I just finished reading John Paul II’s encyclical Vertitatis Splendor. As you know, it is an encyclical on Catholic moral theology, something on which the Second Vatican Council was going to issue a document but never got around to it, so the late pope took up the task.
John Paul II has some wonderful things to say. I would like to highlight just a few things particularly important.
First, his moral theology arises from Scripture and is developed with an understanding of natural and divine law, human freedom, and conscience.
He describes the unfortunate tendency nowadays of what is called moral autonomy in which each person is a law unto himself or herself. He or she becomes in a sense a god, arbitrating between good and evil. Many of our contemporaries ascribe to this. They believe that the supremacy of conscience means they are the judge of what is good or bad, right or wrong. Such individuals find themselves caught up in meaningless patterns of behavior, some of which can be addictive and destructive.
He describes the opposite unfortunate position of heteronomy, in which individuals believe the truth is imposed on them, and they buy into a moral system of rigidity, a system of do’s and don’ts, a system in which they are ruled by another or something outside themselves. They are prone to a cult-like experience. There is no room for individuality. They long for certainty, clarity, no grays in the moral law. Often, those who once espoused the moral autonomy of the individual will jump over into the heteronomy camp.
Finally, he describes what the Church has always embraced, participated theonomy, which is our participation in and orientation toward God’s life and law. (Theonomy means ordered to an end who is God.) Our moral lives and decisions need to be ordered toward the ultimate end of happiness with him who is Truth. God pours his Spirit within us (grace) which makes us participants in divine life. We are in God, and thus we are happy. This is the basis for moral theology. We are free for the truth, not free from the truth as moral autonomists would have it. The freedom for the truth comes from within us as we participate in divine life and love. Our moral compass is not imposed on us by a set of do’s and don’ts as the heteronomists would want it. (Yes, there are absolute minimums below which we most certainly will sin and fall from grace. But there is no ceiling to the new law of love of Jesus Christ.) By our participation in divine life, our orientation toward the good and the true, we are with God in our consciences. The law is written in our hearts to which we must listen and obey. Our lives find their beginning and their end in the Truth, which is God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we can say, then, that we are “truth friendly and happy?”