"Veritas Vincit": The Pope in Prague | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | October 28, 2009
Veritas Vincit: The Pope in Prague | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | October 28, 2009
"The Presidential flag flying over Prague Castle proclaims
the motto 'Pravda Vítezí'–[Veritas
Vincit] the Truth wins" -- Benedict XVI,
Arrival at Prague Airport, September 26, 2009.
"Europe is more than a continent. It is a home! And freedom
finds its deepest meaning in a spiritual homeland. With full respect for the
distinction between the political realm and that of religion...I wish to
underline the irreplaceable role of Christianity for the formation of the
conscience of each generation and the promotion of a basic ethical consensus
that serves every person who calls this continent, 'home...' I acknowledge the
voice of those who today across this country and continent, seek to apply their
faith respectfully yet decisively in the public arena, in the expectation that
social norms and policies be informed by the desire to live by the truth that
sets every man and woman free." -- Benedict XVI, Address to Diplomatic Corps,
Prague Castle, September 26, 2009.
"Man needs to be liberated from material oppression, but
more profoundly, he must be saved from the evils that afflict the spirit." --
Benedict XVI, Brno, Moravia, September 27, 2009.
Gradually, Benedict XVI is covering the world in his
visits—Germany, France, Angola, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Turkey, Israel,
Poland, United States, Cameroons and Austria. Prague is not so far from Munich
and Regensburg in Germany. It is often called the heart of Europe, the second
city of the old Holy Roman Empire. Prague is a beautiful city, somehow one that
has escaped the wars of modern times. At his arrival at the Prague airport, the
Pope mentioned "the significant part played by the Czech lands in Europe's
intellectual, cultural and religious history, sometimes as a battleground, more
often as a bridge."
The Pope often was reminded of the experience of the Czech
people under communist rule. He listed their saints—Cyril, Methodius,
Wenceslaus, Adalbert, John Nepomuk, Agnes of Bohemia, and Ludmila. He
acknowledged Gregor Mendel the Augustinian monk from Moravia "whose pioneering
research laid the foundations of modern genetics." He cites Kafka. He quotes
Václav Havel: "Dictatorship is based on falsehood, and if falsehood is
overcome, if no one lies any longer and if the truth comes to light, there is
also freedom." Benedict rarely talks of freedom without first and last talking
On September 26, with the Diplomatic Corps, the Pope and the
Czech President, Václav Klaus, listened to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in
the elegant Presidential Hall of the Castle. The Pope often refers to the
origins and unity of Europe with its roots in Christianity. "Every generation
has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to
order human affairs seeking the proper use
of human freedom." The Pope even cites the first chapters of Aristotle's Ethics, that all things seek the good while the common good
is itself more "divine" though not opposed to one's own good which is itself
included in the common good. "Truth...is the guiding norm for freedom, and
goodness is freedom's perfection." The good seeks the perfection of the each
being that is good in what it is.
An abiding theme of Benedict is "What is Europe?" "Its
Christian roots have nourished a remarkable spirit of forgiveness,
reconciliation and cooperation which has enabled the people of these lands to
find freedom and to usher in a new beginning, a new synthesis, a renewal of
hope. Is it not precisely that spirit that contemporary Europe requires?" We
forget sometimes that forgiveness and reconciliation are themselves
innovations. They are not particularly obvious as personal and public means of
order. They must be learned and witnessed to. At some point, the only way to
stop injustice from perpetuating itself is the route of forgiveness.
Benedict realizes that truth needs courage. "Courage to
articulate the truth in fact serves all members of society by shedding light on
the path of human progress, indicating its ethical and moral foundations, and
ensuring that public policy draws upon the treasury of human wisdom.
Sensibility to universal truth should never be eclipsed by particular
interests, important though they may be...." Often it takes more courage to speak
the truth in public than to die for it. Perhaps this result is one of the
effects of the modern liberal state's refusal ever to kill its Socrates. It
does not kill him; it ignores him.
"The pursuit of truth makes consensus possible, keeps public
debate logical, honest and accountable, and ensures the unity which vague
notions of integration simply cannot achieve." This is a strong statement.
Consensus is achieved not by denying that truth exists. This is the effect of
much modern tolerance theory. We can agree because nothing is true. Such a view
provides no ground for logic and public accountability. Vagueness is really a
cover for not knowing or wanting to know.
"The creative encounter of classical tradition and the
Gospel," Benedict remarked, "gave birth to a vision of man and society
attentive to God's presence among us .... Europe, in fidelity to her Christian
roots, has a particular vocation to uphold this transcendent vision in her
initiatives to serve the common good of individuals, communities, and nations."
Europe is an ordered fusing together of Hebrew and Christian revelation before
the Greek philosophical tradition, the Roman law, and the new barbarian peoples
who moved into the late Empire to become inheritors of all these traditions. But
what holds them all together is what Christianity is. Without it, as we often
see, Europe betrays itself.
In St. Vitus Cathedral at Vespers, Benedict, reflecting on
the immediate past of the country he visits, explained, "It is not easy to live
and bear witness to the Gospel. Society continues to suffer from the wounds
caused by atheist ideology, and it is often seduced by the modern mentality of
hedonism, consumerism amid a dangerous crisis of human and religious values and
a growing drift towards ethical and cultural relativism." The pervasive
influence of a disordered culture is acknowledged here. It is not easy to live
the Gospel. We are drawn away easily enough if we are not sure of our grounds.
At Brno in Moravia on September 27, Benedict repeated a
familiar thesis of his, namely, that nothing can be just "handed down" from one
generation to another. Each person has his own autonomy, his own reason and
will. He must freely accept what he understands to be handed down. He can
reject it. "Freedom has constantly to be won over to the cause of good, and the
arduous search for the 'right way to order human affairs' is a task that belongs to all generations." We are
free to reject the good. Our history attests to this, as does our conscience.
