Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 66(2) May 2016
Editorial: Veritatis Splendor
Dr Pravin Thevathasan
We owe Pope Saint John Paul so much, especially in the current circumstances facing the Church. His 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor is surely more relevant than ever. This encyclical boldly asserts that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that it is accessible to reason. It thus condemns moral relativism and its peculiarly Catholic offspring known as proportionalism, which seeks to make all moral norms provisional in relation to some supposed higher good, thus becoming indistinguishable from utilitarianism.
Saint John Paul makes it clear that submission to the splendour of truth as proposed by the Magisterium does not lead to an abandonment of our freedom because, to quote the Gospel, the truth will make us free. Moral truth is not some changeable thing but is a reality outside of ourselves that requires a certain struggle in order to be found. The rich young man in the Gospel had to give up so much in order to find the truth. Instead, he chose to follow his feelings and so abandoned the Lord.
The encyclical strongly reaffirms the natural law tradition. According to Professor Jason Eberl:
"Natural law includes a set of principles which, if followed, will satisfy a human being's natural inclinations and thus lead to their perfection as a human being. By acting in accordance with the principles of natural law, a human being will perform virtuous actions and thereby become a virtuous person."
Natural law principles are general and so we need human laws, which are the determinations of natural law in given situations. Human laws must be crafted in accordance with the general principles of natural law that are binding on all human beings, irrespective of culture or circumstances. Rape and racism are intrinsically evil whether they happen in Europe, Asia or Africa.
In Veritatis Splendor, Saint John Paul teaches that the Magisterium has authority to definitively pronounce on moral issues. Disobedience to natural law is "death to true freedom." Conscience cannot be mistaken for mere whim. It is the voice of God commanding us to do good and avoid evil in a particular situation.
The Anglican response to Veritatis Splendor makes for interesting reading. Much of it is good, as when it agrees with the encyclical. However, there are some unusual observations. Dr Alan Suggate wrote of his discomfort with the encyclical because an immutable natural law tradition makes little sense in a world where mankind has learned to fly "halfway round the world non-stop." The Revd Charles Yeats felt that the principles found in the encyclical are in sharp contrast to liberation theology because the latter deals with given situations while the former deals with objective moral norms. John Mahoney the Jesuit is quoted as saying that liberation theology is illustrative of "moral pluralism." Bishop Alan Smithson thought that the concept of intrinsically evil acts leads inevitably down a slippery slope where contraceptive acts are also condemned. Bishop Alec Graham wrote that a yearning for absolute truth "may be present in the human heart, but it remains debatable whether that yearning is capable of fulfilment this side of heaven." He was also critical of moral prohibitions which allows of no exceptions.
And so we see that the Anglican response was largely critical of Catholic orthodoxy. If we are to avoid the crisis within the Anglican communion, we need to re-embrace the teachings of Veritatis Splendor.
Thomistic Principles and Bioethics" by Jason T. Eberl, Routledge
"Veritatis Splendor - a response" Edited by Charles Yeats, The Canterbury Press