Next text

Having looked back at our poll, I would like to propose that we read Veritatis Splendor. The English text can be found here, and the Latin, here.

However, based on the discussions following our reading of Gaudiem et Spes, I also propose that we read it one section at a time, have a discussion on each section, and then, when we get to the end, see if we can pull the threads together.

Therefore I propose we read the Introduction and Chapter One (say by next weekend?); then the rather longer Chapter 2 (over the following fortnight – to allow some time for discussion of Ch 1) and so on. We should be able to read the whole letter in this way in 3 chunks, over, say 6 weeks, and (maybe) not be too overwhelmed.

If anyone wants to post a few questions to start the discussion, either now or as they read it, that would help. I shall try to remember to do so.

If anyone thinks this a bad idea, feel free to say so – but you will need a counter-suggestion!

Ben T.

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14 Responses to Next text

  1. Lazarus says:

    Here’s my best attempt at some questions! Please feel free to ignore, rubbish etc…

    1) I read these opening sections as very much putting the rules of morality in the context of our divinization: the desire to become more like and closer to God. Do others agree with my interpretation here?

    2) One of the characteristics of modern Catholic life is a tendency to downplay ‘hard’ moral rules. Does the opening of the Encyclical do more to encourage this tendency or does it rather seek to respond to and challenge it? Is the downplaying of moral rules a bad thing?

    3) Unlike some scholastic treatments of natural law which begin with those aspects of our nature which are discernible by human reason, the Encyclical places natural law in a very scriptural and theological context. Does this approach avoid an erroneous separation of morality and religion? Or does it make it more difficult for the Church to share its understanding of morality with non-Christians?

  2. bentrovato12 says:


    Thanks for the interesting questions: I had intended to get to this this weekend, but reality had other ideas. I hope to finish reading VS (part1) over the next couple of days, and comment soon. In the meantime I await others’ comments with interest!

  3. Ben Trovato says:

    The overarching theme of this introductory chapter seems to me to be the unity or integration of different elements: the old covenant and the new, faith and obedience to the law, love of God and love of neighbour, our earthly task and our heavenly destination, Christ’s precepts ad the precepts of the Church. All these are shown to be intimately related in the economy of salvation and sanctification.

    Turning to Lazarus’ questions above, I agree with his interpretation in q. 1.

    Q2: I think this chapter confronts the downplaying of moral rules, but also adherence to them without thought (or worse, without love). It makes it clear that love is at the heart of the precepts, but that to pretend to love while ignoring the precepts is to deceive oneself; (for example): “those who are impelled by love and “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practise love as something freely chosen and freely lived out. Indeed, they feel an interior urge — a genuine “necessity” and no longer a form of coercion — not to stop at the minimum demands of the Law, but to live them in their “fullness”. ” (§18)

    Moral rules should not be downplayed, therefore, but seen for what they are, necessary but insufficient first steps. For what we are called to is a much fuller commitment to love, or more accurately, to Love Himself. “This is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. ” (§19)

    “Following Christ is not an outward imitation, since it touches man at the very depths of his being. Being a follower of Christ means becoming conformed to him who became a servant even to giving himself on the Cross (cf. Phil 2:5-8). Christ dwells by faith in the heart of the believer (cf. Eph 3:17), and thus the disciple is conformed to the Lord. This is the effect of grace, of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in us. (§21)” Of course, we are incapable of doing this, just as we are incapable of keeping the law, without Grace.

    As § 22 says: “To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes capable of this love only by virtue of a gift received. As the Lord Jesus receives the love of his Father, so he in turn freely communicates that love to his disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15:9). Christ’s gift is his Spirit, whose first “fruit” (cf. Gal 5:22) is charity: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Saint Augustine asks: “Does love bring about the keeping of the commandments, or does the keeping of the commandments bring about love?” And he answers: “But who can doubt that love comes first? For the one who does not love has no reason for keeping the commandments”

    Q3. I think this approach does show that any separation of morality from religion is completely erroneous for us as Christians. This integrated approach may make it harder for us to share our understanding of morality with non-Christians (though one could argue that the more accurate an understanding we ourselves have of it, the better we should be able to explain it to others, even if they do not share our Faith). However, I think the real issue is that we should share it by living it, by being exemplars, more than by talking about it. People should see our lives and be curious about the source of our joy our peace and our love: it is at that level that we can most effectively convert others, even as we become more truly what we are called to be.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking questions, Lazarus.

