Are We Truth Friendly and Happy?

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?”

About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota.
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3 Responses to Are We Truth Friendly and Happy?

  1. Michael Young says:

    Mohandas Gandhi spoke of Truth, he said that God is the God of truth, the God of nonviolence the God of peace. “We tend to become what we worship,”
    Ghandi wrote. “We must become living embodiments of Truth and Love because God is Truth and Love”. In 1924 Ghandi wrote to a Christian friend, “the only purpose of life is to see God face to face, and the more I see of life and its experiences, the more I feel that everyone does not receive the light in the same way, even as though the sun is the same, we see it differently from the equatorial regions, from the temerate zone, and from the frigid zone”.

  2. Geoff says:

    If I’m reading your post correctly, you put forward two possible options for where to get morals:

    1. Moral autonomy: People decide for themselves what is right and wrong.
    2. Moral heteronomy: People look only to an outside source (usually God or a cult leader) to know what is right and wrong.

    Then you argue that the Church’s position is a sort of compromise, leaning toward the second option. My question to you is: How is there any “wiggle room” on morality if God exists? Being omniscient, God would have the correct information on what is right and wrong. Any religion assuming the existence of an all-knowing being must be in category 2.

    You also say that people in category 1 will often jump to category 2. This makes very little sense. What causes these people to change their minds so drastically?

    If I had to choose which option best described me, I’d say moral autonomy, although my morals aren’t really mine. Like everyone else, my morals are a product of the culture I’ve grown up in, my experiences, and various texts I’ve read. describes my views best. “Life is good, death is bad; health is good, sickness is bad” is a good mantra, but there are edge cases. (When does life start? Is a person dead if you preserve the information encoded in their brain by freezing it?)

    I think a lot of your posts overlook upbringing as the main influence on beliefs, including morality. Our genes, our parents, our culture, and our childhood experiences play a huge role in shaping us. Had you been born to a Hindu family in India, you would be espousing Hinduism as the correct religion. The same would be true for me.

    I know I’m getting off-track, but I’d like to ask one last thing: What would cause you to no longer believe Catholicism? I could give quite a few scenarios that would cause me to believe in the existence of some sort of God. Unfortunately, most religious people don’t doubt their beliefs the way I doubt mine. Everything I say is a dead proposition to them.

  3. admin says:

    Geoff, once again, thank you for your comment and your interest in these things.

    Just to clarify: My post was an attempt to summarize not my thoughts, but those of John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. I would encourage you to read it for yourself and see what you think. Google it and you will find a copy. The Vatican website is where I got mine.

    Actually, what I think the Pope was saying is that the only option that will bring us truth and happiness is what he calls participated theonomy. It really isn’t so much a middle approach, but a real distinct and radically different thing from moral autonomy or heteronomy. I probably did a poor job in summarizing it all, but I gave it my best shot! It is the approach where we recognize that the basis for a moral life is to realize that to be happy and to know what is true we have to orient ourselves toward our end, which as Christians we believe is eternal life and happiness. In doing this, we come to see that there is a “natural law” which we honor (i.e., “Life is good; death is bad; health is good, sickness is bad.”) and is universal for all men and women across culture and time, and additionally we come to recognize divine law (God’s self-revelation)through culture, family, our especially our religious experience in community. When we are oriented toward our ultimate end (happiness and truth) and recognize as best we can natural law and divine law, and make choices accordingly we live a good moral life. How to act in any given situation comes from our consciences where we are alone with God and make judgments about what to do and what to avoid.

    Moral autonomists would generally say there is no law outside themselves. They determine what is right or wrong (even thought their argument falls apart because even they acknowledge a law greater than themselves, i.e., I should be free to do what I want as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.

    Heteronomists don’t want to struggle with making personal decisions as to how to apply to real life the demands of conscience. They want clarity and to be told.

    God is omniscient. He does know what is right or wrong. The more we come to know him, the clearer to us what is right or wrong becomes. That is partly what participated theonomy is all about. There are moral absolutes (10 commandments as an example), that set the minimums we have to adhere to. But the “New Law” of Jesus is the law to love. There is no upper limit to the challenges that puts to us in our moral lives.

    Regarding your last question. I cannot really conceive of anything that would make me not believe in my Catholic faith. Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t questioned it; I challenge it a lot. My Catholic faith though is faith in Jesus Christ and participation in the community of people who follow him, directly or indirectly. I treasure that.

    Hope this helps!

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