The Pope and the Theorists: The Oneness of Truth

Since few readers are likely to have read all of John Paul II’s new encyclical, Veritatis splendor, a quick tour should be helpful. I will not pretend to provide a complete analytical summary of the document, but I will offer a sense of the whole of it, and explain in some small measure why it deserves to be read by all Christians.

Veritatis is organized around Scriptural themes. The Introduction, for example, presents the overarching and recurrent theme of divine illumination. The Pope cites one of the favorite texts of patristic and medieval theologians: “There are many who say: ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord’ ” (Psalm 4:6). Here the Pope introduces the truth that human beings participate in the uncreated light of God: first, through the natural law, which is a participation in the eternal law; then through the economy of the covenants; and, finally, through the absolutely first principle, Christ as the eternal light and logos. Later in the encyclical the motif of light is reconsidered in terms of the “witness” of martyrdom. The Pope stresses that there is but one light, and that there never was, and never can be, a sphere of reason independent of God. Hence, a cardinal teaching of the entire encyclical: the various ways by which human agents are incorporated into the light must be understood as distinctions, not dichotomies (45). There is but one ground of truth.

Chapter one of Veritatis is organized around the story of the rich young man, narrated in Matthew 19:16-22. The dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man, says the Pope, contains all of the fundamentals of the moral life. The young man’s question to the Lord is not just legal, but moral, and ultimately anagogical: “What good must I do to have eternal life?” With this text the Pope calls attention to the fact that moral questions are not to be separated from the ultimate issue of man’s perfection, his desire for eternal life. In the teaching of Augustine and Aquinas, human moral knowledge begins with the recognition of some good which requires a moral response, and the recognition and response to a particular good in turn implies the human desire for the whole good. Moreover, as the Pope points out, the very question asked by the young man presupposes that the whole good is not reducible to the purely human. In response, Jesus asks: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” The answer to the rich young man’s question is that the human good is communion with God. As the Pope remarks, “the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly—not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial standards and measures of his being—must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ” (8).

Throughout this chapter the Pope explores the different facets of morality contained in the dialogue between Jesus and the young man. Jesus says, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The Pope emphasizes that Jesus was referring not just to a positive law, but to the original ordering of man by the natural law—the light infused in man at creation (12). So, the rich young man is not commanded to conform himself to a standard utterly alien to his own being. Though the law comes from God, it is imparted to reason, or as Saint Paul says, to the heart. The Decalogue represents, in writing, the principle that the law of man’s being is God, and that the essential moral duties are not the product of moral philosophy or of political necessities, but rather proceed from and give witness to God, Who is both Creator and End of human nature (13).

Furthermore, the Pope emphasizes that the Decalogue is a covenant that contains both the natural law and the invitation to discipleship. Commenting on an earlier passage of Matthew 19 where Jesus, interpreting the Mosaic law on marriage and divorce, states that “in the beginning it was not so,” the Pope explains that there are not self-enclosed orders of natural and positive law (22). From “the beginning,” the moral order was Christoform in nature (2, 15, 53, 112). In other words, the call to discipleship and perfection, even in something as earthly as marriage, is not an addendum to an already complete this-worldly order. Or, to put it in another way, revealed truth is not necessarily foreign to, or externally imposed upon, the truths we know from our natural experience—it is not, as the theologians say, “heteronomous.” When Jesus finally invites the rich young man to “Come, follow me,” He does not take the young man by surprise. Inchoately, the human agent “knows” that the ground and end of moral truth is God. Christ reveals that the end is present, even from “the beginning.”

In virtually every section of Veritatis, the Pope argues that the moral life is neither autonomous (grounded in the sovereignty of the human will) nor heteronomous (grounded in a norm or a will alien to our will). The Pope insists that such a contrast is not just misleading, but false. The rich young man no more asks, “how am I to be autonomous,” than Jesus answers, “you must submit to heteronomous norms.” The purpose of the Pope’s exegesis of the story of the rich young man is to disclose the order and harmony of nature, the Law, and the Gospel. In doing so, he shows by example, rather than by admonition, how moral theology must be “done.” Above all, moral theology must avoid false alternatives in order to protect the intelligibility, and ultimately the relevance, of both reason and divine revelation.

