights of the person … Indeed, something more serious has happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil” (84).

This letter on the foundations of the Church’s moral teaching, issued Aug. 6, 1993, is perhaps the most important text of John Paul II’s magisterium. In the past 25 years, Veritatis Splendor has lost none of its brilliance and importance for the Church’s witness in contemporary culture. While much could be said about such a rich text, we can briefly focus on four of its key insights.

FREEDOM AND TRUTH

We are all familiar with how the modern world values freedom as the highest good. But what sort of freedom? There is an unmistakable tendency in our culture to conceive freedom simply as the ability to choose between alternatives or to do whatever one wants. According to this view, human freedom is the source of values and meaning. Consider, for example, the words of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II begins by pointing out that, through sin, “Man’s capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and … giving himself over to relativism and skepticism (cf. Jn 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself ” (1). The pope then explains that the modern idea of freedom is self-defeating because we are not the source of our own existence. Rather, our being is received as a gift, and our freedom always exists in relationship to the truth.

“Only the freedom which submits to the Truth,” he concludes, “leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth” (84).

NATURAL LAW AND MORAL REASONING

Following St. Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II defines the natural law as “the eternal law, implanted in beings endowed with reason, and inclining them towards their right action and end” (44). Grounded in the natural law, the Church’s moral teaching is not simply an extrinsic obligation or set of rules. The desire for God is implanted in the human heart; the natural law is an expression of this desire and thus an interior guide to true happiness.

Of particular importance in John Paul II’s presentation of the natural law is the significance of the human body. Veritatis Splendor corrects the tendency to view the body as inert, premoral “stuff ” awaiting the intervention of human freedom. The human body, sexually differentiated as male or female, has an inherent meaning and dignity that reflects the wisdom of the Creator. In the words of John Paul II, we “discover in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self ” (48). The body, already in its physical structure, is an expression of the person, who is created in love and for love.

THE MEANING OF CONSCIENCE

One of the errors that had made some inroads in Catholic moral theology was a “creative” understanding of conscience as a source of moral values. According to this view, the moral law represents an abstract ideal that cannot address the particular circumstances of human life. By taking account of concrete experience, conscience could authorize certain exceptions to the commandments and thus permit one to do in practice what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law.

In response to this mistaken understanding, John Paul II recalls the true meaning of conscience as an interior witness. “Moral conscience,” he writes, “does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man” (58). Conscience is not an independent capacity to decide what is good and what is evil, but a principle of obedience to the objective moral law.

CHRISTIAN FAITH AND THE MORAL LIFE

For John Paul II, faith is not a matter of merely accepting certain propositions or doctrines as true. More profoundly, Christian faith involves “holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father” (19). A faith that did not involve the whole of one’s life and deeds would not be adequate to the mystery of the Incarnation. By assuming human nature and offering the totality of his life as gift to the Father and to the Church, Christ discloses the original and unbreakable unity of faith and the moral life: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15).

The moral life is therefore an essential part of the Church’s task of bearing witness to the mystery of God’s love revealed in Christ. John Paul II writes, “In a particular way, it is in the Crucified Christ that the Church finds the answer 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? … The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom” (85).

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The four points sketched above all converge on a central idea: God’s love has become incarnate in Jesus Christ. In the sacraments of the Church, we are given a share in God’s own incarnate love. The moral life is thus a response to this gift — a reflection of the beauty of the truth of God.


NICHOLAS J. HEALY JR. is associate professor of philosophy and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He is a member of Father Rosensteel Council 2169 in Silver Spring, Md.