Veritatis Splendor: The Encyclical that Mattered

There are papal encyclicals, and then there are papal encyclicals. Some escape public attention almost from the moment they’re promulgated. Others continue reverberating inside the Church decades after they appear. But there’s also a third type of encyclical: those which assume truly civilizational significance.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of one document that falls squarely into the last category. Blessed John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor—The Splendor of Truth—may well turn out to be one of the most important papal texts in modern history.

Obviously that’s a rather strong claim, even by today’s hyperbolic standards. Yet it’s not a difficult argument to make.

For one thing, Veritatis Splendor was the first encyclical to spell out the Catholic Church’s fundamental moral teaching. Catholicism had of course always articulated the moral dimension of Christ’s message. Never before, however, had a pope provided a formal systematic outline of Catholic moral doctrine. That alone makes the encyclical a perennial reference-point for Catholic reflection.

Second, Veritatis Splendor provided what’s now widely recognized as a powerful response to the crisis into which Catholic moral theology fell after Vatican II. In many respects this crisis was precipitated by the debates surrounding Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. But more deeply, Veritatis Splendor was a rejoinder to many Catholic theologians’ attempt to do three things.

One was their effort to maintain the vocabulary of Catholic ethics while transforming its content into something indistinguishable from utilitarianism. Whether it went by the name “consequentalism” or “proportionalism,” the ideas associated with the late Josef Fuchs SJ and his followers relied heavily on the claim that an act’s morality was determined by a “weighing” of all the potential goods and evils that might flow from an act.

Veritatis Splendor’s reply was to underline something that even many secular philosophers acknowledged a long time ago: that such a weighing presupposes we can know the unknowable and measure the immeasurable. In other words it assumes the impossible.

Such questionable presumptions, however, flowed from another of the dissenters’ commitments. This was to dilute, without explicitly saying so, the Church’s position that there are acts which, by reason of their object, are intrinsically evil, no matter how noble the intention or extenuating the circumstances.

Dissenting theologians always denied (rather loudly—which itself was revealing) this was their goal. Yet anyone who read their writings could see how they sought to recast the Church’s absolute prohibition of certain choices as provisional generalizations. Being provisional, they were potentially open to exception. In other words, their absolutes turned out to be not-so-absolute. This led some to suggest that the dissenters’ entire project had less to do with “liberating consciences” than with an antecedent-wish to affirm acts irreconcilable with Catholic teaching.

The dissenters’ last objective was to undercut the Catholic position that some acts are of such gravity that they render one’s faith “dead.” In their view, one’s “fundamental option” for Christ was what really counted with regard to our salvation. A good God would never reject someone who had opted for Christ, no matter what he might have subsequently done.

Veritatis Splendor’s response was twofold. While acknowledging that there is a sense in which everyone makes a fundamental choice for or against Christ, the encyclical reiterated that certain acts (i.e., mortal sins) represent a fundamental choice against Christ—and potentially forever, unless one repented.

St. Paul and St. James could not have been more explicit about this. Indeed Catholicism has always insisted that “the way,” as the first Christians called the Catholic faith, isn’t just about one choice. It’s about every free choice that either promotes or seriously damages human flourishing. That’s why Catholicism takes reason and free will so very seriously.

And this in turn underscores Veritatis Splendor’s significance for civilization more generally. Against the spirit of the age, the encyclical not only reaffirmed that man can know moral truth; it also insisted we can live it.

Such claims are as old as Socrates and the Hebrew Prophets but acquired unique force and depth with the advent of orthodox Christianity. It’s impossible to underestimate, however, just how much they jar modern sensibilities.

In many people’s minds today, our moral choices are or should be directed by our feelings and experiences. Because that’s all you have left once you deny Revelation and reason can teach us anything definitive about morality beyond vague generalizations such as “be tolerant” or “maximize utility.”

This helps explain why your average teenager/baby-boomer invariably begins speaking about controversial questions with the words “I just feel that . . . .” The same mentality manifests itself when contemporary politicians invoke the experiences of their family/children/friends/neighbors when explaining why they’re morally for, against, or “evolving” on something.

But while experiences provide us with certain insights, they’re not a rational basis for making choices. How, for example, do we morally differentiate between dissimilar experiences of something like natural family planning? Some experience NFP as burdensome. Others experience it as liberating. So who’s right? Reference to experience itself has no way of answering this.

The intellectual cul-de-sac in which this leaves us goes a long way towards explaining the sheer muddle of contemporary Western moral reflection. The chaos is made worse, however, by another influential modern claim disputed by Veritatis Splendor. This is the widespread assertion that there’s nothing stable about human nature: that everything is somehow malleable.

Among the more absurd expressions of such claims is the all-pervasive ideology of gender that tells us we are whatever “gender” we “feel” ourselves to be, regardless of biology and DNA. The implication is that as human nature “changes,” so too must morality.

Thanks to the modern sciences, we know more today about, for example, how our brain functions. But scientific facts (assuming they are facts rather than just politically-correct fictions) don’t in themselves provide us with morally-decisive reasons to do anything. To make such a claim is an instance of what’s called the naturalistic fallacy of deriving an “ought” from an “is.” It’s like someone saying that because he has a disposition towards alcoholism, he should be an alcoholic.

Humans are certainly dynamic beings insofar as our free choices change our inner character as much as they shape the outside world. But this is consistent with Veritatis Splendor’s insistence that there are many things about human beings and human flourishing which don’t change. There’s no evidence, for instance, that contemporary people’s reason-qua-reason or will-qua-will is any different from those who lived 5000 years ago. Likewise, can anyone plausibly argue that virtues like prudence or temperance are no less virtues in 2013 than they were in 1013?

