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William E. May

Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology

John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at

The Catholic University of America

In an article in the inaugural issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Romanus Cessario, O.P., asserted: “This short essay on method in Catholic bioethics assumes that the development of Catholic bioethics must proceed from the principles embodied in Veritatis splendor”(2001, pp. 53-54). Cessario’s own essay focused on the encyclical’s emphasis on the complementarity between divine law and human freedom, contrasting this with the understanding of freedom found in proportionalist writers. It did not, however, seek to show how the teaching of this encyclical can and should inwardly shape “Catholic” bioethics.

Here I will attempt to show why Veritatis splendor [1] is of such great importance for bioethics, whether under Catholic auspices or not.  I will first center attention on John Paul’s insistence that a sound morality is rooted in a sound anthropology or understanding of the human person, and the central significance of this for making true judgments and good moral choices, particularly in questions of bioethics. I will then set forth the reasons why John Paul II, with others in the Catholic tradition, considers freely chosen human acts of crucial importance to our identity as human persons and why, consequently, it is imperative that human persons inwardly shape their own choices and actions in accordance with the truth. His thought on the truth needed to guide human choices and actions will then be presented. The truth in question is that expressed in the “natural law,” to which John Paul devotes considerable attention. A summary of his analysis of the morality of human actions will then be given along with his reasons for affirming the existence of intrinsically evil acts. I will then relate his moral thought to central issues of bioethics.

1. Anthropology and Ethics

Germain Grisez, after masterfully exposing the dualistic anthropology at the heart of the so-called “new morality,” declared: “Christian moral thought must remain grounded in a sound anthropology which maintains the bodiliness of the person” (1977, p. 329). [2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, commenting on Veritatis splendor, similarly stressed that John Paul II, opposing the kind of neo-manicheanism underlying the claim that the magisterial teaching of the Church is “physicalistic,” [3] insists on the bodily character of human personhood, i.e., on an anthropology respecting the truth that human persons are unitary beings composed of body and soul (1994, pp. 16-17). Ratzinger continues by saying that for this reason John Paul II concludes that the moral theory underlying the charge of “physicalism” simply  “does not,” as John Paul II himself said, “correspond to the truth about man and his freedom. It contradicts the Church’s teaching on the unity of the human person, whose rational soul is per se et essentialiter the form of his body….The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts” (Veritatis splendor, no. 48). [4]

Consequently, the pope continues, the theory underlying this claim actually

revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors [e.g., Manicheanism] which have always been opposed by the Church inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a “spiritual” and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behavior involving it (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). Saint Paul declares that “the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation—repeated by the Council of Trent—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. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together (Veritatis splendor, no. 49).

In an important footnote appended after the words “Council of Trent” in the passage just cited, John Paul II makes it even clearer that the body and bodily life are integral to the person, for in it he calls attention to texts from both Old and New Testaments unequivocally condemning “as mortal sins certain modes of conduct involving the body” (Veritatis splendor, no. 49, footnote 88).

The truth that human persons are bodily beings and that human bodily life is a good of the person, intrinsic to the person, and not merely a good for the person, extrinsic to the person, is at the heart of a sound bioethics, Catholic or otherwise. Unfortunately, much contemporary speech about bioethics is rooted in a dualistic understanding of human beings, one sharply distinguishing between being a living human body or living individual member of the human species and being a person. John Paul II firmly opposes this dualism. He writes:

the person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator. It is in the light of the dignity of the person—a dignity which must be affirmed for its own sake—that reason grasps the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined. And since the person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily (emphasis added) structure, 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, without which one would fall into relativism and arbitrariness (Veritatis splendor, no. 48). 

And among these goods which must be respected is human bodily life (cf. Veritatis splendor, no. 13).

The dualism underlying much contemporary bioethics regards the “person” as a conscious subject aware of itself as a self and capable of relating to other selves, i.e., other conscious subjects, and it regards the “body” as a privileged instrument of the person. On this view not every living human body, not every living member of the human species, is a person or subject of rights, but only those members of the human species who have at least incipient cognitive abilities. [5] This dualism, firmly repudiated by John Paul II in Veritatis splendor, is the basis of contemporary evaluations of human actions and attitudes regarding organic human life and sexuality, as the following passage from a contemporary philosopher-theologian eloquently illustrates.

If the person really is not his body, then the destruction of the life of the body is not directly and in itself an attack on a value intrinsic to the human person. The lives of the unborn, the lives of those not fully in possession of themselves—the hopelessly insane and the ‘vegetating’ senile—and the lives of those who no longer can engage in praxis or problem solving become lives no longer meaningful, no longer valuable, no longer inviolable. If the person is really not his or her own body, then the use of the sexual organs in a manner which does not respect their proper biological teleology is not directly and in itself the perversion of a good of the human person (Grisez, 1977, p. 325).

