Lesson 14: Veritatis Splendor

In the preceding lessons we have sought to attain clarity about some fundamentals of the moral teaching of St. Thomas. Thinking about human action is not the same as human action, of course, and its ends may seem remote from the concrete area in which we choose and decide and direct ourselves with imperfect knowledge through the difficulties of life. In the first chapter of Ethica Thomistica I suggest that we do well to remember that a human life is something larger than the moral life even though it is our moral actions that define the persons we are. Things befall and happen to us even as we are deliberately directing ourselves toward ends. The best-laid plans gang aglay and we must adjust and rearrange our plans. No wonder the overall pattern of our lives in the wide sense elude us. Incertae sunt providentiae nostrae...

In 1993 and 1995, Pope John Paul II issued two encyclicals which have a special relevance for our subject. Veritatis Splendor, The Splendor of Truth, was signed by the Holy Father on August 6, 1993. Two years later, on March 25, he released Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life. Once encyclicals were pamphlets; with the present pope they have become small books. We cannot of course do justice to these two remarkable works. In this lesson and the next we will draw attention to some features of each of them that bear in a peculiar way on the matter of this course.

One of the desires of Vatican II was that theology be done with more explicit relation to Holy Scripture. The Magisterium of John Paul II may be said to exemplify what was meant. Veritatis Splendor begins with a lengthy meditation on the passage of St. Matthew in which the rich young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to be saved. "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" (Mt. 19, 16)

In the young man whom Matthew's Gospel does not name, we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality. For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. [n. 7]

The end is the beginning of moral action and the Holy Father wants to stress the "lofty vocation which the faithful have received in Christ." It is well to reflect on, to be stirred up about, the purpose of human life, the reason we are here, the end for which we are destined. The young man receives an immediate sense of all this when he faces Jesus and out of that he asks his question. Jesus first establishes the basis on which he will answer. "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good." Jesus will answer the question with divine authority. What is the answer? "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." If one would be saved there are things he must do and things he must not do. The Decalogue lays out the basic roadmap toward happiness.

Rules, commandments, precepts bind because they incorporate the end. They express ways in which the end is always thwarted when they prohibit. They express ways without which the end cannot be attained when they enjoin. Why is the Pope writing such an encyclical?

It is the mission of the Church to guide and direct human beings to their end. She has been doing this from the beginning. In recent years, the Magisterium has addressed itself piecemeal to a number of moral questions, giving guidance as the problems arose.

Today, however, it seems necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church's moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church's Moral teaching. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church's moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to 'exhort consciences' and to 'propose values,' in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices. [n.4]

Perhaps not since Pope St. Pius X's Pascendi has there been such an appraisal of the opposition to Church teaching within the Church. It is to appraise and reject some of the main currents in post-conciliar moral theology that the Holy Father has written Veritatis Splendor. The rejected positions are revealed in all their poverty when compared with the richness of the moral tradition that the Pope invokes.

For our purposes, it is Chapter Two of the encyclical which is of major importance. We have seen that there are three sources of the moral appraisal of a given act: its object, its end and its circumstances. For the act to be good, it must be good in all these; for it to be bad is for it to fail in any one of them.

Perhaps the most fundamental principle of moral appraisal is that evil cannot be done in order that good might result. An action might be good with respect to what the agent proposes to do, the object of his act, and the circumstances in which he proposes to act might also be good. But if the end is not good, the act is vitiated. It is a bad act. Thomas exemplifies this by a man who gives alms -- a good thing to do - - and he proposes to do it in appropriate circumstances: e.g. when there is a needy person in the vicinity, when the money involved is his, etc. -- but his motivation is vainglory. He helps the poor in order to gain the applause of his fellow men, This defective purpose makes the act bad and it doesn't matter that some needy person is helped. It matters to the needy person, of course, and the help is undeniably a good for him. But in this case the agent voids his act of moral goodness because of his aim.

