"Veritatis Splendor" ("The Splendor of Truth"), Pope John Paul II's new encyclical on the moral life, is a bold reaffirmation of the human capacity to know the right thing and do the right thing. But that bracing message, which should hearten any sensitive spirit in this century of Auschwitz and the Gulag, could be obscured by the American obsession with the politics of sex.
While the encyclical briefly discusses sexual morality and challenges the libertinism that often characterizes the "sexual revolution," it is far, far more than another tired critique of the Playboy philosophy. There is no prudery here, but rather a sophisticated Christian humanism that celebrates the beauty and mystery of human sexuality even as it reminds us of the importance of self-discipline, respect for others and conjugal fidelity.
Moreover, the Pope is pressing some prior moral questions right down to first principles. What is the good life? How should we live? What is the right thing? According to many philosophers and not a few theologians, we have no compelling answers to those questions today, no answers we can know to be true.
The radical claim of "Veritatis Splendor" is that those questions can be answered and we can know that the answers are true: not by rote submission to religious authoritarianism, but because human beings have the capacity to discern the truth of things and the ability to act on that discernment. We can do the right thing because we can know the right thing to do.
That, to put it mildly, is an intrepid affirmation in today's cultural climate, in which a benign skepticism and relativism are frequently thought to be the best that we can do. John Paul insists that we can do better because we are better. And he believes we have to do better, if our freedom is to support genuine human flourishing.
How can we do better? By recognizing that there is a moral logic built into the world and into us: a "natural law" that we can grasp by a disciplined reflection on the dynamics of human action.
In exploring this moral logic, John Paul is not given to dry abstractions. Rather, his understanding of the good life has emerged from a respectful examination of the ways in which real-life men and women act and react, live and love, fail, get up and try again.
"Veritatis Splendor" is the furthest thing possible from a scolding or a put-down. On the contrary, it is because John Paul takes the human drama so seriously that he is willing to make so daring a claim about the human capacity, under grace, to live a good life. Of course, we often fail to do the right thing. But the fact of failure--of sin, if you will--seems to John Paul no reason to lower the moral standard, for doing so diminishes our humanity and demeans our striving for goodness.
The encyclical also makes clear that the church is, was, and always will be a church of sinners who live by mercy and forgiveness alone. No one is being driven out of the Catholic Church by "Veritatis Splendor"; everyone in the church is being asked to accept Christianity as a comprehensive way of life, not a package of consumer options.
The central teaching of "Veritatis Splendor"--that we can know and do the right thing--is emphatically not for Catholics only. Americans need only look around to see the damage that moral relativism and skepticism can wreak on human lives: among the bored and disaffected suburban young, in the violence- and drug-plagued underclass, in children having children, in spousal and child abuse, in workplace sloth and boardroom fraud. Can we sustain the American experiment in ordered liberty if the only thing we agree upon is the rules by which we sue each other? Isn't some fundament of moral consensus essential in a free society? Doesn't democracy depend on enough people being willing to do the right thing?
These concerns can hardly be dismissed as retrograde, unenlightened, "conservative." After all, it was the greatest of 19th-Century English Catholic liberals, Lord Acton, who taught that "freedom is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought." John Paul II agrees. The proposition is surely worth a serious look.