Moral Absolutes in the Civilization of Love

As an authentic expression of magisterial teaching, the encyclical Veritatis splendor enunciates Christian truth for God’s people who live within the economy of faith. Still, as many commentators have observed, the present encyclical also represents a new initiative in the history of magisterial teaching.

The Magisterium of course has addressed “the sphere of morals” and has even taught “specific particular precepts” throughout the course of the Church’s history. But because Veritatis splendor undertakes to expound “fundamental questions of the Church’s moral teaching,” it provides authoritative norms for establishing the morality of all kinds of human actions. In other words, the encyclical takes up the challenge of helping each believer to answer what the Holy Father calls, “the primordial question”: What is good and evil? What must be done to have eternal life?

An episode in the life of St. Thomas’s commentator Cajetan illustrates both the nature and the difficulty of the challenge that Pope John Paul II engaged in writing this encyclical. In the sixteenth century, Cajetan advanced the view that the personal condition of an agent should figure in the moral evaluation of his or her actions. But because Cajetan’s effort to discuss morality from “the perspective of the acting person” was premature, it earned him a reputation, even among some of his fellow Dominicans, for promoting moral laxism — a high misdemeanor during this period of nascent casuistry. Why this reaction? Cajetan’s opponents reasoned thus: to hold that an adequate moral evaluation of an action must take account of its “object” as “rationally chosen by the deliberate will” — to borrow an important phrase from the encyclical — means considering the psychological condition of the person who makes a moral choice. This in turn leads to making subjective excuses for violations of the moral law. Cajetan, of course, was neither a laxist nor a revisionist ante nomen. He was simply applying what Aquinas had developed theologically from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aquinas speaks about the nature of moral science — namely, it concerns practical knowledge. Unlike theoretical knowledge which informs the mind with specific truths, practical knowledge is ordered ultimately to what a person either makes or does. For this reason, practical knowledge depends on the character of the one who possesses it in a way that speculative knowledge does not. To give a concrete example, a person can engage in bad actions and still function as a good mathematician. However, no one should expect to receive good advice about sobriety from a person who habitually drinks too much.

In continuity with the teaching of the Apostles, Veritatis splendor talks about practical knowledge; specifically, it concerns “the right conduct of Christians.” As an exercise in practical knowledge, Christian moral theology includes accounts of the “good,” the commandments, the virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Beatitudes, as well as of moral judgments: e.g., “It is good to help others in distress,” at whatever level of generality such judgments are expressed. But unlike geometry, which can draw a true conclusion from its own theoretical principles, moral science ensures completely practical knowledge, the knowledge incarnate in action, only up to a certain point. Why? Completely practical knowledge requires moral agency, and choice always implies the exercise of human freedom. On the basis of this analysis, we might speculate that Cajetan’s opponents regarded moral teaching to be more like geometry than in fact is the case: the important thing is to get the [moral] theorem right. Cajetan, on the other hand, understood that it is one thing to affirm the orthodox doctrine on the Trinity, and another to affirm the moral truth that “it is good to help others in distress.” When the Christian believes the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, he or she can be said to possess the truth in faith, whereas when the believer learns that “it is good to help others in distress,” he or she still needs to move to the moment of completely practical knowledge, to render the knowledge incarnate in action. In other words, the believer must choose the good and, influenced by the virtue of prudence, command the good action.

To recognize the way that moral truth informs prudence is not to deny the value of moral science, together with its postulates and arguments, for the Christian life. Moral norms are important, and the pastors of the Church must proclaim them as constitutive elements of the Church’s call to conversion. A lesson from history illustrates the importance of sound teaching. In her study of women, the family, and Nazi politics entitled Mothers in the Fatherland, Claudia Koonz discovered that during the period of the National Socialist Party in Germany women reacted no differently than men when it came to opposing unjust laws. The only exception were Roman Catholic nurses, who, because they had been taught that sterilization was wrong, objected to its inclusion in the health care directives of the Third Reich.

