In the hours and days following the encyclical's publication, newspapers and magazines around
the world published excerpts and analyses. Then, for the most part: silence.
In the weeks since, some longer, more thoughtful analyses have begun to appear.
But few in the general public, particularly in America, have yet seen the encyclical, let alone had
time to read it. (This is not the case in some places. In France, for example, the text was rushed into
print by Mame/Plon, the same unusual joint Catholic/secular publishing alliance that brought out
the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" to spectacular success a year ago; more than 100,000
copies of "Veritatis Splendor" were snatched up by French buyers before the middle of October,
and the publishers were forced to quickly respond with a second printing.)
In order to ensure that the general public in English-speaking countries has easier access to the
text, "Inside the Vatican" has printed 10,000 copies of the encyclical as a free supplement for our
Meanwhile, few of those commenting on "Veritatis Splendor" seem to have studied it as a whole,
and few readings of the encyclical seem to have taken us very far beneath the surface. Few
attempts have been made to read the encyclical, as it were, "between the lines," to place this, the
10th encyclical of John Paul II's pontificate, in the context of the theological and ecclesial crisis the
Church faces in the closing years of the 20th century.
What follows is such an effort. Inevitably imperfect, we nevertheless hope that it may provide
others with points of departure for better understanding the encyclical and the issues it
addresses, which are, fundamentally, one issue: What ought to be the external conduct, the
morality, of a Christian who wishes to follow "the way" of Jesus?
To a certain extent, John Paul II makes no mystery about why the encyclical took so long to be
published: because it is the second part of a two-fold strategy to confront the crisis facing the
The first part of that response was the universal catechism (interestingly, still not available in
English a year after its promulgation; "Inside the Vatican" will report on the causes of this delay in
an upcoming issue).
The Pope discusses the long delay of the encyclical at the beginning of the text, in Section 5: "If this
Encyclical, so long awaited, is being published only now, one of the reasons is that it seemed fitting
for it to be preceded by the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," which contains a complete and
systematic exposition of Christian moral teaching."
The reason, then, is that the Catechism took precedence over this encyclical (and that gives some
idea of the importance of the Catechism in this pontificate).
Still, this is clearly not the whole story. Keeping in mind Cardinal Ratzinger's slip of tongue and the
evident maneuvers to retard or block the publication of this encyclical (one of which seems to have
been the unprecedented publication of a draft of the text this surnmer mentioned above) we may
with reason focus on the way the Pope formulates his explanation: he says "one ofthe reasons."
The Pope does not say what the other reasons were, but we may be sure there were others; the
choice of language here is quite deliberate. And we may suspect that a key reason was theological
conflict: differences of opinion, even among those advising the Pope, on what to emphasize and
what to de-emphasize in this encyclical in order to present the full, harmonious picture of Catholic
truth mentioned by Cardinal Ratzinger above. ("We have to regain the whole of the biblical
message in order to regain that spiritual center in which we as human beings become whole.") Far
from being an authoritarian dictator, this Pope consults with others, and did so in the writing of this
encyclical, and the complexity of the issues and the diversity of views expressed made it
impossible to reach a quick conclusion.
In fact, the encyclical took to write (the Pope announced he would write it on August 1,
1987). To put it in sharper perspective, the Pope has spent
This is why some are already speaking of as Karol Wojtyla's most important
encyclical, even his spiritual testament. This is all the more reason to read the text with care.
THE ADVERSARY: RELATIVISM
We said that this encyclical is part of a strategy. But a strategy directed against what adversary?
In a word, relativism (that is, as we argued above, a type of neo-Gnosticism).
The Pope defines his adversary in Section 4 of the encyclical. There he says that "certain
fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine...risk being distorted or denied."
He continues: "It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain
anthropological and ethical presuppositions."
