No Truth, No Freedom: ‘Splendor Veritatis’ is a moral masterpiece

Long in preparation and long-awaited, the new encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, is a lengthy and comprehensive document that runs 179 pages in English and includes some 120 numbered sections and 184 footnotes. No one can mistake this for off-the-cuff “remarks.”

No prior document of the pontifical Magisterium compares with this. True, there was an encyclical on Marriage doctrine and practice (1930), and another on the transmission of life (1968), but “This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching”—that is, Christian moral teaching and its pastoral vigilance (115).

This encyclical consists of an Introduction (1-S) and three connected chapters: one, on biblical foundations (6¬27); two, on moral reasoning, sound and unsound (28-83); three, on pastoral directives (84-120). The connections with the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) are both obvious and explicit. Every post-Vatican II internal hemorrhage in Catholic moral teaching or advocacy is addressed with surgical precision: all healthy trends of concord and cohesion are confirmed and encouraged, all theories of division or dissent are repudiated.

For me, this encyclical is a moral masterpiece—rich in its theological sources, clear in its expression and directions. For dissenters, “clarity” has never been a part of that muddled mosaic called “theological pluralism.” Thus, this clear and clearly authoritative moral encyclical may well be their idea of a nightmare.

Veritatis splendor unashamedly lives up to its title: it is very much about the truth. Pragmatists might ask, “What good is truth?” Believers might ask, “What’s true about the good?” The Pope’s encyclical addresses these questions at length and in depth.

He begins with an ancient question, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). Jesus answers, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

That answer can surprise no Christian. What might surprise some Christians is that so many Christian moral teachers find no real content, no concrete direction in this authoritative answer. The Pope, by contrast, weaves this biblical text throughout his letter on the truth and the good. The first chapter (6-17) is an excellent example of a kind of reflective and prayerful exegesis that integrates rather than evacuates the biblical teaching of morality.

Few would describe our age as a time of cohesive moral standards. (All are free to test this empirically: leave your front door or your car unlocked tonight.) “Moral Relativism” is the acid rain that falls on all of us, drenches many and drowns some. John Paul II addresses primarily Catholic teachers who, instead of combating moral relativism, are contributing to it.

Some moral “revisionists” have emptied the moral content of Revelation by arguing that it is so “time-bound” that it says nothing that binds our time, or at best, that it offers only general orientations, suggestions or invitations. This revisionism is compounded with all sorts of false antitheses: Commandments versus Beatitudes; Law versus Love. What emerges is not so much a muted biblical moral message as a mute one.

The Pope rejects this inadequate methodology and re-views the organic nature of Christian morality, the fundamental truth of which is accessible to human reason. If the Christian “way” is simply the announcement of unclear ideals, then it is the way to nowhere—and certainly not the way to God.

The publication of Veritatis splendor is not just a “churchy” event. For centuries, the Judeo-Christian ethic served as the foundation of our personal and social standards. It was, functionally, the “objective moral order” which most citizens presumed or appealed to—including the higher background of our civil law. For some time now, however, the Judeo-Christian ethic has begun to resemble a receding hairline, rather than a higher background of personal and social life.

Morality and Freedom

The encyclical presupposes and argues throughout for the existence of an “objective moral order.” The central and longest part of it (28-82) addresses linkage questions crucial to the Judeo-Christian ethic: Freedom and law? Conscience and truth? Do real moral norms exist?

For some, freedom and law don’t belong in the same sentence. But that most basic question of moral sovereignty is raised and reviewed in the first Book of everybody’s Bible, Genesis. In his trademark style, this Pope goes back to the beginning.

Morality, of course, cannot prescind from freedom; but what kind of freedom? Does the individual freely invent good and evil? Human sovereignty—dominion; stewardship; in effect, “naming”—is appropriate, even a biblical given. But revelation records one singular restriction: the determination—naming—of good and evil (35, citing Genesis 2:17). That determination belongs to God alone.

