COMMENTS ON VERITATIS SPLENDOR
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
The Holy Father's long awaited Encyclical Letter on certain fundamental questions of the Church's moral teaching was released on Tuesday, 5 October. The text of the papal document, in its various language translations, was presented to the press by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who explained the reasons behind the Encyclical and gave a summary of its contents. The following is a translation of the Cardinal's Italian-language address.
1. Why An Encyclical On Morals?
The long awaited Encyclical "regarding certain fundamental questions of the Church's moral teaching" has finally appeared. Why this document? There is an internal reason and an external reason which to be sure cannot be separated one from the other. The internal reason is connected to the "why" itself of Christianity. In its earliest beginnings, even before the word "Christians" was coined, the Christian religion was simply called "the way." We find this designation no less than six times in the Acts of the Apostles, which reports to us on the first phase of the historical development of Christianity. For example, in his speech to the Jews at the vestibule of the Temple, St Paul confesses, "I persecuted this way," thereby wanting to say that he persecuted the Christians (Acts 22:4). If Christianity is called the way, this fact means above all that it indicated a certain way to live. Faith is not mere theory, it is above all a "way," that is to say a praxis. The new convictions that it bestows have a directly practical content. Faith includes morals, not just general ideals. It gives concrete directives for human life. It is precisely through their morality that the Christians in the ancient world could be distinguished from others; precisely in this respect their faith became visible as something new, something unmistakably their own. A Christianity that no longer marks a common way but only proclaims indefinite ideals would no longer be the Christianity of Jesus Christ and his first disciples. For this reason it remains a permanent task of the Church to be a community of the way and to show concretely the way of right living. Characteristically, the Psalm passage: "You have made known to me the ways of life," is found in the first discourse an Apostle ever gave, namely, the Pentecost sermon of St Peter (Acts 2:28). In accordance with her very nature, the Church must again and again "make the way known." She must make visible ever anew the moral content of the faith.
Christianity shows a concrete way to live
To this internal reason for the Encyclical, an external motivation is addedbut not external to the Encyclical. The moral question has become more clearly than ever before the question of mankind's survival. In the homogeneous technical civilization which now encompasses the entire world, the old moral certainties that up to now have sustained the great individual cultures have been largely shattered. The technical view of the world is value-free. It asks not "ought we?", but "can we?". Indeed, to many the question of "ought" appears outdated, irreconcilable with the emancipation of man from all constraints. What one can do, one may do, many think today.
But the actual problem lies still deeper. In contrast to the incontrovertible certitude which attends technical things, all moral certitudes appear fragile and questionable. Many hold that only what I ineluctably see to be the case, as with mathematical and technical formulae, is reasonable. But where is such incontrovertibility to be found in truly human things, in matters of morality and right human living? Despite important elements which they have in common, the fact that the great cultures again and again say something different increasingly allows relativism to become the prevailing opinion.
In morality and religion, it is said, there is now no shared certitude; therefore, each person must see for himself how best to get along. Each individual must follow his own lights.
This thinking comes also to be extended to the Christian faith. To be sure, the Bible offers, by way of general direction, the command to love God and neighbor; but what counts as love of neighbor, for example, in the concrete situation the Bible cannot tell us, nor can anyone else. Rather each individual must again and again determine this for himself according to his own lights.
It is obvious that the putative wisdom of the individual person can objectively be very unwise. The moral quandary of our society shows this quite clearly. For example, when individuals or whole groups think violence is the best means to better the world, then individualism and relativism in moral matters leads to the destruction of the foundations of human coexistence and indeed the endangerment of human dignity. For this reason, the moral discussion of the present day tries to find substitute solutions which should guarantee at least the basic forms of ethical living. The Encyclical mentions among such attempts at solutionwhich in different forms have been admitted into theologyteleology, consequentialism, proportionalism. We do not need to pursue these systems in detail. What they have in common can be recounted in general as follows. They assume that we cannot know a norm, derived from the nature of man and from things themselves, contrary to which one should never act. One determines what is moral by weighing the ratio of good and bad consequences of possible acts and then choosing the one that foreseeably will have predominantly positive consequences. There is no such thing as good or bad in itself. There is only that which is more good or less good. "Good means better than ...," a well-known moral theologian once put it. Such bridges over the abyss of relativism, which harbour a scepticism with respect to all things specifically human, are not finally useless. But their load-bearing capacity is insufficient, precisely in view of the great moral challenges with which mankind is faced. A Christianity which beyond the general command to love could no longer say something further, something more concrete, could no longer be designated "the way."