Here we are getting very close to the identity of the Pope's intended adversary: "certain
anthropological and ethical presuppositions." What idea or collection of ideas is the root source of
these presuppositions? This is how the Pope expresses it: "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 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
The Pope is saying that the influence of "currents of thought" which separate human freedom
from objective truth is at the root of these "presuppositions" which lead to dissent against Church
Later in the encyclical he writes: "All around us we encounter contempt for human life after
conception and before birth; the ongoing violation of basic rights of the person; the unjust
destruction of goods minimally necessary for a human life. Indeed, something more serious has
happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving
power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide
by itself what is good and what is evil. This relativism becomes, in the field of theology, a lack of
trust in the wisdom of God, who guides man with the moral law" (Section 84).
In other words, he has traced the problem of dissent within the Church to a philosophical source
dissent against Church teaching finally stems from a "presupposition"
that there is no objective truth, that all truthisrelative: relativism.
This explains why the Pope feels compelled in this encyclical Popes are expected to interpret the scriptures, protect the
purity of theological doctrine, confirm and exhort their brother bishops and the faithful. But Popes
are not expected to be philosophers. They are not expected to address deeply entrenched
philosophical presuppositions, such as relativism, held by men and women
It is for this reason that the encyclical is unprecedented. And the Pope states that it is
unprecedented quite clearly: " (emphasis added), in fact, that the
Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this (moral)
teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and
cultural situations which are complex and even crucial. (Section 115)"
The reason John Paul steps beyond the traditional papal role is that he is persuaded that the
whole modern world faces a moral crisis, a moral breakdown, engendered by the triumph of
relativism. ("The Tablet" of London in its October 9 editorial on the encyclical said "a sense of
crisis" informs the document and that some commentators have not given this fact sufficient
The Pope says in Section 5 that the Church in our time faces ""
which has, he says, "the most serious implications" both for the private and communal lives of
Catholics, and for the social life of modern societies in general.
John Paul's task, then, is to respond to the philosophical and moral danger posed by the modern
which is relativism, while, within a purely Christian framework, avoiding the optimism
about human nature of the Pelagians and the pessimism with regard to the body of the
In Veritatis Splendor he does preciseIy this: he refutes relativism (neo-Gnosticism) by an appeal to
objective truth rooted in human nature and natural law; he refutes humanistic optimism about
man's ability to achieve the good without grace (neo-Pelagianism) by reaffirming the Pauline and
Augustinian doctrines of grace as the pre-condition for human virtues; and he refutes the
dualistic rejection of the dignity of the body (neo-Manicheanism) with his own theology of the body
as the seat of the soul and integral locus of human dignity.
The Pope's Weapons
To accomplish this, John Paul has made use of a very precise array of rhetorical and rgumentative
weapons. His weapons are his sources: the Bible, the Church Fathers, the teaching of previous
Popes, the Second Vatican Council, his own previous encyclicals and several works published by
others, like the Council for the Doctrine of the Faith, under his direction.
The first thing a reader of "Veritatis Splendor" notices is that the encyclical is profoundly
The text is a tapestry woven with dozens of citations from the New Testament, particularly from
three authors: Matthew, John and Paul. The text also contains numerous citations from the Old
Testament, particularly from Genesis (cited 9 times) and the Psalms (cited 12 times).
The second thing one notices is that the encyclical represents a profound synthesis of the thought
of two of the greatest doctors of the Church, Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (12226-1274). The
synthesis is not always complete: "Veritatis Splendor" is profoundly Augustinian, but this is so
primarily in the first and third chapters, and it is profoundly Thomistic, but this is so almost
exclusively in the second chapter. Though other Church fathers, notably Ambrose, are cited,
Augustine and Thomas are the preeminent patristic and scholastic sources for the thought of this
The third thing one notices is that the encyclical is deeply indebted to the thought and writings of
the Second Vatican Council, particularly the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern
World "Gaudium et Spes" (cited 37 times). It is a profoundly text.
MATTHEW, JOHN AND PAUL
In its 120 sections, "VeritatisSplendor" cites the Gospel of Matthew 66 times, more times than any
other book of the Bible. (By comparision, Mark is cited 12 times, Luke 20 times and John 58 times.)
