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Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Veritatis Splendor*

William E. May

This encyclical, promulgated on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1993, is the first magisterial encyclical devoted to central issues in fundamental moral theology. It is thus a document of the highest importance. Here I will provide a detailed exposition of the teaching of John Paul II in this encyclical; in doing so  I will make use of the very fine commentary given by Dionigi Tettamanzi, formerly a professor of moral theology in Italy and now Cardinal Archbishop of  Genoa.


The Encyclical Veritatis splendor, specifically addressed to "all the bishops of the Catholic Church," is divided into an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion.

The Introduction and An Overview of the Document

In his Introduction the pope clearly expresses his reasons for writing this 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 to set forth clearly "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). In fact, he affirms that today "it is necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church's moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine, which...risk being distorted or denied." He notes that "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 confront this crisis head-on, the pope 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 and most intellectually challenging of the document, is called "The Church and the Discernment of Certain Tendencies in Present-Day Moral Theology." It is doctrinal in nature, and in it John Paul II 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." The third chapter, called "Moral Good for the Life of the Church and of the World," emphasizes 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 stresses the significance of the witness to moral truth given by martyrs and the importance for the contemporary world of the Church's fulfilling her role as moral teacher. It also points out the responsibility of teachers and priests and, in particular, bishops, for sound moral teaching.

There is a profound interior unity to the Encyclical. As Dionigi Tettamanzi has said: "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' (Jn 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" (D. Tettamanzi, "Introduzione e guida alla lettura," in Lettera Enciclica di S.S. Papa Giovanni Paolo II Veritatis Splendor: I fondamenti dell'insegnamento morale della Chiesa. Testo integrale  con introduzione e guida alla lettura di S.E. Mons. Dionigi Tettamanzi [Casalle Monferrato: Edizioni Piemme, 1993], p. 13).

Chapter One: Christ

and the Answer to the Question about Morality

As noted already, this chapter is a prolonged meditation on the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man as found in Matthew 19:16-21), the dialogue that begins when the rich young man asks Jesus, "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" (Mt 19:16).

Principal Ideas Set Forth in Chapter One

In my opinion, the leading ideas of this chapter are: (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 man through the natural law, through 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 only by union with Jesus; (5) moral life, unity in the Church, and revelation; and (6) the more-than-human authority of the Church's magisterium in the moral order. All these ideas are developed more fully in subsequent chapters of the Encyclical.

1. The Religious and Existential Significance of the Young Man's Question

John Paul II insists that "for the young man the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the meaning of life...the 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 "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). The question is indeed "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).

2. The Sovereignty of God over the Moral Order

As the pope says, in responding to the young man's question Jesus 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 toward his final end through the law 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' (a citation from St. Thomas). 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).

3. The Essential Link Between Obedience to the Commandments and Eternal Life

After affirming that God alone is good Jesus tells young man, "if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). "In this way," the pope says, "a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God's commandments: God's commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation" (n. 12).

The first three commandments of the Decalogue call "us to acknowledge God as the Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness" (n. 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 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). Responding to this question, Jesus reminds him of the precepts of the Decalogue concerned with our neighbor (n. 13). These precepts, John Paul II affirms, 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, citing Gaudium et spes, n. 22).

At this point the pope develops a matter of crucial importance for the meaning of our lives as moral beings, namely, that we can love our neighbor and respect his dignity as a person only by cherishing the goods perfective of him and by steadfastly refusing to damage, destroy, or impede these goods. Appealing to the words of Jesus, John Paul II stresses 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). Continuing, John Paul II stresses that the negative precepts of the Decalogue "express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of marriage" and so on (n. 13).

4. The "Fulfillment" of the Law in Jesus; the Universal Call to Perfection

Jesus not only reconfirms the law given to Moses--the "ten words"--he also is the one who gives us the Sermon on the Mount, the "magna carta of Christian morality" (n. 15). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stressed that he had not "come to abolish the Law and the Prophets," but rather "to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). John Paul says that "Jesus brings the commandments to fulfillment... by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning..."(n. 15). The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount "speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore 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 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). The moral life, John Paul II emphasizes, means ultimately the following of Christ. But we follow him 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).

The pope insists that the invitation to the rich young man to come and follow Christ (Mt 19:2;1) (n. 19), the summons to be as perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48), to "be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36), and the new command to love one another even as Jesus loves us (cf. Jn 15:12) are addressed to everyone (n. 18).

And it is possible 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 the virtue of a gift received" (n. 22; cf. n. 24).

5. Moral Life, the Unity of the Church, and Revelation

John Paul II declares that "no damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life," and then adds: "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). The Holy Father emphasizes that "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).

6. The More-than-human Authority of the Magisterium on Moral Questions

In concluding Chapter One John Paul emphasizes this point by citing key texts from documents of Vatican Council iI, among them the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). Here is one lucid text: "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. 10; cited in VS, n. 27).

Dionigi Tettamanzi's Analysis of Chapter One

In his excellent commentary on Veritatis splendor, Tettamanzi focuses on two major themes: (1) the Christocentric nature of the moral life according to John Paul II; and (2) the ecclesial character of Christian moral life.

1.The Christocentric Meaning of Our Moral Life

Throughout this encyclical, and particularly in chapter one, Jesus Christ is portrayed as the living and personal "law" of the moral life. Tettamanzi writes:

            The first chapter sets forth the essential christocentric meaning of the moral life on every page. To Christ is posed the question about morality, and it is from Christ that the answer to this question comes. It is an answer set forth in Christ's "teaching": "It is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father's will, teaches the truth about moral action" (n. 8). But there is more: Jesus' answer is one that coincides with his "person," because Jesus Christ himself is "the answer", precisely because the moral life ultimately can be (1) defined as a "following of Christ," specifically in the sense of sharing in his life of loving obedience to his father in the gift of himself on the Cross (cf. nn. 19-21); receives (2) its norm from Christ himself, namely, the New Law with the gift of his Spirit: "Jesus himself is the loving 'fulfillment' of the Law inasmuch as he fulfills its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: he himself becomes a living and personal law, who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions (cf. Jn 13:34-35)" (n. 15)....

            Faith, insofar as it is a following of Christ, necessarily entails a moral content: the moral life in its roots "involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of his Father" (n. 19)....As St. Augustine, whom John Paul II cites, puts it so well: "we have become not only Christians, but Christ...Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ!" (cited in VS, n.21). Jesus Christ is thus the constitutive form of every moral commandment. From this emerges the absolute newness and utter originality of Christian morality: it is at once a gift and a task, grace and commandment: "Love and life according to the Gospel cannot be thought of first and foremost as a kind of precept, because what they demand is beyond man's abilities. They are possible only as a result of the God who heals, restores and transformsm the human heart by his grace" (n. 23). [1]

2. The Ecclesial Dimenion of Christian Moral Life

This, Tettamanzi shows, flows logically from the Christocentric nature of the moral life. Christ, in truth, lives in his body the Church to whom he has given the Spirit as its life-giving principle and guide. Thanks to the Church and to the sacraments entrusted to her Christians share in the new life of Christ in obedience to his Father and in the gift of self to his brothers and sisters: "Christ's relevance for people of all times is shown forth in his body, which is the Church. For this reason the Lord promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would 'bring to their remembrace' and teach them to understand his commandments (cf. Jn 14:26) and who would be the principle and constant source of a new life in the world (cf. Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:1-13)" (n. 25).

Thus the Church has the God-given task of faithfully handing on Christian moral doctrine: the bond between faith and the moral life is intrinsic and unbreakable (cf. VS, nn. 26-27). [2]

Chapter Two: The Church and the Discernment of Certain Tendencies in Present-Day Moral Theology

This chapter contains an important introduction (nn. 28-34) and four parts: (1) "Freedom and Law" (nn. 35-53); (2) "Conscience and Truth" (nn. 54-64); (3) "Fundamental Choice and Specific Kinds of Behavior" (nn. 65-70); and (4) "The Moral Act" (nn. 71-83).


In the introduction (nn. 28-34) to this chapter John Paul II lucidly states its purpose and identifies the major issues to be considered in it. Since I think that Dionigi Tettamanzi has provided an excellent analysis of this introductory part of the chapter, here I will offer a summary of his presentation.

Chapter Two is dedicated to a "discernment" of certain tendencies in contemporary theology in the light of "sound doctrine." As John Paul II says, "In addressing this Encyclical to you, my Brother Bishops, it is my intention to state the principles necesary for discerning what is contrary to 'sound doctrine,' drawing attention to those elements of the Church's moral teaching which today appear particularly exposed to error, ambiguity or neglect" (n. 30).

More precisely, this chapter is concerned with a critical discernment, one "capable of acknowledging what is legitimate, useful, and of value [in these tendencies], while at the same time pointing out their ambiguities, dangers, and errors" (n. 34).

The discernment carried out by John Paul II bears on a nest of diverse and complex issues; but they are reducible to one fundamental question, that of the relationship between human freedom and the truth: "The human issues most frequently debated and quite differently resolved in contemporary moral reflection are all closely related, albeit in various ways, to a crucial issue: human freedom" (n. 31). "If we wish to undertake a critical discernment of these tendencies...we must examine them in the light of the fundamental dependence of freedom upon truth, a dependence which has found its clearest and most authoritative expression in the words of Christ: 'You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free' (Jn 8:32)" (n. 34).

The problem of the relationship between freedom and the truth is approached by John Paul II under two perspectives: (1) from the perspective of "the law", the law of God, either in its universal formulation (nn. 35-53=Part One of Chapter Two) or in its application to personal, concrete situations, through conscience (nn. 54-65=Part Two); (2) from the perspective of "freedom", either at the level of its actuation (fundamental choice and particular choices) (nn. 65-70=Part Three), or at the level of its terminus (the moral act) (nn. 71-83=Part Four).

An attentive reading of this chapter shows clearly that the "moral" problem of the relationship between freedom and the truth is above all and eminently an "anthropological" question, having to do with the very identity of the human person. The Holy Father explicitly brings this out in the final paragraph of the chapter. There he is referring directly to the question of the morality of human acts, but he finds it necessary to emphasize that ethical issues presuppose and express an anthropology: "As is evident," he writes, "in the question of the morality of human acts, and in particular the question of whether there exist intrinsically evil acts, we find ourselves faced with the question of man himself, of his truth and of the moral consequences flowing from that truth. By acknowledging and teaching the existence of intrinsic evil in given human acts, the Church remains faithful to the integral truth about man; she thus respects and promotes man in his dignity and vocation" (n. 83).

In the perspective of Christian moral doctrine anthropology is intimately linked with theology and with christology. The man with whom the Encyclical is concerned is the man made in God's image, the man who finds his true meaning "only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word" (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 22, cited in VS,n. 2). It follows from this that the acceptance or refusal of the ethical doctrine developed in the Encyclical is directly dependent on the acceptance or refusal of its anthropological doctrine.

Freedom and the Law (nn. 35-53)

The central idea developed here is that there can be no real conflict between human freedom of choice and the moral "law." There can be no true conflict because the moral "law," which has God as its author, is not a set of legalistic impositions but rather a set of truths meant to help human persons make good moral choices and in this way fulfill themselves and 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). John Paul's  concern here is to articulate a true understanding of the autonomy proper to man and to repudiate 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 notes that some of these ideas have had some influence "in the sphere of Catholic moral theology" (n. 36) and that some theologians have sharply distinguished "an ethical order...human in origin and of value for this world alone and an order of salvation" (n. 37). He rejects these views as incompatible with Catholic faith and then provides (nn. 38-45) an articulation of natural law rooted in the Catholic tradition as expressed by Sts. Augustine and Aquinas and Vatican II. This holds that natural law is our intelligent, active participation in God's divine, eternal law, his "wise and loving plan" for human existence. As John Paul II says, "the moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him," but at the same time "by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom," it is also "a properly human law" (n. 40).  This law, too, we must remember, is "fulfilled" and "perfected" by the law of grace, the new law of love.

John Paul II in this part confronts the charge, commonly made by revisionist theologians, that the traditional understanding of natural law and, in particular, the Magisterium's understanding, is "physicalistic" or "biologistic" (n. 47). John Paul II declares that this claim "does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom," 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 (cf. Council of Vienne, const. Fidei Catholicae, Fifth Lateran Council, papal bull Apostolici Regiminis, and Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes, n. 14) 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). What John Paul II says here also needs to be seen in light of what he said in Chapter 1, n. 12, about respecting the goods of human persons.

John Paul II explicitly repudiates here as "contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition" (n. 49) the view of those who "reduce the human person to a 'spiritual' and purely formal freedom" and thus misunderstand the moral meaning of the body and human acts involving it. Likening this view to "certain ancient errors...always...opposed by the Church" (e.g., Manicheism), he then appeals to the teaching of Paul in 1 Cor 6.9-19) on the gravity of such sins as fornication and adultery and to the teaching of the Council of Trent 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 (n. 53) of this part John Paul II examaines the claim that, because of human historicity, specific moral norms are not immutable but change under varying historical and cultural situations. He repudiates this as a type of relativism utterly 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 shre with Christ who "is the same yesterday and today and forever" (n. 53).

Conscience and the Truth (nn. 54-64)

Here the Holy Father 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, he continues, "a judgment which applies to the concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil [the first principle of natural law]....But whereas the natural law discloses the objective and universal demands of the moral good, conscience is the application of the law to a particular case; this application of the law thus becomes an inner dictate for the individual, a summons to do what is good in this particular situation. Conscience thus formulates moral obligation in the light of the natural law; it is the obligation to do what the individual, through the workings of his conscience, knows to be a good he is called to do here and now. The universality of the law and its obligation are acknowledged, not suppressed..." (n. 59). Conscience is not a "decision on how to act in particular cases" (n. 55). It is rather "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).

John Paul II repudiates the view of those who separate or even oppose the "teaching of a precept [e.g., the precept 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)                                               Because the dignity of conscience consists in its ability to disclose the truth, conscience "expresses itself in acts of 'judgment' which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitary 'decisions.' The maturity and responsibility of these judgments--and...of the individual who is their subject--are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favor of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but on the contrary by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one's actions" (n. 61). There is consequently the obligation, in conscience, to "form" one's conscience, i.e., "to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good," and obviously "Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium....the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom 'from' the truth but always and only freedom 'in' the truth, but also because 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 points of the primordial act of faith"  (n. 64). I added boldface here because of the great significance of this text.

Fundamental Choice and Specific Kinds of Behavior (nn.66-68)

Concern here centers on the relationship between free choices of specific kinds of behavior (e.g.,  to commit adultery, to cheat on my income tax) 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 [this is indeed the reason why the young man's question has existential and religious significance and is about the meaning of life]. The pope also says 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," and he later identifies the fundamental choice or option or commitment of the Christian, namely, the choice to accept Christ in living faith and to commit one's life to him and his redemptive work.

But John Paul II goes on to point out 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 in effect relocate self-determination from the free choices we make every day, including fundamental commitments or "options" in this sense. Rather, for them "the key role in the moral life is to be attributed to a 'fundamental option,' brought about by that fundamental freedom whereby the person makes an overall self-determination, not through a specific and conscious decision on the level of reflection but in a 'transcendental' and 'athematic' way" (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).

The pope rejects this move, declaring 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). In fact, he judges the attempt to relocate self-determination from specific free choices to an alleged fundamental option at the depth of our being 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)." This is the free choice, he continues (citing Vatican I and Vatican II), "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). 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' sake and the sake of the gospel (cf. Mk 8:35) (n. 66).

John Paul II then emphasizes that this fundamental option of the Christian--a specific 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 morally grave matter" (n. 67). He goes on to recall 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). He then reaffirms--in opposition to some contemporary theologians--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).

The Moral Act (nn. 71-83)

Here John Paul takes up the criteria (truths) necessary to assess man's freely chosen acts correctly. He distinguishes between "teleology" and "teleologisms." "The moral life, "he writes, "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 this teleology is not the same as teleologism: "certain ethical theories," he writes, "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 nonmoral or premoral goods to be gained and the corresponding nonmoral 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 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 states of affairs it is likely to cause. They conclude that the forseen proportions of "premoral" 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 that 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 "the weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behavior is 'according to its species' or 'in itself' morally 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: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure?" (n. 77).

But this is not the major problem with "teleolgisms," whether "consequentialism" or "proportionalism." The pope goes on to emphasize that "the morality of the human act depends primariliy and fundamentally on the 'object' rationally chosen by the deliberate will" (n. 78). In a very important passage, well summarizing the Catholic tradition as expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, the Holy Father 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...one cannot mean a process or an event in 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 John Paul II shows that the "object" primarily specifying an act morally is precisely what one "chooses." It is the "object" of one's choice, of what one freely wills to do and, by freely willing to do this specific deed, one makes oneself to be the kind of person willing to do this. Thus, if the object of my choice is knowingly to have intercourse with someone other than my spouse, I freely choose to commit adultery and make myself to be an adulterer. But note that the "object" is not a mere physical event, a "piece" of behavior in the external world. It is a moral object only because it is the object of human will act, the act of choice. To put matters another way, the pope here is saying that a human act is not a "thing" having a nature of its own independent of any human will act. A human act, precisely as human and moral, flows from a person's "heart," from a person's will. This is why human actions have an existential and religious significance and why they are primarily specified by the object chosen.

With this understanding of the "object" of a human act in mind, it is easy to grasp John Paul II's argument, which he himself summarizes by saying: "Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature [as specific kinds of freely chosen objects] 'incapable of being ordered' to God because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image" (n. 80).

From this it likewise follows the reality of intrinsically evil acts: these are human acts specified by objects incapable of being ordered to God for the reason cited: e.g., the intentional killing of an innocent human being, abortion, mercy killing, adultery etc. Corresponding to these intrinsically evil acts are moral absolutes, i.e., specific moral norms which identify in descriptive (not morally evaluative) terms possible objects of human choice which are always immoral and hence never to be freely chosen because one willing to do them is willing to make himself to be an evildoer.

This is a key teaching--indeed, the central theme--not only of this part of Chapter Two but of the entire Encyclical.

Chapter Three: Moral Good for the Life of the Church  and of the World


Here I will on six themes taken up by John Paul II in the this chapter, namely: (1) the relationship between human freedom and the truth; (2) the intimate, inseparable unity of faith and morality; (3) the inseparable relationship between respect for personal dignity and a refusal to engage in intrinsically evil acts; (4) the absolute need for God's grace to lead a morally upright life; (5) the service of moral theologians; and (6) the responsibilities of bishops. Interestingly, in his "guida" for readers of the encyclical, Dionigi Tettamanzi singles out six major themes in this chapter, and the six he identifies overlap pretty much with the six that struck me. The six themes identified by Tettamanzi and then developed by him are the following. (1) the relationship between the moral life and the Church's mission of evangelization, or, better, given the secularized world in which we live, of re-evangelization. But, Tettamanzi emphasizes, this entails essentially communicating the truth about man. (2) The Christocentric character of evangelization and of the moral life: It is only in the crucified Christ that the full truth of man is revealed. (3) The unconditional respect due to human persons requires absolute moral norms prohibiting always and everywhere intrinsically evil acts, i.e., acts intentionally opposed to the goods perfective of human persons. (4) Respect for what is morally good and the defense of absolute moral norms serve the true liberty of every man and of all men. The moral teaching of the Church on issues both of personal morality and of social ethics are rooted in the same truths about man. (5) In order to fulfill her mission of evangelization the Church must be both Mother and Teacher, reminding men of their dignity and of the truths meant to guide their freedom. (6) The mission of evangelization and of teaching the truth about the moral good pertains to all the baptized, but special tasks are committed to theologians and to bishops. [3](on all this see Tettamanzi's "guida," pp. 39-46).

Before taking up briefly of these things I want to call attention to a passage in n. 115, in a section where he is specifically speaking to his brother bishops, reminding them of their responsibilities, because in it John Paul II explicitly identifies the principal truth at the heart of the Encyclical. He writes as follows:

            Each of us knows how important is the teaching which represents the central theme of this Encyclical and which is today being restated with the authority of the Successor of Peter. Each of us can see the seriousness of what is involved, not only for individuials 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).

1. The Relationship Between Human Freedom and the Truth

The pope proclaims: "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). He then writes most perceptively about the meaning of human freedom, saying:

            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).

The ultimate truth meant to guide our choices is that we are 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 and Inseparable Unity of Faith and Morality

Because of contemporary secularism and the separation of faith from morality (even on the part of some Catholic theologians), it is urgent, John Paul II emphasizes, "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 "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. 8). Indeed, it is through our daily moral life that our faith becomes a "confession," a "witness" before God and man. Living faith, our fundamental option, must bear fruit in works of charity and "of 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 Relationship Between Respect for Personal Dignity and Refusal to Engage in Intrinsically Evil Acts

In teaching that some objects of human choice are intrinsically evil and that the norms proscribing them are absolute and without exception the Church serves the truth. Ultimately, the Crucified Christ provides the answer to the question, why must we obey "universal and unchanging moral norms" (n. 85). He does so because he gave his life--himself--to manifest his love for the persons made in God's image and called to divine life. He suffered evil rather than do it. And so do did the martyrs. JPII insists that martyrdom is senseless unless there are absolute moral norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, for the martyrs suffered death rather than freely choose to do evil: "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' circumstances, 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).

Moreover, as the pope points out, were there no absolute moral norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts (i.e., acts intentionally opposed to human goods), there would be no inviolable human rights (nn. 96-97).

4. The Absolute Need for God's Grace to Live a Morally Upright Life

The Church's teaching on human dignity and, precisely because of the inviolable dignity of the human person, on moral absolutes always and everywhere prohibiting the free choice of acts intentionally opposed to the goods of human persons is not, as some maintain, rigoristic or harsh. Although at times it may seem humanly impossible to avoid doing evil to prevent some alleged greater evil, God never abandons us and will give us the grace to resist any temptation. If we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone (cf. n. 102).

5. The Service of Moral Theologians

John Paul II takes this up in nn. 110-113. There he declares: "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). Should theologians not desist from dissent, "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).

6. The Responsibility of Bishops

In nn. 115-117 John Paul II emphasizes the duty of bishops to be vigilant in seeing that the word of God is faithfully taught; he passes on to them his evaluation of "certain trends in theology today," reminds them of the seriousness of the "central theme" of the Encyclical (the immutability and universality of absolute moral norms), and urges them to help proclaim the truth about man.

In the conclusion of the Encyclical the Holy Father calls on Mary for help; she understands sinful man and loves him and will not let him be beguiled by false doctrine.


*This paper presents, in a revised form, the material found in my  book, An Introduction to Moral Theology (rev. ed.: Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994), chapter 8, pp. 259-282.

[1] Dionigi Tettamanzi, “Guida alla lectura,” in Enciclica Veritatis Splendor, Italian edition (Rome:Piemme, 1993), pp. 16-19.

[2] Ibid., pp. 19-21.

[3] Ibid., pp. 39-46,

Copyright ©; William E. May 2002

Version: 18th March 2002

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