The Splendor of Truth: A Symposium
Richard John Neuhaus, Russell Hittinger, L. Gregory Jones, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas, Robert P. George, and Hadley Arkes
In October 1993, Pope John Paul II issued his tenth encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). The tabloids blazoned that the Pope is clamping down on sexual ethics. And yes, it turns out that he hasn't changed his mind on fornication and adultery, but that is rather to miss the point of this extended and closely reasoned argument about the nature of morality. Other reports focused on his criticism of ethical theories that go by cumbersome names such as “proportionalism” and “consequentialism.” That is closer to the point, but still doesn't quite get it. Veritatis Splendor is much more than a pontifical salvo in intramural disputes among moral philosophers and theologians. Of course the argument should be read in its entirety. That is made easier by the fact that, maybe for the first time in this pontificate, a major document has found a translator who writes clear and felicitous English.
In this document, the Pope offers not so much an analysis of the world's moral condition (which we all know is in a very bad way) as an examination of why we moderns no longer make moral sense to one another. Making sense assumes that there is some truth about the matter in dispute. But when it comes to morality, it is widely assumed today that there is no such thing as truth. Indeed, “moral truth” is thought to be an oxymoron. You have your “values” and I have mine, and there the discussion comes to a screeching halt. “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate. He, like many of our contemporaries, took that question to be a discussion-stopper. John Paul II argues that it ought to be a discussion-starter.
Modernity, he notes appreciatively, has been very big on freedom. But now freedom has been untethered from truth, and freedom cannot stand alone without degenerating into license. License, in turn, is the undoing of freedom, for then, as Nietzsche and others recognized, all personal and social life becomes simply the assertion of power. If freedom is to be secured, power—and freedom itself—must be accountable to truth. Or, as John Paul puts it repeatedly, “Authentic freedom is ordered to truth.” This, he emphatically insists, is not a new idea. The central text for Veritatis Splendor is the word of Jesus, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) From the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai, from Aristotle through to the American Founders (“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .”), it has been thought that there is a necessary connection between freedom and truth. The apparently new thing about our time is the proposal that freedom can get along without truth. That proposal, John Paul argues, is intellectually unconvincing, spiritually incoherent, and morally disastrous.
Clear thinking about moral truth founders on the rocks of relativism and subjectivism. In a radically individualistic culture, we do not discern and obey what is objectively true. Rather, each of us decides what is “true for me.” We create the truth. This, however, is really not so new, according to the Pope. It is a way of thinking and acting that began with that unfortunate afternoon in the Garden of Eden and has resulted in herds of independent minds marching toward moral oblivion with Mr. Sinatra's witless boast on their lips, “I did it my way.” The “postmodernist” twist on this is to argue that all morality is created by culture. We are socially constructed, it is said, “all the way down.” Freedom may be high among your “values,” but that is only because you are the product of a culture that values freedom. Ergo, your freedom is a delusion. In fact, you are as captive to your culture as somebody else who is the product of a culture that values collectivism, or child sacrifice, or whatever. John Paul knows these arguments inside out, but he is not buying.
The human person, he contends, truly is free. He is created for freedom and, although hindered by the wound of sin, he is capable of freedom. That is the truth about the human person without which all talk about morality makes no sense. John Paul readily acknowledges the insights of psychology, anthropology, and the behavioral sciences into the ways we are “conditioned” by culture, genes, and factors yet unknown. But deep within each “acting person” (a key phrase in the thought of this Pope) is an aspiration toward the good that he either follows or defies. Veritatis Splendor opens with an extended and intriguing reflection on the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16) That, says the Pope, is the question of everyman, no matter how tentatively or confusedly it is asked. And the answer of Jesus is the answer to everyman, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Life is to know the truth and do the truth. In the Christian account of things, life is ultimately fulfilled in following the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
But, it may be objected, this is impossibly ethereal and off-puttingly religious. Anyway, there is no going back to “simpler days” when it was possible to assert that “we hold these truths” as though there are actually truths to hold, and to be held by. We live in a pluralistic society; there is no agreement on what truths we hold; and so forth. Just so, says John Paul, and that is precisely why we need so urgently to engage in argument about the truth that undergirds human freedom and dignity. Our differences notwithstanding, we can make sense to one another because we have in common our human nature and the capacity to reason, and these are universal. The Pope is keenly aware that in contending for universal nature and reason he is going up against regnant views in many of our elite institutions—views that have metastasized with remarkable virulence in popular culture. As freedom has turned against itself, so also reason has turned against itself, with the result that confidence in what is distinctively human has been severely undermined.
The idea that at the end of the second millennium the Catholic Church has turned out to the premier institutional champion of humanism and reason in the contemporary culture will strike many as improbable, if not preposterous. They should read Veritatis Splendor and other writings of this philosopher Pope. Or, for that matter, they might consult again, or consult for the first time, Augustine and Aquinas. John Paul is for sure no friend of “secular humanism,” nor is his defense of reason to be confused with the truncated and reductionist rationalism of the Enlightenment philosophes. True humanism, he contends, is directed toward the transcendent, toward the ultimate good, who is God. And reason participates in the fullness of truth through revelation. But to those who are made nervous by references to God and revelation, the Pope is saying in this encyclical that we still have a lot to talk about. And we had better get on with it before humanity staggers more deeply into the night of moral nothingness. Some might think John Paul's sense of urgency slightly apocalyptic; others, more alert to the intellectual and cultural drift of our time, will welcome his argument as a bracing call to reaffirm reason and human dignity in the face of nihilism both theoretical and practical.
Human rights and duties, says the Pope, are “universal and immutable.” That is the position the United States has taken against countries claiming that the idea of universal human rights reflects the “cultural imperialism” of the West. In fact, such countries may have a case. The human rights agenda is no more than an ideological imposition by the West, if the cause of freedom is divorced from the claims of truth. The contention that there is no objective or universal truth has achieved a measure of official status among us by fiat of the Supreme Court. In Planned Parenthod v. Casey, for example, the Court declared that it is up to each individual to determine “the concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” John Paul, by contrast, warns against “the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism.” When truth itself is democratized—when truth is no more than the will of each individual or a majority of individuals—democracy, deprived of the claim to truth, stands naked to its enemies. Thus does freedom, when it is not “ordered to truth,” undo freedom.
Moral truth, evident in a “natural law” that is accessible to all reasonable persons, includes commands both positive and negative. But not for nothing are most of the “ten words” delivered at Sinai framed in the negative. We cannot always do the good that we would, but we can always refuse to do evil. Some acts are intrinsically evil, evil per se—always and everywhere, without exception. As examples, the Pope cites homicide, genocide, abortion, slavery, prostitution, and trafficking in women and children. He quotes Pope Paul VI: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.” Evil must never be called good, nor good evil.
Here John Paul takes on those moralists, including Catholic theologians, who say that an evil act may be justified by the end to which it is directed (“consequentialism”) or by weighing the other goods at stake (“proportionalism”). It is never licit to do evil in order to achieve good. To those of a contrary view the question might be put: When is rape morally justified? Or the torture of children? Or Auschwitz? John Paul's answer is never. Intentions may be noble, people may claim that they are acting “in good conscience,” circumstances may mitigate personal responsibility, but the act remains, always and everywhere, evil.
The moral person is prepared to die rather than do evil. The words of the Latin poet Juvenal, says John Paul, apply to everyone: “Consider it the greatest of crimes to prefer survival to honor and, out of love of physical life, to lose the very reason for living.” The encyclical includes an extended meditation on the meaning of martyrdom, drawing examples from the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the chronicle of courageous resistance to tyranny. Martyr means witness. We are not all called to martyrdom, but we are called to bear witness to the truth that makes, and keeps, us free. And that, according to Veritatis Splendor, is the splendor of living in the truth.
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal, October 8, 1993. The full text of Veritatis Splendor is available from Origins, at 3211 Fourth Street N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017 ($5 for single copies, $3.50 for two to four copies); it is also available from Daughters of St. Paul, St. Paul Book and Media Center, 150 East 52nd Street, New York, NY 10022 ($2.25 each).