Normative instruction, then, is important. Even so, Veritatis splendor invites us to look at the moral life from the point of view of the acting person. I would like to argue here that a specific strength of the encyclical lies in its presentation of the moral life as situated within the larger context of the theological life. While the Holy Father touches on many aspects of the Christian moral life, I develop three of these: the connaturality of virtue, especially prudence; freedom in Christ; and the happy life — what the classical authors call beatitude.

Today Cajetan is not much remembered as a moralist. While his commentaries on the Summa Theologiae inspired a great deal of philosophy and dogmatic theology during the period of the twentieth-century Leonine revival, Cajetan’s teaching on morals, even his important commentaries on prudence, remained relatively unknown. Instead, the sixteenth century witnessed the development of legalistic casuistry, which eclipsed the classical moral teaching on the virtues. By developing treatises on the virtues, the ancient Christian authors concretized the graced connaturality between man and the true good. The casuist systems controlled the moral context of the Church for roughly four centuries, from the mid-sixteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century. In my view, many of the difficulties that moral theology has suffered over the past 30 years, and which Veritatis splendor addresses, derive in large measure from the fact that one of the least publicized events that took place at the Second Vatican Council was the bringing of a four-hundred-year-old casuist tradition to closure. Veritatis splendor introduces a new era in the history of moral theology. Certain of my fellow Catholic moral theologians interpret the significance of the encyclical differently. Some claim that the text should be read as mere exhortation, a “papal cri de coeur,” whereas others predict that its influence will be short-lived. I am not persuaded by these dismissive arguments. Why? Because, as Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis of the encyclical points out, Veritatis splendor presents us “with what is in effect a theology of moral philosophy embedded in a theology of the moral life.” Except for a truncated account of the four last things, death, judgment, heaven, and hell, the casuist theologians offered the Church no theology of the moral life.

Again, Veritatis splendor signals a new beginning for moral theology. In an unambiguously clear way, the encyclical sets forth the need for “exceptionless moral norms,” but without recapitulating the rigid legalism and confusion of the old casuistry. In other words, we should not expect that post-Veritatis splendor moral theology will produce a new collection of moral manuals, complete with detailed lists of moral precepts and instructions for resolving “cases of conscience” in a way that mimics legal jurisprudence. Rather, the moral theology of the new evangelization aims to develop first a communion of persons (communio personarum) in which individuals are shaped by the truth of the divine and evangelical law.

Among other benefits of the new personalism, pastors of the Church can speak confidently even about the “universality and immutability” of the natural law because they know, with St. Augustine, that these norms reflect divine truth. The Holy Father makes an especially bold claim: “this universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person. On the contrary, it embraces at its root each of the person’s free acts, which are meant to bear witness to the universality of the true good.” This means that Veritatis splendor requires us to think now in terms of a virtue-centered approach to moral theology, one that relies on the cardinal virtue of prudence, as much as on the canons of moral jurisprudence. The better that moral theologians work out the principles set down in the encyclical, the more easily the Church will be able to show that “man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command.” Consequently, the prudent man or woman is able to embrace the complete truth-value of Catholic moral teaching, and at the same time exercise a full measure of personal freedom. In the technical language of the encyclical, this state is described as one of “theonomy” or of “participated theonomy.” In short, Pope John Paul calls us to a vertical transcendence, which is at the source of every love, and which alone can perfect the spiritual nature of the human person. Aquinas captures the same truth when he says, “God alone satisfies.”

It is not surprising, then, that the Holy Father makes a central point of Thomist moral theology his own: “It is the `heart’ converted to the Lord and to the love of what is good which is really the source of true judgments of conscience. Indeed, in order to ‘prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom 12:2), knowledge of God’s law in general is certainly necessary, but it is not sufficient: what is essential is a sort of connaturalitybetween man and the true good.” As Martin Rhonheimer points out, only this kind of virtuous connaturality enables a person to develop “the genuine perspective of morals,” which, Rhonheimer argues, is one of the truly innovative parts of the encyclical’s teaching about moral objects. The moral condition of the person affects the judgment of prudence. Upright living supports prudence, whereas vicious habits impair, and can even destroy, a person’s capacity to realize completely practical knowledge in accord with moral truth. The Holy Father reserves the term freedom to characterize the person who not only knows what the moral law teaches, but who also is able to render moral truth incarnate in his or her actions.


