St. John Paul II had the penchant, not really surprising in someone of great holiness and intellectual stature, of articulating the foundations for matters that actually came before him in time.
Many of his encyclicals are like this. His first, Redemptor hominis (1979) explains the anthropological foundations for the Second Vatican Council, which took place almost two decades prior. His Evangelium vitae (1995) reaches even further back, setting out the basis for the Church’s longstanding resistance to the “culture of death.” That struggle was not some momentary “rigidity” in the face of the sexual revolution. Rather, as John Paul II could see, better than anyone, the “culture of death” sprang from ideologies of class, race, and self-invention, which are the offspring of late 19thcentury materialism.
Similarly, his charter of a free society, Centesimus annus (1991), was arguably more fundamental than the first modern social encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891), precisely through its intention to be thoroughly faithful to that preceding document. Likewise, Fides et ratio (1998), “Faith and Reason,” proved to be more fundamental than Leo XIII’s Aeterni patris (1879) on the recovery of Thomism, not because JPII disparaged Thomism, but rather by his re-affirming the spirit of St. Thomas.
In fact, all of the creative power of John Paul II’s teaching seems to have been the fruit of his deliberate intention, reflected in the name he took, of making himself a servant of his predecessors and of the tradition. A wise steward in the Kingdom of God will inevitably bring forth something new if he aims above all to illumine the old.
When Veritatis splendor (VS) was published in 1993, the most astute commentators received it as the most foundational of all of John Paul II’s teachings. But foundational for what? Looked at superficially, the encyclical identified, refuted, and ruled out certain ideas that had dominated academic moral theology: “proportionalism,” the “fundamental option,” and a mistaken view of conscience as personal autonomy.
As these misguided views were mainly used by dissenting moral theologians to articulate their dissent from Humanae vitae, it was easy for these dissenters to look upon VS simply as a power play. After all, these dissenters never could make sense of Love and Responsibility 0r Theology of the Body. In their view, the popes had lost the reasonable debate – which they identified with the debate within prestigious circles in academic moral theology, narrowly defined. VS, then, was just the invocation of arbitrary papal power to put an end to that debate.
But Russell Hittinger correctly saw in the moment that VS went much deeper: it was an effort, he said, to provide a foundation of the Catholic intellectual tradition itself. That tradition was in tatters, first of all in moral theology, which had found no way back to the tradition after it had, understandably but perhaps intemperately, jettisoned textbook casuistry.
But it was also in tatters in Catholic universities generally, with their hyper-specialization and hyper-professionalism, in the habits of educated laypersons, and in the formation of clerics. Admittedly, what we call the “Catholic intellectual tradition” includes a basic philosophy of nature and a metaphysics also, but it comes to each person in the first instance, and sets up an intellectual and cultural household within his heart, as an answer to the question of how to live.
That is the genius in John Paul’s beginning in VS with the exchange between Jesus and the “rich young man” who asks, “what must I do to attain eternal life?”
VS is merely John Paul’s “effort” to give a foundation for this tradition, not in the sense that he tried but failed, but in the sense that he did what he could, and did it very well, and now it is up to us whether it fails.
VS needs to be studied, internalized, and assimilated, so that it works through our actions in the manner of yeast (Jesus’s favorite figure for influence that is free). Some of us who were alive then would joke that John Paul II produced more “charters” for this or that, and foundational reflections, than anyone could reasonably assimilate. Maybe the time for that assimilation is now.
So many of the ideas refuted by VS are again in circulation, even at high levels in the Church. The idea of the “fundamental option,” for instance, is the idea that all that counts is someone’s decisive act of turning toward God, and that his conforming to the ethical law in particular actions is either only incidentally important or not important at all.
Against this, VS taught that the option for God “is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.” [The saint’s emphasis]
For example, if someone were to say, “If someone is gay, and he searches for the Lord, and he has good will, it does not matter, or affect how I deal with him, if he engages in sexual acts outside of marriage” – this would be precisely the outlook of the “fundamental option.”
Likewise, it would reflect proportionalism, and a mistaken idea of conscience, to say that a couple not married may have sexual relations without serious sin, if they deem the consequences better for the children they care for, and that pastors are not seriously bound to instruct them that they are violating God’s law.
Again, not just the Church’s response to the sexual revolution, but the whole Catholic intellectual tradition seems to hinge on how it deals with these fundamentally misguided views.
Indeed, everything is at stake. Not for nothing was VS dated August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration – as the splendor of Our Lord, who is the Splendor of Truth, reminds us that nothing with spot or blemish can be admitted into the presence of God.
*Image: St. John Paul II prays on the Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, Lithuania, September 7, 1993.