If our lives have gone astray, it is largely because our ideas have gone astray. This was the theme of an important address given by Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to a gathering of bishops in Vienna last May. (text in Oservatore Romano, July 24, 1989)

If abortion is a problem today for example it is because of a revolution in moral thinking, based on a new concept of what man is and what, if any his obligations are.


Something like a litany of objections to the authentic practice of the Church, Ratzinger said, is now regularly recited by “progressive” thinking Catholics. The principal elements of this litany, he stated are these:

“The rejection of the Church’s teaching about contraception, which means the placing upon the same moral level of every kind of means for the prevention of conception upon whose application only individual “conscience” may decide;

The rejection of every form of “discrimination” as to homosexuality and the consequent assertion of a moral equivalence for all forms of sexual activity as long as they are motivated by “love” or at least do not hurt anyone;

The admission of the divorced who remarry to the Church’s sacraments;

And the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Different, yet related

“As we can see, there are quite different issues, linked together in this litany. The first two claims pertain to the field of sexual morality; the second two to the Church’s sacramental order. A closer look makes it clear, however, that these four issues, their differences notwithstanding, are very much linked together. They spring from one and the same vision of humanity within which there operates a particular notion of human freedom. When this background is borne in mind, it becomes evident that the litany of objections goes even deeper than what appears at first glance.

Sexual morality

“What,” the Cardinal asks, “does this vision this litany depends, look like on closer scrutiny? Its fundamental characteristics are as diffuse as the claims which derive from it and so it can be easily traced.

“We find our starting point in the plausible assertion that modern man would find it difficult to relate to the Church’s traditional sexual morality. Instead, it is said, he has come to terms in a differentiated and less confining way and thus urges a revision of standards which are no longer acceptable in the present circumstances no matter how meaningful they may have been under past historical conditions.”

Cardinal Ratzinger then goes on to trace its further development to the notion that all traditional moral laws are now suspect.  People demand “liberation”— and this liberation reflects a reinterpretation of two fundamental concepts, conscience and freedom.


“No longer,” the Cardinal states, “is conscience understood as that knowledge which derives from a higher form of knowing. It is instead the individual’s self-determination which may not be directed by someone else, a determination by which each person decides for himself what is moral in a given situation.

“The concept “norm” — or what is even worse, the moral law itself—takes on negatives shades of dark intensity: an external rule may supply models for direction, but it can in no case, serve as the ultimate arbiter of one’s obligations.”

“Where such thinking holds sway,” he continues, “the relationship of man to his body necessarily changes too. This change is described as a liberation, when compared to the relationship obtaining until, now like an opening up to a freedom long unknown. The body then comes to be considered as a possession which a person can make use of in whatever way seems to him most helpful in attaining “quality of life.” The body is something that one has and the one uses.

“No longer does man expect to receive a message from his bodiless as to who he is and what he should do; but definitely, on the basis of his reasonable deliberations and with complete independence, he expects to do with it as he wishes. In consequence, there is indeed no difference whether the body be of the masculine or feminine sex; the body no longer expresses being at all; on the contrary, it has become a piece of property.

Separation and the Pill

“It may be that man’s temptation has always lain in the direction of such control and the exploitation of goods. At its roots, however, this way of thinking first became an actual possibility through the fundamental separation—not a theoretical but a practical and constantly practiced separation—of sexuality and procreation. This separation was introduced with the pill and has been brought to its culmination by genetic engineers so that man can now “make” human beings in the laboratory.

“The material for doing this has to be procured by actions deliberately carried out for the sake of the planned results which no longer involve interpersonal human bonds and decisions in any way. Indeed, where this kind of thinking has been completely adopted, the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality as well as that between sexual relations within or outside marriage has become unimportant. Likewise divested of every metaphysical symbolism is the distinction between man and woman. [Such a distinction comes] to be regarded [merely] as the product of role expectations.”

A future challenge

In conclusion, then, the Cardinal states, “it has become quite evident at the present time that our litany of objections does not turn upon a few isolated conflicts over the extended application of this or that rule. Each of these controversies rests upon a much more far-reaching change of “paradigms,” that is, of the basic ideas of being and of human obligation. This is the case even if only a small number of those who mouth the words of our litany would be aware of the change involved.”

They all breathe in, so to speak, the atmosphere of this particular vision of man and the world which convinces them of the plausibility of this one opinion while removing other views from consideration. Who would not be for conscience and freedom and constraint? Who wishes to be put into the position of defending taboos?

In the next issue we will present Cardinal Ratzinger’s further reflection on how the Christian faith has been adversely affected by three widespread errors: Evolution denies God the creator; empiricism reduces Jesus to just another human being; the denial of the cross makes Christianity meaningless.

For now let us reflect briefly at the bearing of what has been discussed so far on the question of abortion. Out the window goes a traditional theology of the body, based on the idea that the whole person—body and soul—is involved in all his acts. He does not use his body; he is his body—plus his soul. He ought to see a spiritual purpose in the material world, a purpose which affects both body and soul. Once this sense of purpose is forgotten, the position of many pro-abortionists becomes clear.

Dawn Black

Dawn Black, NDP critic on women’s issues, is a case in point. When the abortion debate began in the House of Commons, she was filled with indignation. Obviously she thought that the argument that abortion is a medical question was only a fiction; it was simply a means of depriving women of the freedom of choice which ought to be theirs. “This bill says that women are not people of integrity.”

Behind such an attitude is the slogan “A woman has the right to complete control over her own body,” which again implies that the body is a possession. In reply, Cardinal Ratzinger would presumably maintain that for a woman to choose to have an abortion is a violation of her own God given nature; being in harmony with creation is not a lessening of human freedom, but an expression of human reason and dignity. For a woman to want to destroy her own child is almost the ultimate insult to her own nature.

A renewed theology of creation, he writes, would show that  “the greatness of the person does not lie in the miserable autonomy of some midget justifying oneself as the one and only master.” It is not the part of wisdom to assert one’s dubious rights, especially the right to kill one’s unborn child, at all costs; true wisdom means recognizing one’s place in the scheme of things, one’s responsibility towards one’s own body and to the body of that other person whom one has conceived.

Getting to the heart of the problem of abortion, therefore, means producing a massive shift in modern man’s ideas. Nevertheless, the Cardinal is optimistic rather than pessimistic. Because of the failure of both liberal and Marxist efforts to explain modern existence, he writes, there is a great opportunity for Christianity “to reveal the faith as the alternative which the world awaits. This, he concludes, “is today’s challenge to Christianity; herein lies our great responsibility as Christians at the present time.”