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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

First, this needs some context. Karol Jozef Wojtyła is much more commonly known as Pope John Paul II. He was the Pope 1978 until his death in 2005, and he presided over the Catholic church through many of the most recent, turbulent times in regard to faith, religion, and politics.

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In 1993, he wrote an encyclical titled "Veritatis splendor," or "The Splendor of the Truth," to outline the ideas of the Catholic Church in regards to teaching moral philosophy and ethics. It is a direct rebuttal of the idea of moral relativism, which is increasingly present in modern culture and posits the idea that there is no absolute and definitive truth, but that good and evil are fluid concepts that are relative to whoever is involved. An encyclical is an official Papal document, exploring the beliefs inherent in Catholic doctrine.

This letter had several main points of emphasis that it explored, stemming from the basic tenants that truth is absolute, and it is the duty of the Church to expose that truth to the world as it was revealed by the Lord through the Bible.

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The first point is that the Catholic church, and the global church at large have a duty and authority to speak out on moral issues, because, according to Christian beliefs, God has revealed in the Bible the nature of absolute truth and laid out a specific moral code.

Beyond that, he expresses that humans have been granted freedom and reason to explore and grow—that is, to mature them so they can grow in their understanding of truth and grow closer to God. However, this freedom and reason is subject to God, and if it conflicts with God's law, God's law is inherently true and therefore must inform and change the freedom and reason.

The text goes on to state that things are fundamentally separated into two categories that are more complex than simply good and evil. They are separated into the option of sin—which is anything that is not done in the pursuit of a relationship with God as clarified in Romans, and the option of salvation—which is everything done in an attempt to pursue a relationship with God. He also states that there are inherently evil actions—things that are simply contrary to God's law and to what is morally acceptable—and in no situation are they relatively justified. The Pope concludes his letter by stating that truth is absolute and objective, and that we as humans can know what is objectively right through studying scripture. We have also been given the freedom and power to do things that are morally right, as God has given us the strength necessary to follow his commandments.


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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1400

First published: 1993 (English translation, 1993)

Edition(s) used: Encyclical Letter “The Splendor of Truth,” translated by the Vatican. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1993

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Encyclical; exegesis

Core issue(s): Conscience; ethics; freedom and free will; good vs. evil; morality; truth


Veritatis Splendor, one of the major encyclicals written by Pope John Paul II, addresses the question of moral truth from a Christian perspective. In response to new controversies, John Paul proposes to answer certain fundamental questions regarding the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.

John Paul begins his essay with an exegesis of the famous dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man in chapter 19 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. In this dialogue, the young man asks Jesus what good he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers so as to link moral good with the fulfillment of human destiny and to relate the moral life to acknowledgment of God. Humans are bound to obey the natural law that God has implanted in the human heart. The natural law is first given expression in the Decalogue and reaches fulfillment as the new law of the New Testament. The complete moral path for Christians is to follow Jesus, especially in the new commandment that he gave his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Humans are able to give a free response of love for God and for neighbor by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Because of this relationship between the moral good of human acts and eternal destiny, the Church has developed a special aspect of theology referred to as moral theology. In moral theology, the Church assesses what is good and evil in human actions. Humans find answers to these questions in God alone, who gives the moral law. Humans have freedom in their beliefs and actions, but it is a freedom to embrace what is good, not to determine what is good or evil.

Humans discover this moral law through their reason, whereby the eternal, divine law, and human law intersect. Because humans participate in God’s eternal law through their reason and autonomous will, their freedom is magnified, not negated, by obedience to divine law. Pure statistics and empirical study cannot determine morality. Likewise, moral theology cannot be described as mere physicalism or naturalism because it properly takes into account the place of the human body in deciding moral questions, such as those relating to the sexual act and marital relations. A person is composed of both spirit and body, and the morality of an act cannot be disassociated from its physical dimension.

Because the moral order is inscribed in the rational nature of a person, it governs all human beings. This universality and immutability of the moral law does not violate the individuality of persons and cultures. Rather it transcends them, thereby presenting an objective standard by which all human actions can be measured. The application of the objective moral law finds expression in a person’s conscience, which judges in a concrete situation the practical application of the rational truth to do good and avoid evil. Conscience is a sanctuary where the will of God is heard, calling for acts consistent with what is ethical. Conscience should be followed but should also be well-formed.

