Making sense of 'Veritatis Splendor'

Making sense of 'Veritatis Splendor'

Bishop Kevin Manning

The Encyclical 'Veritatis Splendor', released on 5 October 1993, was six years in the writing. Its publication was held over to coincide with the release of the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church'.

The following is the edited text of a talk by Bishop Kevin Manning of Armidale, N.S.W., which both examines and explains the Encyclical. The talk was given at The Thomas More Summer School in Melbourne in February.

The Church under the Holy Spirit's direction continues to develop her tradition of moral reflection on the different areas of human life.

This tradition is being challenged both without and within the Church. Acknowledging that honest attempts have been made since Vatican II to renew moral theology, Pope John Paul II notes that doubts and various objections about the Church's moral teaching have arisen and there has been a general and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine on the basis of anthropological and ethical concepts, e.g., speculative theologians propounding theories as defined doctrine and people accepting them as such.

Some of the traditional moral doctrines called into question are:

  • in certain currents of theology the natural law and the universality and permanent validity of its precepts have been rejected;
  • it is questioned whether the magisterium is competent to intervene in matters of morality and to teach authoritatively the binding requirements of God's commandments which we hold are a reflection of the goodness of God himself,
  • it is maintained that one can love God and neighbour without being obliged always and everywhere, in all situations, by the commandments taught by the Church;
  • doubt is raised about the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, i.e., to be a real believer one must act in a certain way.

These ideas have critical repercussions for Church, for individuals, and society on all levels.

Thus the magisterium ("He who hears you, hears me") sets out to clarify points of doctrine to resolve this crisis and says moral principles can be known, and are not determined by opinion polls or created by individual consciences, i.e., a person seeing self as the totally autonomous creator of his or her own moral values and truths.

The Church herself traditionally has great regard for personal responsibility and the role of reason and conscience in establishing moral obligations. Conscience is defined as "an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation" (n.32). Nevertheless, in certain instances there has been a radical rethinking of the mutual roles of faith and reason in identifying moral norms which refer to specific "inner-worldly" kinds of behaviour. There has been the tendency to assign to autonomous reason (apart from revelation, tradition and magisterium, and even antecedent truth) the task of creatively establishing norms relative to "human good."

More radically the acceptance of a certain concept of autonomy questions the connection between faith and morality. Faith is not merely the intellectual assent to certain abstract truths; it also possesses a moral content which entails the keeping of the commandments. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven" (Mt 7:21), i.e., faith in Jesus means assent to what he taught. Today, consequentialism, proportionalism and the fundamental option, while retaining a faith in Christ, separate faith from the morality in his teachings.

Authentic freedom

The Pope, in view of these problems, which are not new, and the need to safeguard the deposit of faith points to Christ as showing us the way to authentic freedom: "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32); "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:5).

The purpose of the Encyclical is not merely to warn against errors but to proclaim anew the message of Christian freedom. At the heart of this message is the conviction that only in truth does man's freedom become truly human and responsible.

Clear thinking about moral truth founders on the rocks of relativism and subjectivism. When we become radically individualistic we do not obey/discern what is objectively true. Rather we decide for ourselves what is 'true'. We create our own truth. This way of acting began in the Garden of Eden and has continued since: "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good from evil" (Gen 15).

John Paul holds that the human person is free because he is created for freedom and is capable of freedom. Psychology, anthropology and the behavioural sciences give insights into the ways we are conditioned by culture, genes and still unknown factors. But deep within each one of us is an inbuilt aspiration towards the good that we follow or defy.

Veritatis Splendor is divided into three parts.

Firstly, there is a biblical meditation on the dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-22) which underlines the essential elements of Christian morality.

The young man's question, says John Paul, is the question each of us should ask: "Teacher, what must I do to have life?" And he also says that Jesus' response "If you Wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" is the answer we should heed. Life is to know and do the truth.

The Church was founded by Christ to answer this question: that people in every age might come to know and discover in him the only answer capable of satisfying the question about good for he is Goodness itself. Moral life is our response to his initiative in loving. It is the complete fulfilment of the law made possible through the Spirit.

The Church's tradition (magisterium, doctrine, liturgy, lived holiness) has always preserved the harmony between faith and morality and has developed an authoritative interpretation of the law over many centuries.

The second part of Veritatis Splendor is doctrinal in nature and makes a critical discernment of certain trends in contemporary moral theology, in the light of Scripture, Tradition and Vatican II.

The Pope reaffirms that genuine moral autonomy, as understood by Catholic doctrine, means that human freedom and God's law (truth) meet, i.e., the natural law (the participation of God's eternal law in the rational creature) implies that reason and the moral precepts which derive from it are essentially subordinated to divine wisdom. Natural moral law is that moral reality of human nature (as possessed by all mankind) and which can be recognised by man's reason independent of positive Christian revelation, i.e., the truths about human goodness are knowable by all persons.

