On Veritatis Splendor

Rev. Joseph Koterski, S.J.

Select an option from the drop down menu:

On Veritatis Splendor is now available for free at CatholicThinkers.org


Course Description

This series of lectures examines the context and content of Veritatis splendor, the encyclical by Saint John Paul II on fundamental moral theology. As is typical of the Catholic approach, Veritatis splendor attempts to integrate faith and reason by using both revelation and philosophical argumentation to answer the important questions of morality.

Accordingly, this lecture series examines the pope's use of the story of Christ's encounter with the rich young man to discuss some of the basic concepts of moral theology, and to honor Vatican II's call for moral theologians to use the Scriptures pervasively and not just to cite biblical passages out of context for the confirmation of ethical positions arrived at by other means.  

This series also reviews the insights of John Paul II about four major areas of concern: freedom and law, conscience and truth, the proper way to provide a moral analysis of a deliberate human act, and the role of teleology in moral matters.  These lectures call attention to the distinctions that Veritatis splendor makes between authentic and inauthentic notions of freedom, conscience, the moral object, and teleology.  

Finally, these lectures consider the pastoral dimensions of Veritatis splendor.  In particular it examines Pope John Paul II's reflections on holiness and martyrdom, in the service of the truths about morality. Throughout this series of lectures, there is an effort to define important terms, to show the patterns of the pope's arguments, and to bring out the significance of the encyclical's reflections for understanding the distinctively Catholic position in moral theology.

Study Materials 



16 30-minute lectures

1. Introduction 
The opening lecture places the encyclical Veritatis splendor in the context of Pope John Paul II’s many accomplishments. It is an encyclical on fundamental moral theology, designed (1) to exemplify a reliable way in which to use scripture for moral theology, (2) to correct four erroneous tendencies frequent in contemporary works of moral theology, and (3) to show the biblical and philosophical roots of such important concepts as human dignity. 


2. Structure of the Encyclical
This lecture reviews the structure of the encyclical Veritatis splendor as a whole.  It begins with a chapter on the story of Christ’s encounter with the rich young man and explains how Catholic moral theology uses faith and revelation. The second chapter identifies and analyzes four erroneous trends in contemporary moral theology. The final chapter exhorts readers to put the insights of sound moral theology into practice, especially in the new evangelization and the cultivation of holiness.


3. Preface (§1 - §5)
This lecture examines the Preface to the encyclical. It sets forth the claims (1) that much of secular ethics finds no objective or absolute truths of morality and (2) that Catholic moral theology makes a sound case for holding that objective and absolute moral truths can be known both by revelation and by philosophical reasoning about human nature.  This lecture also provides an introduction to such terms as “human nature,” “human person,” and “natural law ethics.”


4. Chapter One: The Pope’s use of the story of the rich young man
This lecture explains and defends the position taken in Veritatis splendor that knowledge of Jesus Christ provides the necessary basis for answering moral questions not only for Christians but for everyone. It also discusses John Paul II’s reverence for the insights about morality that are present in other religions and wisdom traditions.


5. Chapter One: Christology in Moral Theology
This lecture concentrates on the picture of Christ offered by the first chapter of the encyclical and the way in which it uses these insights about Christ for explaining the demands of morality.  In particular, it reflects on the Pope’s use of the Sermon on the Mount to show that Christ did not come to abolish any of the Commandments or to give them a minimalist interpretation, but rather to deepen our understanding of their full meaning.


6. Moral Theology and the Four Senses of Scripture
This lecture reviews the four senses (levels of meaning) of the Sacred Scriptures: the literal sense (what the human author under divine inspiration intended) and the three spiritual senses (what the Holy Spirit intended not only by the words but also by the persons and the actions described), namely, the typological, the moral, and the anagogical senses.  The lecture then shows the use of these various levels of meaning in Veritatis splendor.


7. Chapter Two: Prefaceand Section 1: Truth and the Moral Law
This lecture focuses on the main project that Pope John Paul II has chosen for the second chapter of the encyclical: the identification and analysis of four trends in contemporary moral theology that are inconsistent with sound teaching. After considering the pope’s defense of the claim that revelation is a genuine source of knowledge in moral matters, the lecture proposes that there is an authentic (“good cholesterol”) meaning for each of the terns that have been used wrongly (“bad cholesterol”) by some moral theologians. These may be stated in thesis form: (1) freedom need not be in conflict with the moral law, (2) conscience is not independent of universally binding moral truths, (3) the moral analysis of a deliberate human action can be properly accomplished without taking into consideration the intention of the agent, the object of the action itself (whatever the intentions of the agent), and the circumstances (including the consequences).


