Here is the text from Tuesday night's talk:
Veritatis Splendor (VS) and the Renewal of Moral Theology
John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, available online at
Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, eds, DiNoia and Cessario, Our Sunday
Visitor Press, 1999.
William May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, Second Edition, Our Sunday Visitor Press,
William May, Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, Second Edition, Our Sunday Visitor
John S. Grabowski, Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics, Catholic University of
America Press, 2003.
In 1987 Pope John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter on the centenary of the death of St. Alphonsus Liguori, who is the patron of moral theology, within this letter he wrote that he was going to issue an encyclical on moral theology. VS is that encyclical. Yet we can tell by the 6 years in between (VS was published in 1993) that JP2 wanted to be sure he took his time in writing this encyclical. In many ways, VS is one of the more important works of JP2’s pontificate. It will probably rank only behind the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the Catechism. In fact, one of the reasons for the delay of VS was the publishing of the Catechism. These two document grew in the same climate, so to speak.
The first thing we notice about VS is that it is address to Bishops. However, upon reading it, the encyclical has a universal appeal. The fact that JP2 addressed it to the bishops shows the ecclesial nature of moral theology. Moral theology is not simply a specialty of the moral theologians, rather it gets to the essence of Christianity. Moral Theology deals with nothing less than how we become like God, how we have life with God.
Why did JP2 decide to write this encyclical? In the introduction he laments the problem of the separation between truth and freedom. This separation has been caused by many things. However, one of the contributing factors in the acceptance of the separation between truth and freedom has been the climate among Catholic moral theologians. Many of these theologians have exalted human freedom, saying that it is autonomous in its relation to the truth of Church teaching. Much of this stems from the cold reception given to Paul VI and his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which did nothing more than reiterate the long-held teaching that separating the unitive and procreative functions of the sexual act goes against Natural Law. However, many theologians found creative ways to justify the use of contraceptives, claiming that people could still be morally upright and use contraception at the same time. Two popular theological systems arose in this time: consequentialism and proportionalism; both of which were used to contradict Church teaching.
Therefore, JP2 decided to clarify things vis-à-vis the Church’s teaching regarding moral matters. But, what is interesting about this encyclical is that it is not so much about moral teachings; rather it is about arriving at moral teachings. It does not simply reiterate what the Church teaches about moral issues (i.e. contraception, abortion, euthanasia, etc); rather, this encyclical shows how to do moral theology.
Moral theology is a full discipline and it covers many issues: sexual morals, social morals, bioethics, virtue, etc. But, it is necessary to come up with a moral method before looking at all these various applications of moral theology. The problem with moral theology from 1968 was not simply the conclusions; rather, it was the faulty moral theology that arrived at all these conclusions.
Everyone should read VS, short of that I will try to cover some of the bare essentials. These essentials are also the essentials that one needs for a coherent moral theology.
First, why is there moral theology? Or, better, why do we pursue morality at all? This should be the first question that we all ask. “In the heart of every Christian, in the inmost depths of each person, there is always an echo of the question which the young man in the Gospel once asked Jesus: "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" (Mt 19:16). Everyone, however, needs to address this question to the "Good Teacher", since he is the only one who can answer in the fullness of truth, in all situations, in the most varied of circumstances.” (VS 117).
JP2 begins VS with an exploration of the story of the rich young man in Matthew’s gospel: “The dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man, related in the nineteenth chapter of Saint Matthew's Gospel, can serve as a useful guide for listening once more in a lively and direct way to his moral teaching: "Then someone came to him and said, 'Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?' And he said to him, 'Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments. 'He said to him, 'Which ones?' And Jesus said, 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' The young man said to him, 'I have kept all these; what do I still lack?' Jesus said to him, 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me' " (Mt 19:16-21)” (VS 6). In the pages that follow JP2 gives a wonderful exploration of why we should try to be moral at all. This really ties in with the title of the encyclical: Veritatis Splendor means the splendor (think beauty) of the truth. Ultimately, the moral life is a love story. It is a story where Jesus Christ loves us and asks us to follow him. The moral life is our response. It is a life lived in love. Further, it is only a life lived out of love for God that will ultimately lead to our happiness.
In fact, our lives only make sense in relation to God. What does this mean? We did not create ourselves. By reflecting on that simple fact, we begin to realize that since another (God) is responsible for our lives, the living out of the life should be done in view of our status as creatures. In other words, since God made us we should live for God. Only in this way will our lives make sense, will they have meaning, since living in a life of love centered on God is the reason we were made: we will be happy when our lives correspond to our existence as God’s creatures. In the depths of our being we have a desire for God. This desire will only be fulfilled by becoming like God. Therefore we when we constantly seek the Good, we become good. By becoming good we will grow closer to the good, and find ourselves with God forever.
