“What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” a rich young man asked Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 19:16). Pope John Paul II addresses that question in Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”), arguably the most important publication of his long pontificate.
We all search for happiness. We all ask ourselves what life is all about. We search for fulfillment and try to discover what makes life worth living. The great Pope wrote that Jesus’ conversation with the young man continues “in every period of history, including our own. The question: ‘Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?’ arises in the heart of every individual, and it is Christ alone who is capable of giving the full and definitive answer” (VS 25).
Jesus tells the young man: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). Christ begins with the commandments because they are a basic manifestation of love for neighbor and God. We cannot enter into eternal life or even begin to enjoy life on earth if we do not love, for it is in loving God and neighbor that we have a relationship with God and neighbor. But the young man’s question is not yet fully answered. When he tells Christ that he has kept the commandments since his youth, Jesus challenges him further to leave behind every obstacle and “come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
The fullness of happiness is found in the encounter with Christ, who is the most complete answer to the question that is every human life. Following Christ is the foundation of Christian morality. John Paul wrote, “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” (VS 2). The guide for the Christian life is not a set of rules:
Jesus’ way of acting and his words, his deeds, and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life. Indeed, his actions, and in particular his passion and death on the cross, are the living revelation of his love for the Father and for others. This is exactly the love that Jesus wishes to be imitated by all who follow him. (VS 20)
To love as Jesus loved is to share in the life of Jesus, the life of grace that enables weak human beings to act beyond their limitations. It is not possible for anyone to imitate Christ through his own power.
Freedom for or Freedom to?
With Jesus as a guide, the Christian ponders anew the promise of Christ: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
Contemporary dogma tells us that freedom and law are always and necessarily opposed. It tells us that to be free is to be unencumbered by discipline, rule, or order; that to be under a law is to be unfree and constrained. This is a false conceptualization of the relationship of true freedom and just law. It places freedom apart from the moral truth in just law. It turns the promise of Jesus on its head: “You will ignore the truth, and ignorance will make you free.”
But there are, in fact, two distinct senses of freedom. Freedom of indifference provides the ability to do anything one likes, to feel a lack of constraint. Freedom for excellence, on the other hand, is the freedom to do good. It can develop and grow over time.
A few non-moral examples will clarify. Everyone has freedom of indifference when playing the piano. Even if you’ve never had a single lesson, you can sit down and hit any key you wish. But only the trained musician has freedom for excellence, the freedom to play beautiful, sophisticated music. Similarly, everyone has freedom of indifference to throw a basketball toward a hoop, but only an experienced player has freedom for excellence, freedom to shoot and score consistently. Freedom of indifference is a lack of constraint. Freedom for excellence is the ability to achieve the aim, goal, and purpose of human life: true happiness. (For more on this distinction, see The Sources of Christian Ethics by Servais Pinckaers, O.P.)
What do these two senses of freedom have to do with law? Inherent in the perspective of the freedom of indifference is the belief that law is the enemy of liberty because law constrains, binds, and renders a person unfree. But this sense of freedom cannot help man achieve the goal of all human life—fulfillment through love of God and neighbor. Freedom of indifference to hit keys on a piano or shoot a basketball does not require instruction (law) from a piano teacher or coach, but neither will it produce beautiful music or baskets. Only freedom for excellence, which requires instruction (law, or instinctive adherence) can achieve results.
Freedom to achieve the goal of human life is aided and enhanced through the revelatory instruction—what to do and what to avoid, or law—that comes from God. “Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law,” wrote John Paul. “Indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity” (VS 42). God, who is most free, cannot do evil and can do only good; so too a human being is most free when doing good and makes himself less free through doing evil. “In his journey towards God, the One who ‘alone is good,’ man must freely do good and avoid evil. But in order to accomplish this he must be able to distinguish good from evil” (VS 42).
Natural law—the law that is written in our hearts—is the divine help given by God to all people to enable them to do good and avoid evil. Revealed law, including the Ten Commandments, is an additional grace that specifies for the individual conscience even more clearly the good to be done (e.g., keeping the Sabbath, honoring parents) and the evil to be avoided (e.g. murder, stealing).
Conscience and Truth
God does not usually speak to human beings as he spoke to Moses in the burning bush or as he spoke to us in the human voice of Jesus. Rather, as John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in his letter to the duke of Norfolk, our “conscience is the voice of God . . . a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.”
It is possible to misunderstand Newman’s remark—even to misunderstand the importance of conscience in the Christian tradition—and conclude that each person is a god unto himself, creating “evil” and “good.” But, in the words of the late pontiff, “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil” (VS 59, 60).
Conscience has dignity and rights because of its relationship to truth, a truth to which we owe allegiance. Conscience does not create values; it inquires zealously into what is true.
In this task the believer has an advantage. John Paul noted that “Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and its magisterium.” He goes on to quote the Second Vatican Council:
In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Its charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ and at the same time with its authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order that derive from human nature itself. It follows that the authority of the Church, when it pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians. This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths that are extraneous to it; rather it brings to light the truths that it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith. (VS 64)
For the Christian, the life, teaching, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus illuminate the nature of good and evil, making the conscience better equipped to do its job. For the Catholic, this task is made easier still. The Church provides an authentic interpretation of the message of Christ for our own day and circumstances. Through the ministry of the Church, Christ frees us from not only sin but falsehood, which often leads to sin. More important than what we are free from is what we are free for: to live the truth in love, both now and after death forever.
