Christian faith as “the Way”: An introduction to Veritatis Splendor

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Communio 21 (Summer, 1994) – Communio International Catholic Review pg.199 – 207
Translated by E.A. Diederich, S.J.


A Christianity that is no longer a common way of life, but simply proclaims an undetermined ideal, would no longer be the Christianity of Jesus Christ and his immediate disciples.

Why an encyclical on morality?

The long awaited encyclical concerning “some of the fundamental questions of the Church’s moral teaching” has finally appeared. What is the reason for such a document? There is both an external and an internal reason, which of course cannot be separated from one another. The internal reason is related to the purpose of Christianity itself. In its very earliest beginnings, before the word “Christian” was coined, the Christian religion was simply called “the Way.” We find the expression no less than seven times in the Acts of the Apostles, which reports the first phase of the historical development of Christianity. For example, in the presence of the Jews in the vestibule of the Temple, St. Paul confessed “I persecuted this way,” meaning that he had persecuted the Christians (Acts 22:4). When Christianity was called “the Way,” it meant first and foremost that it was a way of living. Faith was not a mere theory; above all it was a “way,” a praxis. The new convictions which it brought had a directly practical content. Faith included morality, and indeed not just some general ideal. Rather it gave concrete directions for human living. It was precisely through their morality that Christians in the ancient world were distinguished from others. It was precisely in this way that their faith was made visible as something new and unmistakably unique. A Christianity that is no longer a common way of life, but simply proclaims an undetermined ideal, would no longer be the Christianity of Jesus Christ and his immediate disciples. Therefore, it is the enduring task of the Church to be a community of “the Way” and to show forth in the concrete the way of right living. The words of the Psalm, “You have made known to me the paths of life,” stand significantly in the first address which an apostle made, in the Pentecost preaching of St. Peter (Acts 2:28). The Church must always show forth “the Way” by reason of her very being. She must make the moral content of faith ever newly visible.

In addition to this internal reason for the encyclical there is also an external one, which is not, however, external to the encyclical itself. More than ever before, the question of morality today has become a question of the survival of mankind itself. In the homogeneous and technological civilization that encompasses the entire world, the old moral certainties which until now supported individual cultures have for the most part disappeared. The technological way of looking at the world is free of values. It searches for what it can do, rather than what it ought to do. For many the question of what ought to be done is outdated, no longer compatible with the emancipation of humanity from all constraints. What one is capable of doing, one is also permitted to do; this is, for the most part, the way people think today. However, the real problem lies deeper. In comparison with the undisputed certainty which there is in technological matters, all moral certainties appear to be fragile and questionable. Many people are of the opinion that only that which can be understood with the same irresistible force as a mathematical or technical formula is reasonable. Yet, in truly human affairs, in matters of morality and of right human living, where do we have such understanding? The fact that in these matters the great cultures, in spite of important elements that they have in common, have always given different answers allows for relativism to become the prevailing opinion. In matters of religion and morality, there is no longer common certainty; each person much decide for himself how to manage. Each person has to follow his own understanding. This approach is then extended to Christian faith as well. The Bible does indeed provide a fundamental direction with the commandment of the love of God and of neighbor, but it cannot tell us what, for example, love of neighbor means in individual cases, nor can anyone for that matter. Again and again, each individual has to determine this according to his own understanding.

It is obvious that the supposedly impartial understanding of the individual can be very one-sided. The moral problematic of our society makes that very clear. If, for example, individuals or entire groups think that force is the best means for improving the world, then individualism and relativism in moral matters begin to undermine the basis for people living together and threaten human dignity itself. For this reason, the discussion about morality today is searching to find substitute solutions, which in a world of relativism are supposed to guarantee at least the basic forms of ethical living. As examples of such attempted solutions, the encyclical mentions those which in different forms have also found an entrance into theology, such as teleologism, consequentialism, and proportionalism. Here we need not go into these systems in detail. What they have in common may be summarized, in general, as follows: It is taken for granted that we cannot recognize a norm, arising out of the nature of man or of things, against which a person may never act. One has to discover what is moral by weighing the relationship between the good and bad consequences of actions and then choosing the one whose foreseeable consequences will be predominantly positive. The morality of the act is determined not through the content of the act, but through its goal and its foreseeable consequences. There is no intrinsic good or evil. There is only what is better or not so good. “Good means better than… ,” as one well-known moral theologian once said in this context. Bridges such as these over the chasm of relativism—which in fact is a skepticism in regard to everything truly human – are not completely useless. However, their load-bearing capacity is insufficient, particularly in the face of the great moral demands which mankind faces. A Christianity which could no longer say anything concrete beyond the general command of love would no longer be called “the Way.”

