Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

Shall we make a fresh start at V.S.? We are in a very important chapter, well worth our study. Now to number 30.

30. In addressing this Encyclical to you, my Brother Bishops, it is my intention to state "the principles necessary for discerning what is contrary to 'sound doctrine'," drawing attention to those elements of the Church's moral teaching which today appear particularly exposed to error, ambiguity or neglect.

FP>> The document, we see, is addressed to bishops. It interesting that they should be the recipients of a letter that outlines the "abc's" of moral theology. It seems that the Holy Father is trying to give them a theological tool for dealing with theologians who have caused confusion in this area.

VS>> Yet these are the very elements on which there depends "the answer to the obscure riddles of the human condition which today also, as in the past, profoundly disturb the human heart. What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of our life? What is good and what is sin? What origin and purpose do sufferings have? What is the way to attaining true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? Lastly, what is that final, unutterable mystery which embraces our lives and from which we take our origin and towards which we tend?"[50] These and other questions, such as: what is freedom and what is its relationship to the truth contained in God's law? what is the role of conscience in man's moral development? how do we determine, in accordance with the truth about the good, the specific rights and duties of the human person?--can all be summed up in the fundamental question which the young man in the Gospel put to Jesus: "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?"

Because the Church has been sent by Jesus to preach the Gospel and to "make disciples of all nations..., teaching them to observe all" that he has commanded (cf. Mt 28:19-20), "she today once more puts forward the Master's reply," a reply that possesses a light and a power capable of answering even the most controversial and complex questions. This light and power also impel the Church constantly to carry out not only her dogmatic but also her moral reflection within an interdisciplinary context, which is especially necessary in facing new issues.[51]

FP>> As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, I once went to hear a doctor speak about why he made the decision not to perform a simple operation to open the esophagus of a downs syndrome child, in order to save it from starving. He spoke about quality of life issues, but what impressed me at the time was how he hammered away at the idea that "metaphysical moral laws" cannot govern our decisions when we are faced with complex, real-life situations. (I realized later that he was in fact trying to justify his decision, and that to do so he had to appeal to SOMETHING, namely, a "quality of life" criteria that was more abstract and metaphysical than any universal moral norm I knew of. But that is not the point I am trying to make.) My point is, that it is commonly held by people who espouse some form of "situation ethics" that the realities of human life are so complex and so deep, that principles of Catholic morality are, so to speak, not equipped to deal with them. Catholic moral principles are looked at as "rules of thumb" which are helpful in general, but cannot provide definitive answers to complex moral problems. (By the way, it is another of my pet theories that situation ethics is an attempt to dignify a basic human weakness by turning it into a philosophical or theological system. A person may say something like, "I know it's wrong to commit adultery. But my case was special. If you understood how lonely I was, and how great my needs were, you would see why I NEEDED to do what I did." That's the voice of human weakness, and we pity the person's feeble attempt to justify his behavior and make exceptions from the moral law for himself. But to call it theology, or to justify it in the name of theology, prostitutes theology and gives a person an artificial sense of righteousness.)

The Holy Father's approach here is bold. He acknowledges that human life is complex, but he also affirms that it is not so complex that it is beyond the moral guidance offered by the Gospel message and the magisterium of the Church. He begins by giving a list of profound philosophical and theological questions, some from Nostra Aetate, and some of his own composition. (I think he hit on all the deep issues of philosophy and theology. One would be hard pressed to add to his list!) Then he points out that all of these questions can be summed up in the one question of the rich young man: "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?" Now, if that is the one question that summs it all up, then we are blessed indeed. Why? Because Jesus has already answered it definitively! And in answering that one, he has answered all.

Hence the Church is by no means unequal to the task of offering sure and certain moral guidance to complex human situations. She is not left speechless and without anything to say when faced with "real" life moral decisions. Her mission is to proclaim to the world, with confidence, the definitive answer to life's questions ALREADY GIVEN by Christ in his reply to the rich young man. To quote VS again: the Church... today "once more puts forward the Master's reply," a reply that possesses a light and a power capable of answering even the most controversial and complex questions.

VS>>It is in the same light and power that the "Church's Magisterium continues to carry out its task of discernment," accepting and living out the admonition addressed by the Apostle Paul to Timothy: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time will come when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry" (2 Tim 4:1-5; cf. Tit 1:10,13-14). "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32)

FP>> The Church does not keep the answer of Christ to herself. She continues to proclaim it "in season and out of season" through her magisterium.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

Fr. Peter

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