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Veritatis Splendor

An Overview of the Encyclical

William E. May

Communio 21 (Summer, 1994)

Communio: International Catholic Review

pg. 229 - 251  


‘The crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom.’

John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor is divided into an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. In his introduction John Paul II clearly expresses his reasons for writing the encyclical. It is to exercise his teaching authority by confronting the crisis that has developed in theological-moral reflection during the postconciliar period. His declared intention is that of "clearly setting forth certain aspects of doctrine which are of crucial importance in facing what is certainly a genuine crisis, since the difficulties which it engenders have most serious implications for the moral life of the faithful and for communion in the Church, as well as for a just and fraternal social life" (n. 5). The crisis has developed above all in the area of fundamental moral theology. The Holy Father notes that today, "within the Christian community itself," we are faced not simply by limited and occasional dissent but by "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" (n. 4). In order to address this crisis the encyclical proposes "to set forth, with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living apostolic Tradition, and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met" (n. 5).

Each of the three following chapters has its own specific theme. The first, entitled "Christ and the Answer to the Question about Morality," is a prolonged commentary and meditation on the question asked of Jesus by the rich young man in the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 19:16-21). Its purpose is "to bring together the essential elements of revelation in the Old and New Testament with regard to moral action" (n. 28). The second, by far the longest of the encyclical, is called "The Church and the Discernment of Certain Tendencies in Present-day Moral Theology." It is doctrinal in character, and in it the pope takes up "certain fundamental questions regarding the Church’s moral teaching," discusses the "issues being debated by ethicists and moral theologians," and, in responding to erroneous views, presents "the principles of a moral teaching based upon Scripture and Tradition" (n. 5). The third chapter is called "Moral Good for the Life of the Church and of the World." It stresses that Catholics must turn to Jesus and be faithful to him in order to accept, live by, and hand on the moral truth taught by the Church; it highlights the significance of the witness given by martyrs and the importance for the contemporary world of the Church’s fulfilling her role as moral teacher. It likewise points out the responsibility of teachers and priests and, in particular, bishops—to whom the encyclical is addressed—for sound moral teaching. There is a profound interior unity to the entire document. Dionigi Tettamanzi, an Italian bishop who was, prior to being made a bishop, a professor of moral theology, has observed that this unity

is undoubtedly given by the fundamental question concerning the relationship between freedom and truth, or better, by the living word of Jesus Christ: "You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free" (In 8:32). The whole encyclical is a constant "listening" to the word of our Lord, a loving and courageous "meditation" on the meaning and requirements of this word, a "proposal "and an "appeal" to follow Christ in order to find in him the full answer to our hunger and thirst for truth and freedom.

Chapter One: Christ and the answer to the question about morality

This chapter is, in essence, a meditation on the significance of the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man as related in the Gospel according to Matthew (19:16-21), the dialogue that begins when the young man asks, "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" Here I will first summarize the principal ideas of this chapter and then examine each one in more detail. The major ideas are the following: (1) the religious and existential significance of the young man’s question; (2) the sovereignty of God over the moral order, which he makes known to humankind through the natural law, the Decalogue, and above all through his only-begotten Son made man; (3) the essential link between eternal life and the commandments; (4) the "fulfillment" of the law in Jesus and the universal call to perfection, made possible by union with him; (5) moral life and unity within the Church; and (6) the more-than-human authority of the Church’s Magisterium in the moral order.

1. The religious and existential significance of the young man’s question

John Paul II repeatedly emphasizes the religious and existential significance of the question addressed to Jesus by the rich young man when he asked, "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" (Mt 19:16). The pope says: "For the young man the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the meaning ......... This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man’s life" (n. 7). It is, he continues, "an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfillment of his own destiny" (n. 8). Indeed, John Paul II emphasizes that the question is in reality "a religious question. . . . the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God and indeed is God himself" (n. 9).