    I will be interested in others’ views and others’ questions, come to that!

  4. To me it seems that chapter one addresses the question: “Is Christian living about following laws or about a relationship with God?” By use of the story of the rich young man it establishes the answer as “both”. Clearly the young man realises, in meeting Christ, that simply following the rules is not enough. He must do more to inherit eternal life. In his answer Christ establishes that the rules are important – vital – but we are called to more than just obedience to rules.
    I am not sure I agree that modern Catholic life plays down hard rules – that is certainly not my interpretation or experience although I am aware that others see things differently. It is certainly a strand in “Catholic” thinking (which anyone who listened to Hans Kung on BBC R4’s Sunday programme would have experienced). Some modern Catholic thinkers emphasise the relational aspects of faith at the expense of the practice of a moral code. Chapter one seeks to re-establish the balance. Clearly both are needed. Downplaying hard rules is dangerous. Whilst we do have God’s law etched on our hearts, a consequence of the Fall is that we are susceptible to self-delusion and wishful thinking. Over emphasising the rules is also to be avoided as the rich young man himself realised.
    Of course this does mean that moral discussions with those who are not Christian are more difficult. However we need to be honest with ourselves and with others about where our moral understanding comes from. We also need to be confident. The modern tendency amongst those who pretend to sophisticated understanding is that morality based on faith can be dismissed because it is simply a blind obedience to someone else’s instructions so it is more difficult for the world to engage with us than it is for us to engage with the world. It is still possible to explore the rational basis of our moral beliefs and to discuss theirs too.
    Unlike others I have not read the rest of the encyclical so I am not sure what comes next. I expect, having established the importance of a moral code, relativism, especially that which applies to modern moral dilemmas will be comprehensively challenged.

  5. Ttony says:

    I’ve been reading this on and off while travelling and have been struck by the definition of the role of the Church.

    ‘In order to make this “encounter” with Christ possible, God willed his Church. Indeed, the Church “wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life”.’

    (The quote is from Redemptor Hominis, and I already begin to think that I have paid insufficient attention to JPII’s works, but that’s for another time.)

    Lots of things begin to make sense straight away: if the purpose of the Church is to facilitate the encounter between the individual and Christ, then it needs to speak the Truth, it needs to speak with one voice, it needs to speak fearlessly, and it needs to speak with love, because its words have to reflect God’s Word. The marks of the Church – unity, sanctity, catholicity – fall into this sequence as well.

    In the introduction that the Pope says that he shares with the Bishops’ “the responsibility of safeguarding “sound teaching” (2 Tim 4:3)”, and says that he has written the encyclical “with the intention of clearly setting forth certain aspects of doctrine which are of crucial importance in facing what is certainly a genuine crisis, since the difficulties which it engenders have most serious implications for the moral life of the faithful and for communion in the Church, as well as for a just and fraternal social life”, so there are two dimensions to bear in mind from the beginning: ther teaching itself; and the fact that the Church is teaching God’s Truth and can therefore command adherence from Catholics.

    I guess that’s my roundabout answer to Lazarus’ questions 1 and 2.

    I’m not really qualified to answer question 3 – as is no doubt apparent I’m no theologian – but rereading this section in the light of question 3 I started to think of how the section begins with the young man’s question – “what good shall I do that I might have life everlasting?” – and started to think about the way a morality based on doing good rather than on not doing bad might be a signpost towards an answer to a question being debated on and off in blogs and Twitter recently about how we should engage with society in general and Parliament in particular about life issues. I have instinctively been on the side of those who don’t favour gradualism and who dislike separating out each attack on life and handling them as dicrete issues, and this section has begun to give me a better idea of where my instinct has come from. More and more Catholic doctors and nurses, for example, or social workers, or a Catholic Connections service, all seeking to do good so that they might have everlasting, would gradually squeeze anti-life out of the system.

    This last is quite possibly wrong, the product of too much travelling, too little rest and a lot of work: it certainly isn’t thought through. But I hope there’s something in it.

  6. bentrovato12 says:

    Just finished Chapter 2, and it seems to me that there are some good questions to discuss, including:

    1 How do we understand the relationship between freedom and obedience to the Law?

    2 What is the right understanding of the supremacy of conscience?

    3 What does Blessed John Paul ll teach us about ‘a fundamental option’, as opposed to specific acts, proposed as a determinant of our eternal destiny?