Protecting Reason and Revelation

The structure of Veritatis is carefully considered and executed. The first chapter takes one Scriptural story—of the rich young man and Jesus—and unfolds it so as to disclose the parts in the light of the “whole.” This, in turn, permits the Pope in chapter two to treat issues which are both more detailed and more abstract. Organized around the Scriptural passage “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2), chapter two deals with theological theories which threaten to undermine the balance and integrity of nature, the Law, and the Gospel.

The Pope begins this chapter with a succinct definition of moral theology:

Moral theology is a reflection concerned with “morality,” with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them; in this sense it is accessible to all people. But it is also “theology,” inasmuch as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are to be found in the one who “alone is good” and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life.

Accordingly, in the second chapter the Pope does two things. First, he reflects upon the metaphysical grounds of human agency, particularly in terms of the traditional Augustinian-Thomistic understanding of human reason as a participation in the eternal law. Second, he addresses specific principles governing our judgment and predication of good and evil in human acts. The Tope moves back and forth between these two, noting where a position on a specifically moral principle carries implications for the metaphysics of human agency, and vice versa.

Sections 31-53 explicate the metaphysical framework. The Pope makes an intriguing, and I think brilliant, use of Genesis 2:17 (“Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat”) in conjunction with Sirach 15:14 (“God left man in the power of his own counsel”). The basic problem is how to conceive properly, on the one hand, of man as a free moral agent, whose dignity consists in his capacity voluntarily to order himself through moral intentions and choices, and yet, on the other hand, to affirm (following faith and reason) the truth that moral norms are given to man, not created by him. Hence, the Pope tackles head on, not just the modern notions of the autonomy of practical reason, but the very ancient temptation of the finite agent to claim his nature as something over which he has absolute sovereignty.

The Pope argues that reason itself testifies that the capacity of our moral judgment to recognize and impose duties would be impossible if man were the author and supreme legislator of the good(s). If there is no ontological distinction between the human goods and the choices of individual men, and if there is no ontological distinction between the ground of the norms and the acts of agents, then there would be as many human goods as there are individuals, as many norms as there are acts, and as many moralities as there are agents. This view would lead not just to the unraveling of moral theology, but to the incoherence of moral reason.

In these sections, the Pope points out the danger of conflating the ground of natural law and the natural capacity to know the law. He shows us why the patristic and medieval idea of “participation” is not just a pious idea, but a necessary philosophical tool for distinguishing between the human ability to know and choose the moral good, and the divine ground of a moral good. Commenting on Genesis 2:17, the Pope writes:

Others speak, and rightly so, of theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence. By forbidding man to “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” God makes it clear that man does not originally possess such “knowledge” as something properly his own, but only participates in it by the light of natural reason and of Divine Revelation, which manifest to him the requirements and promptings of eternal wisdom. Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation. [41]

The Pope clearly and carefully shows that it is an intellectual dead end to attempt to derive the natural law simply from the nature of man, to seek what one might call an “autonomous natural law.” He also shows why conceiving of the human powers of reason and will as absolute—ungrounded in anything beyond man—leads to the false opposition of freedom and nature. The false dualism of nature versus freedom forces man to opt either for the seemingly raw stuff of immanent nature or for completely arbitrary freedom. When moral theologians bite on this apple, usually they are the partisans of liberty against nature. The Pope, however, insists that this is a “false solution” because it arises from a false dichotomy.

Sections 54-83 take up a series of topics, including the nature of conscience, the so-called fundamental option, the structure and scope of intention, the method of proportionalism, and the distinctions between mortal and venial sin. These discussions are closely reasoned. They cannot be rehearsed here at their proper level of argumentation. By way of summary, however, we can note some of the main points made by the Pope.

Conscience Is an Act, Not a Law

The Pope argues that conscience is not a law, but an act (62). Acts do not supply their own norms. Affirming the role of conscience, the Pope explains that “The dignity of this rational forum and the authority of its voice derive from the truth about moral good and evil, which it is called to listen to and to express. . . . The judgement of conscience does not establish the law; rather, it bears witness to the authority of the natural law and of practical reason with reference to the supreme good” (60). Because conscience is an act rather than a law unto itself, when the Church directs man to the truth, both natural and revealed, she does not impose something alien—a “heteronomous” condition—upon the conscience of the moral agent.

On the subject of the “fundamental option” theory, the Pope agrees that human freedom is not only the choice for particular goods, it is also a choice for the whole of one’s life, “ultimately for or against God” (65). Beginning with his discussion of the rich young man and continuing throughout the encyclical, the Pope rejects the idea that the moral life is exclusively limited to finite human goods (see especially 73). Moreover, the Pope agrees that in free choice, man shapes his moral identity and character.

