Outside the Catholic world, the issuing of papal encyclicals rarely garners much attention. That, however, wasn’t the case when, 25 years ago, John Paul II promulgated his long pontificate’s most controversial encyclical on August 6, 1993.
Its very title, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), threw down a gauntlet to societies—and a church—increasingly in thrall to relativism. Major newspapers not only gave considerable coverage to Veritatis Splendor’s release; they opened their opinion-pages to the encyclical’s supporters and critics, with Catholics and non-Catholics found on both sides.
The fact that this division didn’t break down along “Catholics-versus-everyone-else” lines was revealing. First, it underscored that some Catholic scholars had effectively rejected something which the Church has taught unambiguously from its beginning: that certain acts are intrinsically evil (intrinsece malum) and never to be chosen. Second, it became apparent that many non-Catholics understood how denying such moral absolutes strikes at the heart of any society which aspires to be civilized.
I was barely in my twenties when the encyclical appeared. I’ll never forget, however, a Jewish friend commenting that he considered it indispensable reading for anyone who didn’t want to see the West collapse any further into a morass of moral incoherence. There was simply, he said, no other contemporary document like it.
Veritatis Splendor was certainly that rarity: a post-1960s text which forcibly challenged the moral subjectivism and sentimentalism which had permeated most Western culture-shaping institutions. But the encyclical wasn’t just about reaffirming basic Catholic moral teaching. It sought to present to a church and world increasingly settling for moral mediocrity a compelling narrative about what freedom and the good life are really about.
The rise of the new morality
Skepticism about humanity’s ability to know truth can be traced back as far as the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (circa 365-275 BC). Christianity, however, has always insisted that humans can know moral truth through faith and reason.
This includes the truth, as John Paul wrote in his 1984 exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, that there are “acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” His next line describes this as “a doctrine, based on the Decalogue and on the preaching of the New Testament, and assimilated into the kerygma of the Apostles and belonging to the earliest teaching of the Church” (RP 17).
That’s about as specific as a pope can get. But John Paul’s unambiguous reaffirmation of the existence of what are called exceptionless moral norms indicated his awareness that some Catholic theologians had all but abandoned what Veritatis Splendor would describe as a matter of “revealed faith” (VS 29).
One reason for this abandonment was the concerted campaign before and after Humanae Vitae to overturn settled Catholic teaching on contraception. The Church’s equally settled position that certain acts may never be chosen constituted an insurmountable barrier to any such reversal.
Some theologians concluded, without directly saying so, that this teaching had to be rendered meaningless so that contraception need not be understood as always contra the good of life. The result was, Veritatis Splendor bluntly stated, was “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine” (VS 4) and, many would add, perhaps two generations of Catholic clergy in many seminaries being serious malformed in moral theology.
This, however, isn’t the whole story. Some roots of the problems identified by Veritatis Splendor went back further—especially to how Catholic moral theology had been widely understood in the decades leading up to Vatican II.
A comprehensive account of these developments may be found in Servais Pinckaers, OP’s The Sources of Christian Ethics. This illustrated how Catholic moral analysis had become detached from reflection on Scriptural and Patristic sources, inattentive to the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and highly focused on a morality of obligation issuing from law. The latter’s influence, Pinckaers argued, was exacerbated by the popularity of Kantian ethics and its emphasis on the categorical imperative among German theologians from the nineteenth century onwards.
As a result, much pre-Vatican II Catholic moral theology was marked by considerable tensions between freedom and law. According to Pinckaers, “law” had “the appearance of a pressure external to the person, despite all attempts to interiorize and justify it.” That encouraged many confessors to stress rules-for-the-sake-of-rules. “Freedom” was thus reduced to “whatever isn’t forbidden.” Taken together, this contributed to a mentality of “how far can I go without breaking the rules?”
The upshot of this were often legalistic approaches to morality. When the Church consequently came under immense pressure in the 1960s to abandon its opposition to contraception, much of the moral theology being taught in the Roman universities and seminaries around the world wasn’t well-equipped to respond adequately.
It was against this background that scholars like Pinckaers sought to renew Catholic moral theology after Vatican II. Renewal, however, isn’t the same as displacement. Some Catholic moralists saw the contraception controversy as an opportunity to further their efforts to construct a new morality: one which retained some of the language and structure of Catholic moral reasoning but embodied ways of ethical reflection far removed from Catholic teaching.
Errors old and new
One of Veritatis Splendor’s objectives was to explain major errors characterizing particular theories advanced by influential Catholic moralists who became prominent in the 1960s. While these individuals weren’t named, it’s not hard to identify who they were.
