The Splendor of the Truth

Anthony Zimmerman
November 1993
Reproduced with Permission

Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, (The Splendor of Truth) presented on October 5, reaffirms powerfully the vital connection between man's behavior and God's pleasure or displeasure. Man's behavior is true if it images God's being and wisdom, but untrue if it runs afoul of God's luminous ways. By using freedom truthfully, man can create himself into a scintillating image of the divine Veritatis Splendor.

Christ's aphorism: "The truth shall make you free" (John 8:32) forms the basis of this sincere and earnest admonition by the pope to make truth the basis of moral behavior. To be free is to be fully man, provided this freedom is pressed into the mold of truth; such is the bottom line of the Encyclical.

The Pope evidently considers the Encyclical to be of major importance. He promised to write it on August 1, 1987, six years ago. It is now a fully matured document, replete with teachings, illustrations, and admonitions from the Scriptures, and from a battery of selected witnesses who delight the reader with their distilled wisdom sprinkled generously throughout the document.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (330-395) for example, a speculative theologian and mystic, one of the most gifted of the Greek Fathers of the Church, teases us saying that we ought not blame the environment for what we are; nor even our parents. It is we who make ourselves what we are: "We are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions" (quoted in No. 71 of the Encyclical).

Another example: St. Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 107) asks fellow Christians at Rome to desist from trying to stop him from becoming a martyr. Through martyrdom he hopes to become fully a man, he writes. After the encounter with beasts, he expects to rise into the realms of "pure light;" and "once there I will be truly a man" (quoted in No. 92).

"How to become truly a man" sums up the message of this extraordinary document. The pope is aware that he is breaking new ground: "This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching" (No. 115); the teaching which identifies good and evil; good which makes man compatible with the designs of God, and evil which is intrinsically and irredeemably below human and divine dignity, both here and hereafter.

Christians, observes the Pope, "should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all intrusive culture. . . . 'Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of the light'" (Eph 5:8, quoted in No. 88). The term "all intrusive culture" expresses criticism of the overbearing impertinence of modem media; of television, radio, tapes, print which intrude excessively to bastardize long established cultures. Christians are equipped by their faith to occupy the high ground, and from there to "judge" culture by critical standards.

Why did the Pope wait so long? For one thing, the Vatican avoids issuing two major documents together, each of which deserves attention and reflection to make its points. So the Catechism of the Catholic Church was released first; then, a year later, Veritatis Splendor, which should now occupy its own historic niche in Christian teaching. While the years passed during the formulation of this encyclical, trial balloons occasionally tested interim reactions. Slowly the document developed its richness of content, and its evident maturity of expression, tempered in advance by minor skirmishes with adversaries.

Part One illumines the principle that to be a good person, one must think and act like God. It is the task of man to shape himself into an image of God. "What man is, and what he must do, becomes clear as soon as God reveals Himself" (No. 10). God revealed Himself in the Scriptures, and definitively in Christ.

When the young man in the Gospel asked Christ: "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" Christ said: "If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). Part One explains that keeping the commandments enables us to "abide" In the shelter and the strength of God, who assists us with His presence and grace. The heart of the matter is that "The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ" (No. 24, quoting Thomas Aquinas). What is not possible for human powers alone, becomes possible with the Spirit of Christ helping human weakness to come into its own.

Part Two dialogues earnestly with moral theologians who question the transcendence of the natural law and the existence of intrinsically evil acts. With evident insistence the text here proclaims that certain commandments which forbid evil actions hold under all circumstances. The term "intrinsically evil" or "actions evil In themselves which can never be good" occurs frequently in this section. The existence of intrinsically evil acts is widely contested by dissenting teachers of moral theology in seminaries and in print. The Pope invokes the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965) to testify about actions always and irredeemably evil:

Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of labor which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, arid not as free and responsible persons, all these are a disgrace and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator (Gaudium et Spes, No. 27; No. 80 in the Encyclical).

The text then cites Pope Paul VI " With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered sterile, Pope Paul VI teaches that "it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it." (cf. Rom 3:8).

The Encyclical traces carefully the endeavors of moral theologians to probe anew into such profound questions as 1) (the relationship of freedom and law; 2) of conscience and truth; 3) of a fundamental moral option vs. individual acts of choice; 4) of intention. vs. the nature of an action itself. The Pope recognizes the right and duty of moral theologians to seek proper responses to these problems germane to contemporary times. His responses in the Encyclical are a magnificent synthesis of moral theology as related to these questions; this is moral theology taught in the best tradition, in a pastoral manner, and with authority.

The responses, very briefly:

  1. Freedom vs. law: Freedom is not an Absolute value, a law unto Itself. Man is bound by his freedom and intelligence to seek his Creator by his own volition. The natural moral law has God as its author; man, by his reason, participates in eternal law .. which is not for him to establish" (No. 36).
  2. Conscience vs. truth: Conscience is the "sacred place where God speaks to man" (No. 58). Conscience does not "create" truth, but gives witness to it. Whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience applies the law in a particular case (No. 60). Conscience is not an infallible judge. The teaching authority of the Church does not bring to conscience truths which are extraneous to it, rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of' the primordial act of faith (No. 64).
  3. The so-called "fundamental option," is not a static disposition insulated from specific free human acts; it is ever and again brought into play and verified or rejected in particular acts (No. 67). The fundamental orientation can indeed be radically changed by particular acts. Mortal sin exists not only when a person explicitly and formally rejects God and neighbor and love; it exists when a person knowingly and willingly, for any reason whatever, chooses something gravely disordered. One cannot correctly create a theological category of a "fundamental option" which would objectively change or cast doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin (No. 70).
  4. Good intentions and concrete circumstances are accessories to moral actions, but do not change the inner nature of those actions. The actions themselves which we perform are what make us good or evil. The will is involved in the concrete choices it makes, and takes its shape of good or evil from each of its free acts. We create ourselves in a sense, by our free decisions (No. 72). "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body" (2 Cor 5: 10; No. 73).

The Pope then affirms clearly, repeatedly, and with conscious authority, the existence of intrinsically evil acts. Theories claiming that some deliberate choices, made contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law, can be morally good, are not faithful to the Church's teaching (No. 76). Such is "Consequentialism" which draws its criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences arising from a given choice; similarly wrong is "Proportionalism," which focuses on the proportion foreseen between the good and bad effects of that choice.

Intrinsically evil actions are in themselves "incapable of being ordered to God because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image" (No. 80). The Pope directs teachers to abandon the mistaken notion that a good intention can transform evil into good (Teleologism, from telos, purpose); also to abandon Proportionalism, Consequentialism and their variants, which would qualify a free human act not by the objective intrinsic value of the act itself, but from results of the act which are foreseen.

Since 1960 Consequentialism, or its mutated varieties, invaded seminaries in Europe, America, and Australia; and now texts of the same color are on the desks of moral theology students elsewhere. I learned this first hand recently while on a lecture tour in Kenya and Tanzania. I also learned there that a "Reverse Consequentialism" is on the loose: AIDS, like an Apocalyptic horror, races through sections of the continent on the pale horse whose rider is Death (cf. Apoc 6:8), namely illicit sex. Certain death follows the HIV infection; in African towns and villages death follows swiftly, within two to three years. Because of AIDS, avoiding illicit sex has literally and dramatically become a matter of survival. Grim reality in the field elbows aside the starry-eyed theory of "Consequentialism" championed in Western classrooms.

Will seminary professors abandon these novelties, as the Pope asks, and return to the traditional teaching that certain things are intrinsically evil? The Pope clearly expects them to do so. He knows that the stakes are high, and he makes his appeal very plain (No. 81):

In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: "Do not be deceived: neither the immoral nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revelers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-11).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain "irremediably" evil acts; per se and in themselves. They are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. Saint Augustine writes: "As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?"

The pope cuts through the obscurities of Consequentialism, and of auto-created consciences, in these words spoken to a group of Bishops from the USA:

The young women and men of America, and indeed of the whole Western World, who are often victims of educational theories which propose that "feeling good about themselves" is a guiding moral principle, are asking to be led out of this moral confusion. All those who teach in the name of the Church should fearlessly honour the dignity of the moral conscience as the sanctuary in which the voice of God is heard (cf. Gaudium et Spes No.16); but with equal care they should proclaim, in opposition to all subjectivism, that conscience is not a tribunal which creates the good; conscience must be formed in the light of universal and objective norms of morality (cf. L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 29 Sept. 1993).

Part Three begins with the reminder that "only the freedom which submits to the truth leads the human person to his true good." It goes on to state that the secret of the power of the Church to educate is "not so much In doctrinal statements and pastoral appeals to vigilance, as in constantly looking to the Lord Jesus" (No. 85); that is, by looking especially at the crucified Christ each day, with unfailing love, aware that the final answer to the problems of morality lies in him alone. It is there that we learn how obedience to universal moral norms respects the uniqueness and dignity of each person, and does not threaten it.

Faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, not simply a set of intellectually accepted principles. The martyrs have confirmed in a particularly eloquent way the unacceptability of teleological, consequentialist, and proportionalist theories (No. 90). Martyrdom exposes as false and deceiving whatever "human meaning" one might claim to see even in exceptional conditions, when faced with the necessity of avoiding an act which is intrinsically evil. Doing an evil "is a violation of man's humanity" (No.92).

