Pope John Paul II’s inspiring encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, was promulgated thirty years ago, on August 6, 1993. The encyclical has certainly lost none of its intellectual force or deep wisdom, and it remains as pertinent today as ever. When this papal teaching first appeared, however, it was greeted with a torrent of hostility by many of the Church’s moral theologians.
Bernhard Häring (Pope Francis’ favorite moral theologian) described himself as “greatly discouraged” after reading John Paul II’s work. This is not a surprise since the pope was correcting the errors that Häring and other revisionist theologians had propagated in the Church since the end of Vatican II. As John Paul II pointed out, it was not a matter of isolated or limited dissent but a “systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine” (4).
The fundamental option, proportionalism, the sovereignty of conscience, and moral subjectivism—all of these heterodox doctrines were thoroughly refuted through arguments woven with principled reasoning. For a time, it looked like the philosopher-pope had succeeded in his herculean effort to renew moral theology. But then came the papacy of Pope Francis, which has consistently sought to marginalize and undermine the principal moral teachings of this encyclical.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Veritatis Splendor is now virtually ignored at the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences. Instead, the new faculty, hired by Archbishop Paglia, are keen to emphasize how the moral law must be constantly modified and updated in response to cultural evolution and historical experience. At a conference on moral theology held last year in Rome, some theologians expressed their utter disdain for Veritatis Splendor and the need for its correction.
Fr. Julio Martinez, professor of moral theology at Comillas Pontifical University, said that it was necessary “to untie the knots Veritatis Splendor made in Catholic morals.” Veritatis Splendor, he stated, initiated “a very profound development in moral theology with the introduction of the concept we call intrinsic evil.” According to Fr. Martinez, this is a “controversial philosophical concept that brought serious difficulties for moral theology.”
Of course, it is ludicrous to suggest that the notion of intrinsic evil was just discovered thirty years ago by John Paul II. On the contrary, this doctrine was defended by secular philosophers like Aristotle, asserted by the Church Fathers along with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and taught without objection in the Catholic Church for many centuries.
Also, the newly appointed head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, has made it clear through word and deed that he has little use for Veritatis Splendor. In one of his recent interviews, he conveyed his dismissive view of this encyclical because its particular concern is “to set certain limits.” Hence, according to Fernandez, “it is not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology.”
The bishop’s reductive assessment, however, is way off base. Veritatis Splendor does far more than establish moral limits, though that task is certainly not alien to moral theology. Jesus Himself was not diffident about setting limits to our behavior. But John Paul II presents a holistic vision of moral theology, a brilliant synthesis of biblical Christian teaching, philosophy, and theology that covers a wide range of interrelated topics including human freedom, the divine and natural law, human nature, and the role of conscience in moral decision-making.
The renowned Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre praised Veritatis Splendor as a major intervention in moral debate and a “striking contribution…to ongoing philosophical inquiry.” In his view, this encyclical clearly provided a viable platform for the creative development of theology or philosophy. But the liberal theologians who dominated the academy were simply not interested. John Paul II can hardly be blamed for the fact that in 2023 we have no theologians of the same stature as Karl Rahner or Joseph Ratzinger.
The principal theme of Veritatis Splendor is quite simple and should be uncontroversial: the Christian faith includes specific moral demands because it is “on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all” (3). Those demands are clearly laid out in the Decalogue that is re-promulgated in the New Testament.
The encyclical opens with an exegesis of Jesus’ dialogue with the rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 19). Jesus draws this man’s attention to the centrality of the Decalogue’s precepts. Thus, “from the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue” (12). One of those commandments is also powerfully reaffirmed with a reference to the original order of creation in Jesus’ teaching on adultery (Mark 10:4-12).
Moreover, God has conveyed to His people these same specific moral requirements as the natural moral law that proscribes certain conduct such as adultery, theft, and the taking of innocent life. These “limits” that seem to disturb Archbishop Fernandez so much protect the fundamental goods of human nature such as marriage and life. They also represent the “path involving a moral and spiritual journey toward perfection” (15).