Broad consultation went into its preparation
The question which moved the Pope in drafting the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor thus concerns, to be sure, the dispute in moral theology in the Church herself, but it reaches far beyond this. It is an expression of concern for man. It stems from sharing the burden (Mittragen) of the great problems of mankind today. The Encyclical is directed to Bishops whose task it is pre-eminently to proclaim the message of faith and to make plain the path on which faith would lead us. Since however this path is not a private way of Christians, the Encyclical shares with the Bishops the common responsibility for the present and future of man. This openness of the Encyclical is evident already in the introduction, when the Pope says that is "on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all" (n. 3), that morality is the common way of salvation. In the section on conscience, the Holy Father elucidates the statement of St Paul in his Letter to the Romans: "When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts..." (Rom 2:14f; Encyclical, n. 57). In the third chapter of the Encyclical, this connection is amplified. I count this third chapter among the great texts of the Magisterium: far beyond all theological disputes, it must be seen as a fundamental text for the questions which concern us all. The Pope shows here that "at the heart of the issue of culture we find the moral sense"; in the face of social and economic injustices and political corruption, he speaks of "the acute sense of the need for a radical personal and social renewal," which alone is "capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty, and openness" (n. 98). The text reveals the intellectual foundation of totalitarianism to consist in "the denial of truth in the objective sense" (n. 99). and indicates the way to overcoming it.
With all this I am still addressing the question of the "why" of the Encyclical, which as I hoped to show responds to a challenge within the Church and to a challenge facing mankind. Before I attempt to address briefly in the second part the content of this document, I would like to say something briefly about its genesis. The reason for the long delay in its publication is due first of all to the breadth of consultations on which it is based. Theologians of various continents and most varied orientations have had a part it its coming to be. The Encyclical profited from the consultation of the world episcopacy on the Catechism, since indeed the basic determinations of the Catechism and the Encyclical are the same. With the Catechism, the Bishops found themselves confronting the essential questions on which the Encyclical turns. While at the beginning preparation of the Catechism and the Encyclical ran parallel, it was considered more appropriate to release the Catechism first. The Catechism presents in a positive fashion the entire structure of Catholic moral teaching which the Encyclical presumes. Both documents are now characteristically distinct and each, however, has its proper task whereby one supports the other. The Catechism does not engage in argument; it testifies. It does not dispute but states the faith positively, the faith which has its own inner reasonableness. The Encyclical also bears witness, but it has, at the same time, a dimension of argument. It takes up questions and shows in discursive argument what the way of faith is and how it comes to be that there even is a way for man. This does not mean in the least canonizing a certain kind of theology. Rather the fundamental principles are clarified without which theology would lose its identity. Thus the Pope does not take away from theologians the liberty that pertains to their mission. Clarification of the foundations does not stifle theology but clears the way for her.
2. Structure And Content Of The Encyclical
The structure of the Encyclical is very simple. A short introduction explains the point of departure and goal of the text. Then follows the first chapter which is essentially biblical in character. This chapter also gives the connecting thread which appears again and again in the course of the text the conversation of the rich young man with the Lord on the question: "What good must I do to have eternal life?" (Mt 19:16. This conversation does not belong to the past. We are all caught up in it. We pose the question perhaps in another form, but we all want to know what we should do to attain a fulfilled life. The Encyclical understands itself as a part of this dialogue with Christ; it inserts itself into the young man's question and wants to understand the Master's answer as precisely and deeply as possible. In this penetrating listening to the words of Christ it emerges that the search for the good is inseparably connected to the turn toward God. He alone is good without limitation. The good par excellence is a person, namely, God is all-good. Becoming good means therefore becoming like God. The Ten Commandments are a self-revelation of God; they help us to find the way to become like God. They are therefore the explication of what love is. Thus they are at the same time bound up with a promise, the promise of life in its entire fullness. From this it follows that whoever walks the way of the commandments is on the way to God even if he has not recognized God. But also the specifically Christian dimension come to light here. Jesus' call to follow him means that whoever walks with him goes to God, to the good par excellence. "Jesus asks us to follow him and imitate him along the path of love, a love which gives itself completely to the brethren out of love for God" (n. 20).
The second chapter inserts these insights gleaned from Scripture and penetratingly explored by the Fathers into the current dispute over the foundation of moral conduct. It is especially experts of moral theology and ethics who will take up this chapter in its particulars. The axis of the whole, on which the matters of detail turn, is easy to recognize. It is the relationship between freedom and truth. The Pope takes up that which is probably the decisive theme of our present day, which has become even more urgent since the end of the communist dictatorships. How can we learn to live correctly with freedom? A purely individualistic notion of freedom, which would become mistaken for arbitrariness, can only be destructive; it would finally pit all against all. The danger of freedom's becoming once again determined from without and being replace by collective capriciousness is evident. Such a danger can only be defended against by freedom's finding its inner measure, which it recognizes to be the order of its being. What is this measure, however? The Pope's first and fundamental answer says that this measure is truth. Freedom can only freely follow truth if it is not to foreswear itself as freedom. Immediately, the next question arises: What is truth? The Encyclical answers: Truth, which orders our conduct, lies in our very humanity. Our essence, our "nature," which comes from the Creator, is the truth which directs us. That we ourselves carry our truth in us, that our essence (our "nature") is our truth is expressed by the term natural moral law ("natural law"). This concept reaches back into pre-Christian philosophy, was developed further by the Fathers and by the medieval philosophy and theology in the Christian context; it attains, however, a quite new timeliness and urgency in early modern times. The great Spanish and Dutch philosophers of law found in the concept of natural law the instrument to formulate and defend the rights of non-Christian peoples confronting the excesses of the colonial masters. These peoples were not members of the Christian community of law, but, so these philosophers explained, they were not without rights since nature has conferred rights upon man qua man. Every man by virtue of his nature is the subject of basic rights, which no one can take from him because no human authority has given them to him. They lie in his very nature as man.