The question posed by the rich young man is ultimately a question about the meaning of human existence. It is so because, as the pope emphasizes later in the encyclical, it is precisely in and through the actions we freely choose to do that we determine our own lives. As John Paul II says, "it is precisely through his acts that man attains perfection as man, as one who is called to seek his Creator of his own accord and freely to arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him" (n. 71). Our freely chosen deeds "do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits" (n. 71). They are a "decision about oneself and a setting of one’s own life for or against the Good, for or against the Truth, and ultimately for or against God" (n. 65).  

2. The sovereignty of God over the moral order

In responding to the young man’s question, our Lord makes it clear that its answer "can only be found by turning one’s mind and heart to the ‘One’ who is good.... Only God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good itself To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness" (n. 9; cf. nn. 11, 12). Moreover,

God has already given an answer to this question: 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. Rom 2:15), the "natural law"... [which] "is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation."

He also did so in the history of Israel, particularly in the "ten words," the commandments of Sinai. "The gift of the Decalogue was a promise and sign of the New Covenant, in which the law would be written in a new and definitive way upon the human heart (cf. Jer 31:31-34), replacing the law of sin which had disfigured that heart (cf. Jer 17:1)" (n. 12).

The pope observes that, since God alone is the Good, "no human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in ‘fulfilling’ the Law. ... This ‘fulfilment’ can come only from a gift of God: the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus" (n. 11). I will return to this point below, but before doing so it is imperative for us to take to heart, as John Paul II reminds us, what Jesus told the young man: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). By speaking in this way, Jesus makes clear the "close connection... between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments [which] ... show man the path of life and lead to it" (n. 12).

3. The essential link between obedience to the commandments and eternal life

The first three commandments of the Decalogue, the "ten words," call us "to acknowledge God as the one Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness" (n. 11). But the young man, in response to Jesus’ declaration that he must keep the commandments if he wishes to enter eternal life, demands to know "which ones" (Mt 19:18). As the pope notes, "he asks what he must do in life in order to show that he acknowledges God’s holiness" (n. 13). In responding to this question, Jesus reminds him of the Decalogue’s commandments concerning our neighbor. "From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses," the pope observes, "man is once more given the commandments of the Decalogue" (n. 12). Moreover, as John Paul II notes, these commandments of the Decalogue are rooted in the commandment that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, a commandment expressing "the singular dignity of the human person, ‘the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake"’ (n. 13).

Here John Paul II develops a matter of crucial importance to the meaning of our existence as moral persons. Appealing to the words of Jesus, he emphasizes the truth that

the different commandments of the Decalogue are really only so many reflections on the one commandment about the good of the person, at the level of the many different goods which characterize his identity as a spiritual and bodily being in relationship with God, with his neighbor, and with the material world.... The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods. (n. 13)

The negative precepts of the Decalogue—"You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness - express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of persons in marriage," and so on (n. 13).

Here the pope is simply articulating once more the whole Catholic moral tradition. Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas noted that "God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good." John Paul II returns to this crucially important matter later in the encyclical in his discussion of intrinsically evil acts. There he notes that if there were no absolute moral norms excluding intrinsically evil acts, there would be no truly inviolable rights of the human person (n. 97; cf. nn. 96, 98, 99). While Christian perfection demands more than obedience to these commandments, ‘tone can ‘abide’ in love only by keeping" them (n. 24).

4. The ‘fulfillment’ of the law in Jesus: The universal call to perfection

Jesus, the new Moses who, as we have just seen, reconfirms the truth of the commandments given to Moses, is also the one who gives us the Sermon on the Mount, which John Paul II, following St. Augustine, calls the "magna charta of Christian morality" (n. 15). In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself emphasized that he had come not to abolish the law and prophets, but rather to fulfil them (Mt 5:17). John Paul II says that "Jesus brings the commandments to fulfillment . . . by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning. Thus the commandment ‘You shall not murder’ becomes a call to an attentive love which protects and promotes the life of one’s neighbor. The precept prohibiting adultery becomes an invitation to a pure way of looking at others, capable of respecting the spousal meaning of the body" (n. 15).

