We mark anniversaries of events so as not to forget. We do this as a country all the time—we mark, for instance, the anniversary of our independence on July 4th every year. We do it because we consider the Fourth of July to be the birth of our freedom. Naturally, then, we turn to the founding document called the Declaration of Independence to explain how we understand freedom. There we read that there are certain truths considered self-evident. Among these self-evident truths are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Here we see that freedom and truth really do belong together except that many of us live without an adequate conception of either one. To know of freedom and truth based on the Declaration of Independence is a pretty good start but we cannot stop there. Our thinking needs to be informed by other sources, more philosophically and theologically oriented, to give us more complete accounts of what it means to live freely and truthfully.
Earlier this year, we marked the 50th anniversary of Pope Saint Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. Two other encyclicals, both authored by Pope Saint John Paul II, reached notable anniversaries this year although they did not garner the attention in the media of Humanae Vitae. They are Veritatis Splendor at 25 years and Fides et Ratio at 20 years. Both are as pertinent now as when they were published. Indeed, one could argue that John Paul II’s encyclicals are as prescient as Humanae Vitae is prophetic. The prescience of Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio stems not from taking on specific issues per se, but from setting forth basic points without which we remain in the dark about the real meaning of freedom and truth.
Take, for example, the older of the two encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor. Then-Father Augustine DiNoia, O.P., observed that it “is the first occasion when there has been a sustained discussion of the most basic principles of the Christian moral life…. The question in the encyclical is not simply how to act morally in this or that situation, but the more radical question, Why act morally at all?” This same sense of recovering basic principles is found in Fides et Ratio, too. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger remarked on the encyclical’s release: “The central question of Fides et Ratio is the question of truth. But this question is not just one among many and various questions…. [I]t is the fundamental and ineliminable question.”
Basic principles always return us to the truth of things. Even more primordially, basic principles return us to truth itself. And that is because “little” truths participate in the “big” Truth.
We are soon to enter upon the Christmas Season. How wonderful it is to see re-enactments of the Christmas story with Mary and Joseph kneeling on either side of the Christ Child in the manger. How sweet it is to sing Silent Night and Away in the Manger. Christmas is a time of joy and peace, and what better way to express gratitude for these heavenly gifts than with hymnody.
As heart-warming as the Christmas story is, however, it would be a mistake to forget about the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel. There we find in the first verse of the Fourth Gospel the most basic and fundamental principle of everything: “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1). What we are told later in the Prologue is that the most basic and fundamental principle is really a Person: “And the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). Of this absolutely decisive moment in history, the Incarnation, the Catholic historian Warren Carroll (1932-2011) says simply but profoundly: Truth exists.
Truth in itself is always good, but it exists to set us free (cf. Jn 8:32). Getting this relationship between freedom and truth right is the grand purpose of Pope Saint John Paul II writing Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio. Just as the Incarnation invites us to see the most basic and fundamental principle in the most personal of terms, we have but to look at the most personal of acts in Christ’s earthly life and ministry to see the right ordering of truth and freedom. In Veritatis Splendor, the pope writes that Christ’s “crucified flesh fully reveals the unbreakable bond between freedom and truth” (87).
How beautiful and soft that flesh was when it rested against the wood of the manger. How bloodied and lacerated did that same flesh become when it was stretched out on the wood of the Cross. On Christmas, the birth of the Messiah makes death seem so distant for most of us. Nevertheless, it is closer than most of us want it to be, I dare say. And while we do not have a say in our first birth, we do have a say in our second, that is, the birth unto eternity. The say we have is in living now in such a way that freedom is not forsaken for slavery to sin, and truth is not abandoned to appease those with whom we disagree.
In a short while, we will be immersed in the Christ Child’s birth through the divine liturgy. Soon, we will hear a series of readings at daily Mass from the First Letter of Saint John. The sacred author makes a point of saying—against the Gnostics—that we do indeed know the Lord. The way that we know him though is in the flesh (cf. Jn 4:2). The flesh must be the standard; otherwise, we will live only in our heads. The context for Saint John addressing this issue is the need we all have to test the spirits. Not all of the spirits are from God, the apostle says (cf. Jn 4:1), and thus we need to discern carefully lest we become confused and disoriented, morally speaking.
We have indeed become confused and disoriented, morally speaking—at least that is the judgment of Pope Saint John Paul II. He makes this claim in Fides et Ratio (98). When the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, the pope avers, conscience changes. “Conscience,” he goes on to remark, “is no longer considered in its prime reality as an act of a person’s intelligence.” The very word itself tells us that the chief charge of conscience is to know. Conscience is derived from the Latin scio, meaning to know. In our consciences, we aim to know “with God.” Above all, then, using our conscience to know “with God” is an intellectual act. What is its field of inquiry? Theoretically, everything! How then do we sort through it all? With the assistance of basic and fundamental principles, of course.
With Christmas just a few days away now, it might be good to start with the following basic and fundamental principle: we are embodied subjects. Keeping the notions of embodiment and subjectivity together is a lot like keeping truth and freedom together. In our subjectivity, we are free. But there are natural limitations here, too, and our bodies provide the truth for our freedom. Not to get too philosophical about it, truth and freedom are like the matter and form of sacramentality. Sacraments require both proper matter and proper form, united together in a single act of divine worship. I cannot claim to be free all the while my body is telling a lie. As a subject, I abuse my subjectivity by becoming a subjectivist. With my body, I abuse its integrality by becoming a relativist.
Personhood is at the core of our celebration of Christmas. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in the fulness of time became like us in all things but sin. The Incarnation is the enfleshment of truth and freedom. We grasp the meaning of the Incarnation when we know as subjects what to do with our bodies. Why not use this anniversary of Christ’s birth to recall that the sublime dignity of personhood will go unrecognized so long as we separate truth from freedom and freedom from truth? In the manger and at the Cross, truth and freedom are never closer to each other. Let us rejoice with the angels that the Incarnate Lord makes us free in the Truth of his very Person (cf. Jn 14:6).
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Virgin with Angels” painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1900.