Veritatis Splendor – the most important encyclical on ethics in the history of the Church

In 1993, Pope John Paul II published the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth). The encyclical was promulgated on 6 August, Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. This magisterial document is the most comprehensive and authoritative set of teachings on the basic principles of ethics in the history of the Magisterium. There is no Conciliar document, and other papal document, which contains a more in-depth discussion, analysis and exposition of Catholic teaching on the principles of morality.

Why did he write it? He explains why:

“Today, however, it seems 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, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of 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. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to ‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values’, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.”

“In particular, note should be taken of the lack of harmony between the traditional response of the Church and certain theological positions, encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology, with regard to questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself.”

“Given these circumstances, which still exist, I came to the decision…to write an Encyclical with the aim of treating ‘more fully and more deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology’, foundations which are being undermined by certain present day tendencies.

One of the problems was the spread of proportionalism, an approach to moral theology which states ‘nothing is always immoral’. So this approach became popular because it allowed persons to justify acts which the Church teaches are intrinsically evil, but which modern culture teaches are good, such as abortion, contraception, and various sexual sins. When classical moral theologians would ask whether acts such as rape, or genocide were ‘not always wrong’, the reply would be: ‘Well, I can’t think of a situation in which those acts would be moral, but nothing is in principle necessarily always wrong.’

The encyclical VS was intended to end this and many other grave errors on morality which were not only believed by many persons, but which were being taught by moral theologians even in theology classes and in seminaries. Did the encyclical have the desire effect? The theory of proportionalism, which once was advanced as a tenable Catholic theological position, is mostly gone. But in its place is a more clever version of essentially the same error.

The new proportionalism seems to admit that some acts are intrinsically evil, and therefore always immoral. But whenever an intrinsically evil act formerly would have been ‘justified’ by proportionalism, now the act is justified by claiming that an intention or a circumstance has changed the moral object, making direct abortion supposedly now indirect, or making contraception now indirect.

VS rejected this approach also, by teaching the truth that:

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”. Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.

The modernist reply is that intention is part of the second font of morality, and so an intention can change the moral object. But this claim is a distortion of the role of intention in the three fonts. Certainly, the intention of the will, that is, the intentional choice of the free will, is the root of all three fonts. For each fonts proceeds from the will, through the matter of each font, to its respective end. Each font is a different type of end. However, the first font of the intended end is not found in the second or third fonts.

The second font is the essential moral nature of the intentionally chosen act, as determined by the end toward with the act is inherently ordered. The role of intention in the first font is to choose the end (the purpose or intended end for which the act was chosen). But the role of intention in the second font is to choose the act. Every knowingly chosen act has an inherent moral meaning as determined by its moral object. But in choosing the act, the will is unable to assign to that act a moral nature, or a moral object, other than that which is inherent to the act. And that is why some acts are intrinsically evil; they are, in and of themselves, by the very nature of the act itself, ordered toward an evil end — independent of intention or circumstances.

How do modernist moral theologian persist in teaching this new proportionalism, which transforms intrinsically evil acts into seemingly justifiable acts, in the fact of the clear and definitive teaching of Veritatis Splendor? They ignore it. They absolutely utterly ignore the entire encyclical.

This encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, is to moral theologians today what the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible are to Protestant Biblical scholars. They know it exists, but they pretend as if it is not authoritative. Veritatis Splendor is like a lost family heirloom, sitting on the mantle above the fireplace, but being treated as if it did not exist.

Christopher West teaches a version of theology of the body, which exalts the TOB lecture series of John Paul II, lectures which fall under private theology, not the Magisterium, as if it were a new addition to Divine Revelation. But one of West’s main errors is that his TOB is basically sexual ethics without the ethics. He ignores Veritatis Splendor, written by the same Pope John Paul II, and replaces its ethics with West’s distorted interpretation of a lecture series.

Many moral theologians act in much the same way. They ignore VS and instead rely on St. Thomas. But Thomas wrote during a point in the development of doctrine on the three fonts prior to the explicit use of certain terms, and prior to the full development of the terms intrinsic evil and moral object. Why do they treat Thomas’ work as if it were the summit of moral theology, when VS is that summit? Because the older work of St. Thomas is easier to misinterpret. VS is very clear and definitive.

The error of ignoring the definitive teaching of VS on ethics reaches such an extent in the works of some persons, that it seems to me to be the sin of heresy by omission. But it is a popular heresy, and popularity carries much weight among secularized Catholics today.

Veritatis Splendor is the most important encyclical on ethics in the history of the Church, and it is also the most ignored.

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