Printer Friendly

Encyclical's one aim: assent and submission; absolute norms weren't part of Peter's task.

Absolute norms weren't part of Peter's task

After reading the new papal encyclical carefully, I felt greatly discouraged. Several hours later I suffered long-lasting seizures of the brain and looked forward hopefully to leaving the church on earth for the church in heaven. After regaining my normal brain function, however, I have a new feeling of confidence, without blinding my eyes and heart to the pain and brain convulsions that are likely to ensue in the immediate future.

Veritatis Splendor contains many beautiful things. But almost all real splendor is lost when it becomes evident that the whole document is directed above all towards one goal: to endorse total assent and submission to all utterances of the pope - and above all on one crucial point: that the use of any artificial means for regulating birth is intrinsically evil and sinful, without exception, even in circumstances where contraception would be a lesser evil.

The pope is confident that he has a binding duty to proclaim his teachings with no calculation whatsoever about the foreseeable practical consequences for the people concerned and for the whole church. He would consider such considerations unlawful and dangerous because they take into account a weighing of values. Whatever the risk, whatever the danger, he believes that his insights brook no dissent but can be met only with obedience.

The recent Catechism of the Catholic Church issued with the pope's authority shows that he does acknowledge that negative precepts allow exceptions. For example, the prohibitions against killing can be set aside in cases of self-defense, exaction of the death penalty and even just wars. For him, the wrongness of contraception is much more absolute than the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."

What about the negative precept proclaimed by the Lord himself to all his disciples: "You are not to swear at all" (Matthew 5:34). In this case not only does the pope allow exceptions, but he imposes them as a rule on whole groups of members of the church.

There is here a striking difference between our pope today and John Paul I, who, before his election, had for many years been an outstanding teacher of moral theology. As Albino Luciani, he had suggested a change of doctrine; then when Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae reiterated the ban on contraception, he decided to keep silent. Soon after his election as pope, however, he left no doubt that he would propose a review of the teaching, with emphasis on a consultative approach (compare Camillo Bassoto, Il mio Cuore e Ancora a Venezia, Albino Luciani, Venice, 1990).

Although he had given much attention to the issue, he never felt such a confidence in his own competence as to remove the need to listen patiently to all concerned and to engage in dialogue with theologians and bishops. As a moral theologian, John Paul I shared fully the conviction of the vast majority of moral theologians of the past and of the present that it is unlawful and possibly a great injustice to impose on people heavy burdens in the name of God unless it is fully clear that this really is God's will.

John Paul II's mentality is different. His starting point is a high sense of duty, combined with absolute trust in his own competence, with the special assistance of the Holy Spirit. And this absolute trust in his own powers is coupled with a profound distrust toward all theologians (particularly moral theologians) who might not be in total sympathy with him.

In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II makes no secret that he has for a number of years felt driven to write an encyclical to bring theologians into line with his teaching on sexual morals, particularly on contraception. Yet he trusts moral theologians like Carlo Caffarra, who organized a congress of other "trustworthy" moralists and produced an incredible assertion that the church, until 1917, considered contraception, whether within marriage or outside it, as "murder."

Caffarra was referring to the Corpus Juris Canonici, which only said that "those who afflict men or women with magical means or poison so that they become unable to procreate, to conceive or to give birth to a child, and do so inspired by hate or enmity, should be considered murderers." Caffarra is still head of the John Paul II Institute in Rome, despite such incredible use of church documents.

The pope's approach has been expressed in many talks and disciplinary measures. It has been expressed also in structures:

1. The new code of canon law criminalized dissent (Canon 1371, No. 1). Anyone who is admonished for an utterance and does not declare full assent commits a punishable crime. Not the slightest possibility is admitted of doing so with a good, sincere conscience. This text was introduced at the last moment by the pope without any consultation of the international commission that prepared the new code.

2. There is complete central control of nominations of all theologians, including moral theologians, teaching in church-related institutions at the higher level. For the controllers, no doubt, the heart of the matter is that any theologian, to be approved, must give the fullest assent to all papal pronouncements about contraception and similar questions.

