The Splendour of Truth

Pope St John Paul II was a significant figure in the latter part of the 20th Century. This is not simply due to the fact that he was the leader of a significant world religion or that he tirelessly travelled the globe evangelising Catholics and non-Catholics alike. John Paul II was also a consummate thinker and philosopher; and it has been rightly remarked that he could easily have held a chair in academic philosophy (phenomenological philosophy in particular) in any European university. His numerous writings as pope attest to the profundity of his thinking, and his philosophical publications (including Love and Responsibilty and The Acting Person) can sit on the shelves of any academic philosopher’s library. Hence when John Paul II addressed philosophical issues, he did so not as a run of the mill affair – something relevant to Catholicism but not to him as an individual Catholic; John Paul II was personally invested in his treatment of philosophical matters as pope.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical treating of moral theology and philosophy. What is significant about this encyclical is that John Paul II does not limit himself to addressing a particular moral issue such as contraception or abortion; rather he treats of the whole field of moral theology and how a genuinely Catholic moral theology can be worked out. This encyclical is valuable precisely because it not only speaks to Catholics in the determination of Catholic teaching, but it also addresses important issues in philosophy more generally, moral philosophy in particular.


The first feature of the document that is worth reflecting on is the prominence it gives to truth. Truth is the agreement or conformity of the intellect with thing, so that if my thinking is about some object and the nature of that thought is in agreement with the nature of the object, then we have truth. Hence, truth is the measurement of the intellect and signifies a proper relationship the intellect has to its object. In moral matters then, truth is the agreement of the moral agent with what is good, such that the actions that he or she undertakes are good actions.

The focus on truth sets the tone for the entire encyclical, and it is important that it do so. This is because the pope is keen to stress that in matters of truth, man is not the measure of things, the objective facts are. Hence, it is not the intellect which is the measure of the facts, but the facts which are the measure of the intellect. Should the intellect not measure up to the facts, then the intellect is not functioning as it ought. The same goes then for the moral agent; there is a good which is the measure of the agent which is captured in the natural law, and should the moral agent not measure up to this good he or she is failing as a moral agent.

Freedom in action

A moral action is one that is freely undertaken, since if one is forced into performing an action, one does not bear responsibility for that action. Hence, freedom is essential to the performance of a moral action, and this stands to reason since we as rational agents are able to consider what the good is and choose to implement it or not – this is what is involved in morally evaluable activity.

So far so good, but there is a conception of freedom that the pope is keen is dispel, and this is the notion that treats of freedom as so utterly free that there can be no constraint on it. On this account then, any moral law which seeks to curtail free activity is fundamentally at odds with freedom and thereby at odds with the truth about the human person. The natural law cannot be the measure of free human activity on this view.

But this is a flawed account of freedom. Freedom is a feature of human nature because human beings are rational beings; we can envisage possibilities and opt for them. However, not all these possibilities are consistent with freedom, since many of them can undermine our freedom. Hence, freedom is only genuine when exercised in those actions consistent with it. So in chess, there are lots of moves that one is free to make, and these moves are consistent with playing chess. Once one starts breaking all the rules, one is of course exercising one’s freedom to do that, but one is no longer playing chess, and the game has ended; with the end of the game, one is no longer free to play chess. The same applies to the use of human freedom and the moral law. Any action which undermines human nature is clearly an action inconsistent with freedom; for freedom is an essential feature of human nature, so to undermine that nature is to undermine freedom (just as freely breaking all the rules of chess entails that one is no longer free to play chess). The natural law encapsulates the principles of action which principles are in agreement with the truth about human nature, in which case the exercise of freedom in agreement with the natural law (like the moves within the chess game), far from destroying freedom, fulfils it.

The Human Person

What is by far the most significant theme of the encyclical and of John Paul II’s thinking more generally is the significance of the human person. Thus far we have been considering issues relevant to the human person, but we have not focused on the human person itself. It is the person that pursues truth, it is the person that is free, and it is the person who engages in moral activity. The person then is the locus of moral action and it is the perfection of the person towards which the natural law works.

