Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner I will not comment on section 28 because it is a summary of Part 1 of VS. If there are any questions about it, please post them. For those who are interested in reading it, here it is:

VS>> 28. Our meditation on the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man has enabled us to bring together the essential elements of revelation in the Old and New Testament with regard to moral action. These are: the "subordination of man and his activity to God," the One who "alone is good"; the "relationship between the moral good" of human acts "and eternal life;" Christian discipleship," which opens up before man the perspective of perfect love; and finally the "gift of the Holy Spirit," source and means of the moral life of the "new creation" (cf. 2 Cor 5:17).

In her reflection on morality, "the Church" has always kept in mind the words of Jesus to the rich young man. Indeed, Sacred Scripture remains the living and fruitful source of the Church's moral doctrine; as the Second Vatican Council recalled, the Gospel is "the source of all saving truth and moral teaching".[43] The Church has faithfully preserved what the word of God teaches, not only about truths which must be believed but also about moral action, action pleasing to God (cf. 1 Th 4:1)); she has achieved a "doctrinal development" analogous to that which has taken place in the realm of the truths of faith. Assisted by the Holy Spirit who leads her into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13), the Church has not ceased, nor can she ever cease, to contemplate the "mystery of the Word Incarnate", in whom "light is shed on the mystery of man".[44]

FP>> Before I comment on sec. 29, I will have to roll up my sleeves and do some theological groundwork. Apologies to all veteran theologians out there. If I am unclear about anything or leave anything out, please feel free to make up for my deficiencies by posting your comments.

Let's take a look at some statements:

Plants need water to live.

The window pane feels smooth.

Sometimes my aunt's back hurts.

If all priests can say Mass, and Fr. Levis is a priest, then Fr. Levis can say Mass.

If I make any of these statements, I am saying something I know to be true. However, I arrive at my knowledge of what is true in different ways. I will say that there are basically three ways.

"The window pane feels smooth." This is knowledge by direct experience, which I gain by using my sense of touch.

"Plants need water to live." This is also knowledge by experience. However, it is different from knowledge derived from direct sense experience. One might call it the result of a highly structured form of experience called a "scientific experiment." In fact, the two words, "experience," and "experiment" are related. Both come from the Latin verb "experiri" which means, "to try." Sometimes old philosophy books will use the word "experimental knowledge" to mean, not knowledge gained from scientific experimentation, but simply, knowledge by experience.

The great benefit of knowledge by experience, either direct or by scientific experiment, is that it puts us in contact with things that exist independently of ourselves. Our senses make it possible for us to know first, that there are things in the world apart from ourselves, and second, what these things are. As our knowledge of the world around us increases we begin to marvel at the greatness of the God who created it all, and we use what we learn to improve the conditions of life.

The drawback to knowledge by experience is that it can go only as far as the powers of the senses allow. It is limited to things we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell (or, as the scientist would say, things that can be measured.) Scientific instruments such as the Hubbell telescope may be able to extend the power of our senses. But they cannot tell us anything about realities that are not available to the senses. For example, the Catechism tells us that grace, strictly speaking, cannot be directly experienced. (See par. 2005.) It is a spiritual reality that cannot be seen, heard, touched, or felt. Hence, direct experience can tell us nothing about it, nor can scientific experiments. Another difficulty about knowledge by experience is that it is never complete. God's creation is so magnificent and complex that the new things we learn about it can change past understandings about how it all works. Thus the best a scientist can often do is to propose an hypothesis or a theory, which he knows will be changed as new scientific discoveries are made.

"Sometimes my aunt's back hurts." My aunt can know this by experience. I cannot. Her pain is her own. (What then, does Bill Clinton mean when he says, "I feel your pain"? It seems to me that he is saying, "I sympathize with your pain. Indeed my powers of sympathy and compassion are so great, it is as if I were experiencing your pain myself." Personally, I wish that instead of telling us how compassionate he is, he would show a little compassion toward unborn children.) But I can know the fact that her back hurts, if she tells me that is does. This is what is called "knowledge by faith." Someone tells me something, and I "put faith" in what they tell me. I believe that what they say is true.

