The unsplendor of untruth

Thoughts on reading Veritatis Splendor:

  • The errors the Pope discusses mostly have to do with the view that the world can’t mean anything very definite. Since the world can’t mean much of anything we produce our own meanings. People think that’s a good thing: to let the world tell us anything that binds us morally would be heteronomy, a sort of slavery. It would be especially bad to let the physical world—our bodies, for example—tell us anything. That would be physicalism or biologism.
  • From such views it follows that morality consists in deciding everything ourselves, perhaps with the aid of some extremely abstract principles and orientations (“maximize good”), as well as more particular rules of thumb (“thou shalt not kill”) that we follow or not as seems best. All this seems rather at odds with a religion that tells us God created all things and called them good, and that the human body is so intensely expressive that it can express even Deity—that God can become flesh. For that matter, if the world doesn’t bear particular meanings, but our decisions and interpretations are everything, it’s hard to see what sense can be made of such notions as “revelation” and “humility.”
  • Part of saying the world can’t mean anything in particular is saying that an act can’t have an essential nature but is only a node in a web of cause and effect and can be intelligently described and evaluated only as such. On this view an act like “refusing to use contraception,” depending on its consequences, might better be described as “willfully undermining the possibilities of marital communion” and so judged immoral.
  • An obvious difficulty with the line of thought is that if things don’t have essential natures then it’s not clear what the meaning can be of “marital,” or for that matter of “communion,” which presumably refers to the sharing of meanings that are not simply dependent on the passing intentions of the parties. It seems impossible to think about human life without reference to the essential nature of particular human acts—to what people are really doing. If that’s so then moral philosophy should clarify rather than attempt to debunk essentialism.
  • There’s something odd and evidently illegitimate about attempts by experts and functionaries to revolutionize a religious institution. Religion has to do with the most fundamental things. Bureaucrats—including academics—are concerned with things that can be handled without much personal engagement by men of moderate talents trained in certain accepted procedures and standards. How much overlap can there be between the two? To the extent they are connected, which comes first?
  • On the whole, the errors the Pope describes look like the errors of prosperous, secure, unimaginative, well-placed and self-satisfied men who think they should have the right to say what things are and what should be done about them. To say they’re anti-Catholic doesn’t capture the full scope of what’s wrong with them.

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