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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

John Paul II identified the “central theme” of Veritatis splendor as the “reaffirmation of the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts” (no. 115). This reaffirmation was necessary because so many contemporaries, including, unfortunately, some influential Catholic theologians, were claiming that norms such as those forbidding the intentional killing of the innocent, adultery, and the like were not absolute. [1] This reaffirmation constitutes, as it were, the “first word” about living an upright moral life whether one is a Catholic or not. But it is in no way, as John Paul II makes clear, the “last word” about the Christian moral life. This life is essentially a “sequela Christi.” “Following Christ,” John Paul writes, “is the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality,” and following him involves “holding fast to the very person of Jesus” (no. 19). It means “becoming conformed to him who became a servant even to giving himself on the cross (cf. Phil. 2:5-8)” (no. 21). [2]

But what does “following Christ” mean and how is it possible? It is possible first and foremost as a gift from God, a gift we first receive when we are baptized. To grasp this we must consider the meaning of free choice and of baptism as a specific free choice.

The significance of human acts as self-determining is well brought out by John Paul II throughout the Encyclical. A particularly illuminating text is the following:

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 state of affairs outside of man, but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices (optiones liberatae) [emphasis added], they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits. This was perceptively noted by St. Gregory of Nyssa: “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 a free choice [emphasis added] (electione propria). Thus we are, in a certain sense, our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decision (electione)” [3] (no. 71).

Moreover, in repudiating the fallacious reasoning of those who deny that we determine ourselves through our freely chosen actions and claim that we do so through an alleged act of “basic” or “fundamental” option at the core of the person different from and other than free choice, [4] John Paul II takes care to note that “[E]mphasis has rightly been placed on the importance of certain choices (delectionum) which ‘shape’ a person’s entire moral life, and which serve as bounds within which other particular everyday choices (delectiones) can be situated and allowed to develop” (no. 65). He then declares:

There is no doubt that Christian moral teaching, even in its biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice (delectionis fundamentalis) which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith (delectione fidei), of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26) “by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God as his reveals.’” [5] This faith, which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6) comes from the core of man, from his “heart” (cf. Rom 10:10), whence it is called to bear fruit in works (cf. Mt 12:33-35; Lk 6:43-45; Rom 8:5-10; Gal 5:22) (no. 66).

The “fundamental choice” to which John Paul II refers here is our baptismal commitment, our free choice (made for most of us in our name by our godparents and reaffirmed at various times in our lives, for instance, during the Easter vigil service) to follow Christ, to be Christians, i.e., to be other Christs in the world.

Speaking of baptism and Christian life elsewhere, John Paul II declared: “Baptism regenerates us in the life of the Son of God, unites us to Christ and to his body, the Church, and anoints us with the Holy Spirit, making us spiritual temples” (Christifideles laici, no. 10).

An important passage from St. Thomas is instructive here. In it he says:

Through baptism a person is reborn to a spiritual life, one proper to Christ’s faithful, as the Apostle says (Gal 2:20), “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” But this life belongs only to the members who are united with the head, from whom they receive sense and movement. And therefore it is necessary that through baptism a person is incorporated into Christ as his member. For just as sense and movement flow from the natural head to its [bodily] members, so from the spiritual head, who is Christ, flow to his members both a spiritual sense, which consists in the knowledge of the truth, and a spiritual movement, which operates through the inspiration of grace [emphasis added]. Hence John says (1:14, 16), “We have seen him full of grace and truth, and of his fullness we have all received.” And therefore it follows that the baptized are enlightened by Christ regarding the knowledge of the truth, and they are impregnated by him with an abundance of good works through the infusion of faith [emphasis added]. [6]

In this remarkable passage Aquinas affirms that through baptism persons receive from Christ a spiritual sense consisting in the “knowledge of the truth, and a spiritual movement, which operates through the inspiration of grace” and that they are “enlightened by Christ regarding the knowledge of the truth” and “impregnated by him with an abundance of good works through the infusion of faith.”

Let us consider first the “knowledge of the truth” made possible by baptism. Here St. Thomas seems to be saying what John Paul II says in Veritatis splendor when he reflects on the relationship between the teaching of the Magisterium and the conscience of the Catholic faithful. In a thought-provoking text the Holy Father emphasizes that “the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith (veritates patefacit, quas iam possidere deberet, eas ab actu fidei primigenio excolendo) [emphasis added]” (no. 64).

But what are these “truths” that we ought already to possess by virtue of our primordial act of faith, which is, as we have seen, is our baptismal commitment? What are these ”truths” that we know because of our living union with Christ made possible by baptism? I submit that these truths are those comprising “everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith.” It is in handing on these truths that “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” [7]  These are the truths that enable us to follow Christ, to hold fast to his very person, to become conformed to him.

These are the truths to which we commit ourselves in freely choosing to accept God’s gift of a new, divine life in baptism, the truths that make up the “new law of love” that fulfills and perfects the old law (the natural law and the Mosaic law). The first and most central of these truths is that set forth in the “new commandment” that Jesus gives to us, that we are to love one another even as Jesus has loved us, the love whereby all men will know that we are his disciples (cf. Jn 13:34-35). This is the love that God gives to us through the grace of the Holy Spirit when we are baptized. It is for this reason that St. Thomas rightly teaches, “what is most powerful in the law of the new covenant, and in which its whole power consists, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith.” [8] This is the love that enables us to keep our baptismal commitment to follow Christ and, as St. Paul reminds us, to make up in our own “flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).

