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  • Catholic or Utopian?Two Irreconcilable Views about Moral "Ideals" in Veritatis Splendor
  • Christian Stephens

The post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia sparked criticism that some language used in chapter 8 could lead the reader to arrive at the view that the moral good, generally understood as at least requiring adherence to the commandments, is an ideal.1 While this essay was instigated by such concerns, it is not its goal to assess their veracity. Rather, this essay will show that there is a history of describing the moral good as an ideal in papal teaching since at least Leo XIII, but that these Popes at the same time flag an illegitimate use of the term "ideal" to describe the moral good. It will then be claimed that Saint John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor gives a sufficient outline of both the way in which the moral good can be referred to as an ideal, and the way in which it cannot. Finally, these two senses of "ideal" will be contrasted with each other, focusing especially on the capacity of the false understanding to rationalize sin.

Magisterial Usage of "Ideal"

Since at least the time of Pope Leo XIII, the popes have been using the word "ideal" in a positive sense to refer to what is desirable, normative, and [End Page 295] objectively fulfilling for Christians.2 These three properties (desirability, normativity, and objective fulfilment) can be taken to be properties of the moral good itself. In all the papal documents analyzed where the moral good is referred to as an ideal, even though the language may emphasize the desirability or difficulty of the good, it never implies a separation from what is normative for the individual. If the magisterium does wish to use "ideal" in a different sense, and one in which it is not referring to the true moral good, it is generally accompanied by an adjective such as "pagan,"3 "Communist,"4 "pseudo,"5 "earthly,"6 "simple,"7 "selfish,"8 "mere,"9 "abstract," or "false utopian."10

While references to a true or false sense of "ideal" are not uncommon in magisterial documents, there has been no attempt to define the distinctions and implications of the two senses of the term. Since Veritatis Splendor intentionally sets out to explore and state the foundations of the moral life, it is not surprising to find that we are provided with the tools to draw out this distinction between a legitimate and illegitimate description of the moral good as an ideal.11 While these are not defined in one place in the encyclical, one could suggest that the entire encyclical unpacks what are two irreconcilable views, each hinging on a particular description of the moral good as an ideal. These clashing views will be called the "Catholic" and the "utopian."

The Catholic Sense of "Ideal"

Commenting on Jesus's encounter with the rich young man, Saint John Paul II states that, "even though he has followed the moral ideal seriously [End Page 296] and generously from childhood, the rich young man knows that he is still far from the goal."12 I will be referring to this usage of "ideal" as the Catholic sense, and suggest that it is simply synonymous with the moral good itself. In that sentence one is able to exchange the word "ideal" for "good," "law," "rule," or "norm" and its meaning would be essentially the same. Therefore the following section will now attempt to present a synthesis of the notion of the good as found in Veritatis Splendor, intending it to be simultaneously an explanation of the Catholic sense of the word "ideal."

By stating that "only God is good" (Mark 10:18), Jesus himself indicated to the rich young man that it is he who is "the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us."13 It is the divine nature which is the source and model of the moral law and virtue.14 The goodness of the creature, whether it be in the order of nature, grace, or glory, is always a participation in the one, eternal, perfect goodness of God.15 These metaphysical roots of the good (or ideal) which Jesus...


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