Is Veritatis Splendor Infallible?

In the current climate of confusion and debate over the contents of Amoris laetitia, I recently re-read Veritatis splendor, the 1993 encyclical letter of Pope St. John Paul II on moral theology, which is cited in three of the five dubia relating to Amoris laetitia.

It is not my purpose to enter here into any of the controversies surrounding Amoris laetitia. My theological specialization centers around issues of magisterium, authority, and infallibility (dissertation On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council due to be published Dec. 31, 2017), and so my first thought while re-reading Veritatis splendor was: are any doctrinal points being proposed infallibly here?

It is generally taken for granted that Veritatis splendor is an exercise of the authentic but not infallible magisterium, requiring therefore a religious submission of will and intellect (CIC, 752) but not a definitive assent (CIC, 750). However, I also recalled that Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, as Secretary of the CDF under the Prefecture of Cardinal Ratzinger, had spoken of Veritatis splendor together with Evangelium vitae and Ordinatio sacerdotalis as examples of formal papal confirmations of doctrines infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium (L’Osservatore Romano, Magisterial Documents and Public Dissent).

Now Bertone himself denies that these three documents contain any solemn infallible definitions even while asserting that the doctrines proclaimed in them are irreformable. But the reasons he gives for not regarding them as solemn definitions in their own right rest on two false presuppositions:

First, his argument implicitly assumes that only definitions of dogma count as solemn definitions ex cathedra; that is, only definitions that propose a doctrine as one that must be firmly believed as contained in divine revelation. This is a very common misunderstanding, but the fact is that the pope also speaks ex cathedra when he defines secondary truths of Catholic doctrine; that is, when he proposes a doctrine as one that must be definitively held as pertaining to divine revelation.

Secondly, his argument assumes that a doctrine cannot (or at least should not) be infallibly taught by the Church more than once. That is, he argues from the fact that a certain doctrine has already been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium, to the conclusion that it would be impossible (or at least inappropriate) for the same doctrine to be infallibly defined by the extraordinary magisterium (e.g. by a solemn definition ex cathedra). This misunderstanding is also fairly widespread today, but there is no justification for it in any of the magisterial texts dealing with the question; and in fact, there is much evidence to the contrary.

Now being already firmly convinced myself that Ordinatio sacerdotalis and Evangelium vitae do contain solemn infallible definitions ex cathedra, it occurred to me to wonder whether Veritatis splendor did as well, seeing that Bertone had treated the three documents together as bearing (at least in his mind) a similar magisterial weight.

Three criteria for papal infallibility

The First Vatican Council teaches that the pope speaks infallibly when: “in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” There are three essential conditions given here as can be clearly seen from the Official Explanation of this text given at Vatican I by Bishop Gasser (a must-read for anyone who really wants to understand papal infallibility), and from the reformulation of the doctrine by Vatican II. Lumen gentium states that the pope speaks infallibly when: “as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” In brief, the three essential conditions are:

  1. On the part of the subject: The pope must be acting as head of the universal Church (not as a private person or even merely as the local bishop of the diocese of Rome).
  2. On the part of the object: The pope must be teaching about a matter of faith or morals (as opposed to legislating about matters of government or discipline).
  3. On the part of the act: The pope must propose the doctrine in a definitive way.

What does it mean to ‘define’ doctrine?

The first two conditions are generally quite easy to verify. The third can be confusing, and attempts to explain it often confuse the issue further. In order to understand it rightly we cannot do better than listen to Bishop Gasser as he explains it to the fathers of the First Vatican Council prior to their final vote approving the text:

Not just any manner of proposing the doctrine is sufficient even when he is exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher. Rather, there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine or of defining a thing, giving a definitive judgment and proposing that doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church.

Further on, Gasser summarizes the same point as follows:

The Roman Pontiff, through the divine assistance promised to him, is infallible, when, by his supreme authority, he defines a doctrine which must be held by the Universal Church, or, as very many theologians say, when he definitively and conclusively proposes his judgment.

After Gasser’s speech, there was still some confusion amongst the fathers of the council about the meaning of the word defines, and so Bishop Gasser took the floor again to explain how this word is to be understood in reference to papal infallibility:

Now I shall explain in a very few words how this word ‘defines’ is to be understood according to the Deputation de fide. Indeed, the Deputation de fide is not of the mind that this word should be understood in a juridical sense so that it only signifies putting an end to controversy which has arisen in respect to heresy and doctrine which is properly speaking de fide. Rather, the word ‘defines’ signifies that the Pope directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way, indeed, that he or she knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff.

When does the pope ‘define’ doctrine or ‘proclaim it by a definitive act’?

  • When he manifestly intends to put an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine;
  • When he gives a definitive judgment and proposes a doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church;
  • When he definitively and conclusively proposes his judgment;
  • When he directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence in such a way that we may know for certain that a given doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff.

Does Veritatis splendor ‘define’ doctrine?

Does John Paul II do this in Veritatis splendor? There are indeed some good reasons for thinking that he does not only teach but actually defines (in the sense outlined above) the central doctrinal point of the entire encyclical: namely, that there are universal and immutable moral laws prohibiting intrinsically evil acts.

1. The pope explicitly invokes his apostolic authority with reference to this reaffirmation: “Each of us knows how important is the teaching which represents the central theme of this Encyclical and which is today being restated with the authority of the Successor of Peter” (115).

2. He explicitly states that this teaching is based on Sacred Scripture: “In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: ‘Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God’ (1 Cor 6:9–10)” (81).

3. He repeats his condemnation of the error opposed to this truth twice in the space of four paragraphs at the very center of the encyclical (79, 82). This is highly unusual and cannot but give added force to the condemnation.

4. He makes use of the language of obligation (by means of the predicative gerundive) and chooses the forceful term “respuenda est,” which literally means, “it must be spit out, spewed out, rejected.”

5. He specifically identifies the condemned thesis as erroneous. In the technical language of theology, the denial of a dogma is described as heretical, the denial of a definitive truth of Catholic doctrine is described as erroneous, and the denial of authentic Catholic teaching is described as rash, or presumptuous. Hence, to condemn a thesis as erroneous is to propose the contradictory proposition as a definitive truth of Catholic doctrine.

The Reality of Intrinsically Evil Acts

Here is the double condemnation at the heart of Veritatis splendor:

79. One must therefore reject (respuenda est igitur) the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species – its “object” – the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.

82. For this reason – we repeat – the opinion must be rejected as erroneous (ut erronea respuenda est) which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.

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