Matthew is cited so often, of course, because the first section of the encyclical is essentially a long
meditation on one passage in Matthew's Gospel, the passage where the rich young man asks
Jesus: "Master, what good must I do to have eternal life?" Of the 66 citations of Matthew, 42 come
from this first chapter.
Matthew's influence on the encyclical, then, is predominant in the first chapter, but then much less
important as the encyclical proceeds.
Here two things should be noted about the young man's question: it is a positive one and it is a
personal, compelling one, an existential one.
The question is positive because the questioner is not asking for a list of sins he must avoid; he is
asking what good things he must do. And it is a personal, compelling question because the young
man really wants to live, to live eternally, to have eternal life, and he wants to find out what he
needs to do to obtain that great good.
From the very outset, then, this encyclical is focused on an existential question--How can we
human beings have eternal life?--not on a series of "dos" and"don'ts."
This explains why the encydical will explore human nature (anthropology) and the nature of Jesus
(Christology), and not focus on a list of specific actions or sins, sexual or otherwise: because only
by "following Christ," by "putting on Christ," can a human being enter into eternal life.
Jesus' response to the young man was, finally: "Come, follow me." The answer to the young man's
question is not that he must do this one thing or avoid doing that other thing, but that he must
change direction, enter into an existential relationship with Jesus. John Paul's encyclical meditates
on these matters throughout the first chapter.
But why is John cited so often? Essentially, because John's Gospel is the Gospel with the clearest,
most rhetorically compelling teaching about Christ's nature, about his relationship to the world and
to man (a relationship of light to darkness, of truth to falsehood) and about his "new
commandment" ("love one another as I have loved you").
John's Gospel is anthropological and Christological in a way the Synoptic Gospels are not, and
this, it seems, persuaded the Pope to make John his second great biblical source.
At the very outset of the encyclical, after referring to Genesis (man was created in the image and
likeness of God) and citing Psalm 4 ("Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!"), John Paul
cites John: Jesus Christ is "the true light that enlightens everyone." It is this light, a light which is
also the truth, that the Pope is telling us shines in the darkness, both of the world and of the human
heart: "Veritatis Splendor." It is at once a Christological and anthropological affirmation, and it is
with this affirmation that the encyclical begins.
The role of Paul's writings are also central to this encyclical. Three epistles in particular are cited:
Romans (36 times), Galatians (17 times) and Ephesians (16 times).
Paul's Epistle to the Romans is cited so often because it is in that epistle that Paul explored the
subject of "grace" and its relation to "the law," an issue central to any Christian discussion of
morality. The Pope cites Paul's statement that "Christ is the end of the law" (Rom 10:4), and invites
his readers, "to consider in the perspective of the history of salvation, which reaches its fulfillment
in Christ, (the New Law)."
The passage which best sums up the Pope's own teaching on this problem of the relation of the
law to grace and of both to human morality comes in Section 24: ""
For the Pope, grace is freely given, and man cannot earn it by his actions. However, it is equally
true that this freely given grace must not lead men to act as if their actions do not matter, that is, to
act in evil ways.
This idea is taken up in another important paragraph of the encyclical, Section 65, where the
Epistle to the Galatians is cited: "Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh"
This passage is an exploration of the concept of the "fundamental option." The Pope is here
attempting to explain that a Christian who makes a radical commitment to God (chooses God as
the "fundamental option" of his life), and thus experiences a profound inner conversion, is
gloriously "free"--but that that same Christian can slip again into slavery.
This is how the Pope argues the question: "Jesus' call to 'come, follow me' marks the greatest
possible exaltation of human freedom, yet at the same time it witnesses to the truth and to the
obligation of acts of faith and of decisions which can be described as involving a fundamental
option. We find a similar exaltation of human freedom in the words of Saint Paul: 'You were called
to freedom, brethren' (Gal 5:13). But the Apostle immediately adds a grave warning: 'Only do not
use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.' This warning echoes his earlier words: 'For
freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery'
(Gal 5:1). Paul encourages us to be watchful, because freedom is always threatened by slavery.
