Public Arguments: The Pope Strikes Again

Last month, Pope John Paul II, who early in his pontificate aimed at reuniting Eastern and Western Europe, then divided by the Iron Curtain, celebrated his fifteenth anniversary in office, that job done. It took a miracle, but it’s done.

If you don’t believe the miracle part, think back to 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the attempt to assassinate the Pope in 1981, and to the nuclear war hysteria of 1983-84. Today communism lies in ruins.

Now the Pope has struck again. He has taken on a bigger challenge: to overturn through sheer intellect and single-minded purpose the relativism, practical atheism, and moral decadence of the public culture of the West. His new encyclical, called “The Splendor of Truth” [Veritatis splendor], turns the world’s attention to that task.

Karol Wojtyla’s philosophical work The Acting Person is evidence enough that he has a superb, well- trained, and original mind; his professional work was in moral philosophy and theology. He is a lot smarter, and professionally more accomplished, than most of his critics.

His new encyclical—his tenth—falls directly in the line of his earlier professional passion, and it is a thing of beauty. Its title sent me searching through A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, where I found the line I remembered; Joyce writes: “Plato, I believe, said that beauty is the splendour of truth.” The Splendor of Truth has already been praised by professional philosophers I have talked to: “As rich and rewarding, on the third reading, as Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments,” and “This century’s single best statement on moral principle.” My telephone lines and those of CRISIS have been burning up with praise for this great piece of work.

If, as the U.S. Supreme Court strangely indicated in Casey, what most matters in a moral decision is that it is “mine,” if moral principles have no more to them than personal wishes, then Heidegger is the secret philosopher of our time. Wojtyla the philosopher, now Pope John Paul II, takes Heidegger head-on.

A philosophy that grounds morality on anything other than truth would not have been strong enough, the Pope suggests, to inspirit those in prison or under torture against Nazism or Communism. The twentieth century has been a reductio ad absurdum of relativistic philosophies. Resistance against abusive power, especially totalitarian power, depends on claims of truth against the lie.

The Splendor of Truth, like all good things, is divided into three parts. The first is on the nature of morality; the second on the faulty and self-destructive moral foundations of the culture of our time; and the third on the necessary moral renewal of personal, social, and political life, including the life of the Church. This Pope intends a Reformation. As I mentioned recently, one of my Baptist friends says, “Y’all have a Pope that knows how to pope!”

Many Protestants in the past have complained that when Catholics talk about morality, they forget Scripture and duck into philosophy and “natural law.” Not this Pope. Every section meets a question raised by the Jewish and Christian Testaments. The very idea of approaching morality through the metaphor of light—”the light of Thy countenance”—begins with the citation of Psalm 4 in the opening paragraph. For John Paul II, the natural law itself is more like a light from the mind of the Crea¬tor irradiated through His creation than like a statement of the axioms and propositions of geometry or like a set of propositions; a steady and unblinking light, living and immediate, but not legalistic.

For Catholics, Jesus Christ is not only an historical person, a teacher, prophet, and good man, but also God, the Logos, “through Whom, with Whom, and in Whom” has been made everything that is made. His light shines through every event of every day. His cross appears in every act of human suffering and every act of humble charity. His announcement of a Kingdom to come appears, however distorted, in every claim in history that the future may be better than the past and that human history is not entrapped in cycles of endless return. As the philosopher Richard Rorty has confessed, it is probable that philosophers of our own time have taken more from Jesus Christ, about compassion and the equal dignity of all persons, for example, than from the Greeks and Romans. In any case, this encyclical is thoroughly Christ-centered.

Yet because Christ is the Logos, the Pope proceeds with confidence in the capacity of human beings to know themselves, to grasp the laws of their own nature, and to heed—if not always—the urgings of intelligence and reason. It is an irony of our time, perhaps, that the descendants of the Enlightenment, the philosophers, are writing of nihilism, “contingency all the way down,” and the weakness of reason before power and desire, while the Pope of Rome writes forthrightly that reason is made for truth, is more powerful than power and desire, and is the image of God in us. “Participative theonomy,” he calls it; through our own capacity to be provident we participate in the Providence of God.

In a lead of historically outrageous proportions, the Associated Press story announcing this encyclical wrote that the Pope “denounced ‘systematic questioning.’ ” Were this true, the Pope would have severed us from the human restlessness that leads humans to God: the sustained, infinite, unconditioned drive to ask questions. This is the root in us of the hunger for God. This is the seed in us of the natural law, our participation through conscience in the Light of God’s own understanding.

The Pope did, in Chapter Two of the Encyclical, urge all: “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2), and he did criticize severely several contemporary theories of morality that try to fudge the question of truth—in short, theories that cut questioning short, such as “consequentialism” and “proportionalism,” which operate as sophisticated rationalizations for justifying the means by the ends. “The road to Hell,” sisters used to warn in parochial school, “is paved with good intentions.”