8. Two Senses of Autonomy
This lecture concentrates on Pope John Paul II’s treatment of freedom in relation to the moral law and to the conscience. In order to correct the notion that human beings are free to decide on what the standards of morality should be, the encyclical emphasizes that human beings should discern what the God-given laws of morality are (not claim to decide what they are). This discernment comes through understanding (1) what God has revealed (e.g., by studying the texts of Scripture about the commandments or about sin and virtue) and (2) what human nature discloses about the natural moral law. The proper area for decision is about our choices (what we decide to do and what we decide to avoid doing), not about the moral standards by which our choices are to be evaluated.  


9. Objections and Replies
A part of Pope John Paul II’s second chapter is given to raising some important objections and providing adequate responses.  Among the objections that are considered in this lecture are the charges of physicalism/biologism (against the validity of any appeal to “nature” to be a source of moral norms), historicism and cultural relativism (against the claim that natural law is universal), and promissory appeals to future progress (against the claim that natural law is immutable).


10. Chapter Two, Section 2: Two Senses of Conscience, Its Proper Relation to Truth
This lecture considers Pope John Paul II’s understanding of conscience, and his criticism of the notion that there are no really God-given moral norms (in the strong sense of the term), but only recommendations and suggestions that free individuals would do well to take into consideration as they determine for themselves what morality requires. Consideration is given to various scriptural texts on the proper understanding of conscience (e.g., St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Corinthians) as well as to writings by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.


11. Chapter Two, Section3: Fundamental Choice and Specific Kinds of Behavior
This lecture discusses a number of additional topics related to the conscience and to the use of human freedom.  Catholic moral theology has a long tradition of casuistry (an approach to morality that proceeds by considering the problems that arise in cases of various types).  Among these types of situation are the questions about the obligations to obey a dubious conscience and an erroneous conscience.  Veritatis splendor critiques the tendency in contemporary moral theology to suggest that a fundamental option is what determines the moral evaluation of a deliberate human action rather than the conformity of a particular action to the moral law.  This lecture also examines the distinction the encyclical makes between an appropriate and an inappropriate sense of the term “fundamental option.”


12. Chapter Two, Section 4: The Moral Act
This lecture examines the case that Veritatis splendor makes in continuity with the long tradition of Catholic moral theology about the proper way for analyzing the morality of human actions.  The proper analysis of any deliberate human act must involve distinct consideration of (1) the intention of the agent (finis operantis), (2) the object of the action, often called the “nature” of the action (finis operis), and (3) the circumstances, including the consequences.  In this encyclical Pope John Paul insists that we must ask whether a given act is or is not in conformity with the dignity of the human person. This lecture also considers the difference between the positive and the negative precepts of the natural law.


13. Consequentialism and Proportionalism
This lecture gives further consideration to the problems that Veritatis splendor identifies in any autonomous (purely rational) morality.  At the heart of the problem is an inadequate understanding of the object of a moral action and a disproportionate (sometimes exclusive) concentration on the calculation of advantages and disadvantages in the effort to provide moral evaluations.  After differentiating between consequentialism and proportionalism, this lecture begins a review of the encyclical’s explanation of the Church’s teachings on intrinsic evils as always and everywhere wrong.


14. Teleology (Good & Bad), Considering Consequences
This lecture focuses on the encyclical’s treatment of intrinsic evils as always and everywhere forbidden.  Consequentialist and proportionalist theories deny the very possibility of asserting that some kinds of action are morally evil by reason of their object, apart from evaluations of the intentions or the consequences. By contrast, sound moral theology insists that it is the impossibility of ordering certain types of action to God and to union with God requires designating them as never permissible.  An object that radically contradicts the good of the person made in God’s image is intrinsically evil.


15. Chapter Three: Pastoral Considerations. Morality and the Cross of Christ
This lecture examines the first half of the final chapter of the encyclical. After reviewing its explanation about the contemporary “crisis of truth” that is manifest in relativism and skepticism, this lecture explores John Paul II’s instance that the Church’s concern is not only to denounce errors but also to help the faithful to form their consciences. By looking at various texts from St. Paul, we can better understand the demands of practical charity and fraternal correction.


16. Martyrdom and Witness
The final lecture of this series considers some of the pastoral recommendations made in this encyclical.  Taking the present situation as one of growing secularism (living as if God did not exist), the document considers some of the effects on Christians of having to live in a dechristianized culture.  The lecture concludes with a review of the pope’s remarks about martyrdom as giving witness to the inviolable holiness of God’s law.