Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


by Fr. Peter Pilsner

This week we will consider sections 9 through 12.

At the end of section 8, the Holy Father tells us that we should allow Jesus to be our teacher and let him guide our understanding step by step until we arrive at the answer to the young man's question. In section 9, Jesus brings us to the first step.

VS>> 9. Jesus says: "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Mt 19:17). In the versions of the Evangelists Mark and Luke the question is phrased in this way: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19).

Before answering the question, Jesus wishes the young man to have a clear idea of why he asked his question. The "Good Teacher" points out to him--and to all of us--that the answer to the question, "What good must I do to have eternal life?" can only be found by turning one's mind and heart to the "One" who is good: "No one is good but God alone" (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19). "Only God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good itself."

"To ask about the good," in fact, "ultimately means to turn towards God," the fullness of goodness. Jesus shows that the young man's question is really a "religious question," and that the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God, and indeed is God himself. God alone is worthy of being loved "with all one's heart, and with all one's soul, and with all one's mind" (Mt 22:37). He is the source of man's happiness. Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations, to the acknowledgment of God, who alone is goodness, fullness of life, the final end of human activity, and perfect happiness.

FP>> Jesus points out that, "No one is good but God alone." He affirms that only God possesses goodness in its fullness and perfection. It is one of God's attributes, as we would say. Hence, when a person asks a question such as, "How do I lead a good life?" "What is the right thing to do?" "How do I become a good and just person?" or "What must I do to gain everlasting life?" it shows that he as a deep desire to be good, like "the Good God." Such a person is searching for God, whether he realizes it or not. His questions may not say so explicitly, but insorfar as they reveal a quest for moral goodness, they reveal a search for God, the source and perfection of all goodness.

By the way, perhaps this point is relevant for those in this forum who have been discussing what a person must do to be saved, and how it it possible for a non-believer to be saved. A person who does not believe in God or in Christ may ask, "Is abortion moral or immoral?" If by her question she means, "What is the right thing to do, so that I may do it, no matter what the cost?" she is involved in the search for God, the source of all goodness and the guide and model of all right behavior. And, if she searches for the answer to her question with diligence and sincerity, she will come to realize that abortion is wrong, and will do God's will by respecting life, and therein be pleasing to Him. If however, what she is really asking is, "How can I justify the practice of abortion, so I can have one and not feel guilty?" She is not searching for God at all, but rather herself. She will have to answer to God for what she does, if she has the abortion. Of course, God knows the inner spirit in which every moral question is asked.

Now when we say that God is good, what do we mean? Permit me to use a very ordinary example to describe what we mean by "good" in general. A man is hungry. He sees a deli; he stops in; he buys a sandwich; he eats it; he is not hungry anymore. This man had a desire -- a desire for energy, strength, and a way to assuage his feeling of hunger. So, he went in search of food. For him, food was a "good." It attracted him, it motivated a search on his part, BECAUSE it had, in itself, the power to give him what he desired. When he at last ate the sandwhich, he ENJOYED IT, because his hunger was satisfied, his desire was met, and his search was ended.

Primarily, this is what we mean by "good." It is something that attracts us, because it has some inherent perfection that corresponds to our needs, and which, once possessed, leads to satisfaction and joy. Now the point I want to make is this: when we say that God is good, we are not saying primarily that He has done many good things for us. (We could express this by saying that He is infinitely generous, or merciful, or loving.) Primarily, we are saying that we are drawn to him by attraction, and that it will be our ulitmate joy to possess Him. In the words of an author I have forgotten, we call God good, not because he has saved us, but because he steals our hearts away from us. To put it another way, when we say that God is good, we mean that He is infinitely "loveable." Or again, just as a painting "deserves" our admiration, just because it is beautiful, God is the object of our greatest love, simply because He is good (and would be the object of our love even if He had never done anything for us).

