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Discipline, not doctrine, is nub of pope's new encyclical.

Oxford, England - The next encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, will be officially promulgated at noon, Roman time, Oct. 5. It has been in the hands of episcopal conferences for several weeks. They have to decide what spin to put on it.

John Paul signed it Aug. 6 last, feast of the Transfiguration. A week before, Vatican press officer Joaquin Navarro-Valls, asked whether the pope would sign it Aug. 6, testily replied: "It is on his desk"

Never before in the long history of encyclicals - there have been about 350 since Benedict XIV launched the modern genre in 1740 - has one been leaked in advance.

However, the leak was unintentional and - from the Vatican point of view - unwanted. It was due to the enterprise of Norbert Greinacher, professor of moral theology at Tubingen University. He leaked it in the vain hope of stopping it. Though Navarro-Valls tried to belittle the Greinacher text, pronouncing it 3 years old and therefore out of date, it seems to have survived largely unscathed.

The Vatican insists on respect for the deadline. However, John Paul has already "trailed" the encyclical in more popular form, notably in his address to young people in Denver, Aug. 14, and at Vilnius University, Lithuania, Sept. 5.

The gist of the encyclical is to assert the existence of a God-given and therefore objective moral order. It sets itself resolutely against "a culture which holds that no universally valid truths are possible, and nothing is absolute."

In Denver, John Paul outlined the features of the fashionable contemporary moral system in which "good comes to mean what is pleasing or useful at a particular moment. Evil means what contradicts our subjective wishes. Each person build a private system of values."

Against this privatization of morality, John Paul told the-Denver youth that "God has given you the light of conscience to guide your moral decisions, to love good and avoid evil." However, conscience is a slippery concept. It does not mean the first thing that flashes into one's head.

Hence the role of the church in "forming" consciences: "Moral truth is objective, and a properly formed conscience can perceive it." Translation: Given tbe distortions of sin - self-deception, muddle, seff-interest - only a properly formed conscience can perceive it.

In Vilnius, John Paul denounced the totalitarian temptations of Marxism and Nazism which were based, be claimed, on the 18th century Enlightenment, and on what be called "the culture of immanence that spread througbout Europe in recent centuries, leading to projects for personal and collective life that ignored God and disregarded his plan for the human person."

More controversially, he included in his condemnation, as another fruit of the "culture of immanence," "unsound democracies" in which "the demand for freedom is not always accompanied by ethical responsibility."

The papal position was well summed up by Rocco Buttiglione, a member of the Communion and Liberation movement, author of a book on the thought of Karol Wojtyla. He lunches with John Paul frequently - though, as he confessed, "not every day."

Summer 1992 Buttiglione said in an interview with Kathpress, the Austrian Catholic news agency: "The task of the head of the church is to do battle with ethical relativism. I believe that in his next encyclical the pope will vigorously describe the deep moral crisis of society, especially of Western society. It will say that this crisis is leading to the ruin of our culture, and to the eclipse of man himself."

Where Buttiglione says "I believe" we can now read "I know." He got it right, maybe because be contributed to it.

The philosophical background to the encyclical is crucial. For it is more a work of philosophy than theology.

In a massive German three-volume work on Christian Philosophy in the Catholic Thought of the 19th and 20th Century, Jan Galarowicz writes: "[Karoll Wojtyla consciously marks the difference between himself and [Edmund] Husserl and [Roman] Ingarden and lays down an original version of phenomenology. His contribution was to combine this realistic interpretation of phenomenology with a Thomism that goes beyond Thomism."

One can compare this judgment with that of Fordham Jesuit Fr. John J. Conley who "solves" the problem of whether Karol Wojtyla is more a phenomenologist than a Thomist with the following remark: "I often have the impression of banging into scholastic steel as I wander through the phenomenological fog." That perceptive comment is the philosophical equivalent of a hole-in-one.

Now to the the encyclical itself. Veritatis Splendor has three chapters. Chapter 1 is resolutely phenomenological and therefore ruminative. It broods over Matthew 19:16: "Master, what good must I do to obtain eternal life?" It is a remarkable synthesis of biblical teaching on morality. It gives due place to Amos and Isaiah and the other prophets of justice in the Old Testament.

Chapter 2 provides the Thomistic steel. It addresses the foundations of moral philosophy and wages war against relativism, proportionalism, consequentialism and other modern theories. The quotes above all echo this concern.

Two questions in particular will interest and worry moral theology professors.

The first is whether there are categories of human acts that are "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum). If there are such acts, then no appeal to good intentions or happy consequences or profound sincerity will matter. They are wrong. The encyclical would dearly like to apply this doctrine to artificial birth control.

The philosophical influence, and perhaps part author, here is Tadeusz Styczen (born 1931), wbo succeeded Karol Wojtyla in the chair of ethics in Lublin Catholic University. Styczen was Wojtyla's pupil, and Andrzej Szostek continues the tradition in the next generation. The title of his 1980 Lublin thesis casts light on Veritatis Splendor: Norm and Exception: Philosophical Aspects of the Discussion on Universally Valid Norms in Present-Day Theology.

This is the most crucial question of all. Are there moral norms which admit of no exceptions under any circumstances? Yes, answers Veritatis Splendor, armed with the concept of intrinsece malum.

The next question: What is the reach or range of infallibility? Does it include matters like artificial contraception wluch belong to the "natural law"?

Here one senses the restraining hand of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The magisterium can only define matters which fall within the deposit of divine revelation." Contraception does not fall within this category. However, this does not mean that it entirely escapes the authority of the magisterium.

An anti-Charles Curran argument takes shape here. The fact that a teaching is not formally defined does not mean that it is not authoritative. Or that one can dissent from it with Catholic impunity.

So to Chapter 3 of the encyclical, which is where it was heading all the time. It is a disciplinary chapter. It draws the conclusions for moral theology professors. They must not dissent from the magisterium - or else they will be sacked.

It is hard to see how this will work out in practice. If the disciplinary provisions of Veritatis Splendor were literally carried out, there are problems ahead for teachers of moral theology. Part of their task is to prepare future confessors.

Picture the scene in the seminary classroom. The professor outlines what Humanae Vitae teaches, commends it as best be can, and points out that Veritatis Splendor endorsed it mightily in October 1993.

But when they move on from discussion of the question in the abstract to the practical pastoral problems, the whole tone will cbange. Or will it? That is the $64,000 question. It is hard to think of confessors waving the big stick of excommunication or refusing absolution.

What are we to make of those who just cannot follow the natural-law argument, and act in the name of conscience? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a marvelous quote from Cardinal Jobn Henry Newman: Conscience is the first of all the vicars of Christ." Conscience is likely to remain the "first vicar of Christ? in pastoral practice.

So there is some truth in the remark of Archbishop Luigi Barbarito, pro-nuncio in London, that Veritatis Splendor is "a restatement of familiar themes." But if there is "nothing new" about it, then one has to ask what it is for.

For all its eywrate philosophical arguments, its main purpose appears to be disciplinary. It concludes with a grave appeal to bishops to take seriously their duty - I paraphrase - of being vigilant about the accuracy of moral teaching and taking appropriate measures.

That is why Veritatis Splendor has been read as a kind of "spiritual last will and testament." All previous attempts to stir up bishops have failed. This is the last throw - unless there is still time for another encyclical "applying" this one.

It would be tragic, however, if the chief effect of asserting the objectivity of moral values, which the world needs, were to be simply to create an atmosphere of fear in the church. My guess is that if it puts some moral theologians out of a job, Veritatis Splendor will keep other theologians busy for a long time qualifying its deeper meaning.
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Title Annotation:'Veritatis Splendor'
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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