Predictably, Veritatis Splendor has been received by Catholics in North America as an issue of ecclesiology, or perhaps more accurately, of ecclesiastical politics. But the chief issue raised by Veritatis is not the juridical and pastoral authority of Peter. Nor is it just the authority of “objective” moral norms. Rather, at its deepest level, the encyclical concerns the authority of a tradition. Veritatis is a work of intellectual unity of the sort we have not seen in this generation.
For the past century, more or less, the disciplines of philosophy and theology have grown apart, fracturing into various professional sects which produce, at best, a melange of partial perspectives. The “professionalization” of those disciplines makes it difficult to imagine, much less to achieve, a properly organized and unified body of sacred theology. Fragmentation of knowledge has its causes in the institutions of the culture generally, and neither the progressive nor conservative parties within the Church are to blame for the situation. However, to the extent that Catholics lack a common intellectual tradition, the unity of the Church becomes more rather than less dependent upon juridical authority. Progressives deeply resent such exercises of authority, but if the truth be known, their own role in failing to maintain an intellectual tradition has contributed to the problem they now find so intolerable.
The father of the modern encyclicals, Pope Leo XIII, anticipated the problem of the disintegration of the Church's intellectual tradition. In the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), he urged intellectuals to restore the “nature, form, and genius” of theology. Today, Aeterni Patris is regarded as a bid by the papacy to dictate curricular matters in seminaries. The Leonine reform was not entirely successful in overcoming the dominion of textbook scholasticism—a form of theology that was a parody of the scholastic tradition. Yet Pope Leo can be credited with seeing that the Church could not afford to enter modernity without a strong and coherent intellectual tradition. In contrast to Pius IX, Pope Leo understood that modernity is not so much a story of “errors” as it is a story of destructively one-sided positions, incapable of either representing the Church's tradition or of satisfying man's thirst for the truth.
Leo and his successors wrote encyclicals in order to teach. The encyclicals were not intended to be exercises of juridical authority independent of a common intellectual culture. That the encyclicals are now so widely received as intolerable or, in any case, as inappropriate applications of papal authority indicates the extent to which the situation has deteriorated. For the most part, the deterioration has been on the receiving end.
However, the encyclical tradition has its own share of limitations. Encyclicals have treated a wide array of modern problems, including the condition of labor, constitutional rights and democratic political institutions, the family, health care, reproductive technologies, abortion, euthanasia, war, etc. Simply as intellectual exercises, some have been profound, even prophetic; others have been mediocre, but useful for conveying the Vatican's position on issues of the day. Leo himself did not anticipate that the encyclicals might indirectly (certainly unintentionally) exacerbate the very problem addressed in Aeterni Patris: namely, that the teaching of the Church would tend to be communicated and received piecemeal, and that matters of policy and controversy would tend to overshadow the systematic wisdom of the Catholic tradition.
Like some of the documents of Vatican II, the encyclicals usually have practical or pastoral purposes. Fundamental principles are cited only insofar as is needed to address the problems at hand, or perhaps to remind the faithful of what everyone believes. More often than not, the various genres of Vatican documents assume rather than fully explicate the unified body of doctrine that stands as the substructure of the particular problem or policy. Unfortunately, this steady stream of teaching documents unintentionally habituates Catholics to the notion that theology is done on the wing, as it were. Each new encyclical is received as a kind of policy statement in which the Church announces some “new” position, which is then sifted by various experts and bureaucrats as grist for their own projects. We should bear in mind that for the past quarter-century encyclicals have been issued for a Church that (until this past year) has had no common catechism, much less a common curriculum in its seminaries and colleges. Even the best encyclicals are no substitute for a summa or a catechism.
Hence, the problem of partial and seemingly transitional perspectives has not been alleviated by these teaching documents. No encyclical suffered more from this limitation than did Humanae Vitae (1968). Even its staunchest supporters admit that the full philosophical and theological picture is not presented in the document—which, after all, is virtually a pamphlet. Lacking an educated sense of the whole tradition, a contemporary reader of Humanae Vitae cannot be expected to make much sense of teaching against contraception. One needs to see how the affirmation or negation of a proposition at one level carries implications for propositions at another level, and why a seemingly minor issue can have profound implications for the whole of a system. At some point, one needs systematically to explore the foundational principles by grafting them onto (to paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre) a “tradition of inquiry.”
More than any other encyclical, Veritatis presents the tradition in a complete way. It exposes the interlocking parts of the tradition, and indicates why certain teachings have their respective emphasis and place within the whole. At the outset of Veritatis, the Pope writes: “Today . . . 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.” This document is not a pamphlet. It does not assume that the reader has an educated sense of how all the parts fit together (which is striking in itself, since it is addressed to the episcopacy). Analysis and argumentation proceed from, and back to, the foundations. At the same time, the synthetic work is properly articulated and differentiated in the light of precisely drawn definitions and distinctions. If we take the century of modern encyclicals according to their logical rather than temporal order, Veritatis should be regarded as the first of the encyclicals. In conjunction with the new Catechism (cited several times in the encyclical itself), Veritatis represents a significant step on the road to rehabilitating and communicating the tradition.
Above all, the encyclical shows that moral theology cannot be done adequately by submitting the tradition to the partial, shortsighted, and usually reductionistic perspectives of the professional guilds of ethicists and policy analysts. These guilds have not only abandoned the ideal of a unified body of doctrine, but command no consensus or authority within their own ranks. Peter Hebblethwaite sarcastically remarks that Veritatis is “a document so timeless as to be almost out of this world.” More accurately, it is a document that has such coherence that one detects immediately that it was not produced by the world of professional ethicists. It is “timeless” in the sense that the moral life is presented with sufficient completeness that the mind must either give or refuse its assent, and must do so on the basis of something more than a few isolated propositions about controversial issues. This is a refreshing and ennobling timelessness.
The deeper issue still is whether the professionalization of “ethics” has created for itself a subject matter immune from divine order. As the encyclical puts it, the notion that there exists an immanent and exclusively this-worldly set of values limits the authority of the Church “to proposing an exhortation . . . which the autonomous reason alone would then have the task of completing with normative directives which are truly ‘objective,' that is, adapted to the concrete historical situation.” No particular theologians are named, and perhaps no prominent Catholic theologian has ever gone so far as explicitly to reduce authority to pastoral exhortation, or to propose that the human world is immune from divine norms. However, the Vatican has every right to point out where moral theologians have adopted methods and conclusions that subvert the possibility of moral theology by sequestering an area of human action from revelation and from divine norms.
Nothing in the traditional repertoire of moral theology and philosophy has been more vulnerable to this distortion than the subject of natural law. One or another version of “natural law” is typically used, like jujitsu, to undercut the tradition from within. It is said that the Church has always recognized the claims of reason and the integrity of nature. Even as the ethicists dismiss as irrelevant to their work the metaphysical grounds of either reason or nature, they devote themselves to moving as many propositions about action as possible into the sphere of an autonomous discipline of “reason.” Although “natural law” long ago ceased to have any precise meaning or authority for secular thought, it has been used as a rubric to justify a domain of issues and questions over which the tradition of the Church has no competence or authority. Regrettably, some of the previous encyclicals (by this Pope included) have fallen into the trap of speaking of natural law or natural rights in a way that assumes something very nearly the opposite of what contemporary ethicists have in mind. It was high time that the Church paid closer attention to the context and meaning of natural law talk.
There is much that can be said about Veritatis and the concept of natural law. In sum, it takes a step backward into the tradition, and thereby takes a great step forward in intellectual rigor and clarity. I will limit my remarks to a couple of points. In the first place, there is an issue of semantics. In his remarks on the tenth anniversary of Pacem in Terris, Cardinal Roy proposed that “natural law” ought to be replaced by “modern synonyms,” e.g., “man, human being, human person, dignity, the rights of man or the rights of peoples, conscience, humaneness in conduct, the struggle for justice . . . and the ‘quality of life'“—all of which can be “summarized in the concept of ‘values.'“ These are not, however, synonyms for the concept of natural law. Rather, they equate the moral law with human nature itself. No doubt, Cardinal Roy's remarks were sincere, but they provide no clear vocabulary for distinguishing between the moral measure (the law) and what is to be measured (human action). Veritatis, on the other hand, clearly presents natural law in Augustinian and Thomistic terms as a participation in the Eternal Law, or as a “participated theonomy.”
