This article is an overview of a few points from the lengthy Papal Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) written by Pope John Paul II in 1993. This encyclical addresses the topic of the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.

This encyclical is difficult to read at times but it is well worth the effort. I recommend that if you get bogged-down to skim for a few paragraphs until the subject matter changes rather than stop reading altogether.

Index ...

The Splendor of Truth
Moral Theology
Natural Law
Man's Purpose
Man's Freedom
The Negative Commandments
The Positive Commandments
The Church
Mortal Sin
Moral Absolutes
How to Determine the Good?

The Splendor of Truth

The purpose of this encyclical is to recall . . .

Certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. (Para. 4)

Moral Theology

Protestants typically neglect the topic but the Catholic Church strongly emphasizes the study and practice of Moral Theology as having direct relevance to our salvation.

Moral theology is a reflection concerned with morality, with the good and the evil of human acts and of the person who performs them. (Para. 29)

Notice that it is not just the actions which are of concern but of the goodness of the person as well.

The specific form of the theological science [is] called moral theology, a science which accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason. (Para. 29)

Moral Theology addresses Divine Revelation as well as the proper use of human reason.

Theologians . . . look for a more appropriate way of communicating doctrine to the people of their time; since there is a difference between the deposit or the truths of faith and the manner in which they are expressed. (Para. 29)

Protestant anti-Catholicstypically assert that the Catholic Church has "changed" the deposit of the faith which was handed down from Christ, but it is valid to restate the same truths in the context of each culture. In addition, Doctrinal development is a valid process.

Natural Law

There is a common misunderstanding about what the phrase "Natural Law" means. Some think it refers to a sort of naturalistic rule of ethics. Natural Law does not exist apart from God, and he is the source of all Natural Law.

Natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation. (Para. 40)

Notice that Natural Law concerns our moral choices and actions.

The true meaning of the natural law can be understood: it refers to man's proper and primordial nature, the 'nature of the human person,' which is the person himself in the unity of soul and body, in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end. 'The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body.' To give an example, the origin and the foundation of the duty of absolute respect for human life are to be found in the dignity proper to the person and not simply in the natural inclination to preserve one's own physical life. (Para. 50)

God . . . cares for man not 'from without,' through the laws of physical nature, but 'from within,' through reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God's eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions. (Para. 43)

Man's Purpose

Pope John Paul uses the word end to refer to man's purpose in life. His Encyclical is rooted in the jargon of philosophy.

Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man's true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness. (Para. 72)

Man's purpose (his end) is God Himself.

The moral life has an essential "teleological" [purposeful] character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man. (Para. 73)

Thus our ultimate salvation is connected to moral theology. This, in contradiction to the Protestant notion of salvation by "faith only."

A good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good. (Para. 63)

It is our purpose as humans to live a holy life pleasing to God.

Man's Freedom

Pope John Paul has quite an emphasis on defining what man's freedom is and what it is not.

In his journey towards God . . man must freely do good and avoid evil. (Para. 42)

We are not free to sin. Nor are we free when we choose to sin. We are only truly free when we choose to not sin.

Such an ordering [of human acts to God] must be rational and free, conscious and deliberate, by virtue of which man is "responsible" for his actions and subject to the judgment of God, (Para. 73)

We are morally responsible for our actions because ultimately we freely choose what we do and what we do not do.

Debates about nature and freedom have always marked the history of moral reflection. . . . Our own age is marked . . . by a similar tension. The penchant [inclination] for empirical observation, the procedures of scientific objectification, technological progress and certain forms of liberalism have led to these two terms being set in opposition. (Para. 46)

One example is the Psychological school of Behaviorism which denies that we have free will at all.

It is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil. (Para. 52)

This is the origin of the Christian tradition of martyrdom in which a person chooses death rather than willfully doing evil.

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. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. (Para. 78)

We choose which actions to perform.

The Negative Commandments

These are those rules which are expressed in the negative; "Thou shall not. . . ." Some people object to expressing moral injunctions in the negative but doing so has a real value.

The fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. (Para. 52)

The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. (Para. 52)

The primary value of the negative commandments is that they provide guidance about what actions we may never choose to perform.

The Positive Commandments

These express things which we should do.

