Eating the Apple

(Editor's Note: The material for this article consists of excerpts from the papal encyclical
Veritatis Splendor, (The Splendor of Truth). It was issued by Pope John Paul II on August 6,

"Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat" (Gen 2:17)

In the Book of Genesis we read: "The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may eat
freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not
eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.' "

With this imagery, Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil
does not belong to man, but to God alone.
The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can
understand and accept God's commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching
freedom, since he can eat "of every tree of the garden". But his freedom is not unlimited: it
must halt before the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil", for it is called to accept the moral
law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfilment precisely
in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man,
and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.

God's law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and
promotes that freedom. In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given
rise to several currents of thought in ethics which centre upon an alleged conflict between
freedom and law.
These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to
determine what is good or evil
. Human freedom would thus be able to "create values" and would
enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of
freedom. Freedom would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy which would actually amount to
an absolute sovereignty.

Some people, however, disregarding the dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom and
the need, given the present state of fallen nature, for Divine Revelation as an effective means for
knowing moral truths, even those of the natural order, have actually posited a complete
sovereignty of reason
in the domain of moral norms regarding the right ordering of life in this
world. Such norms would constitute the boundaries for a merely "human" morality; they would
be the expression of a law which man in an autonomous manner lays down for himself and
which has its source exclusively in human reason. In no way could God be considered the
Author of this law, except in the sense that human reason exercises its autonomy in setting
down laws by virtue of a primordial and total mandate given to man by God. These trends of
thought have led to a denial, in opposition to Sacred Scripture (cf. Mt 15:3-6) and the Church's
constant teaching, of the fact that the natural moral law has God as its author, and that man,
by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law, which it is not for him to establish.

The exercise of dominion over the world represents a great and responsible task for man, one
which involves his freedom in obedience to the Creator's command: "Fill the earth and subdue
it" (Gen 1:28). In view of this, a rightful autonomy is due to every man, as well as to the human
community, a fact to which the Council's Constitution Gaudium et Spes calls special attention.
This is the autonomy of earthly realities, which means that "created things have their own laws
and values which are to be gradually discovered, utilized and ordered by man".

Not only the world, however, but also man himself has been entrusted to his own care and
. God left man "in the power of his own counsel" (Sir 15:14), that he might seek
his Creator and freely attain perfection. Attaining such perfection means personally building up
that perfection in himself
. Indeed, just as man in exercising his dominion over the world
shapes it in accordance with his own intelligence and will, so too in performing morally good
acts, man strengthens, develops and consolidates within himself his likeness to God.

Even so, the Council warns against a false concept of the autonomy of earthly realities, one
which would maintain that "created things are not dependent on God and that man can use
them without reference to their Creator". With regard to man himself, such a concept of
autonomy produces particularly baneful effects, and eventually leads to atheism: "Without its
Creator the creature simply disappears... If God is ignored the creature itself is impoverished".

The teaching of the Council emphasizes, on the one hand, the role of human reason in
discovering and applying the moral law: the moral life calls for that creativity and originality
typical of the person, the source and cause of his own deliberate acts. On the other hand,
reason draws its own truth and authority from the eternal law, which is none other than divine
wisdom itself.69 At the heart of the moral life we thus find the principle of a "rightful autonomy"
of man, the personal subject of his actions. The moral law has its origin in God and always
finds its source in him
: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine
wisdom, it is a properly human law. Indeed, as we have seen, the natural law "is nothing other
than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be
done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation". The
rightful autonomy of the practical reason means that man possesses in himself his own law,
received from the Creator. Nevertheless, the autonomy of reason cannot mean that reason itself
creates values and moral norms. Were this autonomy to imply a denial of the participation of
the practical reason in the wisdom of the divine Creator and Lawgiver, or were it to suggest a
freedom which creates moral norms, on the basis of historical contingencies or the diversity of
societies and cultures, this sort of alleged autonomy would contradict the Church's teaching on
the truth about man. It would be the death of true freedom: "But of the tree of the knowledge of
good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gen 2:17).

The entire encyclical Veritatis Splendor is available at the link