Skip to main content

There are papal encyclicals, and then there are papal encyclicals. Some escape public attention almost from the moment they’re promulgated. Others continue reverberating inside the Church decades after they appear. But there’s also a third type of encyclical: those which assume truly civilizational significance.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of one document that falls squarely into the last category. Blessed John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor The Splendor of Truth — may well turn out to be one of the most important papal texts in modern history.

Obviously that’s a rather strong claim, even by today’s hyperbolic standards. Yet it’s not a difficult argument to make.

For one thing, Veritatis Splendor was the first encyclical to spell out the Catholic Church’s fundamental moral teaching. Catholicism had, of course, always articulated the moral dimension of Christ’s message. Never before, however, had a pope provided a formal systematic outline of Catholic moral doctrine. That alone makes the encyclical a perennial reference-point for Catholic reflection.

Second, Veritatis Splendor provided what’s now widely recognized as a powerful response to the crisis into which Catholic moral theology fell after Vatican II. In many respects this crisis was precipitated by the debates surrounding Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. But more deeply, Veritatis Splendor was a rejoinder to many Catholic theologians’ attempt to do three things.

One was their effort to maintain the vocabulary of Catholic ethics while transforming its content into something indistinguishable from utilitarianism. Whether it went by the name “consequentalism” or “proportionalism,” the ideas associated with the late Josef Fuchs, S.J., and his followers relied heavily on the claim that an act’s morality was determined by a “weighing” of all the potential goods and evils that might flow from an act.

Veritatis Splendor’s reply was to underline something that even many secular philosophers acknowledged a long time ago: that such a weighing presupposes we can know the unknowable and measure the immeasurable. In other words, it assumes the impossible.

Such questionable presumptions, however, flowed from another of the dissenters’ commitments. This was to dilute, without explicitly saying so, the Church’s position that there are acts which, by reason of their object, are intrinsically evil, no matter how noble the intention or extenuating the circumstances.

Dissenting theologians always denied (rather loudly — which itself was revealing) this was their goal. Yet anyone who read their writings could see how they sought to recast the Church’s absolute prohibition of certain choices as provisional generalizations. Being provisional, they were potentially open to exception. In other words, their absolutes turned out to be not-so-absolute. This led some to suggest that the dissenters’ entire project had less to do with “liberating consciences” than with an antecedent wish to affirm acts irreconcilable with Catholic teaching.

The dissenters’ last objective was to undercut the Catholic position that some acts are of such gravity that they render one’s faith “dead.” In their view, one’s “fundamental option” for Christ was what really counted with regard to our salvation. A good God would never reject someone who had opted for Christ, no matter what he might have subsequently done.

Veritatis Splendor’s response was twofold. While acknowledging that there is a sense in which everyone makes a fundamental choice for or against Christ, the encyclical reiterated that certain acts (i.e., mortal sins) represent a fundamental choice against Christ — and potentially forever, unless one repented.

St. Paul and St. James could not have been more explicit about this. Indeed Catholicism has always insisted that “the way,” as the first Christians called the Catholic faith, isn’t just about one choice. It’s about every free choice that either promotes or seriously damages human flourishing. That’s why Catholicism takes reason and free will so very seriously.

And this in turn underscores Veritatis Splendor’s significance for civilization more generally. Against the spirit of the age, the encyclical not only reaffirmed that man can know moral truth; it also insisted we can live it.

Such claims are as old as Socrates and the Hebrew prophets but acquired unique force and depth with the advent of orthodox Christianity. It’s impossible to underestimate, however, just how much they jar modern sensibilities.

In many people’s minds today, our moral choices are or should be directed by our feelings and experiences. Because that’s all you have left once you deny Revelation and reason can teach us anything definitive about morality beyond vague generalizations such as “be tolerant” or “maximize utility.”

This helps explain why your average teenager/baby-boomer invariably begins speaking about controversial questions with the words “I just feel that ....” The same mentality manifests itself when contemporary politicians invoke the experiences of their family/children/friends/neighbors when explaining why they’re morally for, against, or “evolving” on something.

But while experiences provide us with certain insights, they’re not a rational basis for making choices. How, for example, do we morally differentiate between dissimilar experiences of something like natural family planning? Some experience NFP as burdensome. Others experience it as liberating. So, who’s right? Reference to experience itself has no way of answering this.

The intellectual cul-de-sac in which this leaves us goes a long way towards explaining the sheer muddle of contemporary Western moral reflection. The chaos is made worse, however, by another influential modern claim disputed by Veritatis Splendor. This is the widespread assertion that there’s nothing stable about human nature: that everything is somehow malleable.

Among the more absurd expressions of such claims is the all-pervasive ideology of gender that tells us we are whatever “gender” we “feel” ourselves to be, regardless of biology and DNA. The implication is that as human nature “changes,” so too must morality.

Thanks to the modern sciences, we know more today about, for example, how our brain functions. But scientific facts (assuming they are facts rather than just politically correct fictions) don’t in themselves provide us with morally decisive reasons to do anything. To make such a claim is an instance of what’s called the naturalistic fallacy of deriving an “ought” from an “is.” It’s like someone saying that because he has a disposition towards alcoholism, he should be an alcoholic.

Humans are certainly dynamic beings insofar as our free choices change our inner character as much as they shape the outside world. But this is consistent with Veritatis Splendor’s insistence that there are many things about human beings and human flourishing which don’t change. There’s no evidence, for instance, that contemporary people’s reason-qua-reason or will-qua-will is any different from those who lived 5,000 years ago. Likewise, can anyone plausibly argue that virtues like prudence or temperance are no less virtues in 2013 than they were in 1013?

Herein lies Veritatis Splendor’s importance for anyone who wants to preserve and promote civilization. Not only does it insist that particular acts are eternally unworthy of man. It also affirms that human reason can identify what the encyclical calls certain “fundamental goods” that transcend the particularities of the here-and-now.

In that sense the encyclical reminds us that avoiding evil isn’t enough. As Veritatis Splendor’s unfolding of Christ’s encounter with the rich young man illustrates, the prohibitions contained in God’s moral law are supposed to be a springboard toward human flourishing. For no matter how humble we may be by worldly standards, everyone is equal in the face of the demands of morality. That also means, however, we’re equally capable of greatness. In a world which encourages moral mediocrity, Veritatis Splendor insists that all of us are, with the help of grace, a potential Gianna Beretta Molla, Thomas More, Maria Goretti, or Karol Wojtyla.

And this surely is a truth that sets us free.

This article first appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford, where he worked under the supervision of Professor John Finnis.