By Christopher Wells
On August 6th, the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Church marked the 25th anniversary of Pope St John Paul II’s landmark encyclical, Veritatis splendor. St John Paul himself explained the reason for the encyclical: Although the Church has “at all times developed and proposed a moral teaching regarding the many different spheres of human life,” in our times, “it seems necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church’s moral teaching” which “risk being distorted or denied.”
To understand the main themes of Veritatis splendor, we spoke with Moral Theologian Dr Matthew Tsakanikas, the head of the Theology Department at Christendom College in the United States. Pope John Paul touches on many themes in the encyclical, he said, but went on to point out three of particular importance.
The first main point, Dr Tsakanikas said, can be seen at the very beginning of Veritatis splendor: All of us are called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. In particular, he said “That means that we are loved by God, that faith in Christ enables us to live a moral life, because we believe in God’s love for us.”
God’s love for us indicates a second main point, that “God only wants our good, God wants our happiness.” That naturally leads to the question, “What is our true happiness?” Quoting Saint Augustine, Dr Tsakanikas says “Happiness is joy in the truth.” True happiness, he explains can be found in healthy relationships, relationships of love and friendship with God and others. “This desire for truth and goodness is what leads us to recognize that the moral life is about loving others, and not using [them].”
The final point emphasized by Dr Tsakanikas (“although there are many more”) is that “there are freely chosen kinds of behaviours that are destructive to human fulfilment in union with God.” This, he said, “is the heart of what the encyclical wanted to bring to us and to recover in the Catholic tradition, that the ends can’t justify the means.” Pope St John Paul teaches that there really are “intrinsically evil” actions that can never lead to true happiness, and which can therefore never be chosen.
Although Veritatis splendor was specifically addressed to bishops, Dr Tsakanikas said the encyclical is definitely for lay people as well. “I would remind people there’s an intrinsic connection between the moral life and worship, and the moral life is what actually allows us to enter into authentic worship.” Entering into a loving and fruitful relationship with God requires us “to enter freely and surrender” our own will to God’s will – which is love.
He urged the faithful, to reflect on the teaching of Veritatis splendor especially in light of the Mystery of Jesus’ Transfiguration, which is one of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. Recalling that the encyclical was released on the liturgical feast of the Transfiguration, Dr Tsakanikas said John Paul’s teaching is “all about the light that shone from the Face of Christ… it’s referring to the Transfiguration, the divinity of Jesus Christ, who is truly God and truly man, this divinity shining out from His Face. And the moral life is all about that divinity growing in your soul by living a life in union with Him” precisely because “it’s your free choices that consolidate good will, or that bad will.” And so, he said, we should be resolving to grow daily, “to be choosing every day to be making acts of love through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Dr Matthew Tsakanikas reflects on Veritatis splendor and the Mystery of the Transfiguration