Sermon at Matins on Sunday 23 August: Caritas in Veritate 4
23 August 2009 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence
‘What is truth?’ says Pilate when he confronts Jesus, as the story is told in the Fourth Gospel. Pilate’s question has been understood many ways. Perhaps the most famous interpretation is Bacon’s: ‘What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’ (That of Nietzsche was to say this is ‘the only saying that has any value’ in the New Testament.) When I first read Caritas in Veritate, I felt a bit like Pilate because I really had no idea what idea of truth was being talked about. Slowly it dawned on me that the main meaning of ‘truth’ in the Encyclical is the truth of the moral law.
The Encyclical as a whole is about human development. It is passionately for the right sort of human development, but refuses to see development in purely economic terms. It does not accept that growth in wealth, important though it is, is all that there is to development. Pope Benedict sets out an understanding of development which embraces the whole person, which springs from love for the whole person, and which aims for true growth of the human being, or growth in truth for the whole person. ‘Development’ is not to be measured simply in money terms, nolt even in terms of education, communications and healthcare, but in terms of the way a whole human being shares in the life of a wholly human community. ‘God’, says Benedict, ‘is the guarantor of man’s [humanity’s] true development’. When he speaks about true development, he is speaking about development in accord with the moral law.
Last week I tried to show how important the theme of ‘gift’ is for Benedict, and how it relates to the traditional theological language of ‘grace’. This week I want to say something about the moral law, which Benedict relates to the language of ‘nature’ - to the way God has made both the world we live in and ourselves as human beings. Benedict says that Nature ‘expresses a design of love and truth’. Nature is a ‘gift’ of the Creator who has given it ‘an inbuilt order’. The natural world has a ‘grammar’ that must be respected if we are to use it well. This applies throughout Nature: ‘The book of Nature’, he writes, ‘is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations; in a word, integral human development.’ True human development must respect the ‘grammar’ of creation in all these areas. How do we do that? By observing the moral law.
Benedict is convinced that, if we want to see it, the outline of the moral law is clear. This is why he sets out a vision for a developing world in which the dictates of the moral law are observed in the market, in banking, in sexuality, in caring for the environment, in every dimension of human life. He talks about ‘the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order’ (67) and about ‘the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts’. He argues that we know what is right because it is engraved on our consciences. Our problem, he says, is not that we don’t know what to do, but that we don’t do it. Like Pilate, we turn away from what we know to be true and wash our hands of it. Benedict says that, ‘God reveals man to himself: reason and faith work hand in hand to demonstrate to us what is good, provided we want to see it; the natural law, in which creative Reason shines forth, reveals our greatness, but also our wretchedness insofar as we fail to recognize the call to moral truth.’
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’ (Critique of Practical Reason). Kant’s idea of the moral law was by no means the same as Benedict’s. We needn’t go into Kant’s ideas here. The point is that though he recognised the moral law within, in our conscience, he didn’t, like Benedict, see it in nature. Though he would have agreed with some things that Benedict says about the moral law he wouldn’t have agreed with others. There are other thinkers (like Nietzsche) who would agree with neither Kant nor Benedict and would say there is no universal moral law either in nature or in our conscience. They would say that when we talk about the moral law, we are really talking about the morals of the society to which we belong.
I suggest we see an Encyclical like Caritas in Veritate, which is addressed to all people of goodwill, as opening – or continuing - a debate. The debate is about good living, about development in humanity, development which reflects real love for real people, wherever in the world they happen to be. Real love does not accept that anything goes - and we can call it ‘development’. Real love accepts that human beings need to live according to certain rules if we are truly to be happy.
What are those rules and where do they come from? That’s a question for all of us. Caritas in Veritate offers a very strong answer: the rules that enable us to be happy in our shared lives are based on love and truth – not on love alone, and not on truth alone, but on love and truth. ‘All you need is love’ said the Beatles, but love that doesn’t face up to the truth is not much use to anyone. ‘Great is truth and it will prevail’ is an often-quoted Latin saying, but truth without love can be harsh and unforgiving. If the truth is told to us in love, we can probably accept it, and if love brings us to face the truth, we shall probably grow as human beings. In the Epistle to the Ephesians (4:15) the Christians of Ephesus are encouraged to ‘Speak the truth in love’ – which is quite a challenge. Benedict is right to say that love and truth must go together, and it’s from the way they go together that we begin to work out what is right for ourselves and for other human beings – we begin to understand the moral law.
For Christians, this comes into focus when we look at Jesus. It was Jesus who said we should love not just our friends but our enemies, and whose whole life modelled the saying that ‘God is love’. It was Jesus who is reported as saying ‘I am Truth’, so that Pilate was challenged to ask ‘What on earth do you mean?’ The answer to Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’ is really ‘I, who am standing before you.’ I am the one who shows you the truth. Pilate at that point famously washes his hands. Nine days later, standing before Jesus, Thomas accepts the wonderful truth that Christ is risen. He glimpses a new world, a world restored to the order intended by its creator, when he responds with the words, ‘My Lord and my God’.