Now the human person is a rational substance, and as a rational substance the human person is capable of knowing and willing the good. It follows then that the human person has an intrinsic dignity, and this because the person can will ends for himself. This means that using a person as a means to an end is to subvert his or her personhood and take away something that is essentially theirs, i.e. their ability to will the end. Hence, the only legitimate activity in relation to the person is to treat him or her as an end in himself or herself, and never a means. And this means that the only relation one ought to have to a person is one of love.

The Splendour of Truth

We return then to the issue of truth, and this is because it is neglect of the fact that reality is the measure of us that leads to problems in moral thinking.

Often too much of a stress is put on the exercise of freedom such that it is assumed that so long as an action is free it is morally legitimate. Hence even free action against truth is seen as morally good. But freedom is not enough for moral goodness precisely because there are some actions inconsistent with human nature which only serve to undermine the very freedom that is lauded in opting for them. Accordingly, freedom must be exercised in conformity with truth, and not in contradiction to it.

Relatedly, it is sometimes thought that devising moral principles informing action, such as the natural law, is problematic because different situations call for different responses; situations are diverse and there cannot be a one size fits all approach. In a rather benign sense, all moral principles are somewhat abstract and they have to be internalised and implemented in every individual situation. Thus, just as there is a rule for moving the knight in chess, but many different circumstances in which the knight will be moved in the game, so too there is a moral law (the natural law) and different situations in which it is implemented. This is unproblematic and does not amount to a relativism of moral principles because just as in the chess game the moves are uniform but realised in different situations so too in moral action the principles of right acting are uniform (the natural law) but realised in different situations. A non-benign relativism creeps in when it is argued that there are some situations in which the only reasonable course of action is one inconsistent with the natural law. This would be like having a rule stipulating the right move for knights but then modifying it if the knight is in a tricky situation. It is problematic to change and modify the principles of the natural law because it is the moral outlook which permits one to live in accord with one’s human nature as a rational substance. Any activity inconsistent with the natural law is at odds with human nature and hence at odds with reason. Thus, activity inconsistent with the natural law is manifestly unreasonable. As John Paul II writes at 51.3: ‘…[T]he natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties, it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind. This universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person. On the contrary, it embraces at its root each of the person’s free acts, which are meant to bear witness to the universality of the true good’.

This reasoning further militates against a kind of consequentialism in moral matters. Consequentialism is the view that the moral worth of an action should be judged on the basis of its consequences; and depending on how one measures the outcome of an action, one will measure the act accordingly. On the contrary, by giving the conditions for good action the natural law allows us to live in accord with our natures as rational substances. But we are able to live in accord with our natures by considering that nature of itself, and not the consequences of our actions when we perform them. Thus, the moral worth of our actions is determined by the kind of action itself that is performed rather than what the action brings about.

Veritatis Splendor is a lengthy document full of fine grained reasoning from a pope who specialised in philosophy. I have teased out some of the central themes of the document, but for those who either agree or disagree with its outlook, it is hoped that they will engage with its reasoning themselves and come to terms with the argumentation.

Dr Gaven Kerr

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Report on the World Meeting of Families

Tracy Harkin of Iona Institute NI gives her first hand experience of the World Meeting of Families:

Last week’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin will go down in history as an important milestone for the Irish church. From the ‘pope in Ireland’ signs along the motorway, to the hive of activity around the RDS it was clear that Dublin was a city preparing for something on a very large scale. I was privileged to be there throughout the week reporting every day from Dublin with the EWTN international team, interviewing participants, and providing live coverage of the full papal visit with Father John Paul Mary from the Franciscan missionaries of the eternal word.

The negative reporting by Irish media and the release of the Pennsylvania report in the run up to the week cast a large question mark for many people over just how successful the congress and the papal visit would be. However, from the very first day of the congress it became clear that the media reporting of the event and the actual experience of the thousands of participants and pilgrims were as different as night and day. From the opening ceremonies right across Dublin there was a palpable energy and enthusiasm in the air. A remarkable 38,000 attendees from 116 countries participated in the packed programme of talks, workshops, daily mass, and entertainment over the three days of the congress; all of this included families with children, teenagers, babes in arms mingling with archbishops, cardinals, priests, and religious. This was the universal church at its best. Walking around the RDS exhibition centre the hundreds of booths operated by ordinary Catholics, both ordained and lay, displaying apostolates, evangelization resources, and outreach programmes were all very impressive.

