Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


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 love.

(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".[22]

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...".[23] 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 you."

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 Jesus.

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 love.

I look forward to your comments, and expecially to what you have to say about the woman in the concentration camp.