And this is precisely the case when an act of faith--in the sense of a fundamental option--becomes
separated from the choice of particular acts."
The Pope is at pains to make clear that Christianity is not simply an abstract faith but a way of life--
and that Christianity can be an extremely "radical" and "counter-cultural" way of life.
His rhetoric in this regard is passionate: twice he says this task is "urgent," as if he has a sense of
impending calamity, of a Christianity in danger of losing its way.
In Section 88, he again turns to Paul, this time to his Epistle to the Ephesians: "It is urgent then that
Christians should rediscover a prevalent and all-
intrusive culture. As the Apostle Paul admonishes us: 'Once you were darkness, but now you are
light in the Lord, walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and
right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful words of
darkness, but instead expose them. Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as
wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil' (Eph 5:8--11, 15-16; cf. 1 Th 5:4- 8)."
The Pope continues: "It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic reality of
the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of presuppositions to be accepted with intellectual
assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments,
and a "
This "Pauline" strand in the encyclical continues through to the very end of the letter. Indeed, in
the final prayer which John Paul addresses to Mary, the Epistle to the Ephesians is cited three
times, and the encyclical's final words are a citation of that epistle: "May he (man) carry out the
good works prepared by God beforehand (cf. Eph 2:110) and so live completely 'for the praise of his
glory' (Eph 1:12)."
Of the evangelists, then, the two great sources for this encyclical are Matthew and John. Of nearly
equivalent importance as sources are the three great letters of Paul: to the Romans, to the
Galatians and to the Ephesians.
AUGUSTINE AND THOMAS
If one attempts to examine the "genetic code" of the encyclical "Veritatis Splendor", one
immediately notices that the encyclical synthesizes the thought of two great traditions in
Catholicism, the Augustinian and the Thomistic.
This is not accomplished by overburdening the text with citations. Indeed, Augustine is cited
directly only 12 times, and Thomas only nine times (though he is indirectly cited an additional 10
Yet there is no doubt that the spirits of Augustine and of Aquinas, different as they are, profoundly
influenced this encyclical, sometimes serving to balance one other, sometimes mutually reinforcing
a point of doctrine.
Augustine was passionately convinced that the Pauline doctrine of grace was the cornerstone of
Christian theology. He seems to have felt that the doctrine that grace was absolutely free and
gratuitous was, in addition to being the truth of the situation, something extraordinarily
exhilarating for human beings. This explains why he fought so long and hard against the likes of
Pelagius, who argued that man could do some good by his own efforts and so "merit"grace.
Augustine, in arguing with Pelagius, was attempting to preseve that sense of unexpected joy that
rushes over one when something impossible, something one had long ago given up hope could
happen, happens. It was the joy of being liberated by a Liberator that Augustine felt within himself
and wanted to protect in others. The Pelagians, with less need for a Liberator, would experience
less joy; Augustine wanted more for them.
But this is not to say that Augustine was lax with regard to sin. On the contrary, he thought all
Christians should grow in moral perfection. And the Pope notes this aspect of Augustine's thought,
citing these words of the African bishop: "the beginning of freedom," Saint Augustine writes, "is to
be free from crimes...such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege and so forth.
When one is without these crimes (and every Christian should be without them), one begins to lift
up one's head towards freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom...."
For Augustine, then sins like adultery and fornication were sins no Christian ought to commit.
Yet John Paul cites Augustine saying in another passage that sin is persistent, even in Christians,
meaning that Christians are free, but not totally free. In part they remain slaves. Augustine writes
"In part we retain our weakness and in part we have attained freedom. All our sins were
destroyed in Baptism, but does it follow that no weakness remained after iniquity was destroyed?
