Veritatis Splendor: A Lesson on Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity 1

Fr Jose LaBoy

Freedom of Choice: We are free to choose between x and y. We are not determined to necessarily choose x or y.

When speaking of John Paul II many titles have been used, but one not so frequently used is “the Pope of Freedom.” Ronald D. Lawler remarked that:

One cannot begin to speak of Wojtyla’s ethics without noting his passion for freedom… Wojtyla has lived under totalitarian rule long enough to care deeply for freedom.

He was among the Bishops who most proposed the doctrine contained in the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.

In his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor regarding certain fundamental questions of the Church’s moral teaching, he considers freedom as a crucial issue:

The human issues most frequently debated and differently resolved in contemporary moral reflection are all closely related, albeit in various ways, to a crucial issue: human freedom. (VS, 31 )

I would like to stress two aspects of the lesson regarding freedom that John Paul II has given us in his encyclical: frequent false understandings of freedom and freedom’s dependence on truth.

"The Pope of Freedom"

Frequent false understandings of freedom

The Pope remarks that “certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values” (VS, 32). This understanding of freedom clearly leads to subjectivism. Individual conscience becomes a creator of truth, rather than an acknowledger of the truth about what is good and what is evil.

He goes on to say that “side by side with its exaltation of freedom, yet oddly in contrast with it, modern culture radically questions the very existence of this freedom.” Based on the observations of the behavioral sciences, some people “going beyond the conclusions which can be legitimately drawn from these observations, have come to question or even deny the very reality of human freedom” (VS, 33). This attitude leads to a strict determinism which is the very denial of freedom and has in the past justified totalitarianism.

Freedom depends on truth

The key issue for John Paul II is the dependence of freedom on truth, as Bishop Michael Miller states in his introduction to one of the English translations of the encyclical:

The intrinsic connection between freedom and truth is a theme not only in Veritatis Splendor but also in many of the Pope’s writings. Freedom, he insists, is bound to the truth. Everyone has the strict moral obligation ‘to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known. (VS, 34)

Today, unfortunately, the relationship between freedom and truth is widely misconstrued. At the root of ethical theories which challenge the Church’s moral doctrine are “currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to the truth” (VS, 4).
The understanding of the real meaning of freedom is essential to the full development of the human person. One of the biggest obstacles is to remain at the level of limiting oneself to acknowledging that human beings are free. To stay here will lead to consider freedom as an absolute and source of truth.

There is a big difference between perceiving a sense of freedom and understanding the essential meaning of freedom. To perceive freedom without striving to understand its true meaning is to run the risk of not using it properly, something that we witness all too frequently.

It would seem that it is common belief that there is no freedom without the exercise of our will. Freedom in fact is a property of our capacity to will something. In the midst of different actions or values, we are not determined to choose one in particular. But choice implies decision and decision implies knowing the truth about the good, about the values or actions to choose.

Before John Paul II was Pope, after the Second Vatican Council he published his major philosophical work which in Polish is titled Person and Act (the English translation of the book uses the title The Acting Person). In it he explains freedom in the terms of dependence and independence. Even though we are free, our freedom is not absolute. We are not free to be something other than human beings. Our freedom can only be exercised thanks to the fact that we are persons with a rational nature. Therefore freedom depends on who we are as rational human beings. Our freedom is mainly freedom of choice: we are free to choose between x and y. We are not determined to necessarily choose x or y.

Jaroslaw Kupczak, an expert on Wojtyla’s theory of freedom, states:

According to Wojtyla, in the inner dynamism of the will, one discovers a twofold relation: an intentional relation to objects, and a relation to truth. Because of the will’s subordination to truth, it is not determined by its objects but can choose between them. In the process of choosing one object among many, the will begins with a certain indetermination; i.e., it is ready to direct its intention to any one of the available goods. Because of its dependence on truth, the motivation moves the will from its initial, undetermined stage to a moment of free decision in which the will chooses one concrete object. This moment can be described as the will’s and the person’s self-determination. Only truth then, Wojtyla concludes, makes possible the subject’s freedom of choice his vertical and horizontal transcendence, and his self-determination.

For John Paul II, obedience to the truth, which involves the making of choices that direct a person to God, enhances human freedom. On the other hand, to act against the truth erodes human freedom and enslaves the person.

As Kupczak, in his book Destined for Liberty: The Human Person in the Philosophy of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, observes:

“Many contemporary thinkers have pointed out that postmodernism has brought a crisis in the idea of emancipation, which has dominated Western modern history. In this time of crisis, John Paul II proposes a coherent and realistic theory of freedom, which not only avoids the mistakes of moral relativism and subjectivism but clearly rejects any kind of determinism and totalitarianism. By doing this, the Pope preserves and saves for the next generations the essence of Western civilization. Therefore, George Weigel is right when he calls John Paul II, “the Pope of freedom.” It is possible that Karol Wojtyla will be remembered by this title.”

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