Sense and Nonsense: Order of Truth

Ogden Nash has a poem that begins, “A man could be granted to live a dozen lives/And he still wouldn’t be understood by daughters and wives.” We probably wouldn’t want a world in which it were otherwise, a world in which absolutely everything could be understood by husbands and wives. I do not intend to defend mystery or the finiteness of our intellects, designed to know all that is. Rather I want to reflect on what it would mean to claim that we know everything, especially that we create the distinction between good and evil.

On the Holy Father’s visit to Poland, June 6, 1999, he took a helicopter to a sea port called Elblag, with a population of about 130,000. Improbably, in Elblag, they had an aviation club, where the pope participated in devotions at which he recited the Act of Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Makes you wonder that if the Holy Father can consecrate the human race at the aviation club in Elblag, could it be done in any parish in the United States?

John Paul II explained “everything that God wanted to tell us about himself and about his love he placed in the Heart of Jesus, and by means of that Heart he has told us everything.” This sentence does not refer to our own views of the world, our own opinions of the important things. What is important is what “God wanted to tell us about himself.” The first thing that those who love God must do, the pope says, recalling John 14:15, is keep the commandments. The Ten Commandments are the “foundation of morality.” And just to remind us, he recited all ten, a good practice.

Christ confirmed these commandments at the Sermon on the Mount. The “whole order of truth” is “inscribed on the human heart.” The pope cited the passages that Christ used to reaffirm the commandments: “I have come not to abolish them [the law and the prophets] but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17); “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father” (John 14:21). The pope finally cited the passage he loves from Matthew 19:16, the passage that he reflected on in Veritatis Splendor, where the young man asks: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answers, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

At this point, John Paul II paused in his homily to remind us that “this response by Jesus is particularly important in modern reality, in which many people live as though there were no God.” This is not something neutral or abstract but something contemporary, quite widespread, perhaps worldwide. It is not just a question of men not being understood by their wives and daughters but of God being positively rejected.

To a modern aviation club in Poland during what seemed to be early modern devotions, the pope added these profound words: “The temptation to organize the world and one’s own life without God or even in opposition to God, without his commandments and without the Gospel, is a very real temptation and threatens us, too. When human life and the world are built without God, they will eventually turn against man himself.”

So it is a temptation to attempt to organize ourselves and the world on principles that ignore or reject the commandments. We are, in fact, doing this more in our civil laws and personal practices. Once we posit our own will as the source of law and action, as we are free to do, we proceed to live as we choose. No pope who knows his theology, as John Paul II certainly does, can be surprised that this possibility exists. But notice what he says about this possibility. Who can it hurt? God? It does indeed hurt God through hurting those He loves.

The crux of the issue is that when we build our lives and that of our society without God, such lives will turn against those who observe the commandments. It is probably no accident that this turning seems almost complete in our public order and that, correspondingly, the pope speaks more and more about martyrdom. Even if we are granted a dozen lives, even if Lazarus returns from the grave, it will not be otherwise if we do not observe the commandments, because we choose to deny by our choices and actions the validity of God’s law in our hearts.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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