Veritatis splendor and the Bondage of Self

Updated: Jul 7

by James K. Hannah Profiles in Catholicism


In his 1993 encyclical letter Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth) John Paul II reminds us that Sacred Scripture is formational, not informational. He summarizes the dialogue found in Mark of Jesus and the rich young man with four keys of moral action: (1) man and his activity are to be “subordinated to God”; (2) there is a relationship in the commandments between moral good of human activity and eternal life; (3) Christian discipleship illuminate perfect love; (4) the Holy Spirit is the “source and means” of the moral life.


The Holy Father emphasizes the Church has always looked to Scripture and to “Christ the Teacher” in its moral teaching as central to the development of moral theology, defined as “a science that accepts and examines Divine Revelation while at the same time responding to the demands of human reason.” He explains the call of Vatican II to take care for the renewal of this science which necessitates eliminating any discrepancy between the “deposit or the truths of the faith and the manner in which they are expressed” so to minimize any misunderstanding, misstatement, or false interpretation.


Noting the rapid spread of relativism and individualism, he seeks to illustrate that such an approach to life reduces, negates, or eliminates man’s freedom rather than enhancing or ennobling it because relativism and individualism are not “in sync” with the truth. There is a “dependence of freedom on truth.” (para. 34). Here, three elements of the encyclical came in rapid-fire and with great impact (para. 35-36): (1) “the power to decide what is good and what is evil” belongs to God, not to man; (2) God’s law does not reduce freedom but “rather protects and promotes that freedom”; (3) since Vatican II there has been a “desire to foster dialogue with modern culture”, and (4) and attempt to “reaffirm the interior character…”.


The Church grounds her moral teaching in the teachings of Jesus, who reflects the will of the Father, and that if one is to know true freedom, one needs to try mightily to synchronize his or her will with all of that, and yet, there is a recognition of the need to integrate (not accommodate) with our culture. One may make progress in this synchronization, an integration of will and life with God’s will by adopting a focus on interiority, a reaffirmation of interior character.


The error of individualism/relativism that John Paul II wishes to correct finds its root cause in the interior - the bondage of self. Veritatis splendor may be the perfect assault on individualism and relativism.