Veritatis Splendor and two notions of human dignity and human liberty

May 1, 1994

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

When I gave in lecture form in the Argentine two months ago the letter that you read on the pope's latest Encyclical, "The Splendor of Truth", I was advised that an introductory explanation might help. Let me offer you part of that explanation now, because it goes to the heart of much of the confusion in Catholics' minds today.

This confusion arises from mixing up two quite different notions of human dignity, and then two quite different notions of human liberty. Let us start with the two notions of human dignity, which are somewhat easier to disentangle.

Take for example a wine-bottle. What is the value or worth of a wine-bottle? Answer, thrat depends on whether it is empty, or full. Empty, maybe 10 cents. Full, maybe 10 dollars, one may use the same word, "value" or "worth", for when the bottle is empty or full, but there is no comparison between the empty value and the full value, and if one was to confuse the two by trying to sell an empty bottle as though it was full, one would have some angry customers, even if the glass, cork and label of the empty battle were as handsome as could be! In fact the real value of the empty bottle is only its potential one day to be full, and if like most wine-bottles it will only be filled once, then once it has been emptied it is thrown away as worthless. Thus when it comes to a wine-bottle, nobody dreams of confusing its merely potential worth when empty, and its actual worth when full of wine.

However, when it comes to a human being, plenty of people confuse his merely potential worth or dignity when empty, and his actual worth or dignity when full. This is because by loss of faith they have lost grip on the supernatural wine in question, sanctifying grace, and on its value infinitely higher than that of the whole order of mere nature. A Catholic knows by his faith that sanctifying grace is a partaking in God Himself„ such that he is here on earth merely to fill his nature-with as much of that grace as possible by the time he dies. He knows that if at death he goes before his Maker with his natural soul empty of supernatural grace, then however handsome he may have made his soul’s merely natural accomplishments and adornments, like so many labels on the bottle, his Maker will nevertheless be so angry as to throw him away as worthless into the eternal fires of Hell. The natural dignity of a man, or the dignity of his nature merely potential with regard to its being filled with supernatural grace, is as nothing compared with his supernatural or actual dignity when his nature actually contains that grace.

For as the bottle is for wine, so creation is for the Creator, so nature is for grace. True, as the bottle is of great value to carry the wine, so the order of nature and a human nature are indispensable for a man to receive grace in. Nevertheless, as no wine-lover in his right mind glorifies bottles in themselves, so nobody who understands what man is for glorifies his merely natural or potential dignity, or glorifies man in himself.

The problem with the modern world is that by loss of faith in God and in his sanctifying grace, or by its positively turning away from them, the modern world has lost all sense of the full or supernatural or actual dignity of man, and so it glorifies his merely potential dignity as though it were actual or full human dignity. Like glorifying empty bottles. In other words man is the supreme value in himself, by his mere nature. Forget about wine, forget about God. Merely by having human nature, I have the supreme dignity! Glorious glass! What does wine matter? Glorious man! What does grace matter?

This — to a Catholic mind — insanity is the implicit teaching of Vatican II. Its Declaration on Religious Liberty in its opening sentence (picked up in Veritatis Splendor, #31) bases what will be its demand for religious liberty on human dignity, not an man's actual. dignity when he is filled with God, but on his potential dignity which he has merely by being man. That the Declaration does here (#1) mean the potential dignity is clear a little later on when the Declaration (#2) says that even when man refuses the truth, he still retains (the dignity that founds) his right to religious liberty. In other words glass is so glorious that the wine-bottle has a right to remain empty!

Again, to be able to drink wine does presuppose a bottle or its equivalent, but that does not mean that the glass has the glory of the wine! Once there is no more wine, the glass is trashed. Empty of grace at death, a soul, however naturally dignified, is flung into Hell. This is because as the bottle's real glory is not to be glass but to be capable of holding wine, so human nature's real dignity lies in its potential for containing (knowing and loving) God, a potential which however glorious in itself ("O, what a piece of work is man," says Hamlet), is nevertheless nothing in comparison with the glory and actual dignity of a man actually knowing and loving God.

But now read Vatican II quotable in such a way, and "Veritatis Splendor" so quoting it (Gaudium et Spes #17, V.S. #42), as to blur and confuse man's potential and actual dignities:— "Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means". The dignity in the first of these two sentences is the natural or potential dignity of man's nature having free will, or the ability to choose freely and not out of instinct or constraint. The dignity in the second of these sentences is the actual dignity that man acquires when he makes a good use of that faculty of free will. These two dignities are quite different realities from one another, even if the second presupposes the first, as wine at table presupposes a bottle. But by the word "such" at the beginning of the second sentence, Vatican II equates the two dignities, which amounts to trashing not the bottle but the wine! This same glorifying of nature to the level of grace, or abasing of grace to the level of nature, this naturalism, is embedded in Vatican II and "Veritatis Splendor", and what it means is the raising of man to the level of God, humanism, or the abasing of God to the level of man, atheism, or both, i.e. atheistic or secular humanism. Dear Lord, have mercy upon us! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners that your Son's sanctifying grace be found in our souls now and in the hour of our death!

Exactly parallel to the confusion between the two dignities of man is the confusion between his two liberties: on the one hand his natural or potential liberty, or faculty of free will, intrinsic to his rational nature and inalienable from it; on the other hand his moral or actual liberty, or right use of his free will, not intrinsic to his nature but alienable from it by the choosing of any sin. Catholics glorify the second liberty which presupposes the first, but liberals glorify the first liberty regardless of the second, and liberal Catholics by blurring together and confusing the two make themselves much more liberal than they are Catholic.

This confusion between natural and moral liberty, between the faculty and its right use, between free will and "the liberty of the glory of the sons of God" (Rom. VIII,21), is so common and so damaging that it deserves a letter to itself. For instance that liberty which is inalienable, free will, is not a right but a faculty, whereas that liberty which is a right, Christian liberty, is, alas, alienable by sin until the moment we die. Hence to talk of liberty as an "inalienable right" is confusing nonsense, but there is no space left to go into that here.

However, a correct understanding of liberty will be a major part of the two Doctrinal Sessions due to be held this summer at Winona, from June 28 to July 2 and from August 30 to September 3. Participants will be sent one month ahead a small packet to read beforehand, mainly great papal encyclicals refuting modern errors, but also for instance the terrible Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty which so hopelessly confuses the two dignities and the two liberties. Sign up, if you wish for a real chance to clear up some confusion.

And also, if you have not already done so, make sure that you let us know if you wish to continue receiving the Seminary newsletter and "Verbum". Otherwise you risk being dropped from our mailing list. Thank you always for your steady and faithful support of the Seminary. You should have six new priests ordained at Winona on June 25, God willing.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

+Richard Williamson