The great advantage of faith is that it makes it possible for us to know things that we cannot know by experience. For example, I know that the famous confederate general, "Stonewall" Jackson, was taking instructions to become a Catholic until the day of his death on the battlefield. How do I know this? A university professor told me that it was true. I put faith in what he said. How does that professor know? He probably read it in a book, putting faith in the statements made by the author. How did the author of the book know? He put faith in the accounts of Jackson's activities written in diaries, letters, and other sources. Amazing, isn't it? I know about an event that took place over one hundred years ago, by putting faith in the testimony of other people.

Faith accounts, practically speaking, for most of the knowledge that we have. For example, how many planets are there in the solar system? Nine? How do you know? Have you seen each one in a telescope? Probably not. I would guess that a science teacher told you the fact at some point in your education, and that he learned it from books written by scientists, probably by astronomers. Those astronomers would be the ones who knew of the number of planets though experience, while you and your teacher came to possess the same knowledge through faith. What was true for you and your teachers would be true for most of us. Most of what we know about science, history, and current events we do not know first hand, but by putting faith in the statements of others.

The drawback to knowledge by faith is that it cannot be had unless two conditions are met: first, the person who is doing the telling must be honest and truthful, and second, he must know what he is talking about. If a person is not truthful, one of two things will happen. He will lie to us, and we will be fooled, and we will think we know something that in fact is not true. Or, we will discover that his is a liar. Perhaps someone will "tip us off" about him, or we will learn the fact from our own experience in dealing with him. In this case, we will not trust him, and we will not accept anything he says at all. He will have "lost credibility" -- that is, believe - ability -- with us.

A similar kind of thing happens if a person does not know what he is talking about, even though he is being honest and sincere. If a person tells us something he sincerely thinks is true, and it is not, and we listen to him, he will pass bad information on to us. Or, if we find out that his has been mistaken in the past, then we will have doubts, not so much about his credibility, but about his accuracy.

Now here is an interesting question: What if God should tell us something? If he did, it would be absolutely true, without any shadow or possibility of a doubt. Why? Because God is Truth. He can never lie, nor can he be mistaken. As we say when we pray the act of faith, He "can neither deceive nor be deceived." Hence, when God tells us something, and we believe it (with the help of his grace) we call this "divine faith" or "supernatural faith." That is very different from when a mere human being tells us something and we believe it. We call that "human faith."

"If all priests can say Mass, and Fr. Levis is a priest, then Fr. Levis can say Mass."

This sentence is an example of the third way in which we know things -- what we call "reason." By reason, or logic, we take two or more things that we know are true, and by connecting them, find out another thing that is true. Here in our example we take two statements: "All priests can say Mass", and "Fr. Levis is a priest." The point of connection, what logic calls the "middle term," is the word "priest." Because both sentences (or premises) contain the word "priest," and because it is in the right place in each sentence, we can put both sentences together and draw from them a new truth (or a "conclusion"): "Fr. Levis can say Mass." There are different ways of making such connections and drawing conclusions, what logic calls "deduction" and "induction." Sometimes the process is easy, sometimes not.

The great advantage of reason is that it opens up endless possibilities for knowledge. God's creation is so marvelous and complex, that one can always find new connections and relationships between things, and draw new conclusions. The disadvantage though, is that our ability to reason is wounded by original sin. Hence we often think badly, sometimes leaving out of the reasoning process truths we don't like to face, sometimes drawing conclusions that are pleasing to us, even though they go beyond the premises. That is why it is important for people to discuss their ideas and conclusions with each other. Sometimes a person without our preferences and prejudices can see problems with our reasoning that we cannot.

People rely on these three different methods of knowing, using each one at different times depending on the situation. For example, the scientist, while in his laboratory, seeks knowledge through experiment and reasoning. The same man, when he is at home, accepts on faith the words of his wife when she says to him, "I love you." (For a good article on this subject, see "On Obstinacy in Belief," by C. S. Lewis.) Also, these three methods to some extent depend on each other. For example, an experiment is structured and planned so that a scientist can test an hypothosis he has arrived at by use of his reason. Or again, the person who has faith in what another person says, usually has reasons for trusting that person, perhaps reasons based on past good experiences in dealing with him.

