A Short Primer on Veritatis Splendor: Part I

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

When Pope St. John Paul illuminated the Church with his encyclical on fundamental moral theology (Veritatis Splendor, 1993), written for bishops and theologians, it  was easily forgotten. Unlike Humanae Vitae, which was also addressed to the laity and persons of good will, St. John Paul was addressing bishops, clergy and especially theologians because he was rectifying a number of errors dealing with fundamental moral theology as it was taught in many seminaries. Being rather lengthy, most lay people did not read it being over one hundred pages accompanied by one hundred and eighty-four endnotes.

Morality for the Christian is theocentric, or God-centered, whereby people seek his glory in all they do and are necessarily assisted by the Holy Spirit and called by St. Thomas Aquinas the “new law.” At the same time it oriented  both by the commandments or precepts of the old law, confirmed by Christ together with the virtues, theological and moral, the outcome of obeying the commandments. Pope St. John Paul laments “This essential bond between Truth, the Good and Freedom has been largely lost sight of by present-day culture”(84c). Nevertheless, “Thus the moral life, caught up in the gratuitousness of God’s love, is called to reflect his glory”(10c). For as one strives to obey God’s law, one begins to grow in the virtues by reliance on the splendor of God’s grace and presence of the Holy Spirit strengthened by receiving the sacraments. These are the themes embedded in the encyclical.

At the same time in 1988, St. John Paul realizes that many contemporary moral theologians are causing problems among the faithful by undermining the teachings of the magisterium as they interpret sacred scripture and Tradition:

….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 teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions…(4b)

Much of the dissent of the moral theologians then and somewhat today since the Vatican Council of the sixties revolved around Humanae Vitae. Due to dissent of the norms of HV, there sprang errors called proportionalism, consequentialism,  fundamental option, dualism, physicalism, and finally conscience as a creator of moral values. From any of these erroneous teachings, one could justify the use of contraception and rationalize away other traditional sexual sins. Therefore, there would no longer be actions that are “intrinsically evil” and perhaps morally good given the right intentions and circumstances.

VS further indicates the consequences of these errors::

Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the 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.

The ten “words” or commandments begin the Pope’s teaching on fundamental moral theology:

…Jesus tells the young man: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). In this way, a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments: God’s commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation. The commandments are linked to a promise (12b).

Veritatis Splendor systematically sets out to refute the many erroneous moral teachings culled from many dissenters at the time. This was necessary because erroneous thinking led to undermining one’s faith as the Pope reminds us toward the very end of EV:

The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods.…These negative precepts express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of persons in marriage, private property, truthfulness and people’s good name. The commandments thus represent the basic condition for love of neighbour; at the same time they are the proof of that love. They are the first necessary step on the journey towards freedom, its starting-point (13c).

But the desire for keeping the commandments comes down to a living and loving relationship with Christ and dependence upon his grace not from one’s own personal strength alone. Otherwise, they are simply rules for a self-reference or merely a spirituality “between God and me” than a Christocentric one open to serving him in a communion with the Church. Perfection then means self-giving in true sacrifice not merely the avoidance of sin. The divine law by itself leads one to realize how powerlessness one is without the help of God’s grace and should lead one to ask for that gift on a daily basis.

The encyclical continues to teach that there can be no separation between one’s faith and one’s life and action:

No damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life: the unity of the Church is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-13). The Apostles decisively rejected any separation between the commitment of the heart and the actions which express or prove it (cf. 1 Jn 2:3-6). And ever since Apostolic times the Church’s Pastors have unambiguously condemned the behaviour of those who fostered division by their teaching or by their actions (26b).

Concerning the freedom of conscience, VS sets up a warning:

Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God’s commands….But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, for it is called to accept the moral law given by God….Freedom would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy which would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty (35b).

And further to emphasize Veritatis Splendor’s point, it asserts: “The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him” (40a). What all these truths are leading up to is that the other false moral theological teachings undermine these truths of revelation because they contradict a perennial teaching of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

It then attacks the false claim that the perennial moral teaching is merely physicalist, that is, looks at human inclinations and makes judgments on finality of the body without taking into account man’s freedom to shape himself as he sees fit:

A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear as presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act (48).

Veritatis Splendor answers accordingly such willful subjectivism of the body really distinct from the essence of the person with a look to what is objective:

The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator (48c).

Then it concludes:

A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition (49).

Because the body and soul are one being, the body cannot be a mere object to be manipulated by one’s freedom but is part of an intrinsic moral projection toward perfection and can be violated by immoral acts such as

“…the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation–repeated by the Council of Trent–lists as “mortal sins” or “immoral practises” certain specific kinds of behaviour the willful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.

The encyclical etrieves the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, which can be easily evaded by proportionalism or the fundamental option and other moral theories which look exclusively to one’s personal intention deciding what is good for “me.”

As the Patron of moral theologians and confessors teaches: “It is not enough to do good works; they need to be done well. For our works to be good and perfect, they must be done for the sole purpose of pleasing God” (129).

Now mortal sin is still sin no matter how high a person’s commitment to God is by a radical intention even though committing such a grave sin:

In point of fact, man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made “a free self-commitment to God”. With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. Jas 2:8- 11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses “sanctifying grace”, “charity” and “eternal happiness”. As the Council of Trent teaches, “the grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin”.

“For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts. Clearly, situations can occur which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which influence the sinner’s subjective imputability. But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to create a theological category, which is precisely what the `fundamental option’ is, understanding it in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin” (70b).

To be continued in Part II.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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