From what has been said thus far the crucial significance of an adequate anthropology of the human person for a sound bioethics should be apparent. Sound philosophy (leaving aside, for the moment, divine revelation) rejects the dualistic understanding of the human person, prevalent in contemporary Western cultures, that sharply distinguishes the conscious subject from the biologically alive body. This dualism, so rightly rejected by John Paul II in Veritatis splendor, is utterly irreconcilable with the truth that the very same organism that senses, that sees, hears, smells, tastes, imagines, etc. (all of these bodily activities) is the very same organism that reasons, makes judgments regarding the truth and falsity of propositions, makes free choices etc. (activities attributed to the “conscious self”). This organism is one, not two, and this organism is the human person, a unity of body and soul. [6]

2. The Crucial Importance of Freely Chosen Human Acts

Human actions (and bioethics is concerned with specific kinds of human actions) are not simply physical events in the material world that come and go, like the falling of rain or the turning of the leaves. Human actions are not things that merely “happen” to a person. They are, rather, the outward expression of a person’s choice, the disclosure or revelation of that person’s moral identity, of his or her being as a moral being. For at the core of an action, as human and personal, is a free, self-determining choice, which as such is something spiritual and abides within the person, determining the very being of the person. [7]We can say that a human action—i.e., a free, intelligible action, whether good or bad—is the adoption by choice of some intelligible proposal and the execution of this choice through some exterior performance. But the core of the action is the free, self-determining choice that abides in the person, making him or her to be the kind of person he or she is.

The significance of freely chosen human acts as self-determining is well brought out in Veritatis splendor. After saying “it is precisely through his acts that man attains perfection as man,” John Paul II goes on to affirm: “Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the states 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” (Veritatis splendor, no. 71). [8] Indeed, he says, “freedom is not only the choice for one or another particular action; it is also, within that choice, 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” (Veritatis splendor, no. 65).

In short, we shape our character, our identity as moral beings, by what we freely choose to do. But we are not free to make what we freely choose to do to be good or bad, right or wrong. And we know this, because we know that at times we have freely chosen to do things which we knew, at the very time we freely chose to do them, were morally bad—and if we claim that we have not had this experience then we are, as St. John reminds us, “liars” (see 1 Jn 1:8).

3. Free Choice and the Need for Moral Truth

Our choices, while determining both what we will do and our moral identity, do not determine whether the deeds we choose to and in and through which we freely give ourselves our identity as moral beings are morally good or bad. But our choices are not blind, for they are made only after intelligent deliberation, only after thinking, in practical terms, about what-we-are-to-do. And if our choices are to be morally good, they must be guided by the truth about what is to be done. Moreover, we are capable of discovering this truth because we are intelligent beings. Indeed, we know, deep in our hearts, that we are called to seek the truth about what we are to do, to cleave to it once we have discovered it, and to shape our choices, our actions, and our lives in accord with it. [9]

The truth we need to help us discriminate between alternatives of action that are morally good and morally bad is practical in nature. It has to do with what we-are-going-to-do, and not with what-is. The truth in question is rooted in God’s eternal law, or his wise and loving plan for human existence, and in the “natural law,” which is in essence the intelligent participations of human persons in this “wise and loving plan.” John Paul II treats of this truth at length in Veritatis splendor, not only in his discussion of the relationship between freedom (free choice) and the truth in the first part, “Freedom and Law” (nos. 35-53), of the second chapter of Veritatis splendor but in other parts of the document as well. Here I will draw together his teaching on this subject.

4. The Teaching of Veritatis splendor on Natural Law

            Pope John Paul II affirms, with Vatican Council II, [10] that the highest norm of human action is God's divine law: eternal, objective and universal, whereby he governs the entire universe and the ways of the human community according to a plan conceived in wisdom and in love (no. 43). He emphasizes that “natural law” is our intelligent participation in God's eternal law (cf. nos. 12, 40). Moreover, with St. Thomas, whom he cites extensively, particularly on this point (cf. his citation from Summa theologiae, 1-2, 91, 2 in no. 42), he stresses that the natural law, inasmuch as it is the participation of intelligent, rational creatures in God's eternal law, is properly a human law. [11] Thus he says, “this law is called the natural law...not because it refers to the nature of nonrational beings but because the reason which promulgates it is proper to human nature” (no. 42). The moral or natural law, John Paul II affirms, "has its origin in God and always finds its source in him.”  Nonetheless, “by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom,” the natural law must also be recognized as "a properly human law” (no. 40).

            Moreover, precisely because the natural law finds its origin in God's divine and eternal law, its normative requirements are truths meant to help us choose rightly. In fact, John Paul II speaks of our moral life as a

theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man's free obedience to God's law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God's wisdom and providence. By forbidding man to “eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” God makes it clear that man does not originally possess such “knowledge” as something properly his own, but only participates in it by the light of the natural reason and of Divine Revelation, which manifests to him the requirements and promptings of eternal wisdom. Law must therefore be considered an expression of divine wisdom: by submitting to the law, freedom submits to the truth of creation (no. 41).

