what good must I do to have eternal life?

Pope John Paul II with crucifixToday I’m continuing to unpack the first chapter of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the moral life.

“Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16)

8. The question which the rich young man puts to Jesus of Nazareth is one which rises from the depths of his heart. It is an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfilment of his own destiny. He is a devout Israelite, raised as it were in the shadow of the Law of the Lord. If he asks Jesus this question, we can presume that it is not because he is ignorant of the answer contained in the Law. It is more likely that the attractiveness of the person of Jesus had prompted within him new questions about moral good. He feels the need to draw near to the One who had begun his preaching with this new and decisive proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).

People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil. Christ is the Teacher, the Risen One who has life in himself and who is always present in his Church and in the world. It is he who opens up to the faithful the book of the Scriptures and, by fully revealing the Father’s will, teaches the truth about moral action. At the source and summit of the economy of salvation, as the Alpha and the Omega of human history (cf. Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), Christ sheds light on man’s condition and his integral vocation. Consequently, “the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly — and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being — must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deeper wonder at himself.”16

If we therefore wish to go to the heart of the Gospel’s moral teaching and grasp its profound and unchanging content, we must carefully inquire into the meaning of the question asked by the rich young man in the Gospel and, even more, the meaning of Jesus’ reply, allowing ourselves to be guided by him. Jesus, as a patient and sensitive teacher, answers the young man by taking him, as it were, by the hand, and leading him step by step to the full truth.

The Pope’s vision of the moral life is a radical one — meaning that it goes to the root of the situation. It involves examining our inmost being — our heart — under the light of Christ. The quote from Redemptoris Hominis says it with lyrical force:

…the man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly… must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter him with all his own self; he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself.

Like a good surgeon, the Pope is not satisfied with band-aid solutions or mere pain killers. Open-heart surgery is the only satisfactory solution in the case of the heart of fallen man. In matters of life and death, glossing over the problem is a fatal mistake. Instead, we have to summon up all of our courage and trust, and lay everything bare before the divine physician. We have to face the truth about ourselves and our condition, and it is a confrontation that can stimulate panic in us if we do not entrust ourselves to the mercy of God.

Notice that the moral life begins by engaging our freedom. Christ isn’t going to force Himself upon us. We have to draw near to Christ, to willingly lay our lives before Him. Only then does He reveal us to ourselves and lead us into the paschal mystery of His dying and rising.

Given the fallen state which we have inherited, a mere self-evaluation of our moral life will never suffice. A simple checklist of our own weaknesses and failures, considered from a merely human point-of-view, will not give us an accurate picture of the situation, or provide the strength to overcome our failings. Instead, we must place ourselves before Christ, who reveals the Father’s will, offers us authentic self-knowledge, and extends to us a participation in the saving grace of His own death and resurrection. It’s not an easy process, but it is a simple one, and it is the only one that saves.

In my next post, I’ll begin reflecting on Christ’s response to the young man: “There is only one who is good.”

someone came to him (Mt 19:16)

In this post, I’ll begin unpacking the first chapter of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the moral life. The letter begins with an extended meditation on the story of the rich young man who approaches Jesus with a question.

“TEACHER, WHAT GOOD MUST I DO…? ” (Mt 19:16) –
Christ and the answer to the question about morality

“Someone came to him…” (Mt 19:16)

6. The dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man, related in the nineteenth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, can serve as a useful guide for listening once more in a lively and direct way to his moral teaching:

“Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments. ‘He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ ” (Mt 19:16-21).13

7. “Then someone came to him…”. In the young man, whom Matthew’s Gospel does not name, we can recognize every person who, consciously or not, approaches Christ the Redeemer of man and questions him about morality. For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man’s life. Precisely in this perspective the Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of moral theology, so that its teaching would display the lofty vocation which the faithful have received in Christ,14 the only response fully capable of satisfying the desire of the human heart.

In order to make this “encounter” with Christ possible, God willed his Church. Indeed, the Church “wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life.”15

Notice that the Pope selects a Gospel passage about an encounter with Jesus. The question of morality — “what must I do?” — is not a matter of balancing precepts, but is, first and foremost, an encounter with a person: the person of Jesus Christ. The Pope invites us to this encounter as well, to “listening in a lively and direct way” to Christ Himself.

