VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 7)
by Fr. Peter Pilsner
This week we will finish sections 12 and 13
Let me try to summarize the points of the sections.
12. God, "who alone is good," has taught us how to be good, and in two
ways. First, God gave us the gift of reason by which we can arrive at a
knowledge of His laws. Second, God told us directly what his laws are,
when he gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. The duty to fulfill God's law
is connected to the promise of eternal life.
13. The commandments of the law show us how to love our neighbor
Again, what is the purpose of the present encyclical? "To reflect on the
whole of the Church's moral teaching," to treat "more fully and more
deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology," in
order to recall "certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in
the present circumstance, risk being distorted or denied."
What are some of these present distortions? A major one would be the
following: the idea that, in some situations, a person will want to
perform an action that is motivated by deep and sincere love, but which,
at the same time, would cause him to break one of God's commandments. And
further, that in such cases, the person can morally break the commandment
in order to fulfill the demands of love, with no fear of committing sin,
or of suffering God's punishment.
This is the distortion. We will not see the Holy Father deal with it
directly here. But what he will do -- and this is the beauty of this
document -- is give a clear and thorough explanation of the "foundations
of moral theology" and the "fundamental truths" which, once understood,
will empower the reader to see the distortion for himself.
For example, consider the second part of the distortion described above --
the idea that one can break a commandment of God with no fear of divine
punishment. A person will no longer hold that view, once he understands
what the Holy Father says in section 12 about the connection between the
commandments and God's promise.
VS>> Jesus tells the young man: "If you wish to enter into life, keep the
commandments" (Mt 19:17). In this way, a close connection is made "between
eternal life and obedience to God's commandments:" God's commandments show
man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the
new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue.
Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the
way and condition of salvation. "The commandments are linked to a
promise." In the Old Covenant the object of the promise was the possession
of a land where the people would be able to live in freedom and in
accordance with righteousness (cf. Dt 6:20-25). In the New Covenant the
object of the promise is the "Kingdom of Heaven", as Jesus declares at the
beginning of the "Sermon on the Mount"--a sermon which contains the
fullest and most complete formulation of the New Law (cf. Mt 5-7), clearly
linked to the Decalogue entrusted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. This
same reality of the Kingdom is referred to in the expression "eternal
life", which is a participation in the very life of God. It is attained in
its perfection only after death, but in faith it is even now a light of
truth, a source of meaning for life, an inchoate share in the full
following of Christ. Indeed, Jesus says to his disciples after speaking to
the rich young man: "Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters
or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive
a hundredfold and inherit eternal life" (Mt 19:29).
FP>> What is the fundamental truth that reveals the distortion? It is
that, according to the revelation of the Old Testament, the commandments
are linked to a promise. A promise is a kind of conditional statement: IF
you do this, THEN I will do that. Now, we know what are the commandments
are: "Thou shalt not kill," "thou shalt not steal," etc. What then is the
promise that these commandments are linked to? In the revelation of the
Old Testament it was, IF you keep these commandments, THEN you will
inherit the land of Israel. That was a very good promise for its time,
but Jesus makes a better promise. "If you wish to enter into life, keep
the commandments," or, to put it another way, "IF you keep the
commandments, THEN you will enter into life." What does it mean to enter
into life? It means to come to possess the supernatural life of grace, by
virtue of which we will see the face of God in heaven. One can conclude
then, that if the promise of Jesus is, "IF you keep the commandments, THEN
you will enter into life," it follows that those who break the commandment
will not enter into life. In other words, it is wrong for a person to
think, in a presumptuous way, that he can violate God's commandments, and
not lose the reward of eternal life.
Now, lets look at the first part of the distortion (described above), the
idea that there can arise a situation in which a person will have to break
one of God's commanments in order to do something that is motivated by
(To illustrate what this distortion holds, let me relate an example that
is often used to support it. A woman is in a Nazi concentration camp.
She wants to get out and return to her husband. She becomes aware that
the camp has a policy that if a woman becomes pregnant, she will be
released. So she has sexual intercourse with one of the Nazi soldiers so
that, once pregnant, she will be released from the camp and be able to
return to her husband. She is acting out of love for her husband. She
hates having sex with the guard. She is doing it only because it is the
only way she can get back to her husband. So, the supporters of this view
would say, who could accuse her of committing a sin?)