This is the meaning of "good" that John Paul II refers to and relies on in this encyclical -- something that attracts us, and makes us happy once we possess it. Note again what he writes: "the goodness that ATTRACTS and at the same time obliges man has its source in God, and indeed is God himself. God alone is WORTHY OF BEING LOVED with all one's heart, and with all one's soul, and with all one's mind" (Mt 22:37)." [Note: "Worthy of being loved" is another way of saying, inherently GOOD.] He is the SOURCE OF MAN'S HAPPINESS. Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations, to the acknowledgment of God, who alone is goodness, fullness of life, the final end of human activity, and perfect HAPPINESS."

VS>>10. The Church, instructed by the Teacher's words, believes that man, made in the image of the Creator, redeemed by the Blood of Christ and made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit, has as the "ultimate purpose" of his life to "live 'for the praise of God's glory'" (cf. Eph 1:12), striving to make each of his actions reflect the splendour of that glory. "Know, then, O beautiful soul, that you are "the image of God"," writes Saint Ambrose.

"Know that you are "the glory of God" (1 Cor 11:7). Hear how you are his glory. The Prophet says: "Your knowledge has become too wonderful for me" (cf. Ps. 138:6, Vulg.). That is to say, in my work your majesty has become more wonderful; in the counsels of men your wisdom is exalted. When I consider myself, such as I am known to you in my secret thoughts and deepest emotions, the mysteries of your knowledge are disclosed to me. Know then, O man, your greatness, and be vigilant".[17]

FP>> Why was man created? To give God glory. How do we give Him glory? By being His image in the world. We are made in God's image and likeness, and so it is our joy and task to "image" God, to relfect His perfections to the world. We strive to imitate God, to be like him, and insofar as we do so, his glory is made manifest, through us, to the world. This is man's greatness and glory.

VS>> "What man is and what he must do becomes clear as soon as God reveals himself." The Decalogue is based on these words: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex 20:2-3). In the "ten words" of the Covenant with Israel, and in the whole Law, God makes himself known and acknowledged as the One who "alone is good"; the One who despite man's sin remains the "model" for moral action, in accordance with his command, "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev 19:2); as the One who, faithful to his love for man, gives him his Law (cf. Ex 19:9-24 and 20:18-21) in order to restore man's original and peaceful harmony with the Creator and with all creation, and, what is more, to draw him into his divine love: "I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Lev 26:12).

FP>> Now, to use another of my silly little examples, if I asked you to dress up as a clown, and you had never seen a clown in your life, you would not be able to do what I asked. But if I then showed you some pictures of clowns, then you would know what I was talking about and what I expected. (You would not necessarily DO what I asked, but at least you would understand.) In a like way, if I tell someone that he will be happy and good insofar as he tries to imitate God, and be the image of God in the world, I will first have to tell him something about WHAT GOD IS LIKE. Once he discovers in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium what the perfections of God are, then he can set himself to the task of imitating God, and will do so, of course, in his own limited, human way. As John Paul II says, "What man is and what he must do becomes clear as soon as God reveals himself." When God shows us who He is and what He is like, we then know who we are, and what we must strive to become.

This idea of being an imitator of God or of imaging Him is found throughout Scripture. John Paul II quotes the Old Testament: "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev 19:2). In this verse, we see that God's holiness is the model for ours. We could also quote the words of Jesus, "You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-48)

VS>> "The moral life presents itself as the response" due to the many gratuitous initiatives taken by God out of love for man. It is a response of love, according to the statement made in Deuteronomy about the fundamental commandment: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children" (Dt 6:4-7). Thus the moral life, caught up in the gratuitousness of God's love, is called to reflect his glory: "For the one who loves God it is enough to be pleasing to the One whom he loves: for no greater reward should be sought than that love itself; charity in fact is of God in such a way that God himself is charity".[18]

FP>> As if God's goodness alone were not enough reason for loving Him, we can consider as well the many acts of love God has performed on our behalf. We love God not only because He is good, but because "He loved us, and sent His Son as expiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Our love for God is more than our attraction to His infinite Goodness. It is our response to his "gratuitous initiatives."