But while it is true that the agent forms his own character and that morality can never be merely a series of isolated legal norms, this is true precisely because the formation takes place in each and every act. The goodness of the person and the rectitude of action are not separable (65).

The Measure of Morality

In his interpretation of Genesis 2:17, the Pope argues that human agents do not have sovereignty over the measures of moral good and evil. This is the root of the Pope’s condemnation of “proportionalism” and “consequentialism.” Of course, the notion that the human agent must consider the proportion between an act and its consequences is no affront to God’s authority. After all, “right reason” is nothing other than the act of rightly proportioning acts to ends. The problem with proportionalism and consequentialism does not lie here but in these theories’ apparent denial that there are intrinsic measures of acts. Their proponents argue that the morality of an act is assigned only by dint of (a) factors external to the act, and/or (b) the good end(s) brought into view by an intention.

Some philosophers and theologians who have criticized proportionalism and consequentialism argue that these theories are flawed because no agent can adequately foresee the consequences of an act, much less commensurate all the relevant proportions. In Veritatis, the Pope too asks, “how could an absolute obligation be justified on the basis of such debatable calculations?” (77). Yet the main thrust of the Pope’s argument does not concern the puzzles of estimating future consequences, but rather the central issue of whether there are intrinsic measures of acts.

Radical proportionalism proposes that the created order of human goods, as well as the inner structure of human action, are merely provisional values which are made moral or immoral by the choice of a greater good or lesser evil. By either denying or obscuring the intrinsic standards of acts prior to choice, the theorist in effect claims that the specifically moral measure comes into being with human choice. Of course, every act brings into being a moral property (good or evil, as predicated of the will), but the question is whether the norm of acts exists prior to human choice, or whether it only comes into being with our consideration of proportions, circumstances, and consequences. Despite the fact that some proportionalists sincerely believe that they are defending “objective” moral norms (in the sense that such and such consequences are objectively greater, or that such and such a choice is better proportioned to an end), this claim of “objectivity” would seem to be entirely different from what was traditionally meant by acts having intrinsic measures of good and evil.

Critics of this section of Veritatis have complained that the Pope does not understand their philosophy. But consider the following remark by Richard McCormick, S.J., in the National Catholic Reporter (October 15):

Take an example sometimes cited by opponents of proportionalism: the solitary sex act. This, it is urged, is intrinsically evil from its object. This is the view of the pope. Proportionalists would argue that this (“solitary sex act”) is an inadequate description of the action. For self-stimulation for sperm testing is a different human act from self-pleasuring, much as self-defense is different from homicide during a robbery. They are different because of different reasons for the act, i.e., different goods sought and aimed at different intentions. Intention tells us what is going on.

In fairness to Father McCormick, these remarks surely do not represent his fully considered judgment of the morality of masturbation. Nevertheless, McCormick’s own example of how intending a good end defines the morality of an act certainly is an example of what the Pope criticizes in Veritatis. By analogy to masturbating for the sake of scientific research, one could just as easily insert aborting fetuses for population control, killing for world peace, pre-marital sex for psychological maturation, or whatever. This is not to say that a proportionalist like Father McCormick holds that these acts are morally good; rather, it is only to say that the example he gives of his own method does not indicate why he shouldn’t conclude that such acts are good in some cases. It seems that by shifting intention to and fro, the agent constitutes out of whole cloth the moral properties of his act.

To my knowledge, the Church has never taught that sexual pleasure or scientific research are necessarily immoral. (Given the fact that an agent always acts for a good, whether real or apparent, it would be a failure of cleverness rather than morality not to bring into view a good end.) Rather, she has taught that some acts intrinsically are disordered and must never be willed, regardless of the variety of circumstances or ends which might be brought into view by the agent. There is no misunderstanding here. Father McCormick holds that “intention tells us what is going on,” whereas the Pope holds that the concrete nature of acts tells us whether an intention is morally good or bad. This dispute is not a chick-or-egg-first dilemma, or a puzzle of moral epistemology. However difficult the answer, the question is clear: Are there, or are there not, acts which are intrinsically wicked? If there are, then no intention can ever legitimate such an act, and an intention to perform such an act is itself disordered.

