Papa don’t preach

Last week the Vatican issued its expected papal encyclical, with the highly misleading title Veritas Splendor, The Splendor of Truth. This document urged the Catholic bishops to “insure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary” to official church teachings. This statement says that persons should learn the official positions of the Church, and only those positions. Given the absolutism of this view, the question is raised as to whether there is a place for Catholic views, or even religion in general, within a university? Are the goals of religion and a university so discordant that expressions such as a “Catholic university” or “religion school” are oxymorons?

To answer these questions one must first define or describe the principle goals of religion and of a university. To this writer the main function of a university is to explore ideas and information without restraint. In contrast, the main purpose of religion is to speak authoritatively on moral/ethical matters. If it speaks on moral/ethical matters but not authoritatively, it differs in no way from secular philosophy. Hence, authority is religion’s claim to distinctiveness from mere philosophy. However, the sole function and purpose of authority is to foreclose thought, to limit intellectual alternatives and to thereby render the intellect inoperative. Therefore, religion, Catholic or not, is intrinsically incompatible with the chief goal of a university. Even more strongly, religion is intrinsically incompatible with the free exercise of reason, whether or not that reason occurs within the context of a university. It thus seems macabre that the recent Vatican encyclical should be called, “The Splendor of Truth”.

One must wonder how, at the end of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church could publish a document more appropriate to the Church of the twelfth century when the Church viewed its views and authority superior to both reason and government? This unfortunate publication flows from the unique historical experiences of Jean Paul II who spent most of his adult life immersed in resisting governments as absolutistic in their views as those of the Church. During the long period from 1940, when fascism occupied Eastern Europe, to 1990, when Communism released its grip on the region, the Church of Eastern Europe was insulated from developments in the West. That Church remained frozen in time. Indeed, the Polish Catholic Church persists in forcefully meddling in governmental affairs, against the will of a majority of the Polish people. It is clear that much of the Church of Eastern Europe has not yet made its peace with democracy. Out of this intellectually anachronistic region came Jean Paul II and his literally Medieval views.

Veritas Splendor claims that abortion, homosexuality, contraception and masturbation are intrinsically, always, and everywhere evil. This has lead the Church to the great evil of condemning Ugandans for using condoms to prevent the transmission of AIDS when Uganda literally has an epidemic of AIDS. At the same time, the Church does not view the taking of another human life as always and unconditionally evil. Such views may mortally embarrass the Church and make Jean Paul II increasingly resemble Brother Jed who appears on the NIU Mall from time to time. Papa don’t preach and relativism Uber Alles.

Joseph Harry


Sociology Department