Who is it that comes to Jesus? Who is this unnamed “someone”? The Pope invites us to recognize ourselves, and every searching human being, in the person of the rich young man approaching Jesus with questions. The questions reveal a single question: the question of the meaning of life… a question that has ultimate importance… and a question, that, when answered, will direct the way we exercise our freedom. We approach Christ with our questions because we are attracted to Goodness in person and our heart desires intimate knowledge of the Good… not just to name the Good, but to identify ourselves with the Good, to participate in it, to be one with it… to make goodness our own by union with Goodness Himself. We long for union and communion.

In my next post, I’ll examine the insights the Pope gains by meditating on the request of the rich young man: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”

the purpose of Veritatis Splendor

At the end of the introduction to his encyclical letter on moral theology, Pope John Paul II lays out clearly the purpose of the document he is presenting.

4. At all times, but particularly in the last two centuries, the Popes, whether individually or together with the College of Bishops, have developed and proposed a moral teaching regarding the many different spheres of human life. In Christ’s name and with his authority they have exhorted, passed judgment and explained. In their efforts on behalf of humanity, in fidelity to their mission, they have confirmed, supported and consoled. With the guarantee of assistance from the Spirit of truth they have contributed to a better understanding of moral demands in the areas of human sexuality, the family, and social, economic and political life. In the tradition of the Church and in the history of humanity, their teaching represents a constant deepening of knowledge with regard to morality.8

Today, however, it seems necessary 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. In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of 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; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to “exhort consciences” and to “propose values,” in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.

In particular, note should be taken of the lack of harmony between the traditional response of the Church and certain theological positions, encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology, with regard to questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself. In particular, the question is asked: do the commandments of God, which are written on the human heart and are part of the Covenant, really have the capacity to clarify the daily decisions of individuals and entire societies? Is it possible to obey God and thus love God and neighbour, without respecting these commandments in all circumstances? Also, an opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the Church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone, while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behaviour could be tolerated, these being left to the judgment of the individual subjective conscience or to the diversity of social and cultural contexts.


a moral theologian says to himself, “hmm… I think we could do without this particular understanding of natural law…”

The key thing to notice here is that the letter is not intended as a consideration of one or more “hot button” moral issues that need to be addressed at the present time. Instead, the letter takes a bird’s-eye view of overarching principles of morality that are being ignored, distorted or denied, even within Christianity, as a result of “numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature.”

Twenty-five years after the release of Humanae Vitae, the Pope recognizes a pattern of dissent which is “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions.” In other words, although it might seem, on the surface of things, that just one or more of the Church’s teachings about the moral life are being questioned, the stakes are actually much higher: some of the very building blocks of the Church’s moral teachings are being removed. Wittingly or unwittingly, some ethicists, theologians, and even teachers in seminaries have been playing Jenga with the structure of the Church’s moral teaching. Rather than waiting for the whole structure to collapse due to a weakened foundation, the Pope is proactively analyzing, clarifying and reasserting certain foundational principles in order to preserve the building’s integrity.

He identifies the core issue as “currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth.” Then he lists particular manifestations of this malaise: rejection of the doctrine of natural law, wholesale rejection of certain moral teachings, and a redefinition of the Church’s role as it relates to moral decisions made by individuals. He also notices a tendency among some to consider shared teaching on matters of faith as sufficient to the Church’s unity… as if differing views on moral teaching would not impact communion in the Church.

5. Given these circumstances, which still exist, I came to the decision — as I announced in my Apostolic Letter Spiritus Domini, issued on 1 August 1987 on the second centenary of the death of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori — to write an Encyclical with the aim of treating “more fully and more deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology,”9 foundations which are being undermined by certain present day tendencies.

I address myself to you, Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, who share with me the responsibility of safeguarding “sound teaching” (2 Tim 4:3), with the intention of clearly setting forth certain aspects of doctrine which are of crucial importance in facing what is certainly a genuine crisis, since the difficulties which it engenders have most serious implications for the moral life of the faithful and for communion in the Church, as well as for a just and fraternal social life.

If this Encyclical, so long awaited, is being published only now, one of the reasons is that it seemed fitting for it to be preceded by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains a complete and systematic exposition of Christian moral teaching. The Catechism presents the moral life of believers in its fundamental elements and in its many aspects as the life of the “children of God”: “Recognizing in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life ‘worthy of the Gospel of Christ’ (Phil 1:27). Through the sacraments and prayer they receive the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit which make them capable of such a life.”10 Consequently, while referring back to the Catechism “as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine,”11 the Encyclical will limit itself to dealing with certain fundamental questions regarding the Church’s moral teaching, taking the form of a necessary discernment about issues being debated by ethicists and moral theologians. The specific purpose of the present Encyclical is this: to set forth, with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition,12 and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met.

