Lesson 1b: Scriptural Sources

The text for our course on the Moral Magisterium of John Paul II is his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (8/6/93). The precise purpose of this encyclical is stated clearly near its beginning: "The specific purpose of the present Encyclical is this: to set forth, with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition, and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met" (VS, n.5).

True to its stated purpose, Veritatis Splendor is itself a perfect example of what Moral Theology is and how to do it. Both the content and the method are obvious from the beginning. Consider Chapter I of VS, nn. 6-27. The Pope begins with a reflective meditation on the dialogue with the rich young man in Matt. 19:16-21.

Not only is this his personal style, almost his signature opening for many major teaching documents of his pontificate, but it is the proper starting point for Sacred Theology, i.e., Divine Revelation. And so, for example, the encyclical Dives in Misericordia (1980) reflects deeply on the Prodigal Son (L.15:14-32); Evangelium Vitae (1995) reflects deeply on the Cain and Abel account in Genesis 4:2-16.

But beginning with Divine Revelation is not just a personal style nor a given literary approach, it is rather the proper and correct methodology for 'doing' Sacred Theology.

Read Chapter I of VS, nn.6-27. Notice, not simply the dialogue with the rich young man of Matt. 19 in nn. 6-8, but the commandments (nn.9-13); the two great commandments (n.14); the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes (nn.15-18); the following of Christ (nn.19-21); the Grace doctrine (nn.22-24); faithful practice that permits no opposition between love and law and no separation of faith and life (nn.25-27).

This Chapter (VS, nn.6-27) must be read with a copy of the Bible alongside and with all citations studied. It may seem odd to some, but it is no less than amazing how many Christian authors have written over the decades that they find no specific Christian ethic and no specific moral content even in the New Testament. Some claim to find no more than general even vague attitudes and perhaps some dispositions, but they claim to find no moral content in the New Testament.

This is not a tired argument that some in the past may have misused or even abused a so-called "proof-text" approach in an overly simple way, but a misuse by some is no reason to accept the impossible claim that the New Testament is bereft of moral content.

Questions of exegesis and hermeneutics (interpretation) remain, but those questions are to be answered in a way that improves our understanding of biblical content, not to evacuate the content of the New Testament.

If the truth be told, an entire course could be constructed on biblical morality, especially locating principles in Sacred Scripture. Some textbooks in Moral Theology present convenient and very concise summaries of biblical principles: cf. e.g., K. Peschke, Christian Ethics vol. 1 (2nd. ed. 1989) for Old Testament, pp. 13-28; New Testament, pp. 29-49; B. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, (NY: Alba House, 1996) pp. 3-38. A technical but rewarding study is that of H. Schurmann, "The Actual Impact of the Moral Norms of the New Testament," in Readings in Moral Theology #4 (1984) pp. 78-104.

At and immediately after Vatican Council II, there was great enthusiasm for 'biblical categories', but this trend in Moral Theology soon took a wrong turn. Some authors simply ignore the teachings of Scripture entirely; others, claiming to follow the findings of 'historical criticism', judge that all moral teaching in the Bible was completely determined by historical and cultural factors, and so is not normative for today. This turn was a serious wrong move.

The direction set by Vatican II for moral studies was quite clear: "Its scientific exposition should be more thoroughly nourished by scriptural teaching. It should show the nobility of the Christian vocation of the faithful, and their obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world." (Optatam Totius, n.16) What did not happen in some schools of theology clearly did happen in Veritatis Splendor, n.29.

In VS, for example, consider the treatment of the Decalogue (10 Commandments) (VS, nn.9-13) and the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5:11-12;17-48), the compendium of New Testament moral teaching or what St. Augustine calls the magna charta of Gospel morality (VS, n.15). There is no opposition here, only complementarity. As the Pope teaches: ". . . On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the Commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of the Beatitudes, but also refers to the Commandments (Mt.5:20-48) . At the same time the Sermon demonstrates the openness of the commandments and their orientation toward the horizon of the perfection proper to the Beatitudes. These latter are above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life." (VS, n.16) Clearly, the directions for conduct in the Gospels (largely parables) differ in mode from the ethical precepts found in the Epistles. They differ in mode of expression: Gospel parables are more like general principles whereas the ethical precepts in the Epistles are and can be quite specific; but they do not differ in content. Given the wide and rich range of differing expressions in Holy Scripture, it is no less than amazing that there are no moral contradictions in the New Testament but a coherent and organic morality.

It is essentially a religious message. As obvious as that sounds, sometimes we have to state the obvious. "Jesus brought a religious message and it was from that message that His moral demands originated. Any attempt to interpret His preaching in any other way (as a criticism, perhaps, of the civilization of the day or as a program of social revolution) is wrong from the outset. Nowhere in the New Testament is it possible to break the unity between religion and morality" (R. Schnackenburg, Moral Teaching of the New Testament (1965) p.13). For the same emphatic insistence, confer Veritatis Splendor, nn.4; 26-27; 88.

Consider the rich and varied use of Sacred Scripture in the moral part of the Catechism (1992): (1) as the most quoted source of the Catechism (cf. Index pp.689-720; and (2) the specific introduction to the moral specifics of the Catechism -- "The Decalogue in Sacred Scripture" (##2056-2063); "in the Church's Tradition" (##2064-68) its unity and interrelations (##2069-74).

Clearly then, our first methodological principle is verified that we look first for moral principles located in Sacred Scripture, clarified by Sacred Tradition and taught in any given age by the Magisterium of the Church. VS explicitly employs this method as we should also.


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