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