Martyrdom represents the high point of giving personal witness to moral truth, but all Christians "must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice, their witness to moral truth" (No. 93). When it is a matter of refusing to do what is intrinsically evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone, be it people of high rank or low. "Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal" (No. 96).

We are to trust the Wisdom of God who has written His law luminously into our hearts: who desires His free creatures to be morally good, as He is eminently good in Being. What man cannot achieve with limited power, God makes possible when man calls upon Him for assistance. God also waits patiently for conversion, being merciful and forgiving, one who understands our human weakness. But "what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy" (No. 104).

A departure from the traditional doctrine which recognizes intrinsically evil acts, unglues the economic and political structures of the human community. "If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people" (No. 99). The force of power takes over, and each person tends to impose his interests over others, with no regard for the rights of fellow humans. Modern totalitarianism grows out of the denial of the transcendent dignity of man and his relationship with God. Religious yearnings of the human heart are absorbed once again into politics. A democracy without values, or one allied with ethical relativism, easily turns into raw or disguised totalitarianism (No. 101).

The Pope reminds fellow bishops to teach the entire truth to their faithful, without skipping over difficult commandments. "Bishops have the grave duty to instruct the faithful - especially future Pastors -about all those commandments and practical norms authoritatively declared by the Church" (No. 110). This truth is not dependent upon a majority vote. Rather, the answer to the question about morality "has been entrusted by Jesus Christ in a particular way to us, Pastors of the Church" (No. 114).

Bishops should have recourse to "appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory" which is contrary to the word of God. It falls to them to take away the title of "Catholic" from Church-related schools, health facilities and counseling services ... in cases of serious failure to live up to that title" (No. 116).

The Encyclical generates profound hope in the reader, and trust in what is true, good, and free. It clarifies the very basic principle that one is never allowed to do evil in order to get good results. It luminously explains the natural law, which is God's wisdom directing the human mind and will. It argues that a person cannot shirk responsibility for what his soul freely does in the body, since body and soul are one personal identity. We become in being what we do In action, whether good or evil. It tells how the Spirit given by Christ makes the Church to be ever alive and capacitates her members to walk in the ways of God.

Nineteen hundred years ago a Pope Clement wrote a long and masterful letter to a very troubled church in Corinth. The fact that the letter became so well known suggests that the letter was a success, that the Church of Corinth healed itself by order and discipline. On October 5, 1993 the successor of Pope Clement issued a letter to a troubled universal Church, a letter which comes straight from the heart of a concerned Pope John Paul II. This letter, too, is a sign post offered by the Pope who presides with love. Will it bring a similar happy result, peace not only in one church at Corinth, but in the Catholic and universal Church around the globe?

Aware of the grave situation and the need of supernatural assistance, the Pope closes the Encyclical with a salute to Mary, and an earnest prayer for help:

0 Mary, Mother of Mercy, watch over all people, that the Cross of Christ may not be emptied of its power, that man may not stray from the path of good or become blind to sin, but may put his hope ever more fully in God who is "rich in mercy" (Eph 2:4). May he carry out the good works prepared by God beforehand (cf. Eph 2: 10) and so live completely "for the praise of his glory" (Eph 1: 12).

We see today how space scientists use precise mathematical formulae to guide space ships to the moon, or to a rendezvous with the planets. The pope invites us to be equally inventive by calculating the trajectory to eternal life not by guess, nor by wishful thinking, but by allowing Veritatis Splendor to be the guiding principle.

Certain Vatican watchers had expected the pope to write this encyclical with a face contorted by a frown, his pen pouring out righteous indignation, his spirit flailing away at adversaries. Instead of that, the Encyclical reads more like the measured elegance of St. Luke's Christmas story: truth and goodness are quietly put on neat exhibit for the contemplation and edification of those who wish to see; who, like the shepherds, decide to go to Bethlehem "to see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about" (Lk 2: 9).

The Encyclical fills the reader with some of the nostalgia of Christmas. It plays its symphony of truths with cogent arguments and clairvoyant imagery, illustrated throughout by apt quotations of Scripture and illuminating witnesses to Tradition. The articulate sentences and paragraphs satisfy the reader by their persuasiveness and even by their beauty of form, much as the lovely face of the Babe in the manger reveals God's kindness, being a threat to no one who has good will, inviting onlookers to gaze and to love.

Yet with all its innocence, this historic Encyclical has a rock-solid hardness and permanence, which is certain to alter significantly the course of human history.