Throughout Veritatis, the Pope argues that “natural law” does not denote immanent biological or psychological “nature,” but rather signifies the divine source of moral norms, imparted by creation, and expressed in the rational structure of human judgment and action. In other words, natural law is real law. The very words imply that man is not, ab initio, his own legislator. Better than any encyclical since Rerum Novarum, Veritatis adopts a clear and consistent rhetoric of natural law. The misleading and imprecise language of recent encyclicals has been corrected.
The issue, of course, is not merely semantic or rhetorical. It also concerns the conceptual framework of both distinguishing and integrating faith and reason, nature and supernature, secular history and the economy of divine laws. The Pope argues that the existence of natural goods and values does not mean that natural law constitutes a “boundary of human morality,” on one side of which human reason exercises autonomous evaluation and choice. In this respect, it is misleading (though not entirely incorrect) to equate natural law with “objective” moral norms, for there are any number of philosophical systems that subscribe to moral “objectivity” as well as to a doctrine of the autonomy of human practical reason. To his credit, the Pope does not succumb to the temptation to translate natural law into an all-purpose idea of “objective” moral norms. Rather, he constantly returns to the contrast between autonomy and participated theonomy.
The Pope explores this theme so well because he does not allow himself to get cornered into moral epistemology. He does not assert that we begin to know the moral order by first knowing, in a philosophical way, the entire metaphysical picture. Rather, he argues that our grasp of binding moral norms gives “witness” to the truth that in the ordo rerum man is not his own measure. Hence, by distinguishing between the ground of the truth and the act of knowing the truth—or, to employ the encyclical's language, between the light and what is illuminated—the proper ontological ground of conscience is clarified, and conscience is rescued from being entrapped in psychological and epistemological puzzles.
Within the limits imposed by a work of this kind, the Pope does a remarkable job of presenting the different sources and arguments for the deeper conceptual framework of the Catholic tradition. In terms of the clarity of its organization, the elegance of its exposition, the intelligence of its distinctions, and the synthetic power of its argument, Veritatis realizes the ideal of Aeterni Patris. But the Pope does not merely rehearse the commonplaces of scholastic theology. He improves upon them. For example, his treatment of the Christological meaning of the natural law is superior not only to anything in contemporary Catholic literature on the subject, but also to the work of the neo-Thomists of the pre-conciliar era. His interpretation of Genesis 2:17, concerning the Tree of Knowledge, is brilliant, not only as an exegesis of the scriptural text, but also as a commentary on modern notions of an autonomous natural law.
Critics of Veritatis claim that Catholic moralists do not deny these truths, and that the Pope sets up a straw man when he targets certain unnamed theologians. While it might be true that there is some misunderstanding on this or that proposition, I do not think that the Pope misrepresents the deeper and more troubling point of division. The National Catholic Reporter of October 15, 1993, for instance, finds scandal in the fact that the natural law is defined in terms of the Creator, for this implies that “Christian morality is heteronomous.” The NCR opines that the theocentric account of the natural law contradicts the Church's custom of not imposing one school of philosophy or theology on the faithful—as though the ground of truth is to be left indeterminate by philosophy and theology, and as though the traditional claims of a divine order merely represent one method or school alongside others. For his part, Peter Hebblethwaite declares that the encyclical “makes sense” only if a “heteronomous” standpoint is adopted—that is, the papal argument makes sense only if we assume that a divine ground of truth cancels the liberty and integrity of human reason. In short, Catholic morality is true only if it gives a false account of morality.
But the main point of the encyclical is that the dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy is false, and that it has no ground in either faith or reason. The Pope repeatedly argues that moral norms of the natural law and the Gospel are not the impositions of an alien authority, but rather come from a creating and redeeming God who directs and perfects human agents in their innermost being. Human reason is naturally structured to recognize that its origin and end are in communion with God. If straw men are to be exposed, it is the Pope who does the exposing. The encyclical shows the weakness of the autonomist position—both as a philosophical position and as a plausible candidate for making sense of the Catholic tradition. While it would not be fair to identify all contemporary moral theologians with the narrow and vituperative statements of the National Catholic Reporter, there does seem to be a “chasm” (as Hebblethwaite puts it) between those who regard moral reasoning as autonomous and those who work systematically within the theocentric tradition.
For the sake of intellectual honesty, we should set aside the issue of juridical authority. It distracts us from the main problem. At stake in Veritatis is not the authority of Peter, but the truth or falsity of a tradition. If the encyclical is mistaken about the authoritative sources of its reasoning, if it is wrong in its distinctions and arguments, if it does not accurately note what is of faith or of reason, if it has indeed consigned the moral life to abject heteronomy, then the issue of juridical authority is moot, for there would be no tradition in which such authority could be exercised. Perhaps the conceptual framework of Veritatis can be improved, and this or that argument perfected. In the meantime, however, I can't see anything on the horizon that rivals the encyclical. As regards the Catholic tradition, this encyclical is the genuine item.
Russell Hittinger teaches in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.
The audacity of this Pope! He is audacious, though not primarily because he dares to criticize positions that have become regnant in some quarters of modern philosophy and theology, or because he dares to employ notions such as truth with reference to moral questions. Such features of the Pope's argument are important, indeed crucial, but they are neither the most central nor the most striking ones.
Nor, despite some media discussion and the wailing and gnashing of teeth heard from certain quarters, is the Pope's audacity to be seen in some mysterious reassertion of (a) traditionalist morality, (b) hierarchical authoritarianism, or (c) repressive dogmatism designed to stifle dissent and disagreement. Such assertions require strong, and indeed one is tempted to say willful, misreadings of the document.
Rather, the Pope's audacity is to be seen primarily in his unambiguous argument that God, and more particularly theology, ought to be at the center of questions about how we should live. After all, doesn't the Pope recognize—as any “good American” should—that religion is what one does with one's solitude? That it is okay to be religious, as long as you keep those convictions private? Doesn't the Pope recognize that if you inject God into polite discussion, much less public discussion and debate, you are likely to be taken as either a fundamentalist or a madman (if there is to be a distinction between the two)? Yet the Pope shows his true evangelical colors in not only mentioning the “G-word” in polite company, but actually asserting that this character identified as God ought to be central to discussions about how people ought to live. How dare he!
Beginning, as the Pope does, with the question asked of Jesus by the rich young man—”what must I do to be saved?”—is a stroke of rhetorical genius. It not only places a theological question at the beginning of the encyclical, it also introduces both Jesus and the Bible as players in the moral arena. Further, the Pope's analysis suggests that the theological issue of salvation ought to guide our conception and description of moral questions. It places such questions in the context of a teleologically ordered theological inquiry whose focus is God.
Thus God does not serve simply as an object for my personal spirituality, or as the articulation of the depths of my being, or as a cipher designed to sanction that which I was already planning to do anyhow. Rather, God is the object of inquiry about the entirety of my life, of our lives, and indeed of the whole Creation. Such inquiry affects—indeed ought to shape—the very ways in which the questions are asked. But should we expect anything less from a tradition whose central credal affirmation moves from “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” to “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen”? Christian convictions about the Triune God are not to be compartmentalized into the spiritual, the private, or even the religious. They have to do with all that we have, and all that we are.
The Pope's use of the exchange between Jesus and the rich young man structures the argument of the encyclical in other significant ways as well. Three examples. First, he uses the rich young man as a metaphor for people more generally, suggesting that questions about how I ought to live, and more particularly what I must do to be saved, are being raised not only by Christians but by others as well. The ways in which those questions are asked may differ (not all religious traditions aim at salvation, Christianly understood), and they may be formulated in more or less inchoate ways. But the Pope presumes that such questions are of more than idle interest, relevant to more than theological specialists or evangelical preachers; and here he undoubtedly taps one of the crucial issues facing a world that, as Robert Jenson has recently suggested in this journal, seems to have lost its story.