Had none remained, we would live without sin in this life.. But who would dare to say this except
someone who is proud, someone unworthy of the mercy of our deliverer?... Therefore, since some
weakness has remained in us, I dare to say that to the extent to which we serve God we are free,
while to the extent that we follow the law of sin, we are still slaves."
This dilemma requires the progressive assimilation of the sinner to Christ. It is a mystical solution:
the sinner dies, and lives again as Christ. Augustine uses a strikingly literal expression to speak of
this reality, and John Paul cites it. The Pope writes: "By the work of the Spirit, Baptism radically
configures the faithful to Christ in the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection; it 'clothes him' in
Christ (cf. Gal 3:27): 'Let us rejoice and give thanks,' exclaims Saint Augustine speaking to the
baptized, 'for we have become not only Christians, but Christ (...). Marvel and rejoice: we have
John Paul, in embracing this Pauline Augustinianism, is far from the moralistic teaching of Pelagius.
It is a vision of human morality in which behavior changes, becomes moral, only after a mystical
Yet, there is no doubt that in this same vision, the human person, having been mystically changed,
does act in a moral way.
"Once again," John Paul writes, "it is Saint Augustine who admirably sums up this Pauline dialectic
of law and grace: 'The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given, that the
law might be fulfilled. "'
At this point in the argument, the Pope is, for the moment, finished with Augustine. Augustine has
provided a bridge from mystical regeneration through grace to moral behavior in the world. But to
determine what that moral behavior is, how man knows it and chooses it, the Pope turns to
another thinker: ThomasAquinas.
If Chapter 1 of the encyclical may be characterized us a PaulineAugustinian meditation on grace,
sin and morality (and, as such, a refutation of neo-Pelagianism), Chapter 2--the long and sometimes
rather technical heart of the encyclical--may be characterized as a Thomistic meditation on human
freedom, the human body and person, human conscience, relativism and natural law (and, as such,
a refutation of both neo-Gnosticism and neo-Manicheanism).
The tone of these two chapters is very different. Gone in Chapter 2 is the sermon-like tone of the
first chapter with citation after citation from the Gospels and St. Paul. If Chapter 1 was"biblical,"
Chapter 2 is "philosophical.
There is neither space nor time here to go into detail with regard to the arguments of Chapter 2.
Suffice it to say that this chapter, the heart of the encyclical, is also the most technical. It is in this
Chapter that one seems to discern the hand of Karol Wojtyla the professional moral philosopher
(Wojtyla was a professor of moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland).
This is the chapter which argues against those theories in moral theology which the Pope feels are
tinged with relativism: consequentialism, proportionalism and teleologism.
One seems to discem in this chapterthe presence of various hands. Cardinal Ratzinger's presence
seems to make itself felt in the passages on conscience, some of which resemble passages of an
address by Ratzinger on conscience published in the " Zero Issue" of "Inside the Vatican" last
spring. And certainly the Pope's other close advisors, "Tadeusz Styczen,"the Polish moral
theologian who spent time with the Pope during each of the past few summers at Castel Gandolfo,
and Buttiglione, had a hand in the drafting of these passages.
But Chapter 2 is a coherent whole, and the stitching which must have been done over the past six
years is hidden now from sight. It will take considerable time and study before this chapter will
have yielded up all its riches to scholars, philosophers and theologians alike.
The third part of the encyclical is a "tour de force". It is a passionate crescendo. It is a serene
masterpiece of Christian reflection on the good. It is also a mysterious chapter, difficult to
characterize and interpret. In some ways, the chapter seems to say again everything the previous
two chapters have already said. Is it redundant, then? No, for it says those same things in a
different way. One feels in these last sections of the encyclical that there has been a change of
atmosphere, that having worked his way through the specific moral theology issues addressed in
Chapter 2, John Paul has burst out onto a high plateau of the spirit where there is crystal clear air
and an inebriating clarity of vision.
