St. Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Veritatis splendor #16
on the Meaning of the Beatitudes
With Some Help From Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic / Professor of Moral Theology / Sacred Heart Major Seminary (SHMS)
July 31, 2014 Revised Version
This paper was originally given as a talk on February 26, 2014 for the “Desert Meal” at Crystal Gardens (Southgate, MI), sponsored by the K of C Council #3956 (St. Pius), & benefitting the Theology I Students at SHMS (Detroit, MI).
My article will focus on what St. Pope John Paul II teaches us about the Christian moral life in no. 16 of his masterful 1993 encyclical, Veritatis splendor (“The Splendor of Truth,” http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor_en.html). My specific concern will be what he says about the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12; cf. Lk 6:20-22) in our Lord’s “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5:1-7:27; cf. “The Sermon on the Plain,” Lk 6:20-49). I will also draw from, but less extensively so, Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI’s book, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (Doubleday, 2007), Chapter 4, which deals with the Sermon, but especially pages 70-99, which treat the Beatitudes.
Before commenting on this passage from the encyclical, let me provide some context by first describing, very briefly, the Sermon on the Mount, since the Beatitudes are found at the very beginning of the Sermon, as a kind of prologue or introduction. Secondly, I will describe the story of the rich young man in Chapter 19 of Matthew’s Gospel, since Pope John Paul II’s discussion of the Beatitudes occurs in the context of this story. Finally, I will then describe John Paul II’s specific teaching on the Beatitudes.
I. The Sermon on the Mount
Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount has been called the “magna charta” (the great charter) of the moral life by St. Augustine. And John Paul II repeats that designation in VS, 15, after having said that it “contains the fullest and most complete formulation of the New Law (cf. Mt 5-7), clearly linked to the Decalogue entrusted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.”
The Sermon, then, is really the best summary, the best distillation of Jesus’ teaching or instruction (“Torah”) on the moral life. It is, as Servais Pinckaers, O.P. says St. Thomas Aquinas argues, the “text” of the New Law of Jesus Christ (cf. Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q 108, a. 3, http://home.newadvent.org/summa/2108.htm#article3), just as the Decalogue is the “text” of the Old Law. Here in our Lord’s Sermon, we find his instruction on the law and the commandments, on love of enemies, on anger and killing and retaliation, on divorce and remarriage and adultery, on fasting, on oaths and lying (“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’” [Mt 5:37]), among many other teachings. If there’s a so-called “hard moral saying,” chances are it’s found in the Sermon.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI observes that the Sermon is addressed to everyone in all times and places, “and yet it demands discipleship and can be understood and lived out only by following Jesus and accompanying him on his journey.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 69)
II. The Rich Young Man and the Beatitudes
John Paul II’s treatment of the Sermon’s Beatitudes is, as I’ve noted, in the context of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Mt 19:16-22. The young man wants to know what “good” he must do “to gain eternal life” (v. 16). Jesus responds by telling him that he should “keep the commandments” (v. 17). After quoting the “second tablet” of the Decalogue to the young man (vv. 18-19) – the one concerned with the commandments regarding our neighbor – he answers Jesus, saying he has “observed” all of them, but wants to know what else he “lack[s]” (v. 20). It is then that Jesus calls him to go a step further: to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and come “follow” him (v. 21); this is the way “to be perfect.” But, Matthew tells us, because the young man had many “possessions,” he was not able to do so, and thus “went away sad” (v. 22).
What’s most interesting is how John Paul II argues, in VS, 16, that the Beatitudes are “relevant” to Jesus’ reply to the rich young man’s question about what he must do to attain eternal life. The Pope states that each of the Beatitudes “promises” the “good,” which “opens man up to eternal life, and indeed is eternal life.”
III. John Paul II on the Beatitudes
John Paul II tells us many profound things about the Beatitudes just in the very last paragraph of VS, 16 alone. I have found a list of seven of them that Catholics should think and pray about.