What is the foundational truth that will make the reader able to pick out
the distortion? (I will leave it to the the members of this discussion
forum to tell me what they think of our case of the women in the
concentration camp.) It is, that the ten commandments reveal to us how we
should love our neighbor. Again, VS:
The different commandments of the Decalogue are really only so many
reflections of the one commandment about the good of the person, at the
level of the many different goods which characterize his identity as a
spiritual and bodily being in relationship with God, with his neighbour
and with the material world. As we read in the "Catechism of the Catholic
Church," "the Ten Commandments are part of God's Revelation. At the same
time, they teach us man's true humanity. They shed light on the essential
duties, and so indirectly on the fundamental rights, inherent in the
nature of the human person".
The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to
safeguard "the good" of the person, the image of God, by protecting his
"goods." "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall
not steal; You shall not bear false witness" are moral rules formulated in
terms of prohibitions. These negative precepts express with particular
force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of persons
in marriage, private property, truthfulness and people's good name.
The commandments thus represent the basic condition for love of neighbour;
at the same time they are the proof of that love. They are the "first
necessary step on the journey towards freedom," its starting-point. "The
beginning of freedom", Saint Augustine writes, "is to be free from
crimes... such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege
and so forth. When once one is without these crimes (and every Christian
should be without them), one begins to lift up one's head towards freedom.
But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom...".
FP>>The commandments of the "second tablet" are substantially connected to
the command of Jesus to love one's neighbor. In one sense, we could say
that even though they are formulated as negative precepts ("Thou shalt
not...") they can be considered as positive commands, requiring that a
person to love his neighbor by respecting the goods of that neighbor. For
example, "Thou shalt not steal," is another way of saying, "Love your
neighbor by respecting his property." "Thou shalt not commit adultery," is
another way of saying, "Love your neighbor by showing honor to the
communion of married love that he has with his spouse (or that one has
with one's own spouse.)" "Thou shalt not kill" means "Love your neighbor
by respecting his life," and so on.
Or, in another sense, we could say that the commandments of the second
tablet show the "lowest possible limits" to the command to love, or the
"minimal demands" it makes. In other words, the different "Thou shalt
not's" outline the bare beginnings of love, the very least that love for
neighbor requires us to do, the "starting point" of love, as the Holy
Father says. For example, "Thou shalt not steal" could be formulated as,
"If you are going to show love to your neighbor, at least don't hurt him
by violating his property." Or again, "Thou shalt not kill" could be, "So
you want to love your neighbor? Well, for starters, don't kill him."
If it is true that the precepts of the Decalogue direct us toward love of
neighbor (if only the starting point of that love) then a situation in
which love requires a person to break one of those precepts is impossible.
It cannot occur. Love cannot require a person to do what the minimal
requirements of love insist that he not do. To say that "doing the loving
thing" can mean breaking a commandment of God is as absurd as one person
saying to another, "Because I love you, I will do something hateful to
On a historical note, the idea that there can be a conflict between the
Decalogue of the Old Testament, and Jesus' command of love in the New
Testament, is nothing new. Around the middle of the second century, there
arose in Rome a heretic named Marcion. His writings are lost, but we can
reconstruct his teachings by looking at the criticism of those who
attacked him, especially in the work "Against Marcion" by Tertullian of
Carthage, written between the years 207 and 212.
Marcion taught that the God who revealed himself to the Jewish people in
the Old Testament, was a different God from the one revealed by Jesus in
the Gospel (specifically, the Gospel of Luke, the only one he accepted as
authentic -- with modifications.) The God of the Old Testament was a God
of Law, who showed himself to be cruel, inconsistent, and despotic. This
God gave the Ten Commandments, and threatened to punish those who did not
obey. The God of the New Testament, however, was very different. He was
a loving Father, and he was supreme over the God of Law. In fact, so far
was he above the God of the Old Testament, that his message of love made
the teachings of the God of Law obsolete. There was no longer a need to
follow the law. What was now required was to follow the call to love.
Hence the Old Testament was no longer considered by Marcion to be the
inspired word of God. It had become irrelavent with the teaching of
The movement led by Marcion was successful enough to draw the attention
and opposition of some of the Fathers of the Church. By the end of the
third century most of his followers became part of Manichaeism.
Even though the movement of Marcion is long gone, his heresy is not dead.
In our own day, there are schools of theology (fundamental option,
proportionalism, situation ethics, consequentialism -- we'll have time to
look at these in depth later) which hold that the "God of law" holds
second place to the "God of love." True, such theories do not hold that
there are "two Gods," as Marcion did, but they do agree with him that a
person who strives to fulfill the law of love revealed in the New
Testament is not necessarily bound, in every action, to keep the
commandments of God revealed in the Old Testament. Such opinions would
hold that a conflict can arise between doing what love demands, and
keeping God's commandments, and that, in such cases, a person can (and
perhaps must) act against God's law in order to fulfill the demands of
I look forward to your comments, and expecially to what you have to say
about the woman in the concentration camp.