the true light that enlightens everyone

In this post, I’ll continue exploring the contents of Veritatis Splendor. Here is the introduction to the text:

Jesus Christ, the true light that enlightens everyone

1. Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9), people become “light in the Lord” and “children of light” (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by “obedience to the truth” (1 Pet 1:22).

This obedience is not always easy. As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes 1:9), exchanging “the truth about God for a lie” (Rom 1:25). Man’s capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism (cf. Jn 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself.

But no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away from man the light of God the Creator. In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it. This is eloquently proved by man’s tireless search for knowledge in all fields. It is proved even more by his search for the meaning of life. The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us on to face the most painful and decisive of struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience.

The fundamental theme of the encyclical is Johannine: truth as light. John Paul II waits only one paragraph before broaching the topic of the legacy of sin and disobedience: Sin hampers our capacity to know the truth, as well as our will to act in accordance with it. When in the shadows of sin, we still search for freedom — the difference is that we seek it apart from the truth, lest our deeds of darkness be brought into the light.

The good news is that the aspiration for truth is never destroyed, but remains in the human heart. The Pope locates this search in the modern world’s scientific yearnings and, more especially, in the yearning for meaning. He acknowledges that these yearnings situate us in a most painful war within the heart — the battle for a right conscience.

2. No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil? The answer is only possible thanks to the splendour of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit, as the Psalmist bears witness: “There are many who say: ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord’ ” (Ps 4:6).

The light of God’s face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), the “reflection of God’s glory” (Heb 1:3), “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: “In fact, it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of the future man, namely, of Christ the Lord. It is Christ, the last Adam, who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father’s love.”1

Jesus Christ, the “light of the nations”, shines upon the face of his Church, which he sends forth to the whole world to proclaim the Gospel to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15).2 Hence the Church, as the People of God among the nations,3 while attentive to the new challenges of history and to mankind’s efforts to discover the meaning of life, offers to everyone the answer which comes from the truth about Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The Church remains deeply conscious of her “duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related.”4

In this second section, the letter becomes Christocentric: Christ is at the center of the moral life. Christ is Light and Truth Incarnate; from His very face, Truth shines forth visibly upon humanity… and in Him we see the way, the truth and the life. He is the ultimate reference point for every question about what is good, not in the way a sage would be (simply dispensing answers about the Good), but as Goodness in Person. He illuminates the fundamental human vocation, which is to give oneself away in love.

It is very fitting that this letter was released on the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6), when we commemorate Jesus’ radiant appearance on Mount Tabor, an event witnessed by the apostles Peter, James and John (cf. Mt 17:1-8). Not only does this Gospel passage manifest Jesus in all His splendor, it also recalls the voice of the heavenly Father, inviting the followers of Christ to obedience: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

Icon of the Transfiguration

The splendor of Christ is visible not only to the contemporaries of Jesus, but to every successive age, because His countenance of light and truth remains visible to us in the Church He established. The Church allows people of every generation to be, in a sense, contemporaries of Jesus Christ, living in the presence of His radiant goodness and truth. The Church keeps before our eyes the splendor of truth, and helps men and women of every age to interpret their historical situation in light of the Gospel. The bishops of the Church, as successors of those who witnessed the Transfiguration, are called in a particular way to be witnesses of this truth before all the world, and to foster and guide the witness that all members of Christ’s body are to provide.

3. The Church’s Pastors, in communion with the Successor of Peter, are close to the faithful in this effort; they guide and accompany them by their authoritative teaching, finding ever new ways of speaking with love and mercy not only to believers but to all people of good will. The Second Vatican Council remains an extraordinary witness of this attitude on the part of the Church which, as an “expert in humanity,”5 places herself at the service of every individual and of the whole world.6

The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all. The Second Vatican Council clearly recalled this when it stated that “those who without any fault do not know anything about Christ or his Church, yet who search for God with a sincere heart and under the influence of grace, try to put into effect the will of God as known to them through the dictate of conscience… can obtain eternal salvation”. The Council added: “Nor does divine Providence deny the helps that are necessary for salvation to those who, through no fault of their own, have not yet attained to the express recognition of God, yet who strive, not without divine grace, to lead an upright life. For whatever goodness and truth is found in them is considered by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel and bestowed by him who enlightens everyone that they may in the end have life.”7

The Pope makes the bold claim, following on the teaching of Paul VI, that the Church is an expert in humanity. This point is important if we’re going to understand the Church’s witness in regard to moral truth. The moral life does not pertain simply to Christians or members of other religions; it is a gift and a task for every human being. As mother and teacher, the Church feels an obligation to provide a moral witness to the entire world, regardless of creed… because the moral life concerns what is essential to being human. It’s a bold claim the Church makes, but notice, she models her authority on the Lord she follows… it is an authority that is not clawing after power, but is sacrificial in nature. It’s rooted in service: “she [the Church] places herself at the service of every individual and of the whole world.” Some claim that the Church has it out for them, that the Christian God has it out for them, but that is a distorted view of the situation… the shadowy view of those for whom the radiance of truth is seen as blinding and punishing, rather than as a source of freedom. The Church, in her moral teaching, is not trying to impose a creed on the world, but to offer the service of a moral witness that is truly human. In her sinful members, this witness is often weak, to be sure, and sometimes contradicted by bad behavior. But does this mean the Church should turn out the lights and let fallen humanity continue on the trajectory of its fallenness? As mother, the Church cannot stop loving and nurturing her children, both within and beyond her visible communion. In this, she is obedient to her Lord.

Here’s my last observation about this section: The Church has reverence for the moral sensibility of non-believers. She sees in conscience the Light that illumines every life… and appreciates the witness to truth and goodness that non-believers give, seeing in it a participation in the grace of Christ.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the Pope’s reasons for writing this encyclical letter.

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