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The Splendor of Truth Shines Brighter after 15 Years

August 2008 marked the 15th anniversary of the publication of the extraordinary papal document Veritatis splendor. (Its official title is “Regarding Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church’s Moral Teaching”).  It was promulgated as an encyclical, which means it carries the highest or near the highest authoritative weight of the ordinary teaching of Pope John Paul II.  It took six years of consultation and preparation to finish it.  And the document was worth the wait.  It did something that no other papal text on morality, indeed no magisterial text as far as I know, has ever done.
Many Church documents have carried moral themes.  But they all have been concerned with concrete issues.  Leo XIII’s watershed encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) addressed social problems with the working class; Pius XI’s beautiful encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), written in the after-shadow of the Anglican Church’s decision to approve contraception, addressed a range of issues on sex and marriage; Paul VI’s explosive Humanae vitae (1968) addressed contraception; and John Paul II’s powerful encyclical Evangelium vitae (1995) took on abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.

Veritatis splendor is unique in that it does not concern itself with concrete issues.  Rather it addresses the adequacy of methods of moral reasoning used to morally assess those issues.  In particular it’s concerned with a methodology called “Proportionalism,” a version of consequentialist reasoning widely used by Catholic theologians since the 1970s.  Moral reasoning is proportionalist to the extent that it appeals to a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms to determine the morality of acts.  An act’s morality is assessed by weighing the relative goods (called ‘pre-moral’) to be protected by a contemplated course of action (e.g., the good of human life, or good of truth-telling) against the evils or harms to those (or other) goods being threatened.  If (pre-moral) good outweighs (pre-moral) evil, the act is judged morally right despite the fact that evil may have been done.  Because proportionalism and its adherents reject the possibility of intrinsically evil acts (i.e., acts that are always wrong to choose, such as intentionally killing the innocent), Veritatis splendor judges it to be incompatible with Catholic faith and morals and unsuitable as a moral methodology.

The encyclical’s general reception by Catholic academics, in particular theologians, was most bitter.  Many simply disregarded it as a papal power-play meant to enforce conformity to papal teaching on sex.  And unfortunately it was received passively by much of the hierarchy in Western Europe and the US where proportionalism was most widely adopted.

It was published nine years before the priest scandal broke in the winter of 2002.  I expect the pope was not surprised by the appalling revelations.  In the 1993 encyclical he expressed alarm at the disharmony that existed at the time between the morality being held and taught “even in Seminaries” and faithful Catholic teaching.  The problems, he said, were “of the greatest importance for the Church”.  Indeed they were, and are.

Some predicted that the encyclical’s influence would go the way of all flesh, fade and be forgotten.  The editor of the London Tablet, John Wilkins, asked at the time: “will Veritatis Splendor be seen merely as another plank in a policy of restoration that was doomed to fail?”  And the late Richard McCormick prophesied: “It will, I predict, eventually enjoy an historical status similar to Humani Generis” (not a flattering thing in McCormick’s mind).

Fifteen years is not quite history.  But looking at VS’s influence over the last decade and a half can give us an initial reading on history’s judgment.  There are far fewer dissenting moral theologians teaching at Catholic seminaries, at least in the US, and the generation of newly ordained priests are generally in better shape psychologically, spiritually and morally than those ordained in the 1960s through the early 1990s.  It’s true that many (though not all) secularized Catholic universities continue to mirror their non-Catholic counterparts in faculty composition, university policy and liberal ideology.  But the pretense of Catholicity of such schools has been increasingly exposed in part due to the clear lines that VS drew between faithful and unfaithful Catholic teaching.  New Catholic universities committed to the magisterium and resolute in teaching the best of the theological tradition are springing up around the country, and older ones are growing in prestige.  A new generation of Catholic theologians not bitten by the resentments of their supervisors and eager to explore the richness of the Catholic tradition have entered the academy (although in some cases their promise for promotion is tenuous).  I would not call it a “new springtime” in Catholic higher education as some have proposed.  But with confidence I can say that the winter chill is thawing.

Veritatis Splendor is far more than a critique of flawed moral methodologies.  It is, as its name suggests, an exposition and defense of the splendor of moral truth.  It is a rejection of that legalistic minimalism that conceives moral norms merely as positive laws handed down by uninterested legislators, be they bishops, popes or the gods themselves.  It reminds us that the natural moral law is God’s recipe for human wellbeing, that human freedom is only truly free when directed towards the good, and that moral goodness and human flourishing are correlative.

Do yourself a favor.  If you haven’t read Veritatis Splendor (or even if you have!), go to www.vatican.va to the papal archive and download it.  Then get a gin and tonic and a dictionary, go to a quiet part of the house, lock the door and dig in.  You won’t be disappointed.