A key question that was asked by many journalists was: how has Ireland changed since the last visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979? As a small child I remember being taken by my parents to Drogheda for this historic visit. A third of the entire country had turned out. The numbers back then were impressive to be sure. The wave of secularism had not yet reached Irish shores, the horror of clerical child abuse was not yet exposed, and the conflict north of the border was still raging. It was however a highly clericalised church wherein the many priests and religious were trusted to get on with ‘God’s work’ and the role of the laity was minimal. As practising Irish Catholics today we may be smaller in number but the level of understanding and engagement in our faith and our desire to evangelise is extraordinary.  What was common among many of the attendees I spoke to  was the ‘personal encounter’ they had with Christ at some significant time in their lives. Through a pilgrimage, a retreat, a prayer or study group etc, this personal encounter is what led them back to the sacraments of the church, confession, the Eucharist. The enthusiasm of these families for their Catholic faith was impressive.

As Archbishop Eamon Martin said in his keynote speech: ‘The gospel of the family is joy for the church and joy for the world’. This joy was tangible throughout the week and especially so when Pope Francis himself arrived on Irish shores for the very first time. His meeting with civil society including the Irish president and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was cordial but didn’t mask the very real differences between Church and state on the right to life of the unborn and the unique meaning of marriage and conjugal love. Leo Varadkar promised a ‘new era’ in Ireland between church and state saying the Church still has a place. Let’s hold him to that.

The Holy Father’s visit to the homeless centre in Dublin run by Capuchin brothers was very moving. He commended the brothers and the many volunteers for ‘helping without asking questions’. The festival of families in Croke park was a highlight for many, with the  entertainment impressive and the testimonies of families very moving. Who can forget the three simple words the pope invited the 70,000 strong crowd to repeat three times ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. Who would have also guessed than some 300,000 people would walk 3 km in the pouring rain to Phoenix park for the final mass on Sunday despite all the negative predictions. Pope Francis was applauded enthusiastically by the pilgrims when at the beginning of the mass he begged forgiveness for the pain caused in Ireland by clerical, religious, and institutional abuse and called for acts of public penance.

Overall Dublin has seen nothing like this week since the visit of pope Saint John Paul II. It was an incredibly successful, joyful, and grace filled week for the Irish faithful. Personally, my favourite moment was seeing Pope Francis pray in the beautiful apparition chapel in Knock shrine Co. Mayo where some 40, 000 people came to greet him. Seeing the depiction of that meek little lamb victorious on the altar while angels ascend and descend should give us all hope that the future of our Church no matter how fragile it may seem is, ultimately, always in God’s hands.

Tracy Harkin


Michael D Higgins to address Civil Rights Commemoration in Derry

Irish President Michael D Higgins is to deliver the keynote address to a civil rights festival in Derry to mark 50 years since the 1968 civil rights March of October 5th ( It was at this March, broadcast on television for the world to see, that public opinion was focussed on civil rights issues in NI, and so it is right and just that it will be commemorated.

The anniversary serves to focus our attention on the wider context of civil rights; that wider context is the natural law. The natural law is a moral outlook which can be known independently of God and revelation ( It is so known through a consideration of the nature of the human person and the ends specific to the human person precisely as human. Indeed, the natural law position is the only philosophical outlook capable of providing a reasonable justification for the various rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on the same. Other outlooks that diverge from the natural law either dismiss the notion of a human right entirely (e.g. utilitarianism whose founding father Jeremy Bentham described such rights as nonsense on stilts) or think primarily in terms of duties that the moral agent has, not rights that a person possesses (e.g. Kantian deontology the primary focus of which is to conform the will to the categorical imperative). The idea promulgated by the natural law tradition on morality is that reflection on the nature of a person will reveal a moral dimension to the person wherein the rights that we have are found.