The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount "speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life, and therefore they do not coincide exactly with the commandments. On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life" (n. 16). They are "above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life.., they are a sort of self-portrait of Christ ... and ...invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ" (n. 16).

In the Introduction to the encyclical, John Paul LI had called attention to a truth of supreme importance central to the teaching of Vatican 11,6 a truth dear to his heart. This is the truth that "it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery ......... It is Christ, the last Adam, who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father’s love" (n. 2). Jesus, in his very person, "fulfills" the law and brings it to perfection and by doing so reveals to man his noble calling. The moral life, consequently, ultimately means the following of Christ. But we follow Christ, John Paul II writes, not by any outward imitation but by "becoming conformed to him who became a servant even to giving himself on the Cross (cf. Phil 2:5-8)" (n. 21). Following Christ means "holding fast to the very person of Jesus" (n. 19).

Jesus’s invitation to the young man to come and follow him (Mt 19:21), his summons to be as perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48) and to "be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36), and his new command to love one another even as he has loved us (cf. Jn 15:12) are addressed to everyone (cf. nn. 18-20).

It is possible for us to be conformed to Jesus, to hold fast to him, to love as he does "only because of God’s grace" (n. 22; cf. n. 11). "To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes capable of this love only by virtue of a gift received" (n. 22). John Paul II notes that "those who live ‘by the flesh’ experience God’s law as a burden," while those "who are impelled by love and ‘walk in the Spirit’ (Gal 5.16). .. find in God’s law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practice love as something freely chosen and freely lived out" (n. 18). Men and women can, with God’s never-failing grace, live this kind of life. They can "abide" in love, but they do so "only by keeping the commandments, as Jesus states: ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’ Jn 15:10)" (n. 24).  

5. Moral life and the unity of the Church

John Paul II takes up this matter toward the close of the chapter. He writes: "No damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life: the unity of the Church is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-13)" (n. 26). One of the major themes developed throughout the entire encyclical is that the teaching of the Magisterium on the absolute character of moral norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts is rooted in revelation. In Chapter Two, when discussing the issue of intrinsically evil acts, John Paul II stresses that "Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments. . . . You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery"’ (n. 52).

The whole Catholic tradition, reaffirmed in this encyclical, holds that certain specifiable kinds of human actions are utterly incompatible with the Christian life. As the pope notes, "having become one with Christ, the Christian becomes a member of his Body, which is the Church (cf. 1 Cor 12:13, 27)" (n. 21). Moreover, as John Paul II goes on to observe, "from the Church’s beginnings, the Apostles.., were vigilant over the right conduct of Christians, just as they were vigilant for the purity of the faith and the handing down of the divine gifts in the sacraments" (n. 26). Thus a Christian who freely chooses to engage in actions judged by the Church to be utterly incompatible with the life of one who has, through baptism, become one with Christ and a member of his body the Church, violates the unity of the Church just as much as does one who deliberately repudiates truths of faith proclaimed in Christ’s name.

6. The more-than-human authority of the Magisterium of the Church on moral questions

In the concluding number of Chapter One, John Paul II reminds us that a more-than-human authority has been entrusted by Christ to the Apostles and their successors. Explicitly appealing to centrally important texts from Vatican II, John Paul II notes that "this is apparent from the living tradition." For indeed, as Second Vatican Council teaches, "‘the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to every generation all that she is and all that she believes"’ (n. 27). He continues by citing a key passage from one of Vatican II’s dogmatic constitutions: "‘the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in that of tradition, has been entrusted only to those charged with the Church’s living Magisterium, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ"’ (n.27).

