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Horizons: Virtual Issue 2

Veritatis Splendor—Twenty-Fifth Anniversary


Christopher Denny

The Cambridge University Press journal Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society has its roots in the progressive re-visioning of Roman Catholic theology after Vatican II, frequently understood as aggiornamento, and is committed to scholarship that is grounded in the Catholic incarnational/sacramental tradition. Horizons also fosters diverse scholarship across the fields of religious studies and theology, and is dedicated to a broad ecumenical perspective, a wide range of theological methods, and an intensive engagement of faith with culture.

“The encyclical as a whole,” one reviewer wrote, “is a presentation of basic Christian truths, and it is satisfying to find in it the gospel message addressed to an age which has largely abandoned gospel ideals.”[1] Another reviewer, however, declared: “The strong social authoritarianism of the papal document undermines the conditions for corrections of belief. . . . The document defines its epistemological authority in a way that is incompatible with one necessary condition of any proper instance of it, that is, reasoned dialogue.”[2]  John Finnis rendered his verdict in positive terms: “The encyclical’s reaffirmation that there are intrinsically evil acts, exceptionless specific moral norms and inviolable human rights is philosophically defensible and manifestly necessary to preserve the moral substance of Christian faith.”[3]  In a symposium on the encyclical in Commonweal, however, Dennis Doyle advised, “The pope could get a lot further in reestablishing basic respect for the ordinary magisterium if he would be a bit more hesitant, if he would share his concerns for certainty with a little less certainty.”[4]

Veritatis Splendor, the 1993 encyclical letter from John Paul II, set the existing conflict between the papal magisterium and many Catholic moral theologians into sharp relief, as the document sought to respond to “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions” (§4).[5]  The encyclical formulated the issue in these terms:

Is it possible to obey God and thus love God and neighbour, without respecting these commandments in all circumstances? Also, an opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the Church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone, while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behaviour could be tolerated, these being left to the judgment of the individual subjective conscience or to the diversity of social and cultural contexts. (§4)

Obedience to the biblical commandments, to authoritative Tradition, and to magisterial teachings was set in opposition to moral frameworks that “have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values” (§32).[6]  For John Paul II, freedom and law should complement each other in the sphere of moral theology, and freedom reaches its culmination in fidelity to objective moral standards, and the encyclical’s denunciation of “proportionalism” reverberated in theological circles both appreciative and critical for years afterward. The recent debate surrounding Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia again brought competing understandings of morality into sharp relief. Should the traditional ban on eucharistic participation by Catholics who are divorced and remarried be upheld as an inviolable norm for all times and places, or can pastoral circumstances allow for the reception of communion by people in these life situations?

            This second virtual issue of Horizons looks back at past contributions in the areas of moral theology that overlap with the issues and the subsequent debate surrounding Veritatis Splendor. Gerard Magill’s 1993 essay, “Interpreting Moral Doctrine: Newman on Conscience and Law,” brought the thought of John Henry Newman on conscience and authority to bear on the issue of moral abstractions and historical contingencies. For Newman the moral law may function as an abstract universal, but its application in particular cases requires keen historical sense, and knowledge of one’s own social context. David Haddorff was critical of pragmatically oriented ethicists who place praxis at the foundation of moral theology. In “Can Character Ethics Have Moral Rules and Principles? Christian Doctrine and Comprehensive Moral Theory,” Haddorff instead sought to ground Christian ethics in doctrine, which encompasses principles, praxis, and virtues. In that same 1996 issue, Terrence Reynolds denied that historically conscious approaches to theological ethics lead to relativism, a fear present in the writings of more than one critic of Francis’s Amoris Laetitia. Approaches to theological ethics have become more differentiated in postmodern philosophy, but that is no need to resort to relativism or situation ethics. Reynolds demonstrated how students in his ethics class became more articulate in defending moral claims after they studied different epistemological frameworks that provided alternatives to objectivism and relativism.

Several years later Mary Elsbernd focused specifically on John Paul II’s encyclical in her Horizons essay, “The Reinterpretation of Gaudium et Spes in Veritatis Splendor.” Elsbernd offers a forthright critique that charges Veritatis Splendor with recasting Vatican II’s pastoral constitution into a mold in which human subjectivity is subservient to legal precepts, and in which a constructive task for the theologian is subsumed beneath a call to promulgate magisterial teachings. In 2014 Horizons published a theological roundtable on “intrinsic evil” featuring James Bretzke, Dana Dillon, and Michael Jaycox. Bretzke places the question of intrinsic evil within the context of the moral responsibility of citizens, who have to weigh the importance of different issues within an electoral system that insists on black-and-white decisions in the privacy of the voting booth. He is wary of the way in which Veritatis Splendor has invited Catholics to think about political issues and accompanying electoral consequences in simplistic ways. By contrast, Dillon holds that moral theology must accept defining certain actions as intrinsically evil in order to foster virtue among the members of a community. Her argument tries to move the theological explication of moral absolutes away from a privatized individualist focus and toward the shared norms necessary for a community to function in a just and holy manner. Michael Jaycox argues that political and social factors inevitably affect moral considerations; this is not a call for relativism but rather a plea to recognize that the boundary between conscience and community is distinct but also permeable, and that historical conditioning is always a constitutive factor in ethical decision-making.

In the quarter-century since the promulgation of Veritatis Splendor a new millennium has arrived. The Internet and social media have revolutionized (and many would argue, debased) the way in which human beings communicate with each other. Finally, a rising generation of so-called “nones” has departed from regular participation in organized religion, judging that churches and other houses of worship have no privileged claim to moral insight. Amidst this changed landscape, the teaching of this encyclical is as germane and as contested as ever.

Thanks are again due to graduate assistant Kaitlin Stasinski at St. John’s University for helping to gather these past articles from previous issues of Horizons.

[1] Alexandre M. Stavropoulos, “Veritatis Splendor: An Orthodox Reaction,” The Ecumenical Review 48/2 (April 1996): 156–57.

[2] John O’Neill. “Intrinsic Evil, Truth and Authority,” Religious Studies 31/2 (June 1995): 219.

[3] John Finnis, “Beyond the Encyclical,” in Considering Veritatis Splendor, ed. John Wilkins (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 74.

[4] Dennis M. Doyle, Commonweal 120/18, (Oct 22, 1993): 11.

[5] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor,

[6] Emphasis in original.