Flowing from this central truth are the truths Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount, the magna charta of the Christian moral life, [9] providing us with the “perfect pattern of the Christian life” as St. Thomas tells us. [10] This charter of the Christian life contains the Beatitudes, from which, John Paul II teaches us, “there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life (vitae moralis praesciptiones)…they are a sort of self-portrait of Christ…invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ” (Veritatis splendor, no. 16). We might say that the Beatitudes comprise what Germain Grisez has called the “modes of Christian response” specifying ways of choosing and acting that mark a person whose will, enlivened by the love of God poured into his heart, is inwardly disposed to act with the confidence born of his Christian hope, that he can live as a faithful disciple of Christ, as one whose will, like that of Jesus, is to do only what is pleasing to the Father. [11]

These, I submit, are the truths that Christ enables the baptized to know by reason of their union with him; they constitute what Aquinas identified as the “spiritual sense” flowing from “the spiritual head, who is Christ, to his members.”

 Moreover, as St. Thomas said, those united by baptism with Christ the head receive from him not only knowledge of this kind but “a spiritual movement, which operates through the inspiration of grace.” By this Thomas means that the new law of love enables us not only to know what we are to do if we are to gain eternal life but also to do the truth we come to know. Here the new law differs from the natural and Mosaic laws, which give us knowledge of moral truths but do not enable us to choose in accordance with those truths. In fact, as a result of concupiscence we find ourselves like St. Paul who discovered in his “body’s members a law at war with the law” of his mind, i.e., the “law of concupiscence” or the lex fomitis versus the natural law (Rom 7.23), with the result that we cannot understand our own actions, doing the evil that we hate (Rom 7:15). But now, thanks to our union with Jesus who has freed us “from this body under the power of death” (Rom 7:24), we can do the good we come to know.

Thus united to Christ we can indeed “follow him” and conform ourselves to him. Jesus, as John Paul II reminds us, teaches us “that freedom is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self” (Veritatis splendor, no. 87). While those “who live ‘by the flesh’ experience God’s law as a burden,” the baptized “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” (no. 18). Men and women can, with God’s never failing help, be true to their baptismal commitment and “abide” in his love.

Every choice we make, every day, ought to be integrated into our baptismal commitment, our “fundamental option,” the choice that is to “shape” our entire moral life and to serve as the “bounds within which other particular choices can be situated and allowed to develop” (Veritatis splendor, no. 65). Mortal sin, of course, is utterly incompatible with this fundamental choice. Venial sins are in some way compatible with it but not fully so. Thus we must root out of our lives mortal sin and all deliberate venial sin. Many of us, I fear, have certain venial sins to which we are attached. We commit them because we want to. We are like St. Augustine, who said, “Give me chastity, O Lord, but not now.” [12] Thus we say in effect, “let me stop backbiting my neighbor, taking delight over the misfortune of people I don’t like, etc. but not now.” When we succeed in rooting out not only mortal sin but deliberate venial sin we will be making real progress in our growth toward the holiness to which our Christian vocation calls us. We will be making progress in “following Christ,” indeed, in becoming “other Christs” in the world.


1. On this see my essays,  “Theologians and Theologies in the Encyclical,” Anthropotes: Rivista di Studi sulla Persona e la Famiglia 10 (2994) 41-59 and “John Paul II, Moral Theology, and Moral Theologians,” in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, ed. J. A. DiNoia, O.P. and Romanus Cessario, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999), pp. 211-240.

2. See the following: J. A. DiNoia, O.P.,  “Veritatis Splendor: Moral Life as Transfigured Life,” in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, pp. 1-10; Lorenzo Albacete, “The Relevance of Christ or the Sequela Christi? Communio 21.2 (1994) 252-264.

3. St. Gregory of Nyssa, De Vita Moysis, II, 2-3; PG 44, 327-328.

4. One of the finest essays incisively showing the fallacious thinking used to support the claim that we determine ourselves not by our everyday free choices but by an alleged “fundamental option” at the core of our being remains that of Joseph Boyle, “Freedom, the Human Person, and Human Action,” in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), pp. 237-266.

5. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 5; cf. First Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on  the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius, Chap. 3: DS 3008.

6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 3, q. 69 a. 5.

7. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, no. 8.

8. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 106, a. 1.

9. On this see the following: St. Augustine, The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, I.1; Pope Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, no. 12; Pope John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, no. 13. See also Servais Pinckaers, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sister Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), pp. 134-167, “The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics.”

10. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 108, a. 3.

11. In my opinion one of the most thought-provoking reflections on the role of the Beatitudes in the Christian moral life is given bv Germain Grisez in his Christian Moral Principles, Vol. 1 of his The Way of the Lord Jesus (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1993), pp. 627-660.

12. St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 8, chapter 7.


Copyright ©; William E. May 2004

Version: 21st December 2004

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