Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

In past posts I have pointed out that VS teaches fundamental truths that can be used to refute modern day errors. I would suggest that the truths explained in these last three sections of chapter one are directed at the error of relativism.

Relativism, like all errors, contains a seed of truth. In this case the truth would be that some things can be judged in different ways depending on what other things are part of the whole picture. For example, am I tall or short? It depends. If I were playing basketball with the New York Knicks, I would say that I was short. However, when I compare myself with my eighth grade students, I am tall. (Actually, I am about five-foot, eleven inches.) I cannot say whether I am tall or short unless I first know what group of people I am being compared to. Or, to put it another way, I cannot say that I am short or tall absolutely, but only whether I am such RELATIVE to some group of people. Relative to professional basketball players, I am short. Relative to eighth graders, I am tall.

The error of relativism, in its purest form, would be that all questions, all answers, all assertions, and all claims are of this nature. No statement is absolute. (Except statements such as, "No statement is absolute." That's the great weakness and the built-in contradiction of relativism.) Nothing can be said about a thing, unless it is considered in relation to other things.

Unfortunately, this error has worked its way into the ideas and writings of some Catholic theologians. For example, consider the question: is polygamy immoral? In the past some theologians have argued that the question by itself makes no more sense than "Am I tall or short?" They would say that, just as I cannot answer the question about my height until I know whom I am being compared to, the theologian cannot make a moral judgment about the morality of polygamy until he knows what culture and period of history the people in question belong to. He would want answers to questions such as: What does the culture the person lives in have to say about polygamy? Is it accepted? He might conclude that if polygamy was practiced in a given culture before the Christian missionaries arrived, then the people could convert to Christianity and still practice it in good conscience. His reason for allowing it would be that polygamy, relative to that culture, could be accepted.

Here is another example: Is artificial birth control immoral? The teaching of the Church is, yes, always. However some theologians would call such a point of view simplistic. They would say that one cannot judge whether it is immoral or not, until one has learned the answers to questions such as: What is the family situation? How many children do they have already? What reasons do the husband and wife have for wanting to use it?

The great problem with relativism is that questions and answers so become entangled in the circumstances of culture, history, and human situations, that it is impossible to make any kind of truth claim apart from these. Language is affected. Words like "true," "right," or "wrong" can only be used with stated or implied modifiers. An action was wrong, "back then." Something is true "for people in that culture." An action is right "for me."

A favorite cliche of relativists is: "Everything is not black and white." The comeback should be, "True. But some things are." That is what the Holy Father is trying to establish. No one debates that some actions and opinions can be judged only in the light of cultural, historical, or personal circumstance. But there are also realities of human nature that are too "solid" to be bent by circumstance. There are some teachings that are true, regardless of time or culture (cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, all of it.) There are human acts that are immoral, regardless of the situation.

We now turn to VS. One could see these last three sections as an elaboration on the words from section 7: "In order to make this encounter with Christ possible, God willed His Church."

VS>> 25. Jesus' conversation with the rich young man continues, in a sense, "in every period of history, including our own." The question: "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer.

FP>> "In every period of history...." In spite of the differences of time and culture, human nature is always the same. Every person is a creature of body and soul, made in the image of God, and wounded by original sin. One strong manifestation of this universal human nature is that, no matter where a person comes from, or what culture or period of history he belongs to, he will ask the question: "What good must I do to have eternal life?" Sometimes the question is worded differently, as in: "What is the meaning of life?" "Where can I find happiness?" or "What do I really want?" Sometimes it is not put into words at all, but is expressed in the tireless search of the individual for happiness. But the fact that people ask the question, passionately, repeatedly, in every place and age, bears witness to the changeless character of human nature.

VS>> The Teacher who expounds God's commandments, who invites others to follow him and gives the grace for a new life, is always present and at work in our midst, as he himself promised: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20).

FP>> Those who ask the question about eternal life are present in every place and time. For their sakes, Christ has made Himself present in every place and time so that He may give them the answer they long for. "Lo, I am with you always...."

VS>> "Christ's relevance for people of all times is shown forth in his body, which is the Church." For this reason the Lord promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would "bring to their remembrance" and teach them to understand his commandments (cf. Jn 14:26), and who would be the principle and constant source of a new life in the world (cf. Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:1-13).

