Reflections on Veritatis Splendor
by Alfred McBride, O.Praem
As a morality tale, the film Indecent Proposal makes some effective points. It tells the story of a struggling young couple who happen to meet a billionaire. The rich man falls in love with the poor man's wife and sets out to undermine their relationship. They have a discussion about money. She says, "There are some things money can't buy." He says, "I buy people every day." She replies, "In business, yes, but you can't buy love."
He looks at her husband and proposes, "Suppose I offer you one million dollars for one night with your wife." Angrily, the husband answers, "Some things aren't for sale." She concurs, "You can go to the devil." Still smiling, he continues, "A lifetime of security for one night. Think about it."
That night the couple talk it over. They discuss what it would do for their future. She says, "It wouldn't mean anything. It's just my body, not my mind or heart." Certain contemporary moralists teach that the body is so separated from the person that it possesses no moral content. The woman in the film expresses this when she says, "It's just my body, not my mind or heart."
The pope, in describing this belief, says, "A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body . . . would be merely ‘physical' goods, called by some ‘pre-moral (No. 48).
The Church teaches that the body and soul form a unity. The unifier is the "I", the person. Our bodies are as essential to us as are our souls. The person, the I, exercises freedom and moral choice. The body is not so detached from our freedom that it can be treated as a thing to be controlled and manipulated. To call the body a "pre-moral" thing makes it seem as though it hangs out there, apart from soul and freedom, with no particular moral value in itself. But our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, destined to rise from the dead in a glorified state.
If we go to heaven, our bodies will enjoy the light and life of glory in union with our souls and personhood, a complete unity. Our bodies are sacred, a source of moral meaning and not merely "pre-moral" things.
This reduction of the body to a "pre-moral" state is a new form of an old problem in the history of Christianity. There always seems to be someone downsizing the value of the body. In Augustine's time, it was the Manichaeans. In the Middle Ages, it was the Al-bigensians.
In early America, it was the Puritans. And in nineteenth-century England it was the Victorians. This view is related to a darker time in human history, which views the flesh as evil and harbors a hostility to sexuality. "A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a ‘spiritual' and purely formal freedom" (No. 49). Natural law is more than what makes the world go around, such as gravity, the tides, and the cycle of the seasons. This is a metaphorical use of the expression. Natural law is a human matter. It occurs in a total human being - body, soul, and unifying person.
The person, the I, acts with reason, faith, grace, and the support of virtue to figure out what is morally acceptable and consistent with the natural moral law implanted in us, all of us, including the body. I act. Therefore, I am. I become a moral person. The moral law reflects divine wisdom and is meant to help us fulfill ourselves because the God who made us knows what is best for our self-realization.
Scripture, Tradition, and the Spirit-guided Church help us in the moral enterprise. Our moral journey is a constant inner effort to understand, judge, and decide in the light of natural law and revelation, and to act accordingly. These inner steps of the self toward greater meaning and appreciation of moral truths are the grist for our lifelong moral conversion.
Fr. McBride writes for Our Sunday Visitor. All quoted matter is from the encyclical, unless otherwise indicated. ©1998 Our Sunday Visitor. Used with permission in the May 1998 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046) and on sfSpirit.com