The Pope reveals that this encyclical has been in the works for at least six years, since he already referred to it in his 1987 apostolic letter. Why the wait? One reason is because he wanted to present it after the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which would provide authoritative, systematic teaching on the moral life and address many particular questions.

(NOTE: I gave an overview of the Church’s vision of the moral life, as presented in the Catechism, during an RCIA Hollywood class in the spring of 2008. If you listen to the audio podcast from this class, the discussion about the moral life begins about 17 minutes into the audio.)

In my next post, I’ll begin examining the Pope’s beautiful scriptural meditation on the dialogue of the rich young man with Jesus in Matthew 19.

the true light that enlightens everyone

In this post, I’ll continue exploring the contents of Veritatis Splendor. Here is the introduction to the text:

Jesus Christ, the true light that enlightens everyone

1. Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9), people become “light in the Lord” and “children of light” (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by “obedience to the truth” (1 Pet 1:22).

This obedience is not always easy. As a result of that mysterious original sin, committed at the prompting of Satan, the one who is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44), man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes 1:9), exchanging “the truth about God for a lie” (Rom 1:25). Man’s capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism (cf. Jn 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself.

But no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away from man the light of God the Creator. In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it. This is eloquently proved by man’s tireless search for knowledge in all fields. It is proved even more by his search for the meaning of life. The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions. Rather, it spurs us on to face the most painful and decisive of struggles, those of the heart and of the moral conscience.

The fundamental theme of the encyclical is Johannine: truth as light. John Paul II waits only one paragraph before broaching the topic of the legacy of sin and disobedience: Sin hampers our capacity to know the truth, as well as our will to act in accordance with it. When in the shadows of sin, we still search for freedom — the difference is that we seek it apart from the truth, lest our deeds of darkness be brought into the light.

The good news is that the aspiration for truth is never destroyed, but remains in the human heart. The Pope locates this search in the modern world’s scientific yearnings and, more especially, in the yearning for meaning. He acknowledges that these yearnings situate us in a most painful war within the heart — the battle for a right conscience.

2. No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil? The answer is only possible thanks to the splendour of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit, as the Psalmist bears witness: “There are many who say: ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord’ ” (Ps 4:6).

The light of God’s face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), the “reflection of God’s glory” (Heb 1:3), “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself, as the Second Vatican Council recalls: “In fact, it is only in the mystery of the Word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of the future man, namely, of Christ the Lord. It is Christ, the last Adam, who fully discloses man to himself and unfolds his noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father’s love.”1Jesus Christ, the “light of the nations”, shines upon the face of his Church, which he sends forth to the whole world to proclaim the Gospel to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15).2 Hence the Church, as the People of God among the nations,3 while attentive to the new challenges of history and to mankind’s efforts to discover the meaning of life, offers to everyone the answer which comes from the truth about Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The Church remains deeply conscious of her “duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related.”4

In this second section, the letter becomes Christocentric: Christ is at the center of the moral life. Christ is Light and Truth Incarnate; from His very face, Truth shines forth visibly upon humanity… and in Him we see the way, the truth and the life. He is the ultimate reference point for every question about what is good, not in the way a sage would be (simply dispensing answers about the Good), but as Goodness in Person. He illuminates the fundamental human vocation, which is to give oneself away in love.

It is very fitting that this letter was released on the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6), when we commemorate Jesus’ radiant appearance on Mount Tabor, an event witnessed by the apostles Peter, James and John (cf. Mt 17:1-8). Not only does this Gospel passage manifest Jesus in all His splendor, it also recalls the voice of the heavenly Father, inviting the followers of Christ to obedience: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

Icon of the Transfiguration

The splendor of Christ is visible not only to the contemporaries of Jesus, but to every successive age, because His countenance of light and truth remains visible to us in the Church He established. The Church allows people of every generation to be, in a sense, contemporaries of Jesus Christ, living in the presence of His radiant goodness and truth. The Church keeps before our eyes the splendor of truth, and helps men and women of every age to interpret their historical situation in light of the Gospel. The bishops of the Church, as successors of those who witnessed the Transfiguration, are called in a particular way to be witnesses of this truth before all the world, and to foster and guide the witness that all members of Christ’s body are to provide.