FP>> Christ is relevant! (Warning: While these words are true, please don't repeat them to anyone likely to put them on a banner.) Remember, things that are "relevant" are a necessary part of the whole picture. That means that Christ is a part of every picture, in every time and place. For example, a theologian may say we cannot judge polygamy in Africa to be immoral, because in African culture, polygamy is an accepted practice. However, one could respond to him that if a cultural situation is part of the picture, Christ is also part of the picture! Christ can give the people of any culture the grace to live in chaste, monogamous matrimony, as God willed it to be from the beginning of creation.

The relevance of Christ "for people of all times is shown forth in his body, which is the Church." It is through the Church, which is present to every time and culture, that Christ becomes present to every time and culture. This is an important point to keep in mind. We must not accept any kind of theology that would suggest that the church divides us from Christ, by misrepresenting Him and his teaching, or by taking to itself an authority that He never meant it to have. Such is impossible. Why? Because Christ sent to the Church the Holy Spirit, Who is with it even to the present day. The Holy Spirit reminds the Church, or, to put it another way, never allows the Church to forget, the answers Christ gave to our questions and longings. Because of the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church brings Christ to the world, by proclaiming His teaching and imparting his life.

VS>> The moral prescriptions which God imparted in the Old Covenant, and which attained their perfection in the New and Eternal Covenant in the very person of the Son of God made man, must be "faithfully kept and continually put into practice" in the various different cultures throughout the course of history.

FP>> Note once again, "in the various different cultures throughout the course of history." The Holy Father rejects cultural and historical relativism with respect to the ten commandments and the gospel way of life.

VS>> The task of interpreting these prescriptions was entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles and to their successors, with the special assistance of the Spirit of truth: "He who hears you hears me" (Lk 10:16). By the light and the strength of this Spirit the Apostles carried out their mission of preaching the Gospel and of pointing out the "way" of the Lord (cf. Acts 18:25), teaching above all how to follow and imitate Christ: "For to me to live is Christ" (Phil 1:21).

FP>> Let's suppose that you and I have an argument about the spelling of a word. How would we resolve it? Probably, we would look it up in the dictionary. That is, we would agree to accept the decision of an authority that we both respect (in this case, the editors of the dictionary.)

Our Lord knew that after his ascension, disagreements would arise among his followers about what he taught and what the demands of the Christian life would be in different situations. (The disagreements began soon -- regarding circumcision, for example -- and new ones continue to arise to this day.) He knew that they would need a place to turn to get their differences resolved. He knew that they needed an authority that would answer their questions as He would answer them, and settle disputes the way He would settle them. So, he entrusted "the Apostles and...their successors" with "the task of interpreting [the] prescriptions" of the Old Law, and gospel way of life. They would be the ones who would know HIM, and could therefore tell people, authoritatively, how to imitate Him. What gave them this special knowledge, this ability to spread the Gospel message without departing one bit from the path that Jesus lay out? Was it their great intelligence? No. They were fishermen, not rabbis (or theologians). It was the guidance, the "light and strength" of the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus.

By the way, did you know that some theologians will claim that Jesus never intended to found a church? I find this incredible, merely on the level of common sense. If a person thinks that he is doing something important, he tries to make sure that his work will continue after he is gone. A business man will try to pass his business on to his son. A philosopher will seek to establish his ideas among students. If we read the Gospels even without faith, we will see that Jesus thought that what he was doing was of monumental importance. How could he not have made some provision for his work to continue after his departure?

VS>> 26. In the "moral catechesis of the Apostles," besides exhortations and directions connected to specific historical and cultural situations, we find an ethical teaching with precise rules of behaviour. This is seen in their Letters, which contain the interpretation, made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of the Lord's precepts as they are to be lived in different cultural circumstances (cf. Rom 12-15; 1 Cor 11-14; Gal 5-6; Eph 4-6; Col 3-4; 1 Pt and Jas). From the Church's beginnings, the Apostles, by virtue of their pastoral responsibility to preach the Gospel, "were vigilant over the right conduct of Christians,"[35] just as they were vigilant for the purity of the faith and the handing down of the divine gifts in the sacraments.[36] The first Christians, coming both from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, differed from the pagans not only in their faith and their liturgy but also in the witness of their moral conduct, which was inspired by the New Law.[37] The Church is in fact a communion both of faith and of life; her rule of life is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).

