How, in your role as citizens, will you make appeals to the natural moral law in a culture that increasingly refuses to acknowledge that there is anything properly called “human nature,” even in such elemental matters as maleness and femaleness, their complementarity and fruitfulness? How, in your marriages, will you live that first of human vocations in a society that treats marriage as a mere contract for mutual convenience? How, in your role as parents, will you instill in the next generation an understanding of, and a deep appreciation for, the fact that there are deep truths built into the world and into us? That freedom is not mere willfulness? That life is not just the pursuit of pleasure? That nobility and compassion and justice are the true measure of a life well lived? How, for those of you who choose the sacred ministry or consecrated religious life, will you live the vows of your ordination or consecration in a culture that often mocks the very idea of the divine and that tells you at every turn that fidelity is a great nonsense?
As you learn, often through hard experience, how to play the difficult role that history has set before you — the role of being the lead generation in an evangelical Catholicism that is a culture-reforming counterculture — keep in mind some of the essentials that the good teaching you have been given here have helped you make your own. Keep in mind what brave men like the Czech dissidents Václav Havel and Václav Benda taught the West during the last years of the Cold War: that it is possible, even amidst severe difficulties, to “live in the truth,” and that living in the truth is the greatest of human adventures. Keep in mind that John Paul II, when asked what he judged to be the most important word in the Holy Scriptures, immediately responded, “Truth.”
And keep in mind what the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition in which you have been immersed here at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen has taught you about the truth: that truth is accessible; that truth is symphonic; and that truth is liberating.
Truth is accessible. I’ve often wondered what would happen if one took both a copy of John Paul II’s defense of reason — the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio — and a tachometer to the Panthéon of Paris and placed them on Voltaire’s tomb. How fast would Voltaire be spinning in his grave if he were to learn that “the Infamy” which he had called enlightened men to “crush” had become the world’s foremost institutional defender of the prerogatives of reason to get at the truth of things? There are, as sociologist Peter Rossi used to say, many ironies in the fire.
Still, for the sake of the West and of America, you must play the perhaps unchosen role of being men and women who insist, calmly and reasonably, that there is not simply “your truth” and “my truth”: that there is, in reality, something properly called “the truth” — something which we can access, if imperfectly and incompletely, through the arts of reason. For if there is only your truth and my truth and neither one of us recognizes anything as the truth, then against what horizon of judgment, or by what standard, will we settle our differences when your truth comes into conflict with my truth? There isn’t any such horizon or standard. So either you will impose your power on me, or I will impose my power on you. Nietzsche, the mad prophet of postmodernity, saw this coming; Joseph Ratzinger prophetically labeled it the “dictatorship of relativism”; Pope Francis has described it as a world-without-peace because “everyone is his own criterion.” But the civilization of the West cannot long endure with only “your truth” and “my truth,” so it will be your role to reteach our culture that truth is accessible.
Truth is symphonic. Fragmentation and disintegration are among the chief characteristics of our intellectual life today: Everything is in bits and pieces; nothing fits together; there is no “frame” in which the parts can be composed into a whole. Little wonder that cynicism, skepticism, and irony are prominent features in our 21st-century Western culture. In the face of all that, the Catholic intellectual tradition insists that, amidst real plurality, there is also pluralism: a symphony of truth in which the various instruments by which we apprehend what is true and good and beautiful play together melodiously, not in a cacophony of dissonance. And that which forms plurality into pluralism, individuals into community, fragments of intellectual stone into a cosmatesque mosaic of symphonic truth, is love: the love which is the basis of the unity of the Church; the ecclesial love, itself an expression of Trinitarian love, in which the world may glimpse the unity for which it yearns, but which it never finds on its own.