Claims of absolute human autonomy (the “Sovereign Self”) are not rooted in revelation nor compatible with it. Every human journey must be a free journey, but it is a freedom to detect and discover the moral law, not invent it. If there is no norm or standard, no rule or law out-side myself, then all that’s left is literal autonomy (self-norm), and that is moral relativism.

Thus, as to the source of good and evil, the Pope first reminds Catholic teachers that the Sovereign Self is not the engine that drives the Judeo-Christian ethic, but an untamed beast that will consume it (36-41). This radical and radically false autonomy also precludes any adequate or normative understanding of natural moral law (42-5). The light of reason is the light of discerning good from evil, discerning “an imprint on us of the divine light” (42); it is not just staring fixedly at a mirror.

Allied with freedom and law are conscience and truth (54-64). All Catholic teachers admit the importance and centrality of conscience, but not all correctly explain the nature, function, and formation of conscience. Some label the decisions of conscience “creative,” “adult,” “responsible,” “mature.” The Sovereign Self makes these judgments autonomously. Proof of its maturity is that it does not submit to any norm or authority outside itself. This is what Cardinal Newman, in the last century, called “the right of self-will,” a “counterfeit” of conscience which 18 prior centuries had never heard of and could not mistake for the original (see his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

Since conscience is a judgment or decision, two out-comes are always possible. We can judge correctly the truth to be done, or we can judge erroneously. It’s true: we can get it backwards; we can get the truth upside-down and backwards. There is such a thing as a correct Catholic conscience, and therefore we should never equate “subjective error” with “objective truth” (63). We may be, and sometimes are, mistaken in decisions of conscience, but evil does not cease to be evil just because we are mistaken about it.

Formation of a Catholic conscience differs from that of other faiths because as Catholics we are bound to form conscience first by what we believe are the sacred sources: Scripture, Tradition, and Church teaching. To deny first place to the sacred sources, while claiming sovereignty for personal judgment, is not a helpful transfer but a serious reversal of infallibilities.

No Right to Do Wrong

The last central part of the encyclical concerns specific acts (65-70) and the correct definition of “the moral act” (71-83), with an emphasis on what are called “exception- less norms” or “intrinsic evils.” These are specific concrete acts that never are choice-worthy in the Catholic perspective because they never promote the true good of the human person, nor the good of the human community. This section is the most technical, even dense, and the most hotly debated among Catholic academics. With laser-beam selectivity, early media reports on the encyclical locked on section 47, a list of prohibited sexual acts (contraception, pre-marital sex, homosexual acts, etc.). That laser was immediately turned off, and so it passed over section 80, a list of prohibited social atrocities (homicide, genocide, euthanasia, physical torture, arbitrary imprisonment, etc.).

A veritable traffic jam of contemporary Gnostic theories has to be cleared before one can even state the question of intrinsic evils properly. Thus, the Pope repudiates a false body-soul dualism (46-50), as well as trendy “fundamental option” theories that first cloud, then remove, the reality and distinction of mortal and venial sin (69-70).

Negative—never choice-worthy—norms derive from the Ten Commandments, as shaped and clarified by tradition. Some Catholic moralists simply deny that exception- less norms even exist. It is this twisting of basic principles that the Pope condemns as “false solutions” (75): two schools of opinion generally called “consequentialist” and “proportionalist.” Consequentialists judge and justify the morality of acts primarily by their foreseeable “consequences”—more good results (good), more bad results (evil). Proportionalists claim in their moral calculus to weigh all relevant goods and to balance their proportion to achieve some “greater good” or “lesser evil.” For either school, exceptionless prohibitions are not possible. Even the apodictic biblical “Thou-shalt-nots” while nice “guidelines,” are, at best, operative norms always open to revision, always open to concrete exception.

A 20-year debate is not easily summarized in two paragraphs, but 20 years of published “revisionist” and “dissenting” theories is not exactly “insider’s information” either. Tenured Catholic proportionalists of the dissenting mode surely will respond that what the Pope says is lovely, but he is beating up on a caricature: “Why, my proportionalist colleagues don’t write or say that at all!” No profession, it seems, is exempt from spin doctors, especially doctors of theology.

