You often find the charge among critics of Pope Francis that his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is opposed to Pope John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor. The differences between the two are exaggerated in order to set these two documents of the papal magisterium against each other; Amoris Laetitia against Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II against Pope Francis, Pope Francis supposedly against tradition.

Veritatis Splendor, according to this narrative, is the strong, bold, defense of immutable moral norms and laws. We expect to find affirmations of the truth and warnings of any threats against it. We expect to hear admonishments like:

  • It is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths…
  • A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence…would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel.
  • Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. 
  • Discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.

On the other hand, Amoris Laetitia is said to cast black and white immutable moral truths into doubt by teaching instead a mushy subjectivism that creates doubt and confusion about the eternal truths of God’s law. Amoris Laetitia is criticized for implying that there are exceptions to the norms and suggesting that it’s not possible to follow God’s laws. Amoris Laetitia is accused of undermining Veritatis Splendor for saying things like:

  • Rational reflection and daily experience demonstrate the weakness which marks man’s freedom.
  • Clearly, situations can occur which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint, and which influence the sinner’s subjective imputability.
  • It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent.
  • Appropriate allowance is made for…the understanding of human weakness.

Such a capitulation to human weakness seems to cast into doubt (so we’re told) the declarations of the council of Trent that no one should say the laws of God are impossible to follow.

The problem is that this is selective nonsense. The nod to weakness above that is supposedly so threatening to Trent came from Veritatis Splendor, not from Amoris Laetitia. Likewise, the warnings above about false freedoms and relativism were taken from Amoris Laetitia, not from Veritatis Splendor.

The fact is that there are two dimensions in the moral life of human beings, the subjective dimension and the objective dimension. The objective dimension describes universal moral truths that constitute an immutable measure of human actions. The subjective dimension looks at the state of mind of an individual, and the quality of their moral acts in light of any limitations to their knowledge or their ability to act freely. The subjective dimension is necessary because we need more than a moral compass that always points north and gives us objectively true knowledge of where we stand. We also need to connect where we stand with where we need to arrive. We must be able to draw a map to see how we can realistically get to our destination. A compass shows us the objective coordinates, but the map shows us the terrain, where the obstacles and dangers are, and the areas where we might rest and regain our strength.

Neither dimension is reducible to the other and neither one detracts from the other. Veritatis Splendor and Amoris Laetitia are not opposed, but complementary. Veritatis Splendor’s primary focus is defending the objective dimension. Amoris Laetitia’s primary purpose (particularly in Chapter 8) is to defend the subjective dimension. Both perspectives are legitimate. Both perspectives are necessary. Both dimensions are capable of being degraded and deformed into a unique set of theological errors. But if one looks holistically and honestly, one can find the perspective of each of these documents within each other.

A concrete example: Amoris Laetitia gets a lot of flack for its emphasis on taking into account the “complexities” of an individual’s life circumstances, as in Amoris Laetitia 79 which says:

While clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.

In Veritatis Splendor 119, after talking about Gospel simplicity in the face of moral complexities, Pope John Paul II adds the qualification that:

Evangelical simplicity does not exempt one from *facing reality in its complexity*; rather it can lead to a more genuine understanding of reality, inasmuch as following Christ will *gradually* bring out the distinctive character of authentic Christian morality, while providing the vital energy needed to carry it out. [emphasis added]

This doesn’t merely confirm that the complexity of a person’s life cannot be ignored, it relates it to the law of gradualism, and therefore actually anticipates the exploration of the law of gradualism in Amoris Laetitia. Again in Veritatis Splendor 103 we hear words that sound a lot like criticisms leveled against Amoris Laetitia. Veritatis Splendor says:

It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man.

But a few sentences later, the Pope clarifies:

God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit”.

So Pope John Paul II is saying that yes, God’s law can be said to be adapted, proportioned, and graduated to the concrete possibilities of man, as long as the “possibilities of man” is understood as the possibilities of man redeemed by Christ and not man dominated by sin. For man “always has before him the spiritual horizon of hope, thanks to the help of divine grace and with the cooperation of human freedom.”

Now the thing about hope is that it is something set in the future. As St. Paul says, “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he can already see?” The perfection of redeemed man may be unseen, but it is not a horizon of the impossible. It is a gradual process made possible by divine grace and the cooperation of human freedom. One might say, as Amoris Laetitia does, that this is not a gradualism of the law “but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.”

Here too, Veritatis Splendor has done the groundwork for the themes of gradualism that Amoris Laetitia will further develop. And Amoris Laetitia, for its part, also warns against the misuse of this law of gradualism.

It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator.

This perspective is the proper way to interpret Pope Francis’ use of the word “ideal” in Amoris Laetitia, by the way. The law is an ideal, not in the sense that it’s something absolutely unrealizable, but in the sense of being the goal of a dynamic process. It’s the law as seen through the perspective of a pilgrim who always has in front of him or her that “spiritual horizon of hope;” because they are starting from a place of weakness and imperfection. Amoris Laetitia takes up this perspective of the pilgrim who is progressing ever forward in the light of  that splendor of the truth.

And in doing so it shows itself faithful to Veritatis Splendor’s warning that the Church “must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick.”


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Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer. Having briefly lived amongst the cacti and coyotes of Arizona, Brian now resides in the Canadian prairies.  Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.

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