Pope John Paul II’s ‘Splendor of Truth’ Is Inextinguishable in Education

COMMENTARY: Education should be a corrective of the problems that besiege society, not a conformity to them.

Pope John Paul II in 1979
Pope John Paul II in 1979 (photo: Vatican Media)

The opening paragraph of Pope St. Pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) provides a virtual synopsis of what he subsequently explicates at considerable length and in a highly detailed way. 

“The splendor of truth,” he writes, “shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: ‘Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord’ (Psalm 4:6).”

These are indeed encouraging words. Truth is not only available to us, but it “shines forth.” It provides the basis for the freedom to know what is good so that we can love both neighbor and God. The order of values is critical. Truth is primary, from which freedom becomes meaningful, enlightening us with regard to what is good. 

Pope John Paul, ever confident about man’s ability to know the truth, goes on to say that “no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away the light of God the Creator. In the depths of his heart there is always a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it.”

To begin with freedom is to begin in vain. By multiplying doors ad infinitum, no one knows which door to enter. Such unbounded freedom points nowhere. 

“Only the freedom which submits to the Truth,” John Paul writes in Veritatis Splendor, “leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth” (84).

The neglect of truth is a widespread error in the current world of higher education. It is an error that is easy to see, though difficult to correct. 

As professor Hadley Arkes of Amherst College has remarked, “Over the past 25 years, every taxi driver knows [that] our universities have become seminaries in a new orthodoxy of moral relativism.” 

Instead of recognizing truth as the North Star of education, universities pander to the egalitarian heresy that each person has his own truth. On the other hand, many of the great institutions of learning in the past have expressed such regard for truth that they have inscribed it in their mottos. Consequently, we find that the word “truth” (veritas) frequently appearing in their mottos. 

I offer a brief, but illuminating sample of such inscriptions: 

· University of Arkansas: Veritate Duce Progredi (“to advance with truth as our guide”); 

· Benedict College: Veritas et Virtus (“truth and virtue”); 

· Brandeis University: אמת (“truth, even unto its innermost parts”); 

· Colgate University: Deo ac Veritati (“for God and truth”); 

· University of Dallas: Veritatem, Justitia, Diligite (“Love ye truth and justice”); 

· Harvard University: Veritas (“truth”); 

· Grinnell College: Veritas et Humanitas (“truth and humanity”); 

· Indiana University: Lux et Veritas (“light and truth”); 

· Johns Hopkins University: Veritas vos Liberabit (“The truth shall make you free”); 

· Mississippi College: Veritas et Virtus (“truth and virtue”); 

· Northwestern University: Quaecumquae Sunt Vera (“whatever things are true”); 

· University of Pittsburgh: Veritas et Virtus (“truth and virtue”); 

· Providence College: Veritas (“truth”); 

· University of Tennessee: Veritatem Cognoscetis et Veritas nos Liberat (“You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free”); 

· Villanova University: Veritas, Unitas, Caritas (“truth, unity, love”); 

· Yale University: Lux et Veritas: (“light and truth”)

Many centers of learning today, in an attempt to address contemporary problems directly, begin with factors that are neither values in themselves nor even coherent. The triumvirate of “diversity, equity and inclusivity” has been given a status that is wholly unwarranted and is actually an enemy to education. Both “diversity” as well as “inclusivity,” taken literally, would welcome contradictory members. I do not think it is a good idea to mix neo-Nazis with the Ku Klux Klan, Quakers and the Taliban. Diversity and Inclusivity are without limits and, if carried out, would invite mayhem.

Even if the university brought together an agreeable diversity of students, the critical question remains: What do you then do with them? The trio of fashionable and politically correct terms, provided it exercises some trimmings, is more suitable as an admission policy. But after admission, would there be education? Diversity without a unifying factor breeds chaos; inclusivity without limitations leads to infighting.

Education must begin with the quest for truth. The attempt to correct discrimination by discriminating is doomed to failure. Examples in Canada are numerous. The Department of Computer Science at the University of Victoria is seeking to hire a faculty member with preference for candidates from three designated groups: “indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, or women.” No diversity or inclusivity here. 

York University is offering up to four scholarships annually to applicants “who self-identify as Black or indigenous.” McGill University, as an attempt to fight racism, gives “preference to candidates who self-identity as Black.” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that we judge people “by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin” does not apply in these instances.

Political correctness is not only discriminatory toward applicants, but also toward faculty members. Anthony Esolen was a bright light at Providence College (whose motto, as noted above, is Veritas). He is the author of some 25 books, including a three-volume translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He was pressured to leave his position at the school because he did not have the politically correct notion of “diversity.” He happily accepted the wonderful diversity evident in God’s creation. At the same time, he found problems with the politicized notion of diversity that excludes dissenters. Student and faculty protests, plus a lack of support from the school’s president, made it clear that this accomplished scholar was not wanted at Providence. He is currently a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire.

Education should be a corrective of the problems that besiege society, not a conformity to them. That should go without saying. The “cancel culture” movement, however, is ill-disposed to such lofty ideas as “truth.” But truth is not so much “lofty” as it is basic. 

Without truth, we are in the dark. Moreover, truth, because of its inherent splendor, is not all that hard to find. It is living by the truth that is difficult. And that is why several schools of higher learning combine truth and virtue in their inspiring mottos.

As St. John Paul explains, “If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people.” It is unavoidable, if preferences are allowed to various groups, that their self-interest would “inevitably set them in opposition to one another” (99). 

In failing to acknowledge the primacy of truth, power then takes over, “and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others.” We see this being played out in the current wave of critical race theory in which students in the United States are taught to hate their country as well as each other.

St. Paul warns us not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). Veritatis Splendor provides an excellent starting point for education. At the same time, it offers a corrective of efforts to adapt education to the ways of the world. It is also consistent with the great tradition of the West that combines faith and reason, science and religion, and mind and heart.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Ontario, Canada, and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut.