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‘The Splendor of Truth,’ and Why It Still Matters
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
August 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul’s great encyclical on the “splendor of truth.” Written to encourage a renewal in Catholic moral theology and a return to its classical Catholic roots, Veritatis Splendor grounds itself in a few simple convictions. Briefly put: Truth exists, whether we like it or not. We don’t create truth; we find it, and we have no power to change it to our tastes. The truth may not make us comfortable, but it does make us free. And knowing and living the truth ennobles our lives. It’s the only path to lasting happiness.
In the years that have passed, the crisis of truth, even within the Church, has only seemed to grow. Our age is one of casuistry and irony, not real intellect and character. Today the wisdom of Veritatis Splendor is more urgently needed than ever.
It’s common, even among people who identify as Catholics, to assume that the Church’s moral guidance is essentially about imposing rules, rules that breed a kind of pharisaism and the “exclusion” of otherwise decent, well-meaning people. But this is exactly wrong. It’s an error that radically misunderstands the substance of Catholic teaching. It’s also one of the worst obstacles to spreading the faith.
John Paul II knew this. Thus the first chapter of his encyclical is a meditation on the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man (cf. Mt. 19:16–26). The rich young man seeks to enter into eternal life, and this, John Paul writes, is the starting point for Jesus’s teaching on how to live as a Christian. In other words, Christian morality is about seeking fellowship with God, which is our true happiness, the goal of our human existence. Moral rules, laws, and commandments do exist, and they’re important. But they have value because they point to something far more profound: how to live in order to grow in virtue and attain fullness of life.
This truth—that Christian morality is not a clutch of dead legalisms but the path to enduring happiness—was a key theme of John Paul’s ministry. Jesus comes to reveal to man his true dignity. He sets man free with the truth of the Gospel, free to become by grace what God calls humanity to be: adopted daughters and sons in the joy of his love. As a result, John Paul II called for a deep renewal of Catholic moral theology, and also of the ways in which Christian moral teachings are presented to the faithful and to the world. He wanted the Church to recover her zeal in affirming that no richer life exists than one lived in the fullness of truth.
It’s precisely here—how the Church presents her moral guidance—that we face renewed and serious challenges. Ironically, authoritarian legalism is very much alive in Catholic life, even though it no longer looks like the rigorist, “conservative” variety of the past. Moral minimalism in the name of “compassion” is just as deadly to the life of faith as legalist maximalism.
Many moral theologians of the last century, including men like Bernard Häring, felt that they were bringing the Church into the modern age by exploring new moral frontiers. In practice, though, they “solved” the problem of onerous moral commandments by eliminating some rules and generating doubts about whether this or that commandment applied in every case, or whether some exception might exist to rules that, before, had seemed absolute.
It’s because we remain captive to a false rivalry between moral truth, on the one hand, and human freedom and fulfillment, on the other, that Veritatis Splendor remains so important. We can elaborate that in three points.
First, the text reminds us forcefully that truth, including moral truth (what we owe our neighbor; what leads us to or away from God), has an objective dimension. It’s not purely a function of cultural and personal circumstances. Certain moral truths—the Ten Commandments, the basic precepts of the natural law—always remain valid. The objectivity of moral truth provides us with a place to stand in a fallen world that too often conscripts us into its evil doings. When the Church teaches that some things should never be done, she is issuing a wake-up call. Our freedom is not aimless. It does not serve itself. We were created with the capacity for freedom so that we could unite ourselves with the truth—in action as well as thought.
To be fully human is to live in the truth. Thus a pastor (or a cardinal, or a pope) is not acting mercifully if he says, out of a misguided desire to help someone struggling with a difficult choice, “As long as your heart is in the right place, God will understand.” Or: “I dispense you from the law in this case.” Or even worse: “The law is wrong and needs to be changed.” No pastor, no cardinal, and no pope has the power to launder a sinful choice into a morally acceptable one. In trying to do so, he commits a serious injustice. He also sins against charity, because he makes the problem worse by stealing the truth from the person he seeks to help.
To put it another way: Accompaniment, properly understood, is always a wise pastoral strategy. But the destination of a journey—a journey shared by pastor and penitent—does matter . . . especially if the route takes them over a cliff. Intrinsically evil actions always involve a turning away from God. This is the teaching of Jesus himself: “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:19).
The right path to happiness isn’t to relax the law, but to give ourselves over to God’s power and the promise of his grace.
This leads to a second reason for Veritatis Splendor’s enduring value. Catholic moral teachings are salvific. They’re central to the proclamation of the Gospel, and are, in reality, good news. Yet this good news, Christ’s new law of love, in no way diminishes God’s commandments. John Paul puts it this way:
When the Apostle Paul sums up the fulfilment of the law in the precept of love of neighbor as oneself (cf. Rom 13:8–10), he is not weakening the commandments but reinforcing them, since he is revealing their requirements and their gravity. Love of God and of one’s neighbor cannot be separated from the observance of the commandments of the Covenant renewed in the blood of Jesus Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. It is an honor characteristic of Christians to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19; 5:29) and accept even martyrdom as a consequence, like the holy men and women of the Old and New Testaments who are considered such because they gave their lives rather than perform this or that particular act contrary to faith or virtue. (VS 76)
Catholic fidelity to moral truths—especially when other Christian communities have fallen silent or simply surrendered to a hostile culture—has made the Church a vital witness of truth in a time of confusion. Many who come to the faith today do so not in spite of the “hard” Catholic teachings, but precisely because of them—and this, often in circumstances when they’re not sure that they can even live up to those demands. They recognize in those teachings the voice of Jesus Christ and the confidence of the Church in the authority of moral truth.
Again, the solution to hard moral choices isn’t to rewrite or neuter the law. Instead, we need to acknowledge that, by ourselves, we can do nothing without God’s grace. Freedom was not given to us by God so we could redefine, on our own, what is good or evil, but rather so we could respond in liberty to his offer of friendship. This isn’t a popular view. We should never delude ourselves into thinking that, just because we live in a democracy, we’re safe from contempt and “soft” persecution for respecting the reality of objective truth. Nor should we imagine that a nation of nearly infinite consumer choices and new rights of self-definition amounts to a genuine culture of freedom.
As John Paul writes:
Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. (VS 99)
The third and final reason for the encyclical’s power is this. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul reaffirmed the classic Catholic understanding of the relationship between objective truth about right and wrong, and how the individual person applies that truth in his or her own life. He underscores what has always been Catholic teaching: The conscience of the individual can never be set against objective moral truth, as if conscience and truth were two competing, autonomous principles for moral decision-making.
Such a mistaken view would “pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God’s law. . . . Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil” (VS 56). Rather, “conscience is the application of the law to a particular case” (VS 59). Conscience stands under the objective moral law and should be formed by it, so that “the truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience” (VS 61).
When John Paul issued Veritatis Splendor three decades ago, it very soon drew criticism from a range of “forward-thinking” theologians. They (quite rightly) saw that their efforts—to bend Catholic moral teachings toward more “humane” and “compassionate” standards, whereby moral truths could evolve over time, relative to historical and cultural circumstances—would be derailed by it.
Those of them who remain today among Church scholars and pastors still search for ways to evade the encyclical’s teaching, to say that it may have been useful in the past, but history has moved on, and the social sciences demand a revision of Catholic thought. To a great extent, today’s debates within the Church—on issues of sexual identity, sexual behavior, Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, the nature of the family—simply exhume and reanimate the convenient ambiguities and flexible approaches to truth that Veritatis Splendor forcefully buried. The fact that these debates have been allowed to blossom, to quite literally “make a mess” and confuse the faithful, is among the most regrettable marks of the current pontificate.
But the splendor of the truth cannot be hidden. It is ever ancient, ever new. In the long run, Veritatis Splendor will be remembered long after many other works of popes and politicians are forgotten.
It will be remembered for one simple reason: What it says is true.
Archbishop Charles Chaput is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia. This essay is revised and adapted by the author from previous (2017) thoughts published by First Things.
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