“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.