Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

A Reading of Aquinas in Support of Veritatis Splendor on the Moral Object

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

A Reading of Aquinas in Support of Veritatis Splendor on the Moral Object

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

On the one hand, Pope John Paul II's 1993 moral encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS) has a broad scope, which includes the reaffirmation of relatively undisputed--but perhaps neglected--matters from the moral tradition. For example, the first chapter is primarily an exposition of the central New Testament teachings about the Christian life, including its beginnings in "the encounter with Christ," the call to discipleship, and the responses of conversion, apostolic mission, and the pursuit of holiness. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council rightly recognized, presentations of Catholic moral theology must be deeply rooted in these biblical sources and illumine the lofty vocation of the faithful in union with Christ. (1) In full agreement, John Paul reminds us in VS that it is Christ who opens the book of the Scriptures for us, to teach us the truth about moral action. (2)

On the other hand, the encyclical is a specific response to what it describes as "the systematic calling into question of moral doctrine" ([section] 4), the phenomenon of revisionist moral theology that developed largely from the reaction against the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, with broader precedents including mid-twentieth-century "situation ethics." (3) In particular, VS insists that an adequate moral theory must be able to uphold the traditional teaching that certain kinds of human acts are "intrinsically" and therefore always evil. This tradition is rooted in biblical texts such as the Decalogue and the Pauline vice catalogs, and it is reaffirmed in a multitude of sources from the subsequent tradition. Moreover, section 75 of the encyclical judges that these revisionist theories go astray regarding "intrinsically evil acts" or "moral absolutes" precisely because they have "an inadequate understanding of the object of [a] moral action." (4) Given the havoc wrought by the postconciliar debate about moral theory and particular acts, we must not underestimate the importance for contemporary Catholic moral theology of this diagnosis about the danger of an inadequate understanding of the moral object.

Because it addresses the central matter of the "moral object" upon which the subsequent discussion of intrinsically evil acts (in [section][section] 79-82) depends, section 78 is of decisive importance. It suggests the way toward an adequate approach to the moral object through a series of six affirmations: (1) "The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the 'object' rationally chosen by the deliberate will "; (5) (2) "In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person"; (3) "the object is a freely chosen kind of behavior"; (4) the object is not "a process or an event of the merely physical order"; (5) the "object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person"; and (6) the morality of the object depends upon its "conformity with the order of reason." (6)

From these texts, from their role in the structure and argument of the encyclical, and from an understanding of their historical context, we can reasonably conclude that John Paul thought that a resolution to the postconciliar crisis in Catholic moral theology requires a more adequate account of the moral object with the above characteristics. In insisting that this moral object must not be understood as "a process or an event of the merely physical order," John Paul's primary target was revisionist theory, which inherited what might be called "a physical understanding of the moral object" from the post-Tridentine casuist tradition. (7) The Pope's approach, however, also challenges many more traditional Thomists, who sometimes treat the object that determines the morality of the human act as something of the merely physical order, or as what is caused physically. …

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