Morality before the Vatican II became focused on laws: this is allowed, this is not… Many people today still want a morality like this. However, this kind of legalism does not keep in mind that the moral life is a life of love centered on God. It is more clear, that is true, but it is not as persuasive. We will never convert the nation to Christianity by telling it exactly what the Church teaches is permissible. Rather, we will convert the world if we share the person of Christ with them, and his loving promises.
It is through following God’s law that we become good. What is this law? First, the law of God is the design or plan of God for all of creation. This law that governs everything that is is called the divine law. Within this divine law there is a subset of divine law found in revelation. This is the divine law as spoken to human beings through the scriptures. Next, there is natural law. Natural law is the law of reason as it reflects on what is proper in certain circumstances. This power of reason is safeguarded by the Magisterium of the church. Still, it is human reason that discovers the Natural law.
How does law fit in particular instances? This is the role of the conscience. The conscience is the inner voice of the human being. It is a place where a man or woman can discover how the universal law fits in particular circumstances. This voice tells us: do this or avoid that. When one sins and goes against the conscience, it is the conscience that reminds the person of that sin. So, it is the conscience that is the judge and interpreter of the universal law for particular circumstances.
However, the conscience will not be able to do that if the person does not know the universal law. For example, the 10 commandments are great examples of universal law. They apply to all, everywhere. Once a person knows these commandments, he/she knows to avoid certain behaviors.
Some people say that laws like the 10 commandments actually work against human freedom. JP2 couldn’t disagree more. In fact, he says that the 10 commandments are the beginning of freedom. They are the circumstances in which human freedom can flourish.
In our day, freedom is the exercise whereby a person can do whatever they want. Christians do not believe this. Rather, God gave us freedom so that we might know, love, and serve him. Freedom is only properly exercised when we do the good. Doing evil is actually an abuse of freedom, not an expression of freedom. The more we follow the law of God, the more free we become. Think about celibacy for example. People often tell me: you cannot get married. When the truth is more like: I am so called to celibacy that I do not want to get married. For me celibacy is actually about the fulfillment of my freedom in living the celibate life, as opposed to a law of the Church that I have to follow.
It is true that God’s law feels like a burden at first. It might be difficult to kick the habit of sin. So at first the moral life is quite onerous. However, the longer one lives the moral life, the easier it becomes. The more we detach ourselves from sin the freer we become, the happier we become, the better we become. When one does the good, he/she becomes good and has a life of joy. This is the good news of the Christian life, this life of joy is possible. It takes place through the working of the Holy Spirit in the individual.
All of a sudden we see how faith and life intersect. The Christian faith proclaims the incarnation: Jesus Christ is God and man. He saves us from sin and death and we will live with him forever. It is this conviction that leads to the moral life. Why do we want to be good? First, and foremost, because we believe in God. We believe that God is good, we believe that we want to live with him; and we believe that we have to be good in order to be with he who is Good. Faith leads to life. If we want others (our kids, family members, etc) to live moral lives, we have a duty to share our life of faith with them. No one is converted by the 10 commandments, but they can be converted by the loving God who wrote them.
Here is a summary of JP2’s discussion of the rich young man: “Our meditation on the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man has enabled us to bring together the essential elements of Revelation in the Old and New Testament with regard to moral action. These are: the subordination of man and his activity to God, the One who "alone is good"; the relationship clearly indicated in the divine commandments, between the moral good of human acts and eternal life; Christian discipleship, which opens up before man the perspective of perfect love; and finally the gift of the Holy Spirit, source and means of the moral life of the "new creation" (cf. 2 Cor 5:17).” (VS 28).
After his discussion on the rich young man (a great thing to read for prayer), JP 2 turns his attention to the matters of moral theology. But, I cannot stress enough how important it is that he begins with the rich young man. It is only through the dialogue with Christ that people will even attempt the moral life.
There are major questions facing our modern age. What is freedom? The world thinks of freedom as absolute. But, as I mentioned, freedom is for the good. We believe that there is an objectively true world out there. This is the world of God. Therefore, freedom and truth are intimately linked, for freedom finds its fulfillment in truth.
Conscience is also linked to the truth. A conscience well formed will discover the truth of the application of God’s law to particular circumstances. But, the Church teaches that a conscience can be faulty. If the voice inside of us says something that the Church denounces, it is our conscience that has erred. We have a duty to form our conscience. It is the Church who is the great helper in the formation of the conscience.
