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The Truth is Still Splendid: Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor at 30

Outside the Catholic world, the issuing of papal encyclicals rarely garners much attention. That, however, wasn’t the case when, 30 years ago, John Paul II promulgated his long pontificate’s most controversial encyclical on August 6, 1993.

Its very title, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), threw down a gauntlet to societies—and a church—increasingly in thrall to relativism. Major newspapers not only gave considerable coverage to Veritatis Splendor’s release; they opened their opinion-pages to the encyclical’s supporters and critics, with Catholics and non-Catholics found on both sides.

The fact that this division didn’t break down along “Catholics-versus-everyone-else” lines was revealing. First, it underscored that some Catholic scholars had effectively rejected something which the Church has taught unambiguously from its beginning: that certain acts are intrinsically evil (intrinsece malum) and never to be chosen. Second, it became apparent that many non-Catholics understood how denying such moral absolutes strikes at the heart of any society which aspires to be civilized.

I was barely in my twenties when the encyclical appeared. I’ll never forget, however, a Jewish friend commenting that he considered it indispensable reading for anyone who didn’t want to see the West collapse any further into a morass of moral incoherence. There was simply, he said, no other contemporary document like it.

Veritatis Splendor was certainly that rarity: a post-1960s text which forcibly challenged the moral subjectivism and sentimentalism which had permeated most Western culture-shaping institutions. But the encyclical wasn’t just about reaffirming basic Catholic moral teaching. It sought to present to a church and world increasingly settling for moral mediocrity a compelling narrative about what freedom and the good life are really about.

The rise of the new morality

Skepticism about humanity’s ability to know truth can be traced back as far as the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (circa 365-275 BC). Christianity, however, has always insisted that humans can know moral truth through faith and reason.

This includes the truth, as John Paul wrote in his 1984 exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, that there are “acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” His next line describes this as “a doctrine, based on the Decalogue and on the preaching of the New Testament, and assimilated into the kerygma of the Apostles and belonging to the earliest teaching of the Church” (RP 17).

That’s about as specific as a pope can get. But John Paul’s unambiguous reaffirmation of the existence of what are called exceptionless moral norms indicated his awareness that some Catholic theologians had all but abandoned what Veritatis Splendor would describe as a matter of “revealed faith” (VS 29).

One reason for this abandonment was the concerted campaign before and after Humanae Vitae to overturn settled Catholic teaching on contraception. The Church’s equally settled position that certain acts may never be chosen constituted an insurmountable barrier to any such reversal.

Read more at Catholic World Report 

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