Language, Truth, and Reality: Revisiting Veritatis Splendor on its 25th anniversary

It is time to engage in a creative retrieval of this work so as to revitalize the present theological culture and life of the Church from its drift toward what is nothing other than a new modernism.

Pope John Paul II prays during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 2003. (CNS photo by Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

2018 is a year of significant anniversaries for papal encyclicals: July 25 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae; August 6th is the twentieth-fifth anniversary on August 6 of St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor; and September 14th is the twentieth anniversary of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio.

My focus in this article is on Veritatis Splendor (hereafter VS), with some mention of Fides et Ratio (hereafter FR). I seek to illuminate the issues dividing John Paul’s Lérinian understanding of doctrinal development, which is indebted to Vatican II, in the realm of morality with that of proponents of a “new paradigm,” in particular Richard Gaillardetz, Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College, who advances a notion of pastoral-oriented doctrinal development in light of what Christoph Theobald, SJ, Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Jesuit Faculties of Paris, has called “the principle of pastorality”.

In the following, I consider the crucial matters of the nature of divine revelation, language, truth, and reality, propositional truth and how truth is authenticated, as well as the normative and comprehensive dynamics of the moral life. These matters are fundamental to their respective understandings of doctrinal and moral development.

Lérinian legacy of Vatican II
According to John Paul II, analysis of moral actions is situated in the normative and comprehensive dynamics of the moral life, which are fourfold.

These are: [1] the subordination of man and his activity to God, the One who ‘alone is good’; [2] the relationship between the moral good of human acts and eternal life; [3] Christian discipleship, which opens us before the perspective of perfect love; and finally [4] the gift of the Holy Spirit, source and means of the moral life of the ‘new creation’ (cf. 2 Cor 5:17)” (VS §28).

Briefly, God, the “Supreme Good” (FR §83), is the chief end of man’s whole moral life (cf. VS §79),—the source and ground of all goodness—but also Truth itself (prima veritas) (VS §§9, 35, 40; FR §22). Good moral actions must be virtuous, conforming to the moral law, and the good of the person himself (cf. VS §79), and only then are they consistent with that end and hence integrally good. Furthermore, the truths of the moral life must be lived out, practiced, carried out, as integral to Christian discipleship, and hence cannot be reduced to being merely believed, asserted, and claimed. Finally, to be a “new creation” in Christ means that the moral life in Christ is about the renewal of man’s fallen nature from within the order of creation by God’s redemptive grace in Christ, properly ordering man to his chief end. In short, our Adamic humanity, with its darkened understanding, alienation from God, and blindness of heart, is transformed in Christ, putting on the new man, “created according to God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24). God who created all things in and through Christ (Col 1: 16), has restored his fallen creation, which was savagely wounded by sin, by re-creating it in Christ.

In this normative setting, says John Paul, “Sacred Scripture remains the living and fruitful source of the Church’s moral doctrine; as the Second Vatican Council recalled, the Gospel is ‘the source of all saving truth and moral teaching’ [Dei Verbum §7].” In particular, he holds “that there exist, in Divine Revelation, a specific and determined moral content, universally valid and permanent” (VS §37). In general, John Paul claims, “The Bible, and the New Testament in particular, contains texts and statements which have a genuinely ontological content. The inspired authors intended to formulate true statements, capable, that is, of expressing objective reality.” In addition, says John Paul, “This applies equally to the judgments of moral conscience, which Sacred Scripture considers capable of being objectively true” (FR §82). The pope develops this very claim in VS §60:

The dignity of this rational forum (conscience) and the authority of its voice and judgments derive from the truth about moral good and evil, which it is called to listen to and express. This truth is indicated by the ‘divine law’, the universal and objective norm of morality” (see the whole context, §§57-61, 51-53).

These moral truths are grounded in the eternal law of God, and that law gives moral propositions something to be true of without which moral objectivity would be groundless. Underscoring the universal and permanent validity of moral propositions is foundational for understanding why there are intrinsically evil acts. These moral truths belong to the deposit of faith. Assisted by the Holy Spirit, the Church has attained a doctrinal development about morality that is “analogous to that which has taken place in the realm of the truths of faith. (VS §28)

Development here is by way of clarification, that is, “‘looking for a more appropriate way of communicating doctrine to the people of their time; since there is a difference between the deposit or the truths of faith and the manner in which they are expressed, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia]’ [Gaudium et Spes §62]” (VS §29). In line, then, with the thought of Vincent of Lérins (d. 450), John Paul follows Vatican II by distinguishing between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, truth-content and context, in sum, propositions and sentences. John XXIII alluded to these distinctions in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia:

For the deposit of faith [2 Tim 1:14], the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.”

