There were many remarkable aspects to Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to America. Among those not remarked upon, however, were two that stand out:
1) the degree to which Benedict’s message matched Pope John Paul II’s message in the latter’s profound 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), and
2) the degree to which that message continues to resonate with so many Americans struggling to find and bring truth to our post-modern culture, including non-Catholic Americans.
On Aug. 6, 1993, the Feast of the Transfiguration, John Paul II, 15 years into his pontificate, issued Veritatis Splendor from St. Peter’s Square. Summarizing the encyclical in a few words is difficult — a failure to do it due justice. The first time I read the encyclical, as a Protestant, I was blown away but its poetic richness, its erudition, its seamless integration of faith and reason, its roots in centuries and millennia of earlier Church writings, its superiority to anything I was reading at “Christian” (read: Protestant) bookstores, and the immediate sense to myself that — yes, wow, indeed — it seemed that the Holy Spirit was speaking through the Catholic Church.
Or, as the encyclical itself explained to me, there was a “deposit of faith” that had unfolded “down through the centuries,” making its way through the Church’s magisterium, and presumably now into writings like this one (see John 16: 12-13).
I did not at the time totally understand all of that, but I grasped enough for it to throw me for a loop. It was an awakening to me, as I would learn it had been for other non-Catholics as well.
Among those non-Catholics, I later learned, was the economist and political pundit Lawrence Kudlow, who, by his own account, had bottomed out in life in the early 1990s, grappling with drug addiction, an emptiness that could not be satisfied by the materialism of Wall Street, and a lack of faith-upbringing in his life. Kudlow, too, read Veritatis Splendor, and had a Saul-like experience, a total conversion that saved his life and his soul.
The heart of the message of Veritatis Splendor is that truth is found in the Truth of Jesus Christ. The splendor of truth, or the light of truth, is found in him, that splendor, and that light, as he is Truth itself.
Individuals must discover that utterly liberating Truth. The salient theme in the encyclical is man’s relationship to truth and freedom, and that “freedom” does not mean license. Freedom should never mean, as noted in Galatians 5:13, mere opportunities for the flesh.
With freedom — especially the kind of freedom that Christ brings — comes responsibility. Freedom must be “in obedience to the divine law.”
To that end, there is, in particular, one section of Veritatis Splendor that sounds exactly like what Benedict said throughout his visit to America.
At the start of Chapter 3, John Paul II quoted himself from a 1986 speech he gave on moral theology. The Holy Father stated: “This essential bond between Truth, the Good and Freedom, has been largely lost sight of by present-day culture. As a result, helping man to rediscover it represents nowadays one of the specific requirements of the Church’s mission for the salvation of the world. Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth,’ reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes and where he is going. Hence we not infrequently witness the fearful plunging of the human person into gradual self-destruction. According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value. … The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil.”
“This,” concluded John Paul, we call “relativism,” and it is that moral confusion that predominates and infests individuals and their culture today.
Compare this to what Pope Benedict XVI said at the youth rally in Yonkers, N.Y., before a crowd of 25,000:
“Some today argue that respect for freedom of the individual makes it wrong to seek truth, including the truth about what is good. In some circles to speak of truth is seen as controversial or divisive, and consequently best kept secret in the private sphere. And in truth’s place — or better said, its absence — an idea has spread which, in giving value to everything indiscriminately, claims to assure freedom and to liberate conscience. This we call relativism.
“But what purpose has a ‘freedom’ that, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false or wrong? How many young people have been offered a hand that in the name of freedom or experience has led them to addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair, and so tragically and sadly to the taking of their own life?”
In other words, as John Paul II put it, to gradual self-destruction.
Benedict continued: “Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is the discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being.”
For a sense of how this message has once again resonated, now in Benedict’s time, consider that even Rush Limbaugh, a non-Catholic, and the man who for two decades has set broadcasting records with America’s largest radio-talk show and who typically refuses to talk theology, led his April 21 broadcast with an extended analysis of precisely these words by Benedict — and, in fact, posted them on his website.
“I said earlier that the Pope knows more about American history than a lot of Americans do,” Limbaugh said. “He does love this country, and he knows more about what’s happening here cultural, the challenges the country faces than a lot of Americans do.”
He played a sound bite of Pope Benedict speaking of freedom.
He commented: “The relativists don’t want there to be any bad; they don’t want there to be any wrong. … You are free to do whatever you want, and anybody who condemns you is to be called on it. Now, the concept of freedom is not that. That is not what freedom is. Not in terms of our founding and not in terms of the way the pope was speaking about it here.”
He played a soundbite of Benedict’s farewell “May God bless America!” followed by wild cheers and applause and, laughing, said:
”Is that not great? That is just great. Did you hear that applause erupt? Here’s somebody... I mean, iGod bless America’ is said by rote all the time by people. It is interpreted as by rote, just perfunctory. When he says it, you know he means it. It sounds special.”
Agreeing, and likewise fascinated, was the president of the United States. It was quite telling than in his opening remarks welcoming the Holy Father with an unprecedented ceremony on the White House lawn, President George W. Bush zeroed in on Benedict’s warnings — articulated in his final days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — about a “dictatorship of relativism.”
Bush, another non-Catholic, realizes that the Pope’s diagnosis could not be more accurate. And as any Google search will attest, he was just one among thousands, if not millions, deeply indebted to the insight.
The timeless truths about humanity’s proper relationship to freedom, and ultimate relationship to Truth itself, remains more poignant now than ever. Pope John Paul II understood that and so does Pope Benedict XVI.
Not all Americans sense it, which is why Benedict said what he said during his papal visit.
The message continues to redound upon a country and culture — and world — that badly needs it.
Paul Kengor is author of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007). He is professor of political science at Grove City College.