So we come to another feature of the theology of the moral life found in Veritatis splendor, the notion of freedom. Pope John Paul II has accomplished what Cardinal Cajetan had been unable to achieve. The pope has elaborated a moral theology that places the individual person and personal freedom at the center of moral analysis. He expresses his understanding of the relation between freedom, truth, and the human person, but he does so without endorsing the moral subjectivism that Cajetan’s “conservative” adversaries feared in the sixteenth century. Of course, neither does he countenance the moral waffling which many neo-casuists in the twentieth century consider inescapable. The success of Pope John Paul II in setting forth a teaching that both upholds moral truth and takes full account of human freedom is due, at least in part, to his acquaintance with modern philosophy, especially modern theories of ethics and anthropology.

In The Acting Person, John Paul II took the characteristically modern notions of self-possession, self-determination, and self-governance and placed them within the biblical context of conditional stewardship and respect for the divine sovereignty. As Kenneth Schmitz has explained in his illuminating work, At the Center of the Human Drama, Karol Wojtyla was uniquely prepared to talk from the Chair of Peter about the absolute character of moral truth, while at the same time affirming that human freedom forms part of “the ontological structure of man.” “It seems to me,” writes Schmitz, “that to John Paul II’s mind the modern practical tendency to obscure or forget the conditional nature of our stewardship is the direct outcome of the modern theoretical tendency to treat human consciousness as an absolute.” The ethics of health care, for example, requires a renewed commitment to conditional stewardship, including the stewardship of one’s own physical life. Moral absolutes represent one way of concretizing the requirements of this conditional stewardship, so that the enthusiasm generated by technological developments, which has shaped the modern mind since the seventeenth century, will not frustrate the development of the civilization of love.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the pope’s acquaintance with modern philosophical categories alone enables him to supply a moral teaching that takes account of human freedom and at the same time re-affirms the universal validity of the negative precepts of the natural law, which “oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance.” For the Church could not adequately account for the place that human freedom holds in the Christian life, unless she had also determined the nature of Christ’s human freedom. Recall that the encyclical gives us a “theology of the moral life.” This theology of the moral life owes much to the sixth ecumenical council, III Constantinople (681), which rejected the monothelite heresy. It is illustrative to reflect on the fact that the “monophysitic mentality” about Christ perdured for more than two centuries after the Council of Chalcedon (451). In this view of the Incarnation lurks the conviction that human freedom disappears in the presence of divine grace. In other words, no human action or genuine human autonomy remains once a divine action has begun to work in a person. As pious as this explanation may appear, it in fact destroys the Christian view of man and empties the expression “participated theonomy” of any meaning.

Rather, the biblical doctrine of creation obliges us to accept that human actions have a value in their own right: God created man a unity of body and soul — corpore et anima unus. What is more to the point, the first person to demonstrate that human actions can possess divine value is Christ himself. So the pope can affirm that “human freedom and God’s law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other.” In the person of Jesus Christ, the Church beholds the “concrete norm” — to borrow a phrase from von Balthasar — of human freedom and divine law appealing one to the other. This “concrete norm,” moreover, is not a luxury for the human race, as if believers enjoy a slightly better position than non-believers do when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong. For as the “concrete norm” of the moral life, Christ himself alone makes it possible for the human person to achieve his or her highest calling through the exercise of both the theological virtues and the infused moral virtues.

“Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” This cardinal principle of post-conciliar theology is put to new use in the encyclical: The pope reminds us that only the Lord bestows on us the full enabling condition of freedom. The scholastic discussions about the relative sufficiency of the acquired virtues addressed this same issue in pre-modern categories. Allow me to return to Cajetan for a moment. As a Christian humanist, Cajetan was willing to grant that, since the acquired virtues are true virtues, they could establish a relative perfection, what he termed the “essence of virtue.” But he also held that the acquired virtues by themselves could not produce what he called the state of virtue, the full “status virtutis.” For only charity orders the virtues to the ultimate end in an unqualified fashion. If we follow Cajetan’s view on the relative sufficiency of the human virtues, then we must conclude that before the salvific life and death of the God-man, human autonomy could not even achieve the ultimate good of the very nature that it served. For only the charity of Christ makes the virtues of human life exist in full existential possession of their efficacy. This is the first principle of the theology of the moral life that provides the matrix for the encyclical’s specific moral teaching. Just as Christ, because he remains the Eternal Word of Truth, exercises his authentic human freedom in a way that always embodies the greatest charity or love, so the one who remains united to Christ enjoys the assurance that his or her actions embody the full measure of moral truth.

In chapter three of Veritatis splendor, entitled “Lest the Cross of Christ Be Emptied of its Power,” the pope urges the Church, and especially her priests, to undertake “an intense pastoral effort,” so that the “essential bond between Truth, the Good and Freedom” will be better known in the world. If the Church is to avoid endorsing the measures of expediency that are so seductive to the modern spirit, each member of the Church must be completely persuaded of this fundamental Christian truth, namely, “when all is said and done, the law of God is always the one true good of man.” To avoid raising expediency to the level of a moral principle, however, we cannot remain only at the side of Christ the divine teacher. We must also be ready to stand by the cross of the crucified Christ; in other terms, we must become disciples of the cross. It is incumbent on the pastors of the Church to show that this vocation does not go against the good of reason. They need to affirm unequivocally that the wisdom of the cross creates neither foolishness nor stumbling blocks. Rather, to circumvent the wisdom of the cross means inviting death-dealing disobedience. St. Irenaeus writes: “The Lord, coming into his own creation in visible form, was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden.” Aquinas teaches the same truth when he explains the true purpose of the Incarnation. While the end or objective of the Incarnation entails the perfection of our godly image, the motive for the Incarnation remains the fact that a disobedient people required a Savior to reverse their lot. An essential feature of the ministry of the moral theologian is to help people acknowledge their sins, so that Christian believers can move beyond the stage of image-restoration, which entails sorrow and conversion, to that of image-perfection, which is the state of genuine freedom. In fact, the pope states that “The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom.”

Veritatis splendor is really a soteriological document, for it urges us to confront the false voices of freedom that cry out in “many different `areopagi.’ ” Given the secularization of the West, these voices are numerous, heard especially in the areopagus of social welfare agencies as well as that of health-care professionals. For this reason, special discernment is required in these fields in order to distinguish the “authentic meaning of freedom,” a freedom which always leads to excellence, from that freedom which is false because it is not “in harmony with the true good of the person.” The true good of the person can never be compromised for reasons of expediency. For even one bad choice, so the Holy Father affirms, puts “us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.”


If freedom is the distinctive feature of ethical action, practical action only reaches completion in the good. When discussing the nature of human action, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Section One, generally follows the outline of Aquinas’s prima secundae. The Catechism treats first our vocation to beatitude, next human freedom, and then the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit which account for our personal transformation as well as our free participation in beatitude. (It is significant that Aquinas retained the patristic view that the virtues and the gifts remain with the saints in heaven, even though they no longer face moral choices.) In order to stress the order of development in the human person, I have in this discussion reversed the order of presentation, namely, virtue, freedom, beatitude. This also allows me, while discussing Christian happiness, to refer more explicitly to the important question of health care issues. Today, health-care ethics poses one of the strongest challenges to the observance of moral absolutes. For even at its highest level, the human good must include provision for sustaining the physiological and biological level of human nature. As Pope John Paul has had occasion to teach repeatedly, the failure to respect human life from the moment of conception to natural death devastates the civilization of love.

Let me introduce the general issue of health care in light of the three points that I am making in this paper. Veritatis splendor affirms the significance of the “objective moral order” for bringing about true Christian personalism. Many of our contemporaries are persuaded that individual conditions, especially those which surround difficult health-care situations, make it nearly impossible to apply general moral principles or “to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception.” I have argued, however, that the variables associated with caring for the sick and dying should urge Christian believers to rely on the virtue of prudence. This means that having been shown “the inviting splendor of that truth which is Jesus Christ himself,” their minds will be conformed to the full moral truth about human life.

