Politics & Policy

He Lived The Splendor of Truth

Lessons from Pope John Paul II.

In Truth and Truthfulness, published just before his death a few years ago, the famed British philosopher, Bernard Williams, noted that we live in a time when the demand for truth has never been greater. But, he added, we have never been more doubtful about our ability to reach the truth or even whether there is truth to be had. The cultural, and particularly academic, despair over truth was a very bad sign; for, if we lose hold of the truth, we may lose everything. There is an instructive convergence here between Williams, a brilliant interlocutor and settled liberal atheist, and Pope John Paul II, whose analysis of the crisis of truth in our time went well beyond anything on offer in Williams.

Indeed, in his dramatic, scholarly, and pastoral writings, but even more in the witness of his life, John Paul embodied the splendor of truth, the very phrase that served as the title for his important encyclical on moral theology (Veritatis Splendor). The pope’s writings persistently link the human good, indeed the very survival of liberal democracy, to a truthful account of the human person. Because of his direct experience of totalitarian regimes, John Paul had an acute appreciation of the role of human rights in combating political oppression. He also understood the way such regimes are propped up by systematic intellectual dishonesty and deceptive speech, the “insincere speech” Orwell so trenchantly analyzed in his masterful essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

During his tenure as pope, John Paul has repeatedly turned his attention to contemporary confusion and insincerity, particularly regarding human rights, not in totalitarian regimes, but in the advanced, western, liberal democracies. He detects a “surprising contradiction” concerning rights. Instead of continuing a trajectory of expansion of rights and greater inclusion, there is a contraction of the scope and application of rights. Instead of curbing oppression, these new formulations introduce the possibility of new and more sinister forms of tyranny. In The Gospel of Life, he wrote,

The criterion of personal dignity-which demands respect, generosity and service-is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they “are,” but for what they “have, do and produce.” This is the supremacy of the strong over the weak.

How did this come about–this strange reversal, this “surprising contradiction,” in which the modern proclamation of human dignity and the promise of expanded human rights give way to an indifference or even hostility to those most vulnerable among us?

John Paul detects both naiveté and a proclivity toward excess in the otherwise admirable modern celebration of human freedom. (The point here is not far from Tocqueville’s insight, which can be traced back to Aristotle’s study of regimes, that the exaggeration of the dominant principle of a regime can be its undoing.) There is a tendency, the pope writes, “to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values.”

To put it more precisely, the radicalization of the modern project (he does not directly address the question whether such radicalization was built into the modern project from its inception) severs the bond between freedom and truth. The result is a persistent flirtation with nihilism or what John Paul calls “the culture of death,” a temptation whose roots are masked by our continued use of the noble-sounding language of dignity and freedom. What appears to elevate and dignify actually trivializes. If there is no standard, except that bestowed upon it by the agent himself, in light of which we can appraise choices as better or worse, good or evil, then every choice is equally reasonable and good or, for that matter, equally meaningless.

In this Nietzschean context, where meaning and value are bestowed by the appraiser (Nietzsche’s penchant for the term “value” is always to be kept in mind), there is a consequent loss of any sense of a normative order of nature and supernature. Freedom is freed from nature and truth. The physical universe, even the human body itself, is “reduced to pure materiality,” raw material to be manipulated and disposed of according to the will of the human agent. This is what Walker Percy identified as the modern heresy of angelism, the denial that our bodies are shot through with moral and spiritual significance.

John Paul detects a parallel between, on the one hand, the contraction of the sphere of the properly human to those who are self-sufficient and fully autonomous and, on the other, the debasement of human sexuality and the horrifying mutation of love into sadomasochism, in which erotic relations are indistinguishable from power relations. John Paul puts it this way,

[The body] is reduced to pure materiality: it is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other’s richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts.