If we love God, and strive to be pleasing to him, in response to His love for us, we are leading a moral life. By loving God, we are imaging God, Who is love.

VS>> 11. The statement that "There is only one who is good" thus brings us back to the "first tablet" of the commandments, which calls us to acknowledge God as the one Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness (cf. Ex 20:2-11). "The good is belonging to God, obeying him," walking humbly with him in doing justice and in loving kindness (cf. Mic 6:8). "Acknowledging the Lord as God is the very core, the heart of the Law, from which the particular precepts flow and towards which they are ordered. In the morality of the commandments the fact that the people of Israel belongs to the Lord is made evident, because God alone is the One who is good. Such is the witness of Sacred Scripture, imbued in every one of its pages with a lively perception of God's absolute holiness: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts" (Is 6:3).

But if God alone is the Good, no human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in "fulfilling" the Law, that is, acknowledging the Lord as God and rendering him the worship due to him alone (cf. Mt 4:10). "This 'fulfilment' can come only from a gift of God:" the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus, the one whom the rich young man addresses with the words "Good Teacher" (Mk 10:17; Lk 18:18). What the young man now perhaps only dimly perceives will in the end be fully revealed by Jesus himself in the invitation: "Come, follow me" (Mt 19:21).

FP>>"Acknowledging the Lord as God is the very core, the heart of the Law." The idea that God must be accepted as Lord in order for a moral law to exist at all, is one that John Paul II returns to again and again in his writings. Often, the idea is expressed differently, that a rejection of moral law, or disobedience of moral law is a rejection of the rightful authority of God. Consider, for example, this quote from the Encyclical on the Holy Spirit:

36. According to the witness concerning the beginning which we find in the Scriptures and in Tradition, after the first (and also more complete) description in the Book of Genesis, sin in its original form is understood as " disobedience " and this means simply and directly transgression of a prohibition laid down by God.[136] But in the light of the whole context it is also obvious that the ultimate roots of this disobedience are to be sought in the whole real situation of man. Having been called into existence, the human being--man and woman--is a creature. The "image of God", consisting in rationality and freedom, expresses the greatness and dignity of the human subject, who is a person. But this personal subject is also always a creature: in his existence and essence he depends on the Creator. According to the Book of Genesis, "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was to express and constantly remind man of the "limit" impassable for a created being. God's prohibition is to be understood in this sense: the Creator forbids man and woman to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The words of the enticement, that is to say the temptation, as formulated in the sacred text, are an inducement to transgress this prohibition--that is to say to go beyond that "limit": "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God ("like gods "), knowing good and evil".[137]

"Disobedience" means precisely going beyond that limit, which remains impassable to the will and the freedom of man as a created being. [Take note of this next sentence!] For God the Creator is the one definitive source of the moral order in the world created by him. Man cannot decide by himself what is good and what is evil--cannot "know good and evil, like God". In the created world God indeed remains the first and sovereign source for deciding about good and evil, through the intimate truth of being, which is the reflection of the Word, the eternal Son, consubstantial with the Father. To man, created to the image of God, the Holy Spirit gives the gift of conscience, so that in this conscience the image may faithfully reflect its model, which is both Wisdom and eternal Law, the source of the moral order in man and in the world. "Disobedience", as the original dimension of sin, means the rejection of this source, through man's claim to become an independent and exclusive source for deciding about good and evil. The Spirit who "searches the depths of God", and who at the same time is for man the light of conscience and the source of the moral order, knows in all its fullness this dimension of the sin inscribed in the mystery of man's beginning. And the Spirit does not cease "convincing the world of it" in connection with the Cross of Christ on Golgotha.

FP>> Now, I will here introduce a question that we will be able to come back to: If the lawmakers of a country pass a law making abortion illegal; and the reason for the law is that abortion is morally abhorrent; and, if, as John Paul II says, morality has its foundation in God, Who is Goodness and Love; then isn't it true, that the said lawmakers are using law to force the people under their authority to comply with to the demands of a particular religion?

Hope to hear from you all!

Fr. Peter