Chapter Two: The Church and the discernment of certain tendencies in present-day moral theology

The chapter is divided into four parts: (1) "freedom and law"; (2) "conscience and truth"; (3) "fundamental choice and specific kinds of behavior"; and (4) "the moral act." Although here I will devote major attention to the fourth part of this centrally important chapter of the encyclical, I will offer a summary of the first three parts, calling attention to matters developed in them that are of critical significance today.

1. Freedom and law

The principal theme that John Paul II develops in this part is that there is no true conflict between human freedom of choice and the moral "law." There is no conflict between them because the moral "law," which has God as its author, does not consist of arbitrary, "legalistic" impositions upon human freedom. It consists rather of truths meant to help human persons make good moral choices and in this way truly fulfill themselves and—as Vatican II and John Paul II affirm—achieve the dignity of persons who, freed from subservience to feelings and in a free choice of the good, pursue their true end (cf. n. 42, and Gaudium et Spes, n. 17). John Paul II’s concern here, in other words, is to articulate a true understanding of the autonomy proper to man and to repudiate some contemporary moral theories which so exalt human freedom that they end up in the subjectivistic notion that men are creators of the moral order, of what is good and bad (cf. nn. 35-37).

The pope observes that some of these ideas, unfortunately, have had some influence "in the sphere of Catholic moral theology" (n. 36), and that some theologians distinguish sharply between "an ethical order . . . human in origin and of value for this world alone, and an order of salvation" (n. 37).

Rejecting these views as incompatible with Catholic faith, he then provides an explanation of the natural law rooted in the Catholic tradition (nn. 38-45), as articulated by St. Augustine, St. Thomas and Vatican II. According to this tradition, the natural law is our intelligent participation in God’s eternal law— his wise and loving plan for human existence. Indeed, as John Paul II emphasizes, while "the moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him," it is at the same time, "by virtue of natural reason, which derives from human wisdom.., a properly human law" (n. 40).

The pope then takes up a matter of critical importance today in Catholic moral thought, namely, the claim made by some theologians that the traditional Catholic conception of natural law is "physicalistic" and "biologistic" (n. 47). John Paul II squarely faces this claim and judges that it "does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom" and that it "contradicts the Church’s teachings on the unity of the human person, who, "in the unity of body and soul.., is the subject of his own moral acts" (n. 48). Since the definitive teaching of the Church,’ the pope continues, maintains that the human person "entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure," it follows that "the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods" (n. 48), goods such as bodily life and marital communion (cf. n. 13).

Today some claim that magisterial teaching is "physicalistic" and aver that love for the person is compatible With "exceptions" to norms proscribing the intentional killing of the innocent and the like. John Paul II repudiates this position as - ‘contrary to the teaching of Scripture and tradition" (n. 49). Comparing this view to "certain ancient errors.., always... opposed by the Church," he then appeals first to St. Paul, who teaches that "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you" (1 Cor 6:19), and warns various sorts of sinners—including fornicators, adulterers, and so forth—that they will be "excluded from the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9-10). He then cites the Council of Trent5 which lists as ‘mortal sins’ or ‘immoral practices’ certain specific kinds of behavior the willful acceptance of which "prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them" (n. 49).

In the concluding number of this part (n. 53), John ‘Paul II examines the view that, because of human historicity, moral norms are not immutable but change under varying historical and cultural situations. He repudiates this relativism because it is incompatible with Christ’s affirmation, in his teaching against divorce, of the permanent validity of God’s plan from the "beginning," and also with the unity of human nature which all human beings share with Christ, "who is the same yesterday and today and forever" (n.53).

Conscience & truth

In this comparatively brief part of Chapter Two, John Paul II is at pains to show that conscience,’ in its precise sense, is a practical judgment, "which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him" (n. 59). It is not a "decision on how to act in particular cases" (n. 55). Conscience, as the pope makes clear, is "the proximate norm of personal morality," but its dignity consists in its capacity to disclose the truth about moral good and evil, the truth "indicated by the ‘divine law,’ the universal and objective norm of morality" (n. 60; cf. n. 63).