The Pope and the proportionalists hold different views on the structure of the moral act. The Pope’s teaching, drawn from the traditional doctrine of natural law as well as from Scripture, is that a hierarchy of goods and ends exists to which our will must conform in its acts of deliberation and choice (79). Within this moral order there is much room for prudential judgment and legitimate choice. But there are some actions which are in themselves contrary to, and as the Pope says, “unworthy of,” the human good. Therefore, they must never be chosen. The objective order of morality depends upon an objective order of the human good that exists prior to any human effort.

Intentionality, in and of itself, does not constitute the human good; it does not call the shots; it is not a demiurge that creates the lawful order of human well-being; in short, it does not make, but rather expresses the truth. Intentions are to be judged according to “the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end,” communion with God (82). The deposit of faith and the analysis of reason are in fundamental agreement. In Jesus Christ, writes the Pope,

who is the truth (John 14:6), man can understand fully and live perfectly, through his good actions, his vocation to freedom in obedience to the divine law summarized in the commandment of love of God and neighbor. And this is what takes place through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, of freedom and of love: In him we are enabled to interiorize the law, to receive it and to live it as the motivating force of true personal freedom: “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1:25). [83]

A Call to Heroic Sanctity

The third and final chapter of Veritatis is organized around the Pauline dictum, “Lest the Cross of Christ be emptied of its power . . .” (I Corinthians 1:17). Here the Pope notes that “Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’ reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes and where he is going” (84). John Paul II warns that our modern culture is self-destructive, that it regards the Church’s moral teaching as “the sign of an intolerable intransigence” (95). While the Pope is careful not to engage in apocalypticism, he reminds the bishops that obedience to God’s law, and to the integrity and inviolability of moral truth, is apt to bring martyrdom. “It is urgent,” he states, “that Christians should rediscover the newness of faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture” (88).

The Pope links the theme of the “light” witnessed to by acts of conscience and moral judgment, with the “witness” of martyrdom. Recalling the invitation to the rich young man, “Come follow me,” the Pope here more fully elaborates the invitation in terms of the munus regale (the kingly mission) of the crucified Christ (87). Some pundits have contended that sexual morality is the “subtext” of the encyclical, but this notion is so superficial that it deserves no further comment. The underlying theme, made clear at the end, is that the Bishop of Rome, in the fashion of Ignatius of Antioch, is admonishing his fellow bishops to prepare themselves and the faithful for heroic sanctity. He recalls what the Scripture said of the rich young man: “When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions.”

The Pope stresses, of course, that the sanctity of discipleship which is the end of the moral life requires grace. But it must be nourished also by teaching the whole truth. The whole truth, he says, is “splendid,” and does not need to be trimmed or sugar-coated. In other words, the authentically “pastoral” and “compassionate” response to the crisis of modernity is to tell the story straight. Like the rich young man, every soul has the freedom to choose. Some will go away “sorrowful.” But everyone deserves to hear the whole truth. In this context, the Pope makes a passing reference to bishops’ obligation to supervise the Catholicity of Catholic schools, universities, and health-care facilities (116).

In the final paragraph, the Pope reminds us that the Mother of God, who shares the human condition but in complete openness to grace, is the model of discipleship toward which all moral theology must point.

Nor does she permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ her son would thus be emptied of its power. No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: Only the cross and the glory of the risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life. [120]

Thus, taking the side of Mary against the theorists, the Pope concludes the most splendid encyclical of his pontificate.

Missing the Point

With the Pope’s average of one encyclical every 18 months, Veritatis splendor is the tenth encyclical of John Paul II’s 15-year pontificate. How many Catholics, one wonders, have read all of these encyclicals? Veritatis certainly adds to the homework. The English translation issued by the Vatican is 179 pages long and includes 184 notes. Yet despite the length and complexity of its argument, Veritatis reads more easily than other encyclicals, thanks in no small part to the superb English translation.

The danger of teaching by means of encyclicals (and so many of them at that) is that any message will reach the faithful indirectly, through various experts and pseudo-experts who tend to focus on what seems new or controversial. In the case of Veritatis, the media wanted to know which theologians were being criticized, whether the Vatican intended to stiffen or dilute its teachings on sex, and whether the Pope threatened to use authority to bring bishops and theologians into line. It was naïve, of course, to expect that the Vatican would use the public venue of an encyclical to handle disciplinary matters. Veritatis does nothing of the sort.

