Twenty five years ago John Paul II released the encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), a monumental document in moral theology. It was a refutation of moral relativism in moral theology. That tendency is still extremely prevalent in theological circles and in society at large and is becoming stronger. Pope Benedict has referred to it as the ‘Dictatorship of Relativism’ so strong is the pressure it is now exerting on all parts of society, including the Church, to conform to it.
Veritatis Splendor rejected the doctrine of proportionalism, according to which an act which is evil in itself can be transformed as ‘subjectively’ defensible in certain circumstances, if it produces a certain proportion of good. Basically, a doctrine which denies that there are acts that are always evil, because sometimes good intentions can transform those acts into something acceptable. There are no moral absolutes, according to this theory, but acts are only right or wrong to a certain proportion.
The document also rejects consequentialism, which is the claim that there is no objective right and wrong but morality depends on circumstances and consequences. Instead, the Pope states that there is an objective morality and that human reason is able to know it and, with the help of God’s grace, to attain it. At the same time, John Paul II linked individualistic ethics to the denial of human nature.
“Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgement about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.” (32)
A more in-depth analysis of the document can be seen in this article by Samuel Gregg, who explains how the document sought to present to a church and world increasingly settling for moral mediocrity a compelling narrative about what freedom and the good life are really about.
“Against those who reduce freedom to absent of constraint, Veritatis Splendor specified that Christianity’s understanding of liberty goes beyond this. Freedom, it emphasized, is inseparable from man’s unique capacity for reason, free will, and consequent ability to know and choose more-than-instrumental-goods. When we constantly strive to choose these goods and avoid evil, we shape ourselves in the direction of the true, good and beautiful. No longer are we slaves of our passions. Instead we become wholly free and more truly alive.”