            John Paul II takes up the normative requirements or truths of natural law in his presentation, in chapter one of the encyclical, of the essential link between obedience to the Ten Commandments, which the Catholic tradition has always recognized as requirements of natural law, and eternal life. In his presentation of this essential link he makes it clear that the primordial moral requirement of natural law is the twofold love of God and of neighbor and that the precepts of the second tablet of the Decalogue are based on the truth that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This, as will be seen more clearly later, is of paramount importance.

            He begins by noting that our Lord, in responding to the question posed to him by the rich young man, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16), stresses that its answer can be found “only 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” (no. 9; cf. nos. 11, 12). He continues by saying, “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.’...He also did so particularly in the “ten words,” the commandments of Sinai” (no. 12). John Paul II next reminds us that our Lord then told the young man: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17), and that Jesus, by speaking in this way, 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” (no. 12). The first three of the commandments of the Decalogue call “us to acknowledge God as the one Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness” (no. 11). But the young man, replying to Jesus' declaration that he must keep the commandments if he wishes to enter eternal life, demands to know “which ones” (Mt 18:19). John Paul II says, “he asks what he must do in life in order to show that he acknowledges God's holiness” (no. 13). In answering this question, Jesus reminds the young man of the Decalogue's precepts regarding our neighbor. “From the very lips of Jesus,” John Paul observes, “man is once more given the commandments of the Decalogue” (no. 12). These Commandments, he then affirms, are based on 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’” (no. 13, with an internal citation from Gaudium et spes, no. 24). [12]

            It is at this point that John Paul II develops a matter of crucial importance for understanding the truths of natural law and the relationship between the primordial moral command to love our neighbor as ourselves and the specific commandments of the second tablet of the Decalogue. His point is that we can love our neighbor and respect his dignity as a person only by cherishing the real goods meant to flourish in him and by refusing to damage, destroy, or impede these goods. [13]

            Appealing to the words of Jesus, John Paul II emphasizes 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 (no. 13).

He goes on to say that the negative precepts of the Decalogue—“You shall not kill; 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 (no. 13). These negative precepts, which protect the good of human persons by protecting the goods meant to flourish in them, are among the universal and immutable moral absolutes proscribing intrinsically human acts, the teaching representing, as John Paul II himself asserts, the “central theme” of the encyclical (cf. no. 115). [14]

                        As noted, John Paul II affirms that the negative precepts of the Decalogue, are moral absolutes, and that the human acts proscribed by them are intrinsically evil acts. It is therefore necessary, in order for us to understand properly the teaching on natural law set forth in Veritatis splendor, to consider his thought on this crucially important matter, to which he devotes the fourth section of chapter two and a good part of chapter three. I will do so by examining the following points: (1) the moral specification of human acts, (2) the criteria for assessing their moral goodness or badness, (3) the truth that moral absolutes, by excluding intrinsically evil acts, protect the inviolable dignity of human persons and point the way to fulfillment in Christ.

5. The Moral Specification of Human Acts

            John Paul II explicitly addresses this important issue in the fourth section of chapter two. After repudiating some contemporary ethical theories, which he identifies as species of "teleologism," because they are philosophically inadequate and incompatible with Catholic faith (cf. nos. 71-75), he stresses that "the morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the 'object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will” (no. 78, with explicit reference to St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, 18, 6). Then, in a very important passage he 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 (no. 78).

            The “object” of a human act, in other words, is the subject matter with which it is concerned--it is the intentional content of the intelligible proposal that one adopts by choice and executes externally. For example, the “object” of an act of adultery is having intercourse with some one who is not one's spouse or with the spouse of another. This is what adultery is. Note that here nonmorally evaluative terms are used to describe the act in question. One is simply accurately describing precisely what the acting person is choosing to do. One is not as yet rendering a moral judgment on the act. Some people may think that the choice to do this kind of an act can be, under certain conditions, morally permissible, whereas others may think that the choice to do this kind of act is always morally bad. The “object” is simply what the person is choosing to do here and now. It is the object of his “present” intention as distinct from more remote “intentions” the agent might have in mind in making this choice: e.g., to beget a child, to obtain information needed to protect national security, etc.

6. The Criteria for Assessing the Morality of Human Acts

            With this understanding of the “object” of a human act in mind, it is not difficult to grasp the pope’s argument, summarized as follows:“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” (no. 80, emphasis added).