Lacking the handle of a novelty or controversy, critics have had little to say. The president of a prominent Catholic university suggested, before it was even issued, that the faithful would find the encyclical “boring.” Echoing the same theme, Peter Hebblethwaite complained that it contains “nothing new.” Hebblethwaite’s remark is at least descriptively correct: Veritatis does not contain anything “new” in matters of policy or theory. Interestingly, with the exception of one passing reference to Saint Alphonsus Liguori and one direct citation of the work of John Henry Newman, no modern moral theologian or philosopher is mentioned in Veritatis. The Pope’s intellectual authorities consist entirely of Scripture, the Church Fathers, Aquinas, and various Vatican documents and decrees.

What explains this absence of modern intellectual authorities? It certainly is not because of the Pope’s own philosophical interests. This Pope is an expert in modern philosophy, and some of his previous encyclicals, notably Laborem exercens and Centesimus annus, read like transcripts of a graduate seminar. Perhaps the absence of modern intellectual authorities in this encyclical can be traced to the condition of moral theology. Considerations of orthodoxy and heterodoxy set to one side, modern moral theology is not a particularly distinguished discipline. Much of its work is derived from the methods and discussions of the secular academy, particularly the social sciences and what is generically called “ethics.” On the whole, the vocabulary, tools, and problems of Catholic moral theology are indistinguishable from its secular counterparts. Unfortunately, but predictably, so is most of its content.

If it is true that there is “nothing new” in Veritatis, the reason lies in the nature of the subject and in the purpose of the encyclical. The Pope states at the outset that “it is necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church’s moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine” (4). In other words, the purpose of Veritatis is not so much to explore piecemeal the controverted issues of the day. Rather, the Pope intends to provide the faithful with an exposition of the “whole” of Catholic morality in terms of certain “fundamental truths.” Veritatis aims to provide a solid basis on which any proper moral theology must be built. An encyclical of this kind was long overdue.

Is the Incarnation Irrelevant?

The Pope contends that the principal issue is whether the Catholic tradition can maintain the “intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality” (4, see also 26, 88). Veritatis addresses the persistent and destructive notion of “two truths,” which is the notion that there are truths of revelation and truths of reason which constitute not merely distinguishable but completely independent orders of intelligibility and obligation. The exact phrase “two truths” is not used in Veritatis, but every chapter of the encyclical addresses this problem. The Pope fears that some currents in modern moral theology do not merely depart from one or another teaching of the Church, but remove matters of human action from the norms and direction of revelation—in effect, they make human actions autonomous. Such a split between revelation and morality renders moral theology impossible, for the Word of God is then either contrary to reason or has no office other than supporting, by pastoral exhortation, the deliverances of an autonomous, this-worldly reason (4). At stake here is not just moral theology, or even the authority of the Church, but the central mysteries of Christianity. If human action is autonomous in the radical sense of the term, then the Incarnation is irrelevant. Man, not God, is the law-giver, and he saves himself, with no need for a crucified Redeemer.

Charity moves the Pope to mention no theologians by name. He does not argue that moral theologians have deliberately deposited moral theology in the cul-de-sac of “two truths.” Rather, the discipline has adapted itself to the limited, worldly perspectives of the secular academy by refitting itself to address the political, legal, and psychological problems of a culture that no longer has faith. Thus, the problem of “two truths” has emerged gradually, almost insensibly, within moral theology. The Pope points out where and how various positions in moral theology lead to this problem.

Whatever the immediate response to the encyclical, we can expect that a century from now, Veritatis splendor will be regarded as one of the most profound and complete statements of Catholic morality. The initial reaction of its critics perhaps already reveals something of its power. Complaints that there is “nothing new,” that it is “boring,” and that the Pope “misunderstands” the work of theologians, indicate that unlike Humanae vitae, which was picked to pieces, no theologian will directly take issue with Veritatis. Frankly, few if any theorists have the intellectual resources to mount a direct refutation of the encyclical.

Veritatis so clearly and forcefully presents the fundamentals and ends of the moral life that there is no place within the account to draw a line of dissent. In order to mount a significant criticism, one would have to jettison the Catholic tradition, root and branch. In all charity, one should suppose that the moral theologians have never truly wanted to go that far. To the wayward theorists, the Pope holds out an olive branch. It turns out to be nothing other than the Catholic tradition.


  • Russell Hittinger

    Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.

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