There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight.” Those are strong words, written by the Czech activist Václav Havel in his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” one of the twentieth century’s great calls to “living in the truth” against a culture based on violence, manipulation, and lies. Havel finished his text in October 1978, shortly before his arrest by Communist authorities. In the same month, Karol Wojtyła, a seemingly obscure bishop from Communist Poland, was elected Pope John Paul II.
The two men were very different. Havel, a poet and playwright, became a leading political dissident. Wojtyła, an actor and playwright, took the path of priest and philosopher. But they shared a set of concerns. Both had a passion for truth, which they saw as the foundation of human dignity. Both had emerged from regimes grounded in lies. Both admired the freedoms of the West. And yet—tellingly—both doubted that the democratic West was in any sense immune to the sort of casuistry, poisonous political thought, and systematic intellectual deceit that had destroyed Europe.
Nearly four decades have passed. The great ideological wars are over. The good guys won. Or at least that’s the story we in the “developed” world like to tell ourselves. We in the wealthy nations enjoy astonishing technical progress and material comforts. But the wound to man’s self-understanding and moral reasoning caused by the events of the last century has never really healed. Instead it has deepened, spreading a peculiar kind of confusion into our public discourse, political institutions, popular culture, the lives of religious believers, and entire communities of faith—including, at times, the Church herself.
Addressing that wound was a major focus of Karol Wojtyła’s pontificate.
Next year, 2018, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul’s great encyclical on the “splendor of truth.” Written to encourage a renewal in Catholic moral theology and a return to its classical Catholic roots, Veritatis Splendor grounds itself in a few simple convictions. Briefly put: Truth exists, whether we like it or not. We don’t create truth; we find it, and we have no power to change it to our tastes. The truth may not make us comfortable, but it does make us free. And knowing and living the truth ennoble our lives. It is the only path to lasting happiness.
In the years that have passed, the crisis of truth has only seemed to grow. Our age is one of cleverness and irony, not real intellect and character. Today the wisdom of Veritatis Splendor is more urgently needed than ever.
It’s common, even among people who identify as Catholics, to assume that the Church’s moral guidance is essentially about imposing rules, rules that breed a kind of pharisaism. But this is exactly wrong. It’s an error that radically misunderstands the substance of Catholic teaching. It’s also one of the worst obstacles to spreading the faith.
John Paul II knew this. Thus the first chapter of his encyclical is a meditation on the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man (Matt. 19:16–26). The rich young man seeks to enter into eternal life, and this, John Paul writes, is the starting point for Jesus’s teaching on how to live as a Christian. In other words, Christian morality is about seeking fellowship with God, which is our true happiness, the goal of our human existence. Yes, moral rules, laws, and commandments do exist. But they have value because they point to something far more profound: how to live in order to grow in virtue and attain fullness of life.
Every parent knows the importance of what might be called “common-sense virtue ethics.” When children are young, a family’s rules serve as guardrails against accidents; later, they become guides toward virtue, maturity, and the capacity for self-command. In other words, good parents want their children to be happy. That’s why they give them rules. And that’s also why they sometimes need to admonish their children for breaking the rules. But the reason behind the rules is not arbitrary. The rules are an expression of love. Their motive is a desire to raise children who will become happy, virtuous, mature, flourishing adults.
God treats us in much the same way. Catholic teaching as a morality of virtue and happiness is not hard to understand. Like any good parent, God does indeed give us rules. The Ten Commandments are central among them. But this is not because he’s interested in displaying his power, or making us obey him. God does not “need” our obedience. It adds nothing to his sovereignty. But God is love, and that means he exercises his sovereignty to protect us from danger and lead us to grow in virtue. In the end, the reason for God’s commandments is very simple. He loves us and wants us to be happy.
This truth—that Christian morality is not a clutch of dead legalisms but a path to happiness—was a key theme of John Paul’s ministry. It was already clear in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (“Redeemer of Man”), where he announced the basic program for his pontificate:
Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his “heart”. Rightly therefore does the Second Vatican Council teach: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come (Rom. 5:14),Christ the Lord. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”
Jesus comes to reveal to man his true dignity. He sets man free with the truth of the Gospel, free to become by grace what God calls humanity to be: adopted daughters and sons in the joy of his love.