Secondly, the opening question both introduces Jesus and the Bible as players in the moral arena and is a sign of the centrality of both in the overall structure and argument of the document. This contextualizes the references to natural law in relation to the overall Christological claims about Creation and the law of God. It also reflects an important concern for the lives of ordinary believers. Neither Jesus in particular, nor the Bible in general, displays a preoccupation with saintly people; though all are called to be saints, there is a relentless desire not to abandon anyone, and in particular to seek and save the lost, the confused, the marginalized.
Thirdly, despite the fears of some that the Pope is simply reasserting traditionalist morality, hierarchical authoritarianism, or a repressive dogmatism, the encyclical as a whole is structured as a form of theological inquiry. This is true from the rich young man's opening question to the concluding doxology to Mary. To be sure, positive claims and judgments need to be asserted, developed, and defended; otherwise, a tradition would have very little to offer either to its adherents or to the world. But as the Pope proceeds through his critical engagement with a wide variety of issues, his analysis moves—in good Thomistic fashion—through appreciation for the strengths of a style of theological inquiry and the insights that it offers, to criticisms of its weaknesses, concluding with a judgment about the overall direction that moral theology ought to be taking. Such a style seems poorly chosen if the intent of the encyclical is to stifle dissent or disagreement; for indeed, the encyclical's structure and argument is an invitation to join in the rigorous, yet life-giving, demands of a comprehensive theological inquiry ordered by, and directed towards, the truth as that is discerned in fidelity to the God of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
How dare the Pope be so audacious as to reclaim the centrality, and even the supremacy, of theological inquiry in the modern world? He dares to do so because Christians in general, and theologians in particular, can afford to do nothing less if we are genuinely lovers of, and seekers after, the truth. It is unfortunate, though perhaps also a confirmation of the theological bankruptcy of our culture, that the early reactions to the encyclical have so often completely ignored its theological focus.
Even so, each of the strengths identified above has a correlative question or set of questions that might be put to the encyclical's perspective. First, there is an important ambiguity about the Pope's use of the rich young man as a metaphor for humanity. In the biblical story, the rich young man is not simply an earnest human being; he is a righteous Jew who is familiar with the law and the prophets. While this Jew's conception of fidelity to Jewish law may also be identical to a Roman Catholic conception of natural law, the Pope's movement back and forth between the rich young man as Israelite and as “everyman” needs greater conceptual clarification.
Further, the rich young man's obvious formation in the traditions of the law and the prophets stands in rather stark contrast to the biblical illiteracy of many Christians. We live in a culture where people are more likely to associate Amos with the maker of chocolate chip cookies than with the biblical prophet, and more likely to attribute “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s oratorical brilliance than to Amos' fidelity to God's command. In that sense, perhaps, we need not only the encyclical's invitation to theological inquiry but also, and perhaps more determinatively, a reclamation of biblical and theological imagination.
Moreover, the encyclical's emphasis on the claims of the Gospel on everyone, and especially ordinary believers, is laudable. Even more, the emphasis that the radical demands of the Gospel may require some of us to be martyred for our faith is not only laudatory but extraordinary in a culture where so may of us seem intent on avoiding death at all costs until we end up dying for nothing. But, somewhat surprisingly, the encyclical does not adequately emphasize the relationship between politics and the virtues of character for ordinary believers in social circumstances where martyrdom is not likely to be demanded of them. Ironically, despite the sustained attention to the exchange between Jesus and the rich young man, the Pope barely glosses the answer Jesus gives. It is an answer cast not in terms of altering beliefs, but in terms of renouncing possessions in order to be free to join the community of disciples: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Finally, while the encyclical rightly emphasizes both the claims to truth that must be made and the ongoing inquiry characteristic of Christian theology, how confident should we be that we know the truth? Is it only a matter of needing to seek out and discover “the most adequate formulation” for universal and permanent moral norms, as the encyclical states, or is it also a question of needing to seek out, discover, and continue to struggle to articulate precisely what those norms are? This is obviously a question that will vary from norm to norm, and believers need to embody the virtue of practical wisdom in this process. But with reference to our claims to truth and our search for truth, in what sense do we see, but through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12)? In more technical terminology, is moral theology better understood teleologically or eschatologically?
I take it, however, that such questions are less a challenge to the Pope's teaching than a reflection of the theological engagement that he not only encourages but requires. For if questions about how we should live, and what we must do to be saved, inevitably involve theological or anti-theological judgments, then we need nothing less than to describe and debate the issues with a theological seriousness that is rarely seen in modernity. Thank God for the Pope's display of the virtue of courage in service to the Truth which we all should, and perhaps in some sense do, seek.
L. Gregory Jones, a Methodist, teaches in the Department of Theology at Loyola College in Maryland. He is author of Transformed Judgment and coauthor of Reading in Communion.
Writing on the media coverage of the Pope's visit to Denver this past August, Peter Steinfels (in his capacity as religion writer for the New York Times) noted that reporters are adept at writing about events in an old way, but seem stymied by the genuinely new. The language they have been provided in their briefings by the experts sets them up to look for certain things, which they proceed to find and to comment on; but what happens when those very experts are outflanked by something fresh in the event itself? And that, after all, is what events have the capacity to unleash.
In this case, an accomplished media person—Steinfels—sensed something happening in Denver, especially to and among younger people, which outstripped the tired cliches about polarizations within the Catholic Church that the experts had prepared the journalistic Pope-watchers to look for. Others of us who heard about the event in Denver from certain eyewitnesses were able to catch something of their inspiration: at the person of the Pope, and at the way he had incarnated what they believed and what had come to animate their lives of faith. All of the observations of cultural anthropologists about pilgrimage—the need to see and to touch and to do so in the company of others—seem fulfilled in this dual—pilgrimage scenario: the Pope journeying to meet young people while they journey to meet him. And what has always fascinated cultural anthropologists about pilgrimage—from Chaucer on—is the way unexpected things happen.
Something analogous is taking place with the publication at last of the long-touted encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Its reputation had preceded it: the experts having generated an ominous foreshadowing of papal excoriation of unacceptable positions—and even the threat that John Paul II might up the ante to a declaration of infallibility. With those fears in the foreground, however, commentators had a difficult time finding items to focus on, since the encyclical's argumentation is dense and its scolding muted. That did not, however, keep the BBC from remarking that the Pope had reasserted “rigid Catholic morality,” either because such was already their image of Catholic morality, or of the Pope, or both.
The text, however, outflanks all the commentators, sounding a genuinely inspirational call to link ethical reasoning with faith by offering a clear object lesson in doing so. But most outflanked of all are the experts, especially Catholic ones, who have long been attempting an elaborate accommodation with the spirit of the age. Their mode of argumentation, dubbed “proportionalism,” is presented and countered in the text, so that, by taking issue with the form in which it has been presented, they can continue the discussion. It is entirely fair to argue that one has been unfairly represented; the crucial point to note, however, is that this encyclical makes the effort to present before it criticizes, and others should return the favor, even though to do so demands close reading.
The outflanking, however, is the more noteworthy event, for the Pope's manner of argument promises to shift the character of the discussion for those more interested in extending it than in defending themselves. And it does so by being—despite its length—an inspiring text. (When that can be said of moral theology we are indeed on the threshold of something new.) What makes it new is the method employed: begin with Scripture, show how rational argument contributes to faith seeking understanding, and return to a church life and practice informed by Scripture. Jesus, not “natural law,” is the paradigm throughout, while the argument focuses on human dignity and the way in which the figure of Jesus insures that dignity.
And the proper context for reading this document is not the tired and uninformative intra-Church polarity of “liberal/conservative,” but the fresh perspective on politics offered in Vaclav Havel's Living in Truth. What impressed one about Havel's analyses when they first appeared was the way in which living in a totalitarian society demanded that he rethink the political, and in the wake of his rethinking readers in the West could begin to see just how tired our debates had become. And irrelevant to boot, as the social fabric crumbled in our national capital, as well as in the urban areas surrounding the very universities in which the discussions were being carried on. Are those debates significantly different from the views on freedom, conscience, and ethics that this encyclical presents in order to criticize? Asking ourselves this question will help us to locate the Pope's constructive efforts, and will also prepare us to understand his appeal to younger people, by catching something of the inspiration of this document ourselves.
