When Yahweh, the creator and Lord of all things, revealed himself to the Hebrew people and offered them a covenantal relationship too good to refuse, that revelation included a distinctive morality, suited to protect and promote not only Yahweh’s glory but the dignity of his people, made in his image and likeness, and called to flourish happily—to enjoy shalom—in his everlasting kingdom. By his teaching and example, Jesus, Yahweh’s Son, corrected misunderstandings of that morality, deepened it, and perfected it.
In commissioning his apostles, Jesus instructed them not only to make disciples and gather them into his Church but to teach them to observe everything he had commanded (see Mt 28:19–20). Guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they did so, with the result that, during many centuries, the same moral code was held and handed on by the entire Church of Christ. Even after the schism of East from West and the Protestant Reformation, Christians everywhere accepted that entire heritage as an essential part of their faith.
Of course, many of the wealthy and powerful never even tried to take up their cross and follow Christ, and Christians who did so adhered to Jesus’ way of life only more or less imperfectly. Yet hardly anyone questioned its soundness or denied the truth of any moral norm. However, as secularism took hold, spread, and became established during modern times, the Christian ethos was increasingly challenged. Not only were many moral norms rejected but the freedom of human choices and people’s moral responsibility were denied. Sins were ascribed to immaturity, psychological defects, ignorance, and/or social disorders.
During the nineteenth century, some Protestant theologians and pastors began revising not only the received moral code but the traditional understanding of morality itself. Moreover, the secularist climate of opinion gradually deadened Christians’ sense of sin and of the need to repent. Amidst the stress and pervasive moral breakdown of World War II, horrendous atrocities made the mortal sins most people are tempted to commit seem venial, and many Catholics, including pastors, who were indulgent during wartime afterwards grew receptive to proposals for a more permissive morality.
Although Pius XII tried to stop that movement, it continued underground and gathered strength, until it emerged in the early 1960s. Those wishing to liberalize Catholic moral teaching then seized upon and cleverly exploited the issue of contraception, and few theologians and pastors offered effective resistance to the pro-contraception movement. When Paul VI finally issued Humanae vitae in 1968, it was met with long-planned and well-organized dissent, amplified by the almost unanimous support of the secular media of communication. From the beginning of his pontificate, John Paul II—a brilliant and energetic pope—strove to explain more adequately the teachings Paul VI had reaffirmed and to promote the clear and firm witness to them of the entire body of Catholic bishops.
Initially, however, John Paul II did not deal with the more fundamental dissenting views in moral theology. After publishing in 1983 The Way of the Lord Jesus, volume one, Christian Moral Principles, Grisez used various channels to call the Holy See’s attention to those issues and to urge that they be dealt with. Grisez’s effort culminated in a visit to Rome in June 1985 during which he talked with Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Baum, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, including the formation of seminarians for the priesthood; and Cardinal Gagnon, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The three prelates seemed receptive; they undoubtedly were hearing similar things from others.
On 18 November 1987, Grisez received a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking him to submit suggestions for a possible document concerning the foundations of moral theology. With the help of several of his colleagues and a few other friends, Grisez prepared this document, which he sent off on 10 January 1988. That gathering of suggestions by the CDF became the first stage of the preparation of two documents, its May 1990 “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” and John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
Grisez publishes his submission here, copyright © 1988, and reserves the right to make and distribute copies for sale. But he hereby grants everyone the right to print out and distribute without charge copies of the work provided the source is identified and this copyright information included.
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In 1985–86, the project to produce the Catechism of the Catholic Church was proposed during an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops and adopted by John Paul II. Work was carried on hastily; the first edition of the French-language version of the Catechism appeared in 1992. Begun later, work on fundamental moral theology proceeded more slowly; Veritatis Splendor, dated 6 August 1993, did not appear until 5 October of that year.
Some critics of the encyclical thought they discerned in it the handiwork of Grisez, one of his collaborators, or both. However, neither Grisez nor any of his collaborators did any of the drafting. Grisez did publish three brief commentaries on the encyclical, each for a specific audience.
The Tablet (London) published a series of short essays on the encyclical, mostly criticizing it and defending dissenting theological views. Still, Grisez was asked to lead off the series in the issue dated 16 October. He focused on one important point that the encyclical makes clear: the incompatibility between dissenting views and divinely revealed truths. The essay is copyright © The Tablet 1993, all rights reserved.
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The weekly newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor, invited Grisez and Russell Shaw to do three articles, one on each of the encyclical’s three parts, introducing the difficult document to its broad readership. The articles appeared in the paper’s issues of January 9, 16, and 23, 1994, copyright © Our Sunday Visitor 1994, all rights reserved. A few months later, the three articles were reprinted together in a pamphlet published by Scepter Booklets, which is made available here.
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For pastors of the Church, Grisez wrote for Homiletic and Pastoral Review a short commentary on the encyclical more general and less polemical than his essay for The Tablet and more theological than the articles for Our Sunday Visitor. That commentary is copyright © Catholic Polls Inc. 1994, all rights reserved.
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