This is why John Paul placed such stress on truth, especially the truth about man and his vocation, a vocation to lasting happiness in friendship with God. In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a new commandment, the new law of love. This new law does not abolish the Mosaic Law and the Old Testament commandments. It does not override the natural law written on every person’s heart. Rather, it fulfills them and helps us live them in a more perfect way. Jesus teaches us the truth about right and wrong, and this truth does not diminish our liberty: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
As a result, John Paul II called for a deep renewal of Catholic moral theology, and also of the ways in which Christian moral teachings are presented to the faithful and to the world. He wanted the Church to recover her zeal in affirming that no richer life exists than one lived in the fullness of truth.
It’s precisely here—how the Church presents her moral guidance—that we still face serious challenges. Ironically, legalism is very much alive in the Church, even though it no longer looks like the rigorist, “conservative” legalism of the past. Legalist minimalism is just as deadly to the life of faith as legalist maximalism.
Many of today’s confusions about Catholic moral teaching stem from a one-dimensional morality of obligation. In this view, moral truth limits human freedom by constraining what man can legitimately choose. It “binds” his choice. A morality of obligation can only move us negatively, by teaching that disobedience carries the threat of divine punishment. The drama in moral reflection is thus reduced to figuring out exactly what we are “bound” to do by God’s law, and then what residual room is left for our freedom.
This kind of moral theory has a questionable Catholic pedigree. The great patristic and medieval Catholic synthesis of the High Middle Ages saw God’s commandments not as arbitrary acts of his will demanding obedience, but as expressions of the wisdom by which he teaches us what we’re made for, and how to become what he intended us to be.
This synthesis was attacked, starting in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, first by nominalist philosophers and later by the secularizing Enlightenment. When combined with the polemics of the Protestant Reformation and other splinter groups like the Jansenists, many moral theologians—including some famous early Jesuits such as Francisco Suarez—lost sight of the classical focus of Catholic morality on virtue and happiness. They began to turn to distinctively modern moral theories that stressed law, obligations, commandments, and conscience. Rather than a quest for happiness, the moral life came to be portrayed as a difficult navigation of detailed rules.
This approach became standard in many seminaries. And too often, it produced a demanding legalism. In this view, a good Catholic must know the moral law. He or she must then apply it rigorously to his or her own case to avoid falling into grave sin. Our native freedom simply needed to knuckle under, with our will submitted in obedience to divine commandments and to the laws of the Church. Moral theology thus judged actions mainly by whether or not they conformed to the duties of the law. Acts of virtue aiming at holiness and union with God belonged to a different domain (as “supererogatory” counsels, rather than mandatory commandments).
Against this backdrop, Vatican II (1962–1965) called for a broad reform of Catholic moral theology, one that reconnected moral truth with our desire for happiness. But many moral theologians remained trapped by the preconciliar theories that had formed them. They continued to presume a framework of divine commandments and obligations that bind and restrict man’s liberty.
Instead of reading the council as a call to deepen the life-giving power of moral truth, they believed—incorrectly—that Vatican II marked a break from the “oppressive” moral commandments of the past. They assumed that Catholic moral theology can be more life-affirming to the degree that it cedes territory to our unfettered freedom. But in practice, they only managed to exchange the rigorist legalism of their teachers for a new legalism with a laxist, progressive bent.
Many moral theologians of the last generation, including men like Bernard Häring, felt they were bringing the Church into the modern age by exploring new moral frontiers. In practice, though, most of these theologians stayed on the same old school bus, which they now ran in reverse. That is, they “solved” the problem of onerous moral commandments by eliminating some rules and generating doubts about whether this or that commandment applied in every case, or whether some exception might exist to rules that, before, had seemed absolute.
Those who favored this rebranded legalism made it their business to create doubts about the application of a law or commandment to particular cases, thus “freeing” the individual to exercise his “liberty of conscience.” This felt like a new turn in moral theology, one that released Catholics from the old regime of rigorous rules and duties. But in fact things didn’t change, at least not theologically. The new laxist thought stayed stuck in the old rut of legalism. Morality, in the end, remained about the rules, with a new generation of moralists essentially arguing for fewer of them.
Obviously no version of legalism can capture the real meaning of the Gospel, which is the promise of new life in Jesus Christ. Legalism of whatever sort sees God’s law as a limit (or even a threat) to human freedom. So in Veritatis Splendor, John Paul reoriented moral thought back toward the classical Catholic tradition of a morality of virtue leading to happiness.
In the United States, this has borne many good fruits, especially among those who teach moral theology in our seminaries. Over the last twenty-five years, a growing number of scholars have emerged who offer a persuasive explanation of Catholic teaching in defense of life and marriage, including the (now clearly prophetic) encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI. They grasp that the core problem of our sinfulness is not that we’re breaking rules. It’s that we’re damaging our God-given humanity and forsaking the opportunity to live in the truth, which means living more fully human lives.