But with a few notable exceptions, post-Conciliar moral theology has been centered on an imprudent and misguided attempt to mitigate the prohibitions found in Scripture and the natural law. Revisionist theologians have proposed theories like proportionalism (a variation of utilitarianism) that allow for exceptions to moral norms so long as the goal of a greater good or at least a lesser evil is realized. Nothing is intrinsically evil or good because everything depends on context. And they have suggested that the negative precepts forbidding certain actions that are expressed in Scripture are less than absolute.
But John Paul II insists that to deny the truth of moral absolutes such as the prohibition against adultery is philosophically untenable because it opens the door to moral subjectivism. It is also inconsistent with Revelation, for “Jesus Himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions” (52). While someone may not be subjectively culpable for committing an adulterous act (through ignorance or compulsion), adultery is always objectively wrong no matter what the circumstances may be.
If this encyclical needs to be “corrected” and cast aside, what sort of moral theology will take its place? We get a strong hint at the alternative to the principles of Veritatis Splendor by reading Pope Francis’ ambiguous apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, ghostwritten in part by Archbishop Fernandez. Pope Francis’ exhortation clearly sides with the revisionists when it comes to issues like intrinsic evil. In chapter eight he explains:
It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being…. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. (304)
Pope Francis insists upon his fidelity to St. Thomas Aquinas when he declares that “the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter uncertainty” (304). But, for Aquinas, moral ambiguity surfaces only when there are affirmative norms at stake. Amoris Laetitia completely disregards the essential Thomistic distinction between affirmative precepts (such as “one must return borrowed items”), which apply always but not in every situation, and certain negative precepts (“do not commit adultery”), which are valid without exception.
According to Aquinas, while we cannot always determine what should be done in accordance with an affirmative precept, we can determine what must not be done in accordance with negative precepts (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 140, a. 1). When it comes to some negative norms such as “do not commit adultery,” there is never moral uncertainty or confusion, no matter how deeply we immerse ourselves in the details. Veritatis Splendor follows this Thomistic line of reasoning and argues for the decisive importance of these negative moral norms as a necessary safeguard against the encroachment of moral relativism.
According to Fr. Martinez, however, Pope Francis has disentangled those “knots” conceived by John Paul II by introducing discernment as a way of guiding the moral decision-making process. As he observes, “To put the focus on discernment in order to find the good is a really new thing in moral theology.”
Indeed, Amoris Laetitia equates the operation of conscience with the process of discernment rather than judgments that apply stable moral principles to specific situations. One can “discern” that a particular action, even one that violates one of the commandments, is what “God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (303). But as John Finnis and Germain Grisez point out in their critique of Amoris Laetitia, the traditional view of discernment presented by St. Ignatius Loyola and others is not concerned with what is morally right or wrong but with choosing between two morally acceptable possibilities.
Veritatis Splendor is rooted in the moral certitudes embedded in Sacred Scripture and the sound philosophy of peerless thinkers like Aquinas—it enriches us both through its wisdom and its moral prescription. Amoris Laetitia, on the other hand, distorts or rejects the wisdom of saints like Augustine and Aquinas and favors a more relaxed paradigm where virtually every moral rule is subject to exception after a process of discernment. It privileges sentiment and pragmatic reasoning over moral truth and consistency. Since the moral terrain is so dimmed by shades of gray, moral principles can do no more than give us a general sense of direction. Conscience must do the rest of the work by creatively discerning the right course of action. While Veritatis Splendor is in continuity with Scripture and Tradition, Amoris Laetitia represents a radical breach with both.Tweet This
While Veritatis Splendor is in continuity with Scripture and Tradition, Amoris Laetitia represents a radical breach with both. Catholics must decide which option they prefer. It’s a stark choice between the clarity of mind and coherence of popes like St. John Paul II or the web of incongruities and discontinuities found in papal documents like Amoris Laetitia.