A Bid to Reassert the Splendor of Truth

January 14, 1994|By TRB

Washington -- In the last year or so, we've all been uplifted by calls for greater attention to religion in our public life.

There was Michael Lerner's (and Hillary Rodham Clinton's) ''politics of meaning.''

There was Stephen Carter's lament of anti-religious prejudice in liberal culture, aggressively trumpeted by the president himself, whose own religiosity has become something of a political campaign.

As an accompanying chorus there's been the usual communitarian-neoconservative braying about the need to reclothe the naked public square in a common spirituality. A month or so ago at the National Press Club, even Norman Lear, of all people, moved himself nearly to tears on the same subject

So why is it that a pivotal document on our shared moral values by the head of one of the world's largest religions has hardly been mentioned in this context at all? ''Veritatis Splendor'' (''The Splendor of Truth''), John Paul II's most ambitious encyclical yet, managed about half a news cycle when it was issued last August.

I was no better than most journalists. The 40,000-word treatise sat on my desk for months in a helpfully annotated Catholic News Service leaflet, before I found the gumption to plunge into it. The few articles I'd read about it didn't help. You could almost hear the crushed sighs, as the religious reporters (on page A16) dutifully noted that this was not proof positive that the Holy Father had finally gone nuts and infallibly proclaimed masturbation a mortal sin.

No, it was a serious, complex work about the nature of moral theology. It begged closer study. It would provoke full and frank discussion in the church and beyond. ''Only time will tell,'' Commonweal writer wrote breathlessly last October, ''if the theological worldview of this encyclical will stand the test of the future.''

So it came as something of a surprise to find that Veritatis Splendor is a truly radical moral argument. If all those lamenting the lack of religion in our public life need a text from which to draw inspiration, this is it.

As you read, it's hard not to feel the thrill of the subversive, the exhilaration that comes from reading an astringent attack on conventional wisdom from unapologetically religious assumptions. The text's assault on liberal notions of morality makes Catharine A. MacKinnon look nuanced; its assertion of transcultural sources of moral authority makes James Q. Wilson look tame.

What does it say? It asserts, in what amounts to a full-scale assault on much post-Vatican II theology (and secular consensus) that the morality of an act does not inhere in its context, or its circumstance, or its intention, or its consequence, or the process by which the individual conscience comes to its decision. Its morality lies simply in the act itself; and certain acts are just wrong, forbidden, anathema, intrinsece malum in the delightful Latin phrase, always and everywhere, by anyone and everyone, now and forever. And this assertion is not an assertion; it is true, an objective fact.

Maybe you have to have taught freshman seminars in moral theory to get a real kick out of that zinger, but it got my Tridentine pulse racing.

Remember this? The origins of truth are to be found in revelation. Such truth is solely interpreted by the highest authorities in the Roman Catholic Church. It is an ''objective norm.'' It cannot

be questioned. Conscience is not wrestling with this revelation ''to decide what is good and what is evil.'' It is correctly applying it to every single act. Believing in this truth and applying it in one's life are inseparable activities.

The exemplars of this notion of the moral life, moreover, are not cuddly, fallible saints, but something a little more demanding: ''The church proposes the example of numerous saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom or who preferred death to a single mortal sin.'' Martyrs as role models? And this to a culture whose idea of sacrifice is a tough abs workout at the gym.

I am obviously simplifying. There are small concessions to such concepts as prudential judgment, different levels of consent to sin, and human frailty. The church, for example, ''must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick,'' the Holy Father writes, in a rare moment of eloquence.

Elsewhere, the tone is unmistakable. You want religion? Here it is: a ringing call to submission of the will to a higher authority, absolutist, fundamentalist, at times insanely contemptuous of human pettiness and need.

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