We may go even further than that in favour of the natural law. Given that the natural law defends the position that there are natural rights, there is thereby a natural justice which honours those rights, and in turn an injustice that dishonours them, i.e. fails to uphold them. This distinction is key to many of the modern civil rights movements, since those movements typically object to various laws in a state which violate the natural justice required to uphold natural rights. Accordingly, positive law, i.e. the law enacted by the state, is only just when it squares with the natural law; otherwise we have a situation whereby there is a positive law which is positively unjust. And we have numerous examples in the 20th Century where states have enacted laws that are unjust and the common feeling of humanity has rebelled against them precisely because they are unjust. It was this distinction that illuminated Martin Luther King’s own position in his letter from Birmingham jail, and it was also this distinction which animated the proceedings of the Nuremburg trials: something is not right just because it is law, a law cannot be right unless it is in accord with the natural law. Thus, the natural law tradition gives us a reasonable justification for the criticism of unjust laws.

The natural law tradition in morality forms the backbone of civil rights thinking for it justifies natural rights and the outrage felt at unjust laws. So any supporter of civil rights who bristles at the natural law or rejects the natural law entirely is not actually a supporter of civil rights at all but a counterfeit double appropriating the good name of civil rights and its ideals for himself or herself for whatever end. As Irish president, Michael D Higgins has the opportunity to speak on civil rights in Derry at this anniversary event, let us hope that he speaks on behalf of the natural law and does not undermine it.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Conscientious Objection: Individual or Institutional?

In the aftermath of the abortion referendum, a lot of commentary has now focussed on the right to conscientious objection. This right is typically associated with article 9 of the ECHR and it is to the effect that one has freedom of conscience so long as the exercise of such freedom does not conflict with public order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. Accordingly, there are a number of activities that individuals, especially those working in healthcare, can object to and refuse to carry out, and abortion is one of them.

So far so good; health minister Simon Harris has guaranteed the right to conscientious objection to individuals. However, a rather thorny issue has emerged and that is whether or not the right to such objection extends not only to individuals but also to institutions.  Harris has stated that it only applies to individuals, whereas Baroness Nuala O’Loan has argued that it applies to institutions as well ( In Ireland there are a number of Catholic hospitals committed to a Catholic ethos and culture which is clearly inconsistent with the provision of abortion. Hence, the issue over whether or not an institution can conscientiously object is a pressing one.

A rather simplistic view would be to say that insofar as an institution is not a person, it does not have a conscience, and so cannot avail of conscientious objection. Indeed, one may argue that the notion that an institution can exercise a right that only applies to individuals is absurd. But this is a somewhat simplistic view for the following reason.

Many public institutions adopt a charter which signifies their philosophy and thereby seals that institution with that identity. We don’t have to look too far in the UK to see this to be the case. The NHS was set up with the ideal that the care for the sick and vulnerable is the responsibility of all of society and so should be paid for by society; access to good healthcare should be based on clinical need and not wealth. Hence, UK citizens can avail of health care in any NHS hospital and facility given their needs. If NHS hospitals only provided medical treatment, they would be no different from private hospitals which provide the same. Rather, NHS hospitals provide medical treatment without distinction of material riches, and so they judge that each member of society has as much a right to such treatment as any other. This is a philosophy that many in the medical profession find attractive and indeed will pursue employment in the NHS rather than seek work in the more lucrative private sector. Indeed, such health professionals see a nice accommodation between their paid employment and their general outlook, so that the one tallies with the other.

The free medical care provided by the NHS permits many health professionals to live according to their conscience. And this is not just the case for health professionals; there are many public bodies and institutions which enable the individual members to live in accord with their conscience, e.g. universities, local government, charities etc.  The philosophy characteristic of an institution thereby enables its members to live in accord with their conscience. Accordingly, it is not only important that an institution have a particular philosophy which signifies the culture in the place, but that that philosophy be protected so that the conscience rights of the people working there be protected.

We turn then to the right of conscientious objection, and given that the ethos of an institution is necessary to protect the conscience rights of those who work at that institution, that institution then ought to be able to object to any command contrary to that ethos, and this so as to protect the conscience rights of the individuals who work there. So to go back to the NHS example, the heroic doctor/nurse/midwife who opts for NHS work instead of the more lucrative private work would rightly object to the demand that NHS facilities give preferential treatment to those better off. And the NHS facility as a whole has a right to resist such a mandate in order to protect the rights of those staff who work there because of their belief that when it comes to health material riches should not determine preferential treatment.

