John Paul II: The Moral Life

Almost twenty years ago now, Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, on how Catholics understand the moral life. It might be a good time to take another look back at some of things that he said.

He started with a great summary sentence: “The splendor of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Gen 1:26).

Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:6). Our existence among the things God created either unfolds in truth or it becomes mean and petty.

In this life, however, men and women are in a dangerous pickle. On the one hand, we “are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Pet 1:22).” And rather than getting in the way as other institutions often do, the Church is the only institution that “offers to everyone the answer which comes from the truth about Jesus Christ and his Gospel.” Yet on the other hand:

As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (Jn 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes 1:9), exchanging ‘the truth about God for a lie’ (Rom 1:25).

The human capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and our will to submit to it is weakened as well. All this and yet our lives are still only fulfilled in truth – a truth that is clearly expressed by the Church – and then in the struggle to apply it no matter what the risk.

Specifically, the pope reflected on the meeting between the rich young man and Jesus (Matthew 19). We ourselves, of course, meet Jesus in the Church.

The young man called Jesus “good.” Knowing the good and doing it lie at the heart of moral action, but who is the standard of the good? Obviously not the society elites in any age! So Jesus told the man “no one is good but God alone.”

            The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful by James Tissot, c. 1890

John Paul II explains that this means – and here we get beyond the Enlightenment notion of morality as simply a matter of applying rules – “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 ‘fulfillment’ 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).”

God’s gift of his life in Christ is the foundation of being a faithful follower of Christ into eternal life. This is not our concept of what a good life is; it is God’s concept of what a good life is.

But how is a good life to be described? Well, God’s concept of a good life lies in his commandments, in fact:

‘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. . . . Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation.
They show us how to love God and man authentically in the practical decisions of life.

Then, John Paul says even more precisely: “The commandments thus represent the basic condition for love of neighbor; at the same time they are the proof of that love.” Bringing this home, by applying this amazing encounter to everyone, Pope John Paul says:

Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man continues, in a sense, in every period of history, including our own. The question: ‘Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?’ arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer. The Teacher who expounds God’s commandments, who invites others to follow him and gives the grace for a new life, is always present and at work in our midst.

We hear the truth from Jesus Christ in his Church and in his Church we also receive the grace to rise to the occasion of being good before God.

The Holy Father leaves us with a crucial observation: “No damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life: the unity of the Church is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-13).”

Ring a bell?