In this part John Paul II repudiates the position of those who separate or even oppose "the teaching of the precept [e.g., not to commit adultery], which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil" (n. 56). On this view, only the individual conscience can ultimately decide whether an act generally wrong might be fitting in the concrete situation. The pope notes that "on this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept" (n. 56). In explaining that conscience is not a "creative" decision but rather a judgment drawn from moral truths (n. 59), John Paul II again appeals to St. Paul, this time to his teaching in Romans 2:15, which "clarifies the precise nature of conscience: it is a moral judgment about man and his actions, a judgment either of acquital or of condemnation, according as human acts are in conformity or not with the law of God written on the heart" (n. 59).

3. Fundamental Choice and specific kinds of behaviour

This third part of Chapter Two treats the relationship between free choices of specific kinds of acts (e.g., to commit adultery) and a person’s "fundamental option for or against the Good, for or against the Truth, and ultimately for or against God" (n. 65). John Paul II first notes that human freedom is rightly regarded as being "not only the choice for one or another particular action" but "is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself" (n. 65). In other words, in and through the free choices we make we determine ourselves. He likewise notes that it is correct to emphasize the "importance of certain choices which ‘shape’ a person’s entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices can be situated and allowed to develop" (n. 65). In other words, he recognizes the crucial moral significance of certain kinds of choices that can rightly be called "commitments."

But he goes on to note that some theologians today "have proposed an even more radical revision of the relationship between person and acts. They speak of a ‘fundamental freedom,’ deeper than and different from freedom of choice, which needs to be considered if human actions are to be correctly understood and evaluated" (n. 65). These theologians relocate self-determination from the free choices we make every day, including fundamental commitments, to a "fundamental option.., whereby the person makes an overall self-determination" (n. 65). A distinction "thus comes to be introduced between the fundamental option and deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behavior" (n. 65). "The conclusion to which this eventually leads is that the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding . . . from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behavior" (n. 65).

On this view, the choice freely to do an act known to be gravely immoral need not be a mortal sin. For, they claim, the free choice to do so may not reverse their fundamental option, which they regard as distinct from any particular choice to do this or that.

John Paul II judges that "to separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul" (n. 67). But even before making this judgment, he rejects contemporary tendencies to relocate self-determination from the free choices we make every day, including our commitments, to an alleged fundamental option in the depth of our being. He judges this as "contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts" (n. 67). He teaches that the choice of freedom which Christian moral teaching, even in its biblical roots, acknowledges as fundamental is "the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26)" (n. 66). This is the free choice, he then continues, citing a passage from Vatican 11,18 "by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God as he reveals"’ (n. 66). The pope continues by saying that since faith is a commitment to God that is to bear fruit in works (cf. Mt 12:33-35; Lk 6:43-45; Rom 8:5-10; Gal 5:22), it demands that one keep the commandments of the Decalogue and follow Jesus even to the point of losing his life for Jesus’s sake and the sake of the gospel (cf. Mk 8:35) (n. 66).

The pope then emphasizes that this fundamental option—a free choice that can rightly be called a commitment "‘shaping’ a person’s entire moral life" (cf. n. 65): "is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to a morally grave matter" (n.67).

In the balance of this part of Chapter Two, John Paul II first recalls the teaching, solemnly defined by the Council of Trent, that "the grace of justification once received is lost not only by apostasy, by which faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin" (n. 68).19 He then reaffirms—as he had earlier done in his apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Poenitentia - that mortal sin exists "when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered" (n. 70). It thus follows that "the separation of fundamental option from deliberate choices of particular kinds of behavior, disordered in themselves or in their circumstances, which would not engage that option.., involves a denial of Catholic doctrine on mortal sin" (n. 70).

