His Holiness John Paul II, Veritatis splendor,
When Pope John Paul II visited these United States during August, it became known that he had just issued an encyclical on moral theology. The encyclical, Veritatis splendor, or the "Splendor of truth," is dated August 6th, 1993. The radio and television news outlets were quick to herald the pope's words as a crackdown on dissent, a demand for moral rigidity, and a strong endorsement of the right to life. The actual document, now available in English is quite different from what the media predicted.
From the perspective of Catholic orthodoxy, the encyclical contains some refreshing restatements of time honored truths:
When it is a matter of moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. . . . whether one is the master of the world or the "poorest of the poor". . . . before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal. (#96)
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 always be respected. (#113)
As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. (#101)
[E]vangelization will show its authenticity and unleash all its missionary force when it is carried out through the gift not only of the word proclaimed but of the word lived. . . . the life of holiness . . . humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive at once the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God's love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all the demands of the Lord's law, even in the most difficult situations. (#107)
Pope John Paul II refers to "objective norms of morality," a phrase not heard often enough in modern times. (#53) We are reminded of the duty to form a correct conscience, and that we have a right to expect the Church to help us form it.(#61-64) This last section (#64) is an unintentional indictment of the last three pontificates.
It is encouraging to traditional Catholics that the Pope invokes the Blessed Mother several times in his writing, entrusting moral theologians and those who would be moral to her protection. He especially invokes her against those who would trivialize sin:
Nor does [Mary] permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ her Son would thus be emptied of its power.(#120)
Veritatis splendor does, indeed, name some specific moral disorders which are always sinful, including "homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and voluntary suicide," but dilutes the impact of singling them out by adding "degrading conditions of work," "greed" and "drunkenness." "Contraceptive practices" are referred to obliquely." (#80 & 81) Again as much space is devoted later on to social sins like price gouging, "tax fraud," "excessive expenses," and "waste." (#100) Thus, contrary to media expectations, the encyclical is only marginally or incidentally pro-life. Certainly, in a document of this length, a few more words could have been devoted to the capital sins.
The Pope devotes several pages to pointing out two modern errors in moral theology; the "fundamental option," and something he calls "teleologism." (#65-78) The error of the fundamental option is, essentially, that one who has made God the primary object of his life's journey is not responsible for any sinful acts he may commit along the way. Teleologism includes the long discredited notions that "the end justifies the means," and that an action is moral if it produces more good than bad. While Pope John Paul states that, "these theories cannot claim to be grounded in Catholic moral tradition," he does so more as a dispassionate writer of theory than as a pastor energetically denouncing dangerous errors. This misguided forbearance, far from gaining respect for the Papacy, has been the source of terrible confusion in the modern Church. One longs in vain to read "Anathema sit!"
The greatest flaw, perhaps even a "fatal" flaw, in the message of Veritatis splendor is Pope John Paul II's attachment to existentialism. He tries, we might say, to paint a Catholic picture on a canvas that is atheistic, modernistic, or, at very best, liberal-Protestant.
Existentialism is a philosophy that stems from 19th century attempts to explain man, a conscious being who has accidentally come to exist in the purely material world. Man and the objects around him are admitted to have "existence," they are beings in the here and now; but they lack "essence," that almost spiritual quality that defines things in terms of their "natures." To the existentialist, man is not man because God endowed his immortal soul with human nature; but rather because man creates his own essence, making himself authentically human through the exercise of his freedom to act. Man is said to "create" himself through accepting and acting upon the responsibility to make choices.
Existentialist literature is thus often filled with references to "the acting person," "authenticity," "choice," and "human freedom." Faith, hope, and charity become psychological phenomena. Existentialism is expressed in atheistic terms by such philosophers as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. It often is fostered by totalitarian movements, or in response to them. It can also take on a semi-religious character, if the philosopher is prepared to accept religion as irrational (Karl Barth), God as "Being-itself" (Paul Tillich), or revelation as symbolic mythology (Rudolf Bultmann).
Veritatis splendor is only relatively free from the existentialist jargon so often found in Pope John Paul II's writings. Still, he introduces "human freedom" as a fundamental theme of the encyclical, (#31) and proceeds to confuse "freedom" with "free will." (#35) Free will, of course, is essential to Catholic moral theology. As no one can do good or evil without free will, no true theology will deny its necessity. Freedom, on the other hand, is continually restricted by God's moral and physical laws, by human laws, and even by simple practicality. For example, one may have the free will to walk out of a third floor window in defiance of the law of gravity, but one will quickly be disabused of any notions about freedom from this particular constraint. One may have the free will to sin, but the moral law will continue to operate and justice will ensue.
Pope John Paul II doesn't deny the working of God's laws, yet, faithful to his existentialism, he continues to insist that man "creates" himself through freedom and choice:
Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice. . . . Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshaling the appropriate means. (#42, quoting Gaudium et spes #17)
Of course, no explanation is given as to how one frees one's self "from all subservience to his feelings," or what happens if his "own end" is a selfish one.
Anxious to legitimize this existentialism, the Pope claims that, "Debates about nature and freedom have always marked the history of moral reflection" and cites the Council of Trent as an example. (#46, emphasis in the original) But the document cited, Cum hoc tempore, deals not with nature and freedom, but with nature and grace. It treats of the justification of fallen nature; of the "servants of sin under the power of the devil and of death." It speaks of "men having become unclean." It speaks of a "free-will, attenuated as it was in its powers," and not of the existentialist "acting person" with his "human dignity."
