Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


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 Christ Himself...."

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 holiness.

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 life."

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?

Fr. Peter

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.