Beginning with an extended commentary on the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man and its consequences for Jesus' own disciples (Matthew 19:16-26) allows the Pope to forge an “intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality.” So “the moral life presents itself as the response due to the many gratuitous initiatives taken by God out of love for man,” and “the commandments are linked to a promise.” Thus keeping them “must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love.” Yet respecting “all the moral demands of the commandments represents the absolutely essential ground in which the desire for perfection can take root and mature,” precisely because this next step “requires mature human freedom.”
John Paul's later claims concerning the universal character of the negative commands of natural law must be understood in this context. Such precepts are not a minimum but are meant to put us on the way to perfection. John Paul knows that any decision to follow Jesus, once made, requires reaffirmation. For Jesus asks us to begin a journey, a following of him, that will make all our actions glorify God. In short, we usually only notice we have become disciples of Christ retrospectively.
Thus freedom grows towards maturity only by being directed to the truth, and that direction comes from the Scriptures as they orient us to the same one to whom the young man was drawn, Jesus. It is this rich affirmation of the “inseparable connection between the Lord's grace and human freedom, between gift and task,” which sets up the middle and longest section of the encyclical, offering “discernment and teaching, in order to help [us] in [our] journey towards truth and freedom.” Its four sections—freedom and law, conscience and truth, fundamental choice and specific kinds of behavior, and the moral act—keep in the foreground the inherent orientation of human intentionality to what is true and what is good.
Citing Aquinas on the “eternal law,” the Pope counters the familiar charge of heteronomy (“who's going to tell me what I can or cannot do?”) with the reminder that this “law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation.” We never find this “eternal law” codified anywhere, of course; “Saint Thomas identifies it with ‘the type of the divine wisdom as moving all things to their due end.'“ Yet by recalling our status as creatures, we are invited into a domain in which we find our ends or goals given to us, along with the rational means that help us discern them. In Aquinas' words, “this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called natural law.” Yet as the very structure of the encyclical displays, these rational means are never sufficient to complete our discernment; one must always return to the figure of Jesus.
While he does not rest any argument on “natural law,” the Pope will defend moral arguments that have rested their case on it from the charge of “biologism” by reminding us of the role the body plays in presenting to us “the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator.” This is contrasted with those who would view us primarily “as rational being[s, who] not only can but actually must freely determine the meaning of [our] behavior.” In short, he opposes the “autonomous individual” to an embodied creature whose nature evinces certain “permanent structural elements,” variously expressed in diverse cultures yet paradigmatically displayed in “Christ . . . who, having taken on human nature, definitively illumines it in its constitutive elements and in its dynamism of charity towards God and neighbor.” These “permanent structural elements” will find moral expression in the negative commandments which, by setting a lower limit to that “dynamism of charity” which has no higher limit, directly challenge those who would violate human dignity in the name of ideologies of any sort.
The primacy of conscience in Catholic moral thought demands that the Pope treat extensively this interior call to faithfulness to what is right. He takes issue with those who “no longer call its actions ‘judgments' but ‘decisions': who say that only by making these decisions ‘autonomously' would [we] be able to attain moral maturity.” And he does so by recalling that “the judgment of conscience is a practical judgment“: it “does not establish the law; rather it bears witness to the authority of natural law and of the practical reason with reference to the supreme good,” thereby making manifest “the link between freedom and truth.”
With regard to the formation of a sensitive conscience, however, he cites Aquinas: “What is essential is a sort of ‘connaturality between man and the true good.' Such a connaturality is rooted in and develops through the virtuous attitudes of the individual...: prudence and the other cardinal virtues, and even before these the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.” So conscience is not some inaccessible and utterly mysterious interiority by which individuals express their autonomy (and isolation), but rather that capacity of discernment that deals, in Aristotle's sense, with “matters that can be other,” the capacity that attends anyone who has developed those habits of action that both faith and reason conspire to nurture in the minds and hearts of those who would follow Jesus.
This perspective allows the Pope to question a position that pretends to offer a “deeper” way, in which “the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behavior.” He counters this ideology with a panoply of texts from Scripture showing how the admittedly radical “decision of faith” is “actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions,” thus confirming sound philosophy and the good sense of any partner who rightly objects to professions of love in the face of infidelities. Accordingly, he reminds us that we must be wary of thinking we are different from what we do, since what each of us often insists is not the real “me” turns out to be who, in fact, I am. That such is the case is but a reminder that the Christian moral life cannot be an individual achievement, but requires a community of friends we call the Church to challenge our endemic drift toward self-deception. John Paul in this encyclical is reminding us what friends owe one another, particularly when faced with the ethos of freedom.
This is the reason for his critique of any moral theory that attempts to detach the moral specificity of human acts from anything other than “the faithfulness of the person to the highest values of charity and prudence,” in such a way that moral “precepts should be considered as operative norms which are always relative and open to exceptions.” The reasoning here mimics the murkiness of “proportionalism,” as this theory has been dubbed by its promoters, and we can leave it to them to challenge the accuracy of the Pope's resume of their thought. What such a focus on “the highest values” can easily overlook, however, is the intrinsic connection of actions with their object—a connection unavoidable if we are to be people of virtue. Thus John Paul II's reminder that it is not enough to do good works if they are not done well, that is, as people whose life is directed to pleasing God. For as Aquinas insisted, even the precepts of the New Law will kill if they are not formed by the work of the Holy Spirit.
For those who may find this way of putting the matter less than helpful, we can find it echoed in Gandhi's reminder that moral matters are fairly defined by the need to regard means as intrinsic to the ends they propose to attain. Keeping the two insulated from each other not only promotes self-deception but in turn fosters institutional arrangements which keep that deception from coming to our attention. So however it may be articulated, “by acknowledging and teaching the existence of intrinsic evil in given human acts, the Church remains faithful to the integral truth about man; she thus respects and promotes man in his dignity and vocation.” Such a summary statement recalls us to the context of Vaclav Havel: there are certain actions that no human being is entitled to perpetrate, whatever ideological justifications may be forthcoming. This is not only because of the harm such acts do to others but, equally important, the harm such acts do to the perpetrator.
Such an account of the moral life (1 Corinthians 1:17) recalls that “the relationship of [human] freedom to God's law . . . is ultimately the question of the relationship between freedom and truth“: the freedom we possess is that of creatures, revealed in Jesus by his life and words as a “freedom acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self.” So we are exhorted to discover the reaches of that freedom in faith rather than by a pretended “autonomy,” and reminded—startlingly—that its test is the willingness to die for what is true and right. It is “the personal dignity of every [person that] demands [to be] protected by those moral norms which prohibit without exception actions which are intrinsically evil.” And while accommodation is the name of the game we play, it is “martyrdom [which] rejects as false and illusory whatever ‘human meaning' one might claim to attribute, even in ‘exceptional' conditions, to an act morally evil in itself,” and so stands as “the high point of the witness to moral truth.”
This clarion call gives existential bite to the assertion that such “norms represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence” and a stark reminder how “they help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development . . . by protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being.” One thinks of those who gave their lives that political institutions accountable to the people might take root or be restored in one country after another. And a comparably radical note is sounded for us when this encyclical cites an earlier one (Centesimus Annus) to remind us: “If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
Our response to this encyclical probably depends in large measure on how we respond to that assertion, which returns us to Vaclav Havel. Those who are satisfied with current political and social arrangements in the West, or who contend that some tinkering will set them right, will be inclined to find the Pope's perspective classical and quaint, perhaps even rigid and unyielding. Those of a more radical bent, on the other hand, may well recognize here a voice clearly and unequivocally on the side of human dignity, and one which offers the figure of Jesus as a compelling ideal and a compassionate guide along the way. Is it any wonder that a generation whose moral guides focused on accommodation find an inspiring leader in this voice? It is this context of “evangelization, aimed at generating and nourishing ‘the faith which works through love,' . . . [that sets] the proper place which continuing theological reflection about the moral life holds in the Church, the community of believers.”
