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Photo: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in September 2014. Credit: Joaquin Piero Perez/CNA.
By JD Flynn,
This week, First Things published “The Splendor of Truth in 2017”, an essay by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia on St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on fundamental questions regarding the Church’s moral teaching, Veritatis splendor.
In an interview with Catholic News Agency’s editor in chief JD Flynn, Archbishop Chaput discussed the enduring importance of Veritatis splendor:
You’ve written that “the wisdom of Veritatis splendor is more urgently needed than ever.” Why? What problems have compounded since its release?
We live in a liquid time. That’s how the late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman described it: “liquid modernity.” Changes in technology, science and culture now happen very rapidly. It’s hard to find firm ground where we can stand and make sense of things. The resulting confusion can undermine our beliefs about the meaning of our lives. It becomes easy to think that the basic character of the world, the nature of good and evil, the moral standards for human behavior, have somehow changed and become more ambiguous, more dependent on circumstances. But they haven’t.
Permanent truths about right and wrong govern our lives. The genius of Veritatis splendor is how persuasively it reminds us of that fact, and calls us back to what Augustine called the “tranquility of order” in our souls.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Reformation lately because we mark its 500th anniversary next month. It’s striking how closely the moods of then and now resemble each other – not in the specific details, but the general spirit of unrest and anticipation. Something’s coming. People can feel it, some sort of “second Reformation” or deep realignment in the way we engage each other and the world. That’s a great opportunity for Christian hope and witness. Of course it also comes with some perils. This makes a strong grasp of truth all the more vital.
Nearly 25 years later, how has Veritatis splendor been received in the Church in the United States?
People have a natural thirst for solid ground and clarity. Among faithful young Catholic scholars, it’s been received very well. Actually, like water in a desert.
Has it had its intended effect? What fruit has it borne in the Church and in the world?
There’s been a long civil war in the Church over the meaning of Vatican II. It’s still with us. It probably won’t end until my generation – the boomers – moves on, because persons who actually lived through the council years tend to have a deep investment in their particular version of what the council did and meant.
Veritatis splendor is very much a fruit of the [Second Vatican] Council. Its immense value is its reaffirmation of the existence of permanent truths, its rejection of moral ambiguity, and the beauty of its presentation of truth as a source of Christian freedom and joy. So I don’t have any doubt that it will be remembered as one of the great papal contributions to Catholic life and thought.
Pope Francis has often warned against “moral pharisaism.” Is he criticizing the kind of moralistic legalism that John Paul II addressed in Veritatis splendor and elsewhere?
Pope Francis is exactly right that a religion which exhausts itself in moral rules and intellectual doctrines is dead and deadening. The heart of our faith is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and then living out Christ’s love in the way we treat others. If we don’t do that, then our faith is really just an empty shell.
But Jesus also clearly said that he didn’t come to abolish the commandments or absolve anyone from the obligations of God’s law. That’s because God’s law is an expression of God’s love, even when it makes us uncomfortable. The laws of right and wrong are guide-rails meant to lead us to self-mastery, freedom and joy.
How should ordinary Catholics understand the relationship between truth, freedom, and happiness? How should this impact the way the Church “accompanies” those impacted by moral relativism?
Jesus said it himself: The truth will make us free. He also said that he himself is the way, the truth and the life – the source of lasting happiness. If we don’t know and walk with Jesus, everything else in our religious life is just noise. But note that Jesus accompanies us with a specific purpose: to love us, teach us and lead us home to heaven. Likewise, that’s our privilege and task with others. We need to listen to and understand the burdens of others, and treat them with prudence and respect. But there’s no real love, no authentic mercy, in remaining silent with those we accompany when they need to hear the truth.
What does Veritatis splendor have to say to the most visible moral issues of our time: especially abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and confusion about gender identity?
Issues like the redefinition of marriage and turmoil over gender identity were much less prominent 25 years ago. John Paul did speak frequently against abortion and eloquently in defense of the sanctity of life, especially in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Veritatis splendor is really about the framework, the basic architecture, of Catholic moral reasoning rather than specific issues. So it serves as a foundation for those other crucial matters, and it’s doubly important for that reason.
You write about totalitarianism caused by “casuistry, poisonous political thought, and systematic intellectual deceit” in other parts of the world. Can the United States stave that off? How do Catholics undertake their political responsibilities in a dramatically changing political and cultural landscape?
Democracy has a built-in capacity for tyranny. Tocqueville saw that clearly and said so in Democracy in America. In the United States, that natural drift toward tyranny has always been checked by the widespread practice of religious faith. As faith declines, the totalitarian current in democracy grows. Progressive political thought — or more accurately, thought that styles itself as “progressive” – can have a deeply intolerant streak. And that’s what we’re seeing now in the public discourse around sexual behavior and identity, marriage and the family, and religious liberty.
When a nation loses a firm sense of truth and its obligations, what remains, all that remains, is power and the struggle to get it. That’s reality, and democracies have no magic immunity to reality.