The final point I want to make about these three methods of knowing is that they can be systematically combined. For example, if we take all the things we know by means of human experience and try to reason about these things, organizing them, relating them to each other, and drawing new conclusions from them, then we wind up with a science that we call "philosophy." (By the way, don't be thrown off by the word "science." Here it does not refer to "natural science," as in experiments done in laboratories. It means simply, "an organized body of knowledge.") Also, if we take everything that God has told us, all of the truths that we know by supernatural faith, and apply our reason to them, we have the science that is called "theology." Now to VS...

VS>> 29. The Church's moral reflection, always conducted in the light of Christ, the "Good Teacher", has also developed in the specific form of the theological science called "moral theology", a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason. Moral theology is a reflection concerned with "morality", with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them; in this sense it is accessible to all people. But it is also "theology", inasmuch as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are found in the One who "alone is good" and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life.

FP>> What is moral theology? For one, it is, "a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason." Note the two parts: "Divine Revelation" and "human reason." The "raw material" or "starting point" of theology is what God has told us about himself, his "Divine Revelation" which we accept as a matter of faith. Reason takes this raw material, these truths of faith, and begins to connect them to each other, drawing new conclusions, putting the different truths in some kind of order and relating one truth to another.

But there are different kinds of theology -- pastoral theology, dogmatic theology, sacramental theololgy. What makes moral theology different? According to VS, "Moral theology is a reflection concerned with "morality", with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them...." Moral theology studies what God has said about the good or evil actions of human beings. But that seems to present a problem. The word, "Theology" means the "study of God." If Moral theology studies the good and evil actions of human beings, what is its focus? Does moral theology study human beings, or does it study God? John Paul II gives the answer in the next sentence. "But it is also 'theology', inasmuch as it acknowledges that the origin and end of moral action are found in the One who 'alone is good' and who, by giving himself to man in Christ, offers him the happiness of divine life." Hence, moral theology is the study of God. It studies God insofar as He is the purpose, the goal, the final cause of human action.

In other words, most -- some would say all -- human actions can be put into two groups: actions that unite us to God, putting us on the path to heaven, and actions that divide us from God, making us tend toward eternal loss. Moral theology would tell us which actions belong in which group and why. I think it is important that our Holy Father clarifies for us what moral theology is at the beginning of the second chapter, and for this reason: one of the most important points of this encyclical, if not the key point, is that there are some actions that are of such a nature (that is, they are so disordered, so evil) that a person who chooses to perform them will by necessity divide himself from God.

VS>>The Second Vatican Council invited scholars to take "special care for the renewal of moral theology", in such a way that "its scientific presentation, increasingly based on the teaching of Scripture, will cast light on the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and on their obligation to bear fruit in charity for the life of the world".[45] The Council also encouraged theologians, "while respecting the methods and requirements of theological science, to look for "a more appropriate way of communicating" doctrine to the people of their time; since there is a difference between the deposit or the truths of faith and the manner in which they are expressed, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment".[46] This led to a further invitation, one extended to all the faithful, but addressed to theologians in particular: "The faithful should live in the closest contact with others of their time, and should work for a perfect understanding of their modes of thought and feelings as expressed in their culture".[47]

FP>> It is a great and noble task and a great work of service to the Church and the members of the Christian people, to be a theologian. The fact that there have been theologians in recent times who have caused confusion and loss of faith should not blind us to this. When we think of theologians, we should call to mind names such as Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bellarmine, Alphonsus de Ligouri, and in recent times, LaGrange and Wojtyla. We should not think of the names of people such as McBrian, Curran, and McCormick, who have given theology a bad name.

The theologian, putting faith in what the Church teaches, tries to explain it in ways that will be clearly understood by the people of his day. Sometimes he will say things that other theologians have never said before, because he is responding to questions that human beings have never asked before. Sometimes he will try to build on whatever seeds of truth he can find in modern ways of thinking, or criticize what is evil and harmful in modern culture.

