VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 2)
by Fr. Peter Pilsner
Welcome to our second week of discussion on Veritatis Splendor.
I would like to thank everyone who contributed to the discussion last
week, and I hope we can continue at a good pace.
A few point worth noting from last week:
As one of the participants stated, Jesus is the truth. When we talk about
truth, we do talk about Jesus. As John Paul II states in VS: "the
decisive answer to every one of man's questions, his religious and moral
questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus
We explored the relationship between truth and morality. One point that
was made and stressed is that habitual sin makes a person less capable of
perceiving moral truth. Sin and attachment to sin have the effect of
darkening the intellect, and making the conscience less sensitive to
violations of the moral law.
It would be interesting to pursue the question of how it is possible for a
person steeped in sin and moral blindness to come to a knowledge of his
own moral weaknesses. In other words, how can a person come to see that
he is trapped in sin, if sin has already made him blind to his condition?
Now we move on to sections 4 and 5. I find them both disturbing and
exciting -- disturbing because of the magnitude of the problem being
described, exciting because the Holy Father is taking it head on.
Let's first consider the magnitude of the problem. The Holy Father says
that it has definitely reached the level of a "grave crisis." And indeed,
if his description is accurate, the problem is very grave. It is a grave
problem for moral theology for, as he states, it is not "limited or
occasional dissent" but an "overall and systematic calling into question
of traditional moral doctrine." In other words, we are not dealing with a
question such as: is birth control right or wrong. We are dealing with
this question: Can the Church say with authority, that ANY kind of action
is morally wrong? Can she teach morality at all -- that is, can she teach
that certain actions are wrong, always and for everyone? Or is the Church
limited to "exhorting consciences" and "proposing values"? Can she give
commanments, or only suggestions?
I would also add that if moral theology is in a state of crisis, then
spirituality is in trouble too. Grace builds on nature. And if people
are deprived of true moral guidance, it will be difficult for them to
develop a virtuous character which will serve as a foundation for
Also, the crisis seems to be on what we might call an historical or
political level too. Not only are such serious errors being proposed, but
they have found their way "even in seminaries and in faculties of
theology." The logical conclusion is that if seminaries are teaching these
errors, then future priests will be teaching the same errors to God's
people, and relying on such errors in their pastoral judgments both inside
and outside of the confessional. In many cases, priests themselves, who
should be sure moral guides for God's people, will weaken their
consciences and perhaps lead them into habits of sin.
Now here is a question you can really go to town on, and one I would be
very interested to know your opinion on. The Holy Father says about the
"overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral
doctrine," that "a new situation has come about within the Christian
community itself...." In what sense is this situation new? Haven't there
always been problems in the Church -- the Arians, the Pelagians, the
Cathari, the Protestant reformers, and the like? Is this a situation we
are seeing for the first time in the history of the Church, or is it
simply another instance of people compromising on the faith in ways
characteristic of their culture and period of history?
Other notes on 4 and 5:
The Holy Father states that the root of the problem comes from "detaching
human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth."
He gave a strong and stirring talk on this theme during his visit to the
United States in Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., September 11,
1987 (see especially n. 6-7.)
The following sentence deserves attention, since it sums up the purpose of
the encyclical: "The specific purpose of the present encyclical is this:
to set forth, with regard to the problems bieng discussed, the principles
of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic
Traditions, [oh well, so much for the "magisterium" of the theologians]
and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences
of the dissent which that teaching has met."
Lets get a jump on the next section too. It is the beginning of the Holy
Father's reflection on the story of the rich young man. [BTW, for the
sake of comparison, you might want to take a look at his Apostolic Letter
to the Youth of the World, March 31, 1985. There too he gives an extended
reflection on the story of the rich young man, and says some things that
reappear in VS.]
The Holy Father stresses that the young man *approached* Christ. He came
looking for Christ, to ask him a question. When I read this an example
came to mind. Say for instance, it is the year 1950, and a young
physicist is doing research on some topic or other, and begins to
formulate his theories. He is confident in his ideas, but he is still
full of questions, and none of the other physicists in the laboratory are
able to help him. One day, this scientist reads in a newspaper that
Albert Einstein (one of his heroes) is going to give a lecture nearby. He
goes to the lecture and listens intently, hoping that afterwards he can
approach Einstein as ask him some pressing questions. If anyone would
know, surely Einstein would.
In a like way the young man in the Gospel is full of intense questions
about how he should live, and at the same time he is full of confidence
that the best person to ask, the expert on holiness, the "good teacher,"
is Jesus. What goodness and holiness must have radiated from Jesus'
person to inspire such confidence!
Then the Holy Father gives us these beautiful lines for us to ponder:
In order to make this "encounter" possible, God willed his Church. Indeed
the Church "wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able
to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of
Just as the young man in the Gospel was full of confidence that Christ
could answer his deepest moral and spiritual questions, so every Catholic
should be full of confidence that he can find the answers to his moral and
spiritual questions in the teaching of the Church. For the Church gives
us nothing less than the teaching of Christ Himself. Indeed, the Church
is the presence of Christ in the world, as readily approachable today as
Christ was to the people of Palestine 2000 years ago.
In my opinion, one of the greatest evils perpetrated by the "progressives"
in the Church today is they teach people to look at the Church not with
loving confidence, but with a certain amount of skepticism and suspicion.
What do you think?
P.S. In future weeks we will be discussing a system of moral theolgy
called proportionalism. If you would like to do some reading on this
subject, I would suggest the following: Catholic Sexual Ethics by Lawler,
Boyle, and May, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. pages 79-97.