Yet, if there is a task for all generations, it is precisely to find "the right
way to order human affairs." This is our kind's inner-worldly task, one at
which it often fails.
Recalling themes from his great encyclical Spe Salvi on the nature of modern political eschatology,
Benedict explained: "In fact, in the modern age both faith and hope have
undergone a 'shift,' because they have been relegated to the private and
other-worldly sphere, while in day to day public life confidence in scientific
and economic progress has been affirmed. We all know that this progress is
ambiguous: it opens up possibilities for good as well as evil." Faith and hope
in the supernatural sense have become private, but faith and hope in the
political sense have replaced the Christian concept of everlasting life. There
is no future for the individual. There is only future for the collectivity down
the ages, which may or may not happen. Individual persons are left aside as
means to some inner-worldly end down the ages.
Before the Ecumenical Council of the Czech Republic in Brno,
Benedict also said that "attempts to marginalize the influence of Christianity
upon public live—sometimes under the pretext that its teachings are
detrimental to the well-being of society—are emerging in new forms."
Benedict is quite insistent on a public presence of Christianity in the
political order. It is not another party or movement, to be sure. But demands a
public presence with the freedom to state what it is before the country and the
nations in fair circumstances. Religion is not simply "private." It inspires a
way of life, a way of life that is itself of value and worth to any public
order. Religion "renders" to Caesar, but Caesar is not everything.
What is in American terms is usually called "the separation
of church and state" is really too facile. "Artificial separation of the Gospel
from intellectual and public life" is a major problem. It is in public that
individual persons need to know their final end is not politics itself. Christ
is our salvation, not the state. All the state can do is to provide an arena in
which we can work out our final destiny. This "working-out" is ultimately what
the civil order is for, though it is its own end and can itself be reflective
of a higher order.
The Pope returns to the European question: "As Europe
listens to the story of Christianity, she hears her own. Her notions of
justice, freedom and social responsibility, together with the cultural and
legal institutions established to preserve these ideas and hand them on to
future generations, are shaped by her Christian inheritance." The Pope speaks
this way because European diplomats are busy denying such historical Christian
roots. Europe wants Christian ways without Christian belief. It won't happen.
Catholicism is not an "ism." It is open in its philosophy
and theology to what is there. "Precisely because the Gospel is not an
ideology, it does not presume to lock evolving socio-political realities into
rigid schemata. Rather, it transcends the vicissitudes of the world and casts
new light on the dignity of the human person." We do not know God's ways. As
David Walsh has shown, however, modern thought has itself always become
uncomfortable with its own certitudes. They were closed systems that claimed to
know all of reality, but without the help of revelation. The "new dignity of
the human person" is nothing less than his eternal life, offered to each
existing human person at the price of his openness to truth and good,
themselves embodied in the person of the Word made flesh.
On September 27, at a meeting with Czech academics in Prague
Castle, Benedict returned to that institution he made so central in his
"Regensburg Lecture," namely the university and its origins. "The freedom that
underlies the exercise of reason—be it in a university or in the
Church—has a purpose: it is directed to the pursuit of truth, and as such
gives expression to a tenet of Christianity which in fact gave rise to the
university." The university arose in the climate of the claims to truth found
in both reason and revelation, a fact alone that suggests why they belong
together in the same institution.
Benedict never fails to recall the classical wing of the
Christian mind. "From the time of Plato, education has been not merely the
accumulation of knowledge or skills, but paideia, human formation in the treasures of an intellectual tradition
directed to a virtuous life." The Pope said in Spe Salvi that the classical philosopher was not a professor.
He was a man who sought the truth as a way of life. Virtue itself enables us to
be free enough to choose what is good when we encounter it. But it is not
something we make for ourselves. It is something we find, something given to
We can speak of an "authentic humanitas." This is nothing less than the "perfection of the
individual within the unity of a well-ordered society." The well-ordered
society will mean little if the souls of the citizens are not also
well-ordered. It is not the state that is saved, but individuals who have lived
in sundry states while they passed through this world. Our world is full of
information, with little truth. There are those "who indiscriminately give
equal value to practically everything." If everything is equal, the distinction
between good and evil quickly becomes blurred. That it become so blurred is no
doubt one of the purposes of modern relativism, to which subject the Pope often
But this relativism is itself contradictory. It cannot be
true that all is relative to time or concept. "This confidence in the human
ability to seek truth, to find truth and to live by the truth led to the
foundations of the great European universities." Some universities, like
Harvard, have "Veritas" itself as their
motto. This motto first came from the Apostle John, who said that we shall know
the truth, veritas, and that
alone shall make us free. The simplification of this motto can by no means
forget its real origin.
The modern Czech flag has the words Veritas Vincit. Truth is victorious. Benedict tells us from Prague that
spiritual evils are far more dangerous than material temptations. Europe is a
"home" wherein our consciences can be formed in the tradition of reason and
revelation speaking to each other. The truth is what sets us free. The public
not only has a need to hear such truth, but its heart will be restless until it
does. This latter restlessness is not a theory about the future but a record of
the same past we all share. To choose to make a better social order we first
need to change our souls. There is no other way.
Plato had already told us this. We often do everything we
can not to accept this basic truth. But the Pope went to Prague, in the heart
of central Europe, to tell us that we have roots that stretch to eternity. "Man
must be saved from the evils that affect his spirit." Technology cannot do
this. Politics cannot do this. There is a "right way to order human affairs."
We cannot be overly surprised in following Benedict in Prague to find that this
"right order" begins with what we think our end as human persons is. It is the
function of the papacy to speak of ultimate things, even to the Europeans, even
in, especially in the beautiful ancient capitol of the Bohemians.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!