            I added emphasis to this passage because it shows us that certain kinds of human acts, specified by the “object freely chosen and willed,” are contrary to those precepts of natural law which prohibit acts which damage, destroy, or impede the goods perfective of human persons and in that way protect the “good” of the human person. As we saw above, John Paul II had emphasized that we can love our neighbor--the primordial moral requirement of natural law--only by cherishing and respecting the good of our neighbor, which we do by cherishing and respecting the goods perfective of him. This is the reason, as we have seen, why the precepts of the Decalogue are true requirements of natural law.            In other words, intrinsically evil acts are acts specified by the objects of intelligible proposals to damage, destroy, or impede the goods perfective of human persons. Such acts are absolutely excluded by negative precepts of natural law, moral absolutes admitting no exceptions. These precepts, moreover, do not say that it is wrong to act contrary to a virtue--e.g., to “kill unjustly,” or “engage in unchaste intercourse.” Rather, these precepts exclude, without exception, as John Paul II insists (cf. nos. 52, 67, 76, 82), “specific,” “concrete,” “particular” kinds of behavior (cf. nos. 49, 52, 70, 77, 79, 82) as specified by the object of human choice. Those kinds of behavior--e.g., doing something intentionally to bring about the death of an innocent person or engaging in sexual intercourse despite the fact that at least one of the parties is married--are excluded by the relevant negative moral precept without first being identified by their opposition to virtue.

            As John Paul II explains, “negative moral precepts...prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil” (no. 67) protect the dignity of the person and are required by love of neighbor as oneself (nos. 13, 50-52, 67, 99). Intrinsically evil acts violate (cf. no. 75) and “radically contradict” (no. 80) “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” (no. 13; cf. nos. 78-80). It is impossible, the pope says, to respect the good of persons without respecting the goods intrinsic to them, “the goods...indicated by the natural law as goods to be pursued” (no. 67), the “‘personal goods’...safeguarded by the commandments, which, according to St. Thomas, contain the whole natural law” (no. 79, with a reference to Summa theologiae, 1-2, 100, 1; cf. nos. 43, 72, 78). John Paul II emphasizes 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 fundamental goods,” among which is bodily life (no. 48; cf. no. 50).

            In short, according to Pope John Paul II the precepts of the Decalogue are moral absolutes proscribing intrinsically evil acts. The truth of these moral absolutes is rooted in the primordial principle of natural law requiring us to love our neighbors--beings who, like ourselves, are persons made in the image of God and who, consequently, have an inviolable dignity. These moral absolutes, required by the love commandment, protect this dignity precisely by protecting the real goods perfective of human persons. [15]

7. Moral Absolutes Protect the Inviolable Dignity of Human Persons and Point the Way toward Fulfillment in Christ

            The great truth that absolute moral norms proscribing intrinsically evil acts are “valid always and for everyone, with no exception,” is essentially related to the truth that human persons possess an inviolable dignity (no. 97). In fact, as John Paul II observes, these norms “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 moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone” (no. 96). To deny that there are intrinsically evil acts and moral absolutes excluding them logically leads to the surrendering of the inviolable rights of human persons, rights that must be recognized and protected if society is to be civilized. [16]

            The pope recognizes “the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice...which fidelity to the moral order can demand” (n. 93). Nevertheless, he takes pains to point out that the discernment which the Church exercises regarding the “teleologisms” repudiated earlier in the encyclical “is not limited to denouncing and refuting them” because they lead to a denial of moral absolutes and of intrinsically evil acts. Rather, in making this discernment the Church, in 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 (no. 85). For it is “in the Crucified Christ that the Church finds the answer” to the question as to why we must obey “universal and unchanging moral norms” (no. 85). These norms are absolutely binding because they protect the inviolable dignity of human persons, whom we are to love with the love of Christ, a self-sacrificial love ready to suffer evil rather than do it.

            John Paul II illustrates this truth 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” (no. 90). “Martyrdom,” he writes, “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” (no. 92), and it likewise “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” (no. 92, with explicit reference to Gaudium et spes, no. 27).

            Absolute moral norms proscribing always and everywhere acts intrinsically evil by reason of the object of moral choice point the way to fulfillment in Christ, the Crucified One, who “fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father's love” (no. 92, with a citation from Gaudium et spes, no. 22). “The Crucified Christ”--who gives to us the final answer why we must, if we are to be fully the beings God wants us to be, forbear doing the evil prohibited by absolute moral norms—“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” (no. 85). In a singularly important passage John Paul 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 (cf. Gaudium et spes, no. 24). Freedom is then rooted in the truth about man, and it is ultimately directed towards communion (no. 86).

            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” (no. 87). This is the ultimate truth meant to guide 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” (no. 87).

            Moreover, in our struggle to live worthily as beings made in God's image and called to communion with him--in our endeavor to shape our choices and actions in accord with the truths of natural law--we are not alone. We can live as God wills us to because he is ever ready to help us with his grace: the natural law is fulfilled, perfected, completed by the law of grace. As the Holy Father reminds us, 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” (no. 102). This truth, John Paul II points out, is a matter of Catholic faith. The Council of Trent solemnly condemned the claim “that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by the 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’” (no. 102, citing from the Council of Trent, Session VI, Decree on Justification Cum hoc tempore, ch. 2; DS 1536; cf. Canon 18, DS 1568; the internal citation from Trent “For God does not command…” comes originally from St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, PL 44 271).