Herein lies Veritatis Splendor’s importance for anyone who wants to preserve and promote civilization. Not only does it insist that particular acts are eternally unworthy of man. It also affirms that human reason can identify what the encyclical calls certain “fundamental goods” that transcend the particularities of the here-and-now.

In that sense the encyclical reminds us that avoiding evil isn’t enough. As Veritatis Splendor’s unfolding of Christ’s encounter with the rich young man illustrates, the prohibitions contained in God’s moral law are supposed to be a spring-board toward human flourishing. For no matter how humble we may be by worldly standards, everyone is equal in the face of the demands of morality. That also means, however, we’re equally capable of greatness. In a world which encourages moral mediocrity, Veritatis Splendor insists that all of us are, with the help of grace, a potential Gianna Beretta Molla, Thomas More, Maria Goretti, or Karol Wojtyla.

And this surely is a truth that sets us free.

Samuel Gregg


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

  • Ford Oxaal

    This is a very clear and informative article. And well-timed — events of late such as North Korea’s threats, the Boston atrocity, or the more heinous (and less covered) trial of the alleged baby butcher Kermit Gosnell, cause even the most jaded to stare, momentarily, into the headlights of evil. The intrinsically evil act, for a moment, renders the mystery of iniquity less mysterious. But unless hearts are stirred to action grounded in prayer and fasting, a numbness comes back a little bit stronger each time. For my part, I will take the author’s implicit advice and move Veritatis Splendor to the top of the reading list. I hope it is as clearly written as the article :).

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  • well, yes.

    …an act’s morality was determined by a “weighing” of all the potential goods and evils that might flow from an act…. [but] such a weighing presupposes we can know the unknowable and measure the immeasurable. In other words it assumes the impossible.

    Fascinating way to put it, drawing an analogy to the knowledge problem in socialism: can experts can know and measure the needs of all people, in order to order up the correct amount of goods to be produced and services to be rendered to maximize happiness?

    In weighing moral acts, the individual has a moral knowledge problem. He listens to experts. He reads encyclicals. Which I’m happy to do, as listening is not the same as following orders. I retain my free will. But I do reason better from absolutes.

    The socialist, though, would tell you that socialism solves the moral knowledge problem by imposing material equality as morality, and to hell with free will. Sure, there will be a few aches and pains until the experts solve the knowledge problem. We can have faith… in Big Data.

    As I understand it, the socialist revelation is that we cannot leave individual salvation up to stupid individuals. It is up to the state to impose material equality to bring heaven on earth. We will all be saved when we all eat the same rations. It is its own absolute, isn’t it? We all like absolutes, to reason from.

    • And history has shown that socialism or “communism” does not work. Makes you wonder why there are those who will attempt over and over to make it so. Maybe, it’s because there are so many who do not believe that there are still things that are always right and always wrong.


  • fredx2

    “…the prohibitions contained in God’s moral law are supposed to be a spring-board toward human flourishing”
    Well said. So many times I shake my head when I hear people say the church is always saying “no” or similar arguments. So what? If “no” needs to be said, then it needs to be said.
    It is revealing that people don’t want to be told “No” anymore, because they have set their own personal experiences and (usually ill-formed) philosophy and they want everything to align with their feelings.
    And the reason we find Shakespeare so interesting is his treatment of humans and human nature. But he wrote 400 years ago, and his observations are still relevant.

  • If popes were elected by Catholics, would this guy get the U.S.’s electoral votes? If not, would he be elected anyway?

  • Objectivetruth

    “Quid est Veritas?” Thanks for helping answer this question, John Paul!

  • Veritatas Splendor is the first encyclical I ever read. I found it to be clear and concise and reenforced my belief that there are things that are always right or always wrong.
    I like your observation of the common phrase that is heard often today, “I feel like….” Whatever happened to “I think” or “I believe”? Feelings can change from day to day and moment to moment and are not worthy of being used as a barometer for making any serious decision. Unfortunately, you hear people use that phrase more and more and most of the time, they are young people. I feel this is the result of an educational attitude that seems to teach that reality is what a person believes it to be.

  • hombre111

    I was a philosophy major who struggled through Kant and Heidegger. But Pope John Paul is easily the most difficult writer I have ever read, especially his Theology of the Body. I dug up my old marked up copy of Veritatis Splendor and went through it again. Some good sound bites in the section on the questions of the Rich Young Man.
    Chapter 2 presented some challlenges. Came to the section on the discerning power of Natural Law and made this notation: “Why did it take the Church twenty centuries to recognize the wrong in slavery, racism, sexism, torture, and war?” My conclusion: Natural Law is not a very sharp tool.
    In #47, 48, we finally get to the point of all the discussion about the power of Natural Law . We are treated to a rather desperate and not very convincing effort to justify Church teaching about birth control. #50, read closely and with a bit of irony, makes a wonderful hash of celibacy imposed on the diocesan priesthood. The next sections are a slog.
    I loved #52, which informs us that negative precepts are universally valid, always and under all circumstances. “Thou shalt not kill?”
    I finally come to one comforting place in #64, where the Pope admits that the Church and the Magisterium put themselves at the service of conscience. In other words, this is one voice we should hear with respect. But it is not the only voice. After the Church has spoken, the conscience still has work to do.

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