4. The Moral Act

This final and critically important part of Chapter Two deals with the criteria necessary to assess man’s free acts correctly. John Paul II first distinguishes between what he calls "teleology" and "teleologism." He affirms that "the moral life has an essentially ‘teleological’ character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man" (n. 73). But he contrasts this teleology with "teleologism"; he writes:

Certain ethical theories, called teleological, claim to be concerned for the conformity of human acts with the ends pursued by the agent and with the values intended by him. The criteria for evaluating the moral rightness of an action are drawn from the weighing of the non-moral or pre-moral goods to be gained and the corresponding non-moral or premoral values to be respected. For some, concrete behavior would be right or wrong according to whether or not it is capable of producing a better state of affairs for all concerned. Right conduct would be the one capable of "maximizing" goods and "minimizing" evils. (n. 74)

One type of "teleologism" identified by the pope— "consequentialism"—"claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences stemming from a given choice." Another variant—"proportionalism"—"by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’ actually possible in a particular situation" (n. 75). Those holding these theories claim that it is impossible to determine whether an act traditionally regarded as intrinsically evil would really be morally evil until one has considered, in the concrete situation, the "premoral" good and evil state of affairs it is likely to cause. They conclude that the foreseen proportions of "pre-moral" goods to evils in the alternatives available can at times justify exceptions to precepts traditionally regarded as absolute (cf. n. 75).

John Paul II firmly rejects these theories, declaring that they "are not faithful to the Church’s teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law" (n. 76). He first shows that this way of evaluating human acts "is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behavior is ‘according to its species,’ or ‘in itself’ good or bad, licit or illicit," because "everyone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects—defined as pre-moral—of one’s own acts" (n. 77).

But this is not the chief problem with "teleologism." The pope goes on to emphasize that "the morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will" (n. 78).21 In a very important passage, well summarizing the Catholic moral tradition as expressed by Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II writes as follows:

In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally.... By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. (n. 78)

Here the Holy Father quite rightly and clearly shows that the "object" of the moral act is precisely what one "chooses." It is the "object" of one’s will; it is what one willingly and freely chooses and, in doing so, ratifies in his heart and endorses. With this understanding of the "object" of a human act in mind, it is easy to grasp the pope’s argument, which he himself summarizes by saying: "Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image" (n. 80).

Here it is important to note that proportionalism and consequentialism, concerned as they are with the objective state of affairs brought about by human actions, neglect to consider rightly the self-determining or self-constituting character of human actions. John Paul II takes this seriously, as noted earlier. If one chooses to do acts of the kinds identified by the tradition as intrinsically evil, a person is not only choosing to produce effects "in the state of affairs outside of" his will (n. 71). doing so one is also making a "decision about oneself" (n. 65). us, when I freely choose, as the object of my will, to kill an innocent person I am making myself to be a killer.

But John Paul II repudiates consequentialism and proportionalism not only because they are philosophically and theologically flawed moral theories, but also—and more importantly—because they are opposed to divine revelation and to the definitive teaching of the Church. He reminds us that "the faithful be obliged to acknowledge and respect the specific moral precepts declared and taught by the Church in the name of God, the Creator and Lord" (n. 76), and in reminding us of this he refers explicitly to the teaching of the Council of Trent. Later on he says that "in teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture" (n. 81). He then quotes two texts from St. Paul, Romans 3:8 and 1 Corinthians 9-10. He refers to the text from Romans first in a citation from Thomas (n. 78), then in the heading to numbers 79-83, and finally in a citation from Humanae vitae n. 14, where Pope Paul VI taught that "it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8)" (n. 80). And toward the close of his discussion of intrinsically evil acts in this final part of Chapter Two, the pope points out: "The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments" (n. 82).

John Paul II returns to the issue of intrinsically evil acts m the third and final chapter of the encyclical, to which I hall now turn.