The theme of this chapter is the relationship between human freedom and truth. The question is
whether, once we accept the "yoke" of objective truth, we will be ground down by it and lose our
freedom, our spontaneity, our joy in being human to an oppressive moral code we cannot and do
not wish to fulfill, or whether we will find our true joy in that obedient submission of will. John
Paul's answer: "The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom, he lives it fully, in
the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom."
What finally strikes one about this final chapter is its sweep. It is both Christian and universal, both
rational and mystical, both prosaic and poetic.
This may explain why Ratzinger said of this third chapter: "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. (85)"
It is "a passion for the cause of God and man," then, which one feels in this chapter and which
makes it seem almost a separate work within "Veritatis Splendor." If the tone of Chapter 1 is like a
profound homily and of Chapter 2 like a treatise on morality and human freedom, Chapter 3 is a
passionate call for Christians to awaken from their slumber and renew their faith in Jesus Christ.
Chapter 1 is instructive, Chapter 2 argumentative and Chapter 3 passionate exhortation. This
passionate exhortation reaches heights rarely encountered in a papal encyclicals. In section 88,
for example, John Paul writes: "It is urgent to rediscover and to set forth once more the authentic
reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with
intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his
commandments, and a truth to be lived out. A word in any event, is not truly received until it passes
into action, until it is put into practice. Faith is a decision involving one's whole existence. It is an
encounter, a dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the
Way, and the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6). It entails an act of trusting abandonment to Christ,
which enables us to live as he lived (cf. Gal 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and
sisters." There is no philosophical disputation in these lines, just pure evangelical fervor. The
words in the sentence: "Faith is a decision involving one's whole existence. It is an encounter, a
dialogue, a communion of love and of life between the believer and Jesus Christ, the Way, and the
Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6)" fall like spiritual hammer blows upon the hearer's heart. This may
be an aging Pope, a Pope who is suffering from physical debilities, weary from years at the helm of
a universal Church which seems to respond only seldom and stubbomly to his direction, but in
these lines he rises to evangelical heights. This is the successor of Peter, urging his flock to follow
their Lord, their Good Lord, to meet him, speak with him, live with him, love him.
And then one comes to the final paragraphs of the encyclical, paragraphs where the title,
"Veritatis Splendor," is repeated in the context of the ultimate witness a Christian can make:
Here one finds the Pope praising matyrdom as a precious witness which, in its utter stark simplicity
of commitment, restores the faith of those looking on: unbelievers, wavering believers, fellow
Christians firm in theirfaith.
In Section 93, John Paul writes: "Finally, martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the
Church. Fidelity to God's holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary
commitment "usque ad sanguinem," so that the splendor of moral truth may be undimmed in the
behavior and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable
contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a
headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good
and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and
communities. By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by (emphasis added), the martyrs and, in general, all the Church's Saints,
light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense." (The other references to the
"splendor of the truth" may be found in Sections 2,42 and 83.)
It is from the words bold-faced here that the encyclical's title comes: "the splendor of the truth" is
really "the splendor of moral truth," that is, of living a life so good, so transfigured by love of God
and man, that the darkness of history--and it is often very dark indeed--is lit up. This is the light that
Christ brought, rekindled by his saints.
And then something odd happens: the encyclical, instead of ending, takes a final, unexpected turn
outward toward non-Christians.