While it is true that only the prudent person acts virtuously in a particular circumstance, the Church — as Donum vitae reminds us — must proclaim to the world that human life is sacred and that God alone is the master of life. So both the 1980 “Declaration on Euthanasia” and the 1974 “Declaration on Procured Abortion” assert, as the latter puts it, that “the first right of the human person is the right to life.” Veritatis splendor develops this assertion when it teaches that abstaining from the intentional killing of innocent human life remains, no matter what the circumstances or further intentions, semper et pro semper an indispensable condition for attaining Christian happiness. No prudent person can choose to act against this norm: it grounds the drive to happiness (the recent encyclical Evangelium vitae develops this evident truth with remarkable force and cogency).

The encyclical cites St. Augustine’s Commentary on John: “The beginning of freedom is to be free from crimes . . . such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege and so forth. When once one is without these crimes (and every Christian should be without them), one begins to lift up one’s head towards freedom.” Thus, Catholic moral teaching on the care of the sick and dying aims to ennoble Christian believers, to make them perfectly free, to bring them toward a perfection that is due each human person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls that Jesus repeats the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” during his Sermon on the Mount. This biblical text invites us to consider the context of moral absolutes. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services should not be treated as burdensome obligations that Catholics have to endure, but rather they should be accepted as reliable guides to beatitude. A text from St. Augustine, which is not found in the encyclical, helps us understand the importance of making the proper decision in matters of health care: “For in the way you decide to follow Christ, this you have intended, this you have chosen, this is your judgment.” Even in seemingly difficult cases, such as assisted suicide, direct sterilization, human embryo research, and the treatment of rape victims, the reason for determining a wise and truthful course of action is to ensure that the Christian believer as well as those who care for him or her attain the positive goal of Christian happiness. As the Christian believer acts under the influence of infused prudence and with the aid of the gift of the Holy Spirit, he or she already possesses the Good. “Genuine freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man. For God willed to leave man ‘in the power of his own counsel,’ so that he would seek his Creator of his own accord and would freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God.”

Do we need Catholic health-care services? Of course, we do. For the sick and dying should enjoy the same opportunity to continue in the path of blessedness that Catholic moral teaching marks out for them, as do those members of the Church who enjoy good health and the prospect of many years. As a Catholic has lived a virtuous life, so he or she has a right to proper health care and, when the Lord comes, to die virtuously, to die choosing Christ. We still refer to this as the grace of a happy death. To die well belongs to the happy life.

In conclusion: Veritatis splendor makes three important contributions to the formation of Catholic health-care policy and to the general field of Christian ethics. First, it affirms that since natural law properly understood “does not allow for any division between freedom and nature,” we must develop, by nature and in grace, the connaturality of virtue. Second, it explains that since true freedom flows from “communion of life with Christ,” it poses no hardship for the believer to accept that “there are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.” Third, in this life, the pursuit of beatitude entails suffering. “Christ’s witness is the source, model and means for the witness of his disciples, who are called to walk on the same road: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ ” In my view, these three principles animate the teaching of the encyclical on respect for and proper care of human life.

But we must remember that the New Testament puts us under the sign of the diminutive. The Kingdom grows like the mustard seed; only ideologies look for sudden success. Yet ideologies are destined to fail, whether they appear incarnated in the omnicompetent state or are promulgated in the form of prevailing cultural wisdom. To preach the efficacy of universal and unchanging norms is an invitation to follow the littleness of the beatitudes, it is not a plan for world conquest. And always, the first soul to be converted to this new way of life is our own. The new evangelization begins, then, with each one of us, as we renew our own love of the truth. And this is a grace, one that comes from Christ, reminding us that the Church lives with the sure hope that “all that Christ is we shall become.”

Rev. Romanus Cessario, O.P.


Rev. Romanus Cessario, O.P., is a Dominican and professor of systematic theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts.

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