‘Veritatis Splendor’ at 30: Unpacking Pope St. John Paul II’s Profound Christological Vision

COMMENTARY: Karol Wojtyla believed that the crisis of our time was centered on the question of human dignity, and the grounding of that question in what it means to be human in the first place.

Pope John Paul II blesses a young girl in a wheelchair  before Mass at National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, Aug. 10, 1993. Four days prior, the Holy Father published Veritatis Splendor, which delved into the inherent dignity of every person.
Pope John Paul II blesses a young girl in a wheelchair before Mass at National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, Aug. 10, 1993. Four days prior, the Holy Father published Veritatis Splendor, which delved into the inherent dignity of every person. (photo: Robert Sullivan / AFP via Getty Images)

Aug. 6 marked the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Veritatis Splendor, arguably St. Pope John Paul II’s most important encyclical. “The Splendor of the Truth” is a very important indication of what it is that John Paul was attempting to achieve in this encyclical, which was devoted to the Church’s moral theology.

In an era marked by what Pope Benedict later called “the dictatorship of relativism” and of “the eclipse of God,” Pope John Paul was responding to an ongoing crisis of truth both in our culture and within the Church herself, which John Paul clearly viewed as having been infected with this false spirit of the times.

Space precludes me from giving an exhaustive summary of the encyclical, but the animating principle is a theological proposition that was central to the mind of Karol Wojtyla going all the way back to his time as a bishop at the Second Vatican Council. Put simply and in layman’s terms, Bishop Wojtyla believed that the crisis of our time was a crisis centered on the question of human dignity and the grounding of that question in what it means to be a human being in the first place.

There is, therefore, a burning need to answer the question, as the poet Wendell Berry puts it, “What are people for?” And the theological proposition which answers this question, and which was near and dear to the future pope’s heart, can be found most succinctly in Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world,, Gaudium et Spes 22, which begins as follows: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”

Put into more academic theological language, one can say that what was central to John Paul’s pontificate was a Christocentric theological anthropology where the only possible answer to the question of what it means to be a human being is the concreteness of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. This is no mere theoretical abstraction, no mere philosophical speculation among a vast array of confusing and conflicting philosophical speculations, and certainly no mere calculus of political utility.

There is only one fundamental truth about the human condition and that truth is that God has become man and has taken our humanity into himself, in order to “divinize us” by incorporating us into the inner divine life.

Because the reality is, as John Paul knew, that this is what a human being is — a creature made in the image and likeness of God and who has now been taken up into God via the incarnation — and therefore all moral theorizing must begin and end with this foundational truth in mind. Because if moral norms are to be guided by what is best for human nature then it matters greatly what one thinks the beginning and end of that nature is.

If you begin with the atheistic modern assumption that humans are just trousered apes with big brains and therefore what we call “morality” is just the mental flotsam and jetsam of “what works for survival,” then your moral norms are going to be bloodless and cold calculations of utilitarian outcomes. And what counts as “good results” in those calculations is larded up front with a technological paradigm grounded in nothing more than a vague sense of the inevitability of “progress” — a “progress” the goal of which is defined by the elite occupants of the power centers of society.

This is why Pope John Paul opens Veritatis Splendor with a profound meditation on the encounter of Christ with the rich young man who had approached Christ with the question of what “good deed” he must do in order to have eternal life. (Matthew 19:16-30). Because Christ immediately reorients the young man’s question away from “mere actions” which seek some kind of desirable end and toward instead what it is that must ground all of our actions — God, who alone is “good.”

The morality of “calculations” is rejected by Christ and replaced with a morality grounded in the intimacy of divine life which alone grounds our dignity. Bishop Robert Barron, commenting on this scriptural narrative in the Word on Fire New Testament, puts it beautifully:

“The most authentic humanism consists in a meeting of two ecstasies, divine and human, a dovetailing of two freedoms, a coming together of an infinite and finite mode of being-for-the-other. In a word, authentic humanism is Jesus Christ.”

It is important therefore to read Veritatis Splendor in the light of everything John Paul had written before. And along those lines, it is instructive that John Paul’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man), makes the Christocentric theological anthropology of Gaudium et Spes explicit and marks it as the key to the entirety of his papacy which was yet to unfold.

Karol Wojtyla had lived and suffered under both the Nazi and Soviet domination of his beloved Poland. He witnessed firsthand the destruction of human dignity in the form of genocidal mass murder and totalitarian repression, and understood that these political systems were not “outliers” to the modern secular project but deep indicators of the dangers that lurk in a vision of man lacking explicit orientation to God.

Yes, John Paul does go on to call out certain erroneous moral theological theories. Most notably he sharply criticizes the moral theory — very popular at that time in Catholic academic circles — called “proportionalism.” To understand this one must have at least a passing knowledge of the historical context.

For millennia the Church had grounded her moral teachings in “natural law” theory, which takes as its foundation the idea that God has implanted in his creation elements of the divine reason which we can discern in the forms and patterns of the various “essences” or “form” of things.

Thus, to determine what is right or wrong, for example in the sexual domain, one must begin with the question, “What are the natural purposes for sex in the divine plan for creation?” And once one has determined this, one can then develop moral norms that maximize those purposes via positive prescriptions and minimize damage to them via moral prohibitions. And sometimes, as John Paul notes, an act can be so wrong in its fundamental orientation away from this natural law that we must designate it as an act that is always wrong in all circumstances (“intrinsically evil”).

But proportionalism sought to undermine all of this by denying that there can be intrinsically evil actions and that the morality of any given act is dependent upon motives and circumstances, and with an eye toward the practical consequences of an act. This is why the theory was also at times called “consequentialism.”

This theory was all the rage in Catholic academic circles and formed the theoretical backbone for the massive dissent from Pope St. Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. But dissent from that encyclical had acted like a loose thread in a knitted sweater wherein, once pulled, it proceeded to unravel the entire edifice of Catholic natural law moral teaching.

Therefore, it was rightly called out by Pope John Paul, as well as a few other moral theories, as being contrary to the truth about man. And this latter point is of critical importance for any true appreciation of Veritatis Splendor as an expression of John Paul’s deep Christocentrism.

Because, the condemnations of erroneous moral theories are carried forward as exercises in a Christological theological anthropology and not as just a heavy-handed suppression of anyone who dared to challenge some superficial ecclesial court theology that had no real foundations in anything other than outdated thinking propped up by raw authority.

John Paul had a true and profound theological vision, grounded in great thinkers like Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger, and Veritatis is first and foremost a reform of moral theology in the exact form expressed by Vatican II. It is first and foremost scriptural and Christological, which is exactly what Vatican II called for.

In other words, there was something of great importance at stake here and Pope John Paul, a man whose vision was forged in the crucible of Christian resistance to Nazi genocide and Soviet totalitarian repression, saw clearly that even in the West there were social and political forces at play that were noxious to the faith and which had seeped into the deep fissures of the Church’s own inner life. These were not arcane and esoteric debates among pin-headed intellectuals out of touch with reality. This was a life and death struggle for the soul of the Church and for the very future of humanity, now locked into a cultural matrix oriented toward a culture of death.

John Paul, via Veritatis Splendor, planted the ecclesial flag directly and deeply into the Christological landscape of scripture and the universal call to holiness. And large swaths of the Church, devoted more to the world than to Christ, hated him for it.

Therefore, it is manifestly wrong to view Veritatis Splendor, as many continue to do today, as nothing more than a series of condemnations of various erroneous moral theories. It is manifestly wrong to take Veritatis out of the broader theological context of John Paul’s evangelical and Christ-centered anthropology and to view it instead as merely a series of negations for the sake of “controlling” wayward theologians. For example, the new head of the DDF, soon to be Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, has said the following about Veritatis:

Obviously, it denotes a particular concern — to set certain limits. For this reason it is not the most adequate text to encourage the development of theology. … In fact, over the last decades, tell me how many theologians can we name with the stature of Rahner, Ratzinger, Congar or von Balthasar? Not even that which they call “liberation theology” has theologians at the level of Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Something has gone wrong. There were controls, not so much development. Today perhaps a text will be needed that, collecting everything valuable from Veritatis Splendor, has another style, another tone, which at the same time allows for encouraging the growth of Catholic theology, as Pope Francis asks of me.

The errors contained in this assessment are breathtaking especially coming as they do from the man who is now in charge of the Church’s doctrinal office. Veritatis is not as he portrays it and is instead a profoundly evangelical call to renew all of moral theology via the path of a robust construal of Christ as the exemplar of what it means to be human. And often lost in these debates surrounding the encyclical is precisely the revolutionary nature of John Paul’s beginning an encyclical on moral theology, not with neo-Scholastic philosophical arguments, but with Christ and his call to radical repentance and conversion.

Therefore, to have it mischaracterized as having the “particular concern” for merely “setting limits” should not go by without notice and comment. Because this is a deliberate attempt to caricature Veritatis as a “negative” document precisely in order to promote an approach which, it is alleged, will be more “positive” in its creativity. And this creativity is now possible since we will take what is “valuable” in Veritatis — something which he never specifies — but move on from that to something that can now “develop.”

Cardinal-designate Fernández also insinuates here that we no longer have the giants of theology anymore like Ratzinger, Rahner, Congar or von Balthasar, precisely because of the stifling of theological creativity caused by disciplinary efforts like Veritatis. But with all due respect to the good archbishop, I cannot follow this logic. Because all of those theological giants emerged during a period of pre-conciliar Church history that was far more repressive than anything John Paul was alleged to have done in Veritatis.

In point of fact, the theological guild carried on pretty much just as before Veritatis, as anyone who was involved in the Catholic academic world at that time can attest. In fact, it almost guaranteed you an award, or at least a place at the high table, at the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, if one wrote against Veritatis Splendor and the moral theology it supported.

Therefore, perhaps the lack of the kind of theological giants mentioned above has more to do with the abandonment of the Christocentric theological anthropology of de Lubac, Wojtyla, and Vatican II, than it does with any alleged “repression of creativity” caused by Veritatis.

Furthermore, it is simply not true that there has been no theological creativity in the modern Church who think in the same way as John Paul. I have in mind the towering intellect of the late, great David Schindler, long time editor of Communio in America and leader of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. I can think as well of theologians like Cyril O’Regan at Notre Dame. I can name scores of others but the point is made. Perhaps these thinkers simply do not count as examples of truly creative modern theology since they do not evince the theological ethos that Archbishop Fernández prefers.

Sadly, one can only conclude that there is currently an ongoing effort to dismantle the legacy Veritatis Splendor and to replace it with the very moral proportionalism it sought to forestall. One hopes that this is not true. But there is a lot of evidence that it is, based on comments from numerous priests and bishops who are currently in vogue.

The key here though is to see the debate as deeper than just a question of this or that moral norm which might be in line for “development.” The deeper issue is the Christology and theological anthropology of Veritatis Splendor which is also being rejected.

Thus, though one might be tempted to end this essay by saying that therefore Veritatis is more relevant today than ever, it is truer to say that what is really more relevant than ever today is the entire theological vision of St. Pope John Paul II.

The issues, in other words, are only tangentially “moral.” At their core the issues are more theologically foundational and cut to the very core of the question: “Who do men say that I am?”

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