Over the last thirty years or so, Catholic moral theologians have been particularly eager to alter the sexual morality of the Church. Under the pressures of the age, under the assault on all moral standards, they have sought to ease the burden on Catholics in the realm of sexual behavior. The original aim was to alter the teaching on contraception. Deliberately to thwart the sexual act even as one engaged in it had always been recognized as immoral. When the widespread hope that the prohibition on contraception would be lifted was dashed in 1968 with the appearance of Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, the dissent that John Paul II refers to in the paragraph quoted above became rampant. Moral theologians, priests and subsequently many lay people, misled by the dissenters, rejected the clear teaching of the Church on the matter. Over the years, the dissent broadened to include Church teaching on extramarital sex, adultery, abortion and homosexuality. Moral theologians bent their best efforts to show that it was possible for a person to engage in extramarital sex, commit adultery, have an abortion or engage in homosexual activity with impunity. Tortured reasoning was engaged in in an effort to portray this dissent as Catholic teaching that the faithful might follow and remain good Catholics. Repeated rejections of this on the part of the Magisterium were treated as the expression of an alternative view that carried no more weight than the dissenting view. I have traced all this in What Went Wrong With Vatican II (Sophia Institute Press, 1998).

Finally, in Veritatis Splendor, the Pope examined in detail and rejected the reasoning behind the various dissenting opinions. This is the burden of Chapter Two of Veritatis Splendor. In a nutshell, the Pope shows that dissenters are promoting a version of the view that the end justifies the means and that evil can be done in order that evil might result.

With the subtlety that has characterized their efforts to portray a denial of Catholic doctrine as Catholic doctrine, the dissenters do not dismiss the three traditional fonts of morality. They do not say that the end for the sake of which you do something can trump the objective wrongness of what you do. Rather, they redefine what they mean by the object of the act. They make the end part of the object so that the object becomes good because of the presumed primacy of the end as constituent of that object. They further argue that any effort to talk about what is done independently of the end for the sake of which it is done is an abstraction which cannot fit the actual acts being appraised.

What this comes down to is this. Adulterous acts can be defined on a pre-moral level; as a certain kind of biological encounter. But no human agent simply performs a biological act. For it to be human is for it to be taken up into the realm of intentionality, of conscious behavior. It is here that it acquires a moral quality. As it is actually engaged in, what would otherwise be an adulterous act can become morally okay. One might go to bed with someone out of compassion, as an act of consolation or kindness. Readers of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter will think of Major Scobie's affair with the young war widow. With the great difference of course that Scobie had no doubt that he was damning himself.... A dissenting moral theologian would have tried to put his mind at ease. The purpose with which he betrays his wife is part of what he does and, being ex hypothesis laudable, redeems his act and makes it good.

What I set out to do, the object of my act, is what I set out to do and in that sense the end for which I act. Thomas Aquinas called it the proximate end. The end that is distinguished from the object of the act is the remote or further end for the sake of which I act, what I hope will come about as a result of doing what I do. Dissenting theologians play on this possible ambiguity and seek to make the remote end a constituent of the proximate end or object of the act. It is easy to see that any number of acts which have traditionally been judged to be immoral just because of the kinds of act they are, because of their objects, would become good acts on the basis of dissenting moral theology. The result is to work havoc with both Christian morality and the natural law.

The dissenting theologian is wrong on both bases. His arguments are bad and fly in the face of the criteria of natural morality. There is no doubt that what they advocate is incompatible with Christian morality. No Catholic can possibly have any doubt on the matter.

For our purposes, it is instructive that the Holy Father bases his presentation on the structure of the moral act and the sources of its moral appraisal that we have found laid out in Thomas Aquinas. Of course the teaching is not peculiar to him, only the clarity and precision with which he states it.

Reading Assignment

The Splendor of Truth, chapter 2.

Writing Assignment

What is the significance of the insistence on the connection between freedom and truth?


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top