[Archive July 11, 2006]
August 6th will be the thirteenth anniversary of John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). In my estimation this is John Paul II’s greatest encyclical letter. The first half is most readable and understandable to anyone with a high school education. (Or it should be!) The second half is more technical and may be harder to understand and digest for “the common man or woman” who is not learned in philosophy or theology or who is new to its terminology, in particular. I was certainly not exempt from these "second half" difficulties.
It was written in a practical manner because
“…with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth.
Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to “exhort consciences” and to “propose values.” In the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.” (Veritatis Splendor No. 4)
It’s not a stretch to say that if one reads, understands, and gives an effort to follow its principles it will profoundly change one’s life for the better because it addresses “questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself.” (VS No. 4)
Two problems in our society and in individuals —“most” would not be an unjust qualifier— is the erroneous notions of conscience and of the widespread idea of “The Fundamental Option.” Veritatis Splendor presents the correct understanding of these and much more.
The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the “heart” of the person, in his moral conscience. As the Second Vatican Council observed: “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: ‘do this, shun that.’ For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Romans 2:14-16).” (VS No. 54)
Far from being a “feeling” it is a practical judgment…
The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do nor 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. (VS No. 59)
[I]n the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Presicely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of “judgment” which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitrary “decisions”. The maturity and responsibility of these judgments —and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject — are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favor of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions. (VS No. 61)
Conscience has “limits”…
Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes. However, error of conscience can be the result of an invincible ignorance, an ignorance of which the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself. (VS No. 62)What ‘bout those who do not care to form their conscience and yet seem to perform good acts?
[A] good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good. (VS No. 63)On “The Fundamental Option”:
Some authors have proposed an even more radical revision of the relationship between person and acts. They speak of a “fundamental freedom”, deeper than and different from the freedom of choice, which needs to be considered if human actions are to be correctly understood and evaluated. According to these authors, the key role in the moral life is to be attributed to a “fundamental option,” brought about by that fundamental freedom whereby the person makes an overall self-determination, not through a specific and conscious decision on the level of reflection, but in a “transcendental” and “athematic” way. …
A distinction thus comes to be introduced between the fundamental option and deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behavior. In some authors this division tends to become a separation, when they expressly limit moral “good” and “evil” to the transcendental dimension proper to the fundamental option, and describe “right” and “wrong” the choices of particular “innerworldly” kinds of behavior: those, in other words, concerning man’s relationship with himself, with others and with the material world. (VS No. 65)
These tendencies are therefore contrary to the teaching of Scripture itself, which sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly in particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely fo this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter. (VS No. 67)
The various theories of “Fundamental Option” can be complex to follow. However, in short, “the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts” (VS No. 70).
It goes without saying that these authoritative papal teachings on "fundamental option" are radically different than "modern secular thought" which can be expressed in phrases (or "slogans") that disregard particular acts like "we all seek peace in our hearts" and "we are all good people deep down inside." It also goes contrary to the "once saved always saved" teachings of some Christian communities. Once again, Veritatis Splendor may be a challenging read but is well worth the effort. You won't be disappointed!
Photo: “Family at the beach”