The subordinate clause here – eodem sensu eademque sententia – is part of a larger passage from Vatican I’s Dei Filius (4.14), and this passage is, in turn, from the Commonitórium primum (23.3) of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.” We must always determine whether those new re-formulations are preserving the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths.

Pastoral-oriented doctrine
Contra Gaillardetz, who claims that “Vatican II offered a new way of thinking about doctrine,” meaning thereby that “it presented doctrine as something that always needed to be interpreted and appropriated in a pastoral key”, the Council and John XXIII alluded to the truths contained in our sacred teaching as propositional truths—that is, absolute truths—meaning thereby truths that are unchangeable, permanent, and universal. This presupposes a realist view of truth in which a proposition is true if and only if what it asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise it is false. The crucial difference here between Vatican II, John Paul II, on the one hand, and Gaillardetz, on the other, pertain to the relation between language, truth, and reality in respect of doctrine.

As far as I understand Gaillardetz, pastoral means that “the central values embedded in doctrine” or in “particular doctrinal formulations [are] mediated by the saving message of God’s transforming love” [1]. For Gaillardetz, the affirmations of faith do not have a determinable content of propositional truth in respect of their correspondence to reality. This is an instrumentalist or functionalist view of doctrine reminiscent of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century modernist rather than a realist view with its corresponding notion of propositional truth (see Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis §§11-13). These “truths” are understood in a purely functional way (see FR §97). Dogma bears no determinative relation to truth itself because the truth-status of doctrinal formulations have as such no proper referencing function to reality. Rather, they are historically determined [2], which means that Gaillardetz historicizes the meaning and truth of dogma by expanding the meaning of pastoral. “Pastoral” here has a historicist meaning, explicitly or implicitly denying the enduring validity of propositional truth: truth itself and not just its formulations are subject to reform and perpetual reinterpretation.

The principle of pastorality
This is precisely how Christoph Theobald, SJ, defines the “principle of pastorality” in his contribution to the volume titled Legacy of Vatican II. [3] This principle collapses the distinction of unchanging truth and their formulations into a historical context, meaning thereby, as Theobald puts it, that it is “subject to continual reinterpretation [and re-contextualization] according to the situation of those to whom it is transmitted.” He claims that the expression, “substance of the deposit of faith” should be “taken as a whole and without making reference to an internal plurality [i.e., unchangeable truth and its formulations] that is already part of such an expression.” On this principle, doctrines are not absolute truths, or objectively true affirmations, because what they assert is in fact the case about objective reality (see FR §82).

Gaillardetz cites fellow theologian John O’Brien to explain this historicist view that underpins the claim that doctrine has a pastoral orientation:

[The] pastoral had regained [with Pope John XXIII] its proper standing as something far more than mere application of doctrine but as the very context from which doctrines emerge, the very condition of the possibility of doctrine, the touchstone for the validity of doctrine and the always prior and posterior praxis which doctrine at most, attempts to sum up, safeguard, and transmit. [4]

O’Brien’s statement is saying much more than “the specific formulation of doctrine represents an acknowledgment that doctrine is always historically conditioned”. [5] It is also saying much more than “the interpretation of church doctrine requires knowledge of the specific historical contexts in which it was first formulated and in which it is being appropriated.” Of course to grasp the meaning of a dogma, such as the Trinitarian and Christological formulations, we must understand their historical context. But we are not simply interested in the conditions under which these statements were originally asserted, but rather particularly with “what is asserted in them, the theological truth-content.”

Realist view of truth
For example, if the assertions of the Apostles Creed, as the late British theologian Colin Gunton correctly notes, “were once true, they are always true.” In other words, these statements never stopped being true, even after Jesus stopped suffering, and so on, and hence are now forever true. Consider, for example, the assertion expressing the proposition, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Yes, we are focusing here on propositional truth, on the truth of what St. Paul asserted, the theological truth-content, rather than on the fact that he asserted it in a particular context, and so forth. Indeed, this is the case “even though we may need to explain, gloss and expand them in all kinds of ways.” In other words, the claim that once something is true it is always true, forever true, and unchangeably true, is not inconsistent with finding new ways of expressing the truth of dogmas when the need arises. Therefore, the question at hand is, arguably, a matter of judging whether or not what is meant is true to objective reality, and not, contra O’Brien and hence Gaillardetz, the historical circumstances in which the dogmatic assertion was made. In other words, those circumstances are not “the touchstone for the validity of doctrine.”

Thus, although O’Brien, cited above by Gaillardetz, is correct that historical conditions are particularly relevant as the conditions under which we come to know that something is true, those conditions are distinct from the conditions under which something is true. In sum, conditions of truth must be distinguished from conditions of justification. But the above passage seems to blur the distinction between the conditions under which I come to know that a doctrine is true with the conditions that make it true. In that blurring, it is clear that Gaillardetz is both a historicist about doctrine and hence an anti-realist about language, truth, and reality. Says Gaillardetz:

Doctrine changes when pastoral contexts shift and new insights emerge such that particular doctrinal formulations no longer mediate the saving message of God’s transforming love. Doctrine changes when the church has leaders and teachers who are not afraid to take note of new contexts and emerging insights.