Consider the encyclical’s critique of what was called “the fundamental option.” This position was associated with the German Redemptorist theologian Bernard Häring (1912-1998) who taught for many years at Rome’s Alphonsian Academy. In brief, it involved stating that what ultimately mattered for morality was the radical choice for faith in God.
This “fundamental option” for Christ was, the argument went, of much greater consequence than more particular free choices. As long as you love Christ, you’ll remain a Christ-centered person. You shouldn’t subsequently fear that God will get too concerned about any number of actions always understood as gravely sinful by the Church.
Häring, his defenders might reply, was trying to help Catholic moral theology escape a fixation with rules and to underscore love as the fundamental way of the Christian. But while affirming that the Christian is someone who’s made a fundamental choice for Christ, Veritatis Splendor also stated that Christianity has always understood this same choice to be linked to doing certain acts and always, without exception, refraining from other particular actions (VS 66-67, 84).
That’s one reason why the encyclical’s analysis of Christ’s encounter with the rich young man identifies the choice to always follow the negative commandments listed in the Decalogue’s second tablet (don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.) as “the basic condition” (VS 13) for life in Christ. For these “negative precepts” protect and promote goods like life and truth-telling which are core to our nature as humans and provide content to the great commandment to love God and our neighbor (VS 13).
Veritatis Splendor also observes that each of my free choices for or against these goods engages the fullness of my reason and free will (VS 71). Accordingly, should I freely choose to murder someone, I can’t help but damage my fundamental option for Christ who teaches us that this choice is never compatible with life in him.
Of course, our friendship with Christ is restorable via another free choice: the confessing of the sins that broke our relationship with Christ and a loving God’s ensuing forgiveness. Nor is it enough to just “do no evil.” We’re also called to do good. To claim, however, that our basic free choice for God can somehow be reconciled with free choices for evil is to fly in the face of both Catholic faith and reason itself.
A second category of approaches to morality condemned by Veritatis Splendor is likewise characterized by their implicit denial that certain acts may never done. These theories are grouped under the titles of “consequentialism” and “proportionalism.” The first holds that an act’s morality is determined by calculating the foreseeable consequences of our free choices. The second maintains we make moral choices by determining the proportions of evil and good that’s probable in a given act.
To find a generic representative of these ways of thinking, we need look no further than Josef Fuchs, SJ, (1912-2005), another well-known German theologian who taught at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University for decades. The most precise expression of Fuchs’ method of moral reasoning may be found in his Christian Ethics in a Secular Arena (1984). Fuchs describes it in the following way:
Because of the co-existence of pre-moral goods and pre-moral evils in every human act, we must determine the moral rightness or wrongness of an act by considering all the goods and evils in an act and evaluating whether the evil or the good for human beings is prevalent in the act, considering in this evaluation the hierarchy of values involved and the pressing character of certain values in the concrete.
For Fuchs, then, one or more aspects of an act might be evil. But that act may still be undertaken if you’re compared the totality of evils and goods in that act, concluded that the goods outweigh the evils, and measured this against the totality of bads and goods involved in alternative acts.
That, however, contradicts the Christian teaching that an act is good only if good in all relevant respects and evil if defective in any respect (Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu). It also nullifies the very idea of intrinsically evil acts.
But there’s also a philosophical problem with Fuchs’ method. It assumes that we can measure moral goods and evils.
Humans can certainly weigh those outcomes which are quantifiable. This occurs all the time in the natural sciences and particular social sciences like economics. But, Veritatis Splendor stressed, proportionalists and consequentialists were proposing that we can comparatively evaluate things which are in many ways incomparable and unquantifiable.
Precisely how might you determine, for instance, that three evils potentially realized in an act outweigh, say, two goods potentially realized by the same act? How do you measure the effects of an evil like stealing against the impact of pursuing a good like knowledge of truth? From what perspective can any human being propose to engage in such weighing in a way that’s reasonable? In short, Fuchs and his followers were proposing a commensuration of things which are incommensurable.
This wasn’t a new philosophical error. The same mistake plagues Jeremy Bentham’s act-utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill’s rule-utilitarianism: the error of seeking to measure the immeasurable. Thus Veritatis Splendor highlighted “the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects . . . of one’s own acts.” Such “an exhaustive rational calculation,” the encyclical added, “is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure?” (VS 77).
It follows that if you embrace proportionalism or consequentialism then, at some point, you’re bound to become arbitrary in the way you make moral judgments. And to be arbitrary in one’s moral reasoning is to be irrational. Indeed, the only being who could possibly know all the foreseen (let alone the unforeseen!) good and evil effects of any given free choice is God—and Him we human beings most certainly are not.