The question which moved the pope to write the encyclical Veritatis Splendor certainly touches the controversy in moral theology within the Church herself, but it also reaches much farther. It is an expression of concern for man. It comes from sharing the burden of the great problems of humanity today. The encyclical proclaims to the bishops, to whom it is first delivered, the message of faith and points the way along which faith would lead us. However, because this is not a private way of Christians, the encyclical shares with the bishops the common responsibility for the present and the future of man. This frankness of the encyclical is apparent right from its introduction, when the pope says that “it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all” (n. 3), that morality is the common way of salvation. In the section on conscience, the Holy Father elucidates the statement of St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans: “When gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts.. .” (Rom 2:l4ff.; n. 57). In the third chapter of the encyclical this link is fully expanded. I place this chapter among the very great texts of the Magisterium; it must be considered as a fundamental text concerning the questions which touch us all, reaching far beyond all theological controversy. The pope demonstrates here that “at the heart of the issue of culture we find the moral sense.” In regard to social and economic injustice and political corruption, he says that “there is an ever more widespread and acute sense of the need for radical personal and social renewal capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty, and openness” (n. 98). The text points to the intellectual foundation of totalitarianism as “the denial of truth in the objective sense,” and shows the way to overcome it (n. 99).

Up to this point, I have dealt with the question of the reason for the encyclical, which, as I have attempted to show, responds to an inner ecclesial need and to a need of mankind as a whole. Before I attempt to consider the content of the document in the next section, I would like to say something about how it came into being. The long delay in its appearance was, first of all, the result of the extensive consultation on which it rests: Theologians from different continents and of different points of view shared in its formulation. The encyclical also profited from the consultation of bishops from around the world concerning the Catechism, since the fundamental positions of the Catechism and the encyclical are the same. The essential questions which the bishops faced in regard to the Catechism were the ones with which the encyclical was dealing. Though initially there was a parallel development of the Catechism and the encyclical, it was deemed more appropriate to issue the Catechism first. The Catechism furnishes the entire framework of Catholic moral teaching which is presupposed in the encyclical. The two documents are different in character, and each has its own task, in which each helps the other. The Catechism presents no arguments; it is a witness. It does not enter into controversy, but rather declares the faith in a positive way with the inner reasonableness which belongs to it. The encyclical is also a witness, but at the same time has an argumentative dimension. It takes up questions and shows in discursive argument what the way of faith is, and how it is the only way for mankind. In so doing, it in no way canonizes a particular form of theology, but rather clarifies the fundamental bases without which theology would lose its identity. The pope does not take away the freedom appropriate to the theologian’s task: clarification of the foundations does not stifle theology, but rather opens the way for it.

Structure and content of the encyclical

The structure of the encyclical is very simple. After a short introduction which explains the point of departure and the purpose of the text, there follows the first chapter, which is essentially biblical in its approach. The chapter contains the theme which is repeated again and again in the course of the text – the conversation of the rich young man with the Lord concerning the question, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). This conversation does not belong to the past. We all share in it now. Perhaps we put the question in another way, but all of us want to know what we must do to come to the fullness of life. The encyclical understands itself as one part of this dialogue with Christ; it inserts itself into the question of the young man and seeks as deep an understanding of the Master’s answer as possible. In this intensive listening to the word of Christ it becomes apparent, first of all, that the search for the good is inseparably linked with turning toward God. He alone is the good without limitation. The good par excellence is a person, that is, God who is all-good. To become good, then, is to become like God. The Ten Commandments are a self-revelation of God; they help us to find a way of becoming like God. Therefore, they are also the explanation of what love is. Thus they are also bound up with the promise of life in its fullness. From this it follows that the one who walks the way of the commandments is on the way to God, even if he does not yet know God. But the specifically Christian dimension also appears. The call to discipleship of Jesus means that the one who walks with him goes to God, to the one who alone is good. “Jesus asks us to follow him and to imitate him along the path of love, a love which gives itself completely to the brethren out of love for God” (n. 20).

