Veritatis splendor at 20

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By Bill Mattison

Pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis splendor, was a groundbreaking and rare Magisterial document focusing squarely on the practice of a theological sub-discipline as it entered headlong into the fray of heated moral theological debate at the time.  That charged atmosphere resulted in wildly different assessments of the encyclical upon its release.  While accounts of the encyclical continue to vary widely, twenty years affords an opportunity for some measure of hindsight on the place of this document in post-conciliar Catholic moral theology. 

I ask, “what role did Veritatis splendor play in the ongoing post-conciliar renewal of Catholic moral theology called for in Optatem totius (1965)?”

One initial reaction to VS among Catholic moralists named it a disappointing retrenchment to pre-conciliar moral theology due to its focus on the moral object, natural law, and mortal sin. Some thought the encyclical badly mischaracterized schools of thought such as proportionalism, attacking a straw man.  Others characterized its articulation of what is objectionable in contemporary moral theology a misguided return to the moral theology of the manuals.

Another reaction welcomed the encyclical, especially its repudiation of proportionalism.  These moralists regarded much recent moral theology as deviating from authentic teaching and they embraced VS as getting the discipline back on the right track.  While such a reaction was not an explicit injunction to return to pre-conciliar moral theology, this assessment saw the encyclical as a welcome rejection of a certain sort of “renewal” in the discipline. 

Despite these opposite receptions, both schools agree that the encyclical failed to contribute to the renewal of moral theology.  Notwithstanding the impact of Vatican II on moral theology and the “sputtering start” with regard to renewal in Gaudium et spes, the failure of the Council fathers to approve the proposed constitution on moral theology, de ordine morali, epitomizes the Council’s inability to advance the discipline. Conversely, I think VS does step toward renewal; here I identify several features to substantiate my claim. 

Optatem totius’ call for moral theology to be “renewed” mentions both “more living contact with the mystery of Christ” and being “nourished more on the teaching of the Bible.”  VS heeds both in its stirring first chapter reflection on the rich young man’s encounter with Christ and in the technical analysis of the second chapter, including a final section that invites a theologically grounded and pastorally attuned understanding of sin, a topic largely unaddressed in the discipline.

1) The reflection contextualizes the Catholic moral life as a call to discipleship rooted in Sacred Scripture.  2) Its discussion of the perennial human longing for happiness and its treatment of the Decalogue in continuity with the beatitudes in that yearning for happiness, re-centers moral theology on the life of fulfillment that is Christian discipleship, a focus that had been eclipsed by a shift from a morality of happiness in an earlier era to a morality of obligation in the later manualist period.  3) Its exhortation to understand the moral object through the “perspective of the acting person” (78) recasts moral analysis from the external observer perspective to the first person perspective, a move that is at the heart of virtue approaches to morality.  4) Its examination of the relationship between freedom and truth contributes to moral analysis of the relationship between intellect and will.  5) Its examination of natural law explicitly eschews both the “biologistic” reading off of moral norms from biology and the scientific deduction of particular norms from self-evident first principles, helping pave the way toward a vision of natural law such as that found in the recent International Theological Commission document “In Search of Universal Ethics:  a New Look at Natural Law.”

In short, as the post-conciliar renewal of Catholic moral theology continues, moral theologians would do well to attend better to the role VS can play in that renewal.  Twenty years distance allows adequate hindsight to look beyond assessments of the document that are positive or negative based upon its stance toward certain methodologies (e.g., fundamental option) or on certain contested methodological questions (e.g., the moral object, intrinsic evils). Perhaps Veritatis splendor is the most definitive step to date in the renewal of moral theology –more could take notice. 

William C. Mattison III is an Associate Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.  He is the author of Introducing Moral Theology:  True Happiness and the Virtues (Brazos, 2008) and co-founder of the New Wine, New Wineskins Symposium for Catholic Moral Theologians.  He is currently working on a book on moral theology and the Sermon on the Mount.


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