8. The Moral Thought of Veritatis Splendor and Bioethical Issues

John Paul II has himself related the teaching of Veritatis splendor to bioethical issues. He did so in his encyclical Evangelium vitae, promulgated in 1995, two years after publication of Veritatis splendor. Since another essay in this volume will present in depth the relevance of Evangelium vitae to bioethics, I will not consider it to any extent here. Rather, in this final part of my essay I will take up two major themes developed in Veritatis splendor and show how they bear on crucially significant bioethical issues. These themes are: (1) the unity of the human person as a living organism composed of body and soul and (2) the inviolable dignity of the human person, a dignity protected by absolute moral norms or exceptionless moral norms, among them those excluding the intentional killing of innocent human beings.

With respect to the first point (1), the wholistic understanding of the human person as a living organism made up of body and soul (the anthropology central to Veritatis splendor, as emphasized above), I believe that it is pertinent to call attention to a significant passage in Evangelium vitae where the same truth is emphasized. In the very first chapter of that document John Paul II identified as one of the root causes of the “culture of death” “the mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others” (Evangelium vitae, no. 19; emphasis added).

I cite this passage from Evangelium vitae because it is so closely linked to the wholistic anthropology at the heart of the moral thought developed in Veritatis splendor. In this passage John Paul II shows that he regards as untenable and unjust the view that only certain members of the human species are the subjects of rights in the strict sense, i.e., persons in any morally significant sense. This view is obviously dualistic because it grants that living human bodies are indeed biologically identifiable as human beings or as members of the human species but holds that only those with incipient exercisable cognitive abilities—exercisable abilities of understanding, choice, and communication—must be regarded as persons in any meaningful sense. This view is dualistic insofar as it regards the person or subject with at least incipient exercisable cognitive abilities as one thing and the living body of this subject as another. As we have already seen (cf. note 5), many influential thinkers (e.g., Fletcher, Singer, Tooley) hold this view, and it is implicit in a wide variety of arguments used to justify abortion, euthanasia, killing human embryos to obtain their stem cells for research and therapeutic purposes, and other procedures central in bioethical debates. [17]

However, according to the anthropology of Veritatis splendor (and of Evangelium vitae as well), the human person is a unitary being composed of a spiritual element, the soul, and of a material element, the body, and both are integral to the being of the human person. What makes the body to be human and alive is the animating principle, the soul. But since this is so, one can say that a living human body is a person and that as long as we have in our midst a living human body we have in our midst a living human person, i.e., an entity intrinsically valuable, an entity that ought never to be treated merely as a means but always as an end, a being endowed with rights that are to be respected and protected by others.

Moreover (2), as we have seen in reviewing the moral thought of Veritatis splendor, the inviolable dignity of the human person is protected by moral absolutes, [18] among them the absolute norm requiring us to forbear intentionally killing innocent human persons (see Veritatis splendor, nos. 13, 80). And in Evangelium vitae he declared: “by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary  [=intentional] killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral” (Evangelium vitae, no. 57).

John Paul II also regards directly intended abortion, that is, abortion willed either as a means or an end, as an instance of the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being—of a person (cf. Veritatis splendor, no. 80; Evangelium vitae, no. 58). Moreover, he clearly thinks that an individual human being is in existence from the time of conception/fertilization (cf. Evangelium vitae, no. 60). He does not, however—nor is it his responsibility as pope—to provide arguments to support this claim, although he does refer to scientific research on the human embryo as valuable for indicating that a new human individual is present from conception on (ibid.). In short, while rejecting, both in Veritatis splendor and in Evangelium vitae, the claim that only those members of the human species who have incipient exercisable cognitive abilities (or who manifest conscious abilities of some kind) can be considered persons, he does not seek to provide a philosophical critique of this claim or to offer philosophical reasons to support his claim that every living human being is a person.

Many excellent scholars and philosophers, however, have done this. Hence here I will summarize major arguments offered by such scholars because the personhood, and not the humanity of the biological organism in question is the issue heatedly debated in arguments regarding the killing of this organism in abortion and “involuntary euthanasia,” the destruction of human embryos in order to obtain their stem cells for research and/or therapeutic procedures on other human subjects, and similar issues.

The reasoning behind the claim that only those members of the human species, i.e., those living bodies identifiable as human, who possess at least incipient exercisable cognitive abilities are persons, is fallacious. It fails to distinguish between a radical capacity or ability and a developed capacity or ability. A radical capacity, one rooted in the being of the entity in question, can also be called (as it is by authors like Patrick Lee) an active, as distinct from a merely passive, potentiality. An unborn or newborn human baby, precisely by reason of its nature as a human being and therefore a member of the human species, has the radical capacity or active potentiality to discriminate between true and false propositions, to make choices, and to communicate rationally. But in order for this human being to exercise this capacity or set of capacities, his radical capacity or active potentiality for engaging in these activities--which are after all predictable kinds of behavior for human beings or member of the human species—must be allowed to develop. But it could never be developed if it were not present to begin with. Similarly,  human beings older than zygotes, embryos, fetuses (e.g., prepubescent children, teenagers, adults, senior citizens) may, because of accidents or illness, no longer be capable of exercising their capacity or ability to engage in these activities, but this in no way means that they no longer have the radical capacity or active potentiality for doing so. They are simply inhibited by disease or accidents from exercising this capacity.