Contra Gaillardetz, however, Vatican II’s Lérinian hermeneutics is realist in orientation because a doctrinal proposition is true if and only if what that proposition asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, the proposition is false. It is not the historical context that determines the truth of the proposition that is judged to be the case about objective reality; rather, reality itself determines the truth or falsity of a proposition. In sum, the historical context does not determine the validity—the truth-status—of the doctrine.

Hence, Gaillardetz is a historicist regarding the truth-status of dogmatic formulations and an instrumentalist or pragmatist because he rejects propositional truth and the corresponding idea, as John Paul II states, that “dogmatic statements, while reflecting at times the culture of the period in which they were defined, formulate an unchanging and ultimate truth.” John Paul adds:

Human language may be conditioned by history and constricted in other ways, but the human being can still express truths which surpass the phenomenon of language. Truth can never be confined to time and culture; in history it is known, but it also reaches beyond history. (FR §95).

Lérinian interpretations
In this light, we can understand that John Paul did Lérinian interpretations when he successfully synthesized into a coherent whole personalism, existential/hermeneutic phenomenology, and Thomism in his philosophical and theological work. This synthesis shows itself in his many works on Christian anthropology, metaphysics, and sexual ethics. In a Lérinian manner he acknowledged a “need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth.” He explains: “

This truth of the moral law – like that of the ‘deposit of faith’ – unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” [keeping the same meaning and the same judgment] in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium, whose decision is preceded and accompanied by the work of interpretation and formulation characteristic of the reason of individual believers and of theological reflection. (VS §53).

The understanding of the truth of the moral law has unfolded in the interpretation and application of that law down the centuries. Drawing on the distinction between truth and its formulations, between moral propositions and their linguistic expressions, John Paul explains that the moral norms expressive of moral truths, although taking account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstance, “remain valid in their substance” and hence “must be specified and determined ‘eodem sensu eademque sententia’ [according to the same meaning and the same judgment]” about that moral truth. So, there is growth in the understanding of moral truth, seeking out and discovering “the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms” without changing the substantive and determinate truth of morality.

Now, Gaillardetz would probably respond to John Paul II’s idea of propositional revelation and the corresponding notion of dogmatic truth by charging that it forgets “almost entirely the ancient conviction that divine revelation has come to us first and primarily as an offer to saving communion in the person of Jesus Christ”. [6] But God revealing himself as well as revealing truths about himself, man, and the world are two compatible descriptions of revelation; similarly, dialogical and propositional views of revelation are compatible.

The nature of Divine Revelation
Revelation is personal because in a fundamental sense, God reveals himself, and so we may say that the content of revelation is God’s own proper reality, his self-revelation, the gift of himself, in the words of the late Germain Grisez, “as a communion of persons inviting human persons to enter into communion.” God is then the who of divine revelation.

Revelation is Christological and pneumatological because, in the words of Dei Verbum:

His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature (cf. Eph. 2:18; 2 Pet. 1:4). By this revelation, then, the invisible God (cf. Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17), from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends (cf. Ex. 33:11; Jn. 15:14–15), and moves among them (cf. Bar. 3:38), in order to invite and receive them into his own company. (DV, §2)

This is the to whom of divine revelation. Indeed, Dei Verbum discloses that the soteriological purpose of God’s self-revelation is coming to know him. This is the why of divine revelation. “Now this is life eternal: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We are invited, therefore, to Trinitarian communion with the Father, through the Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Revelation is, then, not the mere communication of truths but rather “the life-bestowing self-communication of the Trinitarian God, in which he addresses humans as friends,” as Dei Verbum states. Thus, the notions of revelation as life-transforming and as information-providing are not incompatible.

Indeed, there is the necessity of a cognitive and propositional understanding of revelation.

It seems to me that Dei Verbum §2 recognizes that we need to be taught by God in its affirmation that “the plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity.” In other words, Dei Verbum states that there are two distinct but intrinsically united modes of revelation, and hence it speaks of the deed-word revelation. In the words of George Eldon Ladd, “Christ died is the deed; Christ died for our sins is the [divinely given] word of interpretation that makes the act revelatory.”

Thus, jointly constitutive of God’s special revelation are its inseparably connected words (verbal revelation) and deeds, intrinsically bound to each other because neither is complete without the other; the historical realities of redemption are inseparably connected to God’s verbal communication of truth in order that we may, as Catholic theologian Francis Martin puts it, “participate more fully in the realities mediated by the words.” In other words, a core presupposition of the concept of revelation in Dei Verbum §2 is that “without God’s acts the words would be empty, without His word the acts would be blind,” as was admirably stated by Reformed theologian Geerhardus Vos.

