I’ve spent some time this weekend re-reading the addresses and homilies that Pope Benedict has given over the last few days. They are a great gift to the Church in the
To suggest that there is a single common theme that unites all of these documents would be hubris. They are too rich to be reduced in that way. Nevertheless, I am struck by the frequency with which Benedict consistently returns to a particular theme: truth.
For Benedict, the quest for truth lies at the heart of what it means to be human. We are able to pose questions about the meaning of our existence, some of which Benedict offered when he spoke to the interfaith gathering at the
Benedict’s conviction—and it is also the Catholic conviction—is that these questions can be answered. Human beings have a nature and a destiny and that nature and destiny give fundamental shape to authentic human happiness and flourishing. What is good and evil for human beings is grounded in reality, in truth. It is not merely the reflection of the will of a legislator. Freedom, properly understood, is the freedom to fully live this nature and arrive at this destiny.
This was one of the core messages contained within Benedict’s address to the United Nations, He argued that “human rights must be respected as an expression of justice and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.” One of the reasons that Benedict is critical of utilitarian and positivist theories of rights is that they surrender the quest for truth and thus reduce truth claims to power.
Benedict is not saying, of course, that the truth about the human person can be known entirely through the use of human reason, with no reference to God. As he stated when speaking to the Catholic educators gathered at
[T]ruth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a 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 others.
There are many, of course, who do not see Jesus Christ as revealing the truth of what it is to be human. There are many reasons for this, but two emerge with particular force from a reading of Benedict’s texts. The first is an eclipse of the sense that the truth is something worth knowing and striving after. This is what lies at the heart of Benedict’s concern about a “dictatorship of relativism.” This is even the case among those, such as religious leaders, who might be expected to defend the importance of truth. In his address to the interfaith group, Benedict suggested that interfaith dialogue cannot stop at an identification of a common set of values. Attentive to the “voice of truth” we must be willing to probe the “ultimate foundation” of those values. A similar concern underlies Benedict’s remarks at the ecumenical gathering on Friday, where he criticized the notion that “there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes.”
Benedict is well aware, however, that the more fundamental reason that Christian claims have not been accepted as true is the failure of Christian witness. The contemporary crisis of truth is, as he noted, a crisis of faith. It is this understanding, I suspect, that led him to make a recognition of the harm caused by the clerical sexual abuse crisis so central to his visit here. Benedict noted repeatedly the importance of Christian witness. “Those who have hope,” he noted in his homily at
There is, of course, so much more that one could say about the past week. It seems appropriate, however, to let Benedict himself have the final word:
And this, dear friends, is the particular challenge which the Successor of Saint Peter sets before you today. As “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”, follow faithfully in the footsteps of those who have gone before you! Hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom in this land! Past generations have left you an impressive legacy. In our day too, the Catholic community in this nation has been outstanding in its prophetic witness in the defense of life, in the education of the young, in care for the poor, the sick and the stranger in your midst. On these solid foundations, the future of the Church in
must even now begin to rise! America