So finally it is not just a question of truth, but a truth that only comes through the works of love. Thus John Paul II calls us to help him recognize “the possible limitations of the human arguments employed by the Magisterium,” directing us to dissent as sisters and brothers in Christ. He calls us away from the habits derived from realms that assume politics can be no more than conflicts of interest to the politics of the Church in which Mary-like truth matters. So how the bishops take up their task of vigilance “that the word of God is faithfully taught” and lived in Catholic institutions is crucial, not only for the Church, but also for the world which longs for examples of a truthful politics. We hope that the bishops will discharge their responsibility with a truthful love.
David Burrell, C.S.C., teaches philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame. Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist, teaches Christian Ethics in the Divinity School at Duke University.
Not long ago, I was brought up short by the redoubtable Janet Smith when I complained that students come to college these days already fully indoctrinated into moral relativism. “Ask them,” she suggested, “whether in their opinion it is ever right to commit rape, discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, or park in spaces reserved for the handicapped.”
Professor Smith has a point: however faithfully they mouth the old relativist pieties, the majority of today's freshmen are, in their politically correct heart of hearts, committed moral absolutists. Like Pope John Paul II, they believe that certain acts are to be condemned always and everywhere as wrong in themselves. They agree with the Pope that rape, for example, cannot be justified by “the circumstances” or by a putatively “greater good” to which the victim's interests in not being raped may legitimately be sacrificed. They part company with him only on the question of which, if any, other acts qualify for such condemnation.
Of course, the “proportionalist” theologians against whose errors the Pope is writing in Veritatis Splendor are more sophisticated and imaginative than the freshmen that some of them may teach. It is true, a proportionalist might tell his class in Moral Theology 101, that refraining from committing rape will usually, or even “virtually always,” in itself and its consequences conduce to the net best proportion of benefit to harm overall and in the long run; but circumstances are imaginable in which the opposite choice would be “the lesser evil” or “for the greater good.” Suppose, for example, that you lived in Hitler's Germany and the head of the local Gestapo confronted you with the following options: “Either you rape Sally Ann on your next date (which we will be secretly filming), or I will order my men to kill her and her entire family the following morning.” In these (admittedly unlikely) circumstances, the decision to commit date rape would, the proportionalist professor might conclude, be morally good inasmuch as it would be supported by a “proportionate reason.” But if this is so, he might go on to say, not even rape truly qualifies as an intrinsically evil act. Thus would the proportionalist professor awaken his charges from their dogmatic slumbers.
For more than twenty years theological proportionalists have labored to show that their method of moral analysis—one that purports to resolve moral questions by weighing the “pre-moral” (or “ontic”) values at stake in competing possible choices—is workable and sound. At the same time, they have sought to reinterpret biblical teaching and the whole of Christian tradition in ways that would render their method and the conclusions they suppose they can draw from it compatible with the sources upon which Catholics have always relied to guide their judgments of right and wrong.
The Bible says “Do not murder” and “Do not commit adultery.” Yet proportionalists are undaunted by these apparently categorical prohibitions. The Decalogue does not, they assure us, exclude all direct killing of the innocent or all sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not that person's spouse. In forbidding “murder,” they say, the Fifth Commandment prohibits unjust or wrongful killing—that is to say, killing that is not “the lesser evil” or is not “for a greater good.” Similarly, in forbidding “adultery,” the Sixth Commandment prohibits unchaste or wrongful intercourse; that is to say, intercourse that is not supported by a “proportionate reason.”
Purely secular thinkers have joined Christian philosophers in identifying damning philosophical objections to proportionalism's methodology of moral judgment. In Veritatis Splendor, the Pope sums these up in pointing out “the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects—defined as pre-moral—of one's acts.” He does not, however, dwell on these methodological inadequacies. Rather, and significantly, he invokes revealed truths of faith in the light of which it is necessary to reject proportionalism and any other theory that undermines or compromises what the Church has always taught: that there are negative precepts which exclude without exception certain types of acts (such as killing the innocent and having intercourse with someone other than one's spouse) the choice and intention of which may be identified and excluded without first identifying the circumstances and the further intentions of the agent. Here, as elsewhere in the encyclical, it is clear that the Pope espouses moral absolutes not in the unthinking manner of my freshmen, but after meditated reflection on proportionalism and other more or less sophisticated ways of denying or evading the perennial Christian doctrine on intrinsically evil acts.
“In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture.” For this teaching, the Pope cites two texts: Romans 3:8 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Proportionalists have always had difficulty explaining away these texts. Now the Pope has offered an authoritative interpretation which says, in effect, that these texts mean what they say: Evil may not be done even for the sake of good; those who with full awareness and consent commit grave wrongs—including killing the innocent and engaging in sexual immorality—will have no place in God's Kingdom. Moreover, in discussing “the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments,” the Pope teaches that “Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions.”
The Pope adduces an additional consideration in support of the moral absolutes that exclude certain acts as intrinsically wrong. If there were no moral absolutes, he reasons, many martyrs could legitimately have conformed their behavior to what was demanded by their persecutors and thereby purchased their lives. But in raising such martyrs “to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances.”
For centuries, no Jew or Christian imagined that precepts such as “Do not murder” and “Do not commit adultery” meant not to kill or commit adultery unless one had a proportionate reason for doing so. Modern theologians who interpret God's word as permitting such exceptions imply that the moral truths God meant to communicate in the Bible were in fact communicated ineffectively, or were, in any event, radically misunderstood by those to whom they were addressed. If such theologians are correct, then the whole body of believers—Jews and Christians alike—would have been mistaken about crucial matters pertaining to salvation until the final third of the twentieth century. But according to Catholic teaching, which the Pope here recalls and reaffirms (quoting Lumen Gentium 12), since Pentecost the Holy Spirit is permanently present in the Church, so that “the universal body of the faithful . . . cannot be mistaken . . . in matters of faith and morals.” Thus, it is by appeal not to his own infallibility that the Pope defends the Church's traditional teaching on moral absolutes, but to that of the faithful themselves.
Undoubtedly, many of those who deny or have sought to weaken the Church's affirmation of moral absolutes will reject the Pope's interpretation of Scripture and tradition. In so doing, however, they will make plain their alienation from any truly Catholic conception of divine revelation and its communication. At the same time, they will escalate the conflict over crucial matters of what the Church is to believe, thus deepening the de facto schism that many responsible people believe exists already in the Church and perhaps making formal schism likely.
In holding that the Church's teaching regarding intrinsically evil acts is a matter of revealed truth, the Pope implicitly asserts, as Germain Grisez has pointed out in an article on Veritatis Splendor in the Tablet, that it is definable. Of course, those who reject the teaching will deny that this is true, just as they deny the authoritativeness of the Pope's interpretations of Scripture. Surely, as Grisez observes, the matter cannot remain unresolved; yet it cannot be settled by disputation among theologians. It will take the definitive judgment of the magisterium to resolve the matter. The ultimate significance of Veritatis Splendor may be that it sets the stage for that historic judgment.
Robert P. George teaches legal philosophy in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He is the author of Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality (Oxford Unversity Press).
A wise friend, Dermot Quinn, once remarked that a person could believe everything the Church said and still not be a good Catholic. The real question, said Quinn, was whether one believed in the Church as a “truth-telling institution.” That question, I must report, took hold of me; and for people who are affected by that question, the Church is likely only to enhance its mystery, and its appeal, when it stands contra mundum—against the world. When the Church turns itself against the drift of the modern world, it seems to draw our curiosity ever more compellingly, for it seems then to be even more anchored. It would appear then that its judgments can be explained only by convictions firmly settled. And for some of us, it is a persisting wonder that the Church can keep holding, that it can keep saying no to the moral fashions of the world.
