From the June, 2005 issue of Touchstone

Truth in Toronto by Graeme Hunter

Truth in Toronto

Graeme Hunter on Papal Principles That Undermine Canadian Values

The pope’s words were geared to Canada as she has become: multicultural, wholly in favor of what we call “diversity,” and proud of having all her opinions sanctioned by political correctness. “Trendies are Us” could be our motto. Our then Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, exemplified these values, that being the only word which would not be demeaned by association with them.

Had multiculturalism been Chrétien’s principle, instead of only his value, it is difficult to see how he could have welcomed or even greeted the Holy Father at all, when he came to Canada for World Youth Day, just three years ago. And indeed there was some question as to whether Chrétien would do so until just a few days before the pope’s arrival. In the end, however, he realized how liberating it can be to have values where other men have principles, and off he went to welcome a pope whose commitments he had spent his political career undermining.

The Message

Pope John Paul II came with a message for the Prime Minister and all who had ears to hear. (I write, by the way, as an Anglican.) It involved a little praise for our cultural and religious diversity, but, more importantly, criticism of the outlook on which that diversity is currently based.

He said something in public that no political leader in Canada would dare to say, and that few would even allow themselves to think. “You are enriched,” he said, “by the different cultural elements that make up your society, but the core of your heritage is the spiritual and transcendent vision of life based on Christian revelation.”

Like so many of the late pope’s words, these were at once so simple and so deep that it was hard for those reared on the bland nothings of political correctness even to assimilate them, let alone to savor them. Here was a public figure asserting in front of a Canadian audience that not everything is interchangeable, not everything is spiritually and morally equivalent, not everything is equally tenable. He was unveiling before his unsuspecting hearers the splendor of truth.

Members of the press grew dizzy. Their minds spun with anger, disbelief . . . but also with fascination. Had they really heard him say that the truth to which, historically, we are heirs was our greatest heritage? Yes, they had.

But simultaneously he had undercut their indignant rejoinders by applying those words to all of us, no matter to which piece in the Canadian cultural and religious mosaic we belonged. Journalists whose acquaintance with Christianity was as slender as their grasp of truth were uncertain how exactly to react to the claim that truth, though found in many places, was most fully present in the Christian revelation, that is, in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The same theme was echoed in the address of Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, archbishop of the Diocese of Toronto, to the more than 200,000 young people who attended the opening mass of the festival. “We must refuse to feign the politically correct tolerance which imagines all religions and convictions and values are equally valid. Through us the world is to be drawn to Jesus, and through him to the Father.” Few churchmen would have had the courage to say such a thing from their own pulpits, let alone in such a public forum. Alas, this may be because few churchmen believe it.

But the pope believed it and had the guts to say it. And that may be why hundreds of thousands of young people thought it worthwhile to travel across continents just to be near him. Relativism is not only a shallow opinion, but a deeply unsatisfying one. Young people want to be fair to other people. They want to love them, rather than hate them. They want to help them, rather than fight them.

Miserable Relativists

But they also want to think that there is some standard by which all can be measured alike. It takes years of dreary, humorless indoctrination in the public education system to persuade young people that their hope of such a standard is misplaced, that true happiness in life is only achieved by the slack of jaw, who gape and say “whatever.”

As a teacher of young people, I am struck by how precariously and unhappily relativism sits among their convictions, despite all the years of indoctrination. I often see it fall apart in the classroom. A word of truth is enough to undo years of propaganda. This pope from behind the now fallen Iron Curtain was bound to know. And it was clear that he came to Toronto determined to speak such a word. At 82, he was as tough-minded in opposing our mindless relativism as he had earlier been in resisting Nazism and Communism.

The pope was not hoping to curry favor with conservatives, nor was he trying to antagonize liberals, much less those of other religions. He spoke forthrightly because he saw a looming danger greater than any offense he might unintentionally give. The spiritual and intellectual danger facing us was the temptation to deny that there is truth, and so to evade the standards by which our conduct may be judged and found wanting. It was his regard for other people, including other cultures and religions, that impelled him to share his recognition of a non-negotiable truth, to which all must submit their judgments.

An outlook built on a lie is a fragile thing. Lie is stacked on lie, as in a house of cards. Like Solzhenitsyn, John Paul II was well aware how one word of truth outweighs the world. It restores the spirits of those who grow weary in pursuit of truth, and it blows away the house of lies which, from a distance and for a short time, can seem so indestructible.

Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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