A note on the Latin text of Veritatis Splendor

In my last post, I offered an argument that Amoris Laetitia was written in a modern language and then translated into Latin later, with the various modern language translations based not on the Latin but on the modern-language original.  The argument had two bases: (1) The Latin text appeared on the Vatican website months after all other languages had been published; (2) the various translations share features that cannot be explained on the basis of independent translation from the Latin.

There are other possibilities, of course.  Maybe the Italians translate a text first, and then all the other translators use the Italian translation as a guide to their translation of the Latin.  Maybe all the translators get together at a pub to decide what the text should really say, and then go home to make it say that.  I don’t know!  But a couple of conversations with people who work in the Vatican Latin offices have left me, rightly or wrongly, with the impression that it has been a long time since a papal encyclical was originally composed in Latin.  Rumors have it that BXVI did compose in Latin, but even these rumors put the claim as a remarkable exception.

But since we are having fun with linguistic geekery, I thought I should look at the word “ideal” in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, too.  The famous paragraph, the one people often cite in comparison with Amoris Laetitia 303, is VS 103:

“Error esset gravissimus concludere… normam ab Ecclesia traditam esse per se ipsam tantum “perfecti formam”, aptandam deinde, accommodandam, disponendam, aiunt, secundum definitas hominis possibilitates, prout sane postulat “libramentum diversorum bonorum de quibus agitur”.

How would one translate perfecti formam into English?  Woodenly, it could be rendered as “a form of the perfect.”  Or one could say, more smoothly, “a perfect form”.  Or one could translate it as a “model” or “exemplar” or “archetype,” or so on.  But here’s what the English does:

“It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question”.

Here we have the hot-button word, “ideal.”  Because the same word appears in Amoris Laetitia (at least in every modern-language version), people have pointed to this word as evidence that JPII and FI are in conflict.  But given the Latin perfecti formam, did JPII actually have the word “ideal” in mind?  Let’s look at the other modern-language versions of the same paragraph:

»Es wäre ein schwerwiegender Irrtum, den Schluß zu ziehen…, die von der Kirche gelehrte Norm sei an sich nur ein “Ideal“, das dann, wie man sagt, den konkreten Möglichkeiten des Menschen angepaßt, angemessen und entsprechend abgestuft werden müsse: nach “Abwägen der verschiedenen in Frage stehenden Güter”.

«Sarebbe un errore gravissimo concludere… che la norma insegnata dalla Chiesa è in se stessa solo un “ideale” che deve poi essere adattato, proporzionato, graduato alle, si dice, concrete possibilità dell’uomo: secondo un “bilanciamento dei vari beni in questione”.

«Sería un error gravísimo concluir… que la norma enseñada por la Iglesia es en sí misma un “ideal” que ha de ser luego adaptado, proporcionado, graduado a las —se dice— posibilidades concretas del hombre: según un “equilibrio de los varios bienes en cuestión”.

«Seria um erro gravíssimo concluir (…) que a norma ensinada pela Igreja é em si própria apenas um “ideal” que deve posteriormente ser adaptado, proporcionado, graduado — dizem — às concretas possibilidades do homem: segundo um “cálculo dos vários bens em questão”.

« Ce serait une très grave erreur que d’en conclure que la règle enseignée par l’Eglise est en elle même seulement un ” idéal ” qui doit ensuite être adapté, proportionné, gradué, en fonction, dit-on, des possibilités concrètes de l’homme, selon un ” équilibrage des divers biens en question”.

„By?oby bardzo powa?nym b??dem wyci?ga? (…) wniosek, ?e norma, której naucza Ko?ció?, sama w sobie jest tylko «idea?em», jaki nale?y nast?pnie przystosowa?, uczyni? proporcjonalnym, odpowiednim do tak zwanych konkretnych mo?liwo?ci cz?owieka: wed?ug «bilansu ró?nych korzy?ci w tym zakresie».

[I can’t get the Polish to show up correctly in WordPress–sorry!]

Granted the various scenarios listed above, I am inclined to think that JPII did use the word “ideal”.  However, the word itself does not seem to be evil.  Let’s take a look at Veritatis Splendor 16:

Atque, tametsi ille eiusmodi dat responsionem atque ab adulescentia firmiter magnoque animo optimam doctrinae moralis speciem custodivit, dives adulescens agnoscit se longe abesse a meta: coram Iesu animadvertit se aliqua re carere.

Here the Latin text speaks of the man who, from his youth, has preserved the “best species” or “best appearance” or “best kind” of moral teaching.  our English text renders this with the word “ideal”:

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.

How do the other modern-language versions approach it?  Like this:

Und dennoch, obwohl es ihm möglich ist, eine solche Antwort zu geben, und obwohl er von Kindheit an dem sittlichen Ideal mit Ernsthaftigkeit und Großmut gefolgt ist, weiß der reiche Jüngling, daß er vom Ziel noch weit entfernt ist: vor der Person Jesu wird er gewahr, daß ihm noch etwas fehlt.

Sin embargo, aunque el joven rico sea capaz de dar una respuesta tal; aunque de verdad haya puesto en práctica el ideal moral con seriedad y generosidad desde la infancia, él sabe que aún está lejos de la meta; en efecto, ante la persona de Jesús se da cuenta de que todavía le falta algo.

E contudo, mesmo sendo-lhe possível dar semelhante resposta, mesmo tendo seguido o ideal moral com seriedade e generosidade desde a sua infância, o jovem rico sabe que está ainda longe da meta: diante da pessoa de Jesus, percebe que ainda lhe falta alguma coisa.

E tuttavia, se anche gli è possibile dare una simile risposta, se anche ha seguito l’ideale morale con serietà e generosità fin dalla fanciullezza, il giovane ricco sa di essere ancora lontano dalla meta: davanti alla persona di Gesù avverte che qualcosa ancora gli manca.

Cependant, s’il lui est possible de donner une réponse semblable, s’il a aussi suivi l’idéal moral avec sérieux et avec générosité depuis son enfance, le jeune homme riche sait qu’il est encore loin du but ; face à la personne de Jésus, il saisit que quelque chose lui manque encore.

Ale nawet je?li bogaty m?odzieniec mo?e tak powiedzie?, je?li od dzieci?stwa konsekwentnie i z po?wi?ceniem d??y? do osi?gni?cia idea?u doskona?o?ci, to jednak ma ?wiadomo??, ?e daleko jest jeszcze od celu: staj?c przed Jezusem odczuwa, ?e nadal czego? mu brakuje.

Again, it would appear that JPII wrote in a modern language, and that the other languages referred to his original rather than exclusively to the Latin text.  Other scenarios are possible, but this one seems probable.

Which modern language did he write in?  The probable options are Polish and Italian.  Look over the examples above, and something jumps out:  the Latin text refers to the optimam speciem, the “best species” or “best kind” of moral doctrine, and while the various modern-language versions do not reflect the Latin word optimam.  Wait, one modern-language version does:  the Polish, with its use of “doskona?o?ci”.  So I would hazard a guess that the Polish was the original, the Latin was translated from the Polish, and the other versions were created either from the Polish or from the Latin with reference to the Polish.

In any case, it seems clear that the word “ideal” was on JPII’s mind, and is also on Francis’s mind.  A comparison of their thought based on their approaches to this word is not in itself a chasing after wind.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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