Veritatis Splendor

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Pope john paul ii's tenth encyclical, issued on the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) in 1993. The purpose of the encyclical is to set forth "the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition" (no. 5). In the introduction, the pope notes that the Church's magisterial teaching, particularly in the past two centuries, has touched on many different questions concerning the moral life; in Veritatis splendor he intends rather "to reflect on the whole of the Church's moral teaching" (no. 4). The occasion for this reflection is the growth of a systematic questioning of this teaching, based on presuppositions that have "serious implications" for individual moral life, the communal life of the Church, and the just life of society. The immediate context for the encyclical is the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: the fullness of the moral life, such as it is presented in the Catechism must be understood as the backdrop to the encyclical's concern with certain fundamental moral questions.

Veritatis splendor is divided into three parts. In the first, "Christ and the Answer to the Question about Morality," the pope uses the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man (Mt 19.16ff.) to show what is involved in moral teaching. The human heart naturally desires to know the full meaning of its life, and what it must do to achieve that meaning; this is why the rich young man comes to Christ. Christ's response highlights the fact that the moral life is a response to God's initiativethe "One who alone is good" alone makes the moral life possible. The commandments and the beatitudes are equally valid norms for the moral life, because they both point to the fullness of love to which every person is called. This life becomes possible in the following of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Yet, though it is supernatural in origin, it is the norm for man in every time and place; and the role of the Church is to promote and preserve this life.

In part 2, "The Church and the Discernment of Certain Tendencies in Present-Day Moral Theology," the pope goes on to speak of a crisis in modern thought: freedom is opposed to natural law, conscience is presented as the ultimate arbiter of good and evil, and the Church's teaching on intrinsically evil acts is dismissed as irrelevant to moral evaluation. These tendencies are rooted in a denial of the dependence of freedom on truth. Rightful human autonomy does not involve the creation of one's own moral norms, but a recognition of human nature and the right order of creation through "participated theonomy," a participation in "the light of natural reason and of Divine Revelation" (no. 41). The natural law thus recognized contains both positive and negative precepts: these are equally universal, but only the latter can be formulated as norms that oblige always and everywhere because "the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken" (no. 52). "Conscience" also cannot be rightly understood unless it is seen as a "practical judgment": that is, a judgment that does not establish the good, but identifies the good to be done in a particular situation in light of the natural law. The pope draws particularly attention to a tendency in moral theology to separate the "fundamental option" of a person from his particular, individual acts, locating moral assessment only in the former. He notes that the fundamental option is made real only through the exercise of freedom, and therefore only through particular actsand by the same token, it can be revoked through particular acts. Therefore, the Church's teaching that particular acts can be mortal sins must be upheld. Finally, against a "teleologistic" moral theology that locates the moral quality of acts entirely in the intention of the person and the foreseeable consequences of the act, the pope emphasizes the importance of the object of the acting person. An act can be good only when its object is, by its nature, capable of being ordered to God; if the object is incapable of being so ordered, the act is "intrinsically evil."

Part 3, "Moral Good for the Life of the Church and of the World," draws out the pastoral conclusions of the previous analysis. The Church must witness to the dependence of freedom on truth. The Crucified Christ reveals that "freedom is acquired in love" (no. 87), and the martyrs continue to exemplify this truth. Only the recognition of certain universal moral norms guarantees just relations in society. The witness of the moral life is essential to the Church's task of evangelization and the fulfillment of her prophetic office. The pope also identifies the responsibilities of theologians and pastors for preserving and promoting this truth.

The encyclical ends with an invocation of Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Through her we learn of the possibility of the moral life lived in discipleship to Christ.

Bibliography: For the text of Vertitatis splendor, see: Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 85 (1993): 11341228 (Latin); Origins 23, no. 18 (Oct 14, 1993): 297334 (English); The Pope Speaks 39 (1994) 663 (English). For commentaries and summaries of Vertitatis splendor, see: j. a. dinoia and r. cessario, eds., Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology (Chicago 1999). m. e. allsopp and j. o'keefe, Veritatis Splendor: American Responses (Kansas City 1995). j. a. selling and j. jans, The Splendor of Accuracy: An Examination of the Assertions Made by Veritatis Splendor (Grand Rapids, MI 1995).

[g. f. lanave]