Further Thoughts On Veritatis Splendor

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

See Part I here.

Because of the unity of human nature, the natural moral law has a certain and clear universality about what is the true good of the human person in any age. Yet “…This universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person” (51c).

It is prohibited–to everyone and in every case–to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.

On the other hand, the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbour does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken. Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response–a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.

The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments . . . You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19:17-18) (51b & c).

So, problems exist when theologians speak about persons living in a second irregular union after first or second valid marriage and yet feel they cannot change their situation but wish they could. This may due to thinking if they leave this bond further moral evil will be done. They may think that they are doing what little they can morally speaking and this is God’s will for them here and now because they do not understand why the Church’s teaching is so strict.

The problem of choosing the better or the lesser good is easily solved because God gives humans freedom to do what they think is best between two decisions, one good and the other more perfect. Choosing a lesser avenue of goodness is normally not choosing an evil course of action unless motivated by laziness or pride. However, when this way of proceeding is applied to go from grave sinning to lesser sinning, then this use of theological understanding of choosing a lesser good instead of a greater becomes in the area of sin practical consequentialism or proportionalism in contrast to VS which teaches:

The former (proportionalism) claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. The latter, by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the “greater good” or “lesser evil” actually possible in a particular situation (75).

When VS speaks of conscience, it becomes even clearer how the natural and divine law work in relation to God:

As the Second Vatican Council observed: “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of this law can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: `do this, shun that.’

But even within this context of obeying God, if someone can creatively over-ride the commandments, then there becomes a double standard of truth, namely, my intelligence discerning and God’s infinite intelligence and order placed in the human person but I know what is best. Contradictions become flattened such as 2 + 2=5. That is why VS insists that “…conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter to obedience”(58). This is distinct from self-reliance and self-will not in continuity with God’s manifest will.

Conscience is further explained as an interior force or inclination that is received rather than activated:

This truth is indicated by the “divine law”, the universal and objective norm of morality. The judgment of conscience does not establish the law; rather it bears witness to the authority of the natural law and of the practical reason with reference to the supreme good, whose attractiveness the human person perceives and whose commandments he accepts (60). 

And the judgment of conscience whether before or after making and carrying out a decision is not infallible:

Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes. However, error of conscience can be the result of an invincible ignorance, an ignorance of which the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself (62c).

That is why when making momentous decisions, one consults the wise and not merely one’s feelings. When it comes to doing objective evil but not necessarily culpable because of true ignorance not pretended, such decisions do have repercussions:

It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent, but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good (63).

But when culpable ignorance reigns in a person’s soul, or “when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin”(63b).This means one has to be called to conversion (64) to the truth revealed by God or discovered by right reason.

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by there nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image (80).

The Second Vatican Council describes very clearly what contradicts the good of a person, when it teaches:

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 (GS 27).

None of these acts are pre-moral or could ever be conceived as indifferent acts of themselves and thereby be chosen for an alleged “greater good” but are of themselves contrary to right reason and the commandments. VS reminds the faithful that human actions are meant to be faith actions and not apart from faith:

Faith also possesses a moral content. It gives rise to and calls for a consistent life commitment; it entails and brings to perfection the acceptance and observance of God’s commandments…(89a)

…Through the moral life, faith becomes “confession”, not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness (89b).

Because faith in action is involved, VS also reminds its readers that “The voice of conscience has always clearly recalled that “there are truths and moral values for which one must be prepared to give up one’s life… (94a).

Such a strong affirmation of the teaching on moral life of the Church, what VS reminds the faithful seems terribly strict, nevertheless:

The Church’s teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence, particularly with regard to the enormously complex and conflict-filled situations present in the moral life of individuals and of society today; this intransigence is said to be in contrast with the Church’s motherhood. The Church, one hears, is lacking in understanding and compassion. But the Church’s motherhood can never in fact be separated from her teaching mission, which she must always carry out as the faithful Bride of Christ, who is the Truth in person (95c).

Moreover, the Church can never renounce “the principle of truth and consistency, whereby she does not agree to call good evil and evil good” (95c). These words were true then and even today.

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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