In a more theological key, John Paul II takes aim at a peculiarly modern dichotomy between human freedom and divine freedom. Crystallized in Kant, the assumption is that the dignity of human person consists in autonomy of self-legislation. The Pope does not go so far as Nietzsche who asserts that autonomy and morality are mutually exclusive, but he does insist that the “autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself creates values.” Kant’s technical way of framing the opposition is to contrast autonomy or self rule with heteronomy or rule by some authority or power outside of one’s rational freedom. Instead of an opposition between autonomy and heteronomy, the pope proposes what he calls theonomy, according to which human reason and will participate in God’s wisdom and providence.

It is an illusion, to which the human race has been prone since its beginning, to suppose that God’s will and human will could be located on the same plane and put in contest with one another. Instead, our very existence is a gift from God, a participation in his life and wisdom. As Augustine eloquently puts it, “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.” As much as he was an enthusiastic advocate of the dialogue between reason and faith, to which topic he devoted an encyclical, Fides et Ratio, he also knew that the most persuasive argument, the most eloquent testimony, was holiness of life.

George Weigel’s magisterial biography of John Paul II is aptly titled Witness to Hope. One could add, witness to joy in truth and to the other virtues for which the human heart so desperately longs. Anyone who has seen him in person, even amid the crowds at St. Peter’s, cannot help but be struck by his rapport with youth. A friend of mine, Dr. Tim Thibodeau, a professor of medieval church history at Nazareth College, who is often interviewed about the pope and inevitably asked about his popularity among youth, likes to respond that for many young people, the pope is the rare public figure who actually acts like an adult.

John Paul presented to youth an attractive possibility, that maturity need not mean boredom, that fidelity and responsibility might be wedded to adventure and risk, and that heroic suffering need not quench joy or hope. Looking back over his remarkable life and the physical trials of his last months, one cannot help but think of the words he wrote toward the end of The Splendor of Truth,

The life of holiness, resplendent in so many of the People of God, humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God’s love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all of the Lord’s law, even in the most difficult situations.

Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.

Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

Most Popular

Trump vs. Biden: A Rundown

One week out, the contrasts are worth assessing. Foreign policy Biden so far has issued no substantive critique of Trump’s foreign policy other than banalities that Trump’s comportment and unpredictability have offended allies and tarnished America’s reputation. But who exactly, according to Biden, is ... Read More

Trump vs. Biden: A Rundown

One week out, the contrasts are worth assessing. Foreign policy Biden so far has issued no substantive critique of Trump’s foreign policy other than banalities that Trump’s comportment and unpredictability have offended allies and tarnished America’s reputation. But who exactly, according to Biden, is ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Kavanaugh Court

If Justice Barrett votes as her mentor Justice Scalia did, she will be part of an ascendant conservative majority on the Supreme Court. What kinds of decisions can we expect from this majority? Short answer: Ask Brett Kavanaugh. Contrary to how journalists frame each seat change on the Court, comparing the new ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Kavanaugh Court

If Justice Barrett votes as her mentor Justice Scalia did, she will be part of an ascendant conservative majority on the Supreme Court. What kinds of decisions can we expect from this majority? Short answer: Ask Brett Kavanaugh. Contrary to how journalists frame each seat change on the Court, comparing the new ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Some Counterfactual Thinking

Election Day is one week away. Can you believe it? On the menu today: contemplating what would be different, and what would be the same, if Ruth Bader Ginsburg had retired in 2013 instead of staying on the Court until her death earlier this year; a couple of flubbed words on the campaign trail; yes, people really ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Some Counterfactual Thinking

Election Day is one week away. Can you believe it? On the menu today: contemplating what would be different, and what would be the same, if Ruth Bader Ginsburg had retired in 2013 instead of staying on the Court until her death earlier this year; a couple of flubbed words on the campaign trail; yes, people really ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Whose Seat?

Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed. And I think there are two little things to say about it. The first is that we very likely have in Barrett the true successor to Antonin Scalia on the Court. Barrett clerked for Scalia and her articulation of his philosophy is probably the most faithful on the court. Justices ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Whose Seat?

Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed. And I think there are two little things to say about it. The first is that we very likely have in Barrett the true successor to Antonin Scalia on the Court. Barrett clerked for Scalia and her articulation of his philosophy is probably the most faithful on the court. Justices ... Read More