FP>> If we look back at section 4, we will see that the Holy Father points out that in some circles of opinion, the claim is made that the Church should not make absolute statements about actions that are wrong according to the laws of God. Instead, the Church should exhort and advise consciences. However, one can see from the present section that what the Church does today, when she teaches about morality, was done first by the apostles themselves. There are many instances in the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul, and the Catholic letters, in which the apostles, exercising the authority that Jesus gave them, condemn WITH SPECIFICITY certain kinds of evil acts, while praising virtuous acts. Here are two examples of St. Paul warning against sinful kinds of action:

"Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy." (Rom 13:13)

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God." [1 Cor 6:9-10]

He also exhorts to virtuous actions, for example:

"Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." (Rom 12:14-15.)

Note also that Christians, who came from TWO VERY DIFFERENT CULTURES, Jewish and Gentile, were all called to THE SAME STANDARDS OF MORAL AND SPIRITUAL PERFECTION. Jew and Gentile alike were expected to follow the ten commandments and the Gospel way of life.

VS>> No damage must be done to the "harmony between faith and life: the unity of the Church" is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-13). The Apostles decisively rejected any separation between the commitment of the heart and the actions which express or prove it (cf. 1 Jn 2:3-6). And ever since Apostolic times the Church's Pastors have unambiguously condemned the behaviour of those who fostered division by their teaching or by their actions.[38]

FP>> Another characteristic of the early Church was an insistence on unity. Those who were members of the Christian community had to be united in faith, and united in their observance of the commandments. If anyone, choosing to live in an immoral way, refused to maintain this unity, he would be expelled by the community. An example of the practice of early Christians toward those who would not live according to Gospel morality is given in St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians:

But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if he is immoral, greedy, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunkard, or a robber, not even to eat with such a person. For why should I be judging outsiders? Is it not your business to judge those within? God will judge those outside. "Purge the evil person from your midst." [1 Cor 5:11-13]

The Catholic Church continues this practice to this day. The Code of Canon Law states that an automatic excommunication is imposed on any person who breaks unity with the Church in matters of faith by committing heresy. The same penalty is given to those who commit certain horrendous, immoral actions, such as perform an abortion. VS>> 27. Within the unity of the Church, promoting and preserving the faith and the moral life is the task entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles (cf. Mt 28:19-20), a task which continues in the ministry of their successors. This is apparent from the "living Tradition," whereby--as the Second Vatican Council teaches--"the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to every generation all that she is and all that she believes. This Tradition which comes from the Apostles, progresses in the Church under the assistance of the Holy Spirit".[39] In the Holy Spirit, the Church receives and hands down the Scripture as the witness to the "great things" which God has done in history (cf. Lk 1:49); she professes by the lips of her Fathers and Doctors the truth of the Word made flesh, puts his precepts and love into practice in the lives of her Saints and in the sacrifice of her Martyrs, and celebrates her hope in him in the liturgy. By this same Tradition Christians receive "the living voice of the Gospel",[40] as the faithful expression of God's wisdom and will.

FP>> It's almost a shame that we have use the word "tradition" to describe the way in which the Holy Spirit preserves and proclaims the truth and imparts the grace of Jesus. The word "tradition" has a good connotation, that of something so precious that it is preserved for centuries. But it also carries with it other connotations, deriving from experiences of merely human traditions, that are not helpful theologically speaking. For example, "tradition," to many people refers to things that they have always done, even thought they don't really know why. (For example, how many of us know why we set up a Christmas tree?) Or, tradition might refer to things that made sense to do in ages long past, and that people kept doing long after the reasons became historically irrelevant. (For example, in New York City, a hearse on the way to a cemetery will drive by the house of the deceased. The purpose at one time was to pick up a flower that was traditionally hung on the door, and then take it to the grave site. The flower is no longer used, but the people still want the hearse to pass by the house.)

The tradition of the Church is nothing like this. It is not a message, part of which gets lost or left behind in history, part of which makes it to the new generation more or less intact, like some half-forgotten legend. Quite the contrary, it is a teaching, a way of life, and a source of eternal life, that has not only been preserved PERFECTLY since apostolic times, but has become better understood with the passage of time. The doctors of the Church have helped us to develop our understanding the truths of the faith, handed on by Sacred Tradition. The saints and martyrs have given us hundreds of examples of how to live the Christian way of life in different situations and states of life. The liturgy has helped us to weave the faith into our life of prayer and worship. For the Catholic, Sacred Tradition is not some dead remnant of the past. It is not even stale. It is a "living tradition" that continues to inspire and enlighten mankind, guiding it to holiness and salvation.

