Living 'Veritatis Splendor' today: On freedom and its misuse

(OSV News) -- In his groundbreaking document on Catholic moral principles, "Veritatis Splendor," St. John Paul II dedicates many paragraphs to the question of freedom, articulating it as an authentic gift from God. The Lord gives us the freedom to choose how to live. We are not puppets on some divine string, because we are created in the image and likeness of God, who is radically free.

Authentic love is the fundamental purpose of our existence, and love can never be coerced. Faith as well must be a free act of one's will and conscience. Our freedom is a sacred gift and an expression of our dignity as children of God.

In today's culture, many people understand freedom as an absolute, as mere license, the ability to do whatever I want, as long as no one else gets hurt. "Veritatis Splendor" points to the Genesis narrative of original sin as the primal illustration of freedom's misuse. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents the one limit which humanity cannot pass: We cannot be God! We are children of God, dependent on him for existence, but we are not him.

When Adam and Eve grasp and eat the forbidden fruit, they profoundly misuse the freedom given to them by God. They want to be their own gods, arbitrating good and evil for themselves, living apart from God and their deepest identity as his son and daughter.

In this context, God's prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree is a merciful action, seeking to protect human freedom and integrity. The siren song of the serpent's lies and temptations in Genesis should sound very familiar to us, for they are the rallying cry of many current ideologies: "You can create your own identity. You can define your own truth. You can be whatever you want to be." In this distorted view, life is no longer a gift but a thing to manipulate. Freedom is no longer a striving for moral excellence, but a radical autonomy which leads to mere selfish willfulness.

The moral life is the fruitful union of faith and reason, the revelation given to us by God directly and the natural law which St. John Paul calls "the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what we must do and what we should not do. God gave this light and this law to man at creation."

Modernity may dismiss natural law as a theological construct, but the church insists that the nature of the human person, the dignity of life, and the meaning and intention of sexuality can all be discerned even by an atheist who is open to the truth. Abortion is not wrong because the church says it is wrong. The church proclaims that it is wrong because it is inherently wrong to willfully take the life of another. One can know this through the natural law inscribed upon the human heart.

In a morally congruent convergence, God's revelation, natural law, and human reason illuminate the truth of the human person and specify what actions we should embrace and which we should avoid.

In this way, St. John Paul says, "human freedom and God's law meet and are called to intersect." In living the law of God, we show proper reverence and worship to our loving father and the source of all being. Obedience to the Lord does not negate human freedom, but expresses its true reality and purpose.

The encyclical points out that modern thought often treats "nature" as simply pliable material, upon which humanity can exercise its unlimited freedom. Here, "nature" refers to the material world, but also the human body, its make-up and its processes. If our bodies and the world are simply things, which we can define, control and refashion, then human freedom has lost its proper respect for what the Lord has created and offered to us as a sheer gift.

We clearly see the implications of this fundamental error in the current ideologies, which seek to redefine human life, sexuality and marriage. Disconnected from the divine law, freedom simply becomes the imposition of power on the human person and creation. Pope Francis speaks often about the need to respect and nurture both our human ecology and the natural world around us.

Christian anthropology has always held the human person to be a soul-body unity, an incarnate spirit. Our bodies are not simply appendages of our minds and wills; rather, they are an intrinsic part of our very selves. Accordingly, how we act in our bodies is an intrinsic expression of our spiritual and moral being, profoundly impacting our relationship to God and others.

The body is not simply "raw datum," some sort of malleable clay, which unlimited freedom can refashion according to its own willfulness. Our bodies are sacred, indeed temples of the Holy Spirit! As St. Paul says, "You are not your own; you were bought at a price, so glorify the Lord in your body!" (1 Cor 6:19-20). Thus, "a doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition."

In this context, we can understand the true meaning of the natural law, for it refers to "man's proper and primordial nature … the person himself in the unity of soul and body," St. John Paul says. Human nature does not change, nor, consequently, does the moral law. Many today would argue that cultural differences, shifting moral norms or the current spirit of the age make the church's teachings obsolete, as if human nature has changed or is even variant in multiple cultural expressions. Such thinking has led to great moral and social confusion.

St. John Paul goes on to reflect upon conscience, viewing it as a person's interior dialogue with both himself and God. According to St. Paul, St. John Paul says, conscience "confronts man with the law, and thus becomes a 'witness' for man: a witness of his own faithfulness or unfaithfulness." We experience conscience as that interior voice telling us what is right and wrong, yet paradoxically, that voice also originates from outside of us, as it mediates the gentle yet urgent will of the Lord for our life.

Every person has the obligation to form his conscience in light of the truth revealed to us by the Lord and the church. "Conscience is not exempt from the possibility of error," St. John Paul says. If a particular doctrine or moral teaching puzzles or confuses us, we need to study and ponder what the church, as the voice of Christ, is revealing to us and to pray for understanding and insight.

The encyclical makes the important point that ignorance, circumstances, intentions or lack of freedom may reduce the culpability of a person who is committing a sinful act, but that those mitigating factors do not change the intrinsic evil nature of the act committed.

"Situation ethics," which seeks to define the moral rectitude of a particular action through its context, and "fundamental option," which looks only at the long-term trajectory of a person's moral life, rather than every particular action, are fundamental errors, which seek to reduce humanity's moral responsibility in the specificity of their daily actions and choices.

The pope upholds the reality of intrinsic goodness and evil; the human person's ability to know and choose the good, even in difficult circumstances; and the importance of individual and specific moral decisions. A mortal sin, in this context, is one of a grave matter, committed with full knowledge that it is a mortal sin, and committed with full consent. Such a sin ruptures one's relationship with God, causing the loss of sanctifying grace, and requires sacramental confession to be absolved.

The pope reiterates the church's constant teaching, in the light of much contemporary commentary to the contrary, that mortal sin is possible, and that an individual can lose eternal salvation if such grave sins are not repented of and confessed.

"Veritatis Splendor" is a long, dense and nuanced document, flowing from the keen intellect and expansive heart of St. John Paul. In the encyclical, the pope affirms the love of God for humanity; the dignity of the person; our ability, helped by grace, to know the truth and live the good; the need to understand the proper relationship of truth, freedom, conscience, law and nature; the importance of individual moral actions; the intrinsic relationship between the decalogue of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Beatitudes of the Gospel; the social, political and cultural implications of living God's truth in the public square; and Jesus Christ as the word who reveals all which the Lord asks of us in a life of discipleship and virtue, and the one who saves us from sin and death through his life, crucifixion and resurrection.

In a very moving conclusion, St. John Paul proposes martyrdom as the profound exaltation of the inviolable holiness of God's law. Despite persecution, torture, suffering and death, the martyrs remained true to God and his law, willing to give up their earthly lives rather than to betray or deny their faith. Every martyr reveals the sacred intersection of God's grace and human obedience, for they are willing to sacrifice even life itself in order to uphold the truth and to embrace the good.

Because of the power and victory of Christ's sacrifice on the cross and his saving resurrection, we can profoundly hope in the love and grace of God, entrusting our human weakness to the mercy of the father, as we strive to heroically live the Gospel and make our way to the father's house.

"Veritatis Splendor" affirms that God loves us enough to take us seriously, especially in our moral actions, as he calls us to live in relationship with him and to grow in his love and likeness.--

Bishop Donald J. Hying is bishop of Madison, Wisconsin.