In short, a living human body (alive and human, be it recalled, because its animating principle is the human or spiritual soul), no matter what its size (a zygote, a preimplantation embryo, a fetus, a newborn, some senile individual) has the radical capacity or active potentiality to do what human persons are supposed to do. A human zygote, embryo, newborn has the active potentiality or radical capacity to develop from within its own resources all it needs to exercise the property or set of properties characteristic of adult human beings. A human embryo, as philosophers Robert and Mary Joyce so precisely put matters, is a person with potential, not a potential person (1971, p. 123).

Those thinkers, who, like Singer and Tooley, require that an entity have exercisable cognitive abilities, recognize that the unborn have the potentiality to engage in such activities. But they consider this merely a passive potentiality (or do not make the distinction) and fail to recognize the critically significant difference between an active potentiality and a merely passive one. In his excellent development of the significance of this difference, Patrick Lee makes two very important points. The first concerns the moral significance of the distinction between an active and a passive potentiality. An active potentiality means “that the same entity which possesses it is the same entity as will later exercise that active potentiality. With a passive potentiality, that is not so; that is, the actualization of a passive potentiality often produces a completely different thing or substance.” Lee’s second key point is that the proper answer to the query “why should higher mental functions or the capacity or active potentiality for such functions be a trait conferring value on those who have it” is that such functions and the capacity for them are “of ethical significance not because [these functions] are the only intrinsically valuable entities but because entities which have such potentialities are intrinsically valuable. And, if the entity itself is intrinsically valuable, then it must be intrinsically valuable from the moment that it exists” (1997, pp. 26-27; emphasis added). As a group of British thinkers have also pointedly noted, in criticizing this alleged criterion of personhood for its arbitrariness, “it is true that the distinctive dignity and value of human life are manifested in those specific exercises of developed rational abilities in which we achieve some share in such human goods as truth, beauty, justice, friendship, and integrity. But the necessary rational abilities are acquired in virtue of an underlying or radical capacity, given with our nature as human beings, for developing precisely those abilities” (Gormally et al, 1994, pp. 123-124; emphasis in original). [19]

I cannot here enter into a discussion of the time when a living human body, i.e., a living human person, first comes into existence.  I simply affirm here that the vast majority of human persons first come to be at fertilization/conception, with a tiny minority (e.g., one or more monozygotic twins, triplets, etc.) coming to be shortly thereafter as a result of a kind of “cloning.” Arguments and evidence supporting this position are abundant and are perhaps best set forth by Lee (1997, chapters 1 and 2), Grisez (1989, pp. 27-47; 1993, pp. 488-505), Benedict Ashley and Albert Moraczewski (1994, pp. 33-60), Angelo Serra and Roberto Colombo (1998, pp. 128-177), Ramon Lucas Lucas (1998, pp. 178-205), May (2000, pp. 156-170), and I refer readers to these sources.

From this one can easily conclude that the anthropology and moral philosophy/theology rooted therein which we find in Veritatis splendor holds as utterly immoral the choice intentionally to kill innocent human beings, no matter what their stage of development or the quality of their lives. It thus condemns, as other writings of John Paul II and ecclesiastical documents issued with his approval and authority clearly show, the following: abortion chosen as either means or end (=direct or intentional abortion) (cf. Evangelium vitae, nos. 58-62), euthanasia or mercy killing (cf. ibid. nos. 64-65), using human embryos as “research material” or as providers of organs or tissues for transplants to other persons (cf. ibid., no. 63), the killing of human embryos to obtain their stem cells for research and/or therapeutic use on other human subjects (cf. John Paul II’s “Remarks to President George W. Bush on Stem Cell Research” [20]). It also rules out “making” babies in the laboratory by artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, or cloning insofar as such procedures violate the dignity of unborn babies in the earliest stage of their genesis by treating them as products of technology,  products in principle inferior to their producers and subject to quality controls and not as persons equal in nature and dignity to their parents (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae [Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origins and on the Dignity of Procreation], 1987). It holds that one can rightly refuse medical treatments for oneself or for those for whom one has care if objective reasons show that the treatments in question are either useless or excessively burdensome. But it utterly condemns forgoing treatments because one judges that the human life in question is useless or excessively burdensome. It does so because human life is a precious and incalculably valuable good and human life, no matter how burdened, is always a precious gift from God (cf. Evangeium vitae, no. 65).


This essay, I hope, has shown the very significant relevance to bioethics of the moral thought advanced by John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis splendor and of the anthropological understanding of the human person in which this thought is rooted.


Ashley, Benedict A., O.P., & Moraczewski, Albert, O.P., 1994. “Is the Biological Subject of Human   Rights Present from Conception?” in P. Cataldo and A. Moraczewski (Eds.), The Fetal Tissue Issue: Medical and Ethical Aspects (pp. 33-60). The Pope John XXIII Medical Moral Center. Braintree, MA..

Cessario, Romanus, O.P., 2001. “Toward an Adequate Method for Catholic Bioethics,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 1, 51-62.

Grisez, Germain, 1977. “Dualism and the New Morality,” in M. Zalba (Ed.), L’Agire Morale, vol. 5 of Atti del Congresso Internazionale (Roma-Napoli 17/24 aprile 1974) Tommaso d’Aquino nel suo Settimo Centenario (pp. 323-330). Edizioni Domenicane Italiane. Napoli.

Grisez, Germain, 1989. “When Do People Begin?” in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 63, 27-47.

Grisez, Germain, 1993. Living a Christian Life. Franciscan Press, Quincy, IL.

Gormally, Luke (Ed.), 1994. Euthanasia, Clinical Practice and the Law. The Linacre Centre. London.

Joyce, Mary and Robert, 1971. Come, Let Me Be Born. Franciscan Herald Press. Chicago.

Lee, Patrick, 1997. Abortion and the Unborn Child. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington.

Lucas, Ramon Lucas, 1998. “The Anthropological Status of the Human Embryo,” in Juan de Dios Vial Correo and Elia Sgreccia (Eds.), The Identity and Statute (sic) of the Human Embryo: Proceedings of the Third Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Vatican City, February 14-16 1997) (pp. 178-205). Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City.

May, William E., 2000. Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life. Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, IN.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, 1994. “Perche un’enciclica sulla morale? Riflessioni circa la genesi e l’elaborazione della ‘Veritatis splendor,’” in G. Russo (Ed.), Veritatis Splendor: Genesi, Elaborazione, Significato (pp. 9-20). Edizioni Dehoniane. Roma.

Serra, Angelo, & Colombo, Roberto, 1998, “Identity and Status of the Human Embryo: The Contributions of Biology,” in Juan de Dios Vial Correa and Elio Sgreccia (Eds.), The Identity and Statute (sic) of the Human Embryo: Proceedings of the Third Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Vatican City, February 14-16 1997) (pp. 128-177). Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Vatican City.


[*] This essay will be published as a chapter in the volume, Pope John Paul II and Bioethics, ed. Christopher Olafsen, as a volume in the “Philosophy and Medicine” Series, Section on “Catholic Medical Ethics,” published by Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Holland; Boston/USA, and is posted on this website with permission.

[1] Literature commenting on Veritatis splendor is enormous. Among books and essays in English offering favorable and helpful studies of its moral teaching are the following: (1) Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, eds. J. A. DiNoia, O.P. and Romanus Cessario, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999), a collection of essays by DiNoia and Cessario, Servais Pinckaers, O.P., Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Hittinger, Avery Dulles, Livio Melina, Martin Rhonheimer, and William May; (2) John Finnis and Germain Grisez, “Negative Moral Precepts Protect the Dignity of the Human Person,” L’Osservatore Romano, English ed. No. 8 (1994) 6-7; (3) William E. May, “Veritatis Splendor: An Overview of the Encyclical,” Communio  21 (1994) 228-251 [reprinted as Chapter Eight of my An Introduction to Moral Theology (rev. ed. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994), pp. 259-282]. One of the most hostile attacks on the encyclical is provided by the essays in The Splendor of Accuracy: An Examination of the Assertions Made in the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, eds. Joseph A. Selling and Jan Jans (Kampen/Grand Rapids: Kok Pharos/Eerdmans, 1994), with essays by Selling, Jans, Gareth Moore, O.P., Bernard Hoose, Louis Janssens and others. In my essay, “The Splendor of Accuracy: How Accurate?” The Thomist  59.3 (1995) 467-483, I show how these authors have distorted and misrepresented the teaching of John Paul II. One of the most helpful  presentations of the teaching of this encyclical is given by Dionigi Tettamanzi (formerly a professor of moral theology and now Cardinal Archbishop of  Milan, Italy) in his “Guida alla lettura” found in Lettera Enciclica di S.S. Papa Giovanni Paolo II Veritatis Splendor: Testo integrale con introduzione e guida alla lettura di S.E. Mons. Dionigi Tettamanzi (Casale Monferrato: Edizioni Piemme, 1993), pp. 5-56.

[2]   See also Germain Grisez, “Bioethics and Christian Anthropology,” NationalCatholic Bioethics Quarterly 1 (2001): 33-40.

[3] This claim is commonly made by Catholic theologians who reject Church teaching on such issues as contraception, abortion, euthanasia.  Two representative essays are: (1) Charles E. Curran, “Natural Law and Contemporary Moral Theology,” in Contraception: Authority and Dissent, ed. Charles E. Curran (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), pp. 151-175; (2) Louis Janssens, “Considerations on ‘Humanae Vitae’,” Louvain Studies 2 (1969): 231-253.

