When the Splendor of Truth Is Hidden, the Joy of Love Is Dead

COMMENTARY: A deeper examination of Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor will illustrate how some interpretations of Amoris Laetitia are incompatible with the Catholic Church’s moral tradition.

Pope St. John Paul II in 1996.
Pope St. John Paul II in 1996. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

In a significant essay for First Things, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia calls for renewed attention to Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), the 1993 encyclical of St. John Paul II on the moral life.

With the 25th anniversary of the encyclical coming next summer, Archbishop Chaput has an early entry in what will be a yearlong examination of Veritatis Splendor. And though the archbishop only implies it, a deeper examination of Veritatis Splendor will illustrate how some interpretations of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) are incompatible with the Church’s moral tradition, including those given most prominence in Rome.

It is not a mere academic exercise. Recently, the distinguished Catholic philosopher Josef Seifert, founder of the International Academy of Philosophy and a friend of John Paul II, was fired from the same academy by the archbishop of Granada (Spain). Seifert’s offense? He wrote an essay in which he argued that interpretations of Amoris Laetitia that permit couples to positively choose intrinsically evil acts — conjugal relations outside of a valid marriage — as God’s will violate the teaching of Veritatis Splendor and, in fact, destroy the entire foundation of the Church’s moral teaching, which the encyclical was written to defend and deepen.

If First Things were an organ of the Archdiocese of Granada, Archbishop Chaput might well be banned from its pages. More to the point, a 25th-anniversary symposium on Veritatis Splendor would be banned from its pages.

Not every Church document gets major anniversary treatment. For example, a number of landmark documents of Blessed Paul VI came out in 1967: on the Eucharist (Mysterium Fidei), on Mary (Christi Matri), on priestly celibacy (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus), on the liturgy (Sacram Liturgiam), on the permanent diaconate (Sacram Diaconatus Ordinem). None of them got significant golden jubilee attention. On the other hand, his documents that year on music (Musicam Sacram) and social doctrine (Populorum Progressio) did.

Surprisingly, while this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the most important single text since Vatican II — that silver jubilee has gone largely unmarked.

Archbishop Chaput’s early celebrating of Veritatis Splendor intends to ensure that next year there is plenty of attention to its 25th anniversary. There will be attention paid in 2018 to the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, but, while that treated the key question of the sexual revolution in a “prophetic” way — in the assessment of Pope Francis — it is Veritatis Splendor that provides the broader vision in which controverted moral questions are to be evaluated.

“Today the wisdom of Veritatis Splendor is more urgently needed than ever,” writes Archbishop Chaput, noting that the “crisis of truth has only seemed to grow” since 1993.

The heart of Veritatis Splendor, the archbishop argues, is that Christian morality is not about following the rules as a matter of mere obedience, but of a loving encounter with Christ, from which certain rules follow. Christ reveals to us the truth of things, and therefore we then know in truth what is good for us — what leads to happiness and love, and what does not.

As I put it when I teach Catholic morality to future schoolteachers: “Something is not wrong because the Church says so; the Church says so because there is something wrong with it, and she learns this from Christ himself.”

“This truth — that Christian morality is not a clutch of dead legalisms but a path to happiness — was a key theme of John Paul’s ministry,” Archbishop Chaput writes.

The same point has been made repeatedly by Pope Francis and, before him, by Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote as much in the first words of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love):

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

That direction includes the content of the moral law. Archbishop Chaput argues that the importance of moral law can become corrupted into “legalism.” At Vatican II, the Council Fathers thought that too much of Catholic moral thinking was legalistic — What exactly is forbidden? How far can I go? — and called for moral theology to be renewed in light of our encounter with Christ.

In the decades after the Council, Archbishop Chaput argues that the old legalism still endured, but to a different, more lax, end. The emphasis was still primarily on the rules, but on making them less demanding, or finding ways around them, often by employing an erroneous conception of conscience.

“The new laxist thought stayed stuck in the old rut of legalism,” Chaput writes:

Morality, in the end, remained about the rules, with a new generation of moralists essentially arguing for fewer of them. Obviously no version of legalism can capture the real meaning of the Gospel, which is the promise of new life in Jesus Christ. Legalism of whatever sort sees God’s law as a limit (or even a threat) to human freedom. So in Veritatis Splendor, John Paul reoriented moral thought back toward the classical Catholic tradition of a morality of virtue leading to happiness.

By the 1980s, a critical issue had arisen in moral theology. The Church taught that certain acts were “intrinsically evil” and therefore could never be chosen licitly. Did this still hold? Could there be an “exceptionless moral norm”? In Veritatis Splendor, drawing upon the biblical encounter of the Rich Young Man who approaches Christ, and the teaching of St. Paul that the cross of Christ “not be emptied of its power,” John Paul reaffirmed that such norms do exist. Pointedly, he insisted that God’s grace was always sufficient to observe these norms — and that the martyrs illustrate that it can be done and inspire us to do the same in less dramatic situations.

Archbishop Chaput thus writes in the heart of his essay:

This is why John Paul thought the classical notion of intrinsically evil acts to be so vital. It’s the dimension of moral theology that frames truth in the clearest of terms. And it is the clarity of the truth (and its rejection of that dull gray cult of moral ambiguity that numbs the soul before killing it) that speaks most directly to our desire for fullness of life. Thus a pastor is not acting mercifully if he says, out of a misguided desire to help someone struggling with a difficult choice, “Don’t worry, as long as your heart is in the right place, God will understand.” Or even worse: “I dispense you from the law in this case.” The pastor has no 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” (Matthew 5:19).

Archbishop Chaput would not have used the word “accompaniment” without careful thought. He knows that “accompaniment” is at the heart of the pastoral approach of Amoris Laetitia. Archbishop Chaput’s essay charges that an “accompaniment” that is trapped in the minimalist legalism that Veritatis Splendor rejects is a betrayal of Gospel truth and an abandonment of true pastoral charity.

If there were doubt about what he might have in mind, the archbishop concludes in such a way to remove it:

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. 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.

Archbishop Chaput’s essay should be read alongside the recent essay of Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez in Medellin, a Spanish theological journal, which defends in Amoris Laetitia what Veritatis Splendor appears to condemn.

Archbishop Fernandez is rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires and the principal theological adviser to Pope Francis. Indeed, it has been shown that key passages of Amoris Laetitia were taken from Archbishop Fernandez’s earlier work, nearly word for word.

Furthermore, Archbishop Fernandez, proposed for rector of the Catholic university by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and named an archbishop by Pope Francis within months of his election, has written critically of Veritatis Splendor.

As the anniversary brings Veritatis Splendor to greater attention, the question will be brought into sharper focus: Is Amoris Laetitia — or at least the interpretations advanced by those such as Archbishop Fernandez — compatible with the teaching of Veritatis Splendor? The dubia submitted by the four cardinals sought to clarify exactly that point — and have not been answered. Professor Seifert suggested that there was an incompatibility and was fired.

The drafters of Amoris Laetitia knew that the teaching of Veritatis Splendor posed a serious challenge. That is why, astonishingly for one of the longest papal documents in history, including some 400 footnotes, there is not a single reference to Veritatis Splendor. It is the equivalent of writing an apostolic exhortation on Catholic social doctrine and never referring to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, or on biblical studies and never referring to Divino Afflante Spiritu by Venerable Pius XII.

Amoris Laetitia hoped to avoid the teaching of Veritatis Splendor altogether. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s essay, combined with the 25th anniversary next year, will make that avoidance more difficult to sustain.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the

editor in chief of Convivium magazine.