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 of truth.
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.
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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 us.
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 returns.
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 website.
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