[4] In a perceptive and thoughtful essay, Brian Johnstone, C.Ss.R., briefly but cogently shows that a central principle of the moral teaching of Veritatis splendor and of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is man’s nature as a “person in the unity of soul and body.” See his “Personalist Morality for a Technological Age: The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor,Studia moralia 32 (1994) 121-136.


[5] It is this understanding of the “person” one finds in large measure in the writings of such authors as Joseph Fletcher, Michael Tooley, and Peter Singer. See, e.g., Joseph Fletcher, The Ethics of Genetic Controls: Ending Reproductive Roulette (New York: Doubleday, 1976); Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford, 1983); Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics  (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994); Jeffrey Reiman, Critical Moral Liberalism: Theory and Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[6] Among excellent works to consult on this issue are the following: Mortimer Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (New York: Meridian Books, 1968); David Braine, The Human Animal (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996); Patrick Lee, “Human Beings Are Animals,” in Natural Law and Moral Inquiry: Ethics, Metaphysics, and Politics in the Work of Germain Grisez, ed. Robert P. George (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press (1998), pp. 135-151.

[7] The Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, are very clear about this. Jesus taught that it is not what enters a person that defiles him or her; rather, it is what flows from the person, from his or her heart, from his or her choice (see Matt 15:10-20; Mk 7:14-23).

[8] At this point in the text John Paul II cites a remarkable passage from Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s De Vita Moysis, II, 2-3: PG 44, 327-328: “All things subject to change and to becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or worse…Now, human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew….But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings…; it is the result of free choice. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions” (cited in Veritatis splendor, no. 71).

[9] “It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons, that is, endowed with reason and free will, and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth….They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and to direct their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.” Vatican Council II, Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae, no. 2. The Council merely echoes what Plato’s Socrates died for centuries ago.

[10]See  Vatican Council II, Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae, no. 3:

[11] For St. Thomas’s teaching on natural law see John Finnis, Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), chs. III and IV, pp. 56-131; see also my An Introduction to Moral Theology (2nd ed. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994), pp. 43-60


[12]   Here John Paul’s thought reminds us of the teaching of St. Thomas on the Decalogue. Thomas regarded the Decalogue as “proximate conclusions” from the “first and common” precepts of natural law, and he explicitly identified the two precepts commanding us to love God and neighbor as the “first and common precepts of natural law” to which all precepts of the Decalogue must be referred as conclusions are referred to their common principles. See Summa theologiae, 1-2, 100, 3, ad 1. This is hardly surprising, for both the Old Testament (Dt 6:5 and Lev. 19:18), and the New Testament (Matt 22:37-39, Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28) all teach this.

[13] Here John Paul’s thought again echoes that of St. Thomas, who not only taught that the twofold commandment of love of God and of neighbor is the first principle of morality (cf. Summa theologiae, 1-2, 100, 3, ad 1) but also that we offend God only by acting contrary to our own good (cf. Summa contra gentiles, 3, ch. 122).

[14] In chapter one John Paul II also emphasizes that natural law, whose specific normative requirements have also been revealed in the "ten words" given on Sinai and reaffirmed by the lips of Jesus himself, is ultimately fulfilled and perfected only as "a gift of God: the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus" (no. 17).

[15] For a reasoned philosophical defense and articulation of the affirmation of moral absolutes see John Finnis, Moral Absolutes:Tradition, Revision, and Truth (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991).

[16] On this see John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 223-226.

[17] See, for example, the reasoning used in the defenses of abortion provided by the following authors: Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” The Monist 57.1 (1973): 43-61; Beverly Wildung Harrison, “Evaluating the Act of Abortion: The Debate About Fetal Life,” in her book Our Right to Choose (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), pp. 187-231 and the literature cited there; see also authors referred to in note 5.


[18] John Finnis clearly describes the meaning of the moral absolutes or exceptionless moral norms central to the moral thought of Veritatis splendor: HeHHThese norms, he writes, “have the following characteristic: The types of action they identify are specifiable, as potential objects of choice, without reliance on any evaluative term which presupposes a moral judgment on an action. Yet this evaluative specification enables moral reflection to judge that the choice of any such act is to be excluded from one’s deliberation and one’s action…they [moral absolutes] are exceptionless in an interesting way. Exceptions to them are logically possible, and readily conceivable, but are morally excluded….Of all these norms the following is true: Once one has precisely formulated the type, one can say that the norm which identifies each chosen act of that type as wrong is true and applicable to every such choice, whatever the (further) circumstances. An exceptionless norm is one which tells us that, whenever we are making a choice, we should never choose to do that sort of thing (indeed should never even deliberate about whether or not to do it)” (Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth, pp. 2-4).

[19] On this point see also the arguments marshaled by Germain Grisez and Joseph Boyle, Jr. in Life and Death with Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia Debate (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), pp. 218-238. See also the arguments and evidence advanced by Grisez in his essay, “When Do People Begin?” in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 63 (1989), 27-47, and in his book Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993), pp. 488-498.

[20]   The text of these remarks can be found in National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 1 (2001) 617-618.


Copyright ©; William E. May 2002

Version: 28th July 2002

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