Chapter Three: Moral good for the life of the Church and of the world

In the third and final chapter of his encyclical, Pope John Paul II is once again at pains to show that true human freedom is indissolubly linked to the truth, and ultimately to the truth that Christ reveals in bringing to perfection and fulfillment the "law" written in our hearts. Early in the chapter he writes:

Each day the Church looks to Christ with unfailing love, fully aware that the true and final answer to the problem of morality lies in him alone. In a particular way, it is in the Crucified Christ that the Church finds the answer to the question troubling so many people today: how can obedience to universal and unchanging moral norms respect the uniqueness and individuality of the person, and not represent a threat to his freedom and dignity? (n. 85)

Here I will focus attention on the following matters developed by John Paul II in Chapter Three, where he urges us to accept Christ’s invitation to follow him in giving ourselves in love to others, in loving one another as he loves us and in this way to attain the fulfillment God wills us to have: (1) the relationship between human freedom and the truth; (2) the intimate, inseparable union of faith and morality; (3) the inseparable relationship between respect for personal dignity and a refusal to engage in intrinsically evil acts and the absolute need for God’s grace to lead a morally upright life; (4) the service of moral theologians; and (5) the responsibilities of bishops.  

1. The relationship between human freedom and the truth

John Paul II eloquently proclaims that "the Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom" (n. 85). In a beautiful passage he then writes:

Human freedom belongs to us as creatures; it is a freedom which is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly. It is an essential part of that creaturely image which is the basis of the dignity of the person. Within that freedom there is an echo of the primordial vocation whereby the Creator calls man to the true Good, and even more, through Christ’s Revelation, to become his friend and to share his own divine life. It is at once inalienable self possession and openness to all that exists, in passing beyond self to knowledge and love of the other. Freedom then is rooted in the truth about man, and it is ultimately directed towards communion. (n. 86)

And, as Jesus reveals to us, "freedom is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self. . . the gift of self in service to God and one’s brethren" (n. 87). This is the ultimate truth meant to guide our free choices: to love, even as we have been and are loved by God in Christ, whose "crucified flesh fully reveals the unbreakable bond between freedom and truth, just as his Resurrection from the dead is the supreme exaltation of the fruitfulness and saving power of a freedom lived out in truth" (n. 87).

2. The intimate, inseparable unity of faith and morality

In Chapter Three, John Paul II confronts "one of the most acute pastoral concerns of the Church amid today’s growing secularism"—the separation of faith from morality (n. 88). It is therefore urgent, the pope insists, "to rediscover the newness of faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture ....... . It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent ... but is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out" (n. 88). Faith, John Paul II insists, possesses a moral content: "It gives rise to and calls for a consistent life commitment: it entails and brings to perfection the acceptance and observance of God’s commandments"(n. 89). Indeed, as he goes on to say, it is in and through our daily moral life that our faith becomes a "confession," a witness before God and man." Living faith, which, as we saw earlier is the "fundamental option" of the Christian, must bear fruit in works, "above all those of charity (cf. Mt 25:31-46) and of the authentic freedom which is manifested and lived in the gift of self even to the total gift of self, like that of Jesus" (n. 89).  

3. The absolute need for God’s grace to live a morally upright life

Early in Chapter Three, John Paul II stressed that the discernment exercised by the Church with respect to the ‘teleologisms" considered in Chapter Two "is not limited to renouncing and refuting them" because they lead to a denial of absolute moral norms proscribing intrinsically evil acts. Rather, in making this discernment the Church, m a positive way, "seeks with great love, to help all the faithful to form a moral conscience which will make judgments and lead to decisions in, accordance with the truth," ultimately with the truth revealed in Jesus (n. 85). As noted earlier, it is precisely in the Crucified Christ that the Church finds the answer to the question, why must we obey universal and unchanging moral norms (n. 85). These norms are binding precisely because they protect the inviolable dignity of the human person, whom we are to love with the love of Christ.