It is right and just, always and for everyone, to serve God, to render him the worship which is his due and to honour one's parents as they deserve. Positive precepts such as these, which order us to perform certain actions and to cultivate certain dispositions, are universally binding. (Para. 52)

It is wrong for us to not choose to perform the positive commandments—they are not optional.


There are two extremes in the way we deal with culture: (1) Sociologists typically elevate the importance of culture above all else, while (2) some radical Christian fundamentalists insist that we should not pamper to a person's cultural superstitions.

Man always exists in a particular culture, but it must also be admitted that man is not exhaustively defined by that same culture. (Para. 53)

There is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts. (Para. 53)

Morality can be defined in terms of cultural practices and in a way which is understandable to people of that culture.


In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: "do this, shun that." For man has in his heart a law written by God. (Para. 54)

The precise nature of conscience: it is a moral judgment about man and his actions, a judgment either of acquittal or of condemnation, according as human acts are in conformity or not with the law of God written on the heart. . . . The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do. . . . Conscience thus formulates moral obligation. (Para. 59)

We are obligated to follow the dictates of our conscience when it is properly formed.

Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. (Para. 60)

We do not ourselves determine what is good and evil, we must discern it based on God's moral law.

Conscience, as the judgment of an act, is not exempt from the possibility of error. . . . Not infrequently conscience can be mistaken as a result of invincible ignorance, although it does not on that account forfeit its dignity; but this cannot be said when a man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin (Para. 62)

We must develop, train and form our conscience. In fact, we must desire to do so.

Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes. However, error of conscience can be the result of an invincible ignorance, an ignorance of which the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself. (Para. 62)

We require God's assistance in properly forming our conscience.

In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a "subjective" error about moral good with the "objective" truth, (Para. 63)

Thus there is an absolute truth even if we are ignorant about what it is.


Many have erroneous ideas about this topic.

According to the opinion of some theologians, the function of conscience had been reduced . . . to a simple application of general moral norms to individual cases in the life of the person. But those norms . . . cannot be expected to foresee and to respect all the individual concrete acts of the person in all their uniqueness and particularity. While such norms might somehow be useful for a correct assessment of the situation, they cannot replace the individual personal decision on how to act in particular cases. . . . These norms are not so much a binding objective criterion for judgments of conscience, but a general perspective which helps man tentatively to put order into his personal and social life. (Para. 55)

The error is in thinking that conscience is merely the application of the moral rules we have learned.

By taking account of circumstances and the situation, [a false view of conscience] could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. (Para. 55)

Some teach that we may perform immoral actions if the circumstances warrant it. This is an error.

The Church

Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium. (Para. 64)

The Catholic Church teaches that we should look to the Catholic Church to assist us in forming our conscience.

The Church's teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence [stubbornly inflexible] (Para. 95)

Some acts are intrinsically evil.

The Church's firmness in defending the universal and unchanging moral norms is not demeaning at all. Its only purpose is to serve man's true freedom. Because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth, the categorical—unyielding and uncompromising—defence of the absolutely essential demands of man's personal dignity must be considered the way and the condition for the very existence of freedom. (Para. 96)

We are not free if we are acting in opposition to God's will.

The Church remains deeply conscious of her duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings. (Para. 2)

Critics of the Church seem to think that the teachings of the Church must be "frozen" and that restating God's truths from generation to generation proves that the Church is hypocritical. But development of doctrine is valid.

Mortal Sin

For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation: (Para. 70)

The reason mortal sin causes believers to "lose their salvation" is because it is a rejection of God who is all love, truth and beauty.

It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil. (Para. 63)

A person may be less guilty of sin because of various factors but the action itself is still sinful.


Many have erroneous ideas about this topic.

Mortal sin, which separates man from God, only exists in the rejection of God (Para. 69)

It is a common Protestant belief that the only sin which separates us from God is rejecting His offer of salvation. This is incorrect.


Council of Trent does not only consider the "grave matter" of mortal sin; it also recalls that its necessary condition is "full awareness and deliberate consent." (Para. 70)

But for those who have been properly trained in moral theology they have an obligation to act according to their knowledge. This is a weakness of the Protestant teachings about sin, it is "fuzzy" in its understanding about moral theology.

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. (Para. 81)

Evil acts are always evil. The circumstances do not change this fact.