It is because we remain captive to a false rivalry between moral truth, on the one hand, and human freedom and fulfillment, on the other, that Veritatis Splendor remains so important. We can elaborate that in four points.
First, the text reminds us forcefully that truth, including moral truth (what we owe our neighbor; what leads us to or away from God), has an objective dimension. It’s not purely a function of cultural and personal circumstances. Of course, throughout history, and throughout our individual lives, many things do change. But some truths do not change. Murder, genocide, adultery—these are wrong in every case. There are no exceptions, no circumstances that make such actions morally permissible. They can never be directly chosen, even as a means to a good end.
Certain moral truths—the Ten Commandments, the basic precepts of the natural law—remain always valid. As John Paul writes:
The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper [always and everywhere], without exception, because the choice of this kind of behavior is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbor. It is prohibited—to everyone and in every case—to violate these precepts.
Such actions always and everywhere stand in opposition to friendship with God and to justice toward our neighbor. They’re always directly opposed to virtue and to our ultimate happiness.
A person might not be fully culpable for doing wicked things when faced with violent threats or intense pressure. But the acts themselves—acts like rape, euthanasia, and abortion—are always gravely wrong. They produce terrible evil in the life of the person who does them and suffering in the lives of others. This is why the Catholic tradition calls such actions intrinsically evil. The evil is found in the very nature of the kind of act that it is, no matter what the circumstances or reasons that motivate it.
In practice, this means that, even when we have a good reason and the noblest intention in the world, if an action itself is not rightly ordered to God, it’s still wrong. Its “wrongness” is not merely the result of violating some commandment or duty. It’s not the law or the commandment that “makes” the action wrong. Rather, even under the best circumstances, an intrinsically evil act leads us away from God, who is the supreme good. It wounds us, injures others, blocks our path to true happiness, and produces real evil.
This is the flaw in all forms of moral legalism, rigorist or laxist. Intrinsically evil acts aren’t wrong because the law proscribes them. The law proscribes them because, by their very nature, they deform the human person. They disrupt the just relations among persons and turn us away from God, our greatest good.
This central teaching does more than protect human dignity; it promotes it as well. As Václav Havel recognized, the objectivity of moral truth provides us with a place to stand in a fallen world that too often conscripts us into its evil doings. When the Church teaches that some things should never be done, she is issuing a wake-up call. Our freedom is not aimless. It does not serve itself. We were created with the capacity for freedom so that we could unite ourselves with the truth—in action as well as thought.
To be fully human, as the lessons of the last century taught both Havel and Wojtyła, is to live in the truth. And we can do this even in dire circumstances because we are always able to refrain from doing that which is intrinsically evil. To resist the temptation of adultery, to refuse to procure or perform an abortion, to refrain from mouthing falsehoods—even the most ordinary person who struggles with his own sinfulness (as we all do) is capable of living in the truth. This is why John Paul thought the classical notion of intrinsically evil acts to be so vital. It’s the dimension of moral theology that frames truth in the clearest of terms. And it is the clarity of the truth (and its rejection of that dull gray cult of moral ambiguity that numbs the soul before killing it) that speaks most directly to our desire for fullness of life.
Thus a pastor is not acting mercifully if he says, out of a misguided desire to help someone struggling with a difficult choice, “Don’t worry, as long as your heart is in the right place, God will understand.” Or even worse: “I dispense you from the law in this case.” The pastor has no power to launder a sinful choice into a morally acceptable one. In trying to do so, he commits a serious injustice. He also sins against charity, because he makes the problem worse by stealing the truth from the person he seeks to help.
To put it another way: Accompaniment, properly understood, is always a wise pastoral strategy. But the destination of a journey—a journey shared by pastor and penitent—does matter, especially if the route takes them over a cliff. Intrinsically evil actions always involve a turning away from God. This is the teaching of Jesus himself: “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).
The spiritual problems that arise in morally difficult cases do not stem from the “cruel” nature of a seemingly merciless law. The problems come from the fact that we fallen creatures have a hard time choosing the good when it costs us something. The right path to happiness isn’t to relax the law, but to give ourselves over to God’s power and the promise of his grace.