Why the big emphasis on acts? I mean, I am basically a good person. So, I don’t really do good things all the time. But, I’m nice… sometimes? This is one of the most common responses when talking about morality with people. Why do we have to be good all the time? At our core we want to love God, what is the relationship between acts and this more fundamental option? JP2 says that a person might have a sort of fundamental attitude, but it is only through concrete human acts that a person becomes the sort of person that they are. For example, say I really want to be a doctor. Just having this fundamental attitude is certainly not enough. Rather, it is through concrete actions that a person becomes a doctor: taking classes, working with patients, being an intern, getting a specialization, etc. Only when a person has done all of these things will they be a doctor. It is true that their fundamental attitude hasn’t really changed, but yet they go from not being a doctor to being a doctor. What is the difference? Concrete human actions are the difference. The same thing goes in the moral life. We all want to be good (the young man in the gospel says perfect). If we don’t want to be good, we have to stop right there. We should all want to be good. Yet the difference between wanting to be good, and actually being good is found in the practice of concrete human acts.
How, then, do we evaluate human acts? This is where many of the problems of moral theology take place. There are basically three major components of the human act: object, intention, and circumstance.
First, the object is what is being chosen the by acting person. For what are you acting? Not, why, at this point, but “for what.” This is not simply a naturalistic description. What are you doing? I’m taking a pill. For what? I’m taking a pill as a means to contracept, for example.
Second, the circumstances surround the human act. These things can often change the type of act: yelling: at a football game, in church.
Third, intention: why are you doing this? I’m contracepting because I want to have a happy marriage.
Many theologians got in the habit of saying that the crucial aspect for morality is the intention. What is your intention? Why are you doing something? For some acts this might work: I’m putting 5 dollars in the collection basket. This seems like a good thing, but a bad intention could make it bad: because I want everyone to see how generous I am…
Some say that circumstances are what make something good or bad: abortion might be good or bad, it just matters on the circumstances.
JP2 disagrees with all of this. He says that the decisive component of the human act is the object rationally chosen by the acting person. What is being chosen, not why it is chosen, becomes the determining factor. There are some things that no matter why it is chosen it is always wrong: killing the innocent, the unborn, contraception, adultery, theft, torture. In order for a human act to be good, its object has to be good. Otherwise we would go against one of the first principles of moral theology: it is never permissible to do an evil even if a good might result.
What about intentions and circumstances? Intention and circumstance can render a good act bad: like the 5 dollar example or yelling in Church. However, a good intention or circumstance can never make a bad act good. Why? These objects correspond to the truth of creation. Natural law, that is the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided, determines that these actions can never be done. The go against the deepest truths of our creation. This is why most of these acts (intrinsically evil acts) are related to the good of the human person: his/her life and personal dignity. There are no intrinsically evil acts that are referred to trees.
We do hold that there are intrinsically evil acts. These acts can never be done for any reason or in any circumstance. JP2’s words:
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object".131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: "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 work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like 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 honour due to the Creator" (VS 80). He also includes contraception in the next paragraph.
JP2’s discussion of the human act is quite revolutionary. It basically put a large number of people out of work. It disqualified a large number of moral theologians, saying that their method was fundamentally flawed. Any method that does not allow for the possibility of intrinsically evil acts is flawed. Also, any method that looks primarily at the intention or circumstance for the culpability of an action is also denounced. Rather, the object is the crucial component of a human act, because it is the object that corresponds to the objective world of truth. Freedom is made for truth and it is only in the freely chosen exercise of the will that a human being is perfected, i.e. becomes good, which leads to everlasting life. If we are going to help people, we should tell them to focus on the concreteness of their actions. What is it that they are choosing? What should they be choosing instead?
Lastly, JP2 wraps up with some other points. The one I would like to call to mind is his discussion of martyrdom. The ancient (and modern for that matter) Christian martyrs were so convinced by their faith in Christ that they would rather die than commit the sin of denouncing their faith. In fact, one of the things the Romans asked the Christians to do was to burn incense to the Roman emperor. Now, they refused, they knew that Caesar was not God, but they wouldn’t even simulate worship, they wouldn’t even fake it. They would rather die than offer false worship. It might not be the case that we will be called upon to die for our faith. But, it is true that our faith should be such that were the opportunity to present itself we should rather die than sin. Again, it is only a deep faith in Christ that will lead someone to this level of commitment. But, anything less is selling ourselves short. We are called to be no less than saints. By living the moral life, please God, we will become saints.