In the second chapter these insights, drawn from Scripture and deepened through the reflection of the Fathers, are extended to the present disputes concerning the foundation for moral behavior. This chapter in its details is first and foremost directed to the professionals in moral theology and ethics. The axis of the whole around which the detailed questions revolve is easy to recognize: it is the relationship between freedom and truth. Here the pope seizes upon what is probably the most important issue of the present time, the one which has become even more pressing since the end of the communist dictatorships: How can we learn to live correctly with freedom? Freedom conceived in a purely individualistic way, one which would be mistaken for arbitrariness, can only be destructive; it ends up pitting everyone against everyone else. The danger that freedom will once again be determined from the outside and will be replaced by collective capriciousness is clear. Such a danger can be defended against only when freedom finds its inner measure, which it recognizes to be the order of its being. But what is this measure? The first and fundamental answer of the pope is that this measure is truth. Freedom can freely follow only truth, if it is to be true freedom. This immediately raises the next question: What is truth? The encyclical answers that the truth which orders our activity lies in our human existence as such. Our being, our “nature,” which comes from the Creator, shows us the truth. That we ourselves bear our truth within us, that our being (our “nature”) is our truth, is expressed among other ways with the term natural moral law (“natural law”). This concept extends back into pre-Christian philosophy and was further developed in a Christian context by the Fathers and by the philosophy and theology of the Middle Ages, but it reached an entirely new importance and urgency in the early modern period. The great Spanish and Dutch philosophers of law found in the concept of natural law the instrument with which to formulate and defend the rights of non-Christian peoples in the face of the excesses of the colonial lords. These peoples did not share in the Christian legal community, but, as the philosophers explained, they were not for that reason without rights because nature conferred rights upon man qua man. Every man by reason of his nature is the subject of fundamental rights which no one can take from him because no human authority gave them to him; they lie within his very nature as man.

Recently the objection has been heard that with the concept of natural law the Church is binding herself to an outmoded metaphysics—that she is embracing a foolish kind of naturalism or biologism and is making biological processes into moral laws. The encyclical discusses this criticism very thoroughly. The core of the answer is found in a passage from Aquinas: The natural law “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God” (n. 40). The natural law is a law of reason. It is the nature of man to have reason. When it is said that our nature is the measure of our freedom, then reason is not passed over, but rather is set fully in its right. In order to avoid falling into error in making such statements, one must recall that human reason is not absolute, as is God’s. It belongs to a created being and, indeed, to a creature in whom body and spirit are inseparable. Finally, human reason belongs to a being that stands in historical alienation which can impair its capacity to see.

The pope especially emphasizes the first two points in contrast to a kind of neo-Manichean mentality. In such a view, the human body is treated as a biological externality which has nothing to do with genuine human existence and, therefore, nothing to do with moral goods. The encyclical first takes up this question in explaining natural law (nn. 47-48). It comes back to it again when treating the fundamental option and the problematic of teleologism, consequentialism and proportionalism (n. 65ff.). I cannot explain all of this in detail here, but I will cite some sentences from the last named section in which the heart of the matter is presented with precision. The ethical theories which are criticized distinguish between goods of the moral order (to which belong the love of God, benevolence toward neighbor, justice, etc.) and pre-moral goods (health, physical integrity, life, death, loss of material goods, etc.). When these pre-moral goods are violated, a person can still judge an action to be morally acceptable, “if the intention of the subject is focused, in accordance with a ‘responsible’ assessment of the goods involved in the concrete action, on the moral value judged to be decisive in the situation. The moral specificity of acts would be determined exclusively by the faithfulness of the person to the highest values of charity and prudence.. .” (n. 75). Insofar as the entire bodily realm is here relegated to the realm of mere “ontic,” “physical,” and “pre-moral goods,” morality becomes an ethic of good intentions, which are to justify everything. The encyclical takes a vigorous stand against this disregard for the body. Such reductionism in the understanding of human nature results in “a division within man himself” (n. 48). This amounts to a new dualism, which disregards the body and thereby strips the soul of its specifically human quality. When the pope lets it be understood that the language of the body belongs to the language of reason and that the natural law expresses itself in the body-spirit totality of man, he is defending what is specifically human in man and is far removed from any form of biologism or naturalism.

A brief word by way of conclusion concerning the third chapter of the encyclical, which integrates the insights of the first and second chapters into the context of the communal life of the Church and of society. We might call it the pastoral chapter of the document. One senses in this last part a passion for the things of God and man which cannot help but touch the reader. Questions about the renewal of political and social life, and about the responsibility of pastors and theologians, are no less movingly presented than the question of the seriousness of our existence—a seriousness in which we have to choose between what is good and what is comfortable, between taking a stand for moral truth at the price of suffering and taking flight, which always creates a justification for itself. The response of the encyclical to all of this is not mere theory; what it says comes out of an experience, out of a vision. This deepest foundation of the text appears when the pope speaks of the “pedagogical obedience” of the Church, of the firm footing which is found not in teaching statements and proclamations but in “constantly looking to the Lord Jesus” (n. 85). In looking to him and belonging to him we find the answer to moral questions.

It is more than pious habit when the pope ends the encyclical with a meditation on Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Mary deserves to bear this title, the pope says, “because her Son, Jesus Christ, was sent by the Father as the revelation of God’s mercy” (see Jn 3:10-18). Christ came not to condemn, but to forgive (see Mt 9:18; n. 118). Only with this statement is Christian moral teaching complete. To this affirmation belongs the greatness of the challenge which arises because of our likeness to God. To this affirmation also belongs the greatness of divine goodness, of which the Mother of Jesus is the purest sign.