(1) That the Beatitudes are not particularly concerned with specific “rules” governing human action. They go much deeper than that.
(2) Rather, they concern man’s basic attitudes, dispositions, and intentions, that is, the inner workings of one’s heart.
(3) Even though the Beatitudes do not exactly “coincide” with the 10 Commandments, they are not separate from or opposed to them either; “both refer to the good, to eternal life.” (See also Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 70-71)
(4) In fact, the Sermon opens with the Beatitudes and also includes the 10 Commandments; in truth, as we have seen, we hear these commandments directly from the lips of Jesus.
(5) The Sermon shows how the commandments are open to the life of “perfection” that fully characterizes the person who lives by the Beatitudes.
(6) The Beatitudes are “promises,” from which flow actions that are “normative” for the believer. But what exactly are these “promises”? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Beatitudes fulfill the promises [made to the chosen people] by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to the Kingdom of heaven… (1716)… [T]hey proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ’s disciples.” (1717)
(7) The Beatitudes are a “self-portrait” of Jesus himself, and therefore also “invitations” to be in total communion with him as his disciple. Benedict XVI speaks similarly when he describes the Sermon on the Mount as a “hidden Christology.” He writes, “Behind the Sermon…stands the figure of Christ, the man who is God, but who, precisely because he is God, descends, empties himself, all the way to death on the Cross.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 99)
If we had to sum up the eight Beatitudes, we could say that they are really, in some sense, “Christian virtues,” such as humility, meekness, purity of heart, justice, and mercy, which personify the moral life of the one who would “imitate” Jesus Christ, accompanying him on every stage of the spiritual journey (On the notion of the Beatitudes as Christian virtues, see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles, Ch. 26, http://www.twotlj.org/G-1-26-B.html). They are not optional, but rather required of the Christian.
According to Benedict XVI, the Beatitudes are practical and theological “attributes” of Jesus’s disciples. But they are also “paradoxes,” which involve substituting God’s standards for ours. Finally, they are “eschatological promises,” which also affect life here and now (See Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 71-72).
If we want to know who Christ is, we need, then, look no further than the Beatitudes he has proclaimed to us. In them, we see his “face” and the “form” of his way of acting. They are, in a word, the way to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (See Mt 5:48)
* “If you wish to be perfect” (Mt 19:21)
16. The answer he receives about the commandments does not satisfy the young man, who asks Jesus a further question. “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” (Mt 19:20). It is not easy to say with a clear conscience “I have kept all these”, if one has any understanding of the real meaning of the demands contained in God’s Law. And yet, even though he is able to make this reply, even though he has followed the moral ideal seriously and generously from childhood, the rich young man knows that he is still far from the goal: before the person of Jesus he realizes that he is still lacking something. It is his awareness of this insufficiency that Jesus addresses in his final answer. Conscious of the young man’s yearning for something greater, which would transcend a legalistic interpretation of the commandments, the Good Teacher invites him to enter upon the path of perfection: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).
Like the earlier part of Jesus’ answer, this part too must be read and interpreted in the context of the whole moral message of the Gospel, and in particular in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-12), the first of which is precisely the Beatitude of the poor, the “poor in spirit” as Saint Matthew makes clear (Mt 5:3), the humble. In this sense it can be said that the Beatitudes are also relevant to the answer given by Jesus to the young man’s question: “What good must I do to have eternal life?” Indeed, each of the Beatitudes promises, from a particular viewpoint, that very “good” which opens man up to eternal life, and indeed is eternal life.
The Beatitudes are not specifically concerned with certain particular rules of behavior. Rather, they speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore they do not coincide exactly with the commandments. On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of the Beatitudes, but also refers to the commandments (cf. Mt 5:20-48). At the same time, the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the openness of the commandments and their orientation towards the horizon of the perfection proper to the Beatitudes. These latter are above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life. In their originality and profundity they are a sort of self- portrait of Christ, and for this very reason are invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ.26
26. cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1717.