This leads to a second reason for Veritatis Splendor’s enduring value. Catholic moral teachings are salvific. They’re central to the proclamation of the Gospel, and are, in reality, good news. Yet this good news, Christ’s new law of love, in no way diminishes God’s commandments.
John Paul puts it this way:
When the Apostle Paul sums up the fulfilment of the law in the precept of love of neighbor as oneself (cf. Rom 13:8–10), he is not weakening the commandments but reinforcing them, since he is revealing their requirements and their gravity. Love of God and of one’s neighbor cannot be separated from the observance of the commandments of the Covenant renewed in the blood of Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. It is an honor characteristic of Christians to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29) and accept even martyrdom as a consequence, like the holy men and women of the Old and New Testaments who are considered such because they gave their lives rather than perform this or that particular act contrary to faith or virtue.
Catholic fidelity to moral truths—despite opposition, and especially when other Christian communities have fallen silent—has made the Church a vital witness of truth in a time of confusion. Many who come to the faith today do so not in spite of the “hard” Catholic teachings, but precisely because of them—and this, often in circumstances when they are not sure that they can even live up to those demands. They recognize in those teachings the voice of Jesus Christ and the confidence of the Church in the authority of moral truth.
Again, the solution to hard moral choices isn’t to rewrite or neuter the law. Instead, we need to acknowledge that, by ourselves, we can do nothing. Then we need to ask the help of God’s grace to live in the truth. When we choose to live in the truth—or at least to keep trying when we fail—we’re joined more closely to Jesus. We learn to depend more deeply on his grace. We start, even in this life, to have a foretaste of God’s friendship that we’ll experience fully in heaven.
The third reason for the encyclical’s extraordinary power is John Paul’s approach to the nature of authentic freedom. He writes: “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics which center upon an alleged conflict between freedom and law.” This “alleged conflict” lies at the heart of moral theories of obligation. Such theories assume that, in order to give freedom of conscience to individuals, the moral law must be softened, or exceptions found.
The opposite is true. We find true freedom only as we’re liberated from our vices so that we not only desire what is truly good, but also act to attain it. In other words, as we grow in moral virtue, we also grow in authentic freedom.
Freedom was not given to us by God so we could redefine, on our own, what is good or evil, but rather so we could respond in liberty to his offer of friendship.
Man’s free obedience to God’s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence. . . . Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation. Consequently one must acknowledge in the freedom of the human person the image and the nearness of God, who is present in all (cf. Eph 4:6).
John Paul II lived through the most destructive war in history. He survived two crushing totalitarian systems in Poland. He knew from experience the threats to human dignity that arise, inevitably, from the denial of objective truth. We should never delude ourselves into thinking that, just because we live in a democracy, we’re safe from similar sufferings if we cease to respect the reality of objective truth. Nor should we imagine that a nation of nearly infinite consumer choices and new rights of self-definition amounts to a genuine culture of freedom.
As John Paul writes:
Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others.
Not only Catholics proclaim moral truth, of course. Many other believers and people of good will do as well. But it’s vital for the sake of her mission and the world that the Church be a beacon of truth when so few such beacons remain.
The fourth and final reason for the encyclical’s power is this. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul reaffirmed the classic Catholic understanding of the relationship between objective truth about right and wrong, and how the individual person applies that truth in his or her own life. He underscores what has always been Catholic teaching: The conscience of the individual can never be set against objective moral truth, as if conscience and truth were two competing, autonomous principles for moral decision-making.
Such a mistaken view would “pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God’s law. . . . Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil.” Rather, “conscience is the application of the law to a particular case.” Conscience stands under the objective moral law and should be formed by it, so that “the truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience.”
When John Paul issued Veritatis Splendor nearly a quarter century ago, it very soon drew criticism from a range of “forward-thinking” theologians. They (rightly) saw that their efforts—to bend Catholic moral teachings toward more “humane” and “compassionate” standards, whereby moral truths could evolve over time, relative to historical and cultural circumstances—would be derailed by it.
Those of them who remain among church scholars and pastors still search for ways to evade the encyclical’s teaching, to say it was useful in the past, but history has moved on. To a great extent, today’s debates within the Church—on issues of sexual identity, sexual behavior, Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, the nature of the family—simply exhume and reanimate the convenient ambiguities and flexible approaches to truth that Veritatis Splendor forcefully buried.
But the splendor of the truth cannot be hidden. It is ever ancient, ever new. In the long run, Veritatis Splendor will be remembered long after many other works of popes and politicians are forgotten.
It will be remembered for one simple reason: What it says is true.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Philadelphia.