VS>> Within Tradition, "the authentic interpretation" of the Lord's law develops, with the help of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who is at the origin of the Revelation of Jesus' commandments and teachings guarantees that they will be reverently preserved, faithfully expounded and correctly applied in different times and places. This constant "putting into practice" of the commandments is the sign and fruit of a deeper insight into Revelation and of an understanding in the light of faith of new historical and cultural situations. Nevertheless, it can only confirm the permanent validity of revelation and follow in the line of the interpretation given to it by the great Tradition of the Church's teaching and life, as witnessed by the teaching of the Fathers, the lives of the Saints, the Church's Liturgy and the teaching of the Magisterium.

FP>> The Holy Father leaves the subject of Tradition in general, and speaks about how the moral norms governing the Christian life develop and are interpreted in the light of new situations. He makes a few important points. The interpretations of the moral law are guided by the Holy Spirit, who guarantees that they will be true and faithful to the Gospel of Christ. Also, when the Church interprets the moral law, it does not water it down or conform it to some specific historical or cultural situation. When we say that the moral law is interpreted, we mean that it becomes better understood as it is applied to new situations. Finally, any development will be consistent with what the Church taught before, and agree with what was lived and believed by the Saints.

An example. Scripture and Tradition affirm the dominion of God over life and death. Knowing this, the Fathers of the Church condemn the "poisons of sterility," that is, ancient potions used as a kind of birth control. The teaching against the use of such contraceptive measures remains consistent throughout the centuries. In the twentieth century, the invention of galvanized rubber leads to another invention -- barrier contraceptives. They never existed before. There is nothing about them in the Bible. However, the Church recognizes the essence of these things, and condemns their use. Then in the sixties the birth control pill is invented. Paul VI writes Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the Church's position, and teaching that use of the progesterone pill is not morally licit. Controversy ensues, and those who support the teaching of the Church study the issues to look for better ways of explaining and defending it.

What has gone on here? A consistent development of doctrine, guided by the Holy Spirit. The Church was led by the Holy Spirit, in the midst of new challenges and new situations, to a deeper understanding of what it believed about the role of God in the creation of new human life. Thus when it came time for Paul VI to write Humanae Vitae, he gave the world a teaching about life and love that was the product, not of a consensus of experts, nor of Vatican politics, but of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised would remain with the Church. The Holy Spirit helped the Church to apply her teachings to new situations, and led the Church to a better understanding of what she always held and believed. Even in the past thirty years, the teaching of the Church regarding the transmission of life has become, not different, but better understood, with the teaching of John Paul II on the "theology of the body."

VS>>In particular, as the Council affirms, "the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in that of Tradition, has been entrusted only to those charged with the Church's living Magisterium, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ".[41] The Church, in her life and teaching, is thus revealed as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tm 3:15), including the truth regarding moral action. Indeed, "the Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls."[42]

Precisely on the questions frequently debated in moral theology today and with regard to which new tendencies and theories have developed, the Magisterium, in fidelity to Jesus Christ and in continuity with the Church's tradition, senses more urgently the duty to offer its own discernment and teaching, in order to help man in his journey towards truth and freedom.

FP>> When I speak of the development of Church's teaching, I do not want to give the impression that we are talking about something belonging to the past. The Holy Spirit is with the Church TODAY. Right now the Church can proclaim, in a binding and authoritative way, the truth of Christ and apply it to the situations at hand. If fact, through the Holy Father, that IS what the Church is doing in Veritatis Splendor. Just as we can say that a teacher is such by reason of his status in the school, his experience, and his daily work of instructing his class, the Church is a teacher, not only because she has the authority to teach, and has taught, but because she is actively engaged in teaching the world right now. Whenever she does so, when she exercises her Magisterium, the Church is guided by no mere human power. She teaches in the name of Jesus because Jesus himself gave her that authority. The Church teaches truth because the Holy Spirit is alive and active in her, and will never permit her to teach anything less. Our salvation depends upon it. Further, she never "invents" doctrine. When she is confronted by a question or problem, she "checks her memory" which is refreshed by the Holy Spirit, so that when she declares something to be heretical, she is saying, in effect, "we Christians have never believed that." Likewise, when she teaches something as true, she is saying, "This is what we have always believed," or "In light of what we have always believed, such-and-such follows naturally."

As we begin section two, I think our discussion will be a bit more lively, and as always, I welcome participation.