“Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord,” proclaimed the late Polish pope, John Paul II in his encyclical letter The Splendor of Truth. Promulgated over twenty years ago, this writing can still act as a guidepost for every Christian, both clergy and laity alike, for moral living. Now more than ever, modern man, in a world where moral relativism and ignorance of objective truths abound, needs the illuminating light of the Holy Spirit channeled through the Catholic Church. The Splendor of Truth delineates the Church’s rich moral teaching and sheds light on the underlying assumptions of those dissenting from the Magisterium’s authority.
I will examine three points− one from each chapter. The moral duty charged to all Christians will be looked at first, followed by a survey of the Church’s stance on conscience. And finally, the need for modern-day martyrs in the face of moral relativism will be addressed.
Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?
The initial chapter of The Splendor of Truth centers on the content from the interaction of a rich young man and Jesus in Matthew 19. Here the young man begins his conversation with Jesus with a query: “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” At face value this question seemed sincere for it concerned one of the utmost important issues a person must contemplate. As the late pope tersely put it, “It is an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. To ascertain the difference between good and evil people need to turn toward Christ who provides the answer. Too many times in the modern world humans seek answers to life’s hardest questions in fleeting, temporal sources such as political systems or New-Age philosophies rather than turning to God.
God is the Greatest Good
To truly live out the moral life, one must understand that an objective good does in fact exist− God. Responding to the young rich man, Jesus proclaims, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Since the ultimate good exists as God himself, it logically follows that only He can provide answers to the question about what is good in life. Not leaving man in the dark, God sheds light on moral matters by granting humans the ability to find out through reason alone the natural law. Article 12 of The Splendor of Truth mentions that God by creating man, ordered him to the good and have an innate desire for wisdom.
Due to original sin, God had to act in history to initiate his saving plan for humanity. Citing again from the encyclical, the Polish pope states, “The gift of the Decalogue was a promise and a sign of the New Covenant, in which the law would be written in a new and definitive way upon the human heart (cf Jer 31:31-34), replacing the law of sin which had disfigured that heart (cf Jer 17:1).” In other words, a strong connection is made between morality and adherence to the commandments. However, the Church, and ultimately God, does not call for a sterile, drone-like obedience, but rather a total commitment to the law through faith in Christ.
Role of the Conscience
Along with being aware of God as the supreme good and knowing that the Decalogue serves as the parameters for the moral life, a proper understanding of conscience and its connection to objective truths will enhance the Christian’s need to adhere to the Church Magisterium regarding faith and morals.
John Paul II begins his section on Conscience and Truth by saying, “The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law is most deeply lived out in the ‘heart’ of the person, in his moral conscience.” According to Church Tradition, conscience and natural law are not in tension with one another. Instead, conscience communicates moral responsibility in light of the natural law. Simply put, conscience aids man in following the natural law− for it is the “witness of God himself”.
Necessity for Proper Formation of the Conscience
Nevertheless, conscience as a human function trying to pick up God’s voice and will is not exempt from error in judgment. The Second Vatican Council succinctly states, “not infrequently conscience can be mistaken as result of invincible [inculpable] ignorance.” In fact forming a proper conscience and developing virtuous habits takes time. This requires constant conversion. The pope declares that the Church and Her Magisterium greatly aid Christians in the formation of their conscience. Not an arbitrary authority, John Paul II speaks of the Church as “putting herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit.”
If every Catholic-Christian took the pope’s message to heart on the Magisterium’s role pertaining to faith and morals laity confusion and dissent on hot-buttons issues like abortion and gay marriage, particularly during election years, would decline. Only through obedience to Christ’s authority in the Church via the conscience does man attain true freedom.
Call to Marytrdom
The best way to combat moral relativism pervading modern society today is not through polemical rhetoric or violence but for Christians to step up as martyrs for the truth. In the third chapter of The Splendor of Truth, the Roman Pontiff calls martyrdom, “the exaltation of the inviolable holiness of God’s law.” He then maps out several examples of people in the Old and New Testament who testified to God’s power through their witness. John the Baptist and Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith, both laid down their lives in testifying to the Messiah’s teaching. And they also suffered immensely unjust and painful deaths similar to Christ’s death on the Cross.
John Paul II finally points out that the first generation Church, which experienced intense persecutions from Roman emperors, also flourished in holiness due to the witness of saint-martyrs. This leads to his main point, that such witness is a remarkable sign of the holiness of the Church.
The witness of martyrs provides a beacon of light to help illuminate others moral compasses especially in a world with a muddled-up perception of what is truly good and just. “This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil,” declares John Paul II. Oftentimes, people can be turned off by an exclusively scare-tactical, fire and brimstone approach to morality. Instilling fear and prodding them with a stick may work short-term, but many people tend to revert back to their old ways without sincere conversion. The witness of martyrs offers a better panacea for moral ambiguity.
An Ugly Term Today?
Modern man likes to shy away from the term “martyr” in part due to the moral duty and responsibility charged to those people who stand as a “sign of contradiction” to the 21st century way of life. The late pope clearly states that, “Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice.” Now in being a witness for the faith necessarily involves sacrifice on some level, albeit not always to the point of a physical and tortuous demise.
Nevertheless, daily sacrifice will lead to a kind of death− a death to sin. Summing up his section on the Christian’s response to morality, the Polish pope explicitly says, “The voice of conscience has always clearly recalled that there are truths and moral values for which one must be prepared to give up one’s life.”
Role of the Church in the 21st Century
To conclude, written over twenty years ago, the encyclical The Splendor of Truth still sheds a ray of light on the moral life of the Church. This document provide an answer to the confusion of the modern world—the teaching of Jesus Christ, safeguarded by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church!
Just like the rich young man in Matthew’s gospel who questioned Jesus about how he can attain salvation the human race, in a society pervaded by moral laxity and ambiguity, must turn to God in order to ascertain what is truly morally good and just. The second point discussed from this moral treatise regarding conscience is important because a proper understanding of it will lead laity to a better appreciation of the Magisterium’s role in helping to form their conscience. John Paul II also mentioned that a properly formed Christian conscience will be able to determine how to act morally in line with natural law. And finally, the high point of the moral life consists of when a person is willing to die for the faith as a martyr. Restating the bishop of Rome, “Martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church.”
A careful and meditative reading of The Splendor of Truth will hopefully enhance a Christian’s love for the Church and a better following of Christ’s law.
 Matt 19:16.
 Splendor of Truth, 8.
 Matt 19:17.
 ST 12.
 ST 54.
 ST 58.
 ST 64.
 ST 90.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 115.
 ST 93.
 ST 94.
 St 93.