Body and Soul
The relationship of “who I am” to “what I do” is not always crystal clear. Some choices change a person into a different kind of person. Accepting baptism makes a person a Christian; marrying makes a person a husband or wife; entering religious life makes someone a priest, nun, or brother. Sometimes “what you do” is so significant that it truly changes “who you are.” Not all choices shape a person so fundamentally. Should I have ham or salami? Rye or wheat? Mustard or ketchup? We can distinguish between cases in which free choice makes a profound difference in our lives from cases in which free choice makes a trivial difference.
In the later half of the twentieth century, some theologians posited the idea of a “fundamental freedom” or “fundamental option” for or against God. They suggested that each person chooses for or against God and gives the resulting orientation to their entire lives. This option is exercised at a transcendent level beyond the inner-worldly choices of the everyday here and now. They also asserted that a good person, one who has chosen for God, could nevertheless perform actions that are seriously wrong yet retain his orientation toward loving God and neighbor.
While John Paul admitted that this theory has some valid elements, including the reality of a “fundamental option” for or against God, he pointed out that it is in the application of this theory that some theologians go awry. “To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul” (VS 67). The human person, or moral agent, the Pope taught, is a unity of body and soul, not soul alone. What a person does with his body partially constitutes who he is and whether he is moving toward increased virtue or vice. We cannot posit an “interior transcendent” realm of freedom that determines our eternal salvation in opposition to an “inner-worldly” exercise of freedom in our everyday ethical choices.
The Pope, in other words, reaffirmed the possibility of mortal sin—the choice that extinguishes the life of grace in a person, the choice that, if not rejected through repentance and conversion, leads to the permanent exclusion from the life of grace we call hell. He noted:
For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation: The person turns away from God and loses charity. Consequently, the fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts. (VS 70)
A person may fully and knowingly choose a seriously wrong act and thereby exclude himself—perhaps eternally—from communion with God. (Of course, pastoral experience recognizes situations in which a person—because of limitations on freedom imposed by immaturity, addiction, or bad habit—may choose behavior that is objectively immoral without fully understanding and freely willing the behavior. In such cases, though the act itself is seriously wrong, the person may not be fully responsible and hence may have not sinned mortally.)
Means, Motive, Circumstances
As Thomas Aquinas wrote, to analyze the morality of an action, we have to look at the means, motive, and circumstances (Summa Theologiae I-II.18). All three elements of an action must be good for the action to be good, just as to be a good airplane pilot, the pilot must see well, have flying experience, and be sober. Two out of three is not enough. An otherwise good act motivated by greed, hatred, or cruelty is not a good act. Likewise, there are situations in which the motive is laudable (say, to express and reinforce love), the means is good (for example, spouses making love), but the circumstances are wrong (making love in a public park at noon).
Traditional Catholic teaching holds that some acts—such as intentionally killing an innocent person, adultery, perjury, and contraception—are immoral in themselves and can never be justified by a good motive or by advantageous circumstances. But beginning the late 1960s, certain theologians proposed that the object of the act was good if there was a right proportion between the good and evil effects of the action as a whole. In other words, one could choose something that is, in their terminology, premorally evil—such as contraception or killing—if it brought about the greater good. An entire moral theory called proportionalism developed, which in various formulations proposed the view that there was no such thing as an act that is intrinsically evil and never to be done. Some even argued that this was the view of Thomas Aquinas. (The truth about this and the real origins of proportionalism are explored in my book Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition.)
John Paul judged that this theological innovation was not in accordance with the truth:
One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, that holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species—its “object”—the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. (VS 79; see also VS 82)
He emphasized that the means and object of the human act is fundamental to ethical analysis:
The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by St. Thomas [cf. ST I-II.18.6]. In order to be able to g.asp the object of an act that specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. (VS 78)
Morality is not a matter of calculating the foreseeable consequences of an act and judging whether the act is right or wrong based on these consequences. Happily, utilitarian theories such as proportionalism are now explicitly advocated by very few young theologians, and their influence is rapidly dying.
The moral life as John Paul understands it involves the challenge to live a life of holiness to a heroic degree. Obedience to the truth about the human person—a pursuit of deep happiness and freedom—cannot be achieved through human power alone. But as God gives us the law, he also gives us what we need to fulfill the law: his grace through the work of God the Son on the cross:
It is in the saving cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments that flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer (cf. John 19:34) that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God’s holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships. (VS 103)
One cannot properly love God and neighbor without the work of Christ, or without prayer made so powerfully available in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession. God does not ask what is impossible but gives the grace necessary for each person to live up to the call of holiness (cf. VS 102).
The power of God’s grace has continued through the ages. The martyrs imitate Christ crucified by refusing to do evil and continuing to do good, undeterred even by threats of death (cf. VS 91). Their example gives powerful testimony to the truth that evil may not be done that good may follow. Many of the martyrs could have escaped torturous deaths with a simple lie: “Jesus Christ? I don’t know the man.” In a calculation of likely goods and evils, Peter’s denial would be justified. But Peter was no proportionalist, and he wept bitterly over his betrayal. Later, he again turned down the “greater premoral good” of continuing to live, suffering martyrdom rather than failing to witness to the Truth. Indeed:
No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: Only the cross and the glory of the risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life. (VS 120)