3. The Church’s Pastors, in communion with the Successor of Peter, are close to the faithful in this effort; they guide and accompany them by their authoritative teaching, finding ever new ways of speaking with love and mercy not only to believers but to all people of good will. The Second Vatican Council remains an extraordinary witness of this attitude on the part of the Church which, as an “expert in humanity,”5 places herself at the service of every individual and of the whole world.6The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all. The Second Vatican Council clearly recalled this when it stated that “those who without any fault do not know anything about Christ or his Church, yet who search for God with a sincere heart and under the influence of grace, try to put into effect the will of God as known to them through the dictate of conscience… can obtain eternal salvation”. The Council added: “Nor does divine Providence deny the helps that are necessary for salvation to those who, through no fault of their own, have not yet attained to the express recognition of God, yet who strive, not without divine grace, to lead an upright life. For whatever goodness and truth is found in them is considered by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel and bestowed by him who enlightens everyone that they may in the end have life.”7

The Pope makes the bold claim, following on the teaching of Paul VI, that the Church is an expert in humanity. This point is important if we’re going to understand the Church’s witness in regard to moral truth. The moral life does not pertain simply to Christians or members of other religions; it is a gift and a task for every human being. As mother and teacher, the Church feels an obligation to provide a moral witness to the entire world, regardless of creed… because the moral life concerns what is essential to being human. It’s a bold claim the Church makes, but notice, she models her authority on the Lord she follows… it is an authority that is not clawing after power, but is sacrificial in nature. It’s rooted in service: “she [the Church] places herself at the service of every individual and of the whole world.” Some claim that the Church has it out for them, that the Christian God has it out for them, but that is a distorted view of the situation… the shadowy view of those for whom the radiance of truth is seen as blinding and punishing, rather than as a source of freedom. The Church, in her moral teaching, is not trying to impose a creed on the world, but to offer the service of a moral witness that is truly human. In her sinful members, this witness is often weak, to be sure, and sometimes contradicted by bad behavior. But does this mean the Church should turn out the lights and let fallen humanity continue on the trajectory of its fallenness? As mother, the Church cannot stop loving and nurturing her children, both within and beyond her visible communion. In this, she is obedient to her Lord.

Here’s my last observation about this section: The Church has reverence for the moral sensibility of non-believers. She sees in conscience the Light that illumines every life… and appreciates the witness to truth and goodness that non-believers give, seeing in it a participation in the grace of Christ.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the Pope’s reasons for writing this encyclical letter.

The Splendor of Truth

John Paul II forgives Mehmet Ali Agca

Photo: John Paul II forgives his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca

It has been twenty-five years since Pope Saint John Paul II released the encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”).

I’ve been thinking about this particular letter lately. Its critique of contemporary trends in moral theology seems even more prophetic now. I think, in particular, about all of the arguments being presented by dissenters in the Church today re: contraception, homosexuality, etc. Of course, these arguments were around at the time the letter was written, and they haven’t changed much since. The voices of dissent have, in many cases, simply become more shrill and, in some quarters, unquestioned… a “dictatorship of relativism,” as then-Cardinal Ratzinger aptly named it.

Veritatis Splendor is perhaps one of the most difficult letters of JPII to digest, as it makes deep forays into philosophy to make its case. It was one of the first letters of JPII I ever encountered, and, in retrospect, I think it’s one I most appreciate because I really had to grapple with it, to work at understanding his arguments and his thesis.

I also think it may be among the most maligned and neglected letters of JPII, and so I’m planning to make it the primary topic of my blog in the coming months. My idea is to publish a short passage in each post, unpack what it has to say, and then invite comments, observations, questions.

The table of contents page for this project may be found here.

Let’s start at the very beginning: the blessing.

Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate,
Health and the Apostolic Blessing!

The splendour of truth shines forth in all the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26). Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord. Hence the Psalmist prays: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord” (Ps 4:6).

First thing to note: the audience for the letter. It is primarily addressed to bishops; no one else is listed in the salutation. Certainly this doesn’t mean that no one else can benefit from reading it, but it’s worth noting that, primarily, the Pope is addressing the official teachers in the Church, those with a particular vocation of maintaining and explaining the apostolic teaching on faith and morals in its integrity.

Also noteworthy: John Paul II displays his characteristic focus on the human person’s capacity for freedom, and on truth as a source and guide for this freedom. The goal of freedom? To know and love the Lord.

Finally, he ends by invoking God’s grace, using the words of the Psalmist. Our thinking about the moral life finds its source and criterion in God, the Truth in Person.

In my next post, I’ll look at the introduction. Teaser: Truth shines upon us and has a human face: Jesus Christ.