Has the Vatican forgotten St John Paul II’s great encyclical on moral life?

Continuity? Pope John Paul II greets the future Pope Francis (CNS)

Last week, on the 25th anniversary of Veritatis Splendor, I looked at how St John Paul’s encyclical of 1993 took up the challenges created in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae 25 years earlier. Blessed Paul VI went to his grave 40 years ago this month secure in the knowledge that he had “not betrayed the holy truth”, but fully aware the Church had lost its confidence that it could teach authoritatively on moral questions, particularly those related to marriage and family.

Veritatis Splendor came amid the most extraordinarily rich decade of papal teaching since Leo XIII. In 1991 John Paul issued his charter for the free society, Centesimus Annus, and his affirmation of the essential missionary identity of the Church, Redemptoris Missio – a theme that dominates current priorities in Rome. In 1995 came Evangelium Vitae and in 1998 Fides et Ratio. That’s just the encyclicals, and does not include the monumental achievement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But 25 years after Veritatis Splendor, what is its status in the Rome of Pope Francis? Is it still considered now what it was acknowledged to be in 1993, namely, the deepest magisterial treatment of the moral life as a whole, rather than a specific moral question? That it was the most comprehensive magisterial teaching on freedom, truth, conscience and choice after Vatican II?

It is tiresome to return to Amoris Laetitia, but it offers clear evidence that the reach of Veritatis Splendor is restricted in Rome today. In the nearly 400 footnotes in the longest papal document in the history of the Church, not a single citation was made to Veritatis Splendor; it was simply excised from memory by the drafters of Amoris.

The dubia of the four cardinals put the matter in question form: how should the passages be understood in Amoris Laetitia which propose a way of thinking that is explicitly condemned by Veritatis Splendor?

It is worth recalling what Veritatis Splendor taught on conscience:

In order to justify these positions, some authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law.

Having described the approach, St John Paul then explicitly rules out its application in a manner that almost matches Amoris Laetitia line for line:

A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimise so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept. No one can fail to realise that these approaches pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God’s law.

The dubia regarding Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor have gone unanswered, leaving individuals, including bishops and priests, to work out how to proceed when the latter condemns what the former proposes. The easiest solution is simply to ignore that Veritatis Splendor exists.

This is partly amusing, because Veritatis Splendor was a model of theological dialogue; it explains at great length the positions which it then criticises. It acknowledges the partial truths in approaches that fail on the whole. It is abundantly aware of the moral theories proposed and discussed in theological faculties. It is more than strange, then, that an encyclical that was at pains to take account of competing proposals has met a fate wherein its teaching is simply ignored.

Can that continue? Perhaps in the short term. But a document of the stature of Veritatis Splendor must have its arguments contested if it is to be overturned, not merely ignored. To date that not happened, and it almost certainly won’t.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the August 17 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here