The obligation to form one’s acts in conformity with the concrete demands of each situation is not excused by a fundamental intention or “option” to live fully for God. Mortal sin—that is, a gravely immoral act, deliberately and freely chosen—can sever one’s relationship with God. In a related fashion, the morality of human acts depends on both the intention and the consequences deliberately sought (in contrast to unacceptable teleological theories of consequentialism or proportionalism, which would evaluate actions solely by assessing the possible consequences). In the nuanced but classical language of Catholic moral ethics, John Paul defines the morality of the human act as depending “primarily and fundamentally on the object rationally chosen by the deliberate will.” These judgments apply to believers and nonbelievers alike. Some acts are intrinsically evil and cannot be remediated by a subjectively good intent; evil cannot be done so that good may come of it (Romans 3:8).

Moral questions ultimately command both freedom and truth. “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Faith is likewise inexorably linked to morality. In Christian faith and the teachings of the Church, humans learn the truth about universal and immutable moral norms. Authentic freedom calls humans to embrace the good that is revealed by God, manifested in the person of the crucified Christ. The legacy of the martyrs and saints exemplifies the fidelity of persons who witness to truth and the moral order, even preferring death to a single grave sin. Utilitarianism, extreme pragmatism, and relativism all constitute an obscuring of the transcendent moral order, as does public dissent by theologians. The Church, its pastors, its theologians, and its members must embrace and proclaim the truths of the moral life, thereby converting personal lives and renewing the social, economic, and political spheres of society.

Christian Themes

“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus. John Paul answers Pilate’s question in this highly complex and profound encyclical. As John Paul notes in the preface, “The Splendor of Truth shines forth in the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man created in the image and likeness of God.” In this one sentence are evoked traditional themes of Christian and Catholic teachings. The moral and natural law of God is revealed in the physical world and in the human, and is accessible to human reason. Morality has a universal and unchangeable nature that can be known by all persons who are suitably disposed, although the Church teaches the fullness of the moral laws with conviction and clarity.

These teachings have been historically criticized as impinging on human freedom; in modern times, they have been criticized for opposing empirical research, democracy, positivism, and individual and cultural identity. The pope leaves the task of assembling a complete and systematic presentation of Christian morality to the then recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). Nevertheless this is the first papal document addressing the philosophical and theological foundations of moral law, and John Paul uses it to reply to controversial tendencies leading to extreme individualism, pragmatism, utilitarianism, and relativism. Although focusing on these specific tendencies, he does so while reflecting on the whole of the Church’s moral teachings. Appropriately for this profound examination, John Paul draws extensively on the major Catholic theologians Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine and the teachings of the milestone Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The traditional Catholic assessment of concrete actions according to the Decalogue is ratified, although enriched by a modern emphasis on the disposition of the human person toward God.

Jesus fulfills and does not negate the commandments by “interiorizing their demands” and enhances and does not destroy freedom by connecting it to obedience to the law of God. Thus the pope is able to classify certain acts, historically condemned by Catholics—such as homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, torture, slavery, prostitution, contraception, and oppression of workers—as intrinsically wrong. John Paul expresses in modern and philosophical fashion the Christian belief in objective norms of truth and morality. Jesus Christ proclaimed himself to be “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 1:14). In freely pursuing what is true and what is good, humans find a loving relationship with God.

Sources for Further Study

  • Allsopp, Michael E., and John J. O’Keefe, eds. “Veritatis Splendor”: American Responses. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1995. A collection of twenty essays, both critical and supportive, on Veritatis Splendor by American authors.
  • Dinoia, J. A., and Romanus Cessario, eds. “Veritatis Splendor” and the Renewal of Moral Theology. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1999. With contributions by ten well-known scholars, including Avery Dulles, S.J., and Alasdair MacIntyre, this collection of essays addresses perspectives on the encyclical, issues raised by the encyclical, and the reception of the encyclical.
  • Miller, J. Michael, ed. The Encyclicals of John Paul II. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001. A collection of the thirteen encyclicals issued by Pope John Paul from 1979 to 1998; editor Miller includes helpful and extensive introductions and bibliographies relating John Paul’s encyclicals to his papacy and to the Catholic magisterial tradition.

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