Lesson 4: Transcendental Values

We expect a Pope to talk about transcendental values, but until rather recently, we would never hear him put these in a democratic context. Popes expounded eternal truths entrusted to the Christian church. They might speak of them as natural reason but assumed they were revealed to special, authorized, devout, right-thinking males. The voice of the people in a democracy was regarded as dangerous, even heretical.

Now Pope Francis claims transcendental values are discovered through dialog, a dialog that includes not only other religions but even secular voices. His argument, in many ways, is simply that the Christian Church has a voice in the public conversation. However, he claims ,“Once those fundamental values are acknowledged and adopted through dialogue and consensus, we realize that they rise above consensus; they transcend our concrete situations and remain non-negotiable. Our understanding of their meaning and scope can increase – and in that respect, consensus is a dynamic reality – but in themselves, they are held to be enduring by virtue of their inherent meaning.”

Francis defines these transcendental values as “the solid foundations sustaining our decisions and our laws.” At another place, he describes them providing “certain basic structures to support our development and survival.”

In this encyclical, the Pope identifies three: truth, justice, and mercy. He argues that the principle underlying all three, “The dignity of others is to be respected in all circumstances,” supports his call for universal fraternity and social friendship.

You could discuss the Pope’s appeal to transcendental values from many perspectives: whether there is such a thing as natural reason that leads to them, whether human sin interferes with our ability to ever discern them, whether we are dependent on scripture to reveal them, whether we need to be religious to practice them, and whether the deep divisions in the church is evidence that the Church has not a clue to what they are.

But I think the most pertinent observation concerns the values he mentions and those he doesn’t. I regularly follow conservative Roman Catholic theologians who are known for promoting natural law theories. They focus constantly on three values: the dignity of the fetus that obligates us to prohibit abortion, the essential role of a family headed by a mother and father in a healthy society that obligates us to oppose most LGBTQ rights, and the freedom of religious thought that prohibits government regulations that limit any church practice.

Francis’ failure to promote these three programs seems a critique of the conservatives. In fact, his call for a universal fraternity and social friendship that recognizes the dignity of all people might be taken as his attempt to correct them. He chooses to present values he thinks should be higher priorities in any pro-life position. These include caring for the poor and vulnerable, as well as non-violence projects, such as speaking and acting against warfare, weapons sales, nuclear weapons development, and capital punishment.

I think most of us agree with the Pope that the way out of our current problems lies in basing our decisions in truth, love, and mercy. We might question statements such as, “If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people,” especially when he sometimes labels transcendental as religious truth. But throughout most of his encyclical, he defines transcendental as simply any value that goes beyond the self-interest of an individual or group. And he acknowledges, “Others drink from other sources” when acknowledging “For us the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

I find his words refreshing, not just for their kindness, but also for the direction they offer toward creative loving human relationships in this new global society.

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