The Pope reaffirms the existence of the natural moral law, i.e., there is an understanding of good and evil infused into us by God, the basic articulation of which is the Ten Commandments and which freedom is bound to respect. Some would hold that freedom itself is the absolute which is the source of value, not the natural law. This natural law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of humanity. The truth of the natural law is a reference point for true freedom which must be based in it.

Outside of positive revelation, the will of God is made known only by natural law, and natural law is identical with God's will, i.e., God's plan in creation.

Christ in his teaching appeals to the established order of creation as a pointer to the law of God, e.g.,. the law about divorce: "The law of Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of your hearts."

For Paul, the distinction between good and evil is founded in the nature of things: "When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written in their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all" (Romans 2:14-15).

Conscience is not a law in itself nor does it create the law. It must be informed by the light of truth. The final judgment of conscience must be enlightened by the divine law, the universal and objective norm of morality. "There exists a prior obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known" (n.34).

Conscience can fail for it is "an eye in need of light, a voice in need of supporting voice from law and authority." Its machinery can malfunction. Hence its judgment is not measured by deserting objective truth but by searching insistently.

Intrinsically evil

Catholic doctrine affirms that certain kinds of behaviour because they are opposed to the truth and the good of the person are "intrinsically evil", i.e., always and everywhere evil, without exception, e.g., homicide, genocide, abortion, slavery, prostitution. The choice by which they are made can never be good, even when made with a subjectively good intention and with a view to positive consequences. It is never licit to do evil that good may come of it (Rom 18, Humanae Vitae, 14). These actions radically contradict the dignity and good of the human person. Acts which in themselves are contrary to the development of the human person in the image and likeness of God are evil.

Here John Paul II takes on these moralists, including Catholic theologians, who seek to establish legitimate exceptions to the observance of the natural moral law. They say that an evil act may be justified by the end to which it is directed (consequentialism) - argues that an act traditionally considered objectively wrong morally may, in fact, be objectively right morally in a concrete situation because of the good consequences of that act - or by weighing the other goods at stake (proportionalism) - argues that the evil of such an act may be outweighed by good elements which surround it, e.g., one's good intention, special circumstances and/or good consequences, so that to do it is not morally wrong. However, it is never licit to do evil in order to achieve good.

The Encyclical also rejects any separation between a fundamental option of a transcendent character and the deliberate choices of concrete acts. This option holds that so long as one chooses fundamentally for God and neighbour, then one is free to resolve the moral question for oneself. It is the tendency to dissociate or even completely separate the person from his or her acts (n.65). Applied to mortal sin it holds that mortal sin consists only in the violation of the fundamental option.

The third part of Veritatis Splendor is the pastoral section and points out the relevance of Catholic teaching on moral good for the life of the Church and world. The good of the person found in Truth is related to the social and cultural situation of man today.

By looking always to Jesus the Church comes to discover the authentic meaning of freedom: the gift of self, inspired by love, for the sake of serving God and our neighbour.

The universal and unchanging moral norms are at the service of the person and society. The renewal of social and political life can only occur if freedom is linked to truth (n.101) where the dignity of every person made in God's image is respected.

Ethical relativism inevitably leads to totalitarianism which denies the truth about man. To promote morality is to promote man and his freedom which can never take place in opposition to the truth and God.

In history martyrs, by preferring death to sin, have borne witness to the inviolable holiness of God's law and the respect due to the requirements of the dignity of each person. Christians are not alone in this and great religious and wisdom traditions also support this.

The Encyclical includes an extended meditation on the meaning of martyrdom, drawing examples from the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the chronicle of courageous resistance to tyranny. Martyr means witness. We are not all called to martyrdom, but we are called to bear witness to the truth that makes, and keeps, us free.

The possibilities of acting according to moral truth, despite the human weakness caused by sin, are found in the mystery of Christ's redemption. In HIM, the Father offers us not only the Truth but also the "new law", which is his spirit within us - his grace which enables us to love and do good.

In Christ we encounter God's mercy, which understands human weakness yet never falsifies the standard of good and evil by accepting compromises which would adapt to particular situations.

The preaching of Christian morality must heed Paul's warning "that the cross of Christ not be emptied of its power" (1 Cor 1: 17).

The Encyclical, described by one dissenter as a "retreat to the ghetto" urges us to return to the Gospels, to Christian tradition, and to the authentic teaching of Vatican II. It is a call to conversion! The Holy Father leaves no doubt that he is in touch with contemporary morality, despite what popular gurus might say.

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