But with the publication of John Paul II's most recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, the wonder and the worry may be eased. For it becomes clear, quite early, that something else is at work apart from the steely strength and genius of Karol Wojtyla. Evidently, the suspicion has become deeply rooted in the Church that, when it comes to moral theories, in which the modern world abounds, the modern world seems destined, enduringly, to get the matter wrong. To put it in a familiar idiom, no one will lose money in betting against the latest moral theories of the modern world.
Over the past twenty-five years, as every taxi driver knows, our universities have become seminaries in a new orthodoxy of moral relativism. It was only to be expected that these doctrines, propagated with the prestige of the universities, would diffuse themselves through the community of Christians and Jews. What is unsettling, however, is that the circles of the credulous should now encompass teachers of theology, even teachers professing at Catholic universities. And this is the condition that John Paul II takes as the crisis that invites this new, fuller statement in Veritatis Splendor:
[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. 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.
Only in our own times do we find professors of law earnestly claiming “rights”—like the “right to an abortion”—while at the same time insisting that there are no moral truths. It never would have occurred to the American Founders to claim rights that were not true or truly rightful. As Madison understood, rights and freedoms were claimed only by “moral agents.” We do not credit the freedom or “autonomy” of animals, or seek the informed consent of our pets before we authorize surgery on them. For they cannot weigh the reasons or judge the “good” to be attained in surgeries. We respect the freedom, or autonomy, of human beings only because we credit them with the competence of moral agents to reflect about the rightness and wrongness of their choices. But then the paradox: a moral agent, who has access to the understanding of right and wrong, should understand the things he may not claim, even in the name of his own freedom and autonomy. As Aquinas and Lincoln explained at different times, we cannot coherently claim the “right to do a wrong.” But now, for the first time, we find a corps of philosophers, theologians, and jurists who detach the notions of “freedom” and “autonomy” from their moral ground—from the only ground, that is, on which they can claim their coherence.
John Paul II seeks to restate, in this encyclical, the connection between freedom and its moral ground. The very existence of freedom, or choice, has the function of directing us outward, to the standards of judgment we use in making those choices. We are led, in other words, to the understanding of the good and just, and ultimately, to the sources of that understanding: in the teaching of Jesus, the Pope finds the “fundamental relationship between freedom and divine law.” As the Pope puts it, God has already given an answer to the question of the Good: “He did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart (cf. Romans 2:15).”
And here, many friends of this journal must brace themselves, for we arrive, as the Pope says, at “the natural law.” We arrive at the understanding of right and wrong imprinted in our natures. Man can choose between good and evil, he says, “thanks to the light of natural reason, the reflection in man of the splendor of God's countenance.” And again: that discernment of good and evil man carries out “by his reason, in particular by his reason enlightened by Divine Revelation and by faith, through the law which God gave to the Chosen People, beginning with the commandments on Sinai.”
Those commandments at Sinai become the thread of the teaching running through this text. Seven or eight times the Pope brings back the story, told in Matthew 19, of the young man who asked Christ, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The young man asked, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother; also, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
As John Paul II moves on in his commentary, he meditates on the negative injunctions of the second tablet of the Decalogue, and he takes this editing by Christ as the key to a moral distinction: the “positive moral precepts” leave far more room for prudence, in making an allowance for “exceptions.” But the commandments mentioned by Christ from the second tablet were “negative moral precepts,” and John Paul II treats those commandments as far more exacting, far less open to shading or compromise in the name of prudence. These negative precepts, he says, “prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception.” The Pope regards these precepts, then, as the hard, absolute guidelines to the moral life. They repel the claim that the principles of moral judgment are too airy or abstract to offer guidance in any concrete case. They are intelligible, precise—and unyielding.
Indeed, John Paul II restates the case for martyrdom for the sake of reminding the faithful that it would be truly better to die than to make oneself an accomplice, say, in the killing of the innocent, or in other sinful acts. The Pope cites, in this vein, the biblical account of Susanna, who was willing to accept death rather than yield to the sinful passion of two unjust judges (Daniel 13:22-23). “By her readiness to die a martyr,” he observes, “she proclaims that it is not right to do what God's law qualifies as evil in order to draw some good from it.” For women who are threatened with rape, the Pope would seem to advise them to resist to their death rather than submit.
This is, then, rather stern stuff. Nothing for the faint or wimpish, for the utilitarians or the “proportionalists” in matters of ethics. Nor is this likely to go down all that easily with many conservatives. Veritatis Splendor has been heralded by conservative writers as an authoritative answer to the moral relativists. And yet, conservatives have not been especially keen in recent years about natural law or natural rights. Those notions have elicited the most pronounced skepticism among conservative jurists and commentators on the law. It has been a reflex, even among friends of this journal, to be mirthful about the pretensions of natural law, and to be deeply suspicious of anyone who thinks he can find, in natural law, the ground of decision in any concrete case. But in that event we ought to be clear: no one can praise this robust dubiety among the conservative jurists and at the same time celebrate the teaching of Veritatis Splendor. Even some of our best friends are legal positivists, but if John Paul II is compellingly right, then Chief Justice Rehnquist cannot be.
But the jurists are not the only conservatives who are likely to experience some unease with this new encyclical. Many students of Leo Strauss, and a flock of Aristotelians, may suffer tremors over the references in this new text to truths that are “categorical—unyielding and uncompromising.” On certain matters, with certain acts, there will be not the slightest concession to prudence. It is one thing to speak gamely of “absolute” moral truths, but even the people who speak in these accents may feel a chill of sobriety when they suddenly encounter a man in authority who actually takes these moral commands with literal seriousness.
Still, that sobering pause will be the prelude to some earnest questioning. With a notable unease, Michael Walzer once pronounced his willingness to order, for Nazi Germany, the kind of massive bombing he had condemned as immoral in Vietnam. To resist, as he said, an “immeasurable evil,” he was willing to accept, in this instance, a brand of killing that could not make fine discriminations between combatants and noncombatants. Writers who have embraced the kind of natural law expounded by the Pope have condemned the strategies of nuclear deterrence precisely because they ultimately depend on the serious willingness to order a bout of killing that must cover, in its sweep, the innocent. Would their position have aligned them, then, against Churchill? Churchill had been determined to use every available weapon, and without getting too explicit about it, he was evidently willing also to suspend most of the moral rules in resisting the Nazis.
Even among the supporters of the Pope, this cannot be such a closed or settled question. But of course we know that the teaching of the Pope lends itself to layers of shading and calibration. The injunction to avoid killing is an injunction to avoid the killing of the innocent, or unjustified killing. The commandment “Thou shall not bear false witness” was not violated when Dutch householders refused to reveal to the Gestapo at the door the Jews they were hiding. The Pope insists that certain acts are intrinsically evil, and that the second tablet of the Decalogue offers a precise guidance in identifying those acts. And yet, the Pope's most attentive readers also understand that “acts” are not defined solely by the moving of bodies. They depend also on the will that forms the act, or the maxim that guides the understanding of the actor. The Dutch householders were not seeking to injure the Nazis when they spoke falsely. Nor were they endorsing deceit as a general rule of life. They were willing, rather, the protection of the innocent, and they were thoroughly justified in misleading the wicked.
None of this is spelled out in the encyclical, but we can assume that it is folded into the teaching because we understand by now the tradition of moral reasoning that stands behind this writing. But that is to say that the encyclical does not entirely explain itself. The force of its arguments and the deeper resonances of its teachings will be grasped mainly by the people who are already tutored in this school of moral reasoning. And that explains the reception accorded to this encyclical. The papal statement has produced its most electric and buoying effect among the writers who are already adept in natural law, and attuned, with the most exquisite precision, to the moral perspectives of John Paul II. But this same quality in the encyclical also marks, regrettably, the limits to its reach.
For example, certain writers and public figures have incorporated deeply some of the fallacies of moral reasoning that the Pope subjects to the most incisive critique. Yet they will be too dim to find in these pages an account that makes it clear to them—in a sudden, luminous, arresting way—that they are indeed seeing a portrait of themselves. And so Ms. Janet Reno has readily retailed the cliche, well-travelled in our public discourse, that we must attack the “root causes” of crime, in poverty, class, race. But I rather doubt she will recognize that the Pope is writing about her, or about people of her cast of mind, when he writes that
a number of disciplines, grouped under the name of the “behavioral sciences,” have rightly drawn attention to the many kinds of psychological and social conditioning which influence the exercise of human freedom... But some people, going beyond the conclusions which can be legitimately drawn from these observations, have come to question or even deny the very reality of human freedom. [Emphasis added.]