But by no means does he ever water down the faith. The moment he does, he stops being a theologian. Remember, as I said before, theology means applying our reason to the things we know by faith -- supernatural faith. Without faith, the theologian has nothing to reason about, nothing to think about! A theologian who denies the faith is like a man who takes a saw and cuts a hole in the floor around the spot where he is standing. His whole theological work falls through.

Let me try to illustrate this by an example. One of the most pressing theological and philosophical questions of our day is, what is man? Darwin says he is the product of "evolution," that is, a process of chemicals randomly knocking into each other, until some turn into life forms, the fittest of which survive. Skinner and the behaviorist school (more on them later) say that man reacts to sense stimuli like animals do, only in more complex ways. Sartre the existentialist says that man has no essence, no inherent value. He is what he makes himself to be, through his decisons. Thus, in the modern schools of science, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, man has taken a real beating.

For this reason, it has been a great concern of our Holy Father -- indeed, we could call it his life's work -- to show that man is not a chance product of mindless, material forces, nor is his life without meaning or his existence without an eternal future. Man is a masterful creation of God. Before and during his Pontificate, John Paul II has drawn upon philosophy, the Scriptures, and the Tradition of the Church, to show forth the "spiritual side" of man, and to stress the point that man will discover his greatness only insofar as his accepts his status as a creature of God.

Consider, for example, the Holy Father's presentation of man in VS. Man, as described in chapter one, is a creature in search of goodness and eternal life, who finds in Christ the one whom he seeks. This truth about man in no way denies the theology of St. Thomas, who, speaks about morality in very precise and technical terms, e.g. the object, end, and circumstances of a human act. What the Holy Father does is to emphasize that Christian morality is part of a personal relationship between God and the individual. For example, according to the theology of St. Thomas, an action is good if it has God for its ultimate goal. John Paul II would (and will in VS) reaffirm this, but by describing the moral quest in terms of the encounter between Christ and the rich young man, he calls our attention to the point that if God is the ultimate goal of good human actions, He is not a lifeless kind of "goal," like a finish line or a million dollar prize. Quite the contrary, God is continually and actively engaged with each person, calling him to Himself. St. Thomas would also say that an evil action is one that steers a person away from God, his ultimate goal. But again, the approach of John Paul II would remind us that a decision to commit an immoral action is also a refusal to love God, the One who created us and destined us for Himself. Why would the Holy Father give this emphasis to the encyclical? Is it because the theology of St. Thomas is outdated? By no means. The Holy Father realizes that people of our day are very much focused on personal relationships, so he shows them as clearly as he can the place of our moral decisions in our relationship with God. In doing so, he is himself participating in the "renewal of moral theology" by drawing upon scripture and trying to find "a more appropriate way of communicating" doctrine to the people of [our] time."

VS>> The work of many theologians who found support in the Council's encouragement has already borne fruit in interesting and helpful reflections about the truths of faith to be believed and applied in life, reflections offered in a form better suited to the sensitivities and questions of our contemporaries. The Church, and particularly the Bishops, to whom Jesus Christ primarily entrusted the ministry of teaching, are deeply appreciative of this work, and encourage theologians to continue their efforts, inspired by that profound and authentic "fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom" (cf. Prov 1:7). At the same time, however, within the context of the theological debates which followed the Council, there have developed "certain interpretations of Christian morality which are not consistent with 'sound teaching'"(2 Tm 4:3). Certainly the Church's Magisterium does not intend to impose upon the faithful any particular theological system, still less a philosophical one. Nevertheless, in order to "reverently preserve and faithfully expound" the word of God,[48] the Magisterium has the duty to state that some trends of theological thinking and certain philosophical affirmations are incompatible with revealed truth.[49]