    4 How do we recognise a moral act?

  7. Ttony says:

    A lot of this chapter is beyond me: autonomy, heteronomy, theonomy, participated theonomy, for example; or “Teleology versus Teleology”; I can follow the discussion but I can’t join in. But that’s why we have Bishops as teachers, and, in this case, a Pope who helps guide the Bishops in leading their flocks through the difficulty of leading a moral life in an amoral epoch.

    I think that the fact that the encyclical is addressed to the Bishops is important (and, worth discussing in another foum, is the degree to which this primus inter pares role is looked for by the, or at least some of the Bishops). Peter is encouraging the brethren to defend sound doctrine when it is being attacked from all sides, and is giving them solid, modern, tools with which to carry out the defense.

    I am left with a much deeper understanding of the breadth of what “freedom” has to comprise, though I’d be hard put to give you a definition. What freedom is for the individual, and how that relates to conscience, and how the conscience is to be informed, are deep questions, but which all point to the fundamental and critically important role of the Bishop in his Diocese leading, and establishing in his parishes and schools a cadre of trained priests and lay people to take on the modern world and educate the faithful in how to do so themselves.

    This chapter has sent me back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: I needed the CCC to understand what some of the denser bits of Veritatis Splendor were really getting at. I’m glad I can do this: I’m really glad that the CCC is the wonderful explanation of the foundation of the Faith that it is.

    The encyclical was published nineteen years ago. This is the first time I have been introduced to its depths. Thanks to Ben Trovato, and I look forward to other contributions to the discussion as well, but I’d give this group up if my Bishop were ever to talk to his priests about these issues, and ask his priests to teach their parishioners.

  8. Lazarus says:

    It’s a dense read, isn’t it? I’ll try and respond to at least some of Ben’s questions:

    1) Freedom and obedience to law. I think the main issue here is the (erroneous) thought that, by obeying (anything, even God), human beings are sacrificing their freedom and indeed morality: to be moral, an act has to be done simply out of the will to be moral. (This thought is typical of Kant.) The correct response to this is that the divine law isn’t an external command, but something that is at the heart of our being: by obeying it, we are being most truly ourselves (so, even if it is a revealed truth which we wouldn’t have come to by ourselves, it is a revealed truth about us -and we find ourselves in obeying it.)

    2) Conscience is where we encounter that truth of God about ourselves. So it’s not an internal space where we make up stuff about how we’re going to behave, but a space where we encounter the general, public statement of morality, and discern how they apply to us: the thought that to act on moral rules is not simply a matter of immediate, mechanical obedience, but of a process of opening oneself up to God’s guidance. But very different from a cafeteria Catholic: ‘I’ve thought about this a lot and it doesn’t apply to me!’ There is a wrestling to discern, but that’s not the same as a rejection.

    3) Fundamental option. I read the most important message here as being on the issue of mortal/venial sin: the (erroneous) thought being that, so long as you are (fundamentally) directed towards God, actions don’t really matter. JPII is making clear that specific actions constitute (at least in part) that option: just because you love God and are (in some sense) focused on him in your mind doesn’t mean that specific, sinful actions don’t matter.

    4) Moral acts are objectively ordered towards our goal which is God. Just because we want to attain God, it doesn’t mean that (in fact) our actions are directed at him: we can (objectively) be wrong in our aim, whatever our intentions.

    General thoughts:

    a) I read this chapter as being mostly about trying to get a balance between the inward side of morality (intentions, feelings etc) and the outward side (our actions). It’s wrong to say that only intentions and the inward side matter (which is a caricature of a sort of hippy, post VII attitude); it’s wrong to say that only obeying the rules matters (which is the caricature of pre-VII attitudes).

    b) It’s terribly rich, but coming from an Anglophone philosophical background, it’s hard to resist the thought that it reflects a certain continental philosophical tradition which doesn’t pay quite as much attention to clarity as it might.

  9. Ben Trovato says:

    Lazarus, I agree: a good summary of many of the key points. It’s good stuff, but hard to read late in the evening I find…

  10. Lazarus says:

    I’ve just skimmed ch 3 and the conclusion. My initial impression is much more favourable than my last comment about some of the obscurity of ch2. Not sure if that’s simply a change in my mood, or whether it is a result of moving to some broader questions from the detail of ch2 which I think better suits Blessed John Paul’s style.