John Paul II illustrates this great truth first of all by appealing to the witness of martyrs. "The unacceptability of ‘teleological,’ ‘consequentialist,’ and ‘proportionalist’ ethical theories, which deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behavior, norms which are valid without exception, is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom" (n. 90). The pope then goes on to cite examples: Susanna in the Old Testament, who was ready to die rather than commit adultery; John the Baptist, who suffered death in witnessing to Herod "the law of the Lord" regarding marriage; and others from the New Testament, not least Jesus himself (n. 91). John Paul II points out that "martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God’s image and likeness" (n. 92). Indeed, "martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever ‘human meaning’ one might claim to attribute, even in ‘exceptional’ conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s ‘humanity,’ in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it" (n. 92)

John Paul II next illustrates this great truth by observing that, were there no moral norms excluding intrinsically evil acts "valid always and for everyone, with no exception," there would be no truly inviolable rights of the human person (n. 97). He writes: "These norms in fact represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy, which can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties. When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone" (n. 96). The denial of intrinsically evil acts leads to the surrendering of the inviolable rights of human persons, rights that must be recognized and respected if society is to be decent.

Finally, toward the end of Chapter Three, the pope takes up the objection that the Church is rigoristic and unrealistic in teaching that there are absolute moral norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts—that it is simply impossible for people to obey them in all circumstances. To this objection John Paul II replies by reaffirming the constant teaching of the Church. God never commands the impossible: "Temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them" (n. 102). He then shows that this is a matter of Catholic faith by citing the Council of Trent’s solemn condemnation of the view "that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you" (n. 102).

4. The service of moral theologians

Here the pope insists that "all those who by mandate of their legitimate Pastors teach moral theology in Seminaries and Faculties of Theology . . . have the grave duty to instruct the faithful—especially future Pastors—about all those commandments and practical norms authoritatively declared by the Church" (n. 110). John Paul II notes that at times theologians will recognize "the possible limitations of the human arguments employed by the Magisterium," and hence they are "called to develop a deeper understanding of the reasons underlying its teachings and to expound the validity and obligatory nature of the precepts it proposes, demonstrating their connection with one another and their relation with man’s ultimate end" (n. 110).The pope regards this service of "utmost importance, not only for the Church’s life and mission, but also for human society and culture" (n. 111). He emphasizes that "dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the People of God" (n. 113). If theologians do dissent in this way, he continues, "the Church’s Pastors have the duty to act in conformity with their apostolic mission, insisting that the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must be respected" (n. 113).

5. The responsibility of bishops

In the concluding numbers of Chapter Three, John Paul II reminds his brothers in the episcopate of their obligation, one underscored by Vatican II, to proclaim the gospel and to vigilantly "ward off errors that are threatening their flock (cf. 2 Tim 4:1-4)" (n. 170).27 The Holy Father, who has in this encyclical "evaluated certain trends in moral theology today," passes this evaluation on to his brother bishops, "in obedience to the word of the Lord who entrusted to Peter the task of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), in order to clarify and aid our common discernment" (n. 115). He emphasizes that "each of us can see the seriousness of what is involved, not only for individuals but also for the whole of society, with the reaffirmation of the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts" (n. 115). He pleads with his brother bishops to collaborate with him in being "vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught" (n. 116), precisely so that "the voice of Jesus Christ, the voice of the truth about good and evil" will be heard by the People of God (cf. n. 117).


In the brief conclusion to the encyclical, the pope entrusts all of us to Mary, Mother of God, Mother of Mercy. Here he emphasizes that "no human sin can erase the mercy of God," the mercy that "reaches its fullness in the gift of the Spirit who bestows new life and demands that it be lived" (n. 118). Here he also stresses that the claim that Christian morality is too demanding is false, "since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy" (n. 119). In his great goodness. Jesus has self entrusted to his Mother Mary the Church and all of humanity (n. 120). She "understands sinful man and loves him a Mother’s love. Precisely for this reason she is on the side truth and shares the Church’s burden in recalling always and everyone the demands of morality" (n. 121). She will not let be deceived, the pope concludes, by those who offer "beguiling doctrines," for she knows that "only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to [man’s] conscience d salvation to his life" (n. 121).