Furthermore, the idea that God’s self-revelation is a word-revelation, forming an essential element of God’s self-revelation, entails the idea of propositional revelation, of revealed truth, namely, that assertions expressing propositions are part of the way God reveals himself. Contra Gaillardetz, Dei Verbum, also affirms the centrality of “assertions,” or propositions, by the Holy Spirit in God’s verbal revelation:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. (§11)

Aidan Nichols, OP, is right. “Whatever else doctrines are, they are propositions, and no account of revelation which would exclude propositions wholly from its purview could do justice to the role of doctrines in Catholic Christianity.” Given Gaillardetz instrumentalist and functionalist view of doctrine, and his corresponding anti-realism, his pastoral-oriented “new paradigm” cannot do justice to the role of doctrines in Catholicism because there is no intrinsic link between language, truth, and reality regarding the truth-status of dogmatic formulations.

Authentication of truth
In conclusion, although propositional truth is an indispensable dimension of truth itself, how truth is authenticated—that is, lived out, practiced, carried out—cannot be reduced to it—to being merely believed, asserted, and claimed because “what is communicated in catechesis is not [merely] a body of conceptual truths, but the mystery of the living God” (FR §99). In other words, says John Paul,

The intellectus fidei expounds [these] truth[s], not only in grasping the logical and conceptual structure of the propositions in which the Church’s teaching is framed, but also, indeed, primarily, in bringing to light the salvific meaning of these propositions for the individual and for humanity. From the sum of these propositions, the believer comes to know the history of salvation, which culminates in the person of Jesus Christ and in his Paschal Mystery. Believers thus share in this mystery by their assent of faith. (FR §66).

Regarding, then, the fundamental question of how truth is authenticated, including moral truth, John Paul correctly notes, that it is not merely about propositional truth, but rather how truth is borne out in life. He writes:

It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word, in any event, is not truly received until it passes into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one’s whole existence. It is an encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters. Faith also possesses a moral content. It gives rise to and calls for a consistent life commitment; it entails and brings to perfection the acceptance and observance of God’s commandments. (VS §88)

On this twentieth-fifth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s great encyclical Veritatis Splendor, it is time to engage in a creative retrieval of this work so as to revitalize the present theological culture and life of the Church from its drift toward what is nothing other than a new modernism.


[1] An Unfinished Council, Vatican II, Pope Francis, and The Renewal of Catholicism (Michael Glazier, 2015), 134-135.
[2] An Unfinished Council, 52.
[3] “The Principle of Pastorality at Vatican II”,  Legacy of Vatican II (Paulist Press, 2015), edited by Massimo Faggioli and Andrea Vicini S.J.
[4] An Unfinished Council, 38.
[5] An Unfinished Council, 52.
[6] An Unfinished Council, 7.

Related at CWR: 
“The Truth is Still Splendid: Veritatis Splendor at 25″ (Aug. 2, 2018) by Dr. Samuel Gregg
“Archbishop Chaput on the enduring legacy of Veritatis splendor (Sept. 12, 2017)
• “The Four Cardinals and the Encyclical in the Room” (Nov. 28, 2016) by Carl E. Olson

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Eduardo Echeverria 33 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.


  1. Bravo to our distinguished contributor.

    What I find fascinating is that the banner-bearing of “no moral absolutes” for five decades are now shouting the “absolute” nature of the latest nuttiness put into the Catechism on capital punishment. Nota bene: I am opposed to the exercise of capital punishment, which is a horse of a different color from the immorality of its exercise under certain conditions. Like Holy Communion for the divorced/remarried?

  2. “Roman Amerio was right.”

    More and more contemporary “pastorality” seems like “babying” and making excuses for people and thus hindering true spiritual progress.

  3. Honestly, why does this have to be made to sound so complex? Because Modernist Catholics travel in verbosity, and we need to kill them with their own choice of weaponry? I had to read this piece with a decoder to nail the points. But I believe EE and JPII both were saying 1) God actually used human speech and words to tell humans about Himself; 2) We can believe Scripture is a reliable record of these words, providentially bequeathed to us; and 3) as great as these divinely-given words are, Scripture and Tradition only turn to spiritual electricity when believed and lived by faith in the actual lives of you and me. Like the liturgy and the Church, personal faith is vital in any effect they have on us. If that’s the point, I say Hear ! Hear! And thanks to both men for reminding us of what’s the essence of our religion.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Language, Truth, and Reality: Revisiting Veritatis Splendor on its 25th anniversary -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.