Veritatis splendor responds to questions of moral theology that had been raised during the postconciliar period of the Church (events after the Vatican II ecumenical council of 1962-65). These questions revolve around man's ability to discern good, the existence of evil, the role of human freedom and human conscience, mortal sin, and the authority of the magisterium of the Catholic Church in guiding man. In response to these, Pope John Paul II emphatically insists that moral truth is knowable, that the choice of good or evil has a profound effect on one's relationship with God, and that there is no true contradiction between freedom and following the good. Veritatis splendor consists of three chapters: (I) Teacher, What Good Must I Do; (II) Do Not Be Conformed to this World; and (III) Lest the Cross of Christ be Emptied of its Power.
Veritatis splendor begins by asserting that there are indeed absolute truths accessible to all persons. Contrary to the philosophy of moral relativism, the encyclical insists that moral law is universal across people in varying cultures, and is in fact rooted in the human condition. Pope John Paul teaches that no matter how separated someone is from God, "in the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it." He goes on to say that the splendor of truth "shines forth deep within the human spirit."
Moral authority of the Catholic Church
Ultimately, John Paul teaches, "to ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness." Against the idea that the Church's teaching body has a mainly exhortatory role, the pope reiterates the Catholic doctrine that the magisterium of the Catholic Church has authority to definitively pronounce on moral questions. Even more, John Paul teaches that the Church is Christ's particular response to help answer everyone's question of what is right and wrong.
John Paul teaches that there is no true conflict between human freedom and God's law. The true end of human freedom is growth as a mature person into how each is created by God. Furthermore, God's divine law governing human behavior is not opposed to human freedom, but rather "it protects and promotes that freedom."
The encyclical affirms that today's respect for human freedom "represents one of the positive achievements of modern culture." However, he cautions, though it is a good, human freedom is not in itself an absolute. Merely deciding for oneself that one may do something is not at all a true substitute for determining whether something is in fact good or bad. Because God is the true author of good, it remains of critical importance to understand how the divine Law, as expressed by the authoritative magisterium of the Church, considers an issue before determining absolutely for oneself.
The pope welcomes and supports the role of human reason in discovering and applying the natural law (those aspects of the moral law that may be discovered without divine revelation). Nevertheless, because God remains the true author of moral law, he states that human reason will not properly supersede the elements of the moral law that are of divine origin—the encyclical states that this "would be the death of true freedom." In particular, John Paul denies those ideas of morality that treat the human body as a "raw datum," separating man and how he uses his body from his greater meaning derived from the entirety of his person.
John Paul reiterates the longstanding Catholic teaching that people are obliged to follow their conscience, and that if they do not, they are condemned by their own conscience.
John Paul depicts conscience as a form of inner dialogue. However, he insists, it is not merely a dialogue of a man with himself, but it is very much a dialogue between man and God. Following Bonaventure, John Paul likens conscience to a herald from God who proclaims the divine law. In opposition to how it is often represented elsewhere, John Paul insists that conscience is emphatically not a replacement for the divine law. Rather, it is the process by which a person may apply the divinely revealed law to the concrete situation at hand.
Veritatis splendor states that because conscience may err in its judgment, a person is obliged to do his best to inform his conscience. Hence, it remains crucial for a person to make an effort to understand what the divine law on a matter is, as expressed by the Church, and the reasons behind it. Even if a person is not condemned by his conscience for a morally wrong act, committing that act nevertheless causes damage in other ways, and if done habitually it can progressively make it harder for a person to perceive the truth. Furthermore, habitual sin enslaves us, so following a wrong judgment of conscience is in the end a step away from freedom.
The encyclical also responds to the idea of the "fundamental option." In this way of thinking, a man's particular actions do not necessarily affect his ultimate salvation—what is important is his fundamental orientation towards or against God. The pope writes:
"There is no doubt that Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom 16:26) "by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God, offering 'the full submission of intellect and will to God as he reveals' "."
John Paul firmly opposes the theological assertion that such a fundamental choice can be separated from particular actions, stating that it is contrary to Scripture as well as to long-held Catholic teaching on sin and salvation. He also opposes it on philosophical grounds, writing, "To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behaviour means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul."
John Paul emphasizes that the "fundamental option" view undermines the traditional Catholic understanding on mortal sin and venial sin, their distinction, and effects: "For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered.... The person turns away from God and loses charity."
The encyclical also insists that certain acts are intrinsically evil. In the language of Catholic moral theology, this means that certain acts are always wrong, and that there are never circumstances in which they may be permitted if done knowingly and intentionally. Stated another way, this is a strong support for the long-held doctrine of Catholic moral theology that "the ends do not justify the means." John Paul bases this on the argument that certain acts are so destructive to the human person that there are no extenuating circumstances that would allow them. As an example, John Paul specifically mentions the teaching of Pope Paul VI on contraception, which stipulates that although it is permissible to tolerate a lesser evil to prevent a greater one, or to promote a greater good, it is never permissible, even in the gravest of circumstances to intentionally do an evil so that good may come of it. Or in other words it is never permissible to intend directly something which contradicts a moral order. This reiterates Paul VI's teaching on contraception, and that if an act is intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it.