This is a brief reflection on chapter III of Pope Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993). The chapter is titled, “Lest the Cross of Christ be Emptied of its Power,” from 1 Cor 1:17.
The encyclical identifies a modern problem, or rather a modern question, which is so prevalent that it can sow doubt even in those who own the faith of the Church with great devotion. The question is this: “how can obedience to universal and unchanging moral norms respect the uniqueness and individuality of the person, and not represent a threat to his freedom and dignity?” (VS §85).
This is not a trivial question. It is, in fact, an extremely painful question for whoever feels at any time the brunt of its doubt. It is painful because underlying the question is an insidious assumption that attacks the very vitality of the human person. It sounds very defensive to ask in such a way how my individuality will be respected—that is, given the space it needs to define itself on its own terms—by obedience to absolute moral laws laid down by the Church. It seems very reasonable to wonder whether mine might be the very individuality that will disclose its full identity by being beyond these moral laws. Indeed, such an attitude seems open-minded and well prepared to celebrate each individual on his or her own terms.
Such appearances deceive. The question may be asked well in an honest search for truth, but the attitude of doubt toward the inflexibility of Catholic moral teaching itself threatens the identity not only of some individual, but of every human person by setting up a terrible lie. The lie is this: that the freedom of a human person can be at odds with the truth of the human person. Put in another way, this means that human freedom (which is an agentive freedom) is not established in truth.
Truth is the foundation of freedom. There cannot be real freedom, or any conception of real freedom, without truth. Consider that each person on earth is free. But each person on earth is free by virtue of being human. Therefore each person is free according to human nature, or in other words, free according to the truth of the ‘humanity’ that constitutes each person. Without the truth of the nature that defines them, no one would be free.
But the truth of the human person, the truth that defines all of us, goes beyond just this. As John Paul II says, “Jesus reveals by his whole life, and not only by his words, that freedom is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self” (VS §87, original emphasis). How does Jesus show us this? By witnessing through his words and deeds that human freedom exists for the sake of communion with the Father. In this sense, the crucifixion considered as the first martyrdom (from the Greek word for ‘witness’) testifies along with all the martyrs of the faith that obedience to the will of the Father is the very principle of human freedom. No freedom can exist unless it is established in truth, which is the will of the Father.
The Church also, as the protective mother of all martyrs and as the mystical body of Christ who was crucified, affirms that each person who owns in himself or herself the identity of human nature will only discover his or her dignity in the context of that truth which defines them, namely, that they are beloved and free sons and daughters. Therefore, “the Church is in no way the author or the arbiter of this norm. In obedience to the truth which is Christ, whose image is reflected in the nature and dignity of the human person, the Church interprets the moral norm and proposes it to all people of good will, without concealing its demands of radicalness and perfection” (Familiaris Consortio 33).
By promulgating moral truth inflexibly, the Church defends and upholds the foundation of human freedom. We are only free for the truth, as Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1 RSV). Freedom can only be the freedom to be what we are. But what we are is defined in truth—in fact, it is our truth, the truth about us and for us. By living against moral teachings established in the truth of the human person, we do not establish our own individuality: in fact we destroy it. By sinning against the moral law (which can only be as inflexible as existence) we destroy the very foundation of our identity as persons, our individuality, our goodness, and therefore our freedom. This is why sin is slavery, and the power of sin in our flesh is a tyrant, as Paul says, “all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Rom 3:9). And in another place he says, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members” (Rom 7:22-23).
The internal war between the sinful law of his flesh and the holy law of his spirit is not an identity crisis for Paul. He is not trying to recreate himself according to any ideal of his own. He is fighting to reclaim his own native integrity which was given to him by God insofar as God created Paul a man. As God has created all of us as free human beings, but we suffer under the power of sin, the same battle falls to us: we must reclaim our original freedom, the fundamental affirmation of the truth that defines us—not socially, superficially, or subjectively, but actually, metaphysically, and in the mind of God. The freedom that actually causes me to exist right now as a human person is the same freedom that I must radically and inflexibly defend by obeying the truth that creates it. That truth is the moral law.
There are actions which threaten my life, like walking off the edge of a great cliff, which are, to put it rather lightly, at odds with my existence as a human being. I am only enslaving myself if I exercise my freedom against the truth of my existence, which is that I will not survive falls from high places. Just so, the Church, in her great love and her desire to protect all people, proclaims with no less charity than honesty that there are certain actions which destroy the human person and are therefore always intrinsically evil. By witnessing the truth of these laws, even only by avoiding what is evil, we become freer for freedom. Only a freedom for truth can defend the precious individuality of every human person.