When the encyclical appeared, some proportionalists and consequentialists maintained they did believe in moral absolutes. Their writings, however, demonstrated that they didn’t understand moral absolutes in the same way that Christ, Paul, Augustine and Aquinas did.
Instead we find formulations like those proposed by the Jesuit moralist Bruno Schüller (1925-2007) in a 1980 festschrift for Karl Rahner, SJ. These take the form of tautologies like “don’t steal when it would be wrong to do so” or “don’t kill wrongfully.” They leave open the possibility that there might be such things as “rightful stealing.” That’s contrary to Catholicism’s understanding of moral absolutes because the object of an act of theft is always evil, and therefore irreconcilable with the good.
Denying moral absolutes, however, does something else. It opens the door to people rationalizing evil.
In a 2005 essay, Joseph Ratzinger noted that “a moral theologian, now deceased, once remarked that “good means ‘only better than.” Reflecting on that claim, Ratzinger warned, “If this is the case, nothing is intrinsically evil.” That would mean it’s conceivable that anything may be done.
If that’s true, maybe it’s tolerable to hand over the Jews in your village to the SS if you calculate that this will save the whole village from going to Auschwitz. Perhaps it’s sometimes reasonable to kill prisoners to harvest their organs if this is the only way to save innocent individuals’ lives.
Yes, these are vivid examples, and no doubt some proportionalists and consequentialists would never have countenanced such choices. The difficulty is that their theories couldn’t generate an in-principle objection to such actions ever being undertaken.
This is what my Jewish friend found so impressive about Veritatis Splendor. Its insistence on the moral absolutes that he, as a Jew, recognized in the Decalogue wasn’t only about living a coherent moral life. He grasped that they protect the weak from the strong, the fashionable, the loud, and the ruthless.
Christian morality’s more excellent way
Other errors which had permeated Catholic moral theology since the 1960s were critiqued in Veritatis Splendor. Yet there was another side to the encyclical: its effort to show how striving to live the way of Christian morality is a path to grandeur for everyone, however humble our station in life.
In a 2014 interview with Commonweal, Cardinal Walter Kasper asserted that “heroism”—by which he appears to have meant heroic virtue—“is not for the average Christian.” But settling for moral mediocrity isn’t Veritatis Splendor’s view of the Christian vocation. This is spelt out in the encyclical’s first and third chapters. These integrate freedom and truth in ways which ensure they aren’t at odds but rather directed to the fullest realization of life in Christ.
Against those who reduce freedom to absent of constraint, Veritatis Splendor specified that Christianity’s understanding of liberty goes beyond this. Freedom, it emphasized, is inseparable from man’s unique capacity for reason, free will, and consequent ability to know and choose more-than-instrumental-goods. When we constantly strive to choose these goods and avoid evil, we shape ourselves in the direction of the true, good and beautiful. No longer are we slaves of our passions. Instead we become wholly free and more truly alive.
To this end, Veritatis Splendor reminds us that the completeness of the liberty to which our reason directs us is found in Christ: the Logos who opens up to us the prospect of eternal life and the Revelation that God is capital “L” Love. From this standpoint, Christian moral principles aren’t “rules-for-rules-sake.” Instead “the rules” are intimately concerned with living in the Truth.
Obviously we can’t do this on our own. Veritatis Splendor recalls Paul’s insight that while we can know and choose the good, we’re also drawn to evil. All of us have violated one or more of the negative commandments. Hence, the encyclical underscores, we need grace (VS 102-105).
In some of its most powerful passages, Veritatis Splendor points to the saints and martyrs as those who testify that keeping God’s law is “never impossible” (VS 102). Their lives demonstrate, John Paul wrote, that “It would be a very serious error to conclude . . . that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’” (VS 103). The saints and martyrs show us that everyone is capable of holiness: that, as the encyclical insists, “It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal” (VS 96).
No doubt, enduring pain or even losing one’s life by witnessing to the moral absolutes central to Christian moral reasoning—by refusing like the Japanese Jesuit Paul Miki to deny one’s faith; by refusing like Thomas More to lie on oath; by refusing like the Ugandan boy-pages to submit to the king’s sexual demands—makes little sense to the consistent utilitarian. Veritatis Splendor, by contrast, underscores how a truly Christian ethics firmly incorporates our free choices against evil and for the good into our witnessing to the Kingdom of God.
Because every time we respect what Veritatis Splendor called “certain fundamental goods” (VS 48)—especially when doing so means suffering—we illustrate that Christian morality is no mere “ideal.” Instead man’s capacity for true freedom and excellence and the workings of God’s grace are shown to be real. And that reality is a foretaste of the Kingdom which is to come.
Such is the radiance of the greatest of truths which, if we choose, sets us free.