    Not sure I can precisely formulate any questions just now, but here are three things that I’ll be looking at more closely as I re-read it:

    1) There seems to be an emphasis on the interconnection of truth and morality. There’s a lot to be said here, but one issue is the difference in focus such an attitude brings. Instead of focusing on (say) oneself and perfecting one’s character and emotions etc, it seems to suggest focusing on something outside -and, in particular, on Christ. Perhaps part of what is needed here is thought about ‘truthfulness’: that focus on building one’s own character to be truth loving that connects inner and outer life?

    2) There’s a lot about the way that moral norms sometimes present themselves as irresistible demands, even to the extent of martyrdom. That sense of, ‘Here I stand, I can do no else’ (apologies for using Luther!) is something that I think we moderns find particularly difficult. (Well, I do.)

    3) The reflections on the vocation of moral theologians are particularly striking in view of the Tina Beattie case. I see here what I see in other Papal teachings I have looked at: the sense that theologians are part of the Church and have to be responsive to Magisterial teachings in a similar way to all Catholics, rather than forming a separate Academy with teaching authority of its own.

  11. Ben Trovato says:


    Thanks for this: I’ve been meaning to get on with Ch. 3 for weeks, but haven’t yet made time for it. So your message is a timely prompt and I will get to it and hope to continue the discussion at the weekend.

    The great things about this reading group are firstly that it holds me to my good intentions to devote time to reading important texts; and secondly that it compels me to read them seeking intelligent understanding, not just allowing my eyes to pass over the text….

  12. Lazarus says:

    No problem, Ben! I’m lazy enough to be happy to leave everything to others to initiate but every now and then I get hit with the guilty feeling I need to do my bit as well!!

    Anyway, agree with your sentiments. I’ve been vaguely thinking I should read more Magisterial teaching but never got round to it before this group. Many thanks for setting it up and keeping the ball rolling.

  13. Ben Trovato says:

    I’ve just finished Ch 3 and will start to assemble my thoughts. In the meantime, I came across this: a talk on Veritatis Splendor which I thought helpful by the Australian Bishop, Kevin Manning;

  14. Ben Trovato says:

     What struck me about Chapter Three is that it gives practical effect to what has gone before. It explores how the truths about truth and freedom that have been explored in Chapter two play out in the world.

    Firstly, it makes clear that there is finally no conflict between truth and freedom. The apparent conflict is actually the result of our fallen nature, which inclines us to prefer the ephemeral. Christ teaches us that truth will set us free, and ultimately it is in love, in the gift of the self, that we find true freedom. (§87)

    Further, this truth is necessary for the good of the Church and the world.
    That then places a responsibility on us all: through the moral life, faith becomes “confession”, not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness. (§89)

    That consideration leads on to a meditation on Martyrdom: the ultimate witness, which gives the lie to teleological, consequentialist and proportionalist ethical theories.

    However, we are not all called to the ultimate sacrifice; ‘there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice.’ (§93) A sobering thought, indeed.

    The late Holy Father then returns to the theme of the truth being essential for society: ‘The commandments of the second table of the Decalogue in particular — those which Jesus quoted to the young man of the Gospel (cf. Mt 19:19) — constitute the indispensable rules of all social life.’ (§97)

    That means that if social and political life are to be renewed, that can only be done through an authentic freedom that is founded on Christ’s truth.

    Of course, this is daunting; without Grace we are unable to live fully in accordance with the truth and thus attain authentic freedom. That is why many, to resolve that tension, deny the very idea of objective truth. However, our response must be different: we must acknowledge our need and pray for the graces necessary to obey the law in love. (§105)

    That will then enable us not just to be witnesses of the truth by proclaiming it, but more importantly by living it.

    Pope John Paul then has a few words to say about moral theologians and about bishops. His comments on moral theologians have a particular resonance just at the moment: there job is to understand, apply and explain the Church’s teaching, never to dissent. (§110)

    Likewise bishops have a particular responsibility to the truth, which they must honour in their threefold role: priestly, prophetic and kingly (§114)

    So, as I said above, it seems to me that this chapter teases out the implications of the earlier chapters, in terms of their meaning for us individually, as a Church, as a society, and also as people with specific teaching responsibilities within the Church.

    I think this is a fabulous text: confronting head on the crisis of inauthentic teaching that was (and occasionally still is) undermining the Church, sometimes even from within. It is clear about the nature of absolute morality and about the Church’s competence (and indeed mission and mandate) to pronounce on such things in a binding way. It is both philosophically sophisticated and of immediate and important practical application.

    It is a call to arms, and under the protection of Our Lady may we have the courage to answer it.

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