FP>> The Holy Father touches here on the relationship between the theologians and bishops. The Bishops are those "to whom Jesus Christ primarily entrusted the ministry of teaching," The theologians "provide interesting and helpful reflections about the truths of faith to be believed and applied in life, reflections offered in a form better suited to the sensitivities and questions of our contemporaries." The bishops then, in union with the Holy Father, define what we believe, what the teaching of Christ IS, and the theologian helps to explain that teaching to the people of his day. It is important for the Holy Father to say this, because many theologians need to be reminded of it. In our country, and around the world, I would guess that there are bishops who are afraid to proclaim boldly the teaching of the Church, because they fear being contradicted by theologians -- by the "experts." I can say for certain that there are theologians who think that it is they, and not the bishops, who should be the teachers, the ones who define what the Church will believe. In fact, some of them have suggested that there is a "magisterium of the theologians" which acts as a check on the magisterium of the bishops. This so-called magisterium is necessary, they would hold, to confirm whatever teaching is given by the bishops, It is as if these theologians think they should have the power to sign or veto the teaching of the pope and the bishops, just as our president signs or vetos proposed legislation.

One has to keep in mind that the reason the pope and the bishops have authority to teach is not because they are the smartest people in the Church, or because they are the most expert theologians, but because, as the sucessors of the apostles, they have a special gift from the Holy Spirit. Because they have that gift, they will never teach error. The Holy Spirit will never permit that they mislead the people of God in such important matters as faith and morality. Theologians do not have this gift. Hence, if any theologian should say something that contradicts what the pope and the bishops teach as a matter of faith, the good theologian will admit that he as been mistaken, and reconsider his ideas.

But all theologians are not good theologians. There are some who say things that contradict the faith. And when they do, rather than admit that they are mistaken, they insist that the teaching of the Church is mistaken. When theologians do such things, the pope and the bishops have every right to point out publically to all Catholics that it is the Catholic faith that must stand, and the contradictory opinions of the theologians that must be rejected.

This is exactly what John Paul II is doing in VS. In his role as teacher of the Catholic faith, he is pointing out to the bishops and the faithful of the world that some of what theologians have been saying about morality goes against the teachings of the Catholic faith. As he states in VS, "Within the context of the theological debates which followed the Council, there have developed "certain interpretations of Christian morality which are not consistent with 'sound teaching.'" He further points out that in refuting the errors of these theological interpretations, he is acting within his proper role as in the Church. "In order to "reverently preserve and faithfully expound" the word of God, the Magisterium has the duty to state that some trends of theological thinking and certain philosophical affirmations are incompatible with revealed truth."

Does this mean that the pope and the bishops will thus stifle the creativity of the theologians? Does their pointing out of errors have a "chilling effect" on theology? Are they trying "to impose upon the faithful [a] particular theological system"?

By no means. As long as he does not contradict the faith, a theologian is free to make use of any of the insights of philosophy or of different theological systems. (In fact, John Paul himself, when he was still Karol Wojtyla, wrote a whole book on moral theology using as a starting point, not St. Thomas, but the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant.) But if he ever says anthing that cannot be reconciled with the magisterium, he must correct his conclusions, or accept correction from the Church. This is not asking too much of a theologian, expecially if he is faithful to the Church, and is not committed to an exaggerated and secular notion of academic freedom. In fact, I have met a few outstanding American theologians who have said, either publically or to me in private, that if ever the Church made a definitive statement contradicting any of their opinions, they would drop their opinions immediately, and embrace the position of the Church.

Here are some discussion questions:

Some scientists make the claim that there is no convincing evidence for the existence of God. (Carl Sagan, for example, was once asked what he would say to God, if he died and then met God. His response: "Not enough evidence.") But is a scientist qualified to speak on this question? Why or why not?

Some students of jounalism were asked why they chose that as a career. The answer was, that they wanted power. What kind of power do jounalists possess?

On a talk show, a priest was saying that homosexual activity was not immoral. He explained that a homosexual who was proud of his sexual orientation and lifestyle would have better self esteem, and that good self esteem would give the person good mental health. He said that the Church should change its teaching on this matter because, "Good psychology is good theology." Would you agree with this way of doing theology, why, or why not?