Truth or Consequences

In addition to books by Sr. Joan Chittister and her ilk, I also receive review copies of titles that are most welcome additions to my nightstand.

I’m finally getting around to reading Against the Grain, a new collection of essays by George Weigel that I’m enjoying immensely. 

In the context of identifying various themes from Pope John Paul II’s masterful 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year, in reference to Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum), Weigel writes:

“Freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to human goodness if freedom is not to become self-cannibalizing [footnote omitted]. If there is only ‘my’ truth and ‘your’ truth, but nothing that we both recognize as ‘the’ truth, then we have no basis on which to settle our differences other than pragmatic accommodation; then, when pragmatic accommodation fails (as it must when the issue is grave enough), either I will impose my power on you or you will impose your power on me. Truth and goodness shape the moral horizon against which the deliberations of free peoples can take place in an orderly and productive way.”

This rich passage brought to mind several ideas.

First, Pope Benedict XVI has decried the “tyranny of relativism” that plagues our culture. This passage succinctly shows how relativism indeed is a dictatorial tyrant that is neither benevolent nor tolerant.

Second, in the relativistic power struggle noted above, it is easy to see how our appeals to an objective moral law in the pro-life arena are not processed by abortion advocates as such. Rather, such appeals are dismissed as merely our subjective philosophy, value system, religious belief, etc.

Third, I thought of the Declaration of Independence, which says that we believe as “self-evident truth” that our Creator has endowed us with certain inalienable rights. It’s old news that this portion of the Declaration has become a dead letter, at least in practice. We’ve largely lost our sense of God, and so we’ve lost a sense of who we are. “Rights” are up for grabs–they’re simply creatures of the State, based on conflict and accommodation, not human dignity.

Fourth, I thought about the daily news articles about Sen. Obama’s campaign as it relates to Catholics. We’re dismayed that any Catholics, let alone a fairly significant number of outspoken Catholics, would support a candidate whose core values are so antithetical to what we supposedly hold dear. 

Many Catholics lack the formation–intellectual, philosophical, and religious–to assess the issue rightly, to tether their freedom and and their rights as citizens of the United States to moral truth. 

We can talk about withholding Communion and other ecclesiastic penalties, pulpit announcements, voter’s guides, and other possible means of addressing the issue. These actions are legitimate, but if they are perceived as coercive rather than formative, will they achieve the desired effect? 

It seems to me that virtually no “serious” Catholic (we can define that term if necessary, but I think most readers will intuit what I’m saying here) will support Sen. Obama. He would still have some Catholic supporters, but they would be in a significant minority.

Until we’re serious about raising a generation of serious Catholics, the “Catholic vote” will ebb and flow based on a range of variables, and in the end will not deviate greatly from the general population. But when most Catholics truly are “Catholic” in the sense of an ongoing commitment to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church, then the “Catholic vote” will become a more meaningful demographic indicator, and indeed a reliable compass of truth and goodness.   

2 responses

  1. At the risk of sounding like Pontius Pilate, I have to ask, what precisely do you mean by truth and goodness? I ask because even within the Christian tradition we see a variety of formulations and understandings of those two words. In many cases the referent may be realities transcending temporal human language; nevertheless, our knowledge of truth and goodness is mediated by language, language that is rooted in history, culture, and convention. So even if there is one truth to which we may point as a standard, there remains “my” formulation and “your” formulation of that truth. Sometimes these formulations are compatible, sometimes not. How as a society do we decide whose formulation is the official formulation? Which formulation should the basis for settling our differences?

  2. Kyle,

    Obviously George Weigel himself would be the best person to answer this question, as I was quoting his commentary on JPII’s social encyclicals.

    Surely the positing of objective truth doesn’t exclude diverse subjective understandings. This is especially true in areas where the natural moral law has been amplified by the Gospel, which not all people have as a point of reference.

    In fact, Weigel’s quote presupposes differences even when both sides accept the existence of “the” truth. The difference is that when both sides recognize the existence of objective truth, there is going to be some common ground for rational truth-seeking. The “tyranny” of relativism does not allow for such a possibility.

    As we move closer to things like truth and goodness, we’re getting closer to God. So, while Weigel doesn’t make this point explicitly, I think the radical atheism that wants to remove “God-talk” from public discussion drives a lot of this, as it pushes to make reference to objective truth even on a merely philosophical level inadmissible in social discourse.

    If our formulations of the same truth are incompatible, then it seems that at least one of us doesn’t accurately understand the truth. It’s one thing if I say an object in the distance is blue and you, with a better vantage point than I, are able to more specifically say it’s powder blue. Those two viewpoints are “compatible.”

    However, if I say an object is blue and you say it’s red, we can’t both be right. At least if we accept on a philosophical level that there is an objectively true answer to the question of this object’s color, we can work in good faith to find the cause of this discrepancy or lack of “compatibility.”

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