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John Paul II's truths sacrifice tradition of pastoral concern.

Spare a thought for the bishops to whom the encyclical Veritatis Splendor is addressed. The rest of us read it over their shoulders.

The bishops see Pope John Paul II, clearly tortured by the long list of human failings, seeking goodness by clarifying truth. They know this search for truth - pathway to human happiness and authentic freedom - is not only an individual project but also the work of the church. They applaud such efforts.

But, of course, there is more. And this is where many bishops may quietly depart from rope John Paul's path. This encyclical goes beyond the search for moral truth. It maintains it has arrived at moral certitude. And it proclaims moral certitude, not only within the church, but for all people and for all time.

The problem with such "certitude," however, is that it draws lines - often harsh lines - between "insiders" and "outsiders," between "loyalists" and "dissenters."

Put another way, this encyclical sacrifices the church's pastoral tradition, which responds to the murky circumstances in which people live imperfect lives, for the sake of its doctrinal tradition, which proclaims truths and judges how and who lives by those truths.

Veritatis Splendor, then, goes beyond giving voice to the call for good and a rejection of evil ways. John Paul appeals directly to the bishops to "take appropriate measures" to deal with "dissident" moral theologians. In the present context, this means sacking them. The encyclical, then, carves more new ground in the areas of judgment and condemnation than it does in the areas of encouragement and understanding. The purpose of this encyclical is clearly disciplinary. Its tone is consistent with the call to discipline.

As for the bishops, we are unlikely to know for some time, perhaps another decade, what they really think about this encyclical. But even now, there appears to be less than overwhelming enthusiasm for it in their ranks.

Of course, they praise the encyclical for its reassertion of the existence of objective moral values and its denunciation of the "privatization" of morality. The permissiveness of modern society ought to encourage us all to try to rediscover objective moral standards or, at least, shared grounds of moral goodness. This desire, this pursuit, is largely noncontroversial, shared at least by other Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Britain's Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop Derek Worlock signed a joint letter declaring that "in one sense there is nothing new in what the pope has written." In one sense, that is true and obvious. This is the bland leading the bland. It overlooks the fact that Pope John Paul II, a very determined Pole, would not have written an encyclical simply to state what was already known.

What is new is the urgent tone of the encyclical itself and the crisis-laden church atmosphere in which it is written. The pope states clearly the purpose of his encyclical early on. It sets forth "certain aspects of doctrine which are of crucial importance in facing certainly what is a genuine crisis.' In the text, this phrase is italicized - a pedagogical device.

"The specific purpose of the encyclical," he declares, "is to set forth the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition, and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met."

So the target of the encyclical is dissent and dissenters. By definition, they can only exist within the Catholic church, since others are not bound by its teaching. The primary candidates for the papal onslaught are Catholic moral theologians. Though no names are mentioned, they are repeatedly denounced as a group for using faulty methods to reach wrong conclusions.

The absence of names makes it difficult to know precisely who is being aimed at. But this is traditional in disciplinary encyclicals like Pascendi (1907) and Humani Generis (1950). Far from being reassuring, the absence of names creates a mood of apprehension in which theologians are made to wonder who is next on the chopping block.

But bishops are only going to wield the ax if they accept the papal diagnosis of crisis within the church. Many may well hesitate.

They will have no problem accepting the idea that "theological opinions constitute neither the rule nor the norm of our (episcopal) teaching." But the pope seems to think that bishops have some special access to truth denied to others. Theologians, however, cannot be eliminated from the process so easily.

The pope has followed one minority school of moral theology, and canonized it. Andrzej Szostek, who succeeded John Paul as professor of moral theology at the University of Lublin, wrote a 1980 thesis on "universally valid norms in present-day theology." The cat was let out of the bag when Szostek was invited to "present" the encyclical in Rome on its publication.

So the encyclical does precisely what it says it is not doing: "Certainly the church's magisterium does not intend to impose upon the faithful any particular theological system."

There is a real problem here. Christian morality is heteronomous: It derives its norms from the Creator. Even the "natural law," supposedly known by human reason, is a reflection of the eternal mind of God. So the pope deals in the great "transcendentals," the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

John Paul is in the mainstream in declaring that to know how to behave one must know the truth about one's final goal. It is a splendid vision. It can inspire martyrs, as the pope says. But it operates within monotheistic faith.

So it does not touch the post-Christian world which, orphaned from God, has to work out its morality on other premises based on reason. John Paul gives the impression he has nothing to say to the secular world except that it is misguided and wrong. The difference between the pope and the moral theologians he berates is that they still want to remain in touch with secular moral thinkers who are doing the best they can with the rational tools available.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr of the Nazis, said, "We believe in the ultimate but live in the penultimate." The pope wants us all to live in the world of Truth. But life, alas, is not like that. We live in the penultimate world of muddle and confusion, with sparks of goodness occasionally lighting up the darkness.

And, when all is said and done, the pilgrim Catholic, encyclical in hand, is left with a dilemma: Where is the love?

This, no matter bow one reads it, is a harsh, negative, rigid, authoritarian document. The Christian searches vainly for the positive, affirming, all-embracing, compassionate tone of the Christ in whose name the pope wrote his encyclical; the Christ who said to prostitutes and tax collectors and other rejects to come along and follow him, who was anything but absolute, putting up instead an umbrella big enough for everyone, and suggesting by his wholesome attitude that he respected the intelligence and conscience God had given to people in the first place.

It is said that, 2,000 years later, the pope sees as the culmination of his pontificate the casting in cold concrete of the glad, liberating message of Jesus. One can't help feeling that one of them got it wrong.
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Title Annotation:'Veritatis Splendor' encyclical
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 15, 1993
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