Human Action & The Drama of Accompaniment: A Reflection on St. Bernard's Academic Conference
Nov 20, 2023
Marco Stango & Daniel Drain
The 30th anniversary of Veritatis Splendor, also the 10th anniversary of Francis’s pontificate, seemed an appropriate moment to consider the legacy of the renewal of moral theology in the postconciliar era, with a special focus on the text of Veritatis Splendor and its ecclesial reception. In order to honor this special anniversary, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry hosted the conference “Human Action and the Drama of Accompaniment: The 30th Anniversary of Veritatis Splendor,” which took place from September 29th to October 1st. This event was the 3rd annual Fall academic conference at St. Bernard’s, and it very much continued this recently-established tradition of engaging timely aspects of our faith in an atmosphere of prayer, friendship, and sentire cum ecclesia - thinking with the Church.
Keynote speakers included Dr. Angela Franks, Dr. Steven Long, Dr. Caitlin Smith-Gilson and Dr. Alessandro Rovati, who each addressed how Veritatis Splendor continues to influence moral theology today. Other sessions featured renowned scholars and teachers such as Dr. Eduardo Echeverria, Dr. Peter Colosi, William F. Murphy, and Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC, and several graduate students in theology and philosophy provided excellent contributions to the discussion. The variation in background, expertise, experience, and geographical provenance added incredible richness to the conference sessions; the intellectual rigor of the weekend was surpassed only by the collegiality among all present.
The purpose of the conference was threefold:
- To understand and appreciate Veritatis Splendor as the most significant magisterial document expressive of the postconciliar renewal in moral theology
- To continue and further the trajectories of inquiry, contemplation, and engagement present within Veritatis Splendor
- To manifest a consideration of Church history and pontificates through a hermeneutic of reform (and not of simply continuity or discontinuity), which permits a truly ecclesial reflection on moral theology, human action, and the call to accompaniment, requiring a “discernment [which] can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” (Amoris Laetitia, 300)
Veritatis Splendor was written by Pope St. John Paul II as a response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for the renewal of moral theology: The Second Vatican Council invited scholars to take “special care for the renewal of moral theology,” in such a way that “its scientific presentation, increasingly based on the teaching of Scripture, will cast light on the exalted vocation of the faithful in Christ and on their obligation to bear fruit in charity for the life of the world.” The Council also encouraged theologians, “while respecting the methods and requirements of theological science, to look for a more appropriate way of communicating doctrine to the people of their time[.]” This led to a further invitation, one extended to all the faithful, but addressed to theologians in particular: “The faithful should live in the closest contact with others of their time, and should work for a perfect understanding of their modes of thought and feelings as expressed in their culture” (VS 29). Veritatis Splendor thereby represents a broader postconciliar movement of renewal in moral theology that permeates the pontificates of the last 60 years.
Most recently, Pope Francis has called to mind again and again the missionary context of moral theology:
"The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn. . . . The proposal of the gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.” 
Those who attended the conference in person observed daily break-out sessions in which scholars continued and furthered the trajectories of inquiry, contemplation, and engagement present within Veritatis Splendor, and in relation to the entirety of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The papers presented by St. Bernard’s full-time and adjunct faculty members included:
- “Two Reflections on the Nature of Conscience: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor” by Peter J. Colosi, Ph.D.
- “The 'Pre-Moral Body' and the Difference of Gender: Identity, Otherness, and Transgenderism” by Daniel Drain, Ph.D. (Cand.)
- "The Perspective of the Acting Person in Veritatis Splendor and the Pastoral Conversion of Moral Theology" by Matthew Kuhner, Ph.D.
- "You Know That I Love You: Peter, Giussani, and the Birth of Morality (or: Peter and the Birth of Morality in the thought of Luigi Giussani)" by Siobhan Latar, S.T.D.
- “Approaching the “Logic of Pastoral Mercy”: The 'Virginal' Gaze of the Saints” by Lisa Lickona, S.T.L.
It is common to dismiss academic initiatives as, precisely, ‘academic,’ intellectualistic, distant from the real concerns of the people. Nevertheless, in a time in which information has become synonymous with knowledge and in which also the most serious matters in the life of the Church are treated with the haste and impatience of journalism, our conference Human Action and the Drama of Accompaniment showed what a patient and careful theological work can still look like.
St. Bernard’s is grateful to have hosted this conference to celebrate this important document during this special anniversary, and to do so at the beginning of the Synodal gathering in Rome. We are grateful that many brilliant theologians and scholars shared the fruit of their work and engaged in serious and honest discussions on how to best continue to receive the heritage of Veritatis Splendor for the future.
Francis speaking to Antonio Spadaro, in A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis [New York: Harper One, 2013], 34-35