The encyclical begins with Christ and the question of morality. The Pope begins this chapter by referring to the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man as stated in the nineteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. The rich young man begins by asking Jesus, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” This is the fundamental question regarding the full meaning of life. Such a question can only be properly answered in light of a correct understanding of Christian anthropology.
Christian anthropology begins with the basic question, “Who am I?” The answer to this question is both simple and profound. I am a being made in the image and likeness of God. This answer is profound since by virtue of being made in God’s image and likeness one has the potential to enjoy everlasting life with God. The rich young man seems to be asking what he must do to live his life in accord with who he is.
Jesus informed him that if he wishes to enter into eternal life he must keep the commandments. The young man asks, “Which ones?” Jesus states, “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother; also you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The negative precepts express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life; the communion of persons in marriage, private property, truthfulness, and people’s good name (sec. 13). When the Pope reviewed the traditional teaching that the negative commandments may never be broken for any reason, he adds that this does not mean that they are more important than the positive commandments. The positive commandments to love God and neighbor have no upper limit. We can show all the love and devotion to God that we are capable of, and we can do good to our neighbor without limit. The negative commandments, on the other hand, indicate the lower limit. If we fall below that line, we break our relationship with God and jeopardize our eternal salvation.1 A proper understanding of the cruciform (love of God and neighbor) relationship will help one to grasp the significance of correct moral behavior.
The question them arises, “How is man to know how to act as a body-and-soul being?” Twice in this encyclical, Pope John Paul II quotes St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of natural law which states, “Nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at Creation.” The fact that this is quoted twice (Sec. 12 and 40) shows it is important and integral to Catholic doctrine.
Chapter Two discusses the tendencies in present-day moral theology. The Pope refers to the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewal of moral theology increasingly based upon the teachings of Sacred Scripture. This would appear to be a turning away from the manualist tradition of moral theology which has been present in the Church since the Council of Trent (1545-1563). A major issue discussed in this chapter is the question of Freedom and Law. The Pope described genuine freedom as, “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man ‘in the power of his own counsel’ (cf. Sir 15:14), so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God” (sec. 34). Pope John Paul II emphasized the fact that everyone has a moral obligation to seek the truth and adhere to it once it is known.
The Pope began his discussion on the issue of Freedom and Law by referring to God’s directive to Adam that he eat of every tree in the Garden except the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is important because it teaches that the decision of what is good belongs to God and not to man. God’s law does not reduce freedom, but enhances it. There are certain moral theologians in the Church today who profess an alleged conflict between law and freedom. They see God’s law as inhibiting human freedom rather than promoting it. This profession and teaching would lay claim to the idea that it is man, not God, who determines what is good. This belief makes man equal to God which is what caused mankind’s fall from grace initially. Man is able to share in the dominion of God by virtue of his free will, but that does not make man equal to God.
With regard to the natural law mankind has reason and freedom. The Creator honors both when He puts man at the head of material creation and entrusts it with his care: “Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). At the same time, the Pope emphasizes, God entrusted man himself to his own care and responsibility to that he might seek his Creator and freely attain perfection. Man must use his reason, therefore, to attain his perfection. By reflecting upon his own nature (body and soul together) man can come to know the elementary principles of good conduct. “God must be done and evil avoided” is one such principle. When he observes that every human being has a desire to live, man can arrive at the conclusion that every person has a right to life, and therefore all persons have a duty to respect that right. By reflecting upon the need to work in order to produce the necessities of life, man can conclude that there exists a right to private property and that stealing is wrong.2
The Church has always taught that original sin and actual sin have weakened man’s reason so that he will not arrive unaided at the secondary precepts of the natural law. Mankind needs the assistance of Divine Revelation.
The sections of Veritatis Splendor which had the most profound impact upon me were numbers 54 through 64. These sections dealt with the subject of conscience in the role of moral decision making. Moral theologians throughout the centuries have stated that conscience is the proximate norm of morality and that we are obliged to follow our conscience when faced with a situation which calls for a moral decision. In other words, “let your conscience be your guide!”
What is conscience? Pope John Paul II stated, “(Conscience) is a moral judgment about man and his actions, a judgment either of acquittal or condemnation, according as humans are in conformity with the law of God written in the heart” (sec. 59). He goes on to describe this moral judgment: “The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. It is a judgment which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil (sec. 59).
One may fall into the trap of believing that the Pope is saying that all one has to do is act according to his or her reason and its judgments. This conclusion does not follow from the Pope’s statement. If mankind’s judgment were free of error, then it would be possible to simply follow one’s reason and judgment; however, we know from personal experience and our contact with others that human reason and judgment are not infallible. Our fallen nature and fallible reason needs help and guidance in the formation of true and right moral judgments.
With regard to the issue of where one goes to find the necessary guidance to form a correct conscience, the Pope stated, “In forming their consciences, the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of the truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself” (sec. 64).
When dealing with the issues of those who are outside the Church’s communion or improperly instructed Catholics the Pope referred to the traditional distinction between “culpable” (blameworthy) ignorance and “inculpable” (blameless) or invincible ignorance. Invincible ignorance is an ignorance of which one is not aware and which he or she is unable to overcome by themselves. The Pope stated that such a person must follow his or her conscience even if that person is in error. We must keep in mind; however, the distinction between the objective morality of the act and the subjective guilt or innocence of the one who performs the act.
Culpable ignorance deals with a person who could or should know what the proper course of action is, but neglects to be informed. In his pamphlet, The Pope and Morality, Leander Dosch uses the example of a Catholic student in a school which offers a course on Catholic doctrine. If such a student habitually skips those classes without a serious reason, he or she is blameworthy for his or her ignorance of the Church’s teachings. That person is not excused from sin when they transgress the commandments of God or the Church’s teaching on morality.3
1. Dosch, Leander The Pope and Morality (Huntsville, UT: Holy Trinity Abbey Press), p. 15
2. Dosch, p. 19
3. Dosch, p. 6