This is done first by a reference to non-Christian religions and traditions in general, then in a highly
unusual citation of non-Christian author, the Latin poet Juvenal. John Paul writes: "In this witness
to the absoluteness of the moral good Christians are not alone: they are supported by the moral
sense present in peoples and by the great religious and sapiential traditions of East and West,
from which the interior and mysterious workings of God's Spirit are not absent. The words of the
Latin poet Juvenal apply to all: 'Consider it the greatest of crimes to prefer survival to honor and,
out of love of physical life, to lose the very reason for living."' The point is driven home by a citation
from St. Justin, a pagan Greek philosopher who converted to Christianity in the 100s. The Pope
writes: "The voice of conscience has always clearly recalled that there are truths and moral values
for which one must be prepared to give up one's life. In an individual's words and above all in the
sacrifice of his life for a moral value, the Church sees a single testimony to that truth which,
alreadypresent in creation, shines forth in its fullness on the face of Christ. As Saint Justin put it,
'the Stoics, at least in their teachings on ethics, demonstrated wisdom, thanks to the seed of the
Word present in all peoples, and we know that those who followed their doctrines met with hatred
and were killed. "'
The Pope is not content to include non-Christians who love the moral law in his embrace. He goes
on to devote several sections to the need for understanding and forgiving those who do not agree
with or keep the moral law Christians live by.
The Pope writes (Section 95): "The Church's teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending
the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not
infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence, particularly with regard to the
enormously complex and conflict-filled situations present in the moral life of individuals and of
society today. But this intolerance, the Pope says, is only perceived, not real. "A clear and forceful
presentation of moral truth can never be separated from a profound and heartfelt respect, born of
that patient and trusting love which man always needs along his moral journey, a journey
frequently wearisome on account of difficulties, weakness and painful situations. The Church can
never renounce 'the principle of truth and consistency, whereby she does not agree to call good
evil and evil good'; she must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly
burning wick (cf.Is 42:3)."
Then comes a passionate call for a renewal of Christian evangelization, in part through the moral
witness of holiness. This, the Pope says, will depend on the work of the Holy Spirit. The Pope then
cites a second surprising source: Novatian (Section 108).
Novatian was one of the first great Latin prose writers in the Church. He was also a rigorist with
regard to Christians who had abandoned their faith under persecution. At the time of the Emperor
Decius (249), Christians were terribly persecuted throughout the Roman empire. In 251, when
Cornelius was elected Pope, Novatian allowed himself to be elected anti-Pope under a rigorist
banner. He was excommunicated by a Roman synod convened later that year.
It must be an extremely rare occurrence that an excommunicated heretic is cited in a papal
encyclical, and the encyclical recognizes the delicacy of the point, observing that Novatian was in
the lines quoted "expressing the authentic faith of the Church." Here is the complete citation: "At
the heart of the new evangelization and of the new moral life which it proposes and awakens by its
fruits of holiness and missionary zeal, there is the Spirit of Christ, the principle and strength of the
fruitfulness of Holy Mother Church... As Novatian once pointed out, here expressing the authentic
faith of the Church, it is the Holy Spirit 'who confirmed the hearts and minds of the disciples, who
revealed the mysteries of the Gospel, who shed upon them the light of things divine. Strengthened
by his gift, they did not fear either prisons or chains for the name of the Lord; indeed they even
trampled upon the powers and torments of the world, armed and strengthened by him, having in
themselves the gifts which this same Spirit bestows and directs like jewels to the Church, the
Bride of Christ. It is in fact he who raises up prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, guides
tongues, works wonders and healings, accomplishes miracles, grants the discernment of spirits,
assigns governance, inspires counsels, distributes and harmonizes every other charismatic gift. In
this way he completes and perfects the Lord's Church everywhere and in all things."'
What explains the choice of Novatian to illustrate this concept? The answer is not clear.
The encyclical, now nearing its end, turns to moral theologians. It firmly reasserts the encyclical's
central theme: that the moral doctrine taught by the Church has been received from Jesus Christ,
is true, and must be taught for the good of souls. Even if some people think that what they are
doing is not wrong, that does not mean moral theologians should accept their viewpoint: "The fact
that some believers act without following the teachings of the Magisterium, or erroneously
consider as morally correct a kind of behavior declared by their Pastors as contrary to the law of
God, cannot be a valid argument for rejecting the truth of the moral norms taught by the Church."
Finally, the bishops are addressed and their help and fidelity requested.
Then, after a concluding section devoted to Mary as model of the moral life and Mother of Mercy,
the encyclical concludes with John Paul 's signature.