The Encyclical opposes the devaluation of the body
Now recently the charge has been heard that with the concept of natural law the Church has bound herself to an antiquated metaphysics, indeed, that she renders homage to a foolish naturalism or biologism and declares biological processes to be moral laws. The Encyclical responds very thoroughly to these criticisms. One finds the heart of the Encyclical's answer in the passage from Thomas: "The natural law 'is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God'" (n. 40). The natural law is a law of reason. To have reason is the nature of man. When it is said that our nature is the measure of our freedom, reason is not then eliminated; rather full justice is accorded it. With such statements, in order to avoid falling into error, we must recall what is typical of human reason, that it is not absolute like God's reason. It belongs to a created being, to be sure, to a creature in whom body and soul are inseparable. Finally it belongs to a being that stands in historical alienation which can impair the capacity of reason to see.
The Pope especially underscores the first two points in contrast to a kind of neo-Manichean mentality. In this view, the body of man is treated as a biological shell which has nothing at all to do with his actual humanity and therefore with the moral goods. The Encyclical discusses this question already in its presentation of the natural law (nn. 47, 48). It returns to this topic when it treats of the fundamental option (nn. 65 ff.) and the problems of teleologism, consequentialism and proportionalism. I cannot describe all this in detail. I will cite a few sentences from the last mentioned section in which the heart of the matter precisely emerges. The criticized ethical theories distinguish between goods of the moral order (to these belong love of God, benevolence toward neighbor, justice etc.) and pre-moral goods (among these are health, physical integrity, life, death, loss of material goods, etc.).
If these pre-moral goods are injured, one can nevertheless still judge the action morally acceptable "if the intention of the subject is focused, in accordance with 'responsible' assessment of the goods involved in the concrete action, on the moral value judged to be decisive in the situation. . . . The moral specificity of acts, that is their goodness or evil, would be determined exclusively by the faithfulness of the person to the highest values of charity and prudence. . ." (n. 75). Since here the entire bodily realm is relegated to the realm of mere "ontic." "physical," "pre-moral goods," morality atrophies, becoming an ethics of good intentions by which anything might be justified. The Encyclical opposes this devaluation of the body with firm resolve. Such a reductive understanding of human nature leads to "a division within man himself" (n. 48). Indeed, we stand before a new dualism which degrades the body and thereby strips the soul of its specifically human quality. When the Pope gives us to understand that the language of the body belongs to the language of reason and that the natural law expresses itself in the body-soul entirety of man, he defends what is specifically human in man and is far removed from every biologism or naturalism.
Moral answers are found by looking to Christ
In conclusion, just a brief word about the third chapter of the Encyclical, which places the insights of the first and second chapters into the vital context of Church and society.
One could call it the pastoral chapter of the document. In this last part the reader perceives a passion for the cause of God and man which should touch him, the reader, immediately.
Questions of renewal of political and social life, of the responsibility of the Shepherds and the theologians, are no less movingly presented than the question of the seriousness of our existence, a seriousness in which we have to choose between the good and the comfortable, between standing for moral truth at the cost of suffering and a flight which always creates for itself a justification. What the Encyclical says about all this is not mere theory. What it says comes from experience, from a beholding of the mystery. This deepest foundation of the text becomes visible when the Pope speaks of the "secret of [the] educative power of the Church," of the sure hold which she finds not in doctrinal statements and pastoral appeals to vigilance but rather in "constantly looking to the Lord Jesus." In looking to him and in listening to him we find the answer to the problem of morality (n. 85).
It is more than a pious commonplace when the Pope concludes the Encyclical with a meditation on Mary, the Mother of Mercy.
Mary may bear this title, so the Pope tells us, "because her Son, Jesus Christ, was sent by the Father as the revelation of God's mercy...He came not to condemn but to forgive..."(n. 118).
Only with this affirmation does Christian moral teaching become complete. To this affirmation belongs the greatness of the challenge which comes from our similarity to God. To this affirmation also belongs the greatness of divine goodness, whose purest sign for us is the Mother of Jesus.
Weekly Edition in English
6 October 1993
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