There is something ludicrous, even patronizing, about the dissenters’ attacks on this Pope. John Paul II has two earned doctorates: one in dogmatic theology, the other in ethics and moral theology. For years he taught philosophical ethics and moral theory at a large European university, while also serving as a priest and a bishop. To suggest that some Vatican bureaucrat placed a complicated pile of papers on his desk, which he then signed without really knowing the important nuances that dissenters are nuancing, borders on the insulting, quite apart from the charism he has to teach in name the of Jesus Christ, Whose Vicar he is on earth.

In any adequate moral theory, one must take account of intention, as one must consider consequences. But a good intention alone, or hoped-for good consequences alone, will not change a bad kind of act (personal or social) into a good one. The end does not justify the means.

If there are no exceptionless norms, or if all depends on subjectively good intentions or on subjective countings of good consequences, then there is no “objective moral order.” With painstaking detail, the Pope defends and presents the received teaching of the Church, and of Holy Scripture, that there are exceptionless norms (moral absolutes). He reminds us that this is what Scripture teaches (I Corinthians 6:9-10); it is what Augustine taught (Contra mendacium); it is the classic teaching of Aquinas (Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 18); it is the teaching of Councils: Trent in the sixteenth century (Denz. Schön., 1569), Vatican II in our century (Gaudium et spes, 27); it is the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1753¬6) today. To this long list of revered sources, we now can add the “Splendor of Truth” (79-83)—it is not licit to do evil that good may come of it (Romans 3:8).

If there is no objective morality, if there is only the assessment of subjective intentions or the subjective counting of consequences, then moral relativism is true. “You tend your good intentions, I’ll tend mine; you count your good consequences, I’ll count mine.” The Pope rejects such visions of morality as “erroneous” (82).

Erroneous theories of morality affect not only the Church but also civil society, and they hinder any at-tempts to improve either. Thus, the third chapter of the Encyclical comes back to the truth and the light that the truth gives. Universal and unchanging moral norms are at the service of the person and of society “because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth” (95-96). Genuine morality is the only possible basis for the renewal of social and political life (98).

No Freedom or Goodness without Truth

With the Pope, we can rejoice over the “fall of ideologies.” Few people on this earth, now alive, had more to do with the fall of the great collectivist lie than did the author of this encyclical. “The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent [true] dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the rights which no one may violate—no individual, group, class, nation or State” (99, quoting Centesimus annus, 44)).

There is an inseparable connection between truth and freedom. Let democracies take note and take warning: there is a risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism which would remove any sure moral reference point, or even deeper, make the acknowledgement of truth impossible (101).

Truthfulness between the governing and the governed; openness in public administration; impartiality in the service of the body politic; respect for the rights of political adversaries; safeguarding the rights of the accused against summary trials and convictions; just and honest use of public funds; the rejection of equivocal or illicit means to gain, preserve, or increase power at any cost — all these are political principles rooted in the transcendent value of the person and the objective moral order (101). The truth and the good are inseparably connected.

“The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by Him” (99). Only on this truth is it possible to renew ourselves or our society. If there is no transcendent truth, then there are no sure principles to guarantee justice—individual or social.

Pope John Paul II has issued a great encyclical, a moral masterpiece. It is much more than a required text for the fundamental moral theology course of every seminary in the world. It is a faithful and reasoned argument to the questions every individual and society must ask: “Teacher, what good must I do?” The good we must seek and do is the truth.

Some of our contemporaries have despaired that truth can even be said to exist, others that it can be known, still others that it can be put into practice. Veritatis splendor argues passionately and persuasively that moral truth does exist; it can be known; it can, with God’s enabling grace, be put into practice. The truth can set one free. Indeed, only the truth can set one free—and that’s “good news” from the highest authority on earth.


  • William B. Smith

    Monsignor William B. Smith, STD, is professor of moral theology at Saint Joseph Seminary-Dunwoodie in Yonkers New York

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