Crisis Magazine 1998

The Truth of Truth

Published December 1, 1998
DEAL W. HUDSON

In his previous encyclicals, the Holy Father has shown how truth has a moral beauty that shines through the lives of the saints. Now, in Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), our philosopher-pope explains why that light no longer shines through the work of most philosophers, as well as the corrosive effects of that darkness on our culture. Moving beyond the destructive moral and political consequences of bad ideas, John Paul II takes on the state of philosophy itself: its loss of true metaphysical inquiry and its lack of confidence in, of all things, intelligence.

Parents in recent decades have become increasingly concerned about the effect of post-secondary education on their children’s core beliefs—and perhaps for better reason than they know. The pervasive mentality of today’s academy encourages, whether intentionally or not, precisely the nihilism that John Paul II finds at the heart of postmodern philosophy and all its scholarly corollaries.

Of course some academics will defend themselves by claiming that they are taking the Socratic high road of questioning and fostering dialogue. The trouble is that the postmodern technique of deconstruction—the radical denial of intelligible order in reality—goes far beyond challenging a youthful mind with reasonable doubt. Even Descartes employed his method of doubt to reaffirm the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. In the hands of its postmodern practitioners, Socratic questioning has become an endless array of objections leading to the removal of all foundations for knowledge, except politics. It is as if Aquinas’s articles started with the objections and ended with the front page of the New York Times.

The student deserves more than to be persuaded to adopt an attitude of permanent alienation and perfect docility to the pressures of public opinion. As the Holy Father writes, “Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth that confers a certitude no longer open to doubt.”

The meanings of all these crucial terms—finality, truth, and certitude—have no place in postmodernism except as evidence of unenlightened prejudice. Such old-fashioned attitudes have to be removed so that human action can be judged, not from the vantage point of natural law, but from the perspective of the dominant ideology and the media establishment it controls.

Fides et Ratio reminds the Catholic world that the Magisterium still reveres the capacity of the human mind to achieve a fundamental “consonance” with objective reality. The stirring passages of Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris (1879) sound strongly through the pages of the present encyclical. Yet we hear not only the Thomistic harmonies of faith and reason, but also those perpetually pertinent Augustinian chords reminding us of the necessity of releasing intelligence from its bondage to the bad habits of the flesh: “The coming of Christ was the saving event which [set reason] free from the shackles in which it has imprisoned itself.”

Because truth itself is passed on between parents and children, teachers and students, priest and parishioner, the divorce between character and truth-telling cannot be accepted. Truth and sanctity demand one another. Thus the pope suggests that if our arguments have failed to transform the culture we should begin by examining ourselves

Looking at the authentic witness of the martyrs, he recalls how their words continue to inspire us because “from the moment they speak to us of what we perceive deep down as the truth we have sought for so long, the martyrs provide evidence of a love that has no need of lengthy arguments in order to convince.”

Although aimed at those who control Catholic education in schools, universities, and seminaries, the lessons of Fides et Ratio are far from abstract. Truth is handed on through the traditions of family and community as much, or more, than it is through formal learning. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of postmodernism is its attack on the instinctive and intuitive learning that results from the relationships of love and trust in the natural hierarchies existing through our social fabric.

Our culture, by its apparent acceptance of the divorce between private behavior and public trust, has revealed its postmodern character. Not only can we not know the truth, we cannot live it—we are only capable of advocating politically correct policies. And, even then, a pro-feminist president is not expected to avoid sexually harassing his staff. Social standards have fallen so far that even seasoned Beltway pundits are shocked. Once again, however, it is John Paul II alone among world leaders who stands at the threshold of hope.