The Splendor of Truth

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter The Splendor of Truth: Veritatis Splendor (1993).

This encyclical is an exposition of Christ’s conversation with the rich young man recorded in Matthew 19:16-30. The Pope’s purpose is to “reflect on the whole of the Church's moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied.” Veritatis Splendor ¶4.

This reflection is in response to “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected . . . .” Veritatis Splendor ¶4.

In short, the encyclical is a response to growing moral relativism and the claim that there is no absolute truth that should guide our lives, our decisions, and our politics. It is about the “foundations of moral theology.” Veritatis Splendor ¶5. The encyclical has broad implications for law, politics, and ethics, since it addresses the fundamental moral relativism that justifies much of modern legal and political theory. The letter addresses at length, for example, the relationship between God’s law and human freedom (¶¶36-68) and the evils of modern ethics grounded in consequentialism (¶¶74-97). Its scriptural focus and broad relevance give it wide appeal across the evangelical spectrum.

Russell Hittinger notes that today, “there is a deep and ultimately irrational reaction against any depiction, much less any organizing, of the moral life in terms of law.” Russell Hittinger, Natural Law and Catholic Moral Theology, in Michael Cromartie, ed., A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics, and Natural Law 16 (1997). In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II uses the scriptures to demonstrate “that there is a moral law that is indispensable, and that indeed binds authority itself. The Pope points out that all issues of circumstance, culture, place, and time notwithstanding, certain actions can never be made right; no human “law” can make them right. . . . Anyone who sets up an opposition between law and freedom, and then takes the side of freedom, not only underestimates the need for law but also misrepresents the nature of freedom.” Id. at 22.

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