Pope John Paul II blesses those gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in this Oct. 8, 2000, file photo. CNS photo/ Paul Hanna, Reuters

John Paul II’s splendour of moral truth

  • September 21, 2023

Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, The Splendour of Truth, made a major contribution to moving Catholic moral teaching away from a litany of “do nots” to a call for all to become people of self-giving love. Released 30 years ago, it was criticized for cracking down on wayward theological thinking. However, it was in largest part a response to Vatican II’s desire for moral theology to be rooted in the Gospel. What a novel idea!

The pope did identify “a genuine crisis” in moral theology which threatens to undermine the moral life of the faithful and communion within the Church. In doing so, he hoped to reinvigorate our attachment to Christ and to contribute to the spread of the Gospel.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, popular thinking was that to be a good lay Catholic one had to avoid sin and fulfill minimal requirements such as attending Mass on Sunday, contributing financially to the Church and observing the laws of fasting and abstinence. Indeed, the manuals used to teach seminarians held to that way of thinking.

One major teaching of the council was the universal call to holiness. One might also call it the universal call to love. All Catholics, not just priests and religious, are called to strive for union with the God who is love. We need to do better than pay, pray and obey.

The council is sometimes disparaged for making it too easy to be Catholic. In fact, the opposite is true. Every baptized person receives the “very high calling” to live in the Father’s love. If we fulfill that call, the splendour of Christ and His truth will set the world ablaze with love.

One issue Pope John Paul tackled in The Splendour of Truth is the nature of conscience. The Church has long held that people are to follow their consciences. But today, a common misunderstanding is that conscience is purely subjective. Some believe conscience is a feeling that something is right or wrong. Others assume that judgments of conscience are isolated insights unconnected with general principles.

The Pope wrote that indeed a judgment of conscience must arise from an interior dialogue of the person. But it also involves a dialogue of the person with God who established moral law. Conscience is not detached from law. It is not a feeling but a reasoned judgment which arises from reflection on moral law, the circumstances one faces and one’s intention in acting.

Pope John Paul approvingly quotes St. Bonaventure: “Conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king.”

The moral law is written on human hearts. However, societal trends, lack of proper moral formation or sinful habits can blind us to the right course of action. To have a good conscience, one needs the Church’s teaching and frequent reflection on the sources of good and evil which affect us.

The Splendour of Truth, however, overlooks the approach to conscience in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty. The declaration upholds our obligation to seek and adhere to religious truth. “The search for truth, however, must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity and social nature of the human person: that is by free enquiry with the help of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue.”

This description emphasizes free inquiry over obedience. The shift is subtle but real.

In any event, if we focus only on the avoidance of evil, we are liable to slip into what one author called “the moralistic mortification of the Christian truth.” Every heart yearns for the absolute good, a good which can only be found in God. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn 4:16).

Morality and spirituality are not separate. Our very high calling is to abide in love. To love means to avoid actions which degrade others and pretend to put us above God. Love is a virtue to be acted out in positive ways and unforeseeable circumstances in every aspect of life. Love is alive whenever we sacrifice our own interests and desires for the good of others. In doing so, we become like God.

Beauty attracts. Love is beautiful. When our lives are filled with love, they will attract those who also seek goodness. Moral truth creates splendour.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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