In the case of Catholic hospitals then, we have a Catholic ethos which is a pro-life ethos, such that all human life, from conception to natural death, is worthy of respect and to be protected in a medical sense. Medical professionals who have trained in order to uphold that ethos and in turn take on work at such a hospital are exercising their freedom of conscience to pursue good work consistent with pro-life attitudes. The Catholic ethos of the hospital enables them to do that. Hence, if the Catholic ethos of the hospital is threatened, or indeed, if the pro-life value of the hospital is threatened, then the conscience rights of those who hold a pro-life view at that hospital are threatened. It follows that if the Catholic hospital cannot object to a command which undermines its pro-life ethos, then the conscience rights of the medical professionals working there are not being seriously upheld. And indeed this is often the case, since whilst one medical professional can object to direct participation in an abortion, he or she is often required to make a referral or arrangement within the same facility so that the abortion may occur, thereby becoming complicit in the abortion itself. Therefore, it is necessary to allow for institutional conscientious objection so as to enable the conscientious objection of individuals.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Freedom of the Will

Freedom is one of our most prized assets; we rightly think that any situation in which we are not free is a situation that is intolerable for human life. Indeed, any state or society that does not recognise the freedom of its members as a basic principle is one that ought to be condemned and perhaps even face sanction. However, we do not prize freedom so highly that it can cut through anything like a double-edged sword; we rightly curtail the freedom of others in certain circumstances. Here I would like to consider the nature of human freedom and why in fact we can legitimately curtail it without treating the person as something less than human.

To begin with, we rightly prize freedom because it is a feature of our rational nature as human. Human beings are rational animals, in being rational they not only are able to come to terms and know their environment (taken to the extreme of knowing the very principles by means of which the universe can be understood), but also to act in accord with that knowledge. The ability to act in accord with what we know is the foundation of our freedom. We act in light of our knowledge because given what we know we can see some end or goal as choiceworthy and implement a course of action to pursue that end. Non-rational animals may pursue an end because of a natural disposition by which that end exercises a magnetic attraction on them, whereas humans reason about the end (perhaps many ends) determining it (one of them) to be worthy of choice. Our choice then is a feature of rationality, and to take that choice away from us is to treat us as something less than human.

If that were all there were to freedom of the will, things would be quite simple; for it would simply entail that our choices in principle must be free in order to be human, so unless we have freedom of choice we cannot be free. But things are a little more complicated than that. I noted above that when we exercise the freedom of the will we do so because we see some end as worthy of choice, this in contradistinction from other ends that are not so worthy, but still could be chosen. Thus, the exercise of freedom in making choices is not simply ordained to pursue anything whatsoever, but to pursue those ends that we deem worthy. Our freedom then is exercised in the pursuit of some good that we envisage, one that will perfect us or others (and in turn us in the process). Hence freedom of the will would be incomplete unless it is understood as ordained to the pursuit of choiceworthy ends.

It is the choiceworthy ends to which our free will is ordained that provide constraint on our freedom. Often it is the case that states set down laws by means of which a person’s freedom is threatened if they do not pursue what are generally taken to be choiceworthy ends; murder is the classic example, since there is no justification for the pursuit of murder as an end worthy of choice, and so the state mandates that any exercise of freedom in the pursuit thereof is an act unworthy of choice and hence freedom.

Freedom of the will then is not a freedom to chase after anything whatsoever, but a freedom to pursue that which is worthwhile, in other words, freedom of the will is a freedom to become excellent, to perfect and better ourselves, or, as Aristotle would say, to pursue virtue. It is not a freedom to pursue vice, since not only would that be an abuse of freedom, it would also limit freedom enslaving the practitioner to the particular vice in question thereby making him or her less free. Hence, freedom of the will is only consistent with those choices that promote human flourishing, and not those which undermine freedom by opting for those ends which do not allow the human person to flourish.

Freedom of the will then must exist in tandem with order or law so that such freedom can be pursued and directed towards that which makes its bearer excellent. Without such law and order as the boundary within which freedom can be practised, there is no freedom but enslavement to vice.

Dr Gaven Kerr