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The truth can never die

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, May 2, 2006

It seems to me that some of my cherished colleagues may have missed the most important and most beautiful assertion in University President Father John Jenkins’ closing statement: “Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture, but we all have something to fear if the wider culture never engages Catholic teaching. … Like any university, we have a responsibility to foster intellectual engagement with various perspectives and forms of knowledge, but as a Catholic university, we have the added responsibility of fostering engagement among these perspectives and forms of knowledge with the Catholic intellectual tradition.” In other words, a Catholic university is where Catholic tradition and teaching encounter everything that the world brings to us, and it is where everything that the world brings to us must encounter Catholic tradition and teaching. To pass over the second half of this assertion is I think gravely to misinterpret what Jenkins is telling us.

If this reciprocal encounter is carried out – and Jenkins is telling us that it is our responsibility at Notre Dame to carry it out – we have nothing to fear. Indeed, fearlessness in the face of anything the world may bring is the mark of living in the truth. The Catholic university must be like Dante’s Comedy: the pilgrim has to look at everything, touch every possible facet of human behavior and experience, in his own journey toward understanding and divine love. Dante doesn’t edit, filter, suppress, limit, silence. There is nothing he cannot confront, nothing he does not force his readers to confront, no matter how debased or vulgar or antithetical to all value. But Dante – and this is the key – makes every facet of human behavior and experience encounter Catholic revelation and understanding. Through that endlessly fruitful encounter, we begin to see through our self-deceptions and through some of the world’s bewitching illusions; through that encounter we also begin to see more deeply into the light of revelation. As Jenkins says, citing Pope John Paul II: “grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Catholic intellectual tradition develops through this dialogue with culture.”

We tend to forget that is is not we who defend truth; Truth defends us. Truth is light: it does not need torchbearers. It sets out alone and lights its own way and ours. In the encounter with the world, truth cannot lose. Truth can never die. Untruth can never live; it is constantly dying, constantly on the way out, because it is not in harmony with the reality within which, from which, the world has its being.

We also tend to forget that revelation is not an ideology; it is not a set of ideas. Revelation neither includes nor excludes anything. It transfigures all things, reveals their true sense and meaning and allows us freely to see and choose the path through the world, through all possibilities, that leads us to felicity, towards fulfilling the limitless potential of what a human being is.

I do not think my confidence in truth is misplaced. If the slight and ephemeral play that has so exercised our emotions in recent months encounters Catholic teaching and tradition – encounters it fully, genuinely – the Catholic understanding of the human person, in all its beauty, and depth and soul-beguiling sweetness, is not likely to be vanquished. It will not lose, in that encounter. If the play, on the other hand, should contain any glimmers of truth – and it may contain a few, and perhaps even more than a few, since it is supposed to be made from taped interviews with real human beings of varied conditions, as a record of their lived experience and of their pain – those glimmers of truth will emerge in the encounter, uncovering beauty in those lives, even in those strident words, and perhaps revealing another facet of the light of Catholic understanding bequeathed by tradition. What is untrue in the play, what derives from a shallow or lifeless understanding of self and the world, will be burned to grey ashes, seen to offer no life, no nourishment, no beauty, no truth. If, on the other hand, there should be any elements of untruth in Catholic teaching as it has been transmitted to us and as we transmit it to others – untruth based on limitations of love and understanding that restrict our ability to receive the light of revelation – it is not impossible that those elements of untruth could themselves be burned to ashes in the light and challenge of the play.

What is there to fear? Truth or revelation does not need a cudgel to enter the human heart, nor does it need to keep the world at bay in order to clear a space for itself. Truth is not in competition with the world. It transforms the world. The impulse to edit, silence, suppress, filter human experience shows a trace of fear or defensiveness, an inability to encompass the entire world – the entire world – within the light of revelation, within the light of Christian love and understanding. If we ourselves live in the truth, live the truth, we will know that it cannot fail.

Christian Moeysassociate professor of romance languagesApril 27