It has been fascinating to note the comments on this encyclical, especially on these precise passages, by certain American moral theologians. One by one they seem to be asking in public: “Is it I, Lord?” Mostly, they seem to be denying that the criticisms voiced in the encyclical apply to them. One could take this as a way of saying that they agree with the Pope on the most basic points. Father Charles Curran says the encyclical gives a “caricature” of his position and that of others like him, and that all American Catholic theologians oppose relativism and subjectivism. Father Richard McCormick, S.J., says he knows of no Catholic moral theologian who holds that there are no acts that are intrinsically evil. All this is good news. Maybe we are closer to Catholic unity than we think. Except. . . . Except that the tone some dissenters use of the Pope and of Cardinal Ratzinger has, for some time now, been so far less than respectful as to appear to be barely concealing contempt.

The editor of the National Catholic Reporter thinks that the Pope fails to understand Christ, and that the en-cyclical is “harsh, negative, rigid, authoritarian.” “Where,” he asks, “is the love?” Although the theme of love pervades this encyclical, the editor of NCR might wish to meditate again on sections 87, 89, and 90, among others, if it is lessons on love he seeks—lessons taken directly from the gospels. It is not easy to think of any other encyclical of the last 200 years that is so thoroughly centered on the person of Christ, and so attentive to His words on how one who would love Him ought to live. Nothing is more clear than that this Vicar of Christ cleaves to Christ. And that he is reviled, as Christ was, by some he has reason to believe should be his friends and his comfort.

This is the first time in history that a Pope has issued an encyclical on the philosophical and theo-logical foundations of Catholic moral teaching. Its subject is of vital current interest—hardly any problems are more urgent today than those he addresses—but it attacks at the foundations, not on the immediate practical level. Those who expected a discussion of sexual questions and newsy questions will be sorely disappointed. (On the tombstone of our generation they will write: “They were obsessed with sex and the news.”)

What must I do to be good? To be better—to be perfect—what must I do? How is it possible to be good? Why can’t I do what I feel like doing? What does freedom have to do with truth? Why is relativism self-destructive? Are some things wrong always and everywhere evil?

Those who ask such questions will find a kindred spirit in Pope John Paul II, and a more serious and intelligent inquiry, argue with it as they will, than they are likely ever to have encountered. The Splendor of Truth bears many re-readings. On the subject of conscience, there are not many more sustained and discriminating essays. This encyclical will make a splendid text for stimulating classroom argument and exploration.

Contracepting the Encyclical

My friend and colleague John Noonan described in his magisterial history Contraception (1965) how anxieties of conscience about contraception grew all during the nineteenth century, especially in France. Since decisions on this matter touch every Catholic family, it is no wonder that many persons in approaching moral theology think first of all of sexual questions. (In almost any context, some people think first of all of sex.) So it was no doubt inevitable that controversial theologians and controversy-benefitting journalists scoured every sentence of V.S. looking for allusions to contraception, abortion, homosexual acts, masturbation, and the like. They were lucky to find two sentences to reward their inner burning.

What the Pope is really driving at, some dared to say, is not expressly said in the text but is to be inferred from it; in other words, they read it into the text. Father Richard McCormick, S.J., in Newsweek: “What the Pope is saying is that any moral analysis which ends up justifying a contraceptive is going to be wrong, period.” Those who know Pope John Paul II know that he is perfectly capable of saying that if that is what he wishes to say. The actual text we have before us does not say that. Instead, it lays out the foundations and principles of Catholic moral life, especially as found in the life of Christ crucified and risen, and as imaged in the world of nature and history made in, through, and by Him.

The Pope does include contraception in a list of intrinsically evil acts, but does not here supply his full argument why that is so. A further encyclical, dealing with that and other specific but highly disputed questions, may well be issued in the near future. Since the argument is about natural law, the giving of reasons for and against will be very much in order. An advantage of natural law thinking, indeed, is that it cries out for argument.

Moreover, there is more than one way to be in communion with Peter. Even those who raise questions, disagree, and push arguments further may, in the long run, be serving the mission of the papacy in history. Surely, this is Father McCormick’s intention; already, he has taught a generation to think more deeply about important questions, even if they do not agree with him.

And yet, one sign of fidelity is love for the one chosen in our time to be Christ’s vicar—love, at least, for what he is called to be, even should he (as we all do) fall short. The most disturbing signs about the present moment are the ambivalence, not to say hostility, that many seem to harbor against the very principle of communion with Rome, and the intemperate manner in which some speak about, and against, this particular Pope.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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