In an encyclical devoted to the Splendor of "Truth," it is offensive to find the Supreme Pontiff suggesting that St. Thomas Aquinas inspired him to write:
In order to perfect himself in his specific order, the person must do good and avoid evil, be concerned for the transmission and preservation of life, refine and develop the riches of the material world, cultivate social life, seek truth, practice good and contemplate beauty. (Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, a. 2.) (#51. In the original, the citation is footnote 93.)
The abbreviation, "Cf." indicates, of course, that the Pope is not directly quoting Aquinas, but asking his readers to note the similarity between his own thought and that of the Saint. But in the cited passage St. Thomas deals with natural law instincts given by God to man for the preservation of the human race, and not for the spiritual perfection of the "person." Of course, St. Thomas was not under obligation to promote existentialism and entertained no fantasies about the "acting person" perfecting himself through self preservation. To the existentialist, however, such things represent "choices" made in the condition of "human freedom," whereby the "acting person" perfects his "authentic" existence.
The existentialist idea that man perfects himself through art, sex, commerce, and socializing goes beyond heresy to utter absurdity. It does, however, explain the almost universal disappearance of holiness in western civilization. If we are told that yielding to our base instincts will bring perfection and holiness, what do we do to religious and priestly vocations? to marital chastity? to virtue among single people? to those tempted to perversion? to those tempted by the innumerable vices of the world?
If nothing else, with this passage Pope John Paul II betrays the utter impossibility of reconciling his existentialism with Catholicism. And he opens himself to questions from those who wonder why he would want to replace 2,000 years of truth with this unwieldy Bohemian system.
An even greater presumption comes with the perversion of Christ's answer to the young man in Matthew 19 who asked which commandments he must keep? Our Lord enumerated five out of the last seven commandments, which prompts the Pope to boast of the singular dignity of the human person, "the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake." [Not the angels?] (#13, emphasis in the original; source not cited.)
Even a reference to "the two commandments of Love of God and love of neighbor" (#14, emphasis in the original.) is quickly shuffled off toward love of neighbor, correctly holding that one cannot love God and hate his neighbor, but saying little or nothing about the source of all love in God.
This emphasis on the "second tablet of the law" is significant in that it directs attention away from moral issues like religious indifferentism and false worship. In this encyclical, as well as in his previous writings, [See, for example, Pope John Paul II, The Freedom of Conscience and of Religion, September 1, 1980.] the Pope seems blissfully unaware that belief in false gods and false beliefs about God lead people to immorality. To the degree that we ignore God in the first three commandments, we ignore the Source of truth and greatly tarnish its splendor.
Ideas and ideologies have consequences. The Vatican II notion that no one "is to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs" is an invitation to moral anarchy -- afterthoughts about "due limits" to the contrary notwithstanding. (Cf. Dignitatis humanae #2) In the real world the "due limits" are not determined by Christians and other men of good will -- not even by existentialists seeking "authentic existence" -- but by politicians, bankers and film makers.
In reading an encyclical said to celebrate "truth," we are entitled to wonder about the obvious omissions. We have already seen how the first three commandments are ignored. Those who have followed the newspaper accounts of Pope John Paul II's international journeys will not be surprised at his deprecation of the "first tablet" of the law. Sacrileges like that of Assisi represent an unconscionable assault on Truth Himself, and His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. [New York Times, 28 October 1986. Pope John Paul II allowed the replacement of the Blessed Sacrament with a statue of the Buddha.]
Even if we restrict our concern to the "second tablet" of the law, it is hard to understand how the Pope can write an encyclical that equates morality with truth, while ignoring the most pressing moral problems within the Church itself. According to Time Magazine, (16 August 1993) Catholic "annulments" in the United States increased 12,166 percent from 338 in 1968 (the year of Humanae vitae) to 41,121 in 1991. Why is there no concern about the truth of the statement "until death do us part"? Why is there no discussion about the inability of diocesan tribunals to grant permission to sin through groundless annulments? Is there no "truth" in the basic institution of Christian society?
Why is there no discussion of the moral problems so often chronicled in connection with the modern Catholic clergy? Are not sacrilegious adultery, homosexuality, and pedophilia abuses of "human freedom" and distortions of the truth of God's plan for mankind.
Why is there no discussion of the continuous dishonesty about liturgical matters? About the many lies that have been told by priests and bishops demolishing churches in the name of Vatican II? About the mistranslations of sacred texts? About the numerous leaking church roofs that miraculously stop dripping as soon as the new modernist church is built?
Pope John Paul II spent most of his life in a marxist country at a time when existentialism was very much in vogue. He absorbed the vocabulary and perspective of these two anti-Christian worldviews. This is clearly seen in his contributions to the documents of Vatican II and his writings as Pope. Veritatis splendor once again demonstrates the incompatibility of such notions with Catholicism.
In spite of the papal claim, (#115) nothing new is stated in Veritatis splendor. The norms of morality have been in force as long as human beings have been capable of rational thought. But they have been defied to an unprecedented degree since the debacle of Vatican II. The central question for the admirers of truth's splendor is, "When can we expect the Pope to demand concrete action from those subject to him? When will he crack down on immoral bishops, priests, nuns, and laymen?"
If the question goes unanswered, the encyclical is worse than worthless; a long-winded time waster that demonstrates for the Nth time that the Pope exercises no authority over those with whom he claims to be in union and who break the moral law. It says nothing new, and by restating the obvious while failing to demand obedience to immemorial law, he risks condoning a permanent state of disobedience: Resplendent Mendacity!