Pope Francis is exactly right that a religion which exhausts itself in moral rules and intellectual doctrines is dead and deadening. The heart of our faith is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and then living out Christ's love in the way we treat others. If we don't do that, then our faith is really just an empty shell.
But Jesus also clearly said that he didn't come to abolish the commandments or absolve anyone from the obligations of God's law. That's because God's law is an expression of God's love, even when it makes us uncomfortable. The laws of right and wrong are guide-rails meant to lead us to self-mastery, freedom and joy.
How should ordinary Catholics understand the relationship between truth, freedom, and happiness? How should this impact the way the Church "accompanies" those impacted by moral relativism?
Jesus said it himself: The truth will make us free. He also said that he himself is the way, the truth and the life – the source of lasting happiness. If we don't know and walk with Jesus, everything else in our religious life is just noise. But note that Jesus accompanies us with a specific purpose: to love us, teach us and lead us home to heaven. Likewise, that's our privilege and task with others. We need to listen to and understand the burdens of others, and treat them with prudence and respect. But there's no real love, no authentic mercy, in remaining silent with those we accompany when they need to hear the truth.
What does Veritatis splendor have to say to the most visible moral issues of our time: especially abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and confusion about gender identity?
Issues like the redefinition of marriage and turmoil over gender identity were much less prominent 25 years ago. John Paul did speak frequently against abortion and eloquently in defense of the sanctity of life, especially in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Veritatis splendor is really about the framework, the basic architecture, of Catholic moral reasoning rather than specific issues. So it serves as a foundation for those other crucial matters, and it's doubly important for that reason.
You write about totalitarianism caused by "casuistry, poisonous political thought, and systematic intellectual deceit" in other parts of the world. Can the United States stave that off? How do Catholics undertake their political responsibilities in a dramatically changing political and cultural landscape?
Democracy has a built-in capacity for tyranny. Tocqueville saw that clearly and said so in Democracy in America. In the United States, that natural drift toward tyranny has always been checked by the widespread practice of religious faith. As faith declines, the totalitarian current in democracy grows. Progressive political thought -- or more accurately, thought that styles itself as "progressive" – can have a deeply intolerant streak. And that's what we're seeing now in the public discourse around sexual behavior and identity, marriage and the family, and religious liberty.
When a nation loses a firm sense of truth and its obligations, what remains, all that remains, is power and the struggle to get it. That's reality, and democracies have no magic immunity to reality.