Moral Absolutes

There are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response—a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. (Para. 52)

As humans created by God we have a worth which is of more value than other considerations.

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the "object" rationally chosen by the deliberate will. (Para. 78)

It is what we do that matters. We can not do an evil act for a good purpose.

The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, (Para. 78)

Choosing the good action is the important thing.

There are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God. . . . These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil": . . . they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances (Para. 80)

Some actions are always evil no matter what the circumstances.

The Church teaches that there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: (Para. 80)

A list of evil actions. Notice that our modern society is guilty of promoting or tolerating many of these.

An intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is "not capable of being ordered" to God and "unworthy of the human person" are always and in every case in conflict with that good. (Para. 82)

Some actions cannot, in their nature, please God.

It is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Romans 3:8)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, (Para. 80)

There is a difference between tolerating evil actions of others and performing evil actions ourselves.


Many have erroneous ideas about this topic.

The criteria for evaluating the moral rightness of an action are drawn from the weighing of the non-moral or pre-moral goods to be gained and the corresponding non-moral or pre-moral values to be respected. For some, concrete behaviour would be right or wrong according as whether or not it is capable of producing a better state of affairs for all concerned. Right conduct would be the one capable of "maximizing" goods and "minimizing" evils. (Para. 74)

It is wrong to think that an action is good if it has good consequences. One problem with this view is that we may be unable to judge the "goodness" of the consequences and thereby make the same error as the Nazis who thought eliminating certain groups of people would be good.

It is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behaviour which would be in conflict, in every circumstance and in every culture, with those values. (Para. 75)

This is the error of modern Sociology. It assumes that every action is capable of being good in the right culture.

Concrete kinds of behaviour could be described as "right" or "wrong," without it being thereby possible to judge as morally "good" or "bad" the will of the person choosing them. (Para. 75)

It is wrong to separate the action itself from the person performing the act.

Everyone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects—defined as pre-moral—of one's own acts: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. (Para. 77)

This is one reason it is incorrect to think that the morality of an action depends on the good results of that action. How can anyone determine whether an action results in a "greater good?"

Certainly moral theology and its teaching are meeting with particular difficulty today. Because the Church's morality necessarily involves a normative dimension, moral theology cannot be reduced to a body of knowledge worked out purely in the context of the so-called behavioural sciences. The latter are concerned with the phenomenon of morality as a historical and social fact; moral theology, however, while needing to make use of the behavioural and natural sciences, does not rely on the results of formal empirical observation or phenomenological understanding alone. Indeed, the relevance of the behavioural sciences for moral theology must always be measured against the primordial question: What is good or evil? What must be done to have eternal life? (Para. 111)

Only the Church is qualified to speak authoritatively on the topic of morality. Science cannot learn the truth and, in fact, is guaranteed to mislead.


Faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out. (Para. 88)

Faith includes the mind and the will. Faith without good deeds is not true faith.

The life of holiness which is resplendent in so many members of the People of God, humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive at once the beauty of truth. (Para. 107)

A life of faith requires a life of holiness.

Faith also possesses a moral content. (Para. 89)

Evangelization . . . also involves the proclamation and presentation of morality. (Para. 107)

The Protestant message of salvation often de-emphasizes the topic of moral theology.

How to Determine the Good?


Many have erroneous ideas about this topic.

Some ethicists . . . can be tempted to take . . . for its operative norms the results of a statistical study of concrete human behaviour patterns and the opinions about morality encountered in the majority of people. . . . Other moralists, however, in their concern to stress the importance of values, remain sensitive to the dignity of freedom, but they frequently conceive of freedom as somehow in opposition to or in conflict with material and biological nature, over which it must progressively assert itself. (Para. 46)

Two errors:

  1. The good is what the majority do.
  2. Man's spirit and biology are in conflict—the spirit is good and the flesh is evil.

This ultimately means making freedom self-defining and a phenomenon creative of itself and its values. Indeed, when all is said and done man would not even have a nature; he would be his own personal life-project. Man would be nothing more than his own freedom! (Para. 46)

But on what does the moral assessment of man's free acts depend? What is it that ensures this ordering of human acts to God? Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances—and in particular the consequences—of his action, or the object itself of his act? (Para. 74)