3. To a large extent, a similar control operates over the nominations of bishops and other officeholders in the church.

4. When the previous three measures did not work perfectly, the next step was to require a new form of confession to faith, including now wholehearted assent to noninfallible (that is, fallible) papal teaching and a particular oath of fidelity towards the supreme pontiff. The Acta Apostolicae Sedis say this measure was approved by the Sanctissimus (Most Holy). The text speaks of the pope as beatissimum (most blessed). Should one see some special significance in that? Do not these titles given to the pope sacralize his authority unduly?

5. It is by now well-known that papal agencies take enormous trouble to find out who is "trustworthy" and who is not. And who has the say in this process? What role does assent to papal sexual ethics play?

6. Now comes the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Its words will press hard on the consciences of all who might be concerned, though clearly the pope and his special adviser do not have a proper picture of what moral theology today is like. Very grave insinuations are made. What moral theologian of good reputation in the church would recognize himself in the picture that Veritatis Splendor draws?

The pope's objective is to fulfill-in this way the mission entrusted by Christ to Peter and his successors: "You must lend strength to your brothers" (Luke 22:32). But those words must be set in their immediate context. Peter assures his master and fellow disciples: "Everyone else may fall away, but I will not" (Mark 14:29). The Lord warns him against this self-confidence and says: "I have prayed that your faith may not fail. When you have been converted, you must lend strength to your brother." It is clear from this what conversion means for Peter. It is also clear how he should strengthen his brothers.

Peter's downfall came from his inability to believe in a humble, suffering and nonviolent servant-Messiah. Having been converted, the main task of Peter, and of all who join him, is to confess and to profess through the witness of their whole lives that the Father has raised to life and exalted to glory his suffering servant, Jesus Christ.

There is surely nothing whatsoever in this text that could be taken as relating to a task laid on Peter to teach his brothers about an absolute norm forbidding in every case any kind of contraception. Nor did Jesus tell Peter to teach a complete set of norms and laws to be fulfilled by everyone, including negative laws constraining everyone. Was not Peter wavering about whether the new Christian converts should observe Jewish law? Did not Paul have to confront him and set him right about that?

The pope is aware that the vast majority of married people are unable to fall into full agreement with the absolute ban on contraception, that they resist the emphasis with which it is inculcated and cannot follow the arguments by which it is justified. Most moral theologians, probably, are of the same mind. The papal response to this public opinion in the church is not new but is now delivered with a new emphasis: The church is not democratic; it is hierarchical. Let us ask our pope: Are you sure your confidence in your supreme human, professional and religious competence in matters of moral theology, and particularly sexual ethics, is truly justified?

As to contraception, there is no word on the subject anywhere in divine revelation. This is a matter of what we call the natural law written deep in the hearts of men and women, and therefore we must and can find a fruitful approach that is appropriate.

Because natural law is "open to the eyes of reason," we should reason together gently and patiently as we consider the case "on either side " (Rom. 2:12, 16). The hierarchical constitution of the church cannot in the least contradict or disallow this approach in any matter that concerns the law written in our hearts and calling for a response from our consciences.

Away with all distrust in our church! Away with all attitudes, mentalities and structures that promote it! We should let the pope know that we are wounded by the many signs of his rooted distrust and discouraged by the manifold structures of distrust that he has allowed to be established. We need him to soften toward us. The whole church needs it. Our witness to the world needs it. The urgent call to effective ecumenism needs it.

Let me suggest, for a start, one healing and encouraging event. Let the Vatican destroy all its lists - I have seen one of them - of those who are considered "trustworthy" (affidabili) and of those who are not, simply as regards this one issue of absolute wrongness of artificial contraception. The church has greater concerns than this, more urgent needs: to proclaim the good news and to encourage all to set out on the road to holiness.

And let us honor God's gracious forgiveness by forgiving each other for the harm we have inflicted on each other and the anger we may have harbored in our hearts.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:'Veritatis Splendor' papal encyclical
Author:Haering, Bernhard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 5, 1993
Previous Article:Presidential hopeful in Chile is a base communities priest.
Next Article:Center ministers to Bangkok sex workers: American heads work with young victims.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters