Twenty-five years ago, on August 6, 1993, Pope St. John Paul II published what is arguably his most important encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor” (The Splendor of Truth). The encyclical dealt with what the Pope called “a decline or obscuring of the moral sense” (#106.2).
Early on in the document, the pope speaks of a kind of culture of dissent that has taken hold in the Church. It’s not difficult to see the birth of that widespread “systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine” (#4.2) in the massive dissent that followed upon the publication of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical “Humanae Vitae” in 1968.
This was the catalyst for the surfacing of theological opinions that had long been brewing, e.g. consequentialism, proportionalism and the notion of the “fundamental option.” Each of these, in its own way, rejects the Church’s consistent teaching on the objective meaning of traditional moral doctrine in favor of a “pastoral” theology that makes divinely revealed truth malleable according to the situations and times in which individuals find themselves.
As a consequence of this new “pastoral” approach, St. John Paul notes that “the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only to ‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values,’ in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decision and life choices” (#4.2).
This way of thinking — or more properly, dissenting — effectively brings about a rupture between freedom and law. John Paul deplores the loss of the authentic sense of “freedom,” viz. freedom to know and follow the natural moral law. Only in this way are we truly free, free from the sin that obstructs us from achieving the end for which God created us.
“Certain currents of modern thought,” the Pope writes, “have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values . . . The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil . . . But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and ‘being at peace with oneself,’ so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment” (#31.1).
This disconnect between authentic freedom (to choose the good) and the natural moral law (which reveals the good to us) has had dire consequences in the lives of many, many Catholics — including some in the hierarchy of the Church. What was held to be objective truth, objective good and objective evil is now to be determined according to the subjective dictates of conscience, whether properly formed or not.
Some acts are simply not capable of being ordered to God because they are intrinsically evil — a phrase that St. John Paul uses with some regularity in this encyclical. And yet we have seen far too many examples of intrinsically evil acts being executed even by those whom we have trusted to live otherwise. And all of this has resulted in a severe decline in the manifest holiness of the Church. Only when all of us — and I mean all of us — return to the serious practice of our faith as revealed by Christ and taught by his Church, can we expect to see an end to the horrors that have been revealed recently.
In an exhortation to bishops near the end of his encyclical St. John Paul writes: “My Brothers in the Episcopate, it is part of our pastoral ministry to see to it that this moral teaching [of the unity of moral law and conscience] is faithfully handed down and to have recourse to appropriate measures to ensure that the faithful are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to it” (#116.1).
But we bishops must not only teach the truth, we must also live it.