But Janet Reno, the army of social scientists, and the decent citizens in thrall to social science are not likely to grasp that the encyclical offers a commentary on the likes of them. And still less likely are they to grasp, from these terse passages, exactly what that commentary is.
On the other hand, certain writers on moral theology will have not the slightest doubt that this encyclical is directed at them. There is a thread of complaint running throughout the encyclical about “some trends of theological thinking and certain philosophic affirmations” as “incompatible with revealed truth.” These trends are soon named: they are trends toward “proportionalism” or “consequentialism” in ethics. “These theories,” says the Pope, “cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition.” For those theories, as he notes, “deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behavior, norms which are valid without exception.”
No intimations here, no slip into innuendo. And as far as I am concerned, it is all aptly aimed. I have crossed swords on many occasions with the “proportionalists,” but they are even more vexing to the Church than they are to me, because their teaching introduces the gravest doubts among Catholics themselves about the teaching of their own Church. They amply deserve the resistance that the Pope offers here.
And yet, the full seriousness of the encounter actually moved me to a certain sympathy for some of these writers. Their theories are named, though they are not. Still, it is evident, even to people with a remote interest in the field, just who are the persons—the particular men and women—the Pope has in mind. He has decorously held back from singling them out by name, and yet they are there, marked out for opposition. As they themselves must recognize, this kind of exposure “comes with the territory.” They have been unsparing in their criticism of the hierarchy, and they cannot be surprised to receive a hefty dose of criticism in return. But what they can decently expect, I think, is a filling out of the argument. If the Holy Father concentrates on them the heavy weapons of reproach, they might expect him to supply, at the same time, a new exertion of argument, a new effort to explain to them, with that acuteness he can summon, just where they have gotten it wrong.
Yet the “proportionalists” are not likely to find here any new arguments that might encourage them to think anew about their position. But they will find in these pages the ring of authority. They will find old understandings restated with a new insistence, and that insistence may bear lessons yet. For one thing, it offers a jolt of sobriety, which may suddenly concentrate—and clear—the mind. To rework an old line of Blackstone's, the Pope has animadverted on these writers with a becoming severity. Indeed, what John Paul II seems to be saying now to these academics is this: However much you may feel sustained by the fashions in the academy, you should not delude yourselves for a moment that your kind of teaching is compatible with Catholicism. Whatever it is you are doing, it is emphatically not Catholic moral theology, and as estimable as you may be, you are not Catholic theologians.
Of course, the people suffering these distractions are not apt to understand these corrections, papally tendered. And so John Paul II makes it clear that this encyclical is also addressed to the bishops, who stand after all in a line of responsibility within the Church and its institutions. Willy-nilly, they preside over the dioceses that contain the universities and institutes and hospitals which in turn may house the people who profess theology and the vagrant forms of “bioethics.” In these days, no mere presidents of Catholic universities would dare to pronounce in public on whether the professors offering instruction under their banner are teaching things that are notably short of sensible, or even affably heretical. In these pusillanimous times, heretics are burned mainly on the beaches, and they may need to suffer no more than the penance of living on their royalties.
This encyclical furnishes a ground to the bishops to raise some stern questions to the presidents of colleges about the misteaching that is taking place with their acquiescence and complicity. Alarms need not be sounded—we are not likely to see professors or presidents summoned to Rome, along with dramatic demands that writers recant. But at times, with papal ambassadors schooled in Rome in forms of politics that are quite delicate, we may see an artful hand at work behind the scenes. We might then find a maneuver quite as deft as the exchanges that finally induced the administration of Georgetown to withdraw its recognition of the “pro-choice” group at the university. If the same arts are in place, the encyclical offers a new lever, which subtly strengthens the hands of the bishops and papal delegates. Again, no one expects that this lever will be actively used. But in case any bishops are mulling over the possibilities, and reckoning the first, salutary use of this new mandate, I tender herewith some modest suggestions.
One of the chief devices for misinstructing Catholics on the teachings of their own Church has come through the public celebration of politicians who are “pro-choice.” The point has been made even more precisely and dramatically in the celebration of Bill Clinton: Catholic politicians like Raymond Flynn of Boston and Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania stood on the platform at Notre Dame along with the president of the university during an appearance by Clinton in the presidential campaign. The assembly of these Catholic politicians at this place made the message unmistakable: there is evidently no issue of moral consequence that should inhibit any Catholic in offering the most enthusiastic support for Bill Clinton.
And of course, since the election, no public gesture of this kind has been more unreserved or heedless than the celebration offered by Georgetown University. Clinton is the first graduate of Georgetown to become President of the United States, and he is the first President to regard abortion not as a regrettable private choice, but as nothing less than a “public good” that deserves to be promoted and supported with public funds. From its first days in office, the Clinton Administration has sought to remove from the laws every lingering inhibition on the practice of abortion. And in the face of this manifest tendency, the praise of Georgetown for its alumnus has become ever more orgiastic and fawning.
But what might a bishop do? With the presence of the new encyclical, he can ask the president of a Catholic university whether he is aware of this recent statement by John Paul II. He can inquire whether the president is aware that there is a serious tension running very deep between the position of Bill Clinton on abortion and the teachings of the Church. If the president is so aware, then he must surely understand the need to be uncommonly careful in not misleading people who are faithful but uninformed. This is a day in which warning labels are placed on almost everything, and so it may not be taken as a device utterly novel or unfamiliar if the president of the university were “advised” to append this “warning” with any appearance by Mr. Clinton: A senior member of the faculty, or the president himself, may be asked to inform the audience that Clinton shall be received with all the respect due to a President of the United States. But the courtesies due a President should not move the university to misrepresent the teachings of Catholicism to its own students. And what is critical for students to understand (he may continue) is that no one who forms his will in congruence with the position of Mr. Clinton on abortion can possibly claim at the same time to be a “good Catholic,” in accord with the teachings of his Church. That much, we may properly say, deserves to be made plain, even though many people on the campus may share many parts of Mr. Clinton's agenda.
That simple statement, attached to every one of Mr. Clinton's appearances, may induce him to stop appearing at Catholic universities. Or it may induce Catholic universities to stop their complicity in the promotion of abortion through their willingness to romance Catholic politicians who find it in their interest, politically, to be “pro-choice.” If a Catholic university cannot produce a senior member or a president willing to speak these lines, then that may itself be a measure of the erosion that has taken place in schools that have merely persisted in the habit of calling themselves Catholic. And as John Paul II has remarked quite pointedly in Veritatis Splendor, “It falls to [bishops], in communion with the Holy See, both to grant the title ‘Catholic' to Church-related schools, universities, health care facilities, and counseling services, and, in cases of a serious failure to live up to that title, to take it away.”
Who would doubt that a policy of this kind, in drawing lines more firmly, would convey bracing news to large numbers of Catholics? And who would doubt that the gesture may generate political effects even beyond the circle of Catholics? The Church will of course be accused in familiar quarters of interfering in politics. But Catholic politicians and theologians of the left have been using politics for many years to intervene in the Church and misinstruct Catholics about their own teachings. This encyclical, sustained by the bishops, may mark a new resolve on the part of the Church not to suffer these intimidations. And the proposition thrown back at the critics would be this: the conditions of a republic cannot command the Church to silence in the face of a serious tendency, in its own ranks, to deny its own moral teaching. And when it comes to the politics of addressing Catholic universities, professors, and politicians, the claims of prudence cannot override the claims of truth. Nor can it be required, by the decorous politics of a republic, that the Church should not be overly strenuous in respecting itself, or holding, with an unseemly attachment, to the truth of its own teachings.
Hadley Arkes is the Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College. His two most recent books are First Things (1986) and Beyond the Constitution (1990).